2008 In Parliament
PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – DROUGHT
October 13, 2008
Mrs HULL (Riverina) (9.10 pm) — I move:
That the House:
(1) recognise the seriousness of the drought situation across rural Australia; and
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) recognise the need for long term commitment for Exceptional Circumstances (EC) declared areas, and to provide continued support to allow those areas to fully recover from the drought;
(b) look at the history of EC declared areas and the direct correlation between longevity of declaration and hardship inflicted;
(c) commit to the extension of support programs to allow those areas to fully recover regardless of meeting current EC requirements; and
(d) extend EC assistance to all rural based businesses who meet the criteria.
Mr Chester — I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.20 pm) — I rise to speak in support of the motion and, in doing so, seek to highlight the extremely difficult conditions facing many Australian farming families and their communities. I deliberately refer to ‘farming families and their communities’ because, when a drought hits regional Australia, it hits us all, from those on the front line in our nation’s diverse farming enterprises to the small businesses which supply them, to the teachers, doctors and health professionals who often deal with the social consequences and to the families themselves. Quite apart from the obvious economic impacts which other members have spoken about tonight, droughts are insidious as they sap the energy and enthusiasm of our farming families and communities and corrode the hopes of the next generation.
This motion calls on the government to recognise the need for a long-term commitment to exceptional circumstances funding declared areas and to provide continued support to allow those areas to fully recover from the drought. It is timely that I speak today on behalf of the people of Gippsland who have recently seen the inadequacy of the current EC system, as I have mentioned once or twice before in this House. While I am pleased to report that there has been a breakthrough in Gippsland and the EC funding has been extended until next April, I stand here today firstly to apologise to the Gippsland farming families for the unnecessary and additional stress and hardship that they have been exposed to in recent weeks. I am sorry that the system failed them when the National Rural Advisory Council and both the state and federal ministers agreed that EC funding should be discontinued in Gippsland from 30 September this year. It was a mistake, and I am pleased to say that it has been addressed.
The original decision was made after a desktop analysis by NRAC. There was no visit to Gippsland, no attempt to assess the circumstances on the ground and no effort to listen to the concerns of locals. It took considerable time and effort—and that is time away from the farming enterprise and it caused a great deal of stress for our farming families to get NRAC to actually visit Gippsland and recognise the need for an extension to the EC funding, which has since been implemented by the minister. I thank him for that. There needs to be a long-term commitment for EC declared areas to support communities like Gippsland as they recover from this drought. Perhaps just as importantly, NRAC representatives must visit or receive an on-the-ground assessment of conditions before any decision is made to remove any EC funding from a region based on lines on a map.
As we all know, when it does eventually rain it will not be raining money, and there will be a lag time in this recovery process. I urge the federal government to continue working in partnership with state and local government to support communities throughout Australia as they emerge from the drought. There is a direct correlation between the number of years in a drought and the community’s capacity to recover by itself.
We have seen in the past that during a drought period regional areas lose skilled workers and many young people move on, literally seeking greener pastures. Governments must invest in the capacity of these regions to help them get back on their feet when the rains do come. The Victorian state government, for its part, has been dragging its heels on this issue, but today, thankfully, a support package in the order of $115 million, I understand, has been announced. It stops short of the $20,000 cash grants which the Victorian state government has provided in the past, but I understand that the package does include a municipal rates subsidy, which has been strongly supported by the Liberals and Nationals in Victoria. I believe the states must continue to do their part in addition to the federal government’s EC assistance packages because it helps to send a message to the farming families that we certainly value their contribution, and they are important contributors to the future of our rural and regional communities.
Money is going to be needed for basic survival, let alone on-farm works such as fencing and maintenance work along with productivity related things such as improving pastures. All of these things fall behind when conditions are tough and money is tight. I believe our challenge with EC funding is to support these farming families to basically get them over the hump, knowing full well that they will prosper again on the other side when the rains come. This is not welfare or charity; it is an investment in the future of our nation’s productive farming enterprises.
On that point, I strongly urge our farming families in EC affected areas to seek information on whether they are entitled to any assistance. Do not do the self-assessment and do not take the view that this is some form of welfare if you access the income support or the interest rate subsidies which are available through exceptional circumstances funding. After meeting with several groups of farmers in my electorate, I fear that many of them are too proud to put their hands up and ask for assistance which is available to them. It disappoints me that the state and federal governments on both sides of politics in the past have spent a small fortune on advertising and propaganda but have failed to inform enough of our farming families about the benefits which they may be able to access. In closing, I commend the member for Riverina for moving this motion and urge all members to recognise the seriousness of the drought situation across rural Australia.
DAIRY ADJUSTMENT LEVY TERMINATION BILL 2008
October 14, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.49 pm) — It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak in relation to the Dairy Adjustment Levy Termination Bill 2008. The bill finalises the Dairy Industry Adjustment Program by terminating the dairy adjustment levy, winding up the Dairy Structural Adjustment Fund and terminating the Dairy Adjustment Authority, and I join the previous speaker in commending the staff of the authority and others who have been directly involved in the deregulation process.
I take this opportunity to refer to the deregulation of the dairy industry and the future of the industry in my electorate of Gippsland. Deregulation of the Australian dairy market involved the removal of price support mechanisms. As the minister noted in his second reading speech, the dairy adjustment levy was developed to help farmers adjust to the removal of state and Commonwealth price support measures. These measures resulted in payments to about 13,000 individual dairy businesses to assist in the transition process.
In relation to the 11c per litre levy which will be removed under this bill, there is an obvious need for those savings to be passed on to consumers. I urge vigilance at the checkouts— Australian mums and dads should be 11c per litre better off when the milk levy is removed, and I support the previous speaker in his remarks on this subject.
Regarding the dairy deregulation itself, according to a report prepared by economist David Harris with support from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, the farm level adjustment mostly occurred in the first two years of the deregulated market. A number of farmers left the industry—some older farmers retired, some switched into alternative farm products and others found jobs outside agriculture. But Mr Harris reported:
… the impact on industry output was limited as the remaining farmers adapted to the new market conditions by improving the productive performance of their dairy enterprise. In general the response was to increase farm output – deregulation created growth opportunities for individuals in the fluid milk sector.
Some reacted by expanding herds and increasing land areas. But most made changes to improve the physical performance of their farms – greater carrying capacity, improved pasture management and increased milk yields.
The overnight policy change made the full impact transparent. It sharpened the incentive for farmers to make decisions about their future. It helped to speed up gains in per farm performance that typically flow from policy reforms.
I believe that the dairy industry has adapted to the changed operating environment. I am informed by Dairy Australia that there are now about 8,000 dairy farms and 1.8 million dairy cows in Australia, producing 9.1 billion litres of milk annually. This makes dairying Australia’s third largest rural industry, with a farm-gate value of $4.4 billion. It is important to keep in mind that Australia is a significant dairy exporter and accounts for about 11 per cent of total world trade, ranked third behind New Zealand and the European Union.
The dairy industry in Gippsland has adapted also to the deregulation in the industry. We can become a bit blase about facts and figures but, in the case of the Gippsland dairy industry, they are quite impressive numbers. The industry has about 1,750 dairy farmers and produces about 1.9 billion litres of milk annually, making dairying the biggest agricultural contributor to the Gippsland economy. The value of dairy product exports from my region is estimated to be about $665 million and the industry directly employs over 4,000 people, with a further 3,250 in the processing sector.
That is the picture of Gippsland on the broader scale. The dairy industry in the seat of Gippsland itself is concentrated mainly in the Macalister Irrigation District, which I will refer to more extensively later on. This is the largest irrigation area south of the Great Dividing Range. There are some other substantial dairy interests in the neighbouring seat of McMillan, but I will leave it to Mr Broadbent to extol the virtues of the dairy industry in his own region. Suffice it to say that the South Gippsland and Central Gippsland dairy farmers are among the most productive and efficient in the world. That is a description that easily fits the farmers in the Macalister Irrigation District. They are world-class producers and they are producing a world-class product.
By way of history, as far back as the 1840s, the region was recognised by early white settlers as offering productive and valuable grazing land. But the early settlers were exposed, unfortunately, to the vagaries of the weather patterns and rivers that would flood or run dry with the seasons. Even last year, we witnessed two major floods which had significant impact in the MID and caused enormous damage to natural assets and manmade infrastructure. In the early 1900s, a study was made of possible storage sites within the area of the Macalister River, which led to the construction of the Glenmaggie Dam. Although that is not a large storage, the Glenmaggie Dam has a capacity of about 190,000 megalitres, which, again, has been reduced following the sediment run-off related to the flood events I have just mentioned. The MID is a gravity irrigation system and relies on the capacity of the system infrastructure to generate sufficient pressure to move the water from Glenmaggie, Cowwarr and Maffra weirs through the channel system to the farmer.
That brings me to the point of my comments here today and the future of the dairy industry in my region, post the deregulation era. Water security is one of the absolutely critical issues facing dairy farmers. We have an ageing infrastructure network which does not come close to meeting current best practice around the world, and I will comment a little further on that in a few moments. But, as I have said, the dairy industry is really big business in Gippsland. In the Wellington shire, a more defined area of my electorate, milk production in 2005-06 was valued at over $181 million, an average of about $480,000 per day. The shire has 477 dairy farms, of which 380 are located in the Macalister Irrigation District. The Murray Goulburn Co-operative is located in Maffra. The Murray Goulburn Co-operative was formed in 1950 and is now the largest processor of milk in Australia, processing over 35 per cent of the nation’s milk.
Post deregulation of the dairy industry, the MID is well placed to continue to be one of our nation’s great food bowls, but it will require further investment, both private and public, particularly in the area of water security. If we accept that our climate is becoming more variable— and the prolonged drought in Gippsland continues to make things very difficult for a lot of my farmers—then we must use water in the most efficient manner possible. As I informed the House this week, large parts of Gippsland remain drought affected, but the irrigated areas of the MID are in better shape than the rest of the electorate. For all intents and purposes, the Glenmaggie Weir is full and our dairy farmers are in good shape to capitalise on the situation this year.
Looking to the future, the dairy industry is faced with ageing infrastructure, as I just mentioned, and an inefficient irrigation system. While the perilous state of the Murray-Darling Basin has quite justifiably made the headlines, when we are talking about our nation’s food security and export opportunities, the irrigation infrastructure in the MID should not be ignored. The plans to provide billions of dollars in assistance for upgrades to irrigation infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin have widespread support. But there will also be a need in the future to provide funding for irrigation infrastructure upgrades in the Macalister Irrigation District. I can inform the House that a plan is already well advanced, having been out for about 12 months now. The MID 2030 strategy was released in September last year.
I quote from the executive summary by Jan Greig, the Chair of Southern Rural Water:
The strategy takes advantage of the abundant potential of the Macalister Irrigation District (MID). The irrigation area has good soils, good drainage, excellent quality water and substantial water resources— all the fundamentals for sustainable irrigation systems.
The time is right for a review of the MID’s future. The supply system is out of date and inefficient. Drought and the concern of climate change provide a push for improved water efficiency both in the supply system and on-farm. The alignment of Government, a willing Board, along with the ongoing commercial imperatives for irrigators, make this major planning effort timely.
The upgrades to the supply and drain system, contained within the strategy, give confidence about a more certain and productive future of the MID. The major SRW infrastructure upgrades will markedly increase both water delivery efficiency and customer service levels. These improvements will remove long standing system barriers to on-farm investment.
Further, the clear support for ‘closed irrigation’—ensuring no runoff of excess irrigation during the irrigation period—promotes both on-farm improvements and reduces nutrient export from farms into rivers and the Gippsland Lakes.
On that last point, I must emphasise the efforts by the dairy industry in Gippsland to support the broader community efforts to reduce nutrient flows into the Gippsland Lakes. Reports by the CSIRO commissioned by the Gippsland Coastal Board have found that the MID is a major source of nutrients into the Gippsland Lakes system. The high nutrient load entering the lakes system is blamed for algal blooms, which are both unsightly and potentially detrimental to the health of humans and a variety of marine species. Reducing the flow of nutrients from farms in the MID into local streams and further into the Gippsland Lakes is an issue of critical importance to both the dairy industry and the tourism industry.
For those not familiar with the lakes, I will take the time to describe them. They are a vast network of coastal lagoons which feature world recognised wetlands. The lakes and rivers are the tourism icons of Gippsland and they are heavily impacted by activities in the catchment. They are perhaps only second to the coastline represented by the member for Eden-Monaro. Protecting the health of the Gippsland Lakes is critical to the social, cultural, economic and environmental aspirations and lifestyles of Gippslanders. I make that point today because of the strong link between the future of the dairy industry in the MID and the Gippsland Lakes themselves. I admit that that link may not appear obvious to those who do not know the geography of my region that well, but I will attempt to make it clearer.
Reducing the flow of nutrients from both private and public land into the lakes system is the focus of work by the Gippsland Coastal Board. The dairy farmers in the MID have worked in partnership with the board to fund projects like whole-of-farm management plans, effluent re-use and reduction initiatives and better irrigation management, including the adoption of spray systems and re-use initiatives. For every dollar of government investment that we have seen in the MID, the dairy farmers have put their hands in their own pockets and poured a substantial amount of cash into the improvements on-farm because they recognise the environmental imperative, and there are certainly very good economic reasons for running their properties in this very efficient manner.
The future of dairy farming in the MID will involve more partnership projects such as this, efficiently using the water resource and managing the effluent waste products. The state government for its part has contributed to the nutrient reduction projects since 2002, albeit with a reduced commitment from 2006 to 2009. I am hopeful that the funding round from 2009 onwards will be more generous and will recognise the severity of the situation we are facing with nutrient run-off and algal blooms in the Gippsland Lakes. This is one of the most critical issues facing the electorate of Gippsland, and I take the opportunity today to raise it in the context of the future the dairy industry will play in reducing those nutrient run-offs. As I said, some good work has started on farm and in areas of public land, but there is much more to be done.
That brings me to the federal government’s commitments through the announcements made by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I say at the outset that I am grateful for the minister’s visits to the Gippsland electorate during the by-election. I am sure he had other motives in mind, but I am still grateful for his visits and his firsthand inspection of both our fishery industry and our agricultural sector. I certainly take the opportunity to invite him back in the future. But, unfortunately, I believe the federal government is dragging its heels and has failed to deliver any of the promised $3 million in funding for water quality improvements in the Gippsland Lakes and catchment.
On the one hand it is very pleasing that the $3 million has been promised, but on the other hand it is disappointing that work has not started on the ground in Gippsland. The minister has, as I said, visited on several occasions, but unfortunately there have been the same announcements in relation to that $3 million for the Gippsland Lakes nutrient reduction work.
There is much to be done in terms of practical environmental projects associated with the dairy industry in the Macalister Irrigation District. The Gippsland Coastal Board has publicly announced in the past week that sections of the Gippsland Lakes are still mildly affected by the algal bloom that had a severe impact on recreational activities last summer, so the need is both urgent and pressing.
We accept that there are some long-term issues—they are not going to be solved overnight— but we would love to see the money starting to flow in Gippsland. There is no risk to human health with the type of algal bloom that we have experienced over the past summer, lingering on into this winter period and now into spring. The lakes can still be enjoyed, but it is vital that we get on top of the water quality issues that are affecting both the lakes and the catchment itself. I believe the Gippsland Lakes should be regarded as the Great Barrier Reef of the south. They are that important to the economic prosperity of my region. They are world renowned wetlands and they are critical to the social, economic, cultural and environmental life of Gippslanders.
I have also been calling for a locally based research facility to overcome the knowledge gaps that we have in relation to this synechoccus algal bloom which we are experiencing at the moment. We need to investigate these algal blooms and the broader water quality monitoring issues along with increased funding for practical projects to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the lakes from private and public land.
Returning specifically to the dairy industry in the era post deregulation, being seen as good environmental custodians is critical to the future of the industry in Gippsland. It is here where the MID 2030 strategy is a great plan for our region. The strategy involves a total cost of $116 million in infrastructure works and would deliver an estimated water saving of 37,400 megalitres. I quote again from the strategy:
The MID can transform itself from a supply system with one of the lowest industry efficiencies to one with an efficiency of 85% for its channels and 95% efficiency for its pipelines.
Eliminating losses from the supply system and closed irrigation practice on farm means that most of the time, there will be zero flow in the drains. There will be a significant decrease in the export of nutrients and other pollutants from the MID, resulting in improved water quality for the downstream rivers and lakes.
Local rivers will have flow patterns that support their improved condition and the external environmental impacts will be minimised.
This project is a win-win for Gippslanders and the broader Australian community. There are significant environmental benefits to be achieved and increased productivity on offer for our dairy sector. It is estimated that the average annual nutrient export to the Gippsland Lakes can be reduced from over 40 tonnes of phosphorous per year to 10 tonnes per year through this project. Naturally, there are some questions about how the work can be funded and I take the opportunity to invite the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to return to Gippsland to, once again, get this $3 million of funding flowing and also to discuss the opportunities under the MID 2030 strategy. It is my belief that such a significant investment, in the order of $116 million, will not occur without significant federal government or state government funding support. Indeed, there are many precedents of both state and federal governments investing in water-saving projects of this nature.
I understand that feedback from MID customers indicates that they are interested in exploring the benefits of funding the whole strategy themselves compared to the benefits of a joint funding arrangement with either governments, but I doubt that this will eventuate and believe it is more likely that an arrangement such as the 80-20 model is more appropriate in the prevailing circumstances in Gippsland. Under such a model we would see governments contributing 80 per cent of the investment and customers sharing 20 per cent of the investment through increased supply charges. There would then be a situation of equal sharing of the water savings—again providing environmental benefits to local streams and the Gippsland Lakes, which I have already mentioned.
In closing, I thank the House for the opportunity to raise these important issues in relation to the dairy industry in the era post deregulation. I hope I have not strayed too much from the topic at hand. The dairy industry in Gippsland has adapted to the changing operating environment and has become more productive and more innovative over the years. It certainly would be remiss of me on this occasion to not mention the Macalister Demonstration Farm in the context of innovation and increased productivity in the dairy industry. The demonstration farm seeks to demonstrate best practice management through practical research and projects. The farm is located at Riverslea, near Maffra, and it aims to test and demonstrate improved farming practices in collaboration with a large team of farmers and service providers for the benefit of the entire dairy industry.
If the minister does make it back to Gippsland, I would certainly encourage him to visit the Macalister Demonstration Farm. I will hopefully be on hand with him and we can present the demonstration farm with a cheque for ongoing activities. As we would all appreciate, there is a constant need for funding for these types of research activities. The dairy farmers in the MID have themselves made an enormous contribution to the Macalister Demonstration Farm, and we would certainly appreciate ongoing federal support in the future. Just this week, the farm released details of a subsurface irrigation system that it is trialling at the moment. It is just another way of delivering high-quality water efficiency and a further demonstration of the dairy industry’s willingness in Gippsland to invest with confidence into the future.
I do not oppose the bill before the House. I commend the Gippsland dairy industry for its ongoing contribution to our nation. Once again, I also commend the staff of the authority and all those who have been directly involved in the deregulation process.
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PETITIONS
October 20, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.34 pm) — I am pleased to have the opportunity as a new member of the Standing Committee on Petitions to say a few words about the work of the committee. May I say at the outset that the bipartisan nature of the committee and the manner in which members from both sides of the House have conducted themselves in the several meetings that I have been a part of has been a feature of my early days in this place. I would like to commend the committee chair, the member for Fowler, and the deputy chair, the member for McMillan, for the very warm welcome I have had to the committee, along with the committee staff, who are doing a great job in support of our work.
One question that sometimes arises is whether petitions still have a place in our modern society, particularly given that there are so many other avenues for communication between citizens and members of parliament. I am a very strong supporter of giving people as many opportunities as possible to become directly engaged in decision making and the public policy-making process. We have a great democracy in Australia, and providing opportunities for Australians to have their say at the ballot box is obviously one of the most critical components of that democracy. But expressing a view through methods such as petitions is an important avenue, I believe, for allowing the wider community to bring attention to a particular issue or concern, perhaps between electoral cycles.
Judging from the petitions that the committee has received in recent times, people still see petitioning as having a role in bringing an issue to the attention of the parliament, although it is certainly not the only means for residents to make their concerns known. One of the most important aspects of petitioning is what actually happens to the petition once it has been received in this place. If the petition merely ends up in the basement and is ignored, or is recorded in Hansard and nothing else happens, there would be little point in encouraging or even continuing the practice. However, that is certainly not happening under the current arrangements with the petitions committee and the changes that were introduced at the start of this year. There has been a real attempt to give the petitions process some extra meaning and impact and for there to be a firm response to petitioners and some serious consideration of the issues raised for the attention of parliament.
Anyone who has been studying petitions recently may be amazed at the range of topics that are of concern to individuals and groups in our community. Some are quite general. We have had petitions on environmental issues including water management, education funding, pension rates—which is quite topical—roads, telecommunications issues, and medical and dental services, to name just a few. Petitions can also be quite local and very specific to individuals. We have had petitions relating to personal grievances, either of a legal nature or on immigration matters, and funding for local infrastructure such as road crossings or intersections, sporting facilities and Australia Post outlets.
It is interesting to note that with regard to postal services this has been going on for a
particularly long time. Two petitions received by the House in the very first parliament over 100 years ago called for the retention of ‘postal conveniences’ at locations in Erskineville and Woolloongabba. If you will excuse my slight parochialism for the moment: the more things change, the more they stay the same. From the electorate of Gippsland, during the by-election, a petition by some 3,821 people was tabled in the House on 25 June this year calling for the Franklin Street post office in Traralgon to be retained.
The committee sent the petition to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, who provided advice that Australia Post had not yet made any decision on the relocation of services from that site but was undertaking a review assessing the postal services to the entire city of Traralgon.
The petitions committee subsequently had representatives of Australia Post attend a public hearing in September, and we were advised at that time that the Franklin Street location would be retained and there would be extensive community consultation on other proposed changes. It may seem like a minor issue to some but, certainly for the people of Traralgon who bothered to sign the petition, to have that follow-up from the minister’s office and then have Australia Post appear before the petitions committee was a very good process.
The outcome has been very warmly received throughout the Traralgon community. Having a mechanism like the petitions committee to pursue this matter directly with the minister and then provide that feedback to the people of Gippsland has been a very satisfying process for the people concerned.
I have received advice of many similar results from other members. The member for Riverina has advised me of efforts to retain a museum in Wagga Wagga which attracted about 2,700 signatures on a petition. I think that many on both sides of the House would agree that there is no finer advocate for that region, in terms of the passion she shows in this place, than the member for Riverina. She presented that petition to the House on behalf of her constituents. Again, I do not wish to overstate the role the petition has played, but the original decision has been changed and I understand that the petitioners’ request has been granted.
I am sure the member for Riverina will speak more fulsomely on that in the future. Regardless of the actual subject matter, all petitions are considered by the committee in the same way and the principal petitioners are assured of receiving a response.
October 22, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.48 am) — I rise to highlight the need for increased investment in regional infrastructure to assist economic development and help withstand the job losses that are predicted to flow from the global financial crisis. I take the opportunity while the Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport is in the room to highlight a project in the Wellington Shire with which she is familiar. The Wellington Shire Council is well advanced on a plan to relocate outdoor netball courts and establish a multisports venue in Sale. During the Gippsland by-election campaign a community rally was attended by several hundred people, and I am aware of a petition being prepared with the simple message: ‘give us five’. The community is clearly saying, ‘Give us $5 million and help us get on with the job of building better facilities.’
The project is well advanced and it has the financial backing of state and local governments. All it needs is a commitment from the federal government in the future. The Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport visited Gippsland during the by-election campaign. She appears to be a passionate advocate for the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, particularly for young people. I urge the minister to put in a good word for the people of Gippsland and help to make the case for $5 million to develop this outstanding project in the Sale community.
At a time when the unemployment rate is trending in the wrong direction, many Gippslanders are concerned about the economic outlook. The small business and tourism sectors, which are such critical elements of the Gippsland economy, are facing uncertain times. It is against this backdrop that I have supported the $10.4 billion economic stimulus package from the Rudd government in the belief that it will help to kick-start the regional economy. The job is by no means complete. The one-off bonuses do buy some time but there still need to be permanent increases in these support payments. The job is still not done in terms of investing in improved regional infrastructure.
I read with interest in the Australian this week that the government was planning to fast track up to $600 million of spending on small infrastructure projects. I agree with the basic premise of the plan that the short lead times for smaller regional projects mean the work can begin almost immediately, but $600 million will not be enough.
Since the current government abolished the Regional Partnerships program, there has been a vacuum in regional areas in terms of opportunities to access major project funding.
I am not seeking a debate about the merits of the previous program other than to say there were many excellent projects completed in the Gippsland electorate. I strongly urge the government to move quickly and consult with local government, which is best placed, I believe, to deliver these projects in the future. In my electorate, the Wellington Shire, the East Gippsland Shire and Latrobe City each have a range of projects that could come online immediately.
I close my comments with a quote from the President of the Australian Local Government Association, Mr Paul Bell:
In many cases, this is spending we have had to continually defer, so this money could hit the ground very, very quickly. It would boost local economies and replace and maintain the kind of infrastructure that really provides the glue for these communities.
Investing in regional infrastructure will help local communities to withstand the worst of the global financial crisis and I encourage the government to act quickly in this regard.
COMMUNITY SAFETY & SCHOOLIES WEEK
November 13, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.30 pm) — I rise to highlight the important issue of community safety, particularly in the context of end-of-year celebrations of secondary school students, or ‘schoolies week’ as it is colloquially known. I refer the House to a report in today’s Herald Sun newspaper in relation to Jon Hucker, a young man who was seriously injured in an unprovoked assault two years ago during schoolies celebrations in Lorne. Mr Hucker’s skull was tragically fractured, and it took 18 months of rehabilitation to teach him to walk again and to feed himself.
Mr Hucker has a message to young people: one punch is all it really takes to change someone’s life. Schoolies week should be a time of celebration and great enjoyment for people. It has become a rite of passage as they move from secondary school into the next chapter of their lives. Across Gippsland and across Australia there will be young people celebrating the end of high school, filled with that hope, enthusiasm and exuberance that
I would be the last person to tell young Gippslanders that they should not go out with their friends and let off a bit of steam but, as with most things in life, a bit of moderation is needed, and I urge young people to look after their mates. It is better to walk away from a blue rather than end up in a coma or imprisoned as a result of one stray punch. For those over 18 years old, by all means enjoy a couple of drinks if that is your choice, but do it safely and in the company of people that you know and trust.
I do not wish to rain on the schoolies parade in any sense at all, but there are cowardly predators out there who will prey on drunk young women and seek to pick fights with young men. For those enjoying their end of year celebrations, as a father of four young children I urge you all to act responsibly and to look after your mates.
In my electorate the coastal townships in particular will play host to many young people, and some of the major centres like Traralgon will have extra celebrations for the occasion. Our local police have done an outstanding job in the past, and I am certain that this year will be no exception. But there is always someone who takes it too far, someone who cannot go out at night without causing trouble, and our police cannot be everywhere, which is why I want to raise the broader issue of community safety issues and the government’s opportunity to invest in local community initiatives going forward.
The city of Traralgon is the entertainment capital of the Latrobe Valley and it attracts thousands of young people every weekend. They come from right around Gippsland— from Sale through to Morwell and Moe— into Traralgon, which is the centre of the night life for the region. The majority of patrons are well behaved and enjoy a night on the town in complete safety. But there have been many incidents of violence and street crime in recent times, such as vandalism and damage to shops and vehicles, and the local business community has obviously had enough. Businesses are working with the Latrobe City Council and local police and have formed their own community safety committee.
The previous government provided this committee with seed funding of about $150,000 to trial security guards at taxi ranks on the busy Saturday nights, and the reports from that trial have been very promising. The money has been spent, however, on this and other projects and on investigating other possible initiatives which may be able to be used in the Gippsland-Latrobe area, such as lighting and the use of closed-circuit television cameras not only to help make Traralgon safer but, more importantly, to help people feel safer as they go about their entertainment on a weekend occasion.
The Traralgon CBD Safety Committee is now seeking funding through both state and federal government sources to continue hiring security guards in the future to help reduce trouble in the nightclub precinct on weekend nights, but there is no funding available to them at present. I know of several other communities across Gippsland which are facing similar problems. These communities know what steps they want to take to reduce the incidence of violence and to help make residents feel safer, but they cannot access funds to go ahead and implement some of these good ideas. Like Traralgon, the Advance Morwell group was also supported by the former coalition government and received an election commitment of $250,000 to install closed-circuit television cameras in the centre of town. The Rudd government has failed to take action in this area.
I could keep naming towns and initiatives, but the key message I have today is that the federal government needs to make funding available in the future for such programs as the former coalition government’s National Community Crime Prevention Program. It will mean that communities can attend to these incidents of violence and work with liquor licensees in these towns to clean up trouble spots. I see it as a tragedy when parents fear for their children’s safety while doing something as simple as enjoying night life in their own local community.
Naturally, security provisions and closed-circuit televisions do not go to the core of the problem of those people acting irresponsibly, but we can improve the safety of our streets through the use of security guards, closed-circuit television and, of course, the extension of education programs to encourage young people to act responsibly at all times. Australians have a right to feel safe in their community and the federal government should support local communities as they develop their own local solutions to local problems.
PRACTICAL ENVIRONMENTAL WORK
November 24, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.40 pm) — I rise to highlight concerns within my electorate in relation to the federal government’s commitment to practical environmental work as carried out by organisations such as Landcare. The concerns relate to the government’s decision to cut the level of guaranteed funding to catchment management authorities and its failure to deliver on a promise of $3 million for water quality improvements in the Gippsland Lakes catchment.
In my electorate, the decision to cut CMA funding has directly contributed to the number of Landcare staff within the West Gippsland CMA being slashed from nine to three. It makes no sense to cut funding to the very people who are coordinating volunteers—they are out there getting their hands dirty; they are doing the revegetation work, pest animal control, weed reduction and erosion management—but that is what is happening in Gippsland today.
The cuts to practical environmental programs are also having a very significant impact on small businesses such as the wholesale nursery industry. Nursery owners in my electorate, such as the Glengarry Plant Farm, are reporting a massive reduction in orders from groups such as Landcare, Greening Australia and the CMAs. These groups simply are not pre-ordering the same number of native trees for revegetation programs and streamside rehabilitation, because they have no idea whether they will have the funding to pay for the trees in the future.
Last week I attended a community forum in Bairnsdale where more than 200 people listened to highly qualified experts talk about the environmental challenges facing the Gippsland Lakes and catchment areas. The federal government promised $3 million for Gippsland Lakes catchment areas 12 months ago, and to this day not a single cent has been spent. I urge the federal government to get on with the job of investing in—
WHITE RIBBON DAY
November 25, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.17 pm) — I rise to speak in support of White Ribbon Day and the efforts by the White Ribbon Foundation to reduce the incidence of violence against women. Today is an opportunity for all right-thinking men in our nation to stand shoulder to shoulder and condemn those who perpetrate violence against our mothers, our sisters, our wives and our girlfriends. It is a chance to state unequivocally that it is never okay to strike a woman or to intimidate, bully, harass or force yourself upon a woman for sexual gratification. No always means no.
At today’s launch of the White Ribbon Foundation report, we heard many impassioned speeches from all sides of politics. This is an issue which naturally transcends political boundaries. The report highlighted the impact of violence on young people and their future relationships. Alarmingly, the report also highlighted that one in three women in Australia are affected by violence. It is a national disgrace, and I urge all men to speak out in support of a coordinated national action plan backed by all levels of government.
We must educate young people, we must change our attitudes and we must change behaviour in the interest of the health and well-being of women across our nation. Previous reports have found that, where data does exist, there is a higher reported incidence of domestic violence in rural and remote communities than in metropolitan settings. The reported level of violence against women in our Indigenous communities is even more horrific. Coming from a rural and regional electorate— as a Gippslander—that troubles me deeply.
Today I appeal to all the men of Gippsland to join me in denouncing violence against women, to join me in leading by example by showing our sons the right way to behave: to respect, nurture and care for women in our society. I refer to a couple of findings in the report and draw the attention of the chamber to the fact that domestic violence has a clear and negative impact on children’s and young people’s behavioural, cognitive and emotional functioning and social development. Children’s and young people’s education and later employment prospects are harmed by domestic violence. These are long-term trends, and the impacts are felt right across our community. We need to stop pretending it does not happen and we need to take action to prevent violence against women across our community.
I commend the current government for establishing the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children, and I undertake to do all in my power to support the campaign to reduce the incidence of violence in our community. We can do better and we must do better in future.
AGED CARE AMENDMENT (2008 MEASURES NO.2) BILL 2008
November 25, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.56 pm) — I rise to speak in relation to the Aged Care Amendment (2008 Measures No. 2) Bill 2008. In doing so, I congratulate the member for Charlton on his thoughtful contribution to the debate. I also seek to highlight the need for a whole-of-government commitment to meet the challenges of our ageing population. There is a growing awareness in the community that providing for the needs of our ageing population is a critical issue for our nation’s future. My electorate of Gippsland is following the demographic trends which have been recognised in a wide variety of reports. We have an ageing community and, with the continuing influx of sea-changers attracted to our magnificent coastal and country areas along with the Gippsland Lakes, the demand for services is expected to grow in the future.
Australia-wide, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to increase from 13.4 per cent of the total population to 25.3 per cent in the next 40 years. In terms of the very old— those aged over 85, who tend to be the major users of aged-care services—the increase is equally stark, with a jump from 1.7 per cent to 5.6 per cent of the total population. I am reluctant to use too many figures when we are talking about aged-care services and the needs of an ageing population, because we would be wise to remember that each one of the about 150,000 people in permanent residential care is someone’s mum, father, best friend, uncle or auntie.
These are individual people that we are talking about, and providing the best possible care for them in their later years is a challenge that we must all embrace. They each have individual needs and expectations, and providing those quality services, particularly for the frail and aged, in the most appropriate manner to meet their individual requirements is going to demand more flexibility and innovative thinking from us as policymakers in the future. I think it will also require a recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach simply will not work, particularly as it applies to regional areas. We will need to have more flexibility in funding and service delivery arrangements to meet the needs of different communities throughout Australia. I believe that aged care is an issue that must be above party politics. In my early days in this place I do despair at times at the lack of genuine bipartisanship on a range of issues. In desperation to destroy the legacy of the previous government, the current administration is prone to overblown rhetoric about the achievements of the past. It is foolish and quite juvenile for members to claim the Howard government ignored the needs of older people or failed to do anything to improve aged-care services. But, equally, it is foolish and juvenile for members on this side of the House to suggest that everything has been destroyed in just 12 months.
I think the two propositions are ridiculous and hold no weight in the wider community. People are looking for results from us and not endless bickering on such an important issue. The Howard government did make some significant improvements to aged-care services. It is up to the current government to build on them and to look towards the future challenges rather than focus on the past.
The Productivity Commission released a research paper in September this year titled Trends in aged care services, and it makes for very interesting reading, to say the least. The commission effectively sets out the challenges ahead for the government and it has found that there will be many more older Australians requiring the provision of aged-care services in the future. The models for providing those services will need to change to reflect the expectations and demands of the next generation of older Australians. The aged-care workforce will need to expand to meet the increased demand, and governments will need to ensure that the profession is well trained and suitably paid to attract workers in the future. I do not seek to be an alarmist on this issue, but I am concerned that our aged-care system is not well placed at the moment to meet all of those future challenges.
The Productivity Commission has highlighted many other concerns. The changing pattern of disease among the aged is expected to increase the proportion of frail and older people. As medical advances are made we can expect to live longer, often despite the existence of more than one serious health condition. The health needs of these people will become more complex and the training required to manage those conditions will become more onerous. The oldest and frailest will increase in number and it will require additional facilities and resources to provide care. Mr Deputy Speaker—without wishing to reflect on you at all—we all have a vested interest in ensuring that care is well organised for us when we get there in the future.
With the increase in the aged population, I think the natural tendency for people to remain in their own homes will continue to rise, and the range of services that will need to be provided will increase accordingly. We need to be planning now and taking positive action and the practical steps required to meet that increased demand. Our approach to the ageing population will require a whole-of-government response across every agency. There is no room for cost shifting, buck passing or the blame game when it comes to providing care for older Australians. I think all levels of government have a role to play and all departments need to be conscious of the needs of an ageing population and need to make their services, if you like, age friendly.
Those needs will naturally vary according to locations around Australia. If I may, I will speak for a moment about the electorate of Gippsland and the aged-care needs of my community. If we begin with the starting point that the overwhelming majority of older people seek to remain in their own homes for as long as possible then we need to provide services to allow that to happen. Gippsland has many rural and remote areas, and I accept that it is often difficult to provide services in parts of those types of electorates. Having said that, I also note that it is far more expensive to provide full time residential aged care than it is to deliver services that allow people to remain in their own homes for longer. As long as it remains safe for them to do so, we need to provide services to allow people to enjoy their later years in their own homes.
If possible, older Gippslanders need to have the option of remaining in the community that they love, the community where they may have friends and family who are close at hand. This may require more innovative solutions to local problems. For example, public transport services are virtually non-existent in many parts of my region and in other parts of rural Australia. If we are going to encourage older people to hand in their driving licences when they become less capable of handling a vehicle then we will need to provide some form of alternative transport. Normally, it has not been seen as a federal government responsibility but our state governments have not always done their job in this regard. We need more frequent, flexible and more diverse public transport options to support older people in their communities.
Community buses which have the flexibility to pick up and drop off at residential addresses may need to be funded, particularly in regional areas, through possibly liaising with the existing taxi industry or through better use of department of education funded school bus contractors. Better servicing of our smaller regional communities will also demand consultation with the local centres. I am a strong believer in developing local solutions to local problems. We need to draw on that local knowledge; we need to draw on the practical experience and the common sense of people who live in these communities and engage them in the development of ideas and service delivery that will suit their community needs.
Public transport is just one of the issues facing older Gippslanders. We also need to support our carers, who are saving our nation a king’s ransom by caring for family and friends. The selfless work of carers needs to be better recognised and better supported in the future. It is often older women who take on the caring role, doing an outstanding job caring for partners or older relatives with only limited support from taxpayers. I was heartened to read recently that the Prime Minister is considering a new superannuation scheme for carers. We need to remember that these carers find it almost impossible to hold down full-time jobs. They are not in a position to make a contribution to their own super and when they reach retirement age— if they are not already there—they do not have the financial capacity to look after themselves.
So I endorse the position taken by the government in this regard and I encourage the government to continue exploring opportunities to assist carers. The recent announcement of a one-off bonus payment as part of the $10.4 billion economic stimulus package will be well received. I am surprised that, with a lump sum payment such as that, the government has not provided financial guidance for some people who are perhaps not used to receiving such a significant amount of money. Some families will receive $4,000 or $5,000 in one lump sum. It might be worth while in the future, if we provide those types of packages, to provide some extra support and guidance in the community to assist people in ensuring that they use the funds as wisely as possible.
In relation to pensioners and carers it strikes me as a bit bizarre that the government could never justify this payment as a matter of pure social justice but, when we have an international financial crisis, it is justified on an economic basis. Having said that, I note that I have consistently supported the provision of extra support for pensioners, carers and people with disabilities—certainly during the Gippsland by-election campaign and since then. I think the member for Charlton in his contribution referred to a down payment on long-term pensions reform. It is a much needed reform right throughout Australia and, I would imagine, it will have the support of both sides of the House in the future.
The need for better support for carers, including increased opportunities for respite, is a critical issue, particularly in regional areas and particularly if people are to have the capacity to remain in their homes for longer. There are already some excellent examples of service delivery directly to the home, and the district nurses who work throughout Gippsland are a classic illustration of my point. I had the personal experience in recent times of my father being terminally ill with cancer. The palliative care provided by the nurses in our family home made it much more comfortable for my father to be among family and friends at the time of his passing. The demand for these types of services in a compassionate home environment will only increase in the future. We need to be ready for it and we need to be training the staff and making sure they have support for what is a very stressful job.
One step removed from carers is the army of volunteers who are directly involved in providing aged-care services in our community. The Productivity Commission has rightfully acknowledged that volunteers will continue to play an important role in the provision of aged care. The commission noted that the potential pool of volunteers is actually expected to increase in the future. The challenge for aged-care providers will be to compete for volunteers and utilise them effectively. As the baby boomers age, we can reasonably expect to have more people in a position to volunteer their services. Although many of the boomers are in a better financial position than the previous generation, the cost of volunteering is an issue, particularly in rural and regional communities. For example, putting fuel in your car to assist with Meals on Wheels can be very expensive in some of our rural constituencies where there are routes of several hundred kilometres. We need to recognise that the goodwill of those volunteers can only extend so far, and reasonable reimbursement of expenses is something that I believe will be sought by volunteers in the future and be appropriate in many circumstances.
In terms of residential aged care, I believe the professional workforce remains a critical link. Without a well-motivated, well-trained and caring workforce, everything else will fail. From my experience in Gippsland, the workforce in the aged-care sector is doing a remarkable job in often very trying circumstances. As a new member of parliament, I have not actually visited every aged-care provider in my electorate, but I have been to several of them and I am endeavouring to get around to the rest of them as soon as possible. I have visited facilities in Sale, Maffra, Heyfield, Traralgon and Morwell. Without exception the staff have impressed me with their professionalism and their compassion for the people in their care. Theirs is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination.
They are confronted on a daily basis by the emotional and physical challenges of working with people who can be very frail or who are suffering the effects of dementia and other conditions. The people they look after do not always appreciate the work that they do, but I can assure them they are extremely valued in our community. The aged-care workforce in Gippsland often goes the extra mile to provide a happy home for the people in their care. I recently attended the AGM of the Sale Elderly Citizens Village, or Ashleigh House, as it is better known to the locals. A highlight of the meeting was the presentation of the staff long service awards for 10, 15, 20 and even 30 years of service.
These are dedicated, hardworking staff who are making a difference in their daily roles.
It is with some hesitation that I note the bill provides for all staff to undergo police checks before working in aged-care facilities. I understand, of course, the motivation for these tough measures and I fully endorse the sentiment that the care and safety of residents must come first, but it gives me a vague feeling of unease that we live in a society of such distrust that such measures are deemed necessary. The Minister for Ageing in her second reading speech also spoke about a tougher enforcement regime, including an increase in the number of unannounced visits. We are right to have a tightly regulated aged-care sector with strict standards, and these accountability measures are an important aspect of the industry. Family members and friends must have confidence in the residential aged-care sector, and they need to know that their loved ones are safe and are being well cared for.
Having said that, I also say that we need to make sure that families are not unduly alarmed when breaches are detected. We had the recent experience of the Department of Health and Ageing imposing tough sanctions on the Lakes Entrance Aged Care Facility in my home town in East Gippsland. I would like to acknowledge the minister’s willingness to liaise with my office and to keep me informed on the situation. In small towns, where everyone tends to know everyone else, loose comments can be misinterpreted and may reflect poorly and unfairly on the staff involved and cause enormous stress within the community. I think the need for accurate and open dialogue in these situations is obvious. I do not wish to pre-empt what may occur in the future in relation to the future ownership of the facility in Lakes Entrance, but I simply make the point that it is highly regarded by the local residents. They are extremely keen to see the Lakes Entrance Aged Care Facility remain in place in the future. Naturally, the health and safety of the residents will be of paramount importance in that endeavour.
As I mentioned at the outset, meeting the needs of the aged-care workforce is one of the biggest challenges we face going forward. Retaining and attracting quality staff will demand more competitive rates of pay in the future and will also demand improving the work environment as much as possible. Although we are forecast to enter a period of increased unemployment, in the longer term we can expect a tighter labour market. There will be great competition among professions for a well-trained workforce. The aged-care sector must be in a position to offer its staff a reasonable salary with good working conditions and the opportunity to obtain the necessary training and qualifications for a successful and rewarding career.
The Minister for Ageing recently announced increased funding for aged care, and that is a good thing. It is claimed that 7,700 training places will be provided over four years for agedcare and community care workers, at a total cost of $41 million. As long as no-one pretends that we have solved the problem, this should be viewed as a step in the right direction. More steps will be needed in the future, particularly in relation to the financial viability of the agedcare providers.
I refer to the Grant Thornton aged-care survey, which examined the changes that have taken place since 2004 and received feedback and financial data from 700 nursing homes and hostels. Among the key findings was the statement that the average return on investment for modern single bedroom facilities was approximately 1.1 per cent. It is a major area of concern when you consider that consumer demand for increased privacy has led to the expectation that modern aged-care facilities will provide these types of rooms. I have visited many of the older facilities in my region and it is abundantly clear that people are expecting a single bedroom facility and a separate ensuite. The rooms that we may have built in previous decades do not necessarily meet the current demands in many cases. That does not reflect on the standard of care by any sense—the service provided by the staff is still outstanding. But there is an expectation that new facilities need to be built in the future to meet the demands and the needs of the ageing population. The increased cost of construction will also be an issue.
It is hard to see the private sector getting too carried away about returns of 1.1 per cent per year. There are also a couple of other points that I would like to make in this regard in relation to the bill. One is the need to consider the rural, regional or remote subsidies in the future. I fear that the smaller residential aged care providers may be financially unviable in the future. In small country towns, there is not going to be the demand to build bigger or more financially viable aged-care facilities. The government is going to need to address this issue in the future if we are going to be in a position to offer residential aged care in the smaller country towns that I have talked about. People may have lived their entire lives in those small country towns and may desire to stay there in their later years.
I also want to raise the point that others, including the member for Greenway in her contribution, have raised in relation to the assessment of care needs and the ability to make payments to aged-care providers retrospective. I understand that there is often a time lag after the assessment of whether a person needs low-level or high-level care. If a provider accepts a resident in low care and then is required to provide a much higher level of care, and if the assessment that they need high care is then backed up by an independent team, it is reasonable for the provider to be given retrospectively the higher rate for that period of care. In the interests of financial viability and the quality of service, it is important for the government to address this issue going forward.
The not-for-profit sector faces even bigger challenges when it comes to accessing funds for upgrading facilities or building new facilities. As the Thornton survey found, the not-for-profit sector has indicated that its deteriorating financial position has necessitated more commercial policies in relation to residential aged-care admissions. There is a concern that this approach has come at a cost to the financially and socially disadvantaged people in these programs.
Many of the most socially and financially disadvantaged people live in rural and regional Australia. This is obviously a huge issue for regional communities like Gippsland that have a relatively low socioeconomic status. The survey found that the average anticipated building cost for new facilities was $176,000 per bed, excluding the land costs. This compares to the estimated cost of less than $85,000 per bed just five years ago.
My comments are not intended to blame or attack the current government. It is just a matter of highlighting the fact that we are facing some very real problems in relation to aged-care services in our nation. For my part, I have written to the minister to flag the concerns of my constituents. The issue of the conditional adjustment payment, or CAP funding, is a major concern for providers in my electorate. In response to the Hogan review, the previous government increased funding by $877 million over four years to provide additional financial assistance to residential aged-care providers. In this year’s budget, the current government increased the level of CAP, with the intention of providing an additional $407 million over four years. The providers in my electorate are telling me that this funding should be rolled into recurrent funding to give them more certainty in planning for the future.
I understand that a review is underway and I strongly urge the minister to respect the views of industry in relation to those concerns about continuing financial viability. I am an optimist by nature and in closing I would like to reflect on a few of the very positive initiatives that have occurred in the aged-care sector in my electorate. Just recently, I had the opportunity of officially opening the new St Hilary’s Nursing Home in Morwell. It provides accommodation and care for 51 Latrobe Valley residents and is a magnificent facility which is being provided by Baptist Community Care. There was a great deal of concern five years ago that the local community might lose St Hilary’s, and I am pleased to report to the House that the new facility is now up and running and is a credit to management and staff.
Likewise, I recently visited the Dalkeith facility in Traralgon, where there is a $50 million project underway to construct 154 independent living units alongside the existing nursing home. The first stage of 25 independent living units is well advanced, and the end result will be a village that provides a great lifestyle for people aged over 55 years. Its location, alongside the Dalkeith aged care facility, will be particularly attractive if a situation develops in the future where one partner requires a higher level of care than the other. I think it is these types of innovative solutions, which are being driven throughout regional areas, which will need to be supported by the government in the future. The village will be well equipped to help people remain in their own homes longer, and I am confident that this concept is going to be embraced by Gippsland residents who want the comfort of their own home and the security of living close to their friends and support services.
I also recently visited the new Heritage Manor in Maryvale Road in Morwell. It is another magnificent facility, with the potential for up to 95 beds. I understand that an application is pending for additional beds, and I will certainly be supporting the providers who have made such a major investment in Morwell.
Looking after the frail and the aged is a community responsibility, and I urge all members
to work in the spirit of bipartisanship to achieve the best possible outcome for all Australians.
NATION-BUILDING FUNDS (CONSEQUENTIAL AMENDMENTS) BILL 2008 / COAG REFORM FUND BILL 2008
November 26, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.43 am) — It is a pleasure to follow the member for Ballarat as the member represents a very beautiful regional centre. I have had the great pleasure to visit Ballarat on many occasions and have actually participated with the Tan Clan. This was set up by running legend Richard Tan. For those who have not heard of the man—he is a 70- year-old fellow who runs a running group that 70 to 100 people turn up to three times a week. They run around Lake Wendouree and other parts of Ballarat. It is a magnificent part of Ballarat that we get to visit at six o’clock in the morning—all of which has nothing to do with the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and related bills.
I must say at the outset that it is a pity that we cannot seal our roads with paper or build bridges with the tower of reports that have been undertaken by the current government. I have only been in this place for a short time and I have heard a lot about nation building. There has been a lot of talk and precious little action at this stage. Now we are finally seeing what the government has to offer and I must say it is somewhat disappointing. There has been a lot of hype and rhetoric, but we are finding out that the Australian people are going to be shortchanged because the money is simply not there.
The government announced in the 2008 budget that there would be $41 billion in the funds by July 2009 but there is only $26.3 billion to be allocated at the fund’s inception on 1 January, 2009. If anyone believes there will be another $15 billion in the funds by 1 July, come and see me about a bridge I am happy to sell them in Sydney. I should not joke about selling assets in Sydney; perhaps the New South Wales government will take me seriously! I would like to take up some of the points made by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia in its submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics. IPA commented regarding future budget allocations:
The dwindling revenues to the Federal Budget are of concern, given the stipulation that future allocations (beyond the initial contribution) will be made “as Budget circumstances permit”.
The IPA shares my concern that there may not be a lot more money on the way for any of these funds.
The IPA also commented:
We hope that these funds prove to be long-term investment vehicles, not ones which will fall away after the initial endowment from the 2007/2008 Budget surplus.
These are all good points. The funding must continue beyond the electoral cycle and, if we are fair dinkum about nation building, this must be above party politics.
There have been a lot of accusations from those opposite during the debate on this bill. I have heard accusations of rorts of previous programs. The Regional Partnerships initiative has been bandied around a great deal. Obviously the speechwriters have dished up the usual key lines and rhetoric, and parrots in the government have been reciting them word for word. But they should be careful about repeating some of these accusations, like those which have been put forward in this place by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.
The minister does tend to get a little bit carried away on occasion. A couple of weeks ago he spoke on Regional Partnerships and, referring to National Party ministers, he said:
They were consistent in their inaction, in their drift, in their nepotism and in the corrupt way they handled the Regional Partnerships program.
That is what he said. The minister has accused former National Party ministers of being corrupt. I believe that is an outrageous slur that does not reflect the quality of debate in this House. I really think it is a bridge too far, but it is perhaps the only bridge the minister has built in the past 12 months.
At least we did have a regional development program. At least the former government actually invested in projects on the ground in regional areas and not in a tower of reports and reviews. All we have heard from this government in the past 12 months is talk about what it is going to do one day with the money left to it by the former coalition government. The minister cannot have it both ways. He has to make up his mind on this issue. On the one hand, he constantly attacks the Nationals as being a spent force and for delivering nothing for regional areas. That is the substance of his almost daily attacks in this place. But, on the other hand, he accuses the Nationals of pork barrelling and delivering projects to country areas that should never have been approved. He cannot have it both ways. We either delivered or we did not. That is duplicity and hypocrisy on a grand scale, but I have become used to it in my short time in this place. There is a lot of spin and not a hell of a lot of substance in some of the material put before us.
Only Labor could come up with the somewhat ambitiously named Nation-building Funds Bill, which is before the House. There is no problem with hiding your light behind a bushel here. They are very good at coming up with these grand names. Even the Minister for Finance and Deregulation described it in his second reading speech as:
… an infrastructure program of historical proportions.
Nation-building—doesn’t it sound grand? You would think that a minister would actually build something before he started bragging and crowing about achievements of historic proportions. That has not stopped the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government either. In one of my first weeks in this place, the minister attempted to take me to task for writing to him to seek an update on a $140 million project to duplicate the Princes Highway east of Traralgon. The minister sought on that occasion to ridicule me for writing on behalf of the people of Gippsland to seek details on the project. The problem was that it was the government’s own promise. The Rudd government had promised the $140 mil lion, and it was notably absent in the budget papers. As it turned out, there was $500,000 there for planning works. So the people of Gippsland are still waiting for another $139,500,000. I look forward to the day when the minister stops playing games with that funding and delivers on that promise.
Those opposite seem to take offence whenever the opposition asks questions about policy decisions. I believe it is only reasonable for the opposition to ask such questions. While the changing economic circumstances around the world warrant a quick response, it is not in the interests of the nation for the opposition to be mute on this occasion. It is reasonable to offer bipartisan support while at the same time reserving the right to ask serious questions about the various packages developed by the government. The three infrastructure funds dealt with under the bill deserve to be closely scrutinised. These are uncertain economic times and we have entered uncharted waters. It is only reasonable for the opposition to keep the government up to the mark, particularly when half the forecast budget surplus is about to be spent under the economic stimulus package and we find the forecast for the budget surplus has been slashed to about $5 billion. That is a remarkable turnaround in the past 12 months.
Plenty of members have already mentioned this, but it is worth repeating: the previous government worked very hard to retire the $96 billion of debt and create the economic conditions which allowed our nation to prosper. The funds being allocated to these three funds have come about through good economic management by the previous government. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and these infrastructure funds have been achieved through the work of the previous government. We are yet to see whether the current government can deliver the money it has promised from 1 July next year.
I have already voiced the IPA’s concerns and I echo them again today. The previous government did invest in infrastructure and it did put money away for the rainy days we are now encountering, with multiple budget surpluses delivered by the member for Higgins when Treasurer. Budget surpluses and low unemployment became so normal that I fear some of us took them for granted. All of that is about to change. We are seeing forecast growth in unemployment, and I fear that budget surpluses have been consigned to history. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation might not want to say it, but the way things are travelling the budget may already be in deficit.
I note the bills establish three separate financial assets funds: the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. No-one in this parliament would dispute the need to invest in improved infrastructure in all three areas. It is an ongoing and constant challenge for governments to address. It is inevitable that the infrastructure needs of our respective communities will never be fully met. We will always be looking for ways to improve or upgrade the facilities in our communities. But it is ridiculous for the current government to constantly claim that the previous coalition government did nothing for 12 years. I will not bore the House by running through a long list of projects that were achieved in Gippsland by the previous member, Peter McGauran, but I will make the point that these included many important infrastructure projects—such as the redevelopment of the East Sale RAAF base, the Monash rural medical school and about $30 million in Roads to Recovery projects, to name a few.
There is always going to be more to be done, which brings me to the current government’s plans. I have already mentioned the Princes Highway upgrade. That is a project that has bipar11610 tisan support, and I urge the government to get on with the job. When governments invest in projects such as road duplication, it improves road safety. I have been a very strong campaigner on behalf of my constituents to say that, if you fix country roads, you will save country lives. This is not just about duplicating the highway between Traralgon and Sale. I call on the government to work with the state government to look at improving the Princes Highway right throughout the Gippsland electorate. The previous government did undertake road improvements through the Auslink and Roads to Recovery programs and the Victorian government has invested through VicRoads in a number of road-shouldering projects east of Orbost to the New South Wales border. But there is always more work to be done. As previous studies have found, if you invest in improving the road safety environment you will achieve a better outcome than if you use enforcement measures and improved driver behaviour alone. There is huge potential to reduce the road toll in regional areas by investing in a safer road environment.
Infrastructure spending in regional areas links into something that I believe is a central theme for the future of my community—that is, providing the tools to allow businesses to prosper and provide opportunities for young people. We need to be innovative and we need to be prepared to look outside the cities with an active policy of decentralisation. Melbourne is bursting at the seams. It does not seem to have enough water, traffic congestion is chaotic and the public transport system is disastrous. I believe the Bracks and Brumby governments have a lot to answer for. But we should not be rewarding that ineptitude with a bailout from the federal government focused only on metropolitan Melbourne’s needs. Rather than support piping water to Melbourne with infrastructure projects like the reviled north-south pipeline, which is being pushed by Labor at both the state and federal levels and which is going to suck the life out of the Goulburn Valley region, we should support investment in infrastructure to help regional areas to prosper in the future. There are compelling social, economic and environmental arguments to support my view that ending the urban sprawl and supporting regional development are positive policy positions for the future.
At a social level one of the greatest challenges we in Gippsland face is to stop exporting all of our young people. We need to invest in infrastructure in health, education and skills training to provide career opportunities so young people can either remain in our region in the first place or return after they have had their chance to tour the world and gain the experience that they desire. At a purely economic level, if we train our own young people they are more likely to help us overcome the skills shortages. There is a proven link between young people being educated in a country environment and having the opportunity to learn skills and their returning there in the future. We have enormous skills shortages in Gippsland in the areas of health, engineering and a range of other professions.
I do not believe in criticism for the sake of it, and the government has taken some positive steps in its response to the global financial situation. The government’s role, however, does not stop with the $10.4 billion economic stimulus package—which I note for the record will benefit Gippslanders by more than $60 million in the period after 8 December. There is a criticism that, if this turns into a one-off spending spree, we will have no surplus to spend in the future and we may have wasted the opportunity. But, unlike some others, I have confidence that the economic stimulus package can work and I hope that the majority of people use it wisely. We do not want to see a leap in pokies revenue the day after the bonus payments arrive.
I have faith that the majority of people will use the funds wisely. I fully support the payments to the very needy pensioners, carers and people with disabilities, but I wonder whether we could have done it better for family tax benefit part A recipients. It might have been wise to have provided families who are going to receive a lump sum of $4,000 or $5,000 with some assistance in financial management and to have ensured that the funding is used in a productive way. That is perhaps a weakness in the policy, but given the short time frames I understand the urgency of the situation.
Beyond those one-off payments, though, there needs to be a commitment to infrastructure investment, and that is where I hope Gippsland will receive a fair share of the resources which are going to be allocated under the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. I acknowledge that Gippsland councils did particularly well out of the $300 million program announced last week after the local government summit.
The Wellington, Latrobe and East Gippsland shires all received in excess of $1 million, and I am happy to report that there are many projects ready to roll in Gippsland as a result of that. That is partly because of the complete absence of regional development initiatives over the past 12 months. There was a vacuum that was left after the disbanding of the Regional Partnerships program, so we are playing catch-up. I would like to see a longer term commitment to this type of program, where local government get a guarantee of funding of that sort of magnitude for two, three or four years into the future. They can then plan with some level of certainty for these smaller scale infrastructure projects which they can get going perhaps better than any other level of government.
Investing in regional infrastructure will obviously help local communities to prosper in the future, and investing in these longer term regional development projects is a way to stimulate economic activity in the longer term, and the construction phase will obviously assist with the unemployment forecast, which we all fear. The infrastructure itself should help improve productivity in the longer term. The previous government, as I said, did invest in regional infrastructure, it did support local communities to help create sustainable jobs and it did deliver results, but there is always going to be more work to be done.
As I cast my eye around Gippsland, there are a range of projects that I would encourage the federal government to consider very seriously in the next 12 months. The Sale indoor regional sports complex has a very good mix of an education outcome and a healthy lifestyle outcome. The Minister for Sport visited Gippsland during the Gippsland by-election process and I think she accepted the merits of the proposal. There is a $5 million shortfall in the funding required by Wellington shire. There is a commitment from the Wellington shire and the state government to participate in this project, which will develop a regional indoor sports centre as well as relocating the outdoor netball courts. I believe it is a project that the minister should look favourably upon in the future.
Similarly, in terms of major infrastructure development, the Building Australia Fund talks about investing in water infrastructure such as the Macalister irrigation district 2030 plan, which I have mentioned before in the House. Again, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry visited the region during the Gippsland by-election. We did get a lot of visitors during the Gippsland by-election, funnily enough. We had several ministers visit, and they were very keen on the Gippsland region and I appreciate the interest they have shown. I look forward to that interest turning into outcomes in terms of these infrastructure investments.
The dairy industry is a major player in the regional economy of Gippsland. The Macalister irrigation district is faced with ageing irrigation infrastructure. These real nation-building opportunities exist in the form of investments to upgrade the irrigation infrastructure, which would deliver long-term economic and environmental benefits to the Gippsland region. The irrigators that I have spoken to in the MID are very keen to pursue this option with the government in the future. There will be a mix of funding, I would have thought, from local sources and the federal government, with an opportunity to improve water security for the dairy industry and at the same time provide additional environmental flows for local streams. Of course, the benefits would flow through to the Gippsland Lakes, which is another topic that has been the subject of much debate in the Gippsland region.
As I said, there is always going to be a need for further investment in regional infrastructure, and I will be working with my community to ensure that Gippsland receives a fair share of the resources which are going to be allocated from these funds. The Lakes Entrance health precinct is one infrastructure project that also deserves consideration. I have written to the minister responsible in relation to that. It is a much needed expansion and redevelopment of the facilities at the Jemmeson Street site. The Gippsland Lakes Community Health staff and management do an outstanding job providing services from Sale to the New South Wales border.
The plans are well advanced. There is about $1.2 million of federal funding sought and I encourage the minister to look upon that project favourably in the future. It is a similar situation in Yarram, where a plan for a childcare centre had bipartisan support during the 2007 election. It ticks all the right boxes in being very much a community hub. It will allow professional women in Yarram area in particular to participate more in the workforce.
At the moment, they have no option to access professional care. It will also help in the future to attract skilled workers to the region, because people expect to be able to put their children into care for some amount of time during the working week. I urge the government to get on board with this project—again, it does have support at state and local levels—and to work in partnership with these other levels of government to deliver that childcare centre as part of its response to the global financial situation.
I have also sought both state and federal government support for some infrastructure development in natural gas reticulation. Providing a cheaper and more efficient energy source to businesses and residents in the Gippsland region is a priority issue for me and for other members at state level. We have the quite bizarre situation where the Gippsland Basin produces an enormous amount of oil and natural gas, and I believe that more of the benefits should be accruing locally. We have had 40-odd years of natural gas and oil development at Bass Strait, and many of our towns, such as Longford, Yarram, Lakes Entrance and Orbost, are yet to benefit directly from natural gas reticulation. We have been able to build a pipeline through Gippsland to Cooma, Canberra and Sydney, but many towns along the route have not had the opportunity to access that natural gas.
It is an infrastructure project that I have written to the state and federal governments about, and I encourage the government to consider it as part of its nation-building agenda. I refer to one specific aspect of the legislation which deals with the Communications Fund established by the previous government. Under this legislation, that fund will be axed. I will be supporting an amendment to preserve that fund in the future. I fear that the Rudd government is stealing money that was set aside for the benefit of rural and regional Australians.
These were some of the proceeds from the sale of Telstra, and the fund was set up to permanently assist in the rollout of future technologies to help modernise communications in regional areas for years to come. If the government is genuine about its claims for supporting regional communities, it will abandon its plan to take this money out of the Communications Fund and absorb it into the Building Australia fund. I support the investment in infrastructure, but I fear that Labor’s track record in economic management is about to come back to haunt us. I have serious doubts about the independence of these funds, and it remains to be seen whether the government will actually deliver the fair, open, equitable and non-party political infrastructure fund that it claims to present to us here today.
The government did state in the May budget that an infrastructure priority list would be considered by COAG, which indicated to us that the states and territories would have some say over which projects get the nod. I take up the point made by the Leader of the Nationals in the House: he referred to a spokesman from the minister’s office this week indicating that it would not be a COAG decision; the priorities would be determined by the government itself.
It is an economic reality that the wish list will be much longer and will cost a lot more than will be covered by the funds to be allocated to them, so priorities will need to be set. I have little confidence that each region will get a fair hearing. I will be fighting to make sure that regional communities, including Gippsland, receive their fair share, and the opposition will be working to ensure that these funds do not turn into an election slush fund for Labor’s marginal seats.
I close my contribution to this debate with another reference to the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia submission:
Infrastructure investments must be determined and managed through a thorough, consistent and rigorous process to ensure that funds are invested productively. It is important that these nation-building funding initiatives are invested wisely, applying objective analysis and assessment to the project selection process.
Further, from the IPA:
We hope the regulations will provide further detail on what practical mechanisms, processes and checks and balances are required to be applied for each Fund to ensure responsible, consistent and transparent decision-making and funding allocation to the most critical, needed and worthwhile projects across transport, communications, energy, water, education and health sectors.
We all agree that investment in both large- and small-scale infrastructure is critical, and I urge the government to live up to its own rhetoric in the practical application of these funds.
November 27, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.42 am) — I rise to highlight the concerns of parents, children and staff involved in the ABC Learning Centres in Gippsland. As the Deputy Prime Minister announced in this place yesterday, the receiver of ABC Learning Ltd has identified that 656 centres will continue to trade as normal in 2009. That is obviously good news, but I fear for the future of those centres listed on the ABC website as being ‘subject to further operational review’.
In the electorate of Gippsland, there are three centres at Sale, one in Lakes Entrance, one in Maffra and one in Morwell which are listed in this category on the website. I am reassured by the words of the minister and the receiver that this does not necessarily mean these centres will not be operating in 2009, but we can expect a further announcement within a week.
This is an incredibly complex and difficult issue for all concerned. Of course we are all concerned about the quality of care and level of service provided, particularly in our regional communities. We need to provide these services in an affordable and accessible manner to allow parents to have the flexibility to be involved in the paid workforce. My thoughts are also with the many loyal staff, who are concerned about how they are going to pay their own bills if the worst happens and centres close in Gippsland next year. I congratulate the minister for being very upfront and keeping the parliament informed on this issue with regular statements.
I have already written to the minister and sought some assurances on behalf of the staff in Gippsland in relation to their entitlements. Now I seek the minister’s support for towns in my electorate that may lose their only childcare centres in 2009 without any opportunity for replacement services to be developed in the meantime. I do not believe it is the government’s job to continually bail out a failed business, but there is an obligation to provide an essential service where a market based model has failed.
It has been a very easy target for the current government to attack the previous administration for allowing ABC Learning to become too big; but I think it is always easy to be wise after the event. Gippslanders are not interested in petty political point-scoring or the blame game when it comes to the provision of childcare services, particularly in our regional areas, where the options are often very limited.
The government says it has a taskforce in place which is working with the receiver and it does sounds promising, but Gippsland families want a guarantee that there will be somewhere for their children to be safely cared for in 2009.
I urge the minister to remember the small country centres that are caught up in this issue. If there are no alternative service providers, the government must act to guarantee services in the future. I am urging the minister to continue to work with the service providers, both the commercial service providers and the not-for-profit sector, in Gippsland and to work with the local communities to ensure that we are in a position to develop local solutions to this problem.
The bottom line is that we must have these services available to regional families in 2009, and I am committed to working with the government to ensure that happens.
Search my site…