2008 In Parliament
August 26, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.34 pm) — Mr Speaker, it is a great nation where the son of a Sale plumber finds himself in such magnificent surrounds and with such an important job to do on behalf of his community. We all, I know, arrive at this place through different life experiences which have shaped our views, but I count myself blessed to have been born in Gippsland, a place that I regard as the greatest region in Australia. I am also blessed to have grown up in a loving family home in Sale, with the support of a large extended family and of friends. As one of five kids, I had a very rich family life. My parents, Jim and Lois, taught me the value of respecting others, of hard work, of honesty and of taking responsibility for my own actions. My father, who passed away last year, also demonstrated the importance of making a contribution to the community, always being one of the first to volunteer for school councils and local organisations.
Finally, I count myself blessed to be here today in the company of my beautiful wife, Julie, and my four wonderful children Morgan, Jamieson, Clancy and Lachlan. I believe that government policies which help families stay together, which strengthen the family unit, will help build stronger communities in the future. But I am here, first and foremost, to represent the people of Gippsland. For me, it is an enormous honour and privilege, and it is something that I will never take for granted. I make that point at the outset because I anticipate that there will be many challenges facing the Gippsland region in the near future, and I make no apologies for my parochialism in standing up for the Gippsland community. As I am about to highlight, the Gippsland region is blessed with outstanding natural resources, and it makes an enormous contribution to the wealth of our nation. But we are exposed to government policy directions on a range of issues which have the potential to shape my electorate in the future.
The most basic test that I will be applying to my deliberations in this place will always be to ask myself: what is in the best interests of the people of Gippsland? In applying this test, I will continue to seek the counsel of many Gippslanders whom I respect for their wisdom, their common sense and their personal integrity.
I join the House today as the eighth person to represent Gippsland since Federation. I am deeply humbled by the vote of confidence that I achieved in the recent by-election. As we have all experienced in by-elections and elections themselves, they are testing times for candidates, their families and their supporters. The Nationals, I believe, passed this latest test with flying colours. I take the opportunity now to thank party members, our supporters and my family and friends again, who did so much to assist my campaign team; and I thank so many of you for joining me here today. It was such an outstanding team effort, and it is great that you could be here for this special occasion. I believe that the Nationals and the Country Party have held Gippsland for 86 years for some very good reasons. I think it is an endorsement of our style of grassroots representation.
Having worked closely with state leader Peter Ryan—who is also here today— and the state team for several years, I have come to appreciate that the Nationals are at their very best when they are standing up for people who choose to live outside our capital cities. Our record of success in Gippsland is proof that we must be doing something right.
For me, that something right was directly linked to the service of our previous members, in particular Peter McGauran and Peter Nixon. I have had the privilege of working with both men over a period of time. Their contribution—over a combined total of 47 years—is impossible to measure in just the length of roads sealed, the buildings constructed or in simple years of service. To me, their legacy to Gippsland is contained in the leadership that they displayed and their willingness to serve our community and our country at the very highest level, often at significant personal cost.
In my involvement in community groups and in politics at a local, state and now a federal level, I have formed the view that we must do more to encourage our young leaders of the future to get involved in community affairs and the formation of public policy. We need to stimulate the interest of younger people in the importance of making a contribution to their community, whether it be through organised politics or through serving local organisations. As I look around Gippsland, I see that there are too few younger people taking up the challenge of community service, and their involvement in public life is suffering as a result. Rather than accuse them of a lack of interest, I believe that we are at least part of the problem. Participation in structured parties is by no means the only way to make a contribution to public life, but I fear that people are switching off politics because they do not like what they see here.
If we want young people to serve our community as elected representatives, we must become better role models ourselves in the future. We must demonstrate through our words and through our deeds that serving the community through an elected office is something which is worth while and an important way to make a meaningful contribution to our nation. I think we owe it to the Australian public to conduct ourselves in a manner which reflects very highly upon the offices we hold and demonstrates our respect for the democracy that we have inherited.
Who can blame people for disengaging with Australian political life when their most direct experiences are the nightly news broadcasts of question time or student groups who witness the spectacle sometimes from the public gallery? I believe there will always be room for robust debate, but it does not need to descend into theatre and farce. I agree with the Speaker’s comments earlier today that it would improve the standard of ques tion time if there was less baiting and sledging.
I am reminded of a contribution to the state parliament of Victoria made by a good friend of mine, the Hon. Damian Drum, and I quote:
What we believe in as political party members are our opinions. Our job is to attend parliament and to argue those opinions with all the passion and enthusiasm we have, but they are still just opinions.
To think that either side has a mortgage on what is right or what is wrong is absolute folly.
What both sides have a mortgage on is a responsibility to respect each other’s opinions.
As I said at the outset, it is an extraordinary honour and a privilege to serve our nation in this parliament, and I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to respect this parliament, to respect all who serve their communities and to fulfil my role to the best of my ability. I believe my main role in this place is to stand up for the people of Gippsland and give them a voice. Gippslanders are telling me that they want results, not petty political games from their elected representative.
In the short time since I was elected, many Gippslanders have contacted my office or spoken to me personally. They are concerned about the future of our region. There are many issues and challenges we face as a nation and as the community of Gippsland: government policies in relation to climate change; the increased cost of living and the impact it is having on families, pensioners, carers and low-income earners; the need for ongoing investment in better education, child care, aged care, health services and sporting facilities; our desire for safer roads and improved access to public transport; the impact the drought and the economic downturn are having on local workers, farmers and small business owners; and the need for infrastructure investment in transport and water security that will help Gippsland prosper in the future. In fairness, the community of Gippsland does not expect a new government to solve all those issues in just 12 months. But, equally, Gippslanders do not expect a new government to keep looking backwards and blaming the previous administration.
Our treatment of people who are socially or economically disadvantaged will be one of my main focuses during my term in office. Despite our incredible natural resources and significant wealth, Gippsland performs poorly on a range of socioeconomic indicators. I want to spend my time in office fighting for a fair share of resources and fighting for a fair go for all Gippslanders. We live in a wealthy nation—so wealthy in fact that we can afford to have a conscience.
As individuals, many of us listen to our consciences— we volunteer our services and we support charities, because it is our way of making a difference and our household budgets can afford the time and the expense. As a nation, we must also have a conscience, and our federal budget can afford the expense. We must do more to help those less fortunate—people like our older Australians, living on a single pension rate of $273 per week or just $39 per day. I believe we must do better than that— and our pensioners cannot afford to wait.
This is as much a health issue in Gippsland as it is an economic concern. Older Gippslanders have told me that they are going without food because they cannot afford to eat healthily, or they are forgoing involvement in community and sporting activities because they cannot afford the transport costs. Further isolation caused by financial distress will have an impact on the physical and the mental health of older Gippslanders. It is a similar story for carers of family members with a disability—whose selfless dedication saves our nation a king’s ransom, but who often live the lives of paupers.
In addition to improving the level of financial support, we need better access to health services in regional areas, particularly for children with disabilities. We all know that early intervention will allow children with autism and other special needs to achieve better outcomes. But the lack of availability of allied health services is frustrating the efforts of parents to support their own children. The need to attract and retain skilled health professionals in regional areas is an issue which state and federal governments must continue to address.
Then we have our Indigenous community— children born into a wealthy nation but with a 17-year life expectancy gap when compared to white Australians. Our conscience demands sustained action. I do not seek an argument about the merits of past policies or whether or not they were well intentioned, but there must be an acknowledgement that, whatever we have done in the past, it has not delivered the right outcomes for our Indigenous community. In Gippsland, we do not have the same problems of extreme remoteness that hamper other regions, but our Indigenous people still perform poorly on a wide range of measures. The Victorian government’s Indigenous affairs report for 2006-07 revealed that there are many symptoms of an ailing culture, and we must work smarter and work harder to find a cure.
It must be noted that the level of disadvantage experienced by young Indigenous Australians is not confined to communities living in the remote parts of Australia. The urban Indigenous experience in regions like Gippsland requires its own intervention and strategies to break the cycle of welfare dependency. Passive welfare and handouts are not the answer. The road to reducing the gap in life expectancy begins with better health and education services and it must have the basic aim of securing a job. I believe the decency of a job is central to individual success for our Indigenous communities in the future. To our credit, the work has already started in Gippsland, and I believe that we have an obligation to the people who elected us to spend our time in this place working in good faith to address such major problems in the future.
Naturally I accept that representing the views of Gippsland is an enormous challenge in itself. Gippsland is one of the most diverse regions in Australia and our community is dispersed across 33,000 square kilometres. There are many larger electorates, but few can lay claim to the rich diversity and strategic importance of Gippsland to our nation’s future prosperity. Gippslanders from all walks of life make an enormous contribution to our nation as they go about their daily lives involved in the power industry, oil and gas sector, defence and a range of agricultural activities. We have a thriving small business sector, which I am continually promoting through measures such as urging local families to support local traders. There are more than 11,000 small businesses in my electorate. These are the people who take the risks and have the confidence to invest in Gippsland’s future. I will champion their cause at every opportunity because they are helping to build a better future for our young people.
Gippsland boasts incredible extremes in both natural and man-made features. Wehave the world-renowned Gippsland Lakes and a network of rivers and streams which feed some magnificent estuarine systems, perhaps none more famous than the Snowy River, which meets the sea at Marlo, near Orbost. Many of our waterways have been heavily impacted by activities in the catchments, and there are significant environmental issues for the future. As a community volunteer, and now as a member of parliament, I will continue to work to improve the local environment. I have already called on state and federal governments to increase their investment in practical environmental projects to improve water quality and the health of the Gippsland Lakes catchment.
I also support increased investment in natural resource education and world-class research within the Gippsland region, because poor public land management over several decades has contributed to the environmental problems we face today. The work has already begun, but I believe there must be a greater commitment to actively manage our forest reserves, to minimise the impact of wildfires and to control the pest plants and animals which are having a devastating impact on native species and agricultural production.
Tourism is also a very important industry to my region and, without wishing to sound too boastful, Gippsland does have it all. Just to name a few attractions: we have snow skiing in the high country; the goldfields heritage of the historic township of Omeo; beautiful coastal villages like my home town now of Lakes Entrance, and Mallacoota, Paynesville, Metung, Loch Sport and Seaspray; world-renowned limestone caves in Buchan; welcoming rural centres like Bairnsdale, Yarram, Maffra and Heyfield; the vast expanses of the Ninety Mile Beach—which, incidentally, is 90 miles long; the maritime history of Port Albert; and a network of national parks and reserves, including the lush rainforests of Tarra-Bulga, which are the envy of many other regions.
I believe that state and federal governments must work together and work harder to promote regional tourism and small business opportunities. There is too much focus on marketing and major events in capital cities alone, which have very limited flow-on benefit to country and coastal areas. I think regional areas need a fairer share of the tourism budget in the future.
Perhaps in contrast to Gippsland’s outstanding natural beauty, the electorate also features the industrial heartland of the Latrobe Valley and its major towns of Traralgon, Morwell and Churchill. I know it may be hard for others to appreciate, but there is a rugged beauty in the industrial landscapes of the power stations and open-cut mines which have underpinned economic growth for decades in Victoria.
Recognising that brown coal is an extraordinary natural resource and accepting the challenge to use it in the most environmentally efficient manner will help to protect jobs in my region in the future. We still depend on brown coal for baseload energy security. We need the Latrobe Valley power generators to remain commercially viable so that they can invest in the research and the technology required for a cleaner coal future.
Naturally I do see a future for renewable energy forms, particularly with the development of larger scale solar facilities, but I offer a word of caution regarding our treatment of coal-fired power stations in the development of environmental policies such as the proposed emissions trading scheme. We must not make the mistake of imposing enormous economic pain on Gippsland for very little environmental gain. Given that our nation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is less than two per cent, any policy which sacrifices jobs in my region will be met with strong resistance.
We need a mature and well-considered debate where people are not typecast as ‘true believers’ or ‘climate change sceptics’. If we are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and we accept that climate change is real, then we are going to need a strong and sustainable economy to deal with the challenges that it will present. In my region alone, there are forecasts of storm surges and sea level rises. If those scenarios are accurate, it will cost us billions of dollars to relocate public infrastructure or to undertake risk mitigation works in low-lying coastal townships. We need to be tackling those challenges from a position of economic strength.
On perhaps a brighter note: the Gippsland area is a world-class producer. Our region features some of the most productive agricultural land in the nation, with a prosperous dairy industry, lamb and wool production, beef cattle, horticulture in its various forms, a large commercial fishing industry, and timber harvesting from plantations and sustainably managed native forests.
Ensuring long-term water security needs across Gippsland will give our agricultural sector the confidence to invest and encourage young people to seek their future on the land. Parts of my region are still facing extremely dry conditions. We were disappointed to learn that exceptional circumstances funding will not be extended after 30 September this year, but I will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead. Gippsland’s natural resources also extend offshore, where we have the Bass Strait oil and gas fields, which have delivered wealth to our nation for more than 40 years. Using that resource in an efficient manner while managing any environmental impacts in the Gippsland Basin will require constant vigilance in the future.
Speaking of vigilance, the East Sale RAAF base is an outstanding defence facility which performs a vital role in Gippsland and beyond. My electorate has a very proud history with the defence forces and I will be working hard to see that base extended if possible in the future.
It is timely for me to mention the men and women of the defence forces and a practical local problem which demands a national solution. Each time a defence family moves interstate, the logistical task becomes enormous—from the most mundane tasks of transferring vehicle registrations and applying for drivers licenses, to the most significant issues of inconsistencies in the education curriculum.
I think it is time for a debate about the future structure of government in our nation. The blame game and the cost-shifting between different levels of government, along with wasteful duplication of resources and the wide range of border anomalies we encounter, make me at least open to considering a better way of governing Australia.
We must consider moving toward a two-tiered system, perhaps a regional and a federal government, in the interests of a more cohesive and united Australia. In any case, we need to fully explore the opportunity to take advantage of improved communications technology, decentralisation of government services and private industry where possible.
The unending urban sprawl and the grab for resources such as productive farmland and water which typified Melbourne’s growth will be unsustainable in the future. Rather than the state government piping more water to Melbourne, we should be encouraging industries to relocate to regional areas where water is located.
From a public policy viewpoint, I believe that better decisions would also flow from having more staff based in regional communities. Gippslanders have spoken to me regularly about their frustration with decisions made by city based politicians and bureaucrats with little understanding of the impact of their policies on the ground. I think a deliberate policy of decentralisation would provide direct benefits to our regional communities and allow more of our young people to pursue careers closer to their families and friends.
Gippsland already exports many products to the world; we need to stop exporting so many of our young people. Helping our young people to reach their full potential is an aim we all aspire to in our electorates, but there are many, many barriers to achievement in rural and regional areas. The economic barriers to participating in higher education are a fundamental obstacle that must be addressed. Country students are often forced away from home to study and the additional accommodation costs and living expenses are an underlying factor in the decision to defer or abandon studies completely.
Governments have the capacity to intervene to reduce the cost barriers for students from rural and regional areas attending university. That is not to diminish in any way the need for continued investment in trade and technical skills and the promotion of careers in small business or on the land. But in Gippsland our year-12 retention and university and further education participation rates are well behind those in the metropolitan area. I believe we must do better.
The long-term skills shortages we face can best be addressed by investing in the towns of our own young people in regional areas, because Gippsland’s greatest natural resource will always be its people. Throughout our history Gippslanders have demonstrated a remarkable community spirit, resilience and determination. I have witnessed several natural disasters and seen my community pull together to tackle bushfires, floods and droughts. There is no doubt that we will need to do that again and we will need governments that work in partnership with us to overcome the hard times.
We need governments that recognise the value of rural and regional communities and everything that country people contribute to our nation. We need governments that are prepared to invest in education and our children’s future and to help support us with the infrastructure that will sustain our communities and encourage private enterprise to prosper. We need governments which listen to the common sense of locals and support the practical and sustainable management of natural resources in all their forms. In short, we need governments which will give us a fair go.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – ECONOMY
August 27, 2008
Mr CHESTER (2.42 pm) — My question is to the Prime Minister. Following the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that Australians are worse off since the election, why has he done nothing to help pensioners meet the rising costs of groceries, rents and petrol?
Mr RUDD — I thank the honourable member for his first question in the parliament and I extend to him respect for having stood in the chamber for the first time to ask a question.
On the question of pensioners, if the honourable member had listened to the remarks that I just made at the National Press Club then he would know that I went through the fact that we have provided through the budget $7.5 billion worth of additional allocations to pensioners, carers and those on the disability support pension. The way in which that is being delivered in part is through the utilities allowance—which in the past was paid by the previous government and ran, I think, at something in excess of $100 a year.
This is to be increased by a factor of almost $400 to $500 a year, and we have made that now for the first time a consistent annual payment. That represents a large slice of the amount which we paid. Furthermore, there was of course the one-off pensioners bonus that has been the subject of considerable discussion in this place—a bonus which was, on a one-off basis, introduced by the previous government for the two previous budgets, as I understand it, but not prior to that and was never announced as a permanent measure.
The other thing that we have done to assist pensioners is to increase the telephone allowance by some 50 per cent, particularly to assist pensioners with the start-up costs associated with getting an internet connection at home—because often what we find in representations we have received around country is that pensioners, often separated from their kids in this vast country of ours, are looking for a bit of help in getting an internet connection at home, because a lot of correspondence and keeping in touch is conducted that way these days. So that is another practical measure that we have put forward. Also, we have made a separate allocation of funds— from recollection, some $50 million—to various seniors groups and associations around the country to assist them with providing in-house training opportunities for pensioners to assist them with the use of the
internet at home.
These are practical measures which we have sought to help with. But, as I have said at this dispatch box on many occasions, we on this side of the House are fully seized of the fact that pensioners need to have their long-term payments put onto a more secure footing. That is why we have commissioned, through the Henry commission of inquiry, a detailed examination of the future of the tax income support and retirement incomes policy.
That is due to report in the case of retirement incomes policy, or the pensions component of it, by February of next year. Again I would draw the honourable gentleman’s attention to the fact that, in the previous 12 years when his own political party were in office, in coalition with the Liberal Party, I do not recall any fundamental, farreaching reform or examination of the nation’s pension scheme. I just don’t. I would suggest that those opposite who now stand and seek to preach from a high point on this question take a long, cold, hard look at their record on this question.
To assume, as the honourable gentleman has in his question, that cost of living pressures for pensioners have emerged in a matter of the last six to eight months is simply not true. They have certainly spiked in recent times because of factors like petrol and groceries that we have referred to in debates in this chamber, but the increased cost impact on the ability of single aged pensioners and married couples who are pensioners to survive on the basis of the age pension has been a challenge for a long, long time. Anyone who contributes honestly to this debate and any member in this parliament who has been in contact with their local seniors groups would know this from years gone by.
There is an inherent dishonesty in the proposition being put by those opposite, which is that this situation has mysteriously emerged in the last few months. It has not. It has been an emerging problem for a long, long time. The difference is that we have commissioned a mechanism to examine this from the ground up, and it will report by February next year, which will be within 12 months of us taking office. My question to those opposite is: what did you do in 12 years? I do not remember them doing anything in 12 years.
I would say to them: please get your own house in order on this question before seeking to advance a debate like this, and put forward a concrete policy on the future of the pension. I seem to remember a concrete policy being put forward by the opposition on the pension—I think by the relevant shadow minister. It was in a radio interview some months ago. From memory, it lasted about 42 minutes—maybe it was 43 minutes—before being slapped down by the member for Wentworth. If those opposite wish to credibly engage in the debate on pensions, which is a very important debate for those most vulnerable Australians, then I would suggest they get real and put some policy on the table rather than engaging in simply opportunistic politics.
August 28, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.03 pm) — I rise today to speak on behalf of Gippsland’s farmers, who are urging the federal government to continue to provide drought assistance in my electorate. I say at the outset that Gippsland relies heavily on its agricultural production.
We are a world-class producer of dairy products and in normal circumstances our lamb and wool producers, along with our beef farmers and horticulturists, are strong and viable enterprises. Indeed, the combined value of agriculture to the Gippsland region is more than $1.1 billion per year. I must also say that, as a whole, Gippsland farmers are a remarkably resilient bunch and they are not prone to exaggeration, nor are they likely to put up their hands for help unless they really need it and genuinely believe they are entitled to assistance.
It is against this backdrop that I rise to give voice to their frustration with the government’s decision to end the drought declaration in my region. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry announced last week that exceptional circumstances assistance for the central and east Gippsland regions would not be extended beyond 30 September this year. I understand that the minister’s decision was based on a recommendation by the National Rural Advisory Council, or NRAC. I also understand that NRAC failed to visit Gippsland to inspect conditions on the ground and, to the best of my knowledge, failed to consult local government representatives and farmer organisations in Gippsland. This lack of consultation with the local community would help to explain why the decision is completely out of touch with the reality of the situation in Gippsland.
I am very pleased to report that some parts of Gippsland are starting to emerge from the drought: the Macalister Irrigation District is showing very positive signs, and our farming families in the Maffra region are filled with hope for a very promising season. But, unfortunately, for many other farming families the recovery has been patchy, to say the least, and there are large parts of my electorate which have missed out on drought-breaking rain.
Since the announcement was made by the minister, my office has been contacted by farmers who are bewildered by the decision. They are still experiencing a significant rainfall deficit compared to normal years. They are reporting conditions which are as severe as anything they have experienced in decades on the land. There is no sign of recovery and they are still faced with the exceptional circumstance of a prolonged drought.
Farming families in the Tambo Valley, the Omeo and Benambra regions, the Buchan Valley through to Gelantipy and Tubbut; on the Red Gum Plains around Bengworden, Meerlieu, Hillside and Lindenow; on farms around Cowwarr and Seaton; and at Mount Taylor near Bairnsdale and further to the south around Yarram, Woodside, Giffard and Seaspray are all contacting my office and reporting the continuation of extremely dry conditions. I recently visited Buchan, and the drought has left the hillsides barren. Locals tell me it is the worst they have ever seen. Tomorrow I will visit Swifts Creek in the Tambo Valley and also inspect the Omeo and Benambra region, where local farmers have invited me onto their properties.
As much as I love this part of my electorate, I am not looking forward to the visit. Several farmers I have spoken to on the phone have described the hardship they are facing, and the stress and financial uncertainty it has brought to their families is already obvious in their voices. Indeed, a highly respected local GP, Dr David Monash, was reporting on Gippsland ABC radio today that the medical profession in Gippsland is concerned about the mental and physical health of farmers and their families. I share those concerns and bring them to the attention of the House today.
I am by no means an expert on agricultural conditions, but I can see that conditions are terribly dry and I trust the opinions of local farmers ahead of those who have not visited our region. I am very disappointed that no-one from the government has taken the time to meet Gippsland farmers and gain a firsthand understanding of their situation. I invite the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the experts from NRAC to come to Gippsland and take a closer look at the conditions in our region. I fear that there are no signs of recovery and, as we all know, even when it does rain it will not be raining money and there will still be a need to assist farming families as they get back on their feet.
SINGLE AGE PENSION
September 04, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.42 am) — I rise today to speak on behalf of older Gippslanders who are struggling to make ends meet on the single age pension. I also seek to high light my concern that the federal government is paralysed by a mentality of reviews and inquiries and is failing to take action to help older Gippslanders, carers and people with disabilities to enjoy a decent standard of living. I ask the question, somewhat rhetorically: is there is a statute of limitations on the blame game? When does a new government stop looking backwards and blaming its predecessors and get on with the job of governing the nation?
Judging by the behaviour of the Victorian parliament the Labor blame game goes on forever. The Brumby and Bracks governments have been in power for nine years and they are still looking backwards and blaming the previous Kennett government, which left office in 1999.
I urge government ministers to end the blame game in relation to pensioners and carers and to get on with the job they are elected to do. We all know that the single age pension is inadequate. We have already had reports and inquiries which have highlighted the problem. The report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs titled A decent quality of life was tabled in parliament in March this year, and I quote from the executive summary:
Australians have endured cost of living increases over recent years. In many cases, incomes have generally risen commensurately and compensate for these cost pressures. However, many older people, especially those on low, fixed incomes with little discretionary spending capacity, are vulnerable to these rises.
In particular, they are disproportionately affected by cost increases in essential goods and services— food, rent, petrol, household utilities and healthcare.
The report further stated that, although the real value of the age pension had increased over the past decade:
… evidence suggests that for those on a full pension this level may be insufficient to maintain a basic, decent standard of living.
The pension review background paper, released last month, revealed that the single rate of pension, which is set at 60 per cent, is lower than the average of 63 per cent for major OECD countries. We are clearly falling behind world standards and the Prime Minister knows it is a problem. In response to a question on 27 August, the Prime Minister conceded that cost-ofliving expenses ‘have certainly spiked in recent times because of factors like petrol and groceries’.
Indeed the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is reported in today’s Australian newspaper as saying:
There’s no question that all of these people, particularly people who are wholly dependent on the single rate of either the aged pension or the disability support pension, are finding it very hard to make ends meet.
There is a recognition at the highest level of the federal government that cost-of-living pressures have spiked, and these increases have a greater impact on our pensioners and carers. The government’s thus far response has been to order another review. Why not act now? Why wait until next February for the review findings, when there will then be further delays while the review is considered? It could be another 12 months before this government does anything to help our pensioners and carers.
If the government wants to buy some time until the review is released, I would support an immediate catch-up payment of $300 to pensioners and carers, including people with a disability who were discriminated against in the May budget. Help give them a chance to have a decent Christmas. We can afford to do better now.
I agree with National Seniors Australia that we need to investigate ways to better prepare the nation for pensioners and an ageing generation into the future. We must better support those people who are currently relying on the age pension. The current single age pension is not enough to provide a decent standard of living and must be urgently increased by at least $30 per week to two-thirds of the rate for a couple, as proposed by National Seniors Australia.
We cannot afford to condemn our pensioners to another 12 months of struggling to find the money to eat healthily, pay their bills, cover their medical expenses, get around to visit friends and attend social activities. This is even more of an issue in country areas like Gippsland. Pensioners there do not have the luxury of access to public transport. Instead, they must pay the higher petrol prices or—worse still—they choose to stay at home and miss out on the social life that they richly deserve and on the quality of life opportunities that would add to a healthier lifestyle for them. These are the people who built our great nation. They allowed us to enjoy the privileges we have today. These people deserve better.
Most pensioners did not have the opportunity of compulsory superannuation to prepare themselves for their retirement. As for single women receiving the age pension, they are often in a worse situation because they have not necessarily had the opportunity to work outside the family home and have had very limited superannuation opportunities. Also they may have spent many years as a carer for a family member. As I said during my inaugural speech to the House, carers of family members save our nation a king’s ransom but they often live the life of a pauper. We live in a wealthy nation, we can do better and we must do better. We can afford to give our pensioners and carers a decent standard of living. This is a test of the government’s rhetoric. They promised to govern for all Australians, and it is time for action now, not more empty words.
AUSLINK (NATIONAL LAND TRANSPORT) AMENDMENT BILL 2008
September 16, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.06 pm) — The AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008 highlights a range of issues that are very dear to the heart of Gippslanders— and, I suspect, to all rural and regional communities. I seek to make several points in relation to a key aspect of the bill: to extend the Roads to Recovery program from 1 July 2009 to 30 June 2014. I notice that in the gallery today we have some of the departmental staff. I encourage them to keep up the good work because, out in Gippsland, we love the program—and long may it continue!
In my handful of days in this place I have had to listen to a lot of rhetoric from the government in answers to a range of questions in question time as it has desperately tried to rewrite history and attack the legacy of the previous government. But, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attacked the Roads to Recovery program, because it has stood the test of time as a great policy initiative, driven by former Leader of the Nationals John Anderson and implemented by the coalition government.
I refer to a statement by Mr Anderson in 2001, which I think explains the simple beauty of the Roads to Recovery program:
Local councils right across Australia have embraced Roads to Recovery and demonstrated that the government’s decision to give them discretion to determine their own road funding priorities has been absolutely correct.
Roads to Recovery is helping build the social and economic infrastructure of local communities, enhancing road safety, access to education, health care and other amenities and creating sustainable jobs.
As I said, it is a great program that has stood the test of time. I will focus on the issue of road safety in a moment, because I believe that if you fix country roads you will save country lives. That is one of the key reasons why major investment in the regional road network by all levels of government is so important. But going back to Roads to Recovery, local councils in my electorate have repeatedly told me that they love this program. It bypasses the state government and lets them decide on the best course of action in their local area.
It really does build on the common sense of local councillors. I strongly believe that it goes to the heart of local people developing local solutions to local problems. I have a great deal of respect for councillors in these local areas, because they have that knowledge and the practical experience of their local area. They get to set their own funding priorities and they gain the maximum value for their region as well, because on many occasions they can then package the work in a way that makes it more efficient for contractors, if they have to travel to the region, or for their own shire staff.
So Gippsland has perhaps benefited more than most. I take up the point made by previous speakers that I tend to think this is because of the good work of the local member and that it is based on need rather than any allegations of pork-barrelling in relation to this program. But Gippsland has benefited more than most, to the tune of about $28 million over the past four years. That is a very significant sum of money. I think that reflects the fact that Gippsland has a vast geography and a network of roads and bridges that demand such significant development. East Gippsland Shire, for example, has 2,719 kilometres of road and 230 bridges—and many of those bridges are wooden and, as we would all be aware, wooden bridges there are well past their life expectancy in many cases, and the council is in desperate need of additional assistance in the future. Wellington Shire faces very similar issues.
I meet with my local councils on a regular basis to discuss their concerns and, although work has started in many cases, over a period of years through Roads to Recovery, the work ahead of the councils is never-ending. I think that probably reflects the need for infrastructure investment in our regional areas, Wellington Shire in particular. It has 3,168 kilometres of road, 100 concrete bridges and 77 timber bridges. Latrobe city, although a somewhat smaller municipality, still has 1,500 kilometres of road and 71 bridges. Quite simply, the task in front of these councils, with their restrictive rate base and their very limited opportunities to raise additional revenue, makes the Roads to Recovery program vitally important to them.
I argue that Roads to Recovery should not just be extended into the future in terms of time lines; I would encourage the government to work towards increased funding in the future. Having said that, I acknowledge the government’s commitment, because $350 million per year is a very substantial investment. I regard it as a very positive step in the right direction and a continuation of the good work of the Nationals and the previous, coalition government, because the need is enormous and councils will continue to struggle to keep up with the demand for infrastructure in the future. Our bridge network throughout Gippsland is deteriorating, as I mentioned before, and councils do have a very limited capacity to raise funds themselves through rates or from other sources.
I must stress that roads and bridges are going to be the critical arteries in the Gippsland region for a long time to come. They certainly link our towns for economic and social activities, and we will be relying on our private vehicles to move throughout our region on an ongoing basis into the future. It is actually one of the main reasons why I have campaigned so strongly for an increase in the single age pension: we need further support for our pensioners, for our people with disabilities and for our carers, because in the Gippsland environment, with the high costs involved in travelling throughout our region, strong, safe local roads will always be a critical element of life in the Gippsland community. Fuel costs do have a disproportional impact on regional people, and pensioners and people on low incomes certainly fall into that category, and our regional areas are so dependent on private vehicles for work and pleasure.
I urge the government to continue to take action to assist pensioners and low-income earners in this regard because, although public transport is something that is gradually improving in my electorate, it will never serve the more rural and remote areas of electorates such as Gippsland. I wrote to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government in relation to this issue after the matter was raised by local constituents and the Wellington Shire Council in particular. In terms of passenger movements on the public transport network, I note that the numbers east of Traralgon are rising faster than in any other part of the state of Victoria. While the delivery of public transport services is primarily a state responsibility, previous Commonwealth governments have co-funded major infrastructure and rolling stock improvements. So I urge the minister to look at joint funding opportunities for public transport in Victoria in addition to the great work that we are doing here with the Roads to Recovery program.
As I mentioned in my first speech just a couple of weeks ago, Gippsland is a world-class producer, and we need further investment in our transport links, not just for those social opportunities and for safety but also to move goods more efficiently to and from our region. Our timber industry, our agricultural sector, our food manufacturers and, as I will point out in a few moments time, our tourism industry all rely very heavily on a good road network.
Programs like AusLink and Roads to Recovery are significantly important in regional areas across Australia but perhaps no more so than in Gippsland with the Princes Highway project. Major projects like the upgrade of the Princes Highway east of Traralgon and all the way to the New South Wales border are essential developments for my region, and it is good to see that there is some bipartisan support for it. Although there has been a lot of talk about duplicating the Princes Highway east of Traralgon under AusLink, Gippsland is really looking to see more action from the current government.
I must say that I was surprised and disappointed by the minister for regional development when he attempted to use that particular highway upgrade as an opportunity to score cheap points when speaking in question time recently. The minister was correct on that occasion in claiming that I had written to his office in relation to the $140 million required to upgrade the highway, but what the minister did not tell the House on that particular occasion was that the project was actually promised by his own government, and the Prime Minister himself has repeatedly made the promise in relation to the highway duplication project. So I was somewhat disappointed that the minister did not provide an update on progress on his own promise and that he attempted to belittle the people of Gippsland and the Shire of Wellington on whose behalf I had written to his office. I have subsequently written to the office of the Prime Minister to get an update on the progress of this important project. Of course, the upgrade of the highway must not stop at Sale; we need upgrades right throughout the Gippsland region, through to Bairnsdale, into the future. It is something I will work on with the government whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Members who are familiar with the AusRAP star ratings would know that the stars are awarded to roads depending on the level of safety which is built into the road. The safest roads attract the four- and five-star rating, are likely to be straight, have features like two lanes in each direction separated by a wide median, have good line marking, wide lanes and sealed shoulders. But the highway through Gippsland only attracts a two- and three-star rating in most areas, which the RACV regards as unsatisfactory for a major highway, and I certainly support the RACV’s position. In the far east of my region the highway between Orbost and the New South Wales border is in urgent need of safety upgrades. The road is regularly used by very heavy vehicles and an increasing number of grey nomads towing caravans or driving the larger recreational vehicles. The highway is very narrow and winding and has many sections where the lack of sealed shoulders is a major hazard for us. Work has been undertaken in some areas and I do congratulate both the current and previous governments for the work that has been undertaken. But there is an enormous amount still to be done and I urge the federal government and the state government to work in partnership to improve the safety of the Princes Highway right through Gippsland.
I want to comment further on the need to build safer roads, which I think is a critical element of the Roads to Recovery program. Sadly, as we are all aware, a disproportionate number of people continue to be killed or injured on country roads, and that includes in my electorate of Gippsland. I know we have all been touched by road trauma in our own lives through family and friends. In addition to the deaths we have experienced, serious injuries are quite horrific and there is a long recovery process. Some people never fully recover from those accidents.
In addition to this huge emotional toll, the shattering of families, there is also a significant economic toll, if I can be so crass as to measure it in those terms. So the investment in better roads actually makes economic sense for governments as well, because every dollar spent on improving road safety has an economic pay-off as well as a social bonus.
That brings me right back to road funding in regional Victoria and particularly the Gippsland area, which of course I am most interested in. The Victorian road toll has trended downwards over the past decade but unfortunately the regional road toll has remained disproportionately and stubbornly quite high. During 2007 a total of 27 people were killed on roads in the east Gippsland, Wellington and Latrobe city areas. This year unfortunately the trend is worse and it has prompted a major effort by Victoria Police in trying to improve driver behaviour and cracking down on illegal activities like speeding, drink-driving and those types of activity. I strongly endorse the police in their efforts but recognise that it really is only part of the answer. In my previous role in the state parliament of Victoria as a chief of staff we pushed a very strong message out into the community that if you fix country roads, you will save country lives. I make that point here again today: if we fix country roads, we will save country lives.
I refer to the AusRAP report from February of this year and quote from the report:
Most crashes occur when ordinary people make everyday human mistakes. Sober, drug-free, responsible drivers obeying the speed limit and wearing seat belts frequently die on our roads. Safe roads minimise the chances of these crashes, and if they do occur they minimise the severity of the crash.
The AusRAP report goes on to make what I believe is a very critical and salient point for us all to remember and one that governments should acknowledge: safer roads have the potential to save nearly as many lives as safer vehicles and improved driver behaviour combined. Further, the report goes on to say that if we improve the safety of roads, improve driver behaviour, improve the safety of vehicles and adopt smarter safety technology we will save as many as 700 lives every year, most of these through modern, safe roads.
This is not solely a federal government responsibility. All three levels of government are involved in road funding, which I must admit often adds to the confusion in my community. We are sometimes unsure which level of government we need to go to about responsibility or funding for black spots or upgrades to certain roads. I simply reinforce the point made by the RACV that there is a funding shortfall in road construction and maintenance in Victoria. I do believe the previous government deserves to be commended for initiating the Roads to Recovery program and I am pleased to see that it will continue after 2010. I congratulate the current government for that. I also will be making sure that my electorate of Gippsland receives its fair share of the funding pool and I will work collaboratively with the government to improve road safety in my electorate in the future.
The bill also amends the definition of a road so that it includes heavy vehicle facilities such as rest stops and parking areas, which is another important component. I have mentioned this in the context of discussions that I have had with transport operators in my electorate. The land transport sector is certainly doing it tough with increased fuel costs, high interest rates and strong competition from some of the larger operators. But there are many small business owners who are struggling to meet the overheads of running their trucks in what is a very competitive environment. They are telling me that they are nervous about their future and that of their families with the Rudd Labor government proposing to increase taxes on trucks. There is also some confusion over the heavy vehicle regulations between jurisdictions.
Operators are telling me that they cannot understand why the government is pushing for a massive increase, for example, in registration charges, with B-doubles increasing from $8,500 to $14,000 per year. They make the point clearly that B-doubles are a very efficient way of moving freight. These small business owners feel that they are being unfairly targeted by this approach. They simply cannot pass on the costs; they cannot boost their rates. So some of them are running the very genuine risk of rescheduling their maintenance or cutting corners in the future—maybe servicing will be cut back—and, again, that could have an impact on safety. I think everyone supports a safe work environment, particularly across our transport sector.
My attention has also been drawn to the state transport regulations, including the national heavy vehicle driver fatigue reforms. Opposition members have already expressed their concern about the lack of uniformity between states on these regulations. I am concerned about the ability of truckies to comply with the law because of the lack of services, particularly in my region.
One of the key issues for the truckies in my region is the provision of rest areas. Very limited facilities are provided along the major transport routes linking Gippsland to Canberra, Sydney and beyond. In the absence of these safe rest areas, it is difficult to understand the somewhat heavy-handed approach and the extraordinary penalties that will be handed out for relatively minor logbook infringements. This is causing a great deal of concern in the transport industry in Gippsland. With no disrespect whatsoever to many of the operators in my region—they are excellent drivers—bookwork is not always their strongest point. To be fair to them, we must avoid making the process of filling in the logbook too complex and time consuming; otherwise, it becomes another inefficient impost on a small business operator. I am concerned about small breaches in terms of timing or filling out logbooks. There are areas in the logbook process where significant fines and demerit points will apply. This will severely affect the opportunity for these small business operators to earn a living in the future. I think there is goodwill on behalf of the transport industry, but we need to make sure that some reasonable tolerance and common sense prevails on this issue.
A further point on rest areas concerns an emerging issue that I am not sure members in the metropolitan areas would be aware of, and that is the growing force of the grey nomads, which I referred to earlier. Those who are in the fortunate position of owning a recreational vehicle and of possessing a desire to get out and tour our nation are certainly welcome in Gippsland; however, tourism infrastructure must be upgraded to meet modern demands. In our community of Gippsland, there is a pressure point developing. The large recreational vehicle owners and the traditional caravan park operators, it is fair to say, are not necessarily getting along very well. The RV owners do not want to pay for a site in a caravan park because their vehicles are largely self-contained and they do not need the facilities which are on offer. So many of them are parking illegally in our streets and in our parks, but that is a very difficult concept to prove when the owner of the vehicle can argue that he or she is just resting. It would dangerous to force them to keep driving.
I raise this issue in the context of this bill, because it is an emerging issue in regional areas. We are going to need more funding to provide rest areas which meet the demands of the modern traveller in regional Australia. You will find that, in addition to the heavy transport industry, many recreational vehicle operators are very keen to stay in rest areas. There is safety in numbers. If we provide them with toilets, shower facilities and other associated facilities, they will certainly appreciate it. I know that a toilet pump-out facility is not the most glamorous piece of road infrastructure that we can talk about, but the provision of such a facility would certainly add to the holidaying public’s enjoyment of our regional areas. It will also get rid of the friction that is developing at the moment in many country towns between the caravan park operators and the RV owners who do not desire to pay for a site because they are in a selfcontained vehicle. State and federal governments, both past and present, have not managed to fully support the regional tourism industry and so allow us to develop the opportunities that exist.
I think this is an important piece of infrastructure, and I will certainly promote it and encourage the government to provide it in the future. Providing safer and better roads, along with infrastructure such as quality rest areas, has benefits for the tourism sector as well as for the heavy transport industry. I know from my own experience in Gippsland that once we improve roads and the links between our major towns—in this case, from Melbourne through to Gippsland—there is increased traffic. We have experienced this as a direct result of government investment in roads like the Pakenham bypass. I congratulate the state Labor government for that. It has developed into a major link for our region and benefited the tourism and small business sector.
In closing, I certainly support the Roads to Recovery investment in upgrades to rest areas and parking facilities as this will lead to a safer roads. There appears to be at least some level of bipartisan support for major government funding in these vital roadworks to improve safety and transport efficiency, and I welcome that. I certainly look forward to working with my community to ensure that the needs of Gippslanders are not neglected in this process.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – DROUGHT
September 16, 2008
Mr CHESTER (2.35 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Why has the government deserted Gippsland farmers and removed the exceptional circumstances support despite the local community reporting some of the worst drought conditions in over 100 years?
Mr BURKE — I thank the member for Gippsland for his question. The member for Gippsland points to one of the significant problems that we have with the current methods for exceptional circumstances drought policy, and that is that we are obliged to—
Opposition members interjecting —
Mr BURKE — Well, it was your policy too, so do not get too excited. We are obliged to have a system where you have lines on a map. The National Rural Advisory Council, NRAC, makes a decision based on an entire area. For the entire area that they were making the assessment for—a good part of which falls into the seat of the member for Gippsland— they made an assessment that the period of recovery had begun. There is no doubt that when you draw those generalisations across entire regions you will find some areas where people are not in recovery at all.
This happened with respect to the Bourke- Brewarrina area and the local member got involved there. We made sure that the New South Wales government put in a fresh request for revised boundaries and NRAC conducted an immediate assessment. Under those revised boundaries, a fresh EC declaration was made within the space of about 48 hours. We had a similar situation in two different areas in Queensland. I would encourage the member for Gippsland to follow the same process that—
Mr Chester — Mr Speaker, on a point of order: the minister is giving an interesting background to drought conditions around Australia, but the question simply refers to Gippsland and whether the minister will do anything about it.
Opposition members interjecting —
The SPEAKER — The minister is responding to the question.
Mr BURKE — I know it might be appealing for a member of the National Party to ask me to abandon all process, but I would encourage the member to do what some of his colleagues have done—one even met with me today on this issue—and that is to ask, ‘What is the process we should follow to make sure that the recommendations come in from the state government on the revised boundaries?’ We will make sure that the National Rural Advisory Committee, every member of which was actually an appointee of the previous government, deals with the issue immediately and that we have proper process to make sure farmers are not left in the lurch when they are continuing to face tough times. But what I will not show any sympathy for is someone who, unlike his colleagues, refuses to engage in the process and decides he would rather get the headline and jump up and down here. Every day he delays in engaging with the process he leaves the farmers in his electorate out in the cold.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – DROUGHT
September 17, 2008
Mr CHESTER (3.21 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I refer the minister to his answer to my question yesterday in which he said:
… I will not show any sympathy for … someone who, unlike his colleagues, refuses to engage in the process and decides he would rather get the headline and jump up and down here. Every day he— the member for Gippsland— delays in engaging with the process he leaves the farmers in his electorate out in the cold.
I also refer the minister to the 35 separate occasions I have written to him on behalf of individual Gippsland farmers and my letters to his office and the Victorian government seeking a review of the decision. Given that I have not received a response to any of these representations, when will the minister engage in the process and when will the minister bring the farmers of Gippsland in from the cold?
Mr Adams interjecting —
Mr Ripoll interjecting —
The SPEAKER — The member for Lyons and the member for Oxley are not assisting.
Mr BURKE — I am pleased to get the question on the day that the National Party have been reduced to single figures in the chamber.
The SPEAKER — The minister will get to the answer.
Mr BURKE — I also note that, among the different references that the member for Gippsland has just made, he did not refer to the conversations with my office today at the meeting that he had with my office today and
the advice that he was given today in terms of the specific engagement with the process.
I would also add that I met with the Chair of the National Rural Advisory Council the Sunday before last, and on that occasion we went through the issues with Gippsland. He made clear at that point that there would be a new assessment, that the original survey that was done was a desktop assessment and that they—
Mr Morrison interjecting —
The SPEAKER — Order! The member for Cook is warned.
Mr BURKE — would be going through and looking at a reassessment of the Gippsland area. The important thing on the process and on the engagement is to understand the pathway through. As I reminded the member for Gippsland, yesterday when I made that comment was when I was explaining the process, and he stood up in this place and said, ‘Oh, but what about the farmers in Gippsland?’ It is the process that delivers for them—it is by engaging in that. That is why he can look to his left, he can look to his right and he will find he is surrounded by members of parliament on that side of the chamber who have engaged in an entirely different way in making sure that they get the recommendations dealt with by the National Rural Advisory Council so that those recommendations come back to me to make sure that exceptional circumstances reassessments are done, and done in a timely fashion.
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (3.24 pm) — I seek leave to table the correspondence.
Leave not granted.
OFFSHORE PETROLEUM AMENDMENT (GREENHOUSE GAS STORAGE) BILL 2008
September 17, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (1.17 pm) — It is with pleasure that I join the debate here today. I thank other members for their contributions, which I have followed with a great deal of interest—quite thought provoking contributions they have been. The Offshore Petroleum Amendment (Greenhouse Gas Storage) Bill 2008 amends the Offshore Petroleum Act 2006 to establish a system of offshore titles. It will authorise the transportation by pipeline, injection and storage of greenhouse gas substances in deep geological formations under the seabed. I rise to express my general support for the bill and the process it seeks to facilitate—that is, the sequestration of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.
In supporting the process, I must report a growing level of scepticism in my own community about the issue of man-induced climate change and the government’s proposed response—particularly the emissions trading scheme. I certainly accept that climate variability is real, but how much of what we are experiencing right now in my particular region can be put down to permanent change and how much to a drought event is a subject of much debate within my community. I also seek to put on the public record the overwhelming need for better education and community understanding of the quite complex issues we are dealing with here and of terms like ‘geosequestration’, ‘carbon capture and storage’ and ‘climate change’ itself. I think we need to involve our communities more in this entire discussion, and there is a great deal of room for a more mature and robust debate around all of these issues and the possible solutions without the need to stereotype people as sceptics or true believers.
There is a great deal of goodwill in my community for action to protect the environment. As a whole, Gippslanders are very passionate about our local environment. We have thousands of volunteers in groups like Landcare who are getting their hands dirty and doing the practical environmental work that is required in our region. We have farmers who are investing in nutrient reduction programs and whole-of-farm plans to improve water quality, which is such a critical issue for the people of Gippsland and the Gippsland Lakes themselves. We have many industries which are investing in technology to clean up their own operations.
I still believe there is a great deal of confusion about climate change, and the government’s proposed response with the emissions trading scheme is cause for concern. We need a proper debate and we need to canvass all the possible solutions. A classic example is the issue of sequestering carbon in the soil. Briefings that I have received on this issue, from my perspective, demand further investigation because of the real prospect we have of improving our agricultural production through better soil conditions while achieving the government’s desired aim to deal with carbon emissions. That has some exciting possibilities for us, and I will be following that up with the industry involved.
If the government were prepared to debate these types of issues in completely good faith, it would start by immediately withdrawing the climate change propaganda campaign which is currently screening on our TVs. This type of television advertising, with its graphic images, is purely designed to do the groundwork for the government’s climate change policies, and I think scaring the community and trying to dumb down the debate in the hope that there will be no resistance to an emissions trading scheme do none of us any great credit. The massive cost and the prospect of job losses that are related to the emissions trading scheme issue are coming at a time when Australia can least afford them.
I am reserving my position on the emissions trading scheme for those very good reasons. We have not seen the economic modelling from the government at this stage and we have very limited knowledge of the direct impacts, particularly as they affect regional communities. I fear that in some regards we are running headlong into an economic disaster which will be most heavily felt in rural and regional communities like my own area, Gippsland. The industries that are going to be most affected by government policy on climate change are those that are primarily located in regional areas.
I may return to that point in a few moments time, but first I want to highlight the potential opportunities that I believe this bill presents in the Gippsland situation. There is no doubt that Gippsland will need to be at the forefront of the research and development to successfully capture and store carbon in the future. We have a strong and vested interest in developing the technology and becoming a major player in this emerging industry. If we can make it work anywhere, Gippsland is going to play a major role in the future.
The Gippsland Basin is obviously a major source of oil and gas for our nation. I am very much a layman when it comes to the issues of geology but, as I understand it, the very same geological formations which have produced the structures for trapping oil and gas beneath the surface make the Gippsland Basin a very attractive proposition for this type of activity. Studies have shown that the Gippsland Basin has the capacity to store very large volumes of carbon dioxide. It possibly goes without saying that the location of the basin, alongside the Latrobe Valley power stations, provides an obvious link for this type of activity. Indeed it is regarded by many in the power and oil industries as the possible solution to the issue of CO2 emissions from brown coal production in the Latrobe Valley.
But I again make the point about the need to hasten slowly in relation to the emissions trading scheme, which is inextricably linked to this bill. Carbon capture and storage may be the big ticket item that provides the answer to the issues facing brown coal power generators, but we are several years away from achieving the desired result.
It is in noone’s interest to jeopardise the economic viability of power generators in the Latrobe Valley by moving too fast or placing too heavy a burden on their operations. I refer to comments this week from the Chief Executive Officer of Loy Yang Power, Mr Ian Nethercote, who has flagged his concerns about the future of his industry. I stress that Mr Nethercote does not oppose an emissions trading scheme, but he is seeking a balanced approach. Many in the industry and in the Gippsland-Latrobe Valley hold a similar view.
Mr Nethercote is quoted in the Latrobe Valley Express this week, talking about Professor Garnaut’s supplementary draft report and the recommendation of a $20 per tonne fixed carbon price. He said:
If we look at Loy Yang, we would need to find an extra $1 million a day just to cover permit costs. If we then take that a step further, that means for the Latrobe Valley brown coal sector you need to find about $1.2 billion, that’s if its $20 per tonne. If you take that across the national market, then it comes out to $4 billion a year, the numbers are huge, they’re massive.
I add that to the debate as a point of caution. The people of the Latrobe Valley are just starting to come to terms with what we are saying about the emissions trading scheme and the impact it may have on them and their families’ futures. Mr Nethercote also cautioned that Professor Garnaut’s predicted 40 per cent rise in electricity prices could be underestimating the real impact. Many speakers have made the same point. This is an enormous challenge and the complexity of the issues requires broader community understanding before we progress too much further down this path.
I certainly appreciate that the government is promising structural adjustment packages and compensation to affected households in its green paper. However, the sheer scope of the changes and the impacts are not properly understood in my community. As I said during my inaugural speech a few weeks ago, if we are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and we accept that climate change is real then we are going to need a strong and sustainable economy to deal with these challenges. We need to be tackling these challenges from a position of economic strength.
I make that point in the context of the Gippsland Coastal Board report referring to the prospect of climate change and a 0.8- metre sea level rise. The board is forecasting events that would require the relocation of a range of highly valued public assets from the low-lying foreshore areas along the Gippsland coast. We will not achieve that unless we are in a strong financial position. If the Gippsland coast is exposed to inundation, large sections of the metropolitan coast will go under as well. It is a frightening prospect if these forecasts are accurate. All levels of government will have to work in partnership to address it. There is a lot riding on these very complex issues.
As the member for Gippsland, my focus is on the Latrobe Valley coal industry. We must retain the commercial viability of the brown coal industry in the valley because we need these companies to work in partnership with governments to invest in the cleaner coal technology that we all talk so much about. It requires a practical, rational and steady approach rather than some of the overblown rhetoric that we have been exposed to throughout the debate in recent times. Having access to an extraordinary natural resource like 500 years of brown coal is a competitive advantage for our nation, one we must be very careful to nurture in the future.
Access to low-cost energy has underpinned growth in my region, and I make no apologies for standing up for the industry and for jobs in my region. We need to keep a firm sense of perspective in this debate. Given that our nation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is less than two per cent, we need to be extremely mindful of the international effort and who we have on board in this process. Any policy that results in job losses in my region will have an adverse impact on every part of community life throughout Gippsland. I fear that regional communities like Gippsland are very much at the pointy end of government policy in relation to climate change.
For us it is not an abstract debate about turning a few lights off or taking shorter showers. It is about jobs, families and the future of key industries like the power sector, agriculture and the oil and gas industry. As I mentioned, the Gippsland Basin is a major contributor to our nation and this bill has particular relevance to my region. The Longford gas plant, which is located about 10 kilometres from the city of Sale, is responsible for supplying most of Victoria’s gas requirements and about 20 per cent of Australia’s oil and gas supply. Gippsland has a long and proud history of providing resources for our nation, and the oil and gas industry is just one example.
Speaking of the history of the oil and gas industry, I note that 2009 will mark the 40th anniversary of oil and gas production from the Gippsland Basin by Esso Australia. It will certainly be a time of celebration and reflection on the company’s major role in the social, economic and cultural development of the region. I add cultural development quite deliberately because Esso has been a major contributor to community facilities in Gippsland, including the Wellington Entertainment Centre in Sale. Esso is highly regarded as a good corporate citizen in my region and the company is respected for its contributions to Gippsland and our nation.
There are now 21 offshore platforms and installations in Bass Strait which feed a network of 600 kilometres of underwater pipelines and keep the oil and gas flowing 24 hours a day. I digress for a moment to reflect on the fact that Gippslanders have not always enjoyed the direct benefits of the oil and gas industry. It does seem bizarre that many towns in my electorate, including my hometown of Lakes Entrance, have missed out on reticulated natural gas. It is an issue that I intend to work on hopefully in partnership with and with genuine support from the relevant state and federal ministers. This bill talks a lot about environmental issues. Natural gas provides a cheaper and more efficient energy source, which is particularly important for communities like Yarram in south Gippsland and Orbost and Lakes Entrance in the east. As we are all aware, we have an ageing population. The opportunity to provide cheaper and cleaner energy is a critical issue, particularly for older Gippslanders.
Bottled gas is prohibitively expensive for those on pensions or low incomes and they are often left with the only alternative of wood heating, which obviously becomes a bigger issue in their advancing years. Natural gas reticulation to more towns in Gippsland is a challenge for the future that I hope the state and federal governments are willing to work with me to resolve. It is more environmentally friendly and has obvious economic benefits for my community. If we are able to build the eastern gas pipeline to take gas from Longford to Sydney, then we should be building the infrastructure to allow the economic and environmental benefits to flow to Gippsland communities along the route.
I am certainly pleased to say, however, that the state Labor government has provided natural gas to Bairnsdale. Under that state government program, we have seen real benefit to businesses such as Patties Foods in Bairnsdale and to the Bairnsdale Hospital. There is still more work to be done to continue the rollout of this very efficient and effective form of energy. I think allowing Gippsland to share in the benefits of the oil and gas industry in our region is an issue for us all. Having said that, although the direct benefits from oil and gas have not flowed directly to every household in Gippsland, I must stress that there have been overwhelming positives for my community. Oil and gas production in Bass Strait has contributed over $200 billion to gross domestic product over its life, and ExxonMobil’s Bass Strait operations have been responsible for generating approximately $300 billion in federal government revenue in real terms.
Another reason why I am standing here to debate this bill is that protecting the future of the oil and gas industry in Gippsland is so critical to us. I have had the opportunity in the past to view oil and gas production up close, and it is something I would encourage other members to do if they get the chance.
The offshore platforms are quite remarkable places. They are both a work site and a home for up to 80 people at a time. The platforms operate in a hostile environment in Bass Strait but they are equipped with a few home comforts for the men and women when they are off duty—gymnasiums, rec rooms and those types of things. Having shared a meal with workers on a platform several years ago, I can attest to the fact that their kitchens are well equipped to meet the demands and the workers are well fed. Long may their vital work continue, along with that of their colleagues in the brown coal industry.
I would like to take up some points made by other members in their contribution to this debate. This bill provides for access rights for the geosequestration process. We will need to have appropriate systems in place to protect the rights of existing users. That obviously includes oil and gas producers. They must have the security to continue to invest with confidence. I have followed the debate with interest and I am heartened by the assurance of those opposite that there is certainty for investment in the future for the oil and gas sector. But for me in the Gippsland electorate there is also the issue of certainty for the commercial fishing industry, which is already finding it difficult to access fishing grounds due to the excised areas around oil and gas platforms. There is a potential layer of friction there in the future, which we will need to resolve. Further activity in the region— it might be related to this bill or it might be in relation to the oil and gas industry itself—is going to have an impact on the important role played by the Lakes Entrance fishing fleet in helping to feed our nation.
I agree with other members who have made the point that we really do need to get this legislative framework right and ensure that we do not discourage further investment in other industries with existing users in the offshore regions. I believe we are all very mindful of the need to act responsibly on this critical issue. In my mind, acting responsibly certainly includes protecting our energy security for the future. I commend the previous speakers and the Minister for Resources and Energy on the approach they have taken to this legislation. I also commend the previous minister for the work he undertook in this area.
As I and many others have mentioned, there is no question that this is an incredibly complex area. I get the feeling that there will be many more debates on this and related topics in the months and years ahead.
EDUCATION RETENTION RATES & UNIVERSITY PARTICIPATION
September 23, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.00 pm) — I rise today to highlight an issue of major concern to residents of Gippsland and many other regional areas. As secondary students across Gippsland near the end of year 12, I seek to highlight the issue of retention rates and participation in higher education. The Gippsland region has one of the worst education retention rates in Victoria. Compared to a state and metropolitan retention rate in excess of 80 per cent in 2006, just 65 per cent of Gippsland students finished year 12. These figures naturally translate into low participation rates for Gippsland students in university and higher education. Unless you fundamentally believe that city students are more intelligent than country students, there is obviously a problem with the way in which we are managing the education of young people in regional areas like Gippsland.
I note that the Victorian parliament is conducting an inquiry into geographical differences in the rates at which Victorian students participate in higher education. The inquiry was the initiative of Nationals state MP Peter Hall, a former schoolteacher and an outstanding member of parliament for the past 20 years. In its submission to the inquiry, the Gippsland education precinct identifies many of the key issues, as I see them, including socioeconomic status as the single biggest factor influencing student performance.
Many of our regional areas, including Gippsland, have comparatively low average household incomes, and that situation is a major barrier to participation in higher education. It affects entrance scores, parents’ capacity to support students to live away from home for study and other purposes, and the aspiration within families to actually seek higher education in the first place. At a time when skills shortages in a range of professions, including particularly the health sector, are having an enormous impact on the quality of life of country families, we need to do more to help rural and regional students overcome these socioeconomic barriers.
We know that students from regional areas are more likely to return to those areas in the future to practise their skills. The greater use of cadetships, bonded scholarships or studentships to pay students an allowance whilst at university and then guarantee them a job after a fixed period if they serve in a regional area is worthy of further investment. Such programs in the health sector have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past and they need to be increased and broadened in their scope in the future. Similarly there must be greater recognition of the extra costs borne by country families in sending students away for tertiary studies.
We need to explore all options to overcome the accommodation and cost-of-living pressures which place a disproportionate burden on rural and regional students. These costs are a major disincentive to pursuing further studies and addressing the skills shortages of regional areas like Gippsland. The problem is getting worse, and we must do more to help our young people from regional areas to achieve their full potential.
GIPPSLAND ROTARY CENTENARY HOUSE
September 25, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.54 am) — I congratulate the member for Franklin, who has just spoken, for her contribution and endorse her comments. I rise to pay tribute to the outstanding men and women in Gippsland who have rallied together to establish Gippsland Rotary Centenary House. I recently attended the second birthday celebrations of this quite remarkable facility and the unveiling of a new pathway and new outdoor areas there. For the benefit of members who have not heard of Centenary House and the service it provides: Gippsland Rotary Centenary House provides a home away from home for patients and their families attending Latrobe Regional Hospital, primarily patients of the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre.
The facility contains six large en suite units and two smaller self-contained facilities, along with a communal kitchen, a dining room and lounge facilities, a children’s play area and a quiet room for family consultation and privacy. But merely describing the bricks and mortar which make up the skeleton of Centenary House fails to do justice to the heart which beats within. This is a house that love, compassion and empathy have built in Gippsland. In addition to funding from state and federal governments and many philanthropic trusts, the community of Gippsland, led by its Rotarians, was successful in fundraising more than $600,000 for stage 1. I say ‘stage 1’ because you cannot stop the enthusiasm of volunteers such as Ken Peake and the manager, Carol Crewe. They are already working hard on stage 2, which will lead to the doubling of services for the people of Gippsland.
It is a sad fact that the demand from seriously ill patients requires the doubling in size of this type of facility, but I have already pledged my support to help the committee achieve that aim in the future. Gippsland Rotary Centenary House has been a complete success, and it is a credit to the vision and hard work of the volunteers, the board members and the businesses throughout the Gippsland region which have contributed to the project. Once the design is finalised and costings are prepared, I will be working with all levels of government and the community to secure funding for the next stage. All levels of government from both sides of politics supported the original development, and now it is time to start building those partnerships again for the next stage of the project. Centenary House is providing affordable and comfortable accommodation for Gippslanders when they are at their most vulnerable. No-one is ever turned away if they cannot afford the $15 a night price to stay. I have no doubt that the friendly and supportive environment which is provided in a safe and secure location is contributing to improved health outcomes for the guests.
There is a separate point that I would like to make. Although Centenary House is located between Traralgon and Morwell, the main beneficiaries of this project come from much further afield, with 82 per cent of the patients travelling from East Gippsland shire, Wellington shire and the South Gippsland areas. It says a lot about the community spirit of the people of Latrobe Valley businesses and the residents themselves that they are the major supporters of a project which helps their neighbouring communities across Gippsland. I pay tribute today to the volunteers and the generous donors who have helped bring this project to life and I wish them every success in their future endeavours.
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