In Parliament

2009 In Parliament

2009 NOV 16 – Apology To Forgotten Australians


November 16, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.19 pm)
— It is an honour to rise on this historic occasion to support, on behalf of Gippslanders, this apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants and also record my personal sorrow over the events that have taken place in the past and offer my personal apology. Before I begin my main remarks I would like to comment on the events of the day. We have just heard from the member for Fremantle, who, in keeping with her style in this place, has exhibited an enormous amount of empathy and thoughtfulness towards and respect for the people whose lives have been affected in such a way as to warrant today’s apology. I think that is of great credit to the member for Fremantle and it is also of great credit to this place that we have gathered here today in such circumstances. I think all members present really appreciate being a part of today, particularly when we look at the remembrance ceremony earlier in the Great Hall. Serious work was certainly done in this parliament here today as we came together to deal with what the Prime Minister described in his motion as ‘an ugly chapter in our nation’s history’. We came together to offer our nation’s apology and also to say we were truly sorry to the forgotten Australians and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent.

It was a day, really, for the forgotten Australians and former child migrants themselves. While politicians might want to wax lyrical and talk about the event, in a sense it really was a day for the people whose lives had been fractured by the experiences that they had had as young children in our care. As a father of four children and a member of this place, I really struggle now to understand the fact that our state failed so many people so badly, having abandoned them, given the sense of betrayal that they must have felt in those circumstances as young children. I find it hard to think that such events could occur in the past. I take up the member for Fremantle’s cautionary tone that we need to be mindful that such events might be continuing today in some form or other. We must be ever vigilant in that regard.

It is hard not to get emotional when you read the accounts in the Senate reports and also the personal accounts of the experiences of these children. The neglect and the abuse which have occurred are a fundamental breach of the trust that we have as a community and as a government, particularly as to our most vulnerable citizens, our children. I want to give credit to the Prime Minister for the way in which he spoke today and also to the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I think for many of us who have not had that direct experience they made it all come to life that the challenge we in this place face as members of parliament is to ensure that we take steps to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again. So it goes without saying that the motion has the unqualified support of the opposition.

I think today was really a major step forward for us as a nation in recognising that appalling treatment has occurred in the past and that many of these young children have suffered at the hands of institutions, whether they be government run or church run ones or ones run by other charity-type organisations. I found the contribution before in the main chamber by the member for Swan to be quite captivating as he told of his personal experiences. He is an absolute inspiration to us, given the fact that he was placed in a babies home at the age of six months and was made a ward of the state of Victoria. He quoted some harrowing examples of other constituents he has met since that time. I think that the member for Swan is a very humble man and that perhaps would not like to be described in these terms, but he himself is quite an inspiration given what he has been able to achieve in his life after such a difficult start. If you read his maiden speech, which I recommend to other members, you note there is not a trace of bitterness as he tells the story of his life, in which two of his sisters were lost in tragedies related to alcohol abuse. I am sure that Steve Irons, as a survivor of the system that was in place, has taken a lot of heart from the apology that was given today by the Prime Minister and endorsed by the opposition in a great bipartisan way.

I just make the point, though, that I am concerned—and this is a very real fear in my mind—that once all the nice words are finished with today there will not be the will to go further and make sure that we do everything in our power as members of parliament to make sure that this emotion filled day is capitalised on with a commitment to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again in the future. It is not the size of the roof of the institution in which the abuse takes place that matters. If the abuse still occurs under a smaller roof we still have a major problem in our community. It is somewhat smug and perhaps idiotic of us to even pretend to think that this generation is not making at least some of the same mistakes with the current generation of children in our nation. The abuse continues to occur, albeit under a smaller roof—perhaps not with the blind acquiescence of the system that we may have seen in the past, but abuse does continue of Australian children on our lands and it is perpetrated by Australian sex offenders in foreign lands.

I refer to the contributions of the member for Warringah and the Leader of the Opposition who both join me in cautioning about the need to learn from past mistakes. The Leader of the Opposition said in his contribution in the Great Hall:

And just as we ask ourselves whether in different circumstances we too could have spent our childhood in a “home”, as you did, so we should ask ourselves whether we too could have neglected you and abused you as others did.

Or could we have been a Minister, a Bishop or a member of a worthy charity committee that presided over these homes, but did not know, or perhaps did not want to know of the neglect and the abuse that you were suffering.

Those homes are long closed and they will never re-open. But when we hear a child scream in pain in the next apartment, or we see a little boy at school with bruises, or a little girl who seems sleepless and withdrawn—do we say: it’s none of our business?

The Leader of the Opposition went on to refer to his meeting with the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. I have also had the opportunity to meet with NAPCAN on several occasions and regularly attend meetings of the Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect. NAPCAN’s purpose is to stop child abuse and neglect and ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child.

The figures are quite damning according to research that NAPCAN circulates quite widely. Thirty-three thousand individual Australian children are known to be abused or neglected each year. That is, one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. Thirty thousand children are living in out-of-home care for their care and protection, one in four children have witnessed violence against a parent and one in 10 teenagers regularly binge drink. When we talk about abuse of young people in our institutions over the most recent decades and still quote figures of that nature in 2009, as I said before, it would be smug and idiotic of us to think that our children are necessarily safe today.

NAPCAN works, as I said, to try to prevent child abuse and neglect wherever it occurs and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child. It has a range of approaches in that regard: it does advocacy work, it promotes social change, it attempts to build resilience in our children and young people, it tries to develop a professional and parental skills and knowledge base, and it works to try and strengthen community capacity. The field that we are referring to is incredibly complex and difficult. It is emotionally charged. The underlying factors which contribute to the abuse occurring are the main reasons why it becomes so difficult for an organisation like NAPCAN to break the cycle of abuse and neglect. It is one of those topics that we have not liked to talk about as a community. Regretfully, we have turned away from where we may have held suspicions and have not necessarily believed the children as they have come forward with allegations. I congratulate NAPCAN on the work they are trying to do and urge all members to do whatever they can in their work as representatives of their regions to support NAPCAN and Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect in the parliament.

There is another area that NAPCAN is focused on. I recently attended a function in the parliament titled Don’t Trade Lives. It is particularly relevant in the context of the motion today as it refers to insidious human trafficking and the impact it is having on young victims, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. As much as we refer to migrant young children who were forced to travel to Australia and were put to work, often in difficult and menial conditions, an ongoing form of abuse is occurring today. Reverend Tim Costello was the guest speaker at the function that I attended with NAPCAN. He made it very clear that there are reports through the Asia-Pacific region of children still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, such as bonded labour schemes, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. It is challenging for us all to confront these very difficult issues and not simply look the other way.

In my own electorate of Gippsland the challenge is there for us as a community as well. We have rates of child abuse which are a constant cause of concern in our community. We have a significant issue in the Gippsland region, where the rates of Indigenous child abuse and sexual assault are way beyond what would be accepted in any humanitarian and civilised situation. It is the same, I think, in the broader community. We must remain ever vigilant.

I am concerned about the situation in Gippsland. The government of the day at the state level has admitted that 60 per cent of child protection cases in Gippsland were not allocated a case worker because the government department is struggling to recruit staff. We are simply not on top of the situation we are faced with in Gippsland at the moment. I say to the House that we are kidding ourselves if we believe we are anywhere near on top of the situation of child abuse and neglect as it occurs throughout our nation at the moment.

We need to provide the resources and we need to understand that we have a whole-of-community responsibility to confront this problem. Today we have had the Prime Minister apologise on behalf of the nation, on behalf of the government, but I put the challenge out there to the community in a wider sense: we must all remain vigilant, not just those in leadership roles and members of parliament but those in our communities, wherever we find ourselves.

We need to be ever vigilant and look out for those children who are defenceless in the face of those who may prey upon them. I support the motion before the House, but I would like to add perhaps one more positive note. I would like to thank those carers and foster workers who have done the right thing and have worked tirelessly in the past to assist young people who have been abandoned or orphaned. The member for Swan noted in his maiden speech that some foster parents have in fact saved lives. We need to be careful that we do not become so risk averse, from the negative publicity about removing children from some situations, that they are left in the kinds of appalling conditions and risky situations that have often in the past resulted in serious injury and death.

In closing I would like to read from the motion before us today and offer my complete support:

As a nation, we must now reflect on those who did not receive proper care.

We look back with shame that many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and nobody to whom to turn.

We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes, instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly and violated sexually.

We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had  none.

I would like to take up the Prime Minister’s final words in speaking to the motion:

So, let us therefore, together, as a nation, allow this apology to begin healing this pain.

And let us also resolve this day, that this national apology becomes a turning point in our nation’s story.

A turning point for shattered lives.

A turning point for Governments at all levels and of every political colour and hue, to do all in our power to never let this happen again.

For the protection of children is the sacred duty of us all.

As I said earlier, a lot of words have already been spoken here today in relation to the apology to the forgotten people. I believe there is enormous goodwill in the heartfelt commentary on behalf of both sides of the House. What it needs now is action from us and a commitment to ensure that we never let this happen again. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of our children we must all commit ourselves to never looking the other way— to shining the light in dark places. Every child has the right to live in a safe environment that protects and fosters them in their formative years. We need to provide our children the environment where their physical, emotional and social needs are all catered for. That is an individual family responsibility and a community responsibility. But where those families and communities fail, for whatever reason, governments have a role and a sacred trust to step in and provide assistance to our nation’s children. We must make the prevention of child abuse a national priority for our community. The momentum gained from today’s historic apology must be capitalised upon.

Our nation’s people are watching us. Our children deserve the best chance to achieve their full potential in the future.

(Time expired)

2009 FEB 04 – National Register Of Arsonists


February 04, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.58 am)
— I rise to condemn the senseless and cowardly people who deliberately light fires in our community, causing enormous emotional and physical stress along with the economic losses and the threat to human life. Last week, as the temperatures soared in excess of 40 degrees, fires were deliberately lit in bushland around the townships of Boolarra, Mirboo North and Yinnar. I will offer my views in a moment on how we should handle these cowards in the future once we catch them. But I would like to reflect for a moment on the courage, resilience and determination of the people of Gippsland who fought this fire. Deputy Speaker, quite simply, the people were magnificent.

The community rallied together and was well supported by firefighting crews from right across the state. From the strike teams on the ground through to the aerial water bombers and support staff at the incident control centres and at the relief centres it was an amazing community effort to combat these fires. It is when we see the spirit of country Australians at its best, standing together shoulder to shoulder against a common cause. Despite an extraordinary effort by firefighters, the losses to the community were substantial as more than 6,000 hectares of forested areas, plantations and private property was burnt. While dozens of properties were saved through the efforts of our firefighting teams, we did lose 29 homes. I inspected the damage on the weekend around the Boolarra area and, heartbreaking as it is to see one family home destroyed, to see 29 homes in a line is quite distressing. It is a devastating scene and all our thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered such great losses.

It is estimated that arsonists cost our nation $1.6 billion per year and the damage bill in Gippsland alone from these fires will be in the tens of millions of dollars. There are severe penalties existing for convicted firebugs in Victoria and I wish the police every blessing as they try to track down these offenders. But there is an economic, environmental and social imperative for us to do better at preventing fires in the future. I believe the penalties need to go beyond the initial punishment set by the courts.

This week I have written to the Prime Minister seeking his support for a national register of arsonists to help prevent a repeat of this week’s fires. I believe we need a national database of people who have been convicted of such serious fire related offences. I am not unduly concerned about protecting their civil liberties in the future once they have shown a complete disregard for the safety and the rights of our community with such senseless crimes. We need to have a national database of every known firebug with strict reporting provisions which require these people to report any change of address and subject them to high levels of scrutiny and police surveillance if required. It would allow our authorities to check on these people during days of extreme danger when firebugs tend to be at their worst. The most serious offenders could be required to report to authorities on days of total fire ban. It is hard enough for our fire authorities to manage lightning, other natural events and accidents without the constant threat of criminal activity contributing to the fire danger period.

As I said in my earlier remarks, the people of Gippsland performed magnificently during last week’s bushfires and I have written to the Prime Minister and sought his support for this practical matter that could help to reduce the incidence of these deliberately lit fires in the future.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 28 – Tax Laws Amendment (2009 Measures No. 5) Bill 2009 – Bushfire Recovery & Autism


October 28, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.12 pm)
— I rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (2009 Measures No. 5) Bill 2009. Without wishing to diminish the other schedules, which were so eloquently covered by the member for Dobell, I join the debate to mainly focus on two areas of particular concern to my community, being those issues dealing with the Helping Children with Autism package and schedule 6, which relates to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund.

As the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction noted in his second reading speech, schedule 3 exempts from income tax the outer regional and remote payment made under the Helping Children with Autism package. This payment is made to assist families with children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and who live in outer regional and remote areas to access otherwise scarce early intervention and education services. The amount of that allowance is $2,000, and I will discuss that more fully later in my contribution.

Schedule 6 provides greater scope for the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund Independent Advisory Panel to support the communities affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires. In relation to the bushfires and the broader discussion, this is an opportunity for me to update the House on the recovery initiatives that are underway in Gippsland and to report some progress. It is now almost eight months since that tragic event. To begin with, I want to again put on record my absolute respect and admiration for the emergency services workers and all the volunteers who have rallied together so magnificently, not only in Gippsland but right across the state of Victoria. If there has been a single positive aspect to have arisen from this tragedy, it is the way it has united my community. The test that was put to the people of Gippsland was quite extraordinary, but the resilience they have demonstrated in the last eight months is something to behold and something I am very proud of as the member for that region.

We lost 11 lives in Gippsland at the height of the fires on Black Saturday and more than 250 homes in the 10 days where fires scorched across the communities of Ballara, Yallah, Callignee, Traralgon South through to Cornella and right through to Devon North. It was a very traumatic event and a tragedy on a scale that I hope none of us see again in our lifetime. There are probably people in the gallery here today who were affected by the Canberra bushfires, and they would probably understand the extent of the trauma that the people of Gippsland have gone through. In the immediate aftermath people have dealt with their losses. There was a certain degree of shock in our community, which is entirely understandable. But what has been on display, as I mentioned before, is the overwhelming support and the outpouring of generosity from people right across Australia. Everyone wanted to do their bit.

It was quite extraordinary to go to a place like the Traralgon South recovery centre and see trucks pull up, full of goods, the sorts of goods that you do not think of automatically—things like work boots and overalls for the men wanting to get back on to their blocks and start cleaning up; fencing and repair material donated by major agricultural companies; and cosmetic and medicinal supplies from some of Australia’s major providers, such as pamper packs for the ladies and those who had lost everything. So it was an incredible experience to be there in those early days and to see the outpouring of support that came from people right throughout Australia—from the corporate sector, from the voluntary sector and from individuals keen to do their bit.

We were very fortunate in Gippsland to be served by the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund. It went quickly into action. It secured several million dollars worth of donations from the immediate local community and was handing out cheques to people from day 1. I commend the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund for being able to dispense aid so quickly and when people needed it. Keep in mind that people were turning up to the relief and recovery centres with absolutely no form of identification, just with the clothes on their backs. To turn up and to have someone give them a cheque so they could go and buy some new clothes was something that they certainly appreciated.

The broader appeal effort, which this amendment deals with, raised $375 million. That is testament to the care and compassion of the Australian public. We hear a lot of negative stories in the media, but I think we should focus on this incredible performance by the Australian public. I am well aware of many school groups who held casual days, for example, or kids who held garage sales to raise money. They made donations of $10, $20, $50 or $100; and every little bit helped. I commend the Victorian Bushfire Appeal coordinators and Governor John Landy. The project is now chaired by Pat McNamara, a former leader in the Victorian state parliament. I commend them on the work they have done. It has been difficult for them to work through the parameters of the task before them.

One of the perhaps disturbing aspects of this issue, and the reason why I have taken this opportunity to speak today, is that there may be a sense in the broader community that the recovery has finished now—that we can all move on now that the media interest has died down and now that the bushfires are not on the front pages of the newspapers anymore—a sense that the communities of Gippsland, and the broader community of Victoria, affected by these fires have been fixed and it is all done and dusted. That is certainly not the case. We were very appreciative of the visits by the Prime Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Reconstruction and several other ministers.

They made the time to come to Gippsland and to carefully assess the local needs on the ground. I urge them, if they have been to Gippsland in the past, to return in the future. They would certainly be welcomed by the community. There is a sense for some in the community that they have now been forgotten. It does not need to be a rational view; it can be just an emotional reaction to the fact that they have been on the ground now for eight months trying to rebuild their lives.

So it would do well for other members in this place to consider what opportunities they may have in the execution of their parliamentary duties to look for ways that they can get back into those communities. I am talking about not just Gippsland but also the broader bushfire affected communities as they recover from what has been, as I said, an incredibly traumatic experience. As time has gone by there is no question that the media interest has dropped and the visits from people outside the region have dropped. I get the sense now that the community is ready for more support in the sense of just knowing that people still care about them.

There have been some exceptions to that rule about interest dropping. The local media has been very focused on the recovery effort, and I commend the journalists in our area for their efforts in that regard. The ABC statewide radio program Drive is hosted by Kathy Bedford, a good friend and colleague of mine who has gone out of her way to try to keep in touch with the fire affected communities and make sure her listeners, right around regional Victoria, understand that they need to be there for these people for the long haul, because recovery is very much a long haul. People recover at very different rates. Some people seem quite remarkable as their resilience is incredible and they seemed to have bounced back very quickly. They have taken on enormous burdens in their communities and got on with the job of helping others and helping their own families. As for others, we are talking about six to eight months down the track and sometimes there have been delays in getting permits to start building and family breakdowns as a direct result of the fires because some people simply cannot go back to those communities; they do not want to move back and rebuild in the same location when their partner might think it is a very good idea to move back. That level of social disconnection or breakdown is a real issue that we are dealing with in Gippsland at the moment.

I have said many times in Gippsland that this will be a defining moment in our community and the lives of so many people. They will define their lives as to what they did before Black Saturday and what they did after Black Saturday. It will be a turning point for a lot of people. I am concerned for our young people in particular, that we have not always been fully cognisant of their needs given that they were very much at the firefront and were directly affected. I give credit to an organisation called Relationships Australia, which has gone out of its way in the past two weeks to hold an adolescents recovery day. Several hundred young teenagers came together for the day to enjoy some music and sit around with their mates in a relaxing environment. It is typical of the vagaries of the Gippsland climate that on that day rain poured down and washed out some of the events, a day when we were to there to reflect on a day when a 46-degree temperature scorched the area. So we had two inches of rain on a day when we would have preferred to be outside enjoying some of the other activities that were organised. Young people received some important messages that day to make sure they realised that they can seek help, that seeking help does not make you any less of a man or a woman if you are not dealing well with the trauma of the events that you have experienced and need to go out and get professional advice, and that it is okay to admit things are not necessarily going that well. I congratulate Relationships Australia for helping to build that bridge for our young people, so making them realise they have not been forgotten.

Obviously, the long haul of recovery also relates to the environment. The damage that has been done to the Victorian bush has been quite significant. If you travel through the bushfire affected areas now, you note the vegetation is starting to re-establish itself and it is greening up again. The large mammals one used to see are not there yet in any numbers, if at all. It is a long haul, and I give credit to the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—and we have our clashes from time to time on a whole range of issues—for coming down to Gippsland and taking the time to see how the bushfires affected my community and also for making sure that additional Landcare funding is made available for the practical environmental work that is going to be required in the months ahead.

As I have mentioned before, there was very much a bipartisan spirit in the early days after the bushfires. The Prime Minister visited the area, as did the minister for agriculture. I had a chance to take the minister around to see the infrastructure work that is required, and the infrastructure upgrades are also going to take a fair bit of time to complete. That is why I am particularly pleased by the changes that have been made in terms of the tax treatment of the bushfire relief appeal fund.

One issue that seemed to slip through the cracks in the early days was primary producers’ need to repair and restore their on-farm equipment and activities, in particular fencing. We had hundreds of kilometres of fencing destroyed in Gippsland. I have seen the figures but they have escaped from my memory at the moment. I know there were thousands of kilometres of fencing destroyed across Victoria. Inevitably, in this area we are going to have future disasters, whether they be fires or floods, and we are going to lose fencing again. It almost seems as if it is going to be inevitable that we are going to again have this fight about what support is going to be made available to our primary producers when they are faced with such an enormous cost burden. We have a situation, one that needs to change, at a state level whereby where properties adjoin public land the state government does not assist with the replacement of fences. I think that is an issue that the state government needs to take on board coming out of this enormous tragedy across Victoria.

The bill before the House follows some pretty practical, common-sense discussions that were had with the Prime Minister’s office, with the parliamentary secretary’s office and also with the members for McMillan and McEwen. It ensures that our primary producers do have access to some of the funding. I think the Australian public is quite comfortable with that. The funding in the initial stages went to people who lost their primary place of residence, who had major loss of property.

But, given the magnitude of the fund—$375 million—I understand that the recovery fund committee have not been able to spend all the money at this stage. So it is quite reasonable to look at other options. I give credit to the government for moving in this regard.

In particular, changes provided for in the bill will allow the fund to provide long-term assistance to orphaned minors. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but I have read of many cases where young people have lost both their parents. It also provides reimbursements to individuals or organisations that have performed eligible charitable activities and it makes the discretionary payments I referred to before. The bill is certainly going to be well received by the people of Gippsland. It is a small but welcome step in recognition of the need for additional support as we go forward. I encourage all members and those of the general public who may be listening today to recognise that the recovery is ongoing. It has been an extraordinarily difficult and complex process. We are going to need continued support for communities and the people in them for many years to come.

I also want to refer to schedule 3 of the bill, which exempts from the income tax declarations the regional and remote payments made under the Helping Children with Autism package. Again, this is an important initiative and I commend the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services for taking it. We have an issue in our regional communities in particular. We need to make sure we are doing a hell of a lot more to provide decent levels of support and assistance to people with autism and their families. When the autism diagnosis comes, people liken it to a time bomb.
When it goes off, when the diagnosis is made, mums and dads return home and wonder what they do next. There is a lack of support services in regional communities. I have written to the minister on this in the past, and I understand he is working in that regard. This is a very positive step towards ensuring that people in rural and regional communities have reasonable access to services in the future.

Our carers are on the front line when it comes to providing a service for our nation. It is the toughest gig in town. Dealing with a child with special needs, whether it be autism or some other special needs, is exhausting. The parents are often confused by the layers of bureaucracy they need to go through to access services. It can be very difficult for them to keep their family unit together while they are dealing with so many other emotionally draining issues. I have met with several families in my electorate who have had the diagnosis of autism. The experience follows a very similar pattern.

There is a need for allied health services in the first place, but there is also a need for respite care. Families want to work their way through the system by using a one-stop shop approach. There is one program that has been very successful in the Bairnsdale community which I have written to the minister about. I congratulated him on the funding for it. That is the MyTime program. It provides a helper for up to eight children at one time to allow the parents to get together in a room and discuss their different ideas and the ways they are coping with a child with autism. Parents who have spoken to me are seeking the establishment of a one-stop shop which really helps them to identify support services and tells them where and how they can access them. I congratulate the minister for his interest in the issue. I also encourage him to continue to lobby hard for additional support services.

Some of the concerns raised by people in Gippsland link into the government’s new package of $12,000 over two years for children with autism spectrum disorder. It is a good package, but there are some concerns within my community in relation to how people can actually access the services and whether they are available to them. I have spoken to families about this, and the information they have given to me is that early intervention is critical when it comes to autism. It is those first few years where you can make a real difference in helping young people achieve their absolute best later in life.

There have been various international studies which have found that a young child with autism should have access to, for example, at least 12 hours of therapy per week, be it occupational therapy, behavioural therapy or speech therapy. But the package the government has implemented of $6,000 per year equates to about one hour per week. I know the families do not wish to appear ungrateful for that package, but it falls a long way short of where we need to go in the longer term. Low-income families and people from low socioeconomic areas have a great deal of difficulty in topping up the support services. It is only natural that parents want to get the absolute best for their children, but if you are a full-time carer obviously it can be difficult to earn the income to access the extra support services which are needed. I do commend the government for the autism support package which is available but I acknowledge that there is a long way to go in providing the services which meet the needs of our community.

Another problem with the package at the moment is that you must be an authorised provider to have the $6,000 spent on your service. In the early days, there certainly were not any authorised service providers in my region; that is about to change in Bairnsdale, I understand. In other regions where approved service providers are not available, it is still going to be a problem for the government, going forward. That is where the $2,000 allowance for remote and regional access fits into this package, but it is a real issue for children with autism in particular to be travelling long distances to access services. The children themselves do not travel that well in a large number of cases and it just adds another stress and layer of complexity for the families involved. So the $2,000 certainly helps, but we do have a long way to go in providing access to those types of services within the regional communities themselves.

I had the opportunity to speak to a paediatrician in Sale during the week who does a great job supporting children with autism. I think he has 150 children with autism on his books at the moment. He is comfortable with the package in that regard, but he does make the point that we do need to be investing more in our own young people in regional communities to make sure that we actually have those allied health services available in country communities in the future. Taking our young people with autism to Melbourne to access the services to use this funding is not an adequate solution for us. In the longer term, it simply will not change until more rural students are given preferential treatment to enter university courses and then given the opportunity to move back to regional communities to practise after the completion of their studies.

I thank the House for this opportunity to provide an update on the bushfire recovery efforts in Gippsland and also on the autism package. I commend the bill to the House.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 29 – Youth Unemployment


October 29, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.40 pm) — I rise to highlight an issue of enormous concern to Gippslanders and, I assume, all members in this place, that being the issue of youth unemployment. Recently a report was released titled How young people are faring, and its findings in relation to employment outcomes for young people, particularly in regional areas, should be ringing alarm bells throughout the federal government and its state counterparts. In summary, the report found that the proportion of teenagers out of work increased from 12.2 per cent in May last year to 18.5 per cent in May this year. It also found that the number of people getting into apprenticeships or traineeships has declined.

I would like to quote from an article in the Melbourne Age by Farrah Tomazin, a very talented education reporter for that newspaper. The article said:

Experts say the findings should be a wake-up call for state and federal governments, whose investment in education has failed to help those who need it most: disadvantaged students, indigenous children, and those in rural and regional communities.

The article goes on to say:

“The geographic areas where you have low-level participation also tend to be poor, and in many cases, have high indigenous populations,” said Melbourne University education expert Professor Jack Keating.

“Yet we haven’t made a lot of gains in those areas over the last decades. That’s the crucial question — can we find strategies to help get young people in those areas into education and training?”

There is a lack of recent figures in relation to Gippsland. The last available that I could find were in October 2007 for youth unemployment. They said the unemployment rate at that stage for 15- to 19-year-olds was 19.4 per cent, and I fear it is much worse now. In fact, I fear the hidden unemployment could be worse, with a number of young people being forced to leave my communities to obtain work outside the region.

The experience in particular in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley, worries me greatly. The last available figures on the federal parliamentary website from December last year had the overall unemployment rate at Morwell at 7.7 per cent, which was double the national average at that time. It was in that context that I wrote to the Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion in September this year seeking an explanation as to why Gippsland was excluded from the program of local employment coordinators to assist with developing projects to stimulate employment opportunities. I am yet to receive a response from the minister in that regard but I will be following it up with her because I believe that the region, given its high unemployment rate, should have been one of the first to have been included in that program. I commend the government for the program but ask the question of why Gippsland, in particular, was not included in it.

On a separate but related matter, I will also be seeking an explanation from the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs following a decision to cut the funding for specialised Centrelink officers to deal with young people. It has been reported to me in the Latrobe Valley that unemployed youth are no longer able to access a specialised youth worker and receive the one-on-one service that they used to be able to receive in our region. Instead, I am advised that they must deal with whichever Centrelink officer is available at the time that they visit the relevant office. This means that they may deal with different staff each time.

If anyone is familiar with the issues of youth unemployment, they will know that there is a lack of trust there to a large extent and there needs to be an opportunity to build a relationship with the individual officer to manage the case. I think this is a step backwards from the high quality of service and support that was provided in the past. Locally, qualified youth social workers have contacted my office to report that the Centrelink staff used to be able to arrange courses or training for unemployed young people and provide that level of specialised support which I think is very important and influential in helping some young people back on the right track. I am told that the practice has now stopped, apparently due to reduced funding availability for the Centrelink officers.

I must say that I am not here to criticise the individual Centrelink officers involved, because, by and large, in my experience, the Centrelink officers in Gippsland do a remarkable job with often very difficult cases. They are quite magnificent in the way they manage some quite awkward situations. But young unemployed people do need a level of specialised assistance, particularly, in my experience, in cases where they have come from a broken home and have experienced little adult supervision during their lives. Many also come from a background of almost institutionalised welfare dependency now. We have young people who have experienced several generations of unemployment in their families and do not have great role models to turn to for how they break the poverty cycle and get themselves engaged in our community. To break that cycle we need to get those young people engaged in practical and productive work that offers the prospect of regular employment in the future, and I think the opportunity of specialised assistance through Centrelink is one of the avenues we need to explore more fully.

I believe that the decency of a job stands at the heart of our contract with young people. We need to be continually striving to create the right economic environment for businesses to prosper and to hire young people in the future. For those young people in my community who do need a helping hand, we need to have the appropriate support services in place in our regional locations to ensure that those young people are assisted and given every opportunity to achieve their absolute best. I recommend that the government looks seriously at what youth support services are available through the Centrelink offices in the Gippsland region in order to assist those young people to achieve their best.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 26 – Gippsland Rotary Centenary House & Gippsland Plains Rail Trail


October 26, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.27 pm) — I rise to speak on two issues that certainly grieve me and many hundreds of people in my electorate: the federal government’s failure to provide funding to support the development of the second stage of Gippsland Rotary Centenary House and the upgrade of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. I will get to the specific details of the rail trail in a few moments, but I want to begin on a more positive note.

Earlier tonight in the House I briefly mentioned a fundraising auction which was held on Saturday night in Traralgon, at the Traralgon Vineyard, hosted by Leon and Margaret Hammond. It really was a magnificent setting, and it befitted the occasion given the magnificent generosity shown by Gippslanders on the evening.

The generosity of Gippslanders was certainly on show. I believe that in excess of $20,000 was raised for Gippsland Rotary Centenary House on the evening. I commend the members of the fundraising committee for putting in the hard work that goes into arranging such an event, and I also commend the sponsors of the night.

It typified the community spirit since the decision was made to build Centenary House. I have spoken in the House before in relation to the Centenary House facility, and it really is quite extraordinary. It provides a home away from home for patients and their families attending Latrobe Regional Hospital and, primarily, patients of the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre. At the most vulnerable time in their lives, it is very reassuring for people in Gippsland to know that someone cares enough to help them out in this manner. I have visited Rotary Centenary House on several occasions, and it is always being improved, quite often by the partners of the patients, who come in and do odd jobs while their loved ones are receiving treatment and care at the nearby Latrobe Regional Hospital. It has been quite extraordinary to see this community facility developing in the way it has been.

This is the house that love, compassion and empathy have built. Everyone on the committee and all Rotarians in Gippsland should be proud of their achievement. The facility contains six large ensuite units and two smaller self-contained units, along with a communal kitchen, dining room and lounge facilities, a children’s play area and a quiet room for family consultation and privacy. Such a facility did not just happen overnight; it required an enormous amount of work and goodwill from the community and governments at all levels. In the first stage, $500,000 from the Community Support Fund was contributed by the state Labor government, $407,000 was contribute by the federal coalition government through the Sustainable Regions Program and Latrobe city provided the land, while Rotarians across Gippsland provided the people power, with a total of 432,000 coming through philanthropic trusts, including a $100,000 donation by the Ronald McDonald House Charities. The link to McDonald’s is very strong through the local benefactors, Kay and Tony Radford. I know the Radfords will be embarrassed to have their names acknowledged so publicly, but Kay is really a driving force behind the fundraising activities of the committee. Rotary clubs across Gippsland provided $350,000 to the first stage plus a range of in kind donations.

All up, it was a $2 million project that was officially launched by the former federal member for Gippsland, Peter McGauran, and the former state Labor member for Morwell, Brendan Jenkins I make the point regarding both the funding sources and the official opening to reflect the bipartisan support that round 1 of the project received and to appeal to the current governments at the state and federal levels to follow that example. There are now plans to build a further stage, and the volunteer board, led by the chairman, Ken Peake, have been successful in raising in the vicinity of $500,000. Federal funding was sought under the Jobs Fund, but the project’s bid for funding was unsuccessful in round 1. I think it is a sad indication that the demand for such a facility is there and growing so quickly that there is such a pressing concern in the community of Gippsland to build another nine units so desperately. Centenary House is providing comfortable and affordable accommodation for Gippslanders when they are certainly at their most vulnerable.

I have no doubt that the friendly and supportive environment which is provided in a safe and secure location is contributing to improved health outcomes for guests while they stay at Centenary House. It is important to note that functions like the fundraiser on Saturday night reflect the overwhelming generosity of Gippslanders, which has been seen right throughout this year, beginning with the fundraising that supported our bushfire victims earlier this year. Although Centenary House is located between Traralgon and Morwell the main beneficiaries of this project come from further afield, with 82 per cent of the patients travelling from East Gippsland, Wellington and South Gippsland shires.

I think it says a lot about the community of the Latrobe Valley and the businesses and residents, who are so willing to support this project, that they are the major sponsors and supporters of the Centenary House facility yet it is their neighbouring communities across Gippsland which actually receive the benefits of their hard work. I strongly urge the federal government ministers to work with their state colleagues in Victoria and support the extension of Centenary House as soon as possible.

I indicated at the outset that I also wanted to raise the issue of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. By way of background, the rail trail covers a distance of 65 kilometres through the towns of Traralgon, Glengarry, Toongabbie, Cowwarr, Heyfield, Tinamba, Maffra and Stratford. The trail follows the path of the disused railway line which connected these towns. This trail is a major tourist icon and a drawcard for touring cyclists and walkers alike.

Funding was sought again under the Jobs Fund program to restore the Latrobe River timber trestle rail bridge, which was operational for over 100 years until its closure in 1986. This restoration will enable a seven kilometre section of the trail between Traralgon and Glengarry to be opened up.

This is another project that has strong support in my community from people who are both passionate and determined to make a difference. In this case, the lady leading the charge is Helen Hoppner. She is a tireless worker for our community and an outstanding advocate of the rail trail. Helen is the current chairperson of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail Committee and, as I said, she has worked tirelessly to promote the opportunities to develop this facility and to encourage state and federal governments to make a contribution to the ongoing upgrades.

The funding proposal that was submitted sought, I think, $340,000. During the construction phase of the project, five jobs are expected to be created on the site and local timbers will be sourced to use in the restoration work. As the application to the Jobs Fund indicated, it is a major tourist icon for the region which would attract some 20,500 touring cyclists, providing an economic benefit to the connected towns estimated at $6 million per annum, thus stimulating development of existing tourist establishments such as cafes, hotels, general stores, the accommodation sector such as the bed and breakfasts, wineries, cheese-making firms and other associated tourism industries.

Obviously some very important observations need to be made about providing opportunities for healthy lifestyles and encouraging people of all ages to exercise in a safe and relaxed environment. I take this opportunity to reflect on the fact that I often worry about the current need for cyclists to exercise on our main road environment right across Gippsland. It is difficult terrain, the visibility is not always that great and our roads have not necessarily been established with cyclists in mind. The broader issue concerning the safety of cyclists in our community needs to be addressed. There have been several tragic accidents in my electorate in the time that I have been a member of parliament, and one occurred quite recently. A local doctor, Heather Hunter, from Sale—a much-loved and well-respected physician in the Sale community—was struck and seriously injured. Heather is still in a critical condition and the thoughts and prayers of all Gippslanders are with Heather and her family and loved ones at this time.

In the context of the need to provide safe opportunities for people to exercise, it is important that the government carefully considers whether there are any opportunities to fund the further stage of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail project in subsequent rounds of the jobs fund. The rail trail has a heritage component associated with it. The trestle bridge, which I referred to earlier, has historical significance. It operated for something in the order of 100 years, until its closure in 1986. It served to develop a resource-rich area, noted for its dairy farming, timber cutting  and mining. Aesthetically, the bridge, together with its adjacent flood plain timber bridges, was regarded in the past as a notable and very attractive feature of the Latrobe River. It would be great to see the government in a position to support such a project in future funding rounds. It would obviously add some benefit to the tourism and economic base of the Gippsland region but also to the safety of the cycling community and to the health and wellbeing of the community more generally.

In the time that is left available to me, I also want to reflect briefly that, if such projects do get off the ground, we will be seeking government support to encourage local contractors to tender for any such work. The Gippsland Rotary Centenary House has benefited enormously from local traders undertaking the vast majority of that work.

In the time leading up to Christmas, I will be running my own ‘Shopping locally’ campaign in the electorate of Gippsland, with the message of putting locals first. I want to encourage Gippsland mums and dads to seek the opportunity to purchase their Christmas presents wherever they can from the local business sector. We all know that, if you support local businesses in your country communities, you are helping to generate jobs for the future and provide opportunities for young people to remain in your towns. Something we can all do as members of parliament is to promote the benefits of our own regional communities by encouraging such initiatives in our regional areas. Despite the changes to the communications and printing entitlements, I am sure my communication will fit under the new criteria. There will be no disparaging remarks about any government ministers. It will be a very positive newsletter. It will promote the benefits of supporting local communities, putting locals first and creating jobs in the Gippsland region.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 26 – Private Members’ Business – National Landcare Week


October 26, 2009

Debate resumed, on motion by Mr Chester:

That the House:

(1) notes that National Landcare Week, 7 to 13 September, in 2009 commemorated 20 years of service across Australia;

(2) recognises that Landcare:
   (a) is primarily a community driven, grassroots organisation that involves local people achieving locally significant environmental aims; and
   (b) volunteers make an extraordinary contribution by understanding practical environmental work; and

(3) highlights the need for ongoing funding to employ Landcare facilitators and coordinators who play a pivotal role in:
   (a) managing the volunteer programs;
   (b) assisting community groups;
   (c) providing professional advice; and
   (d) mobilising volunteer effort.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas) — The question is that the motion be agreed to.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.55 pm) — Just over a month ago Australia commemorated National Landcare Week, recognising 20 years of outstanding service and practical environmental work across our nation. Landcare has enjoyed bipartisan support and there are now more than 4,500 community Landcare groups in operation. To mark Landcare Week, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry distributed a media release to recognise the fact that more than 100,000 volunteers roll up their sleeves in communities each year to replant vegetation, repair erosion and improve agricultural production. There is no doubt that the minister knows in theory what Landcare does, but there is a great deal of concern throughout regional communities about whether the minister actually understands how Landcare facilitates this great work and the importance of Landcare groups to the fabric of regional communities and about whether Landcare will continue to prosper in the future.

As much as members in this place lecture about the forecast impact of climate change, they should always remember the people who are on the ground actually getting their hands dirty to undertake the practical environmental work that helps to sustain our natural heritage. Our farmers are often vilified by those who have little understanding of the fact that it is the families on the land and in our regional towns who have adopted the Landcare message of sustainability and done the hard work that is required to enhance their properties and the natural environment, and it is with this in mind that I have moved the motion before the House.

In recent months my office has been contacted by dozens of Landcare volunteers and paid staff members who believe this government has failed to understand the need to employ facilitators and coordinators, who play a pivotal role in managing the volunteer programs, assisting community groups, providing professional advice and mobilising volunteer effort. As I said at the outset, Landcare has enjoyed bipartisan support throughout its history, but I am deeply concerned by the correspondence that I have received and the meetings I have attended with my constituents.

The Victorian Landcare Network shares my concerns about federal government cuts to funding for natural resource management under the Caring for our Country business plan. The network wrote to the minister in August this year, and in that letter secretary Kevin Spence said:

We are concerned that, under the business plan, Landcare coordinator positions and facilitator positions will no longer be funded by the Australian government unless they are linked to priority projects.

The letter went on to highlight that there were 142 Landcare support staff working on the ground to support Landcare groups in Victoria during 2007-08. According to the information that I have received from regional areas, that number is likely to fall to less than 35 before the end of this year. Already there have been a substantial number of cuts to these positions made across Gippsland, with many people being made redundant across my electorate.

A senior catchment management authority executive in Victoria has also written to me and commented:

Whilst the Caring for our Country business plan talks about the importance of Landcare and community capacity building, there is not one single dollar being allocated to the capacity, skills, knowledge and engagement targets. There is no doubt that facilitation of Landcare funded by the Australian government is dead and whilst this may not mean the total destruction of Landcare, it will dramatically reduce the number of groups and participants.

It concerns me that those views are being expressed by people in such senior roles in the catchment management organisations in Victoria. Those concerns were also expressed by the Victorian Landcare Network. The letter from Mr Spence continued:

The VLN considers that a loss of Landcare support staff will have a critical effect on maintaining the long-term participation and engagement of the community in natural resource management. Our concerns are mirrored by the Landcare community who question the rationale and economics of dissolving the goodwill, trust and experience built up over many years—knowledge and networks will inevitably erode. Without coordinators and facilitators providing that level of support and communication, many Landcare groups would lose initiative, greatly reducing the capacity to participate effectively in natural resource management.

This is an issue, as I said at the outset, of significant concern right across the nation, particularly in my electorate of Gippsland. On 15 November there will be an East Gippsland community rally in protest at the cuts to Landcare funding. Residents will gather at the Orbost Snowy Rovers Football Club from 11 am to 3 pm. While it will be a community day with a free barbecue and fun for the family, it will be underpinned by a very serious message. The community is angry that this government is reducing its commitment to Landcare, and it is a story that is being played out on a national scale. The National Landcare Network distributed a media release on 7 July this year in which spokesman David Walker said that, of the $403 million in funding announced by the federal government, just $1.4 million, or 0.3 per cent, had gone to community Landcare.

He went on to say:

Landcare has a proven track record in producing best practice environmental outcomes and in growing and maintaining important social and community networks. The strength of Landcare is its local focus and character. Ministers Burke and Garrett must ensure that grassroots Landcare has a place within their Caring for our Country program.

Regional Australians are proud of their contribution to sustainable and environmental management through Landcare in the past 20 years. It is a remarkable organisation that must never be taken for granted by anyone in this place. Without ongoing funding to support the role played by the facilitators, the coordinators and the volunteers themselves, the Landcare organisation will become a shadow of its former self, and I doubt that we will be here in 20 years time commemorating the great achievements of the Landcare volunteers across our nation.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 26 – Gippsland Rotary Centenary House


October 26, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.54 pm)
— I was very impressed at the Gippsland Rotary Centenary House on Saturday night by a fundraising initiative to secure additional funding for the next nine units required by this magnificent charity in the electorate of Gippsland. The people of Traralgon and the broader Latrobe Valley area rallied strongly to raise about $20,000 by auctioning items. The Rotary clubs right across our region have worked tirelessly over the past five years to secure this fantastic facility, which provides support for cancer sufferers and their families as they attend the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre at Latrobe Regional Hospital in my electorate. I wish them every success in the future.

2009 OCT 26 – Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009


October 26, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.16 pm) — I rise to speak in relation to the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009, which deals directly with the government’s proposed changes to income support for students. I say at the outset what an absolute unmitigated disaster this has been for the Minister for Education. If ever there has been an example in this place of arrogance and contempt for regional Australia, it has been the minister’s performance in relation to these changes. I do not use those words lightly. It is almost impossible to put into words the anger, disappointment, uncertainty and frustration that this minister’s actions have caused among families in my electorate.

I like to think I am a reasonably charitable man and when the minister first announced that she was pulling the rug out from students who were currently on their gap year I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I thought it must have been an unintended consequence, because regional students had followed the process as it existed at the end of their VCE year last year. The students did the right thing. As the member for Flinders just commented, they acted in good faith. They decided to take the gap year under the rules that existed because they had been advised by their principals, their teachers and even by Centrelink officers.

These students had made the decision to work hard and try to achieve the Youth Allowance criteria under the circumstances that existed when they left school and most of them were doing it with the intention of trying to help their parents out. These were not rich kids from incredibly wealthy families, from my experience. These were the students from rural and regional areas who were basically saying that they knew their mums and dads could not afford the cost of sending them to university so they were prepared to help out.

Now, the minister in May this year was prepared to pull the rug out from under their feet. This, I thought, was no way for the Minister for Education to act, let alone the Minister for Social Inclusion—to risk disenfranchising a whole generation of young Australians with a decision that applied retrospectively. It was certainly an enormous disappointment for the students who have contacted my office in the past six months.

My confidence that it was an unintended consequence was certainly shattered in this place on 25 May when I asked the minister to guarantee that students currently in their gap year would not be financially penalised under the government’s changes to eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance. At the height of her arrogance on this issue the minister replied:

With the greatest respect to the member, what a very silly question …

But during her second reading speech on 10 September, the minister had changed her tune and announced what she described as a transition measure. After meeting with a broad range of students and interest groups, the minister claimed that she would delay the implementation of the new workforce criteria to allow gap year students who completed school in 2008, and who needed to move to study, until 30 June 2010 to qualify for independent status. What had been described as a ‘very silly question’ in May was in September, in the minister’s own words, a ‘sensible change’. It was a backflip but, frankly, the students in my electorate are hoping for a triple somersault in the future. I am not going to dwell too long on the politics of this decision but I am prepared to venture that the minister took action in this regard only when she realised that she had a political problem. In Gippsland alone, more than 5,000 people have signed a petition protesting against the changes and dozens of people sent me letters and emails to explain the impact of the decision. I will get to some of those messages soon. It has amazed me to hear the minister, in this place and in the media, accuse the opposition of scaremongering on this issue. And the backbenchers have been at it again over the past week as they debated this bill. ‘There is nothing wrong,’ they say. ‘We just do not understand the changes. It has all been a massive scare campaign on our behalf.’ Everything is perfect if you listen to the Rudd robots who walk in here and roll out to mechanically parrot the party lines. I urge those regional Labor MPs to start fulfilling their side of the contract with the regional communities and, as their representative, give them a voice in the House of Representatives.

If my office has been knocked over in the rush of students, mums, dads and teacher and principals raising their concerns about student income support, then you can bet that Labor MPs in regional seats are experiencing something very similar. But do they come in here and raise those concerns on behalf of their constituents?
No way. Not even a whisper of discontent. They either hide in their offices and watch the debate on closed circuit television or they come in here and parrot the party lines. The media likes to pretend that there is something creditable about having party discipline in this regard. There is nothing creditable in regional communities if you have not got the guts to stand up for your constituents.

This debate is long overdue. It may surprise some of those opposite, but I am not one of those who is going to deny recent political history. I believe the previous government made some progress in relation to levelling the playing field for students from regional areas seeking to pursue a university career, but it never went far enough for my liking. I fully accept that reform is never easy; it is always a difficult process and there is always going to be more to do. The previous government was faced with a very different set of budgetary circumstances and it was a difficult process to be paying back debt and then looking at what other changes they could make on behalf of regional students. But, as I said, when addressing an area of equity and disadvantage, like this one, I would have liked to have seen the previous government go further. I take up the comments from the member for Braddon and the member for Barker, who have both spoken on this bill. They both spoke about their passion for regional students. I think we all agree across the chambers that we need to do more for regional communities and regional people, particularly students. I urge those members to speak up in other forums. If they are not prepared to speak in the chamber at least speak up in their party room in relation to the future of regional students.

In my maiden speech I talked about the need to reduce the cost barrier for students from rural and regional areas attending universities. I argued then, and I have many times since that speech, that the economic barriers to participating in higher education are a fundamental obstacle that must be addressed. Those of us with an understanding of the issue know that regional students are often forced away from home to study and the additional accommodation costs and living expenses are an underlying factor in the decision to defer or abandon studies.

I read today in the Bairnsdale Advertiser, in my own electorate, of a new report that has been released. Under the headline ‘Regional students struggle to cope financially’ the article says:

A new study has found rural and regional students are more likely to defer attending university and face more financial constraints than their city counterparts.

Gippsland East LLEN Executive Officer, Jacqui Bramwell, said the report proved that for most rural and regional students deferring university for a year was a necessity, not recreational.

Jacqui went on further to say:

It is a tragic loss if young people have to base their decision about attending university on whether their family can afford it. Sadly, that remains the case for too many rural and regional students.

The estimates vary, but the additional costs for regionalstudents to attend university are in the vicinity of $12,000 to $15,000 per year if they are forced to move away from home. These are the additional costs, the costs that a city student staying at home with mum and dad does not have to pay. These are the costs that we believe we should be trying to alleviate to help level the playing field for regional students.

The disparity between metropolitan participation rates in university and the participation rates of regional students has been the subject of much debate in recent years. I spoke in the House last September and highlighted the issue of retention rates and participation in higher education as it applied to the communities of Gippsland. At that time I indicated the Gippsland region has one of the worst education retention rates in Victoria. Compared to a state and metropolitan retention rate in excess of 80 per cent in 2006, just 65 per cent of Gippsland students finished year 12. These figures naturally lead to a lower university participation rate.
Many of our regional areas, including Gippsland, have comparatively low average household incomes, and it is a major barrier to participation in higher education. Lower household incomes also affect ENTER scores, parents’ capacity to support students to live away from home for study and the aspiration within families to seek higher education.

On that issue of aspiration, I assume that I am like many other MPs in that I visit schools in my electorate almost on a daily basis. It is an absolute passion of mine to get out there and meet the students and discuss the issues that concern them. My message to senior secondary students in my electorate is to always aim high and to aspire to be the absolute best they can be in their chosen field. I tell them that it does not matter if no-one else in your family has ever finished school— you can be the first one to finish Year 12; you can be the first one in your street to go on to university. For members in metropolitan electorates this may sound very basic and, frankly, absurd. But we do have a challenge in many of our regional communities to overcome the barriers of economics and the barriers of aspiration to encourage our young people to see a future for themselves beyond what they have perhaps seen with previous generations in their families. Many people in my electorate argue that increasing the aspirations of students and their families is almost as big a challenge as overcoming the economic barriers. I have a submission here from a former Gippsland school principal, Ian Whitehead, who says:

In families from low socio economic areas, the very thought of a tertiary future for their child is off the radar. Many of these families see universities as ‘here is a world with which we are not familiar; a club to which we cannot belong’. But in these families there are some clever kids. They are missing out badly.

It is undoubtedly true that, in some sections of my community, education has not always been highly valued. I believe it is important to encourage young people to achieve their best and follow the path to a university course if that is their ambition. We know that many of our young people will need to move away to advance their careers and learn new skills, but we also hope that some will return in the future and provide those skills in our communities.

As I have said before, from a social justice perspective it is a question of equity; and for the hard-nosed economists in this place it is also a question of productivity. Helping children from rural and regional areas to achieve their full potential will help to improve the skill base of country areas and reduce the skill shortages we are constantly faced with across a range of industries.

It is also worth noting, from a Gippsland perspective, that many of the children from the more remote parts of the state are Indigenous children. To give these young children the best possible start in life we must support them through the early stages of education.

And we must take up the challenge to get them to school in the first place and get them learning the skills that they can then pass on and succeed in our community and their own communities. All this helps to explain the anger and frustration in my community when the minister announced that she was not just moving the goalposts for students in their gap year; she was taking the goalposts away completely.

This decision demonstrated a complete disconnect between the minister’s office and the department and the families in my electorate. Over the years students had come to depend on the opportunity to achieve independent status to secure youth allowance when they moved away from home to university. I freely acknowledge that the original intent of independent youth allowance was not as a means for regional students to secure income support after a gap year. In fact, I argued in this place, and in a letter to the minister in March this year, that the system needed to be overhauled. I argued that forcing students to undertake a gap year to achieve independent youth allowance because the other criteria for income support were too restricted was a poor system and reform was needed. And I have also acknowledged that many of the measures the minister has sought to introduce will allow more students to secure a small level of support without the need to undertake a gap year. I am on the public record acknowledging the need to stop the misuse of public funds and broaden the opportunity for students to receive support to attend university. So I reject the posturing and the lecturing from those opposite about not understanding this legislation and its intent.

I fully understand what the minister was trying to do—I just happen to believe that she botched it. She botched it because she did not listen, did not understand or simply did not care abut the way it would affect regional students.

There is nothing revolutionary about these changes. This is no ‘education revolution’ as the minister and her spin doctors proudly proclaim. I am not the only one to feel this way. As Professor Geoffrey Blainey said in the Australian on 17 September:

The phrase education revolution should be quietly buried. It is unrealistic. It is still more a slogan than a blueprint.

Right now the government is shovelling $16 billion out the door to build school halls in primary schools, regardless of whether they need them or not. There is nothing revolutionary about that either. The Primary Schools for the 21st Century program does not have a single educational target attached to it. It is not aimed at improving literacy or at improving numeracy; it is a spending spree of massive proportions which does not even have the decency to require the building contractors to employ local people to carry out the work. It does not even allow individual schools to decide for themselves what they need to build on their school grounds to maximise the educational outcomes for their students. I fear we will look back on this program in 10 years time and marvel at the stupidity of rushing out to build so many halls that did not meet our educational needs.

I raise that program in the context of today’s debate for good reason. The question is always going to be asked: who is going to pay for the additional support in terms of income assistance for students? The minister’s changes to the system of student income support are designed to be budget neutral—that is, she is taking from one area of the system to bolster another area.

There is no new spending attached to these initiatives; there is nothing revolutionary about this. If we were serious about addressing the issues of regional disadvantage in the higher education system we would be looking beyond the current budget cycle and looking to the future of our nation. If we were serious about an education revolution we would not be throwing all of that money at the school halls program; we would have a balanced package that delivered strategic upgrades to schools which need the funding the most and we would be using some of that money to revolutionise the system of student income support. That is the debate that we should be having in this place here today. We should have every Labor regional MP, every Liberal regional MP and every Independent MP in this place, with the Nationals, arguing the case for more funding for student income support.

Before those opposite start parroting the party lines once again, I invite them to read the Victorian state parliamentary inquiry report into geographical differences in the rate in which Victorian students participate in higher education. This was a report by an all-party committee, led by Labor MP Geoff Howard from Ballarat.

The report took evidence around the state. This is what Mr Howard had to say in his foreword to the report:

Time and again, the Committee heard about the difficulties faced by young school leavers in rural and regional areas who are contemplating leaving home to study.

He went on to say:

Student income support is therefore a major contributing factor in university participation. While the Committee welcomes recent national reforms to enable more students from low-income families to access Youth Allowance, it is concerned that the specific circumstances of rural and regional young people still have not been adequately addressed. Already, many such students defer their studies to meet eligibility criteria for income support and this route to financial independence is set to become even more difficult under the new system. In the Committee’s view, all young people who must relocate to undertake their studies should be eligible to receive student income support.

That last line is worth repeating: all young people who must relocate to undertake their studies should be eligible to receive student income support. The report goes on to argue that the proposed changes to achieving the independent rate of youth allowance would have a ‘disastrous effect’ on young people in rural and regional areas. I believe that is the debate we should be having here today: how can we change the system to ensure that all students who are required to move away from home to pursue their studies receive a level of income support? It is the view that is held be many individuals and organisations who have contacted me in the wake of the public debate that has occurred following the announcement of the minister’s proposed changes.

The Gippsland Local Government Network has argued that, because the average taxable income of a person living in Gippsland is $15,000 lower than a person living in Melbourne, it is not uncommon for a university student to find themselves juggling multiple jobs while attempting to study full time. I have long argued that we are setting these kids up to fail. We expect them to finish VCE, secure a good mark, go through the stress of getting their drivers licence, start going out to licensed premises legally and act responsibly, and then we expect them to move several hours to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, or wherever it may be, with very little money in their pocket. They pick up some part-time work, because their families cannot support them fully. We expect them to adjust to life in the city after years in the country, we expect them to travel several hours to come home and see us every now and then and then we expect them to excel at their chosen course. Is it any wonder that many of these young people drop out after six months and feel like they have failed? It does not have to be this hard. It should not be that difficult for a rich and prosperous nation like Australia to give our country kids a fairer go.

Just in case those opposite think I am making this up, let me reflect on some of the submissions to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry and some of the correspondence I have received from students in relation to the general issue of student income support and the more specific details of the changes proposed by the government. Orbost Secondary College in East Gippsland submitted:

The cost of living away from home to undertake tertiary study is without doubt the single greatest impediment to participation in our experience and for many families an overwhelming burden that can inflict great financial hardship.

Orbost Secondary College argue that returning to the days of affordable dormitory accommodation for regional students living in the city would reduce the cost burden and provide more support for students who are often isolated and lonely after making the move. They also support a policy initiative that I am driving within my party to provide free public transport vouchers for country students to return home more often to catch up with family and friends.

Some of the personal reflections I have received from family members and students affected by these changes have been quite alarming. This is from one young lady in Boysdale:

My fellow students and I have worked extremely hard, both academically and in employment, and I am deeply saddened by the fact that, due to the proposed revision of the allowance, much of that effort may be in vain.

Alyse said:

If changes must be made to current youth allowance eligibility, why not make it easier for those that need it most? Regional students who have to move away from their family and friends and re-establish themselves in a completely different environment surely should be entitled to assistance. If the government is striving to have more regional students attending and obtaining university qualifications, why make it harder to achieve?

Finally, Jessica said:

I don’t think Mr Rudd fully understands the damage that he has caused for thousands of gap year students like me. He has definitely tainted our future at university with doubt, financial burden and anxiety. We are at the most vulnerable stage of our lives. Surely our Prime Minister understands that by doing this some of us have nowhere to turn, that some of us are cancelling our dreams, cancelling our future. This is not justice. This is unlawful, criminal and heartless.

These are strong words from our next generation— young people being directly affected by this appalling decision, and in particular the retrospective nature of the changes proposed to the gap year.

The minister fails to understand that the students set out on these pathways several years ago. This is not some whim. They have been advised since year 10 on how to pursue their careers in the secondary education system, right through to having a gap year before going to university. They have been guided by their principals and careers advisers and are pursuing their dreams. Providing a transitional arrangement for 5,000 of the estimated 30,000 gap year students does not solve the problem. I believe that all students in regional areas who must live away from home to attend university should receive financial support as a means of levelling the playing field with their city counterparts.

That is my starting point in this entire debate. We need to address the fundamental differences which exist in the levels of opportunity to participate in our university system. Income and asset testing for any additional support for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds could then be applied on top of the basic tertiary access allowance.

There is a clear economic opportunity which flows from the position that I am putting to the House. The current requirement for parents in regional areas to find $12,000 to $15,000 in after-tax income to support their students is a drain on the wealth of regional towns. As a regional development initiative, providing a tertiary access allowance to meet the accommodation costs of all regional students forced to move away from home would be a shot in the arm to regional Australia. The government likes to talk about economic stimulus.

Instead of the sugar hit of $900 cheques, such a system of student support would provide sustainable economic growth for regional centres. It would also help to overcome the current skills shortage. Common sense tells us that professional people are more likely to move to regional areas if they know that university access has been improved for their children and if they know that it will not cost them an arm and a leg to send their children off to university in the future.

In the time that I have left, I want to refer briefly to the new workforce criteria and what a masterpiece of complete stupidity they have been. Quite apart from the difficult economic times we face, did anyone in the department who drafted these changes actually take a look at the workforce participation rates for country students? It is simply impossible for our country students to achieve the 30 hours per work prescribed by the new legislation. We can do better with student income support. I urge the minister to go back to the drawing board — (Time expired)

2009 OCT 22 – Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009


October 22, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.47 pm)
— I have come to this debate today on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 with an open mind. I must say from the outset that the government has failed to convince me at this stage as to the merits of this legislation.

It may shock the Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction, who is at the table, but there are a few basic principles that I try to apply when considering any legislation before the House. To begin with, I tend to accept the premise that the government has been elected to govern. I respect that view of the people of Australia in 2007 and I do not try to be deliberately obstructionist in that regard. Where the government has a clear mandate for action in relation to specific policy positions that were presented to the broader electorate, I tend to take the view that it has a right to pursue that agenda. It may not be a fashionable view among all on this side of the House, but it is a view that I tend to support. That is not to say though that the opposition should vacate the field. It most certainly must hold the government to account, and that is what I think the opposition are trying to do in this regard.

This brings me to a couple of other principles that I try to apply in my consideration of any legislation. I believe the legislation must be in the best interests of the people of regional Australia before I will support it and certainly it needs to be in the best interests of the people of Gippsland, who have sent me to this place to get the best possible outcomes on their behalf. It is in this regard that I do have some serious doubts about the legislation before the House and its capacity to deliver benefits to the people of regional Australia, who choose, obviously, to live outside our main cities.

I have followed this debate with interest. I would like to pick up on the commentary of the member for New England earlier this morning. I must admit that I do not always agree with the member for New England, but there were parts of his contribution which I thoroughly supported. The member did indicate that the National Broadband Network is critical infrastructure that has the potential to deliver enormous benefits, particularly to regional areas, throughout the rest of this century. He made the point quite well that where you live will become less relevant in terms of your capacity to do business or access health and education services in the future.

It is a point that has been made by others on both sides of the House, including by the Leader of the Nationals, who spoke quite strongly on this issue earlier this week. The word ‘potential’ is where it tends to get bogged down and where my reservations arise with the legislation before the House. I am not confident that the government has the commitment to deliver for regional communities. When it comes to telecommunications infrastructure, Gippslanders have no reason whatsoever to trust this government to act in the interests of regional Australians or Gippslanders in particular. The evidence has been all to the contrary. We all remember the $2.4 billion Future Fund, which was meant to be kept in perpetuity to invest in improved services in regional areas. The Rudd government has stolen that money from regional communities. It has been absorbed into other programs and it is gone. It will never be seen again in terms of its intended purpose to assist regional communities.

Over the years of the previous government there were some improvements to telecommunications services in regional areas. If you believe those opposite, the previous government did nothing anywhere for anyone or anything. That is a juvenile attempt, I believe, to dismiss the legacy of the previous government.

It simply does not wash with the Australian public. No government—not even some of the appalling state governments we have at the moment— deliberately sets out to do nothing.

Mr Shorten — That’s a bit juvenile.

Mr CHESTER — Work with me, Parliamentary Secretary. No government sets out to do nothing. We may always want more, but the Australian public expects the government members of the day to move past these very juvenile attempts to rewrite history. The Howard government did deliver on many fronts.

In my electorate there have been some improvements in mobile phone access over the past decade, but it does remain one of the biggest issues in my community. The additional towers that were established under the previous government’s Black Spot Program and allowed extended coverage throughout many parts of Gippsland have made it possible for service to be delivered to some areas that companies would never have justified servicing on a purely commercial basis. This effectively subsidised coverage has improved safety in my region.

As the parliamentary secretary is well aware, in terms of the most recent bushfires, coverage in emergency situations is a most critical issue for us in the electorate of Gippsland. On that point, I reflect on the need for improved mobile phone coverage in the future in terms of emergency services coverage. I already have spoken today on the new early warning system for natural disasters. I give credit to the government for undertaking that. I believe it has made a $15 million contribution to Telstra to pursue that agenda.

It is timely that the parliamentary secretary who has been involved in the bushfire reconstruction effort is in the chamber, because I believe it is important that we take the next step in the new national warning system. I understand that in the first stage it will be able to deliver voice messages to landlines and text messages to mobile phones based on their billing addresses. But I believe that, in the future, to deliver the real benefits to locals and visitors to Gippsland the system needs to progress to the next stage of delivering text messages to mobile phones based on the actual location of the phone at the time. That is the aim that I believe the government is pursuing. I understand the state and federal governments are both keen to pursue those as future stages of the agenda of a national early warning system. It is a real challenge.

Unfortunately, many areas in my electorate where the mobile coverage is poor are also those areas that are most exposed to the bushfire risk. I have sought additional funding from the federal government to deal with some of these black spot issues going forward. Areas in the Latrobe Valley were some of those that were directly impacted by the bushfires of Black Saturday and the earlier fires at the Delburn complex in the Boolarra area. There are areas right around Latrobe Valley where remarkably, in small towns only five, 10 or 15 minutes from major Latrobe Valley centres, the mobile phone coverage drops out. There are difficult issues to contend with. Further east, geography provides many obstacles to improved mobile phone coverage, but we are going to have to deal with that difficult terrain and we will probably need to subsidise services to those areas in the future if we are going to improve community safety and get the full benefits of any national early warning system.

I wrote to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in relation to this issue. The response I have received gives me no confidence in relation to legislation before the House today and the ongoing issue of telecommunications services to regional areas—whether it be mobile phone coverage, in this instance, or the future National Broadband Network.

In his response to my concerns about the township of Mallacoota, one of the towns identified as a bushfire priority risk by the Victorian state government, he said:

The Australian Government appreciates the importance of mobile telephony to Australians. However, the decision to provide mobile phone coverage is primarily a commercial matter for mobile phone carriers. In making the decision to extend coverage to a particular area, a mobile phone carrier will consider a range of factors, including site availability, cost structures, likely levels of demand from users and overall economic viability of the service.

That message is fairly clear, I believe, but it is primarily a commercial matter and the minister has no intention of implementing a black spot program to assist. I think that draws us to the very point of the legislation before the House today. The issues facing regional communities are that, with the rollout of the National Broadband Network and broader mobile phone coverage, the carriers will quite naturally go to where the profits lie. I fear that there will be people at the end of the line who will miss out completely. That is my greatest concern with the legislation before the House today.

I do not want to pretend for a second that I am some sort of Telstra cheerleader, and I am not going to stand here and pretend that everything is fine in regional Australia or in my own electorate of Gippsland. I am not even going to try to defend Telstra’s record, particularly under the reign of the previous chief executive. I think there was an appalling lack of judgment at times by Telstra in relation to its handling of its regional customers. But I am a realist, and I want to know that under the government’s plans regional areas will actually be better off.

Those opposite have attempted to ridicule speakers from this side of the House who have sought to delay the progress of this legislation to make sure we get it right. I have a great deal of sympathy for the view of delaying it until we get it right. The government does not have a clear mandate for this policy position. Only a few months ago the minister was quoted as saying he had no intention of forcing such a separation upon Telstra, and it has never been put before the Australian public. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been Labor or coalition policy.

Having said that, I am not as hardline as some others about the broader issue of structural separation. I do believe we need to take steps to drive competition, particularly into regional areas. Telstra, as I have mentioned previously, has not always behaved appropriately in the best interests of its regional customers. I am hopeful that the new CEO, David Thodey, will be keen to address that situation. I had the opportunity to meet with Mr Thodey earlier this week and I was heartened by his comments and his attitude towards his regional customers. I believe that we may see a change of direction in that regard. I have been very critical in this chamber of Telstra’s handling of the user charge of $2.20 it applies to customers who pay their bills with legal tender across the counter at various agencies. I believe the point I made to Mr Thodey in that regard was well taken. I believe that Telstra may in the future take a more charitable view of its customers, particularly its older customers and those in regional areas.

There are areas where it will never be commercially viable for companies to invest in regional services. That is where I believe the Future Fund was designed to assist, along with the universal service obligation. As I indicated, I can see some merit in the position to help drive competition, but the process undertaken by the government must be appropriate to the circumstances. I fear that the government has held a metaphorical gun to the head of Telstra and its shareholders. Those opposite have discounted the arguments put forward in relation to the impact this decision will have on the shareholders of Telstra. I am not suggesting for a second that the interests of shareholders have to be our primary concern in this place, but they most certainly should be considered by us as responsible legislators.

More than one million mum-and-dad shareholders will be affected by this decision, and I believe it is flippant and irresponsible for those opposite to just brush that issue aside. It concerns me that we really do not have a complete understanding of all the issues in relation to this legislation. The reason we do not have a complete understanding is that the government simply has not done the homework or, if it has done the homework, it has not taken the people of Australia into its embrace and explained to them exactly what is intended. In a question in the House earlier this week the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister for more information on the National Broadband Network. It was a very pertinent question. The Leader of the Opposition asked:

How does the Prime Minister justify urging Australians to buy bonds in the $43 billion National Broadband Network, assuring them that those bonds would be a good investment, asserting that the National Broadband Network would be commercially viable and claiming its services will be affordable when the finance minister and, just a moment ago, the Treasurer have admitted that all of those statements were made without any business plan or cost-benefit analysis—in order words, without any reasonable or responsible basis for believing those statements were true?

In his answer, the Prime Minister, as he often does, sought to deflect attention to everyone but himself. He came out swinging in relation to the National Party. He said:

… The National Party in particular, surprises me, because so many Australians out there lack high-speed and effective broadband services.

There is no disagreement there, but under his own plan so many Australians will continue to not receive high-speed broadband services. The Prime Minister failed to mention that there was actually no business plan for this $43 billion National Broadband Network. I fear that the government is flying blind and it troubles me in relation to the legislation before the House at the moment. As I said at the outset, I am not interested in being obstructionist just for the sake of it, but I do have considerable reservations and support the delaying of this bill until the NBN implementation study is presented to the parliament. After two years of delivering absolutely nothing except empty promises, we can afford to wait for the findings of the $25 million study that the government has commissioned. I believe the House will be better informed in that regard with the findings of that study before it.

The government is asking me and other members to take what I believe is an enormous leap of faith. They are simply saying, ‘Trust us, everything will be okay; sure, we do not have a business plan for the $43 billion NBN program but you can rely on us.’ I am sorry, but I do not have that much confidence in this minister or in the government. We have already seen the National Broadband Network change remarkably in terms of the promises being made by this government. At first we had this fairytale about delivering fibre-to-the-node coverage to 98 per cent of Australian homes at a cost of just $4.7 billion. The Australian community should have signed up straightaway on that one. They were conned. The new promise is coverage to just 90 per cent of homes at a cost of $43 billion, but we really do not know where that figure of $43 billion has come from. It looks to me like it has just been some stab in the dark—a best guess. There is no business case or infrastructure plan that I have been made aware of. The promise has been downgraded to the extent that it excludes towns of fewer than 1,000 people. There are more than 1,000 towns, as I understand it, in Australia with fewer than 1,000 people in them and many of them are in the electorate of Gippsland.

I mentioned earlier that the NBN has the potential to deliver even greater benefits to regional areas than anywhere else, but many of the towns in Gippsland are simply not on the government’s radar, let alone in the government’s National Broadband Network plans. In all good faith to my electorate, I cannot support this proposition at this stage and I urge the government to wait until the implementation study is presented to the parliament.

One other aspect I would like to touch on is the confusion over the future of the universal service obligation under this bill. I take up the issue raised by the Leader of The Nationals on this matter. He highlighted that under this bill the legislated universal service obligation is abolished and it will be left to the whim of the minister to decide which services are provided. I do not believe this is good enough for regional areas. We have already seen the whim of the minister at work with the removal of the $2.4 billion Future Fund—an enormous betrayal of trust with regional communities. Before I can have confidence that this bill is in the interests of regional Australia I will need more information from this government in relation to its broadband proposals and how it intends to deliver those services to rural and regional communities.

There is a lot at stake for regional communities, as many people have indicated in their contributions to the debate before the House, because they have the most to gain from improved telecommunications services. The tyranny of distance is one of the main factors holding back the growth of regional communities and technology has the capacity to overcome a lot of those barriers. I believe that rural and regional Australians have every right to expect better telecommunications services in all its forms in the future. As the Leader of The Nationals correctly identified, a robust communications network will have a range of applications in regional Australia, both social and economic. It will create better health services, better education, and greater employment and business opportunities. I urge the government to take the time to get this right.

Finally, in the time allowed to me, I would like to refer to a media statement today from the shadow minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy. In his media statement, the shadow minister said:

Since coming to office the Rudd government has already: abolished the $2.4 billion Communications Fund, established by the Coalition for telecommunications upgrades in rural and regional Australia; cancelled the $2 billion OPEL project which would have seen fast and affordable broadband services delivered throughout under-served rural and regional areas this year; and is winding back the Australian Broadband Guarantee program which provides subsidised services for Australians living in under-served areas. This government already has a dreadful track record and should not be believed when it says it is acting in the best interests of rural and regional Australia.

That just about sums it all up for me. The government has to prove its bona fides to regional Australians before it can reasonably expect us to support this bill.

2009 OCT 22 – National Warning System


October 22, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.54 am)
— Telstra has received a $15 million contract to build a new national warning system that will send alerts to phones of residents threatened by disasters. In the first stage of this program there will be the capacity to deliver voice recordings to landlines on properties in the vicinity of disasters such as a bushfire. It is also expected that it will have the capacity to send a text message to mobile phones based on their billing address. As someone who has seen firsthand the effects and the traumas of the Black Saturday bushfires and the fires that raged through Bellara 10 days earlier, I am generally supportive of the need to improve communication systems for people in the path of such dangerous events.

But I would like to add a few words of caution and appeal to the federal government to make sure that this program is effective in assisting the people who need it the most. As I mentioned previously, the initial stages of this early warning system will allow text messages to mobile phones based on billing addresses only, but for the system to have maximum value in a region such as Gippsland— maximum value for both locals and visitors to the region—the emergency services need to be able to send messages to mobile phones based in their locations. It is not much point in receiving a message based on your billing address rather than your actual location if you are relaxing on a beach 500 kilometres away. I understand that the next stage of the process will allow for text messages to be sent based upon the actual location of the mobile phone at the time of the event.

It is a simple fact of geography that the areas with the worst mobile phone coverage in my electorate happen to be areas that are most prone to bushfires in the first place. From the national parks around the Latrobe Valley, through to the coastal regions and the most mountainous parts of East Gippsland, the areas with the worst mobile phone coverage are those areas where the bushfires are most likely to strike.

Three of the towns recognised as at risk by the state government—Loch Sport, Bemm River and Mallacoota—all suffer from patchy mobile phone coverage at best. And, while I welcome the federal government’s commitment to the first step, there has to be a genuine commitment to ensuring the program is extended and that it helps the people who need it most in the future. The federal government must provide additional funding to eliminate mobile phone black spots to allow this technology to achieve its full purpose. I have sought additional funding from the federal minister to roll out more mobile phone towers to address these black spots.

Also, in a meeting this week with the Telstra chief executive, David Thodey, I made the same point, and I must say that Mr Thodey was understanding of the problem and supportive of the need to expand the reach of the service. It is one thing to have a warning system in place; it is a completely different matter to ensure that it reaches the people who need it the most.

We also must make sure that we do not give people a false hope about this warning system. Nothing takes the place of extensive preparation and understanding the need to leave your premises on severe bushfire days if you do not believe you are capable of defending your property. If we learnt one lesson at all from Black Saturday it was that possessions can be replaced, but lives are lost forever. I urge families in bushfire prone areas to ensure they are well prepared for the coming bushfire season. In the time that is left to me, I also take the opportunity to wish all of our firefighters a safe and very quiet bushfire season.

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