2009 In Parliament
HEALTH LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (MIDWIVES AND PRACTITIONERS) BILL 2009
August 20, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.40 pm) — I rise to speak in relation to the Health Legislation Amendment (Midwives and Nurse Practitioners) Bill 2009 and two related bills. I note at the outset the very diplomatic way in which the member for Blair concluded his speech in relation to the need for further negotiations. Without wishing to put words in his mouth, I think he was calling for some further consideration of the issue of choice, which I will get to a bit later on.
I note also at the outset that this is a complex and somewhat emotional issue for many people involved in the debate. Despite the fact that it is legislation which I do not believe adequately deals with the opportunity for Australian women to choose to have a homebirth in the future, I must say that I agree with most of the measures that are contained in the bills. During her second reading speech the minister highlighted the fact that the bills before the House will facilitate access by patients of appropriately qualified and experienced midwives and nurse practitioners to the Medicare Benefits Scheme and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The bills seek to remove barriers to the provision of care and, like the minister, I am hopeful that this will lead to improved access to services for the community, particularly in regional areas, which I am most passionate about, where it is already very difficult to recruit and retain a range of health professionals. I see some opportunities coming out of these bills that may assist regional communities.
On that point, I would like to highlight an issue of major concern to residents of the Sale district at the moment, the impending closure of RMIT University’s nursing course in Sale. Like many other regional areas, Gippsland has a marked shortage of qualified health professionals. Just this week there was another letter to the editor in the local newspaper from a young mother who could not get her daughter in to see a GP in either Sale or Maffra. The baby was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia. Lack of qualified health professionals is causing health issues, which are always of great significance in regional communities. Causing great distress in my community is the news that RMIT University will end its partnership with the East Gippsland Institute of TAFE and no longer offer a nursing course in Sale. It will not accept any new students from next year, which is a cause for concern, but there is also a long-term impact on nursing resources in our region.
Of immediate concern, though, is the commitment which has already been made to the 40 students who are in their first or second year of study. These students have committed to the three years of the course and are now being told they will have to travel to Churchill or Bundoora to finish their studies. The students are coming to me most upset by the changes, which have been made mid-course. Many are mothers who need to be in Sale to collect children from school or who have part-time work commitments that will not allow them to make the trip to Churchill on a daily basis. Common sense would suggest that we need to do whatever we can as a community to make sure that these students get to complete their course at Sale, as we can benefit from having 40 or more qualified nurses with ties to our local community.
I have written to the state and federal health ministers to seek their support in this regard and I met with the minister’s office today. I must say in commendation to the minister and her staff that the process of having a drop-in centre regularly on the Thursday of sitting weeks is very much appreciated by backbenchers like me. It provides an opportunity to meet directly with her and her staff to raise issues of concern in our electorates. I commend the minister for taking the initiative and I encourage other ministers who may be listening today to consider the opportunity to do so themselves. It is a brief drop-in service, but the five minutes spent face to face with the minister can overcome a lot of concerns or issues within our communities. It helps to build a better bridge between the parties and also to inform the minister regarding issues on the ground, which I think is of benefit to her and her staff. As a backbencher I certainly appreciate the opportunity to raise those issues directly with her.
Looking to the future, I believe there is a very real threat of not having enough nurses to service our local health systems throughout regional Australia. MPs from regional areas all understand that the evidence reflects that with the opportunity to train our own kids in the health professions there is more likelihood that they will return to offer those services to our communities in the future. The cancellation of this particular nursing course has been compounded by the proposed changes to youth allowance, which will leave many locals unable to afford to attend university. We need to explore all the options we can to create more opportunities for our young people to be trained in the local community and to overcome the accommodation and cost-of-living pressures which place a disproportionate burden on rural and regional students. I urge the government to work with RMIT to allow those local nursing students to complete their studies at Sale and to work with the East Gippsland Institute of TAFE to secure future opportunities for nursing and other health studies at Sale.
Returning directly to the legislation before the House: as the minister has stated, it is long-overdue recognition of our nursing and midwifery workforce. Coming from a regional area, I have seen first-hand the amazing contribution our midwifery workforce makes in maternity services. We have seen a situation throughout regional communities where there has been a gradual closing of birthing centres right across regional Victoria. I reflect on the situation I have in my electorate in the far east of the region, at Orbost. At a time when there are a lot of birthing centres being closed down around regional Victoria, the Orbost Regional Health service is taking steps in a completely different direction by increasing the number of births at Orbost. It has a very strong team of midwives leading the service, with professional support provided, I believe, through the Bairnsdale Regional Health Service.
It provides a great opportunity for the mums in the Orbost community to not have to travel so much in order to give birth. I commend the Chief Executive Officer of the Orbost Regional Health service, Therese Tierney, and her approximately 150 staff based in Orbost and the services they provide to our community. I want to spend time—as I believe many others will—in this debate focusing on the one area where the bills do not really accommodate my real concerns, which relate to the issue of midwife assisted home births. Under the maternity reforms, the government is refusing to extend these new arrangements for midwives to include home births. I quote directly from the minister’s speech:
Medicare benefits and PBS prescribing will not be approved for deliveries outside clinical settings, and the Commonwealth supported professional indemnity cover will not respond to claims relating to homebirths.
I accept again from the outset that there are many complex and competing issues to be addressed in this entire debate but we must, I believe, begin by setting aside our own personal prejudices. I come to this debate with only a small level of experience—four times in hospital for four healthy, beautiful young children.
Our birthing experiences were very positive. I would suggest my wife and I did not even give a second thought to the idea of home birthing. It is something that certainly would not have crossed our minds as a personal choice. In both Sale and Bairnsdale, where we had our children, we had access to highly regarded obstetricians and an excellent team of nurses and midwives throughout the entire experience. As much as you can enjoy the experience, we did—perhaps me more so than my wife, I would have to admit. My wife certainly enjoyed the continuity of care that was provided. Being in a regional setting, we had close contact with the staff at all times, and the obstetrician was available at various stages during the labours. But the midwives in particular were on hand throughout each of our children’s births, and we could not have been happier with the outcomes.
But this is not always the case. I respect the right of a woman to choose, within reason, when, where and how she decides to give birth. This is a complex and— I agree—an emotional issue, and far be it from me, particularly as a man, to be telling women what is best for them or how they should plan to give birth; I see that the member for Ballarat, who is in the chamber, is nodding in agreement. Unfortunately, that is exactly what these bills before us seek to do. The bills effectively rule out home births as an option in the future.
There is a very real risk, I believe, that such births will continue and that they will be forced underground. I think that is a less than ideal scenario, which I believe the minister herself has publicly acknowledged. It is a genuine concern for the mothers, babies and the government itself. I do acknowledge the minister has been questioned on the topic in the media. I think she is very conscious of the concern in the community that, if this results in the practice of home births being forced underground, that is not a desirable result for anyone— certainly not the minister or the government. The question before us is how we can prevent getting ourselves into a mess in this regard.
Under the Midwife Professional Indemnity (Commonwealth Contribution) Scheme Bill, the minister claims that the bill will improve the choices that are available to women in relation to maternity care. As others have indicated already—and I do again today— the one choice that is effectively being ruled out is home birthing. The bill establishes a scheme to provide professional indemnity insurance cover for eligible midwives at an affordable cost, and I think that is a positive move. For the purpose of the bill, the definition of an ‘eligible midwife’ is one who is licensed, registered or authorised to practise midwifery under a state or territory law. The failure to extend the cover to midwife assisted home births needs further explanation, I believe, by the government. Has that decision been made on the basis of cost alone? If so, what modelling has been done to support that decision and has it been released publicly? But if the decision is based on the issue of medical risks then that argument needs to be debated more in public. Like many others, I have read information from both sides of the debate and I am not convinced that the risks are as great as some people in the medical profession like to present. I believe there is an element of a medical turf war behind some of the rhetoric that is used to discredit home births at the moment. Again I indicate that, as a personal choice, my wife and I would never have chosen to put ourselves in that homebirth situation but that is a choice we had the opportunity to make. I am not convinced that we are doing the right thing today by the women who choose to have a midwife assisted home birth.
I would like to spend a bit of time referring to the commentary about this issue as it has appeared in the popular press in recent times. In the Sunday Herald Sun there was a debate on the issue between a highly respected obstetrician, Peter Mourik, and the Homebirth Australia spokesperson, Justine Caines. Dr Mourik is, as I said, a highly respected obstetrician who has done some great work in regional Victoria. He supports the government’s position and believes the ruling will stop women from taking unnecessary risks.
Dr Mourik says:
Women who choose to give birth at home expect everything to be normal but they don’t consider how far they are
from expert help or even notify the ambulance service that they may need urgent assistance. 80 % of women can have their baby in a paddock but the problem is choosing these women. You just never know what will happen.
I am not for a second going to argue with Dr Mourik’s assessment. As I said, he is a highly respected obstetrician. But I will say that the midwives whom I have met with, and their clients, are also very aware of the potential risks. It is their belief that the continuity of care that they can provide allows them to follow a birth plan which acknowledges these risks and recognises when to seek further medical attention if required. They are absolutely passionate about the health of the mother and the baby and they make their assessments on whether it is appropriate to go ahead with a home birth at every step of the journey, in discussion with the family members.
Of course, things can go wrong—they go wrong in hospitals too—but the midwives I have met with would never proceed with a homebirth if they assessed the situation to be at a higher risk than normal. These women who choose a homebirth are so passionate about that choice that I believe they will go ahead with it anyway regardless of the government’s ruling on access to professional indemnity insurance for midwives.
As Justine Caines argued in that same article I referred to earlier:
Women will still choose homebirth. Many mothers have had bad experiences in hospital and won’t repeat that. Why does the government fund women who are choosing to have c-sections but not women who are choosing to give birth at home? Homebirth Australia would like the government to present a package for pregnant women that works a bit like the baby bonus. Every woman would be given a sum of money to spend on her pregnancy treatment, then it’s up to her whether she sees a midwife at home or an obstetrician in a hospital. It is putting the choice back into women’s hands.
Even under that scenario, there is no question in my mind that most women would still choose to give birth in a hospital, and that, of course, is their right. But I wonder: who are we to be taking away a woman’s right to choose a homebirth, as we are doing with this legislation before the House? By excluding midwives practising homebirths from the professional indemnity insurance cover and making insurance a condition of registration, we are effectively, if not technically, making it unlawful. Being subject to a $30,000 fine is certainly a huge discouragement to the midwives. I hold grave fears for the health and safety of women and their babies if we do in fact force homebirths underground.
The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs Legislation Committee received 2,000 submissions when it inquired into these bills. That is an amazing response, and it reflects, I believe, the level of community interest and the absolute passion in this debate. The submissions were primarily from midwives who provide homebirth services and from parents who described their experiences with homebirth and support for homebirths. The proposed legislation was generally supported in the submissions, but again the issue of the government’s failure to accommodate people who choose homebirths was a stumbling block for many of the people who made submissions. I quote from that Senate report:
Many submitters commented that homebirths will still occur but with an unregistered care provider who may or may not have qualifications or without any assistance.
One submission warned:
If homebirth is not available through registered midwives, the reality is that many women will still choose to birth at home either unsupported or with the help of non-registered midwives—this will likely worsen outcomes for mothers and newborns.
Concerns were also expressed by a number of witnesses to the inquiry that the proposed changes would lead to an increase in free birthing—that is, giving birth without a trained care provider on site. I would suggest that this would be the worst possible result. If a certain cohort of mothers feel their choices have been taken away from them and they are attracted to free birthing without any trained support, I fear for the safety of the mothers and their unborn children. I do not wish to be scaremongering on the topic by any stretch of the imagination, but that is a genuine and legitimate concern.
Mrs Elizabeth Wilkes, from the Australian Private Midwives Association, commented:
The disasters of women turning up bleeding, with babies unable to be born or whatever else that people are concerned about will certainly increase if this legislation goes ahead as it stands.
We cannot say that we have not been warned when we have people in respected positions within the industry— if it can appropriately be called an industry— coming out and giving quite cautionary tales to members both on our side of the House and within the government. It is also fair to say that, much as we have been warned, the medical profession is deeply divided on this issue.
The President of the AMA, Dr Andrew Pesce, stated to the inquiry:
The government was absolutely correct when it decided not to extend these bills to cover home births. The fundamental goal of maternity care must be a healthy mother and a healthy baby … It is not appropriate for the Commonwealth to introduce payment and insurance arrangements that encourage or sanction activities that inherently carry more risk.
That position that it inherently carries more risk is disputed by many on the other side of the debate. There are many competing views, but the one point that they all agree on is that the welfare of Australian mothers and their unborn children must be paramount in our considerations. That is why I am uncomfortable with the failure of these bills to recognise the right of a woman to choose a homebirth with a qualified and registered midwife. If we do force this practice underground, we will regret the day that we voted to make it harder for women to choose a homebirth.
In recommending that these bills be passed, the Senate committee acknowledged that the minister is currently working with the states and territories on potential options to prevent homebirthing from going underground. The committee says that this will include investigating indemnity options for homebirths that could be progressed without making the insurance unaffordable. But I repeat my earlier comments. I cannot recall the minister actually releasing any facts and figures to suggest that it is unaffordable or impossible to progress the issue immediately.
I note that the Victorian government is attempting to come up with its own solution, and a report in the Age newspaper on 9 August describes a pilot program where the state government will work with two Melbourne hospitals to provide for midwives assisting in homebirths to be covered by the hospitals’ own indemnity insurance.
That does sound like a positive move, and it may be a compromise position that can overcome this hurdle that we are confronted with. The Victorian scheme is expected to start next year, and homebirths will be restricted to low-risk pregnancies, although I must say that my understanding from discussions with midwives in my electorate is that homebirths are already setting that standard of working only with low-risk pregnancies. The pilot involves only two Melbourne hospitals at this stage and will not offer any comfort to the people in my electorate who are concerned by the legislation before the House. In any case, there are already midwives who have gone on the public record saying they do not want to work under that hospital system or situation again, so I believe it is an intractable position.
In conclusion, I would like to express my support for that fundamental right of choice in relation to this issue. I acknowledge, as do the registered midwives I have met with, that homebirthing is not an appropriate option for all women, nor is it the choice of the overwhelming majority of women, but it is the choice of a small number of Australian women and, if it were properly accommodated in the legislation, there would be the possibility, indeed, that more women would take up the option in the future. It is not something, as I said, that I would aspire to with my wife, but we are kidding ourselves as members of parliament if we think that homebirths will stop as a result of these bills going before the House. I am genuinely fearful of the impact the legislation will have if it forces the practice underground or leads to the more risky practice of free birthing. It is not in anyone’s interests for that to happen.
I think the member for Blair put it very well:
Childbirth is an intensely personal experience, and the decisions which are made by expectant mothers need to be supported within reason.
No disrespect intended, but I am unconvinced by the mainstream medical profession’s more extreme arguments against homebirths. I accept there is an element of increased risk in some circumstances, but it is entirely manageable in the majority of cases with the care and attention of a highly qualified and registered midwife. I cannot escape from the fact that women should have choice when it comes to deciding what they do with their bodies, and that extends to the issue of childbirth. I strongly urge the minister to continue working with the states and territories to resolve the issue of indemnity insurance and amend the legislation to allow existing services to continue to be offered.
I will give my final comments to the convenor of the East Gippsland Birth Support Group, Cath Lanigan, who has written to me in relation to these bills. Cath lives in Metung, a beautiful village on the Gippsland Lakes.
Only a small percentage of women currently seek homebirths but that doesn’t mean it’s not important or should be disregarded. It provides a choice which enables birth to be a very natural, normal event which in the vast majority of cases it is.
It provides women with the choice to involve other family members, midwives they know and trust, have their own autonomy, and the chance to have one of the most intimate moments in their life in the comfort of their own home surrounded by people who are invited to be there.
I had a home birth with my second child, here in Metung, and I know what a beautiful and positive experience it can be for mother, baby and family. It would be an absolute travesty if this option was no longer available as a choice.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – GAP YEAR STUDENTS
August 18, 2009
Mr CHESTER (3.43 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Education. I refer the minister to the parental
income test that prevents a student from the average Australian farming family from receiving dependant
youth allowance despite the fact that the average farm income was only $62½ thousand last year.
Given that the minister now proposes to remove the gap year provision, which has until now allowed such
students to receive independent youth allowance, where does the minister propose that these families
should find the money to send their children to the city to attend university? Minister, when are you going
to give a fair go to students on their gap year?
Ms GILLARD — I thank the member for his question because it gives me the opportunity to explain
something that I think he would find deeply disturbing: that, under the current student financing arrangements,
the participation of regional and rural Australians in universities has gone down. If the current arrangements
were working to facilitate the kinds of families that he cares about, we would not have seen that result. So, in
terms of the kinds of families he cares about—and I accept that he has raised this because of his personal
concern about it—the statistics tell you that the current system is not working. When you talk to people about
youth allowance, many can tell you a personal story about a very high income family that has a child living
at home and attending university, who, through the gap year provisions, has managed to qualify for full income
support. Indeed, the Bradley review pointed to the fact that in a large percentage of cases—36 per cent of
cases, where people are living at home and getting the full allowance—there were these kinds of problems.
The Bradley review told us that there were families with incomes of more than $200,000 where people
were getting the full student income support and living at home. That is not the circumstance of the families
that you are talking about. The families that you are talking about have to send their kids away to study.
They are families who earn, by Australian standards, middle incomes. That is why we have changed the parental
means test so people in those kinds of income brackets will qualify for youth allowance based on
their parental income. It depends, of course, on the number of children in the family but if you had two
children in the family studying away from home you could be talking about parental income of up to
$140,000 and still qualifying for youth allowance. And, if you do qualify for youth allowance, then you will
also qualify for the relocation scholarship—$4,000 in the first year and $1,000 each year thereafter—and you
will qualify for the Student Start-up Scholarship of $2,254 a year.
Mr Pyne — Mr Speaker, on a point of order, the minister was asked specifically about young people in their
gap year. We simply ask her: will she fix the problem that she has created for young people in their gap year?
The SPEAKER — Order! The Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question.
Ms GILLARD — Our changes will deliver greater benefits to the sons and daughters of lower and middle income Australians
without requiring them to take a gap year.
Mr Chester — We have got a gap year right now.
Ms GILLARD — The other problem with a gap year, and I am sure the member for Gippsland would
be concerned about this, is that if you set up a whole system which requires people to take a gap year in order
to qualify, many people who go on that gap year actually never go back into education. We should regret
the loss of those children from Australian universities.
The system that we are putting forward is one that will make a difference to precisely the families that you are
talking about. That stands in stark contrast to the opposition who, in government, did nothing to address the
student financing system that was seeing regional and rural participation go down. The National Party was
complicit in that, watching regional and rural participation go down. We believe in it.
PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – POLIO MOTION
August 17, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.30 pm) — In rising to speak on this important motion before the House, I congratulate
the member for Ballarat for raising the issue and her personal insights particularly in the context that
polio survivors continue to be the largest single disability group in Australia today. Like the previous speaker, I
have met with the representatives from Polio Australia and sufferers from within my own electorate and it has
given me a better insight into the challenges that many Australians face.
The epidemic of this terrible disease during the last century is certainly well known, but the continuation of suffering
by those affected has largely gone unnoticed in our modern society. Indeed, it is fair to say that polio is
largely seen as a disease of a previous generation. There is a lack of understanding about the late effects of polio
or post-polio syndrome and the impact that the disease is having on all of our communities today.
Within our local communities the effects of the disease continue to haunt many polio survivors and immigrants
who contracted the disease before they actually arrived on Australian shores. I do not suggest for a second that our
medical professionals have been complacent about their recognition of the disease. I think that we would all agree
that there have been several other medical issues that have perhaps attracted more attention in recent years and
post-polio syndrome has not been recognised to the extent that it probably needs to be in the future. I believe that
perhaps this lack of recognition has taken away the emphasis that the medical system previously had on eradicating
polio but also in providing adequate care for people going forward.
It is a case that Polio Australia have made throughout their campaign and their slogan is: ‘Polio forgotten but
not gone’. As I said, polio is seen as a disease of a previous generation and there is a concern that many people are
actually reluctant to talk about their experience and the effects that the disease has had on them throughout their
lives. Unfortunately there remains a certain stigma that surrounds this terrible disease, which we as a society, I
believe, have to try to overcome and remove if we are going to provide the assistance required in the future.
I believe that the lack of communication and financial support between the polio support groups and the community
has probably contributed to a lack of funding across all levels of government to investigate and resolve
many of the effects and the problems associated with post-polio syndrome. Indeed, I am advised by the Parliamentary
Secretary for Health that the Department of Health and Ageing does not currently provide any specific funding
to support post-polio syndrome. The department’s role under the current health funding arrangements is limited
to providing grants to the state and territory governments and they decide their own priorities.
The effects and the problems of post-polio syndrome are continuing to grow as the majority of the polio survivors
become older and more reliant on assistance from support groups and carers. Naturally, as our polio sufferers
age, their health needs will become more complex. Having met recently with Polio Australia, I understand the
need for funding to assist the support groups that work with the sufferers of this disease. I was advised by the
group that there are approximately 40,000 people suffering from a paralytic form of the disease and the number of
people suffering from the non-paralytic form could be as high as half a million. Importantly, there are forms of the
disease that show symptoms similar to other medical ailments, making it even more difficult for the medical profession.
This can lead to people with the disease being misdiagnosed or undiagnosed completely and such a failure
to diagnose the late effects of polio, or post-polio syndrome, can lead to an inappropriate treatment which, as Polio
Australia volunteers informed me, can actually lead to a further exacerbation of the condition and an escalation of
the symptoms for those sufferers.
There lies one of the most significant problems for Polio Australia. On a database at the moment they have
about 1,500 people, I understand, who are regarded as being affected by the disease and are registered on their
database. They need to expand that and get a better handle on the actual numbers of people involved in that, and
that is going to require funding. A significant amount of work is being done on the ground by the support groups
to meet the growing demand throughout regional communities, but a concern is that throughout all these support
groups there is actually only one paid role in Victoria at the moment. This lack of paid support is an issue for us
for a range of medical conditions, but certainly in polio it is emerging as a major concern for Polio Australia.
Polio Australia have argued—and I believe quite rightly so—that without the government’s future support they
will have a further impact on the volunteers who are required. The burden that is falling upon these volunteers is
probably too extreme for them, particularly as many of them are directly affected by the disease themselves. They
are right in saying that help is urgently required to help them support sufferers of post-polio syndrome in the future.
Too much of the burden is falling on the kind-hearted volunteers in our community.
I believe it is essential that the federal government works with the polio support groups, encourages more volunteers
and further assists organisations like Polio Australia in its endeavours. It is important that any services that
are provided in the future are made available to people in rural and regional areas, and that we take steps to overcome
that tyranny of distance which prevents people from accessing services. I commend the member for Ballarat
again for bringing the matter to the House’s attention.
HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPORT AMENDMENT (2009 BUDGET MEASURES) BILL 2009
August 12, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.15 pm) — I rise to speak in relation to the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. In doing so, I indicate that the opposition will be supporting the legislation although with some reservations in?relation to the issue associated with the abolishment of?Commonwealth scholarships and the fact that legislation?to replace those scholarships is not before House?at this stage.
I must express my disappointment that we are not?also debating that proposed legislation dealing with the eligibility criteria for the youth allowance that was announced in the budget, given the great deal of community debate and uncertainty that the minister has created in the lives of young Australians over the past four or five months, particularly those young Australians from rural and regional areas who are currently in their gap year. They were faced with this announcement in May and now face three months without any indication of the final shape of the government’s legislation in that regard.
I note that this legislation actually abolishes the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships with the replacement programs announced in the budget. The coalition does support, however, moving towards a more deregulated higher education sector with more flexibility for institutions and more responsiveness to student demand. It is by no means any suggestion that we have a perfect system now or that we would with the changes proposed, but we are working towards areas of improvement.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about improving access to higher education for regional students, but the action taken so far over the past 22 months does not recognise the enormous cost and the enormous economic barriers to participation for students from rural and regional communities. Last month the parliament of Victoria’s Education and Training Committee released its final report into geographical differences in the rate in which Victorian students participate in higher education. I give great credit to The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria, Peter Hall, who was a driving force behind the establishment of this inquiry in Victoria. Peter has had a long and very distinguished parliamentary career of more than 20 years and has a particular interest in regional education and tertiary education, given his background as a teacher firstly in the Latrobe Valley but also throughout regional Victoria.
Having said that, this was not a partisan report that was prepared by the Victorian parliament. It was a report of an all-party committee headed by Labor MP for the Ballarat East region, Mr Geoff Howard. It is relevant to the bill before the House today because it closely considers the issues associated with higher education support as we move forward. The bill before the House is the legislative instrument that delivers most of the measures included in the government’s response to the Bradley review. The state government inquiry highlights the problems we are facing in regional communities, particularly Victoria in this case. In his foreword, Mr Howard indicated that the inquiry attracted unprecedented interest from communities in every corner of the state. He also went on to point out that higher education was regarded as a significant issue in every community that the inquiry visited. I would just like to quote from the foreword to help set the tone.
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. This exciting time in young people’s lives inevitably brings a multitude of challenges, as they farewell family and friends and branch out into new environments. However, an even greater concern for many of these young people and their families is the high cost of university study, particularly the cost of living away from home. The Committee heard that these concerns are responsible for a disproportionately high university deferment rate among rural and regional students, many of whom may never go on to pursue their studies. 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 the committee chair believes that ‘all young people who must relocate to undertake their studies should be eligible to receive student income support’ is of critical concern to me, obviously, as a member from a regional electorate.
The report goes on in great detail to highlight that the biggest hurdle to participation in higher education for a lot of young people from rural and regional communities is the cost barrier. It is in this area in particular that I remain concerned about and critical of the Rudd government’s approach so far in terms of overcoming these economic barriers for regional students. I stress that these are by no means my own comments with no support. Throughout the electorate of Gippsland, I have received in the vicinity of 60 letters from concerned parents, students and teachers who have written to me and I have forwarded those concerns directly to the minister to highlight, on behalf of my constituents, concerns that have been raised in relation to the government’s changes which were proposed after the May budget.
I have also tabled a petition with more than 5,000 signatures on the same topic and I understand there have been similar petitions circulated throughout regional Australia by other coalition members of parliament. The response has been staggering from people who are concerned about the changes and the impacts they will have on students who are right now in their gap year. It is a critical issue when we are considering a bill tonight in relation to the broader issues of higher education support in that the way we look after our regional students in the future is an area of immense debate in rural and regional communities.
As I said, I have tabled a petition with more than 5,000 signatures. I understand other petitions with even more signatures have been tabled in the parliament over the past six to eight weeks. The minister’s response at this stage, however, has been disappointing in that she has accused me and other members on this side of the House of scaremongering on this particular issue. As I said, students, principals and Local Learning and Employment Network representatives have raised their concerns, and I have brought them to the minister’s attention. I must stress that these are people who are not party political in any sense at all; they are just concerned about this particular issue, and there is no sense at all that they are scaremongering.
Now it appears that the concerns are coming from the minister’s own side of politics—if not in this place then certainly in the Victorian state parliament. As I said, the chairman of the Victorian parliamentary committee that was commissioned to report on geographical differences is a Labor member of parliament.
It is an all-party committee which is dominated by the Labor party, and some regional Labor MPs at that. In the report, this is what the inquiry found—and I quote particularly from the executive summary in relation to the issue of the workforce criteria, which has caused great concern for students who are keen to be able to access higher education support in the future:
Throughout the inquiry, the Committee heard that for many rural and regional students, access to higher education is dependent on their ability to access the Youth Allowance through existing workforce participation criteria for independence. Although there are currently three workforce participation routes to independence, the Australian Government has announced that it is tightening the criteria. From 2010 only those young people who have worked for a minimum of 30 hours per week for 18 months will be eligible for Youth Allowance under the criteria for independence.
This is the critical point:
The Committee believes that this change will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas. The Committee firmly believes that all young people who are?required to relocate to undertake university studies should be?eligible to receive government income support, and has recommended that the Victorian Government advocate for this change to eligibility criteria for Youth Allowance. I say it is a critical point because it is fairly strong language from an all-party committee to be saying that a proposed change by the federal government in relation to the independent criteria for youth allowance would have a disastrous effect—not a mild effect, a modest effect or some impact. The committee has found it will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas. I wonder if the minister still thinks that it is scaremongering to be raising these concerns given?the direction that the Rudd government has taken in?relation to the youth allowance issue.
The legislation which is before the House this evening abolishes the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships, and replacement programs have been announced, as I understand, by the minister. It is, as I said earlier, regrettable that these programs are not ready to be put before the House today, because I think it goes to the heart of the concerns that are held by the students, the parents and the teachers throughout our nation.
To be fair to the minister, I think that the minister has been well intentioned in her efforts to crack down on anyone who has perhaps used the previous arrangements to their own benefit. Although the minister has stopped short of saying that they have been rorting the previous system, I think it is fair to say that there has been some illegitimate use and pushing of the envelope, if you like, in relation to the previous system. In my office I have received anecdotes of students who have been living at home—in metropolitan areas in particular—who have been able to achieve independent status under the previous model. I do not think anyone objects to a tightening up of those requirements—I do not think that should be of any concern—but I do not think that excuses the position we have got ourselves into now, where we are actually throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I think we have got ourselves into a position where we are going to discriminate further against regional students—and, I stress again, particularly those students who are right now in the middle of their gap year.
These are the students who took the advice of their school principals, sometimes of Centrelink offices and certainly of teachers and parents, who told them that, if they took a gap year and earned the $19,500, they would then be eligible to apply for the independent rate of youth allowance. My great concern is the issue of natural justice to these students who have been caught out by these changes. They have had no time to adjust to it, and we have now left them in a situation of great uncertainty. Three months have passed since the budget was announced. We have legislation before the House tonight which does not specifically counter that particular issue but goes towards the broader concept of higher education support. I do not think the minister has really appreciated the great depth of angst this is causing in regional communities. As I said earlier, I have been overwhelmed by the response in my office alone, with people signing a petition and writing to me directly. These students are at their wits’ end in trying to know what hope they will have to go on to achieve their university dreams if the one criterion available to them, the independent rate of youth allowance, is taken away and they are forced to work 30 hours per week for up to two years to achieve the higher criterion which has been set under the proposed changes.
There are a range of measures in the bill before the House which are positive in the sense that they are designed to improve access to higher education. There is the removal of the government-imposed cap on the number of students in courses offered by universities, which is expected to lead to an extra 50,000 students undertaking undergraduate study over the four years. There are also funding provisions and more generous indexation measures on basic funding to universities, at a cost of $577 million over the four years. But I hasten?to add again that these measures are worthless to many regional Australians if they cannot afford to access university campuses in the first place.
Again, I refer to the proposed changes to the youth allowance eligibility criteria. As I mentioned, the minister’s state colleagues have acknowledged that the proposed changes will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas, and I believe it is important to explain why. I am not convinced that the minister has fully appreciated the anger that is brewing within regional Australia in particular in relation to these proposed changes. As I said, the state government Education and Training Committee’s final report, Inquiry into geographical differences in the rate in which Victorian students participate in higher education, was quite scathing of the proposed changes.
What it demonstrates to us is that the government has not fully understood the economic challenges faced by rural and regional students. These are students who, by the nature of their location, have to move away from home to pursue their university dreams. Their parents are faced with costs in the vicinity of $15,000 or $20,000 per year in addition to what a metropolitan student may face in attending a university campus around the corner or somewhere with easy access to public transport.
So I highlight those concerns and hope the minister will take it at face value that the changes that are proposed to the independent youth allowance criteria simply are not going to meet the needs of regional students going forward and, in fact, will embed the discrimination. What is actually required in rural and regional areas is fair and equitable access to university education, and I plead with the minister to start listening to the concerns of the people on whose behalf I have written to her and also to the people who have signed petitions in support of the opposition’s campaign to provide better access for rural and regional students attending university.
RURAL ADJUSTMENT AMENDMENT BILL 2009
June 23, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.09 pm) — I congratulate the member for Pearce for her thoughtful contribution on and insights into this issue. It is with pleasure that I join the debate on the Rural Adjustment Amendment Bill 2009. The bill removes the current provision that a person may be reappointed on one occasion only to the National Rural Advisory Council, or NRAC. As all regional MPs would be aware, particularly those of the many drought affected electorates, NRAC’s main role is to provide advice on regional issues, particularly in relation to the assessment of areas for drought exceptional circumstances support.
This bill will allow for NRAC members to serve an additional term in the future, and I can understand the government’s reason for moving in that direction. This evening I want to make some general observations about my involvement with drought and Fracas it relates to the Gippsland community. One of my first experiences upon entering federal politics a year ago came about through the need to strongly represent the interests of my community as a result of a decision made by NRAC. On 10 August last year, without warning and without any explanation, I received a phone call from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s office explaining to me that EC assistance for the Gippsland region would not be extended beyond 30 September 2008.
While I appreciate the effort by the minister’s office to make that contact with me, it did strike me as a bizarre decision at the time. I quickly informed the staff member that I thought a mistake had been made. In fact, I think the term I used was that I thought they had ‘made a blue’. It set off a chain of events in the Gippsland electorate and I ended up writing to the minister on more than 30 occasions representing the interests of individual landholders. At the time, the minister accused me of playing politics with this particular issue, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I accept that the minister does not know me that well, but there was never any intention on my part to play politics with the lives of my constituents on such a serious issue.
NRAC had actually let down my farmers. The farmers were reporting conditions that were worse than the previous year, for which they were in receipt of EC funding and support. There was a complete erosion of confidence in the community as their cash reserves had been exhausted and many people were doubting their future and the future of their children on the land. In particular, taking over the family farm was in jeopardy. The decision to withdraw EC funding at that particular time was the final straw for many of them. They had long suspected that there were some city based MPs—dare I say it, on both sides of the House—who really could not care about the plight of the farming sector, and for them this decision confirmed it.
In my short time in this place it is one of the most difficult jobs I have had to undertake. I listened carefully to the insightful contribution on this bill of the member for Revering. The passion that she exhibited over the emotional impact of the drought on her electorate was obvious in her speech to the House this evening. It was an exceptional contribution by an exceptional local member. Just like the member for Riverina, I found the emotional toll of trying to assist my drought affected farmers to be quite draining, but it was nothing in comparison to the turmoil that they were going through. It was made worse by the decision of NRAC and the minister to endorse a particular decision at the time. The uncertainty it created was terrible: visiting these drought affected farmers and telling them that, yes, their EC funding had been withdrawn and that we were fighting for it to be restored, but we had no idea whether we would bring the government to its senses in the future. The mood in the community was stressed to say the very least. The ‘we’ I refer to is my electorate staff, who did a magnificent job to assist in the campaign that we were running at the time, and my local farmers, who also rallied to assist us.
Quite apart from the obvious economic impacts, droughts are insidious to the soul as they sap away the energy and enthusiasm of our communities and corrode, I believe, the hopes of the next generation. You see—and the member for Pearce referred to this as well—our big strong farmers reduced emotionally through the strain of having to put down stock or of having to constantly ‘feed out’ stock, when they are in a position to be able to afford to do so. The constant drain of dealing with these droughts is emotionally grueling for everyone in those communities. the decision to withdraw EC funding in Gippsland was made after a desktop analysis by NRAC. There was no visit to Gippsland at the time, no attempt to assess the circumstances on the ground and no effort to listen to the locals.
I am no farmer and I do not pretend at all to be an expert on agricultural affairs or practical land management issues, but blind Freddy could tell that the farmers in my electorate were facing extraordinarily difficult conditions. These were exceptional circumstances in every sense of the words. In particular, the Tambo Valley from Bruthen to Benambra and beyond was suffering enormously, and conditions in the Bruthen Valley were little better. Right across Gippsland there were tales of farming families doing it very tough. There were dams and creek beds that had never run dry in the living memory of the families of several generations who had experience of farming on that land, and they were faced with a water crisis. It was an extremely difficult situation. In many instances know the conditions in parts of Gippsland have actually improved. I am happy to report that to the House. But the recovery does remain patchy and the EC assistance is still needed.
One of the great challenges we face going forward is how we manage the transition from EC to sustainable and viable farms in the future. It is a challenge that exercises my mind and the minds of many others in Gippsland. Many farming families have become dependent on the income support that they receive and the transition from now into the future is going to be very difficult for us. It took considerable time and effort and it placed a lot of stress on farming families to actually get NRAC to visit Gippsland and recommend an extension of the EC funding. I commend the minister in this case. I know the minister has copped a bit of a hiding here this evening, but I commend the minister and acknowledge that, once he came to appreciate the gravity of the situation in Gippsland, he did respond to representations that were being made to him and he did seek a further on-the-ground assessment of the conditions in Gippsland.
But such is the inefficient system we face at the moment that, even once NRAC had visited Gippsland and a ruling was made to return the EC provisions, some parts of the region were actually excluded again. We have this bizarre situation where people separated by the width of a road were in very different circumstances in relation to the EC support. There were those who were in and those who were out, just by the 15- or 20-metre separation of a road reserve. I quote from a letter from one of my constituents in Traralgon. The letter was written on 22 January this year when Latrobe city was actually left out of the EC declaration:
We cannot understand why some farms within the Gippsland region are able to access the EC benefits yet we are not able to even though our area in Gippsland is suffering drought. The EC declaration seems extremely unfair and inconsistent as we are in just as much need of the financial assistance as are other drought stricken farms in Gippsland that have obviously received rain.
That was typical of the pleas for help that I received from several of my constituents in the circumstance where some of my farmers were considered to be requiring EC assistance while others were excluded, as I said, just by the width of a road.
There was, however, something of a breakthrough after the Black Saturday bushfires when the interim EC assistance was granted for those affected regions, but we await the NRAC findings on the longer term measures. I commend the minister for taking those steps in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. It was already a very stressful time in Gippsland and every effort was made to accommodate the needs of the Latrobe city farmers in the aftermath of that event. I am hopeful that there will be a positive finding to continue support beyond the current interim measures.
It is interesting to note that, on this occasion, NRAC has actually visited the region to make its assessment. I would commend that course of action for future assessments. I do not give this background to particularly chastise the minister or NRAC representatives. In fact, I thank the NRAC board members for their service and willingness to do what I believe is a difficult and largely a thankless task. There is no enjoyment to be had in inspecting drought hit communities. I fully acknowledge the difficulty in managing the EC arrangements going forward. But I do make my comments to highlight some of the failings of the current system which, while it was changed from time to time by the previous government, still does not meet our needs. The lines-on-the-map methodology of ruling regions in or out of drought assistance has created many problems in Gippsland in just the past 10 months. I accept the need for a better system, but it must be a better system for regional areas, not just better for the government to administer. I take the minister at his word that there are no plans to pull the rug out from under farming families who are currently in receipt of EC assistance measures at the moment.
I also take the opportunity to put the minister on notice. If there are any steps taken to reduce the level of support or otherwise compromise the treatment of Australian farming families, he will face a battle beyond his wildest imagination. Again I refer to the member for Riverina and I invite the minister to view the tape of the member’s contribution if he has any doubts about the passion with which we in the Nationals will continue to represent the interests of farming families. The member for Riverina may be small in stature, but she is a firebrand in her electorate and she will stand up for the needs of her community and those of all regional Australian families every step of the way. The farming families of Australia deserve our support and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with them and other regional MPs to ensure that assistance is provided in the future when it is needed.
The minister has flagged, in letters to me and in the public domain, that he will be seeking to introduce a new system. I stress that his new system needs to be fairy, it needs to be equitable and it must send a message to farming families across our nation that we will not abandon them. The minister has the opportunity to send that message to farming families—that this parliament and all who sit in this place will not abandon the farmers of Australia. We need to send that message loudly and we need to send it clearly. Our farmers need to know that this parliament respects the extraordinary contribution they have made to our nation’s development and will continue to make to our nation’s prosperity in the future. Australian farmers are world-class producers and they are selling their products into a corrupted world market. In many cases, there is no level playing field, but Australian farmers are consistently the best on the ground. If there were a Brownlow Medal for excellence in agricultural production, it would be awarded to the Australian farming sector year after year.
Gippsland farmers are at the forefront, with world-class wool producers, dairy farmers, beef farmers, horticulturalists, timber producers and many more. All of these people are doing an extraordinary job in our community. The member for Murray referred to the impact on the dairy industry of the corrupted world markets and the impacts of the government’s proposed emissions trading scheme. I urge the minister to also engage with the dairy industry in Gippsland and beyond as our farmers deal with the current crisis they are facing. Farming families are the backbone of many regional communities and we need to help them prosper not only to protect the food and fiber resources of our nation but to support the social and economic prosperity of communities across Australia. I have spoken before in the House on this topic. At that time—and again today—I deliberately referred to farming families and their communities’, because when drought hits regional Australia it hits us all, from those on the front line of our nation’s diverse farming enterprises to the many small businesses which supply them: the teachers; the doctors; the health professionals, who often deal with some of the social consequences; and the families themselves. When a drought hits a region, it hits every person within that region.
I think the member for Pearce put it beautifully in her speech when she reflected on the impact she saw in one of her early visits as a member of parliament. Drought is not a matter of ‘odds and evens’ on the watering of the prize roses that it may be in the city. It hits the economic prosperity of the individual families in regional areas, their neighbors and the towns themselves. It has a dramatic effect on the social life of the community. The other often neglected issue of drought is that it affects the environment of the farms themselves and the broader environment of the region. It is for those reasons that there needs to be a long-term commitment to EC declared areas and to support communities like Gippsland as they move into the recovery phase of the drought. As I mentioned earlier, there are signs of recovery in Gippsland, although they are patchy at the moment. It is an old truism that ‘When it does rain, it won’t be raining money’ or, as the shadow minister put it just the other day, ‘It rains opportunity’. With that opportunity comes the prospect of possibly more debt as the farming sector invests in equipment, in stock and in seed—to take the next gamble, as it were.
It does take time for communities to recover and there will be a lag time in the recovery process. I urge the federal government to work in partnership with state and local government agencies to continue to support communities throughout Australia as they emerge from this drought. There is a direct correlation between the length of years in drought and the community’s capacity to recover. During a drought regional areas suffer as they often lose skilled workers, and many young people move on—literally seeking greener pastures. Governments must invest in the capacity of these regions to help them get back on their feet. Money is needed, as we emerge from drought, for on-farm works such as fencing and basic maintenance along with productivity related investments in improved pastures, which are often neglected during periods when many farmers are suffering from reduced incomes.
Our challenge in the future, when we address this issue of EC funding, is to support viable farming families—to get them over the hump, knowing that on the other side they will prosper. This is not welfare or charity; this is an investment in the future of our nation’s productive farming enterprises. And on that point I urge our farming families in EC areas to seek information on whether they are entitled to receive assistance at the moment. I urge farmers not to self-assess. They should not take the view that it is some form of welfare if they access the income support or interest rate subsidy. I have met with many farming groups in my electorate over the past 12 months and I fear that many individuals are too proud to put their hands up for assistance, or do not realise that support is available for them. It disappoints me that state and federal governments—not just the current governments—are prepared to spend a small fortune on advertising propaganda but fail to inform our farming families about the benefits which they may be able to access when it comes to EC assistance in their areas.
I believe there is a place for reasonable government advertising to inform farmers and the accountancy profession that farmers may be entitled to some forms of assistance as they deal with the impact of drought. I touched previously on the issue of the environment and the impact of droughts. I want to return to the topic because it seems to be a favourite of the minister. He just cannot seem to talk about farming without firstly seeking to discredit the Nationals and secondly referring to climate change. I know the minister is most pleased with himself when he stands at the dispatch box and ridicules the Nationals but he does a great disservice to the industry which he is meant to represent in this place.
When the minister does engage as to topics—his main focus is always climate change—it is as if he is too scared to talk about agriculture. It is probably some sort of recognition that there are members on this side of the chamber who have forgotten more than he will ever learn about the farming sector. I want to make a few points in that regard because I believe the minister’s obsession with talking about climate change is counterproductive to his relationship with many in the farming sector. At the risk of being seen to give relationship advice, may I suggest to him that he put aside some of his inner suburban obsessions whenever he moves out into the regional areas.
Through its political approach to the issue of climate change I believe this government is responsible for dividing Australians on the important issue of sustainable environmental management. By its constant attacks on people who raise any concerns about the current CPRS legislation it is driving a wedge between many regional Australians, who are instinctively uncomfortable with the doomsday scenarios which the Prime Minister likes to propagate.
Farmers and rural landholders are the practical environmentalists of this nation. They have a vested interest in caring for the land and they are keen observers of the weather and longer term climate patterns. Many farmers in my electorate have rainfall records dating back several decades. They know the land and the environment in their locality better than anyone else. They have been taking steps over many years to restore the land to balance. As each bit of research has come along the most successful farmers have learnt more about managing the environment and the productivity of their land.
They have embraced new technology. They have demonstrated their ability to be early adaptors. Throughout history, as they have learnt more they have employed those practices on their land. And their landuse improvements are constantly evolving. That is why any cuts to research funding are such a disaster for agricultural industries.
The feedback I am receiving in Gippsland is that farmers are worried about the long-term drought and they are investigating different techniques and investing in new ways to manage their properties. But they are also telling me that this is nothing new—farmers in Australia have always faced the challenge of growing our nation’s food and fibre in a difficult and variable climate. That is not to say that they do not believe that the climate is changing; it simply makes the point that they are innovative and able to adapt if they are not crushed by the heavy hand of government regulation. It is in this context that I urge the minister to focus more on the things we must all agree on if we are to achieve positive environmental outcomes, rather than on pursuing a political objective of wedging people on either side of the climate change debate. As I said, farmers are the great practical environmentalists and there is overwhelming support for sustainable environmental practices in my community, both in the context of the long years of drought and of better seasons ahead.
In conclusion, I want to refer briefly to the Productivity Commission’s report on government drought support. And I take up the comments from the shadow minister, who said in this place:
That Productivity Commission report is the most ruthless thing that I have ever seen in any industry in my time …
It is a ruthless report. The recommendations are quite scathing and amount to a complete gutting of the existing support programs. There are recommendations that EC interest rate subsidies should be terminated; EC small business income support should be terminated; EC relief payments should be replaced. All of this is subject to what the report calls ‘transition arrangements’. It does amount to a root and branch overhaul of drought policy and it raises many serious issues which bear greater consideration at the appropriate time.
I urge the minister to engage with leaders in the industry before he rushes to implement these recommendations. There are many wiser heads than mine and— dare I say it?—wiser heads than the minister’s when it comes to the practical application of agricultural policy across this nation. And I refer to my earlier comments that there must be a strong message of support to the farming sector that its contribution to our nation is of value now and will be similarly valued in the future. I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this bill and associated issues and I wish the NRAC members well in their future deliberations.
PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS – ALCOPOPS
June 23, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (3.52 pm) — Mr Speaker, I wish to make a personal explanation.
The SPEAKER — Does the honourable member claim to have been misrepresented?
Mr CHESTER — Yes.
The SPEAKER — Please proceed.
Mr CHESTER — The Minister for Health and Ageing, in her answer today, inferred an improper motive on my decision to cast my vote on the so-called alcopops legislation. I will carefully check the Hansard but the inference that I took was that my vote had been unduly influenced by the alcohol industry’s support during the Gippsland by-election, and I invite the minister to actually substantiate that allegation. The distillers ran their own advertising and did not mention my name or any other candidate and I had no involvement in the advertising, and I am not aware of any donation to my campaign by the alcohol industry. I do take offence to the imputation that my vote can be bought, and it is a great discredit to the minister that she has sought to typecast me in this manner.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE (INTERJECTION) – ALCOPOPS
June 23, 2009
Ms LIVERMORE (3.21 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Will the minister update the House on the latest developments on the alcopops initiative, and support for the measure?
Ms ROXON — I thank the member for Capricornia for her question. People on this side of the House will be delighted to know—in fact, all will be aware of this because of being in the chamber last night voting for it—the alcopops measure has now passed the House.
Although, I am disappointed to say that it was despite the announcement that was rather gracelessly executed by the member for Dickson that the Liberal Party was going to support the measure. I think he indicated that the Leader of the Opposition had finally had his way over the member for Dickson and the rest of the shadow cabinet. He declared that support would be provided by the Liberal Party for this measure. Actually, when it came to it, there were no Liberal members in the chamber voting for this measure. In fact, there were four members of the coalition parties here voting against the measure.
I have to admit to feeling slightly sorry—and probably not for the reasons that other people in the country might be feeling sorry—for the Leader of the Opposition, who was finally able to say that he saw the merit of our arguments for the alcopops and it was a matter worthy of supporting. He said, ‘Come on troops, we’re going to vote for it,’ and he turned around and suddenly there was nobody standing there behind him. For 12 months they have been arguing against this measure.
It seems to me that the Liberal Party are fine if they are against something. But if you want them to support something, they split in all directions. We have the member for O’Connor, the member for Hume and the member for Gippsland who, after all the love that was shown to him by the distilling industry during his by-election, obviously could not bring himself to vote against the measure. They actually ran an advertising campaign for him during his by-election.
Mr Chester — Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order that goes to section 90 of the standing orders. The minister is inferring that there was something improper in my motives during the Gippsland by-election campaign. There were no donations whatsoever made to my campaign, and I ask the minister to withdraw.
The SPEAKER — Unless there is some other background that I am unaware of, I did not take it as the member has construed.
Ms ROXON — There is not very much love in this House. But to suggest that there is a bit of love between the distilling industry—
The SPEAKER — Order! The minister will resume her seat.
Mr Broadbent — Mr Speaker, on the point of order, I took the same inference from the minister and she should withdraw.
The SPEAKER — I have not taken that construction. The debate on it then builds the construction. If there is a problem, the member for Gippsland has another avenue to rectify it. I call the minister.
Ms ROXON — Thank you, Mr Speaker. I understand why the member for McMillan feels left out. It is, of course, because his advertising campaign was not funded by the distillers, but the member for Gippsland had advertising right through the whole by-election paid for by the distillers.
Mr Truss — Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I ask you to demand that the minister withdraw the claim that a member’s vote was influenced by political donations. That is a vile accusation and she must withdraw it.
The SPEAKER — I have ruled on that matter. The next part went to other things. I call the minister.
Ms ROXON — Of course I do understand why this is sensitive for the National Party. The Leader of the National Party in the Senate, despite the announcement of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for health, has said that he will not be voting for this measure. The Leader of the Opposition is running a rabble on the other side of the House. They have argued against this measure for 12 months. Finally, they have agreed that there is merit and that this measure should be passed and then he cannot control the people in his team. When he says. ‘It’s time for us to support this measure,’ he has the leader in the Senate saying that he will not; he has members scattered across this chamber who will not follow his leadership. As I said, I confess to feeling slightly sorry for the Leader of the Opposition. When he actually decides to support somebody, there is nobody there standing behind him.
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PETITIONS
June 22, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.37 pm) — I rise this evening to speak on the work of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions. I congratulate the chair on the wonderful work she is doing in the leadership role she is playing on behalf of the parliament. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, the Standing Committee on Petitions is a relatively new committee which seeks to build on an honoured tradition of parliament: the acceptance of petitions on the grievances and concerns of ordinary people. We think that petitions continue to play a very important role in the life of this democracy. The work of the committee is to ensure that continues to happen.
Since the committee was created, new conventions have been put in place on presenting petitions in parliament. Petitions to the House of Representatives come either direct to the committee or through the offices of members. As you would be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the committee scrutinises petitions and approves those it considers to be in order.
This means, first, the petition makes a request that the House is capable of addressing and that it is to be addressed to the House of Representatives. To be considered in order there are also other conditions to be satisfied: that the terms of the petition are less than 250 words; that an identical request appears on each page where there are signatures; that the name, address and signature of the principal petitioner appear on the first page of the petition; and that the petition employs moderate language. We on the committee seek to emphasise the benefits of maintaining these conventions.
If a petition does not meet the criteria for being considered in order or if a member seeks to present a petition outside of the Standing Committee on Petitions approval process, the status of the petition diminishes considerably. What would have been a petition for the purposes of the House becomes simply a document of the House and it loses some of its character as a petition. I believe this is a less rewarding and less happy outcome for the hardworking petitioners who collected the signatures in the first place. If on the other hand the committee finds a petition in order and members wish to speak to it in the chamber, that is the best of all outcomes. A concern from outside the parliament has got some wind under its sails and can be the focus of attention in the chamber. I believe that can be a very significant thing for petitioners.
Another aspect of the work of the Standing Committee on Petitions, which the chair referred to, is ministerial responses, which have been generally prompt and to the point. Petitioners know their efforts are not wasted and that, once they have submitted their petition to the House, it does not get lost completely and they get a decent response. People who support petitions may not always get the answers they want but know that the petition has been taken seriously. That is something that the community certainly respects. It helps to put any concerns that are raised by the general community on the public agenda.
Very recently we had many petitions distributed throughout the electorate of Gippsland in relation to the youth allowance. I understand there are several more petitions on that issue. That is something I believe is very important because it is getting a lot of young people involved in the process. A large number of signatures have been collected throughout Australia on that particular issue. It remains to be seen whether the petitions themselves get the answers desired in the time ahead. It really is an opportunity for the Australian community to have their say through the Standing Committee on Petitions. It provides them with a voice in this chamber. It is now up to us as members of that committee to make sure that voice is heard in this place.
INSULIN PUMP THERAPY PROGRAM
June 16, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.40 pm) — I rise this evening to lend my support to an initiative being driven by a small medical clinic in Sale. This program provides valuable assistance to young Gippslanders who are managing the complications associated with type 1 diabetes. Dr Peter Goss from Gippsland Paediatrics has been instrumental in delivering a program that has so far provided 42 young people across Gippsland with the quality of life that they had not known since being diagnosed with diabetes.
The program has seen Gippsland Paediatrics supply more than 60 per cent of child and adolescent type 1 diabetes patients in their care with their own insulin pump therapy program. This figure represents twice the percentage of children and adolescents on insulin pump therapy programs in any given metropolitan clinic throughout Australia. It is a medical milestone in its own right, but more important is the improvement to the quality of life for local children which was previously well below the levels of quality of life experienced by urban children with the same ailment.
Another major revelation of the work conducted by Dr Goss and his team at Gippsland Paediatrics has been the resulting levels of control in the management of the disease. Using the insulin pump therapy program, Dr Goss and his team have achieved results which are better than published international standards. It is a major achievement for a small clinic like Gippsland Paediatrics to become a national and international leader in insulin pump therapy. That is why I have taken the opportunity to speak to the House today. I wish to commend the great work of Dr Goss and his team at Gippsland Paediatrics and also to take up his point that insulin pumps are badly underutilised in Australia and must be made more accessible to children and adolescents.
As Dr Goss points out, the current sponsorship policy is heavily reliant upon donations from service groups to make up the funding shortfalls for individuals. A large proportion of the insulin pump therapy program conducted by Gippsland Paediatrics has been funded by local charity organisations, and I publicly salute them for their work. These organisations have recognised the benefits associated with insulin pump therapy for children and have fundraised to help families meet the costs associated with the program. Without their work, many children would miss out. Currently, the government offers $2,500 towards an $8,000 insulin pump and the families of children with type 1 diabetes are expected to pick up the tab for the remaining $5,500.
I have previously written to the Minister for Health and Ageing seeking her support on this issue and outlining the results of Dr Goss’s work, and I am hopeful that the minister will see the merits of the program.
Just last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet parents at the Gippsland Paediatrics clinic and discuss the benefits of this program with them. Along with meeting Dr Goss and his outstanding team, I met 10-yearold Tobias Hall, who had only started on the insulin pump therapy program one month before. Tobias is a keen footballer—in fact, his father, Darren, was an exceptional footballer and coach in the Sale district. Tobias told me that he feels normal now. Since he started the program, he does not have to worry about eating at certain times or if he wants to go for a kick of the footy with his mates or a dip at the local swimming pool.
Similarly, Emily Wise, a 13-year-old who recently commenced insulin pump therapy, and her mother, Jo, cannot believe the improvements the program has made to their life in such a short period of time. Jo told me that she used to go on school camps with Emily, such was the severity of her condition, but that Emily has now become largely independent and has grown in both stature and self-confidence.
When young patients and their doctors highlight the amazing success of this program, it is up to us to find ways to help more young Australians in the same manner. I urge the minister to take a close look at the documents I have provided and the recommendations made by Dr Goss during his recent speech to the National Rural Health Conference in Cairns. Dr Goss pointed out that the impact of type 1 diabetes is significant, with life expectancy reduced by up to 15 years, that over 50 per cent of patients with type 1 diabetes will develop severe health complications after 20 years as a result of the disease and that maintaining optimal glycaemic control minimises the risk of complications.
So there is an urgency involved with addressing the discriminatory lack of access, by rural children in particular, to the available optimal diabetes services. Insulin pump therapy is going to be at least part of the answer in the future.
The Gippsland Paediatrics team is leading the way and the results have been published for all to see, but what is not published are the smiles on the faces of the young people and their parents who are now in a much better position to manage the disease. I commend Dr Goss and his team for their work and urge the government to see what support they can offer in the future.
MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – BUILDING THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION PROGRAM
June 16, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.22 pm) — It is not with any triumph that I rise today to speak on this matter of public importance. I take no satisfaction from the topic before us, ‘the failure of the government to properly manage the Building the Education Revolution program. I am not going to indulge in a debate on the merits of the program and the amount of borrowed money, $14.7 billion, that the government has set aside for the initiative, because that debate has been had. But the government has an obligation to the Australian public to achieve value for money in rolling out this initiative to achieve its stated objectives. I fear there are many examples of the government’s failure to properly manage the program, particularly in regional areas.
It is typical of this government that any concerns which are raised by opposition members are described—to quote from a response by the Minister for Education yesterday in question time—as ‘carping, moaning and criticism’. It is not carping, moaning and criticism; it is pointing out some faults in the program and the minister’s need to intervene before the state governments waste millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.
Mr Pyne — Billions!
Mr CHESTER — Billions, even. Thank you, Member for Sturt. It is called being accountable to the parliament and being accountable to Australian taxpayers, who will be paying off the Rudd government debt for decades to come. I like to think that I am a reasonable person, but, despite all the rhetoric we have heard today from the minister, she must understand by now that there is a problem. It relates to the value for money issue and the indecent haste with which this program is being implemented. To understand my concerns and the concerns of Gippsland builders, principals and teachers who have contacted my office, you need to consider the government’s stated objectives for this program.
The minister has never been one to hide her light under a bushel. I quote from her media release yesterday announcing round 2 of the primary schools program:
The Rudd Government is unashamedly undertaking the largest school modernisation program in Australia’s history to support local jobs, stimulate every local economy and invest in important long-term infrastructure.
Yesterday in the chamber the minister said:
In particular, the Building the Education Revolution guidelines have required that, wherever it is possible, local tradespeople are engaged for the work.
Here is a newsflash for the minister: it is not quite working like that in Gippsland. The money is being shovelled out the door in such indecent haste that many schools are not getting the chance to secure the infrastructure that they want, local builders are being excluded from tendering for the work and there are fears that many of my smaller schools will only receive a relocatable building. In many instances, it is the ‘portable education revolution’—not exactly long-term infrastructure.
There are not many jobs in regional areas from bolting a few portables together after they have been delivered on the back of a truck from the city.
To be fair to the minister, I know she does not trust the opposition, she does not believe the case studies that we have put forward and she certainly would not have been receiving any reports from her own backbench— they are too scared to speak out themselves.
What are the chances of any regional MP in the Labor Party actually standing up for jobs in their electorates? It is just like the debate over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. They come in here like sheep and they bleat the party lines on other issues, but when it comes to the critical issue of jobs in regional communities it is the ‘silence of the lambs’. We do not hear a peep out of them. What are the chances of regional MPs like the member for Dawson, the member of Flynn, the member for Leichhardt or the member for Page actually standing up for jobs in regional areas? It is hard to say. Rather than rely on her own backbench or take the word of opposition MPs, may I refer the minister to the editorial comments in Monday’s edition of the Bairnsdale Advertiser.
Under the headline ‘Bureaucratic nonsense’, the editor of this fine journal in the electorate of Gippsland had this to say:
The education building process, already criticised on other grounds by school principals, is bureaucratic nonsense. With one hand the government set out to provide schools that will equip students for their future employment needs. With the other hand they handicap local firms that can build the required facilities and at the same time provide much needed jobs for local school leavers. Governments are stifling local initiatives, discouraging local youth, and making a mockery of their claim to govern for all people.
What is it that has so riled the editor of the Bairnsdale Advertiser? In one instance, it is the government’s outrageous betrayal of regional students in their gap year—but we will leave that topic for another day. Another issue that is frustrating the editor of the Bairnsdale Advertiser is the same issue that led local builders to speak out in the press. They are being prevented from even tendering for projects in their local areas. The very program that is meant to be creating local jobs is not even completely open to the local building industry.
I have spoken previously on this issue, but given the lack of response from the minister’s office I will repeat the scenario for the minister’s benefit. There are well-respected building firms in Bairnsdale which have successfully completed a range of significant public building works in the past for the department of education and other government agencies. Not surprisingly, these firms were offered the opportunity to tender for three projects in Gippsland under stage 1 of the primary schools program. The only problem is that the three projects were located in Foster, San Remo and Wonthaggi.
These towns are not even in the Gippsland electorate and are about two to three hours drive away for these Bairnsdale based firms. Meanwhile, there is a multimillion dollar contract in Bairnsdale that the same firms have been excluded from tendering for as part of the stage 1 process.
I ask the House: what genius in the education department in Melbourne came up with this plan? Why won’t the minister intervene to ensure that local traders have the opportunity to tender for every local project? Most people have been reluctant to speak publicly about these decisions for fear of reprisals. They do not wish to have a black mark put against their company’s name. They do not want to sound churlish or ungrateful for the investment of taxpayers’ money, but they do want to achieve the best value for money and the best possible project for their school communities. I can assure the House, though, that I have been contacted by several local builders and at least 10 school principals who have all expressed concerns with the way this program is being managed. I do accept it as a huge program being rolled out right across Australia, but that is no excuse for cutting corners and abrogating our responsibility to achieve value for money. I think the state government in Victoria in particular is leading the minister up the garden path in relation to this whole project.
A couple of builders in my electorate have spoken out to the media. Michelle Brooker and Chris Banks both told the Bairnsdale Advertiser that they had been asked to tender for these jobs three hours away while missing out on the local work, about three minutes away, that they could easily service.
Also, Warren Robinson of Dynamic Windows told the local press:
We’ve been denied access to participate. For instance if a portable classroom is established at a local school, it is manufactured in Melbourne. Our industry is in crisis and the stimulus package will not help our local businesses at all.
As I said at the outset, it is not with any great sense of triumph that I raise these concerns. My primary interest is to make sure that the taxpayers of Gippsland and across Australia receive value for money under this program and that my local schools get to build the best possible facilities with the funding that has been allocated to them. People in my electorate will be paying off this debt for many years to come, of course, and they should expect maximum value in terms of support for local jobs and the quality of the facilities that are actually built. Unfortunately, in too many cases that is not what is occurring in Gippsland. I know of building firms in Sale and the Latrobe Valley which have been offered tenders in Orbost and Goongerah, three to four hours away, but the state government’s program managers have indicated they will not even be asked to tender for schools which are literally around the corner.
I am worried about the round 2 programs which have been announced this week and whether Gippsland and Latrobe Valley building firms will even have the op portunity to tender for more than $20 million worth of work. It defies logic and it is completely contradictory to the minister’s comments that local jobs would be supported in every region in Australia.
Mr Bidgood — They’re certainly being supported in Dawson.
Mr CHESTER — Finally the member for Dawson has found his voice—a voice he cannot find on behalf of regional jobs on any other occasion.
Mr Bidgood interjecting —
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke) — The member for Dawson does not have the call.
Mr CHESTER — But, because of ridiculous haste, major mistakes have been made at every step of the process. I appeal to the minister to take the time to actually get it right. The tendering is being compressed into ridiculously short time frames and builders are telling me that the template designs are being changed, leaving program managers unsure about which building is actually being offered to each school, even within a week of when the tenders are due to close. As a result, builders are inflating their prices to cover contingencies and also to meet the travel and accommodation costs of moving workers across the region. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding within the Victorian state government about the impact of the rollout of this program or the capacity of the local community to handle all the work at the same time. We need to consider the regional implications of this program and whether the regional building industry can cope with the amount of work that is being shovelled out the door.
Once you get an out-of-town firm coming into a smaller regional market to complete these jobs there is a complete distortion of the local market. You will end up with workers being taken from existing firms. It will destabilise the local workforce and profits will head straight out of town. The system that is being employed of packaging projects and then offering them for tenders is convenient for the government and may suit these ridiculous time frames but it will not deliver value for money or support local jobs. As much as there are issues with the tender process, value for money and the capacity of local builders to secure the work, there is also an issue with the facilities that are being offered.
I have mentioned already the concerns expressed to me by several smaller schools that there would be no local jobs created if all they receive is a portable building on the back of a truck. This is one of the most galling aspects of the program. It reflects the complete lack of understanding on the other side of the House of how our small communities actually work. If this money were made available to the school councils themselves they would use it to leverage off other fundraising activities and secure local traders who are sympathetic to the school’s needs. Our country communities have a great capacity to stretch a dollar further. I am certain that we would end up with better quality projects and more value for money if small schools in particular have the chance to set local priorities. Trusting local school councils to deliver local solutions to their own problems would be a far better approach than that being undertaken by the government.
Schools in my electorate which are entitled to much larger sums of money—up to $2 million and $3 million— are being pressured to accept template designs which do not meet their needs. As I have previously told the House, when the Prime Minister talks about shovel-ready it means ‘shovel the money out the door and cross your fingers that some of the projects actually hit the mark’. There should be a more strategic approach to this program. Our local communities should have more control. I urge the minister to take the time to get it right.
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