In Parliament

2009 In Parliament

2009 OCT 21 – Private Members’ Business – Notices

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – NOTICES

October 21, 2009

MR CHESTER: To move:

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.

Time allotted — 20 minutes.

Speech time limits —

Mr Chester — 5 minutes.

Other Member — 5 minutes each.

[Minimum number of proposed Members speaking = 4 x 5 mins]

The Whips recommend that consideration of this should continue on a future day.

2009 OCT 21 – Matters Of Public Importance – Government Spending

MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE  – GOVERNMENT SPENDING

October 21, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.39 pm)
— I rise to speak about the government’s reckless spending and the severe impact it is having, and will continue to have, on families and small business. In the time available to me I will focus on just three words: value for money. That is what we all look for when we run our household budgets. For those of us who have been involved in small business in the past, it is something we focus on in everything we do. We ring around, we get quotes, we want to make sure we get the right price and the job well done. But judging by this government’s reckless spending over the past six months, value for money is a concept that it simply does not understand. How else can we explain the $12.7 billion cash splash—the $900 sugar fix that should have been used for investing in projects that deliver real longterm benefits throughout our nation, not on a rush for plasma TVs and poker machines. I have no doubt that the cheques in the mail were particularly popular in the electorate, but they were not in the nation’s long-term interest and they did not deliver value for money in terms of benefits to infrastructure throughout the Australian economy.

We are right in the middle of the Spring Racing Carnival so it is timely to reflect on the biggest punt of all time: the $12.7 billion gamble with borrowed money that delivered no long-term benefit to the future prosperity of our nation. Long after that joy of receiving the cheque in the mail, Australian families will be paying off this debt which that has been accumulated for every man, woman and child. Gippsland’s share of this reckless cash splash, if you do some rough calculations, was in the vicinity of $90 million. I can assure the House that Gippslanders who have spoken to me ever since have been very critical of the government’s reckless spending spree and stated that they would rather have seen that money spent on worthwhile long-term projects such as safer roads, better health services, upgraded sporting facilities in our community.

Dr Emerson — Schools?

Mr CHESTER — I will get to the schools, minister for small business. The consequences of this reckless spending will be felt for decades to come. We know, and the reports on this have come in already, that the health system needs an overhaul. I am sure the Minister for Health and Ageing, who is in the chamber at the moment, would really like to see some of the $12.7 billion allocated to her health budget. But it is gone now, and Australian families can look forward to increased taxes as they pay off Labor’s debt.

The member for Casey correctly pointed out in his presentation in this debate that all this spending will end in pain for families and small businesses. It will end in higher taxes, and who knows what the Minister for Finance and Deregulation has in store for us in the next budget. Higher income tax? Death duties? They have not even ruled out extra taxes affecting the family home. I refer to a Hansard of 1994 which reflects the minister for finance’s opinions in relation to the tax treatment of the family home. He said:

We should focus on the real issues of tax reform. Overinvestment in housing, which has been chronic in this country, has been contributed to by favourable treatment in the tax system. We should abolish negative gearing and modify the capital gains tax exemption by, for example, applying that exemption only to the unimproved value of houses purchased.

In that way, there will be no bias in the tax system which impels people to invest in extensions and the like. Even the family home is not safe from the minister for finance. We are likely to see cuts to services across the board. Families and small businesses will feel the pain of Labor’s reckless spending. As the member for Cook also highlighted, it is as inevitable as night follows day that higher interest rates will follow Labor’s reckless spending spree.

Those opposite like to claim that the opposition rejected any form of economic stimulus whatsoever. That is a fiction or a fairytale, if you like, that they like to promote to keep themselves warm at night when they reflect on the fact that they have fired every shot in the locker and have nothing left for the next challenge when it inevitably arises. Like the member for Cook with his ‘push me pull you’, I am reminded of another fairytale. It is not the one where the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan—with all due respect to the Treasurer. The fairytale I am referring to is The Emperor’s New Clothes. That is the one where the emperor of a prosperous city pays a fortune for a new suit and two conmen tell him that it is invisible to anyone who is either stupid or unfit for his position. The emperor and his ministers refuse to say they cannot see the suit, for fear of appearing too stupid. The emperor parades through his town naked, until a small child cries out, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ And you can relax, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not have any props of the emperor with no clothes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr PD Secker) — I am pleased!

Mr CHESTER — But look around us—no-one opposite would dare to pronounce that Emperor Rudd has no clothes. No, they go along with the fairytale. They nod sagely behind him every day in question time. They trumpet his arrival. They hang on his every word, and repeat them day after day on the doors. Even though they know in their own hearts that this reckless spending spree has frittered away a budget surplus and left our nation facing a decade of debt, they all fall at the feet of Emperor Rudd. The emperor has no clothes—he has no economic credibility. The old maxim is proving true once again: Labor simply cannot manage money.

In the few moments I have left I want to refer to the so-called Building the Education Revolution. Again in their desperation to shovel the money out the door, the government has set unrealistic time frames and is pressuring schools to accept whatever is on offer. There must be greater commitment to value for money.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 19 – Gippsland Lakes

GIPPSLAND LAKES

October 19, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.39 pm)
— I rise to highlight the Victorian Labor government’s complete contempt for the people of Gippsland and to appeal to the federal Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts to take action to protect the environmental health of the Gippsland Lakes.

Last month, the state Labor government announced that it would take another 10 billion litres of water per year from the Thomson River to water the gardens of Melbourne. I believe Melbourne Labor MPs are playing Russian roulette with the environmental health of the Gippsland Lakes as there have been several reports which have indicated the Gippsland Lakes are at an ecological tipping point and the further reduction in freshwater flows, particularly at the western end of the catchment, could prove disastrous.

We have already witnessed many signs of a system under stress. There are major problems with salinity in the western end of the catchment and diverting more fresh water will add to the pressure on the environment. The health of the Gippsland Lakes is fundamental to the $200 million tourism industry and the government knows this decision will have a significant negative impact on a variety of species throughout the catchment.

In 2006, the former state environment minister, John Thwaites, recognised all of these concerns when he proudly boasted about returning environmental flows to the Thomson River. In a media release on 3 October 2006, Mr Thwaites said environmental flows were being returned to the stressed Thomson River in Gippsland, ‘which will also help the health of the Gippsland Lakes, which are so economically, socially and environmentally important for the region’. It is one thing to do the wrong thing in ignorance; it is an entirely different matter to commit an act of environmental vandalism with full knowledge of the likely consequences.

When will someone in Melbourne Labor realise that there is not a bottomless bucket in Gippsland for the city to keep taking water? When will Melbourne get fair dinkum about water recycling, stormwater harvesting and upgrading leaking infrastructure?

The decision to take extra water also follows the Labor party’s failure to provide any ongoing funding for the Gippsland Lakes Taskforce in this year’s state budget. Gippslanders will not lie down and accept these appalling decisions.

A newsletter that I recently distributed in the electorate of Gippsland invited people to have their say on this issue and to date 1,600 people have written to me and expressed their concerns. I have also written to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and sought his intervention in this issue. In my letter, I highlighted the importance of the Gippsland Lakes. The Gippsland Lakes and wetlands are recognised under the Ramsar convention and the entire catchment is experiencing stress related to the ongoing drought and a range of settlement activities.

There have also been media reports suggesting that threatened fish species such as the grayling would be endangered by the removal of more water from the Thomson River. The Gippsland Lakes have experienced frequent algal blooms and have been the subject of significant investigation by the CSIRO, resulting in a concerted effort to improve water quality and reduce the amount of nutrients entering the system.

Indeed, the federal government, to its credit, has made a financial commitment of $3 million over three years to tackle some of these tasks. What a ridiculous situation we find ourselves in where the federal government is spending $3 million—which is nowhere near enough in any case, and I have raised those points with the minister— to improve water quality while the state Labor government is ripping another 10 billion litres of fresh water out of the system.

Given that the state government’s decision is likely to have a significant impact on the environment of the Gippsland Lakes and catchment, I am seeking assistance from the minister to discharge the federal government’s responsibilities in this matter. I would like to know whether the minister will intervene under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The minister has written to me on other issues relating to the Gippsland Lakes. In his letter, which I stress was not directly in relation to the Thomson issue but a related Gippsland Lakes matter, the minister wrote:

Matters of national environmental significance include the ecological character of a wetland listed under the Ramsar convention. In considering the impacts of any actions on the ecological character of Ramsar wetlands, consideration is given to indirect impacts, such as catchment related impacts, as well as those which are caused directly within the wetland boundary.

I am waiting for the minister’s response regarding the Thomson issue in particular but the EPBC Significant Impact Guidelines provided to my office by the minister indicate that an action will require approval from the minister if the action has, will have, or is likely to have, a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance.

The activity in this case is removing an additional 10 billion litres of fresh water and environmental flows which, I contend—and the CSIRO has previously stated—is likely to have a significant impact on the future of the Gippsland Lakes and its Ramsar-listed wetlands, not to mention the potential impact on an endangered species. I call on the minister to investigate this decision by the state Labor government to assess whether approval should be sought from the Commonwealth under the EPBC. A total of 1,600 Gippslanders have already raised their concerns. I hope the Minister is prepared to listen and take action to help protect the largest inland waterway in the southern hemisphere and its catchment areas.

In closing, the minister certainly has not heard the last of this matter. I have been supporting a petition, with my state parliamentary colleagues, which is available on my website and will also be distributed throughout the region. I will continue to fight to protect our waterways and the future health of the Gippsland Lakes and I encourage local residents to support my campaign in the weeks ahead. Gippslanders are very passionate about the environment of our local waterways and they are passionate about the future of the Gippsland Lakes. They know when they are getting a raw deal.

(Time expired)

2009 OCT 19 – Princes Highway Road Toll

PRINCES HIGHWAY ROAD TOLL

October 19, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.40 pm)
— I rise to highlight the appalling road toll on the Princes Highway east of Sale and the need for additional funding to improve the safety of the road environment. Since 2004, there have been 24 fatalities and countless accidents and serious injuries on the highway stretching from Sale to the New South Wales border. The safely of local residents and visitors to East Gippsland is being compromised by the condition of the highway.

I am not the only person to hold this view. The RACV has repeatedly called on state and federal governments to increase funding for upgrading the highway, given its current two-star and three-star ranking under the AusRAP—the Australian Road Assessment Program. The star ratings highlight the failure to improve safety on this stretch of highway and as AusRAP has indicated in previous reports, safer roads have the potential to save as many lives as safer vehicles and improved driver behaviour combined.

There is widespread concern within the East Gippsland community that funding for the Princes Highway has been diminished as a result of a strategy to upgrade an alternative route between Bairnsdale and Nowa Nowa. The concerns have been exacerbated by a number of serious accidents, particularly on the approaches to Lakes Entrance from both directions. In particular, there are concerns with the alignment of sweeping bends, the placement of overtaking lanes and the road surface itself. There are sections of the highway, particularly east of Orbost, where there are no shoulders on the sides of the road and the road surface is in an appalling condition.

Too many people are losing loved ones on East Gippsland’s roads. I repeat my appeal to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government to work with my community to have the highway listed as a Road of National Importance to help secure additional funding for much-needed road safety upgrades. The stress and trauma of road accidents affects vast numbers of my community. I call the minister to work with the people of Gippsland.

(Time expired)

2009 SEPT 14 – Matters Of Public Importance – Dairy Industry

MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – DAIRY INDUSTRY

September 14, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.46 pm) — I would like to commend the member for Murray for putting this important motion before the chamber and I associate myself with the comments she made, particularly in relation to the need for government assistance for the dairy industry at such a critical time in its history. The member for Murray and the member for Lyons understand the importance of the dairy industry to their communities and the great difficulties that farming families are facing, particularly with reduced prices and the ongoing drought. It does beggar belief that, in that environment, Melbourne Labor ministers at state level would be stealing water from the Goulburn River. But then again they are about to steal another 10 billion litres from the Thomson River in the electorate of Gippsland, and that is an issue for another day.

The dairy industry is as critical to the seat of Gippsland as the car industry is to a city like Geelong and yet we have seen a remarkable double standard in the government’s treatment of the two industries at this time of economic crisis. It is a crisis which I stress is beyond the control of individual dairy farmers. I note with a great deal of interest that the Senate is about to undertake an inquiry into a range of issues which are relevant to the motion which is before the chamber. That inquiry will investigate the economic impact on the dairy industry of the reductions in prices that are paid to producers by the milk processors. There are a whole range of important issues that the Senate inquiry will consider, particularly in the context of the ongoing drought conditions in parts of Australia and the fact that the cost of production for many of our dairy farmers is higher than the prices that are currently on offer at the milk factories.

The dairy industry in Gippsland is concentrated in the Macalister irrigation district, which is the largest irrigation area south of the Great Dividing Range in Victoria. As I have told the chamber previously, our dairy farmers are among the most productive and efficient in the world. They are world-class producers of a world-class product. The dairy industry is quite big business for the people of Gippsland, with the Wellington shire having more than 400 dairy farms, the majority of which are located in the MID. The region has its own major collection and processing facility at Maffra, with the Murray Goulburn co-op, which produces a range of products mainly for the export markets.

My community has been particularly hard hit by the drop in prices and I have sought assistance from both the state and federal agriculture ministers for the development of an industry assistance package. I have argued in my correspondence to the ministers that the dairy industry has a strong long-term future in the region but there is a need to assist my community as it deals with the current difficulties. I am particularly concerned about our younger farmers who may be carrying significant levels of debt. I believe we need to give them confidence in their futures on the land. I have taken up the point in the member for Murray’s motion that the government could provide assistance to ensure our dairy farmers are not forced to sell their herds or their water, destroying the prospects for recovery when export markets inevitably recover.

As I said, I am optimistic about the longer term future but we need to take action now to help our farmers get over the hump before them so that they are in a position to continue to produce quality Australian dairy products in the future. There needs to be a survival plan developed to assist our farmers through what I believe will be a difficult 12-month period. Both state and federal governments need to demonstrate their support for a viable dairy industry right across Australia and be prepared to offer assistance during this period.

As a nation we have bailed out the car industry, as I referred to earlier. We have also handed out billions of dollars in $900 cheques to prop up the retail sector. I think it is reasonable to develop an assistance package for the dairy industry in these exceptional circumstances.

It would be a modest package in comparison to those cash splashes that we have seen by the government. I have received a reply from my representations to the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and I am afraid there is no good news for my local farmers in his response. There is no intention of taking decisive action.

While the minister’s response was certainly sympathetic, reflected an understanding of my concerns for the dairy industry, there is no sign that he is actually prepared to take action. He indicated, on a visit to Shepparton, he is aware of the challenges facing the dairy industry in terms of the ongoing drought, the sharp fall in global dairy commodity prices and the decisions by the European Union and the United States to introduce export subsidies. But that is about where it ends from the minister’s perspective. His response is certainly sympathetic and it reflected that understanding of the concerns. However, I urge him to be more than sympathetic, I urge him to be a champion of the industry that he is commissioned to represent in this place.

Many farmers have suggested options to me, including a range of measures such as temporary income support to underwrite low prices or triggering exceptional circumstances interest rate subsidies and increased assistance to develop international markets. The minister says that he is dealing with that final point and there has been some improvement in the situation with India, along with funding for Dairy Australia to host dairy events in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. I doubt though that we are doing enough and the end result will be more dairy farmers forced off the land.

Referring again to the situation in Gippsland, I would like to comment briefly on the government’s stimulus spending. Apart from the current prices, which hopefully will pass, the biggest issue for dairy farms in my electorate is the issue of water security. It staggers me that this government has been prepared to hand out $900 cheques but has not even looked at a critical issue, such as investing in improved infrastructure delivering increased water security in Gippsland. The dairy industry in Gippsland is faced with ageing infrastructure and an inefficient system. The MID 2030 Strategy was released two years ago and can improve the supply system.

This would be a win for the industry and a win for the environment. I urge the minister to be a champion for that cause as well.

(Time expired)

2009 SEPT 14 – Healthy Lifestyles

HEALTHY LIFESTYLES

September 14, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.11 pm) — by leave—I take up the points raised by the previous speaker in relation to opportunities to prevent the frequency of stroke occurring in our community—in particular the issues raised in relation to older people and those with certain medical problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. There is no question that lifestyle factors such as diet, alcohol consumption, smoking and how active we are in our daily lives affect our individual risk. In particular I refer to the issue of smoking. As someone who had a father who was a regular smoker and tragically suffered from lung cancer later in his life due to his smoking habit, formed as a very young man, I am very committed to encouraging young people in our community to avoid taking up smoking in the first place. As a government there is a lot more that we could do via public health initiatives on the issue of smoking.

The Quit campaign, which has been very successful across Australia, is an initiative which needs further support in the future. There are a whole range of initiatives being considered in terms of restricting the amount of advertising and the display of cigarettes. Also, in many states legislation is being put forward to prevent smoking when children are in cars. These are all very good and positive initiatives. If we can avoid young people in particular taking up the habit of smoking early in life, the benefits will flow through in minimising the number of strokes in our community.
Healthy eating is also an issue that the previous member referred to. Again, it is an opportunity for us as elected members of parliament to lead by example. We should support our food producers across our nation and encourage young people in particular to enjoy five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. It does a lot for your health, in terms not only of minimising the incidence of stroke in our community but of overall quality of life.

In my previous contribution to this motion before the House I referred to the need to encourage healthy lifestyles, particularly amongst our young people. It is something I would like to expand on further if time permits. We have an opportunity in our nation to encourage young people in particular to be active members of their communities. There is a real prospect for us to do a lot more in reducing the economic barriers for a lot of our young people. I represent a regional constituency, and a lot of our young people have trouble accessing sporting opportunities. There is a real opportunity for us to make sure that we provide those opportunities in our regional communities, taking into consideration the extra transport costs involved for a lot of families. Again, early habits formed in terms of a healthy lifestyle will have immeasurable benefit in reducing the incidence of stroke in our community.

I also referred previously to the Stroke Association of Victoria and the excellent work they are doing in supporting people who have suffered from stroke and, of course, their families and caregivers. As members of parliament we need to reflect more on the contribution that is made to our community by carers. Carers save our nation a king’s ransom in forgone costs to the community if we had to provide that care from the public purse. With a little further investment from us at the state and federal levels to support our carers we would be able to achieve a lot more in supporting people with illnesses. In this particular case I am referring to strokes.

The support groups that exist in Victoria provide a wide range of support to families and to survivors, helping them through a very traumatic time in their lives. By their very nature, strokes are unexpected. They occur suddenly and it is like a lightning strike on the families involved. It hits them in an instant and, from then on, their lives are different. It is up to us as a government and as members of parliament to make sure that we provide support for the survivors and also to the caregivers.

There are opportunities for us to make sure that the caregivers and the work that they are doing in the community are more widely recognised and appreciated. It is with that in mind that I repeat my earlier remarks encouraging state and federal governments to see what support they can give to groups like the Stroke Association of Victoria in terms of professional facilitation work, because I find that a professional facilitator or coordinator can leverage off the amount of work the volunteers undertake on behalf of those who have suffered a stroke.

Again, I thank the member for Shortland for the motion before the House and commend her for her work in this regard.

(Time expired)

2009 SEPT 14 – Stroke Awareness Week

STROKE AWARENESS WEEK

September 14, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.00 pm) — I would like to commend the member for Shortland for her contribution and the motion before the House. I thank the member for raising this important issue, particularly in the context of National Stroke Awareness Week and the fact that 60,000 people in Australia will suffer a stroke this year.

There is not a person in this place who has not been directly affected by someone they know and love suffering a stroke. As we all know, it is not one person who is affected as a result. While the individual survivor concerned may be left with the most obvious physical or mental impairment, the reverberations are felt throughout their home and community. As the member for Shortland indicated in her motion, stroke is the second most prevalent cause of death and the leading cause of disability in Australia. It staggers me that one in seven people will suffer a stroke in their lifetime and that 20 per cent of strokes occur in people under the age of 50. That figure makes a mockery of the view, which many of us tend to have, that stroke is an ailment that only afflicts the aged. One in five stroke sufferers are aged under 50. If they survive they can face many years of rehabilitation and the need for a range of support services.

It is in that context that I want to raise the issue of the Stroke Association of Victoria and the remarkable work that the volunteers undertake on behalf of stroke survivors. I had the opportunity earlier this year to meet with Clare Gray from the Stroke Association when she visited East Gippsland along with many of her members. It is a remarkable organisation on many fronts. The association is made up completely of volunteers who provide support as caregivers to loved ones who have suffered a stroke. These people give their time to supporting stroke survivors and reinforcing the message of stroke awareness to the community at large. They provide a wide range of information and ongoing support long after the medical profession has dealt with the most obvious issues. There is a constant need for support and assistance to make sure the stroke survivor can enjoy the highest quality of life possible.

It disappoints me that the work of the Stroke Association of Victoria is not properly acknowledged with ongoing funding for professional support staff. With a relatively minor investment, the work of the association could expand through the use of a professional coordinator to develop and administer services to more than 20 support groups across Victoria. Australia is a nation that relies on its selfless volunteers—and long may that be the case— but we need to make sure that we do not take them for granted. Governments at the state and federal level should urgently consider how we fund such volunteer organisations that could leverage countless more hours of support activities and provide an even better service with just a small investment from the public purse.

We cannot talk about stroke without acknowledging the opportunities to minimise our personal risk. The member for Shortland touched on them. There are some factors which are beyond our control, but lifestyle factors such as diet, alcohol consumption, smoking and how active we are in our daily lives will all affect our own level of risk.

As members of parliament we must avoid the temptation to become a nanny state and dictate to our communities, but we can do a lot more to promote healthy and active lifestyles for people of all ages through the provision of appropriate facilities and more support for junior sporting organisations.

I am a big believer in junior team sports and the role they play in connecting children with their communities and establishing healthy habits for life. I fear that many young people miss out on this opportunity for purely economic reasons. It is an area that I intend to keep pursuing with governments at all levels to increase access to sporting opportunities and the lifelong benefits it provides.

As a layman I like the description that the Victorian Stroke Association provides to explain a stroke on its website. They call it a ‘brain attack’ in that it happens when the blood supply to the brain in interrupted and the brain does not get the oxygen is needs. The importance of prompt action to assist someone you suspect of having experienced a stroke cannot be overstated. As the member for Shortland correctly pointed out, the symptoms may include weakness or numbness or part paralysis in parts of the body, difficulty swallowing or a loss of vision or dizziness. The association’s website provides a range of support material but the most important advice is to seek medical assistance immediately if you suspect someone is having a stroke. Fast action can save a life or minimise the level of permanent impairment.

The association’s website also makes another important point in relation to the recovery process. It says:

The brain is a remarkable organ and is capable of adapting to change. In the weeks and months following a stroke many partially- damaged cells may recover and start to work again. The length of time it takes to recover varies widely from person to person. As a rule, a majority of recovery often takes place during the first year to 18 months, but many people continue to improve over a much longer period. This is why we always say, ‘NEVER GIVE UP’

There is a message here for us all in terms of the activities that we undertake to assist people in recovering from stroke and to support research and development into preventative actions: we must never give up. Dare I say, in the time that is left to me, that I think if more Australian were aware of the contributions made by their elected members during debates such as this, rather than being aware of some of the spectacles that they sometimes see in question time, their respect for those who choose to serve our communities through elected office would rise considerably.

I congratulate the member for Shortland for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House.

(Time expired)

2009 SEPT 10 – Questions Without Notice – Building The Education Revolution Program

QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – BUILDING THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION PROGRAM

September 10, 2009

Mr CHESTER (3.39 pm) — My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Minister for Education and the Minister for Social Inclusion. I refer the minister to the Newmerella Primary School in East Gippsland which has been granted $850,000 under the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program. Is the minister aware that the project manager and a representative from the education department contacted the primary school principal and told him that the template buildings are more expensive than the government thought and projects will all be retendered, forcing a further delay of at least two months? Minister, has there been another cost blow-out in the so-called Building the Education Revolution?

Ms GILLARD — I thank the member for Gippsland for his question and his drawing my attention to one
school in his electorate. His electorate is home to 104 schools. Those 104 schools are benefiting from 190 projects under the Building the Education Revolution program with an investment of more than $ 117 million, so I certainly look forward to the member continuing to ask me questions. He has asked me about one school today and I will very much welcome questions about the other 103 schools and the 190 projects in his electorate.

Honourable members interjecting —

The SPEAKER — Order! The members for Solomon, Flynn and Dawson. The member for Dawson was probably encouraging it. That is why he got mentioned. You will sit there quietly.

Mr Chester — Mr Speaker, on a point of order on relevance: the question referred specifically to the Newmerella Primary School. If the minister does want to debate the number of jobs in Gippsland, there were no—

The SPEAKER — The member for Gippsland will resume his seat. He has made his point of order.

Ms GILLARD — I say to the member for Gippsland that I think he will find, with 190 projects in his electorate and an investment of $117 million, that will be supporting local jobs, and if I know the form of the member for Gippsland can I just predict that he will be there associating himself with the openings of each of those projects.

We will see him in a hard hat before the end of the year. I will put money on it. I will also put money on the fact that by the end of the year I and a number of my colleagues will have got letters from the member for Gippsland asking for more investment in his electorate. I am sure that will be happening, too.

On the question of costs and Building the Education Revolution, as the member for Gippsland would know because I am sure he is familiar with the $117 million investment and 190 projects in 104 schools in his electorate, contracting and tendering for the state schools is being managed by the state government and for Catholic and independent schools by the relevant school authorities.

We obviously work with them to get value for money. The member has referred to cost blow-outs. I believe he is confused with the Investing in Our Schools Program where there was an underestimate through costing at 80 per cent and a consequent need to go back to budget and get extra money.

If the member for Gippsland has an issue that he is concerned about, if he wants to work through that, obviously we want to ensure that the best possible value for money is obtained in local schools in his area and around the country. Can I say to the member for Gippsland more broadly that when he is dealing with these issues—he may have spoken to the principal he cites or he may have spoken to the local tenderer—I hope that he is making clear in each and every one of those conversations that when he was asked in this parliament to vote for this investment in schools and in supporting local jobs he voted against it.

Mr Chester — I ask leave to table the email from the principal.

Leave not granted.

2009 SEPT 09 – Offshore Petroleum And Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment Bill 2009

OFFSHORE PETROLEUM AND GREENHOUSE GAS STORAGE LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2009

September 09, 2009


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.14 am)
— I rise to speak in relation to the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment Bill 2009, which seeks to correct omissions in the act that came into effect last year and make a number of technical corrections.

The bill has been in development since 2005, under the previous coalition government, and has enjoyed bipartisan support. The act authorises the transportation by pipeline and injection and storage of greenhouse gas substances in deep geological formations under the seabed. I have spoken previously to offer my general support for this legislation and the process it seeks to facilitate, which is the sequestration of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. In doing so, I made the point that the Gippsland Basin—and the member for Corangamite touched on this as well—is likely to play a critical role in the development of these new technologies.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Gippsland Basin, it is a major contributor to our nation, and the legislation has particular relevance to my region. The Longford gas plant, which is located about 10 kilometres from the city of Sale, is responsible for supplying most of Victoria’s gas requirements and about 20 per cent of Australia’s oil and gas supplies. I grew up in the city of Sale and I well remember the impact of the oil and gas industry when it came to my home town.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the joint venture partners Esso-BHP and their work in Bass Strait. There was a function quite recently—on 29 April this year, as I recall—which was attended by the Minister for Resources and Energy and the shadow minister, to commemorate this occasion. It really was an auspicious occasion for the Gippsland region—the former member for Gippsland, the Hon. Peter Nixon, was in attendance, and I wish him well—because it marked a critical date in our community’s development.

It is hard to imagine the Gippsland region today without the discovery of oil and gas in the early sixties, such has been the profound contribution of the industry to the economy of the region and to the cultural and social life of the Gippsland community. Esso has been a longstanding benefactor of the community, with a range of donations to community and sporting activities, perhaps most notably the Wellington Entertainment Centre in Sale, which has been completed in the last few years.

I do not seek to give the House a comprehensive history lesson on the Bass Strait oil and gas fields, but it is important in the context of this debate. The offshore drilling began in 1960, when BHP was granted petroleum exploration permits. In 1967 Kingfish 1 was drilled and encountered Australia’s largest oilfield, with 1.2 billion barrels recoverable. By the end of 1969, 11 fields had been discovered and the first five were in production. After this initial phase of very high success rates, the new Esso-BHP discoveries were limited throughout the early 1970s to Cobia, Sunfish and Hapuku.

There have been many more wells drilled. Notably, though, West Tuna in 1984 was the last of the giant oil discoveries by the Esso-BHP joint venture partners. There have been several smaller discoveries since, and there are now 24 offshore platforms and installations in Bass Strait, which feed a network of about 600 kilometres of underwater pipelines and keep the oil and gas flowing 24 hours a day. While production will continue for many years to come, the depleted sections of the basin are of particular interest for carbon storage, the subject of the legislation before the House today.

I make these points to highlight my view that, when it comes to dealing with the complex issues and claimed impacts of climate change and when it comes to the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Gippslanders have a very keen interest in the outcome. We are very much at the pointy end of this debate. They are our jobs that will be directly affected in the oil and gas industry, in agriculture and, most significantly, in the power industry in the Latrobe Valley.

As I indicated in my maiden speech, if we are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and we accept that climate change is real then we are going to need a strong and sustainable economy to deal with the challenges it presents. In my region there are forecasts of storm surges and sea level rises. While I may personally doubt the extent and veracity of some of those claims, if those scenarios are accurate it will cost billions of dollars to relocate public infrastructure and mitigate the damage in low-lying coastal towns.

I liken the issue to household insurance: I do not expect my house to burn down but I will take out insurance every year just in case. In relation to the climate change forecasts, I have some serious doubts about some of the claims but I am not prepared to rule them out completely and I am prepared to take action that is proportionate to the threat. My insurance in this regard is to support practical and sustainable action which is good for the environment, but I am not prepared to sacrifice our economic future in the process. We need to tackle these challenges from a position of economic strength, which draws into sharp perspective the reckless spending spree of the Rudd government. I fear the government’s debt and deficit binge has left the cupboard bare.

In relation to the legislation before the House, Gippsland will need to be at the forefront of research and development to successfully capture and store carbon in the future. As the technology is developed on an industrial scale, it is likely that Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley will be key players. Studies have shown that the Gippsland Basin has the capacity to store very large volumes of carbon dioxide. In the context of the brown coal industry, there are obviously enormous gains to be made in the future, but it will take time; it is not going to happen overnight.

What concerns me is the enormous rush with which the government is trying to ram through its flawed CPRS legislation. I do not believe there has been enough time to explain the potential impacts on regional communities.

As I have said before in this place, carbon capture and storage may be the big ticket item which provides the answer to the issues facing the brown coal power generators but we are several years away from achieving the desired result. I agree with the previous speaker, the member for Corangamite, when he said it is not a silver bullet. I believe there will be a suite of solutions. I am very confident in the capacity of engineers and scientists at work on finding technology-based solutions for many of the challenges we are facing from climate change.

I do not believe it is in anyone’s interest to jeopardise the economic viability of the power generators in Latrobe Valley by moving too fast or by placing too heavy a burden on their operations. I note the presence of the Minister for Resources and Energy in the room. It was great to see the minister in Longford for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Esso-BHP joint venture partners’ activities. I have met with the power generators in Latrobe Valley and I understand the government has too, but was anyone actually listening on the government’s side of the table? Was anyone actually listening to the concerns that were being raised by the generators?

Let me set the scene for House about the importance of the power industry in Latrobe Valley. It is the most important industry in the region, bar none. Latrobe City commissioned an independent report into the economic importance of the Latrobe Valley coal and electricity industry. It reported back in August last year and it makes quite compelling reading. As a local member, I fully understand the significance of the following figures. It is estimated that the value added in Latrobe City from the coal and electricity industry sectors is $802 million per year, or 21.2 per cent of the gross regional product. There are 125 people employed in the coal mining sector and 1,705 people employed in the electricity supply sector. The flow-on impacts of such a major industry is obviously very significant to the entire region in terms of the training opportunities it provides to young people and the contracting opportunities for the private sector. It is just a critically important industry for the future of our region.

We have a vast reserve of brown coal in Latrobe Valley and it has underpinned the economic growth of Victoria. We are proud of the contribution the Latrobe Valley has made to the wealth of this nation and it is vital that it is allowed to continue in the future. One of the frustrating aspects of the debate on climate change is that the pride in our achievements in providing a base load power supply to the community over many decades has now been eroded to some extent. The media coverage of Latrobe Valley smokestacks on a nightly basis is actually quite disappointing for the people who live in the community. They are very proud of the contribution they have made to making Australia the great nation it is today through the supply of a cheap and reliable form of energy. I continue to encourage my community to be proud of their achievements in the past and to also look forward with confidence in the future. It is a cautionary note for the government, I believe, in how it handles the issue of climate change in the communities which I believe are being portrayed unfairly as the villains in the whole debate.

The shadow minister touched on the many of the issues that have been raised by the Energy Supply Association of Australia in its negotiations with the government regarding the issue of the CPRS and the legislation before the House. The association says there are four critical issues which are not adequately addressed in the current CPRS design. I will not go through them all in complete detail but the essence of their arguments relates to that need for certainty in the ongoing financial viability of the existing assets. In an environment where there is global economic uncertainty and the generators are seeking to refinance billions of dollars to continue their operation, there needs to be sufficient information for investors to commit to long-lived capital assets.

The industry is trying to engage with the government and so is the opposition. We do have time to get this right and the government must take the time to fully inform the community about the impact of this legislation. For example, the CEO of Loy Yang Power, Ian Nethercote, has cautioned that previous reports could be seriously underestimating the real impact on electricity prices. There is a lot riding on these very complex issues around the CPRS and the legislation before the House today. We must not get ahead of ourselves and place Australian jobs at risk.

Just last month we had the release of one of the most alarming reports yet about the impact on jobs. The report, Securing SMEs in Australia’s low carbon future, should be ringing alarm bells across the nation, particularly in regional areas. I am concerned that we have not had a single word of caution from those opposite, particularly from the regional MPs. The member for Charlton, and now the Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change, Mr Greg Combet, seems to have undergone a complete transformation. Once the great champion of working families, now he stands in this place and very rarely mentions the impact of the CPRS on jobs, particularly in his own community.

I am concerned that regional Labor MPs in the coalmining seats are silent on this issue. There is not a peep out of them. It is the silence of the lambs. It is as if some of them are told: ‘Come here, turn up, sit down, shut up and vote when we tell you to.’ I am very disappointed that some of them are not prepared to at least raise the concerns that their regional constituents are putting to them. I have a completely different view about my role as a representative of a community which has a strong dependence on the coal industry and brown coal fired power generators. You cannot come here and be the Marcel Marceau of government. You need to get up and speak out on behalf of your constituents.

If we rush down the path of the Rudd government’s model, we run the risk of sending our jobs overseas to countries which do not have an emissions trading scheme, and our economic circumstances will deteriorate. We must stand up for jobs in our regions. We need to be in a position of financial strength to mitigate any impacts of a changing climate. I fear that under this government’s current approach we will be sending jobs overseas and there will be an increase in total global emissions at the same time. We will be poorly placed to undertake mitigation measures if they are ever required.

I will go back to the report on the CPRS and its impact on small and medium sized businesses. This report is independent. It was released by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. As I said, the findings are alarming. I will quote a couple of the key results. The report states:

Our findings show that the CPRS will generate additional costs that would erode firm profitability at marked levels of between 4 to 7 percent on average. In some cases, we found that the impact of additional carbon costs could erode firm profitability entirely. Erosion of firm profitability at these average levels could be significant enough to change investment incentives.

It further says:

Over time, relatively higher domestic transport and freight costs will stimulate a geographic realignment towards increased urbanisation and reduced rural and regional economic activity. The anticipated geographic realignment may create second- and third-order effects that increase the economic impact from covering transport fuels in the CPRS. For instance, structural unemployment is likely to rise due to a draining of economic activity from more remote regions.

As I said, there are some alarm bells in these comments from the ACCI. The reflection on increased urbanisation touches on an issue that I believe is probably an unintended consequence of the government’s handling of the CPRS. But it basically warns that we risk a depopulation of regional Australia. I, for one, would hate to see that happen. Judging by the actions of some Labor governments at state level and the federal government’s handling of issues such as the water buybacks, I fear that the view is that it is much easier to manage a population if they are not living in rural and regional locations. It is a real concern for all MPs from regional localities.

I will now reflect on a report that came directly to this place through the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy. The recommendations enclosed within its report also reflect heavily on the legislation we have before the House and the opportunity we have to take the time to get this right. Among its recommendations, the Senate committee on climate policy’s report makes the point very clearly that there is a need to accurately model the impact of the CPRS in the context of the changed global financial circumstances and the impact they will have on individual regions. The committee says:

The committee considers the modelling undertaken by Treasury to be inadequate and recommends that the Government direct Treasury to undertake further modelling.

It lists a whole range of areas where modelling is required. It goes on to say:

The committee recommends that the CPRS legislation not be passed in its current form.

Obviously, that was prior to the CPRS legislation being knocked back, in the previous sitting weeks. But I think it is still relevant when we look at what is going to happen in the next few months. We are looking at what technology or opportunity is there for climate change mitigation. We also need to look at how this is going to play out in the world scheme of things. Do we wait until we get some indication from the global community in relation to where it is prepared to move on total global emissions? I would certainly suggest that we should be waiting and taking the time to get it right.

I call on the government to commission the modelling on the impact on individual regions that is referred to by the Senate committee report. I fear that without that modelling we are flying blind. I also fear that we are misleading our communities by not telling them what the true impacts are. There is a general consensus in the community that there is an issue with climate variability. Call it climate change or call it what you like, but there is a general acceptance in the community that looking after the environment is a very important initiative and something that we are all very conscious of. But I do not believe that we have ever actually come clean with the community and told them what the costs are going to be or what the real impacts are going to be for some of the regional communities.

As I said earlier, the Gippsland and Latrobe Valley region is very much at the pointy end of any decisions that are made about our agricultural industries, the oil and gas sector and the power sector. I believe we need to keep a very firm sense of perspective in this debate regarding these issues of energy security and, in the case of the legislation before the House, regarding carbon capture and storage technology. Given that our nation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is less than two per cent, we need to be extremely mindful of the international effort. How far is the international community prepared to go in partnership with Australia?

I believe that any policy which results in job losses in my region will have an adverse impact on every part of community life. The government must take time to accurately model the likely impacts and come clean with the Australian public. We need to be telling Australians what the costs will be in terms of potential job losses, energy prices, fuel prices and the overall cost of living.

I am concerned that the Prime Minister stands in this place and talks about saving Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, but he never talks about the cost. It is a ridiculous proposition in any case. As if Australia acting alone can actually achieve anything that will come remotely close to saving Kakadu or the Great Barrier Reef given our total contribution of less than two per cent to total global emissions. It is farcical for the Prime Minister to stand in this place and make those claims. We cannot act alone if we are serious about trying to save these icons, if indeed they are even jeopardised—and that is a whole different argument we can have.

The community accepts that we need to take action, but acting alone and ahead of the world without any global commitment to the reduction of emissions is a farcical situation. I call on the Prime Minister to start being more honest with the Australian community about what can really be achieved by Australia taking action in this manner and what the costs will really be. It may be sacrilege for those opposite but there are many people who have a more pragmatic and practical approach to this issue and they do not blindly extol some of the virtues of the extreme green religion. They are prepared to act prudently and not sacrifice Australian jobs in the process. I would rather see this debate focus on the issues which all Australians can support rather than this juvenile typecasting of being either sceptics or true believers.

There is overwhelming sentiment and goodwill in the community for action to protect and sustain the environment for future generations to enjoy some of these great attractions that we have across our nation. There is no question that Gippslanders are no different from other Australians in this regard. We are passionate about our local environment. We have magnificent beaches, forests and local waterways. We are very practical people and we have thousands of people involved as volunteers in groups like Landcare who are getting their hands dirty and doing the practical environmental work that is required despite the cuts in funding by the Rudd government. It was amazing to listen to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in this place yesterday shamelessly promoting the 20-year anniversary of Landcare, yet not even referring to the massive cuts in the number of Landcare facilitators across Victoria which have occurred on his watch.

As I mentioned in my previous contribution to the House, the real practical environmentalists are in our regional communities. Farmers and landholders are investing in whole-of-farm plans to reduce nutrient run-off into local streams and undertaking a range of practical works. We have many industries that are interested in technology to clean up their operations. I think the brown coal power industry will obviously be partners in anything that comes out of the legislation before the House today. But there is still a great deal of confusion about climate change and the government’s proposed response with the emissions trading scheme. We do need a proper debate and a fair, open and honest debate in language that people can understand exactly what we are talking about.

I refer to the contributions of other members in relation to this legislation, particularly the member for Werriwa, who pointed out that there will not be just one approach to these very complex issues. I agree wholeheartedly. To use country parlance, I suggest that there is more than one way to skin a cat. There will be a suite of measures required in terms of carbon capture and storage, storing more carbon in the soil and developing all the renewable energy forms, which have general support of the House given the passage of the RET legislation quite recently.

Just like the member for Flinders who spoke extensively about a range of other options for sustainably managing the environment, I believe there are many options which need to be fully explored in addition to this carbon capture and storage legislation. We need to be acting responsibly, and in my mind that includes protecting our energy security and our baseload power supply from the Gippsland-Latrobe Valley region and acting in a way that protects jobs in the future for the Gippsland community. I commend the previous speakers and the minister for his interest in the legislation. His attendance in Gippsland earlier this year was much appreciated by the community. I also commend the former minister for the work that he has done in this area. I thank the House.

(Time expired)

2009 SEPT 07 – Telstra $2.20 Billing Fee

TELSTRA $2.20 BILLING FEE

September 07, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.10 pm) — To begin with, I would like to commend the member for Franklin for moving the motion before the House and also associate myself with the comments by the previous speakers. The motion refers in part to Telstra’s recent announcement that it will introduce a new bill payment fee of $2.20 for customers who choose to pay their bills by mail or in cash in person. The Telstra media release of 20 July 2009 announcing this decision said:

Commencing on 14 September 2009, Telstra will charge a $2.20 administration fee for each bill payment sent by mail or made in person at a Telstra Shop or Australia Post, unless an exemption applies.

It is obviously an effort by Telstra to coerce customers into using the bill-paying options which suit Telstra—that is, direct debit or internet based options, or phone options using credit cards. For many cards, the press release continued:

The existing credit card payment processing fee will increase to one per cent of the payment amount…

Telstra has informed my office—and I assume that many other members have been contacted by Telstra in recent times—that these other payment options are free to use, but the cynic in me wants to ask for how long their use will be free. Will Telstra guarantee that such options will remain free to use in the future? I seem to recall the Australian banking system encouraging more and more customers to use automatic teller machines, which were free to use when they were first introduced; then came limits on the number of transactions and, of course, fees for use.

I can understand the business rationale behind Telstra’s decision but I am inclined to think the company is definitely putting profits ahead of people. I believe the decision is mean spirited and shows a lack of respect for the millions of Australian customers who support the company and its products. Changing customers’ behaviour through such punitive measures, even a relatively modest penalty of $2.20, is something I am not personally comfortable with, and my reservations are shared by many others in my electorate. I have received about 20 phone calls and letters of complaint from Gippslanders who are not happy about the changes, and I have asked the minister for communications to investigate the legality of introducing this fee for customers who are already on a contract with Telstra.

There is no doubt that electronic transactions are becoming more popular, and it is probably an inevitable transition as younger, more tech savvy customers move through the system. But I fear that Telstra is trying to force a social change for economic gain, and it is effectively punishing its older customers and those who are less inclined to adopt new technology. Many people are simply not comfortable using new technology to conduct their financial affairs; they either do not trust the systems or have not developed the necessary skills.

And I take up the point made by the member for Franklin that, in many of our regional communities, people simply do not have access to the broadband services required. This decision will tend to impact more heavily on people who can least afford it and those who are less educated, who are likely to have a lower income in the first place and may not even own a computer or have access to credit cards.

Telstra says this is a commercial decision and the increases are consistent with industry practice—and, to its credit, Telstra has announced a range of exemptions from the new fees applying to pensioners, healthcare card holders and people with disabilities. But it does seem an odd situation when Australian residents are being penalised for using our legal tender. I welcome the motion’s further call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to ‘investigate the impact on consumers of these types of changes’.

I also take up the member for Braddon’s remarks in regard to broader concerns about the more impersonal systems of automation which are replacing face-to-face contact, which has fallen out of favour as companies chase bigger profits. I do not think it is drawing too long a bow to relate that to the increasingly impersonal nature of many of our communities, particularly our major cities. If you walk down the street of any Australian city, you will pass dozens of people plugged into their iPods, mobile phones or other electronic devices; they will be talking to or texting someone else or listening to music. It seems to me that, the more connected we have become in terms of communications technology, the less connected we have become in terms of our personal interactions in our own communities.

I am not suggested for a second that this is Telstra’s fault, but the decision to discourage people from actually popping into a Telstra shop or Australia Post to pay their bills is another small step down that path. It may seem like a relatively minor point, but discouraging another opportunity for people to actually talk to each other while conducting their business, rather than tap numbers on a keyboard or use some other form of automation, simply adds, I believe, to the social disconnect in our community.

It may suit Telstra to force its customers away from paying their bills in person, but it certainly does not suit many Australians who do not trust electronic transactions and like the security of knowing they have actually handed over money to pay their bills. In the grand scheme of things, a $2.20 penalty may not appear to be a big issue, but it is amongst the people who have contacted my office and, I think, in the broader Australian community.

This fee impacts more heavily on people who can least afford it and adds to the increasing social disconnection within our communities. I commend this motion to the House and I congratulate the member for Franklin for bringing the House’s attention to it.

(Time expired)

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