2009 In Parliament
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – BUILDING THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION PROGRAM
June 16, 2009
Mr CHESTER (3.02 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Education. Can the minister explain why a Bairnsdale building firm has been offered the opportunity to tender for so-called Building the Education Revolution projects at Foster, San Remo and Wonthaggi, up to three-hours drive way, but was excluded from tendering for a local project less than three minutes away? Why won’t the minister do the right thing and refer the waste and mismanagement of this program to the Auditor-General?
Ms GILLARD — I thank the member for his question. I say to the member that I am very happy to look into the specifics that he has raised with me. I will do that, and I am happy to take any details from him that he may have. The system in Victoria for the provision of projects is that the Victorian government bundles projects and they then have head contractors who contract with local contractors to deliver the projects. I am very happy to look at the circumstances the member raises. Obviously I want to be very clear with members in the House and people generally that this is an economic stimulus program to build the infrastructure of tomorrow and to invest in and support Australian jobs today. Not every building company that wants to work on Building the Education Revolution will end up with work.
Obviously, though, if Building the Education Revolution were not there, the people who are working on those projects would not have their jobs supported by this program. So what I would ask the member to reflect on is whether or not he thinks that this work should be available to support jobs. If he thinks the answer to that is yes then he might want to reflect on why it is that he voted against the program. If we were delivering nothing—as the member voted for and as the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister believe—then he and I would not be talking today about whose jobs are being supported by the program; there would be no jobs supported by the program. His political party’s strategy is to support no jobs through this program.
I also say to the member opposite—and I understand he was not in the last parliament but he may want to look at the Hansard of the last parliament that, before he makes calls about referring things to the Auditor- General he may want to reflect on the regional rorts scandal of the former government and the findings of the Auditor-General about that. He may want to reflect on the performance of the then Prime Minister in supporting the ministers who were involved in the regional rorts scandal, including National Party ministers. He may want to ask himself the question: should he, when he looks at the program of Building the Education Revolution, be taking the view that this is a program for all schools around the country? We have not paid any regard as to whether or not the schools are in my electorate, one of my colleagues’ electorates, a Liberal electorate, a National Party electorate or an Independent member’s electorate. We have said that every school should benefit under Building the Education Revolution.
I say this to the member opposite: the track record of his political party and the former government was not to benefit places around the country; it was to benefit places they saw political advantage in. If he is under any doubt about that then the Auditor-General can help him with that conclusion, because the Auditor-General dealt with it fulsomely. So, on the question of audit reports, the one I would be recommending to members opposite for reading tonight is the one about their conduct in government.
CARBON POLLUTION REDUCTION SCHEME BILL 2009
June 4, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.58 am) — I thank the House for this opportunity, but I must say that I am disappointed that many members have not had the chance to speak more fulsomely during this debate. Many in the government are desperate to secure a political advantage at every opportunity and like to typecast any voices of dissent in this debate as somehow being climate change sceptics or heretics. The Prime Minister himself is in the habit of claiming that, if you do not support his CPRS legislation, you do not care about the future of the Great Barrier Reef or Kakadu. It is a childish and simplistic attack that fails to recognise the basic truth: Australia contributes less than two per cent of total global emissions and anything we do in isolation to reduce those emissions will do virtually nothing to improve the global environment. There is no Australian solution to this problem; there is only a global solution. This should be an issue of science and economics, not politics and some sort of green religion.
The hypocrisy of the government’s position in the environmental debate is found right across Australia, where cuts have been made to practical environmental initiatives such as the Landcare movement, while government MPs keep spinning their lines on climate change. This is the great con by the Labor Party when it comes to environmental issues at both state and federal level. There is a long list of grand but otherwise empty statements followed up by very little action on the ground, where the work needs to be done to maintain and enhance the natural environment.
As a member of both Landcare and Watermark, two groups in the Gippsland area that are committed to practical environmental initiatives, I am constantly amazed by the determination and dedication of many country people, particularly landowners, to maintain and enhance their local environment. There are hundreds of people in Gippsland who are prepared to get their hands dirty and do the practical environmental work, which this government is failing to support.
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 the longer term climate patterns. The feedback I am receiving in Gippsland in relation to this legislation is that they are worried about the long-term drought and they are investigating different techniques and investing in new ways to manage their properties. However, 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 they do not believe the climate is changing; it is simply to make the point that they are innovative and ready to adapt if they are not crushed by the heavy hand of government regulation. I fear that the CPRS legislation before the House poses a far greater risk to the future of Australian agriculture than much of the climate change forecasts.
My record in relation to the climate change debate is clear for all to see. I spoke on this topic during my maiden speech and told the House that Gippslanders are at the pointy end of the climate change debate. It is the families who rely on incomes from industries such as power generation at Latrobe Valley and farming who will bear the brunt of any decisions for Australia to go it alone without a worldwide agreement. I repeat my earlier remarks: given our nation’s contribution to global emissions is less than two per cent, any policy that sacrifices jobs in my region will be met with strong resistance by the local community. As I also indicated in my maiden speech, if we are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and we accept that climate change is real, then we are going to need a strong and sustainable economy to deal with the challenges it presents.
The coalition has put forward a practical and common- sense plan to deal with many of these issues. Amidst all of the hyperbole and the empty rhetoric from those opposite, the Liberal and National MPs in this place, and Independents, to a large extent have shown a willingness to engage in the debate and put forward some very positive alternatives. To begin with, we sought to delay consideration of the CPRS legislation until we had a clearer picture of the position that would be adopted by the world’s largest nations and the biggest contributors to total global emissions. This is a practical and common-sense approach and we have the time to get our response right.
The issue of sustainable environmental management is on the public agenda to stay and we must deal with its challenges in the context of a sustainable economy. Under the Rudd government’s model before the House, we run the risk of jobs being exported from Australia to nations which do not have a comparable scheme. A fear that is regularly expressed to me in my electorate is that we will be sending our jobs offshore. We will also export our carbon emissions to those nations, and the net result will be deterioration in the world’s environment because the nations that take the jobs will have less stringent environmental protocols than Australia.
Again, the opposition’s position is balanced, it is reasonable and it is practical. The government should be having a genuine conversation with the Australian public on this issue without all of the propaganda and the rhetoric. Last year we had the spectacle of the government funding a propaganda advertising campaign which effectively raised fears in the community. I believe that is an appalling betrayal of the Australian public. There is genuine concern in our community about environmental issues, but this government is doing nothing to allay those concerns; it is ramping up the rhetoric and seeking to score political points.
As I said earlier, this is a matter of science and economics. I am a firm believer in the capacity of the human mind to develop solutions to seemingly unresolvable problems. The ingenuity of the human race has overcome many challenges in the past and it will do so in the future. Instead of funding these advertising propaganda campaigns to scare the community into voting Labor, why doesn’t this government put that additional money into practical environmental initiatives or increased research? The government portrays its trading scheme as the only way to reduce CO2 emissions, but the reality is far different. Time prevents me from exploring every option in detail, and I thank the House for the opportunity—
AUSTRALIAN WATER SAFETY STRATEGY 2008-11
June 15, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.02 pm) — First, let me congratulate the member for raising this issue on water safety and acknowledge his thoughtful and constructive comments. There are many practical and commonsense proposals contained in there. The motion refers to the Australian water safety strategy for 2008-11. I note that the key target of the strategy is to halve the number of drowning deaths by 50 per cent by 2020. It is a challenging target and, when you consider the complex issues which contribute to our annual drowning toll, it will require a true partnership between individuals, community groups, the business sector and governments at all levels to achieve that goal.
In 2007-08, the national drowning toll was 261, which represented a small decrease on the previous year. I attended the launch of the national drowning report in this place last year and the trends that were revealed are a guide to the approach being taken by the Australian Water Safety Council in the development of its strategy. Those trends are quite clear. Men are three times more likely to drown than women, with young men overrepresenting those statistics and often with alcohol involved in the tragedy. Toddlers aged zero to five are also overrepresented in the toll, with 27 children drowning in that year—a constant reminder for parents about vigilance in the pool maintenance and other controls referred to by the previous speaker. With an ageing population, we need to develop better strategies to ensure that older people are safe when they enjoy boating, swimming or fishing activities.
Most drowning deaths are preventable, as can be seen by the success of the surf lifesaving movement throughout Australia. In Victoria alone, there are about 55 surf lifesaving clubs which provide patrols in the peak summer months. Last year, those clubs saved an estimated 1,000 lives in Victoria. I know from personal experience that surf lifesaving clubs can play a critical role in preventing drowning deaths. In fact, three of my young children are involved in the Lakes Entrance Surf Life Saving Club nippers program, where they are taught surf skills and first aid. Providing these volunteer organisations with quality rescue equipment and facilities with which to teach first aid and treat patients are all critical elements of the effort to reduce the national drowning toll.
Many large corporations already make significant donations to such volunteer activity, and I believe governments at all levels can always do better in this regard. The club members themselves are often highly motivated and take a great deal of pride in their efforts to educate young people about surf safety, rescue techniques and first aid. But they could do with more help from government bodies. To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever drowned at a patrolled Victorian beach whilst swimming between the flags. It is with that in mind that I support the general thrust of the motion before the House. There is no question that most drownings are preventable. Yes, they are always tragic and, yes, they often occur as a result of misfortune or accidents, but with better prevention measures, better planning and preparation and increased vigilance drownings are almost always preventable.
Time prevents me from expanding upon each point raised by the member for Blair but I would like to make a few general observations. Any strategy that is undertaken to implement a national rural and regional swimming program to better equip parents, carers and children in isolated communities must consider the socio-economic factors. In many of our rural and regional communities the cost of attending swimming lessons—assuming there is a suitable facility nearby—often prevents participation by low income earners and their families, particularly amongst the Indigenous community. A strategy that ma kes it more affordable, particularly for preschool age children, to attend a recognised training course is a vital step towards making young children safer around water.
I also take up the point in relation to providing assistance to schools and other education facilities so they are fully resourced to provide CPR and first aid training, and they are also better able to educate students on water safety measures. This is a positive initiative put forward in the motion and it reflects a policy position that I actually helped to develop myself for the Victorian Nationals in the lead up to the 2006 Victorian state election.
Increasing the awareness of basic first aid will save lives and it is important that these skills are regularly upgraded, particularly as new treatment methods are developed. There are often changes to the treatment of various ailments as new information comes to hand and those of us who learned CPR as recently as just five years ago may not be aware that the preferred system of breaths and compressions has also changed in recent times. More generally, there needs to be increased education in the community about the changing nature of conditions on Australian beaches and other waterways. Those of us who are familiar with the beach environment know that conditions change quickly from hour to hour but many tourists or people from various ethnic and cultural groups may have little understanding of the dangers which exist on our beaches.
There have been many tragic drownings in Victoria in recent years where multiple members of the same family group have been victims as they have got into difficulties and those seeking to assist have also perished. We are seeing circumstances where a group have got into difficulty in the surf and the others have gone in to try and achieve a rescue situation and more than two or three members of the same family have passed away.
Of course, the ongoing drought has meant that conditions in our rivers, lakes and dams have also changed considerably and may pose a drowning risk to those who assume their favourite watering hole in unchanged from summer to summer. I support the general thrust of the motion before the House and see great merit in improving education, awareness and assistance for anti-drowning activities across our nation.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – YOUTH ALLOWANCE
May 25, 2009
Mr CHESTER (3.45 pm) — My question is to the Minister for Education. I refer the minister to her failure to answer the member for Sturt’s question. Will the minister guarantee that students currently in their gap year will not be financially penalised under the government’s changes to eligibility criteria for the independent youth allowance? Or will the minister make regional students pay the price for the government’s reckless spending?
Ms GILLARD — With the greatest respect to the member, what a very silly question—which was produced by the member for Sturt. The answer to the member’s question is clear: yes, the government is changing the system. Why is the government changing the system? Because we are a responsible government that believes that every dollar of student support— indeed, every dollar of government expenditure— should go to the place that it is going to do the most good. When we see a financing system with benefits going to the upper end we ask the question: can we do better to target people in need?
The member would not have heard this from the member for Sturt, but the Bradley review, for instance, found that 36 per cent of students who were living at home and who were receiving youth allowance through having been considered independent were from families with incomes over $100,000 and 10 per cent were from families with incomes over $200,000. When you see a result like that, you should ask the question: can we do better? What we have done is something that will be better for students generally. We have reoriented this system so that, rather than being pitched in that way, it will support families in ordinary income ranges. As the member would know, incomes in regional Australia tend to be less than incomes in metropolitan Australia, so any regearing of the system that puts money—
Ms Julie Bishop — Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order on relevance. The question was specifically about students in their gap year this year who have taken a gap year because—
The SPEAKER — The Deputy Leader of the Opposition will resume her seat. You have raised the point of order of relevance. I do not have to invite you to debate the point of order unless I require it. On the matter of relevance, the Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question.
Ms GILLARD — On the member’s question where he asked me about the impact on regional students, I am explaining that, because regional Australia tends to have lower incomes than Australia generally, any system that reorients towards people in ordinary income ranges is better for regional Australia. Let me give the member one example.
Mr Hartsuyker — Mr Speaker—
The SPEAKER — The member for Cowper will resume his seat. I have indicated that the Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question.
Ms GILLARD — To take an example which would have meaning for the member, given his electorate, under the new system that we are proposing a family from the bush with two kids of university age who have to move to study will now be able to automatically receive some support with a family income of up to $139,388. That figure has been increased from the Liberal figure of $75,000 in family income. You can see from those two figures the huge expansion in family income thresholds that will make a difference to people in his electorate. Then there are our Student Start-up Scholarships of $2,254 per year. We are estimating that 146,000 students will be eligible for them next year. That is 133,700 more than currently.
Then, of course, on top of that there are our relocation scholarships to benefit the kinds of kids in the member’s electorate who need to move to study. This is a system that overall will give extra student support—that is, 38,000 additional students will be on income support and 36,000 more will receive higher payments. I understand from the catcalling that the position of the Liberal Party must be that they would prefer to give money to families with income over $200,000 and $300,000 a year than to see an extra 36,000students get income support.
They would prefer to do that than to see more students get more money. If that is the contemporary position of the Liberal Party, that says everything any Australian needs to know about their value system, and it is not very pretty indeed.
APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 1) 2009-2010
APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 2) 2009-2010
APPROPRIATION (PARLIAMENTARY DEPARTMENTS) BILL (No. 1) 2009-2010
June 03, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.52 pm) — I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2009-2010 and related bills. Much has been said already in this place about the direction the Rudd government is taking our nation with its high spending, high deficit and long-term debt. While debt is something that many Australians have come to expect from Labor governments, the magnitude of this debt—up to $315 billion—exceeds all other efforts.
There is a growing fear within my electorate of Gippsland that Labor has lost control of our nation’s finances and that this unchecked and reckless spending with borrowed money will take decades to repay. I do not suggest for a second that everything in the budget is bad, but I am prepared to say that the focus needs to be on making sure we have value for money in the future.
It is hard to believe that in the massive spending spree that has occurred since the Rudd government was elected there are still people who have missed out. The winners and losers under this government are there for all to see. The government has turned its back on regional areas. It has cut programs in agriculture and rural and regional health throughout Australia. It has stranded regional students currently in their gap year. And even the programs that are designed to support regional jobs, such as the $14.7 billion schools program, are not living up to community expectations.
Let me begin with the cuts to benefits for students who are on their gap year, intending to attend university in 2010. It is hard to believe that just a couple of weeks after the fiasco where the Treasurer and the Prime Minister would not say the word ‘billions’ in public, we have the Minister for Education and the Minister for Youth avoiding the words ‘gap year’. In response to a question in the House last week, the Minister for Education could not bring herself to say ‘gap year’, and this week in a matter of public importance discussion the Minister for Youth was happy to claim that I was scaremongering on this topic, but she was too scared to say ‘gap year’ as well. I must admit that being attacked in the chamber by the Minister for Youth is a bit like bumping into Bambi in the forest. She tried to kick me around, but her heart really was not in it. She is no Labor attack dog. Even Bambi knows the government has made a blue in this case and she knows that young Australians are being treated unfairly by a government that likes to talk about social justice.
Both ministers are accusing the opposition of scaremongering on this topic, but I fear the government may be giving us way too much credit. Do the ministers really believe that I am so well connected in my local community that I could find 3,000 people to sign a petition in just 10 days—that I can scare principals, teachers, students, parents and representative groups into writing all the emails and letters which have landed on the ministers’ desks? I am flattered that they believe I have so much ability, but the truth is that this is not a scare campaign in any sense of the word. These are people who are genuinely worried, and they have every reason to be concerned.
In what I believe was a well-intentioned effort to stop the misuse of the independent youth allowance, and in response to the findings of the Bradley review, the government took steps to change the workforce eligibility criteria.
The government also increased the income thresholds, in a move which I do not believe anyone has criticised— not to the best of my knowledge. The problem for the government is the students who are left stranded in their gap year. The students did the right thing. They took advice from their teachers, their principal, their careers advisers and even from Centrelink officers. They were told that, if they took a year off and achieved the eligibility criteria, they would be in receipt of $371 per fortnight. With these changes, the government has pulled the rug out from under their feet midway through the year. It is no wonder these students in particular are disenchanted. I fear they will not ever become engaged in the political process.
Do we really want young people leaving school to have their first experience of this great Australian democracy being that the government pulled the rug out from under their feet as they were preparing to go to university? I believe the young people in my community have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to offer as young leaders of the future. How are we going to get them engaged in the democratic process if their first experience is one of complete disenchantment with the way they have been treated in their gap year? The minister talks about new thresholds and scholarships but will not admit that students right now in their gap year, who would have qualified for a full independence allowance, will be financially penalised. This is not a scare campaign. I must say to the minister, before she jumps on that white horse and charges down the hill to see the opposition on this issue, that it would be prudent for her to stop and take a look over her shoulder. When she yells out, ‘Charge!’, she might find the cavalry is running the other way.
I have been stopped in the corridors of this place on three separate occasions this week by Labor backbenchers. They have urged me to keep up the fight. I understand that finally some of the backbenchers found their voice in the party room meeting this week. There is a gap running down the middle of the Labor caucus on this issue. Those who live in regional areas or care about issues of social justice are on our side, and the others are with the minister. My message to the minister is to take the time to read the letters from regional Australians. Just in case the minister or her advisers did not have the time, they could listen in now to some of the quotes from people who have contacted my office over the past two or three weeks.
The Bairnsdale Advertiser is a well-respected localnewspaper in the Gippsland electorate. On 22 May, 2009 the headline read, ‘Country kids are the losers.’ The minister has the opportunity to make sure that the next headline will read, ‘Minister comes to her senses.’ Let me quote from the principal of Lakes Entrance Secondary College, Mr Craig Sutherland. I know Craig very well. He happens to be the principal of the school my daughter Morgan attends. Craig does a wonderful job in increasing the ambition of young people in the Lakes Entrance area. He is bitterly disappointed that the students he has coached in the last two or three years, in aiming towards the gap year process, have now had the rules changed midway through the year. Mr Sutherland was quoted in the newspaper as saying:
As for the government’s stated intention of making university more accessible well this behaviour just raises the question of whether they have thought through their strategy—it should not be at the expense of participation by country kids. Access is always harder for country kids.
Minister Gillard has called such criticism scaremongering—but it is not so—the whole issue raises questions about universal access to university and the way young people can develop pathways to independence—how we allow them pathways to adulthood.
There are many more people out there who are keen to make the same point. Mick Murphy, the executive officer of the Baw Baw Latrobe Local Learning and Employment Network, says:
This policy discriminates against rural and regional students and has taken a city-centric view of further education. Sadly, this new policy is going to make university less attainable for many local people, which will have long-term ramifications for the social and economic fabric of Gippsland.
I know Mick well. He also is not in the habit of scaremongering. Phil Whiteman from Churchill wrote to me:
These kids who have done the right thing and planned their future want to study and better themselves but are now left in limbo. I do not agree with this change at all, but why does it have to be introduced without warning for this new wave of students.
Surely students should be given sufficient warning that this policy is changing and then be able to plan their income and studies. This change should exempt country kids at best or at least not be introduced until the next financial year.
I understand Peter Jennings has also written directly to the minister:
These changes further disadvantage students from rural areas who must leave home in order to undertake university studies, unlike their urban counterparts who can live at home. From personal experience, I can inform you that accommodating a student in Melbourne costs in the order of $18,000 per year. In addition, with a two-year absence from studies, there is a greater risk that young people may remain in the workforce and not seek higher education—an undesirable outcome, I am sure you would agree. I urge you to abolish these changes and give country kids a fair go.
And finally from Sophie Jennings, a student from Gippsland who is now studying in Melbourne after completing a gap year, there was this comment:
Coming from Sale, staying at home while studying was simply not an option for me. I was so pleased and lucky to gain access to Queens College that I took a gap year in 2007 at the end of year 12 in order to earn enough to gain youth allowance so I could pay for my college fees. Many of us also have brothers, sisters and friends who undertook gap years at the start of this year, understanding that their hard work would be worth it when they became independent and gained access to financial services required to move to the city and study at university.
Of course these young adults are now not assured of that. There are many, many more. In fact, I believe I have sent at least 30 letters to the minister on this topic. The minister has the title of ‘social inclusion’ among her portfolios. Surely she can understand that young people and their families in regional areas are feeling excluded. They are disenfranchised and they are angry about this decision and the impact it will have on them as they complete their gap year. They had plans which they made in good faith and in consultation with respected members of their school community. The minister needs to take action and guarantee that no student currently on their gap year will be worse off as a result of these changes. I accept that these are difficult economic times but our students should not be paying the price for Labor’s spending and record debt.
In the time that I have left I would like to turn my attention to another education issue of great significance, and I refer to the government’s Building the Education Revolution program and some serious concerns that are being relayed to me by schools across Gippsland. If you listen to the minister, again, it is all rosy. But on the ground it is a very different story. There is a growing sense of frustration as schools realise that they are not going to be able to build a project that they want to complete, and in many cases local builders have been restricted from tendering for local projects. Many smaller schools will be receiving portable buildings instead of engaging local builders in construction projects.
I am not going to debate the merit of the Building the Education Revolution program. That debate was had and won by the government. My concern now is making sure that the people of Gippsland get value for money out of the $14.7 billion that has been allocated. I have written to the minister to raise my concerns about the lack of local jobs flowing from this program, but the minister has chosen to plough on regardless.
Many Gippsland schools can look forward to a truck turning up with a relocatable building on the back. It is the ‘portable education revolution’! This whole program was meant to be an economic stimulus to create local jobs, but there are not many local jobs involving a few portables being taken to some of my smaller schools. I have grave concerns about the veracity of this program and making sure that taxpayers will receive value for money in the future.
The Victorian government has an appalling track record of cost overruns and a failure to deliver regional infrastructure either on time or on budget. As I have told the minister, it would make more sense to get this money to the local school councils themselves and get them to administer the local contracts to help ensure that employment is generated within the local community. The schools in my region are very good at leveraging off any funding assistance. There would be opportunities to employ local traders and to deliver projects that are actually required within their schools, rather than the situation which is unfolding at the moment.
Schools are being pressured into accepting state government templates for projects that may or may not meet their needs. I have spoken to at least 10 principals in my electorate and they are angry and frustrated with the way the program is being conducted. In their desperation to shovel the money out the door, the government has set unrealistic time frames and is pressuring schools to accept whatever is on offer. I have been told by the schools which are entitled to receive up to $250,000 under the government’s guidelines that all they will receive is one portable building. That is hardly a revolution.
Other schools which are entitled to much larger sums of money—up to $2 million—are being pressured to accept template designs which do not meet their individual needs. The school principals and the school councils know that they could build better and cheaper buildings using local contractors, but they are being ordered to take what they are offered and do not dare waste time complaining. It is galling to listen to the minister in this place, spinning her lines about jobs in every community when the reality on the ground deserves much greater examination.
I will give the minister the benefit of the doubt in that maybe she is not aware, given that there are so many projects under way across Australia, of exactly what is happening on the ground in Victoria. There must be greater commitment to achieving value for money for the Australian taxpayers, who will be paying off this government’s debt for decades to come.
For the benefit of the House and the minister, let me outline a scenario which was presented to me by a local builder in Bairnsdale. I will not name the firm because I fear that there are people who are vindictive enough within the system to compromise the builder’s chances in the future. The scenario goes like this.
The firm is a significant employer in Bairnsdale and has completed work for the education department in the past. It was offered the opportunity to tender for three projects in Gippsland. There is nothing wrong with that, you might say, and members opposite would probably agree. But the three projects were located in Foster, San Remo and Wonthaggi. Those towns are all two to three hours away.
Meanwhile, there was a multimillion-dollar contract available in Bairnsdale that the firm has been excluded from tendering for as part of the stage 1 process. What genius in Melbourne in the education department came up with this plan and why won’t the minister intervene to ensure that local traders have the opportunity to tender for all local projects? It defies logic and is completely contradictory to the minister’s comments that local jobs would be supported in every region of Australia. Once you get an out-of-town firm coming into a small regional centre to complete these jobs, there is a complete distortion of the local market. You will end up with workers being taken from existing local firms. It will destabilise the local workforce, and the profits of course will head straight out of town.
This system of packaging projects and offering them for tenders is convenient for the government and may suit the time frames, but it will not deliver value for money or support local jobs in the longer term. Keep in mind that this is only round 1 of the program, which involves 20 per cent of the total funding pool. When the next round comes online with tenders for 40 per cent of the work, local builders fear they will miss out completely. I also fear that the next round will be dominated by major city companies and the locals will not even get the chance to tender because the packages will be priced out of the range that they are qualified to undertake. It is a very real concern for small country builders.
As an economic stimulus, the Building the Education Revolution program is starting to shape up as the biggest con job this government has delivered. The undue haste to roll out this program is showing no regard for the needs of the local education sector or the capacity of the local community to undertake the work. When the Prime Minister talks about it being ‘shovel-ready’, it means: ‘Shovel the money out the door and cross your fingers that some of the projects actually hit the mark.’ I am not complaining about the nature of the program, in the sense that the government has made a commitment to spend that money, but it is up to the government now to ensure the money is spent wisely and fulfils its ambition of being an economic stimulus in creating jobs right throughout Australia.
There should be a more strategic approach to this program, and local communities should have more control over when the money is spent, what it is spent on and which local firm is hired to get the job done. By putting locals first and supporting local small businesses, which are the backbone of the Gippsland economy, the government will achieve a lot more than it is achieving at the moment.
In the limited time that I have left I would like to refer to a topic that I have raised previously with the Minister for Health and Ageing on behalf of the health service providers throughout my electorate and the concerns over the rural retention grants. As feared in the lead-up to the budget, the minister has realigned these zones and there are many concerns within the health sector in Gippsland. In Sale, for example, the health sector has now been included in the same zone as Pakenham and classed as ‘inner regional’ in terms of any retention grants or government assistance. It is a bizarre decision which will make it harder to attract health professionals in the future to regional communities.
It is an issue that I will be pursuing further on behalf of the health professionals in my region because the changes appear to fly in the face of every effort that has been made in recent years to encourage health professionals to practise in regional areas. In Gippsland, there has been some outstanding work done over the years with the rural medical school and the Monash University courses designed to given medical students a taste of life in a rural and regional setting, and I fear that these changes are completely contradictory to those moves.
As I said at the outset, Gippslanders are concerned with the way this government is managing our nation’s finances. I share their concerns as this government’s spending priorities are increasing the gap between city and country residents, and I do not believe we are receiving value for money on the borrowed money that is being run up in this budget.
PRESENTATION OF PETITION: YOUTH ALLOWANCE
June 01, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (8.34 pm) — by leave—It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Standing Committee on Petitions. I congratulate the member for Fowler on the excellent work she is doing—and you too of course, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams—with the committee.
I rise to present a petition approved by the Standing Committee on Petitions. This petition is in direct response to the Rudd government’s flawed decision to change the eligibility criteria for students seeking to access the independent rate of youth allowance.
I join with the petitioners in highlighting the simple fact that these changes to the youth allowance place another barrier to university participation for students in regional areas. They unfairly discriminate against students currently undertaking their gap year and contradict other efforts to increase university participation by students from rural and regional Australia.
The petition currently contains 206 signatures, but let me assure the House that such is the depth of concern over this issue there are many more on the way.
My office has sent a further 2,000 signatures to the Petitions Committee this week and I have been inundated with emails and letters from concerned teachers and parents, and of course the students themselves.
And on that point I will take up comments from the Minister for Education who has responded to questions in this place by claiming that the opposition is merely scaremongering on the issue. The minister also said it was a ‘very silly question’ when I asked the minister to guarantee that the students currently on their gap year would not be financially penalised under the government’s changes. The petitioners who have already supported this petition before the House tonight—and those who have written letters or sent emails, all of which I am forwarding to the minister directly—are not being silly, nor are they scaremongering. I know the minister is particularly busy, but I urge the minister to stop playing politics with the hopes and aspirations of country students and take the time to read at least some of the letters from students, parents and educators in Gippsland and throughout Australia.
Just by way of example, let me quote from a media release distributed by the Baw Baw Latrobe Local Learning and Employment Network on 22 May. The CEO, Mick Murphy—a man who is also not in the habit of saying silly things or scaremongering—said:
This policy discriminates against rural and regional students and has taken a city-centric view of further education.
We also have the Isolated Children’s Parents Association offering some forthright comments in a media release on 20 May titled ‘Rudd giveth—Rudd taketh away’.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams) — I remind the honourable member that his comments, I believe, are to the statement that petitions be tabled.
Mr CHESTER — Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The association remarks in support of petitioners:
The move to a single criterion— as referred to in the petition— for qualifying for independent youth allowance of 30 hours a week work for at least 18 months in a two-year period will have huge negative impact on students from rural and remote areas. Finding part-time work for 15 hours a week in small country towns is difficult enough but 30 hours a week is even tougher to do.
I do not believe that the petitioners are silly people or scaremongers. I believe they are concerned that the government is making it harder for country children to achieve their full potential. Students themselves in addition to signing a petition have written to me directly seeking my intervention and urging me as the member for Gippsland to encourage the government to change its position. I have been receiving letters from people such as Leigh Rogers who said:
I have been blindsided by the Labor Party’s new budget and the scheme has been ripped from under me without any warning.
Parents such as Les and Janice Barnett in Bairnsdale have also signed a petition. They said:
This change will put university beyond the reach of many rural students. It also places extra stresses on the students especially those who have taken this year off in good faith expecting to be eligible for the allowance in 2010.
There is a moral argument there that is put by the petitioners that these students have acted in good faith, that they followed the rules as they applied at the end of 2008 and deferred their studies to work hard and qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance. I urge regional MPs on the government benches to make the point, on behalf of their constituents, that this particular policy direction is actively discriminating against regional students.
I offer the petitioners some comfort that this petition will be circulated more widely throughout the community of Gippsland in the weeks ahead. I urge people who are interested to follow this process.
As the Chair of the Standing Committee on Petitions has referred to already tonight, the opportunity to put their views to the people’s parliament is a critical part of our democracy and it has given me great pleasure to be a part of the Petitions Committee and to participate in the debate on behalf of my constituents.
The Petitions Committee, under the member for Fowler, including you yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker, has had many active discussions in recent times. The committee has seen some very successful campaigns conducted by residents right throughout Australia, and I urge the Minister for Education to consider the weight of this petition very highly. I know that similar petitions are being circulated right throughout regional Australia at the moment.
I will give the last word in this discussion tonight to a student who attended the Gippsland Grammar School in Sale last year. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation himself may be interested, as this was his former school. Another alumnus is a former school captain Monique Lawless, who is working hard to overturn this decision and is actively circulating the petition on behalf of her colleagues. Monique wrote to me to highlight her concerns:
I had no choice but to move away from home in order to further my education, but did not want this to be a burden on my family. Students like myself who have made a commitment to meeting the independence criteria before heading off to university have been left high and dry.
This is not silly. It is not scaremongering. It is about country people standing up for a fair go, and I urge the minister to reconsider the decision.
The petition reads as follows—
To the Honourable The Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives.
This petition of members from the Gippsland community recognises the importance of providing affordable access to university for students from rural and regional areas.
Members of the Gippsland community draw the attention of the House to changes announced in the Federal Budget on May 12, 2009 which states that students will no longer be able to achieve financial independence for Youth Allowance and ABSTUDY by meeting the 2nd and 3rd elements of the workforce criterion.
The petitioners believe that the Youth Allowance changes proposed in the Federal Budget place another barrier to university participation for students in regional areas; unfairly discriminate against students currently undertaking a ‘gap’ year; and contradict other efforts to increase university participation by students from rural and regional Australia.
We therefore ask the House to retain the 2nd and 3rd elements of the workforce criterion so that a tertiary education is accessible to regional students.
Signatures from 206 citizens.
May 25, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.39 pm) — I wish to highlight for the benefit of the House a petition which is circulating in Gippsland. This petition is in direct response to the Rudd government’s flawed decision to change the eligibility criteria for students seeking to access the independent rate of youth allowance. I join with the petitioners in highlighting the simple fact that these changes to the youth allowance place another barrier to university participation for students in regional areas. They unfairly discriminate against students currently undertaking a gap year and contradict other efforts to increase university participation for students from rural and regional Australia.
In the limited time I have available this evening, I urge the Minister for Education to immediately reconsider the decision particularly given the impact it has on students who are already undertaking their gap year. The minister has attempted to justify this decision by claiming that more students would be able to access the youth allowance in the future under revised criteria for the income thresholds. Even if that is the case, there should be a guarantee that no students who are currently undertaking a gap year will be worse off under the proposed changes in the budget.
This is a decision remarkable for its arrogance and its contemptuous disregard for the hopes and aspirations of thousands of young Australians. These are the students who followed the rules as they applied when they finished their year 12 studies in 2008. They were told by their principals and careers counsellors, and even advised by Centrelink officers in some instances, that if they took a year off study and earned the $18,000 to $19,000 required under the eligibility criteria they would qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance. What has this government done? It has shattered the dreams of country students, their parents and their teachers midway through the gap year. It has pulled the rug out from under their feet, right when the students were starting to plan for the next move in their careers. If this is the education revolution then it amounts to a kick in the guts for country students.
LAKES ENTRANCE SURF LIFE SAVING CLUB
May 14, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.48 am) — It gives me great pleasure to speak today in honour of the Lakes Entrance Surf Life Saving Club, which has been awarded the 2009 Surf Life Saving Australia club of the year. This is an outstanding achievement for a comparatively small regional club and all credit is due to past and present members. The surf life saving movement across Australia is one of our nation’s most important community service organisations, providing a highly valued rescue service to keep our beaches safe throughout the year.
In my home town of Lakes Entrance, the surf life saving club plays a critical role in the social and economic life of the region. Ninety Mile Beach is prone to rips and large swells and, like all surf beaches, conditions can change quite quickly. Inexperienced swimmers can be caught unawares and it is essential that a patrolled beach is provided for the safety of local residents and also to attract tourists to our town. Tourism is a major industry in Lakes Entrance and I have no doubt that the existence of the surf life saving club and the countless hours of patrols that have been provided over the past 50 years add an enormous amount to the economic wellbeing of our community.
Perhaps the greatest service provided by the Lakes Entrance club and so many other surf life saving clubs around Australia is the role it plays in helping young people achieve their full potential. I am proud to say that three of my children are enrolled in the Lakes Entrance nippers program. In fact, more than 100 youngsters participated in the Lakes Entrance program over the past summer months. The nippers are trained in first aid and surf safety and also have the benefits of enjoying a healthy and active lifestyle.
None of this would be possible without the efforts of outstanding volunteers and parents, such as Rob Brown and David Richardson, who ran the nippers program over the summer months in Lakes Entrance. Similarly, the club’s success as the Australian Club of the Year would not have been possible without dozens of volunteers over many years of service. The dedication and commitment of so many people has contributed to the club enjoying recognition this year. Great Australians like our former club leaders and local citizens of the year, Ian Shepherd, Ron Stott and Doc McKenzie; and the current leadership team of president, Trevor Dix; secretary, Kris Cordery, captain Cameron King; and treasurer Tony Carroll. I mention the treasurer last not just because he barracks for the Richmond Football Club but because Tony has the job of securing funding for the redevelopment of the clubhouse.
The community has done a great job in building new facilities in recent times with volunteer fundraising and the assistance of some government funding, but they are still about $400,000 short of their target to complete the next stage of the project.
The existing facilities are very well used and supported by the community not only in terms of their primary use as a surf life saving clubhouse but also as a venue for private functions. However, there is a shortage of storage space and there is a need for improved first aid treatment facilities and, most importantly, the existing building does not provide adequately for people with disabilities or reduced mobility.
I will be working with my colleagues at state level to pursue funding opportunities at both the state and the federal level on behalf of Lakes Entrance Surf Life Saving Club because Australia’s best club deserves some of Australia’s best facilities. Without wishing to pre-empt future announcements, the Lakes Entrance club is strongly tipped to host next year’s Victorian junior and state titles. The club did a magnificent job of hosting the 2008 junior titles and is ready, willing and able to do it all again.
It would top off the state titles if the new facilities were in place to cater for the thousands of surf lifesavers and their families who will descend on Lakes Entrance for the event.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – BUDGET
March 19, 2009
Mr CHESTER (4.06 pm) — My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister guarantee all Australians that the government will not increase existing taxes or impose any new taxes, increased fees, charges or duties of excise in the May budget?
Mr RUDD — I say to the honourable member for Gippsland that, as he would know if he paid attention to the government’s consistent policy on tax as a proportion of GDP, we will adhere to the promise that we made before the election. Our policy has not changed.
March 19, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.02 am) — I commend the member for Blaxland for his courage and wish him well on his journey. I rise to highlight community concerns in relation to the environmental health of the Gippsland Lakes and catchment. Gippsland Lakes are a tourism icon for my region and are highly valued by the local community. It is the largest inland waterway in the Southern Hemisphere and a quite magnificent network of lakes and rivers.
The Ramsar listed wetlands are a feature of the Gippsland Lakes system. However, the environmental characteristics of the Gippsland Lakes have changed dramatically since European settlement about 150 years ago. For example, the installation of an artificial entrance has meant that a mainly freshwater system is now predominantly saltwater and this has had an impact on the vegetation and the environment of the lakes. Activities in the catchment with industrialisation of major towns and agricultural impacts have also flowed through to what is quite an extensive coastal lagoon system but, in the context of the size of the catchment, quite a small area of lake systems to manage the impacts that are flowing through from the catchment.
The lakes are under stress as has been pointed out by leading CSIRO researcher Graham Harris as long as eight years ago at a forum in Sale when he said that the lakes were at a tipping point and they could go either way. Signs of stress are evident in recent algal blooms. Over the past 10 years we have had quite a few and they have a major impact on people’s capacity to enjoy the lake system and also an economic impact in terms of the tourism industry. I am an optimist by nature and I believe that with the resourcefulness of the people, good science and the goodwill of so many volunteers on the ground in their practical environment at work we can in fact save the Gippsland Lakes.
I am confident that the lakes can recover but it will take a willingness from governments at both levels to work faster and provide more resources to the community. The Gippsland Lakes task force has a target of reducing the nutrient load flowing into the lake system by 40 per cent and work has already begun in that regard. Currently the state government is considering its next round of funding for the lakes. There is normally a two to three-year time frame. I believe the state government should allocate at least $10 million over the next three years to maintain and improve the environment of the Gippsland Lakes and catchment. The environmental challenges facing the Gippsland Lakes and catchment require ongoing and concerted efforts on the ground along with additional funding for the research required to overcome some of the knowledge gaps we currently have.
The health of the lakes and catchment is critical to the social, economic and cultural life of our region and I will be continuing to fight to make sure we receive our fair share of state and federal government funding in that regard. My figure of $10 million is based on the original funding commitment in 2002 to 2006 from the former Bracks government which saw $3.2 million per year provided for the task force activities, which are primarily aimed at, as I said, reducing the nutrient flow into the system. Unfortunately, the former Deputy Premier, John Thwaites, cut that funding in half in 2006. Last year a public meeting attended by more than 200 people in Bairnsdale unanimously supported my position that both the state and federal governments’ funding commitments must be increased for the long-term health of the Gippsland Lakes and catchment. I believe that both the task force and the Gippsland Coastal Board have done a good job with the limited resources they have at their disposal.
But if we really want to make a difference to the environmental health of the Gippsland Lakes it is going to take a lot more than the funding currently provided from the state and federal governments. Keep in mind the environmental challenges which the recent bushfires have also presented in the west of the catchment area. The burnt hillsides are going to be a threat to the water quality if we experience heavy rain before there is any chance for the vegetation to re-establish itself. There is an enormous amount of work required in the catchment area to minimise the impact of those fires in addition to the ongoing projects on private land to reduce the flow of nutrients. I understand the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has indicated that the Caring for our Country funding will be increased to assist in the bushfire affected communities, and I take him at his word that that will happen.
From the Rudd government’s perspective, the contribution to the environmental health of the catchment has been 16 months of promises and unfortunately not a cent has made it onto the ground at this stage. That is not a record to be proud of. The Labor Party promised $3 million over three years during the 2007 campaign and to date not a single project has been funded. It is my understanding that the federal government has just finalised contracts for the money to be provided to the local catchment management authorities, but nothing has actually flowed yet to projects on the ground. The Gippsland Lakes will need our help now and into the future, and the community expects us to do better.
Finally, in the time I have left, I would like to highlight the questions that are arising now in terms of Australia meeting its obligations to the Ramsar listed wetlands. As I mentioned, the Gippsland Lakes is a Ramsar listed wetland. Australia was one of the first five founding nations to sign the Ramsar convention in 1971 and now, with 65wetlands of significance, there is a concern that Australia—and this is not a criticism of the current government; it has been governments over many years—has failed to live up to the treaty. It is very easy to sign these treaties but we need to meet our obligations to these international conventions. It is something I will be pursuing further with the government.
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