APPROPRIATION (NATION BUILDING AND JOBS) BILL (NO. 1) 2008-2009

February 04, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (1.46 pm)
— It is a pleasure to speak on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills, which are before the House. It would be the easiest thing in the world to stand here and join in the government cheer squad and pass the $42 billion program without any murmurs of dissent. But in all good faith to the people of Gippsland and to my own children, I cannot support these bills, which mortgage our future. I think the Prime Minister has simply not yet made the case to justify the scale and the targets of this package.

I doubt that there is a single person in this parliament who does not appreciate the magnitude of the economic challenges which confront our nation and the world at the moment. But to suggest that we should just sit back and give the Prime Minister and the Treasurer a blank cheque, no matter how misguided or ill-conceived the plan may be, is I believe the height of arrogance from those in government. We would not be doing our job if we did not at least scrutinise this legislation on behalf of the people of Australia.

It is easy to shovel the money out the door and give everyone a bonus but it is damn hard to pay the bills in the future. I fear the Prime Minister has panicked. In his desperation to be decisive, to do something, to just do anything, he has panicked and come out with a package that even he admitshe admitted it here yesterday in the chamberhe does not know if it will work. In this mad rush the government is attempting to ram this legislation through parliament without allowing reasonable time for due consideration of the details of a spending program which we all acknowledge is of historic proportions.

Do not get me wrong, Madam Deputy Speaker: I do not believe the package is completely flawed. There are several elements that I fully support, particularly if they were downsized to more reasonable proportions. But this government is not interested in negotiating with the opposition. It is not interested in hearing theviews of people on this side of the chamber, many of whom have held high office in the past and have been successful in guiding this nation through troubled times over the past decade.

I am reminded of a quote from a good friend of mine, a member of the upper house in the state parliament in Victoria, Mr Damian Drum. He says:

To think either side has a mortgage on what is right or what is wrong is absolute folly. I believe that there are some very reasonable people on both sides of this House and that we could go a lot further in our deliberations on this package if we listened to the good ideas from both sides of the chamber.

If the Prime Minister and the Treasurer could perhaps put aside their own egos for five minutes and sit down and listen to others, I think Australians would benefit in the longer term. I am sure we would end up with a much better stimulus package if we all just took a cold shower and brought this legislation back before the House, perhaps even in a week, rather than trying to ram it through today without any level of negotiation. There should be more discussion and negotiation between senior members on both sides of the House.

I turn to the specific details of the package. The bonus payments are probably the one area where I have my greatest concerns. There is almost $13 billion to be given out in one-off payments over the next few weeks. These will be popular. I have no doubt they will be popular in my electorate of Gippsland, where I have a lot of family tax benefit A recipients and a significant number of low-income earners. But even the Prime Minister admitted the data from the $10.4 billion package which was initiated prior to Christmas is not yet complete.

I was one of the members on this side of the House who actively supported the $10.4 billion package before Christmas, because one of the primary targets of that package were pensioners, carers and people with disabilities. They were the less fortunate people in my community who I had been actively campaigning for longer term support through government support payments. So I openly supported the $10.4 billion package and encouraged people, if they had the opportunity to spend some of that money, to spend it locally and support local jobs.

It is strange and I have commented on this in the past that the government could never justify increasing pensions on the basis of social justice, on the basis of the need to help those less fortunate. They had to wait until there was an economic crisis to finally do something to help pensioners, carers and people with disabilities. So I was surprised that the Labor government supposedly the great defender of low-income earners and those less fortunate were not prepared to assist our pensioners at a time of need but waited for this economic crisis to justify its decision.

Even if you accept the argument that the governments $13 billion in bonus payments is affordable for the Australian nation, why are we taking a punt like this at this time We do not know if it will work. There has been no modelling whatsoever released to tell us whether $950 per individual is enough or whether it is too much. I fear that once that money has gone we will have nothing to show for it as a nation.

Gippslanders will get a significant share of this money. If you worked it out based on really rough figures of $13 billion spread over 150 electorates and you found that about $87 million was coming to Gippsland, I can tell you now that the people of my electorate are not as short-sighted as the Prime Minister in this regard. They would rather see that $87 million spent on safer roads, on better hospitals, improved aged-care facilities, sporting grounds, swimming pools and nursing homes some real infrastructure improvements that are going to be there for the longer term, not a here today, gone tomorrow cash splash, which is all we are going to see over the next months with this $13 billion program.

There is a very long list in my own electorate of areas in which we could spend this money more constructively and which I believe would deliver the long-term productivity improvements we are looking for as a nation as we move forward into the 21st century. The shire of Wellington itself has regularly lobbied the government and me in relation to a $5 million plan to help develop an indoor sports centre again, a much better use of the money than just a $950 one-off payment.

The Macalister Irrigation District around the Maffra area has an urgent need to upgrade the irrigation channels. We are talking about one of the most productive export industries in my region and there is no funding available for it under the national water plan at this stage. We also see this $950 one-off payment being made to farmers. I can tell you now that they would rather see some real commitment to upgrade the irrigation infrastructure in Gippsland for the longer term so that their children have a future on the farm rather than just one $950 payment, which is all they are going to see in this particular package.

Gippsland Rotary Centenary House is another project that I have been speaking to the government about. It has been a very successful program. The state government in Victoria and the previous government, in a bipartisan way, supported the development of the Gippsland Rotary Centenary House, where local rotary clubs have created a home away from home for people receiving cancer treatment. Tragically, the program is so successful it is in such demand in the Latrobe Valley that we need more units. A plan has now been put before the government to build a further nine units.

Again, the people of Gippsland would rather see some of this $13 billion spent on projects like that for longer term benefits to the cancer care treatment of people in Gippsland than a one-off payment of $950. There is an ongoing program, which has received support from both sides of the House, from the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government and also from the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister.

That program is to upgrade the Princes Highway from Traralgon to the New South Wales border. Every report that comes back from the AusRAP studies shows that the Princes Highway in Gippsland is of a lower standard than would be accepted of a national highway. A $140 million program to duplicate the highway from Traralgon to Sale has been put before and accepted by the government. Again, all we have seen committed to that program is $2 million. It is another project that the Gippsland would rather see get underway than a $950 one-off cash payment that will be gone before Easter.

I accept that investment in natural gas reticulation is actually more of a state government responsibility but, judging by the program we have before us, the state mand federal boundaries have been blurred somewhat in this current package. Investing in natural gas reticulation is primarily a state responsibility but it would create jobs in my community and help our small businesses prosper and compete with the metropolitan areas.

I think a lot of metropolitan businesses take for granted that the gas from Gippsland is available for their use, but many small businesses in my community have no access to natural gas at the moment. That is something that I have approached both the state and federal ministers about. Once again, the people of Gippsland would rather see something constructive rather than the $950 in their pocket which will be gone tomorrow. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer are selling Gippsland an all-Australian short by suggesting they would rather have just this one-off payment than some longer term investment in infrastructure.

One of the key areas of the package that lets down the people of Australia relates to small business support. Any package that we put together for the Australian public now should have a focus on jobs. Again, this package misses the mark. I acknowledge that there are some tax breaks for small business, and that is a positive start, but, if we are going to be splashing around a sum of $42 billion in just one package, we need a real focus on jobs and, as a country-based member of parliament particularly, jobs in rural industries and the small business sector. For example, again there is nothing in this package to help secure the export markets for the dairy industry, which is faced with an uncertain future due to the price cuts and the protectionism of the European Union.

There is nothing in this package for rural industries whatsoever. There is nothing here to support the regional tourism industry, and this staggers me. The member for Eden-Monaro is with me in the chamber today and I suggest that he would love to see some more funding for regional tourism to promote the great attractions of the Sapphire Coast. The Sapphire Coast is a nice place but the Gippsland coastal area is just a little better. I know the member for Eden-Monaro disagrees. There is nothing here to support the regional tourism industry. I would support a massive boost in marketing of regional attractions to encourage Australians, perhaps this year, to put the local economy first and to take a holiday here in Australia. I am disappointed that the package, which could have focused on small business jobs and on tourism industry jobs, has missed the mark in that regard.

The government could have reinstated the farmer apprenticeship scheme and also the small business assistance program, which were both cut in the previous budget. It is very hard to believe that you are for jobs in small business when you have a government prepared to cut such schemes in the last budget. There really could have been more investment in regional infrastructure and programs like the regional partnerships initiative, which has been sadly missed in a lot of regional communities since its disbandment by this government. We have had the inquiry; now I think it is time to start rolling out funding for genuine projects which meet the tests and will certainly be strongly supported by members who represent regional electorates.

This package should have been all about jobs. Given my bias for regional communities, it should have been all about regional jobs. What the government said last year compared to what they are saying now is something that is really beyond belief. Last year we were talking about creating 250,000 from these stimulus packages, but now they are only talking about supporting jobs supporting 90,000 jobs. I fear that we are really just making this up as we go along. They do not know if this package is going to help jobs at all and I am not prepared to mortgage Australia’s future on a bit of guesswork by the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.

Gippslanders would rather have a job in the future than have a $950 bonus in their pocket in the next month or so. Gippslanders are telling me already that they would support a major investment infrastructure boost rather than just $950 in one bonus payment that will be gone before Easter.

Even with a $42 billion package, even with a package of historic proportions, there are those who have managed to miss out. It is hard to believe that, when you are throwing taxpayers money around like confetti, some people can still miss out. Among them are the most vulnerable and those heavily impacted by the economic crisis, such as our self-funded retirees. There is not a cracker in this for them not a cracker for the pensioners, the carers, the people with disabilities. We should be locking in a permanent increase in their support payments now and giving some certainty to the economy rather than the whim of one-off payments.

What if this money is not enough When is the next payment going to come When is the next stimulus package It is very easy for anyone to make a hero of themselves, going around spending like a drunken sailor, shouting the bar, when they are spending someone else’s money.

I said at the outset that the package is not without merit and I believe there are some good ideas in here, just as I do believe that there are good ideas on both sides of the House to contribute to this debate. That is why I am most concerned that we have attempted to ram this package through with such a short amount of time for debate. The schools and education package is one area where I think there is probably unanimous support across the chamber. It is one of the most sensible components of this package. I will ignore the rhetoric of members from the opposite side which suggests that the previous government was not interested in schools. I would suggest that the Investing in Our Schools Program was an outstanding initiative and members on this side of the House would certainly support such a package going forward into the future.

Members on both sides of the House understand the importance of investing in the future of our children and the very essence, I believe, of this debate is what that future is that we are going to provide for our young children. What concerns me most with this package is that it discriminates against the smallest schools in regional areas by allocating them a smaller amount. I fear that the federal government, in this regard, is actually bailing out our state governments and we will only end up hiding their failure to invest in the future of our public schools. There is no-one though who is going to debate the point about whether we need to be investing more in our schools but I think this is one of those times when a bit more discussion and negotiation between both sides of the House would have come up with a better package than just simply throwing massive amounts $14.7 billion at the problem and effectively bailing out the state government’s failure to invest.

The sheer magnitude of this program and the involvement of the state governments bring doubts to my mind as to whether it can actually be delivered. There is no-one on this side of the House who has much confidence in the capacity…

(Debate adjourned)

(Debate resumed)

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.11 pm) — It is a pleasure to rejoin the debate on Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related bills. There is no-one on this side of the House or in the broader public who has much confidence in the capacity of the state governments to deliver the education and schools program either on time or on budget. It was interesting in question time today to hear the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry lecturing me about the needs of Gippslanders and the Maffra Secondary College. It was a very unusual choice of example by the minister, given the debacle which surrounded the funding for the Maffra Secondary College project.

The state government of Victoria put out a press release announcing funding for the Maffra Secondary College and then said, ‘Whoops! It is no go—there is actually no funding for Maffra Secondary College,’ and backed right away from the project. It only required a few street marches, petitions and a campaign by the local MPs and the community residents themselves to actually get the funding restored, so that was an unusual choice by the minister if he was hoping to build any faith at all in the capacity of state governments to deliver on these projects under the education and schools program. Gippslanders really do know how much the minister cares for them anyway. He has visited the region three times—all in the lead up to the Gippsland by-election—and has not been seen since. We would love to have him back. He is most welcome to come to Gippsland any time, particularly as our farmers are dealing with ongoing struggles with the drought.

There is great support for investment in the education programs associated with this package. The problem is that there is no balance to the package. There is nothing there for the health needs of my community; there is nothing there in terms of aged-care needs, which are not even mentioned at all. I do take up the comments from the member for New England, who called for a bit of caution—and perhaps people should slow down and take a bit of a deep breath about this whole debate given the importance of it. I am not one to completely discount the package and say it is all poor public policy because I do believe there are a lot of good policies in the package, and I have referred to a few of those earlier today.

There are some good initiatives but, again, I fear that in the roads and transport area we are to some extent just bailing out the state governments from their responsibilities. One particular package that is of interest is the $150 million for boom gates to improve safety at level crossings. There is no argument from either side of the House regarding the need to improve level crossings, but we are talking about $150 million for 200 projects.

Right across Victoria there are probably 1,000 unregulated crossings which have been the subject of great community debate. I believe we could force the state governments to match the funding dollar for dollar and get 400 boom gates installed if that were to be the treatment of those particular level crossings. I think we are letting the state governments off scot-free from their obligations in relation to the safety of level crossings.

There is a little bit of extra funding for the roads Black Spot program. The Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government pointed out today that he would expect the Nationals to support that, and we certainly do support the additional funding in relation to regional roads projects. It was the Nationals, in conjunction with the Liberal Party, who initiated Roads to Recovery, one of those programs which has stood the test of time and has not been disbanded by the current government.

Roads to Recovery is one of those excellent programs under which local communities get to decide the local priorities, and I would hope that in this particular package there is some option for that to happen if the package is passed by the Senate. There is also some good news in the package in relation to some of the environmental aspects of it.

But again, in terms of the most effective spend in this regard it is the sheer scale of this whole package and the lack of negotiation or discussion with the broader community which bothers me. There is no extra funding here, for example, for Landcare, which is the real, practical, labour intensive program. We are talking about job creation. This is a real opportunity for labour- intensive work in weed control, pest animal removal, erosion or revegetation works. It would create jobs and deliver real benefits to the environment right across regional Australia. I do accept that the ceiling insulation program and the solar water rebates are both reasonable initiatives. But again I question the scale of the program. Is this the best way to be spending $42 billion as part of this initiative.

The government has failed to negotiate on this package and involve the broader community in a debate when we have the time to do so. Can we really afford the extent of these programs and will we really stimulate the economy and create the jobs which should be created and which the Prime Minister himself has indicated are the main focus of this entire strategy We have no evidence that the first package worked, and there is still no proof that this one will either.

While I am on the environment, there is that little matter of actually delivering on previous promises. My good friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry— I am sorry to be talking about him in his absence—has promised $3 million for the Gippsland Lakes. It was promised in November 2007. Thirteen months later, not a single cent has been delivered on that promise. We have exchanged correspondence on the issue. Apparently we are waiting for contracts.

So, for 13 months we have been waiting for contracts for a $3 million project. We are talking about a $42 billion project to be rolled out over the next four years. I have very little confidence in the capacity of the government to deliver on that promise. The Gippsland Lakes funding that I am referring to is a critical program, which has widespread support across the community, to reduce the nutrient flow into the Gippsland Lakes, an icon of the Gippsland region. I urge the minister to expedite that funding as soon as possible. Given that the government could not even deliver $3 million on time, I have no reason to be confident that the rollout of the $42 billion will work, particularly once we involve the dysfunctional state governments.

We have all had experience of the state governments’ failure to manage money properly in recent years. The public housing construction program, particularly relating to the defence forces, has a lot of merit. As the member for Gippsland, the East Sale RAAF base is a critical component of my regional economy, and I would be a madman to suggest that improving the stock of Defence Force housing is not a good strategy. I am certainly in support of that, but again I seek more time to negotiate these issues through the government. There are elements of the package, as I have repeatedly said before, which are quite good. I can see how the building program would deliver benefits in terms of jobs in the construction industry. But, on the overall scale of things, I am stunned that it is a $42 billion package and we are given 12 or 14 hours to debate it here today with no preparation whatsoever. It smacks of arrogance and it is a discredit to the government.

The failure of this government to negotiate or to talk to others about the package reflects their view that they know everything. Alternative viewpoints are being put in public already. Michael Costa, the former New South Wales Treasurer, suggested in the Daily Telegraph today:

The Government should focus its attention on providing an environment that supports business confidence. The quickest way for the Government to restore business and consumer confidence is through tax cuts.

These are alternative ideas that, when we are talking about a $42 billion package, should be fully explored before we just rush headlong into this program. I do accept the need for a stimulus package, but not this one, and I will be opposing the bill. I urge the government to go back to the drawing board, to slow down and to take the advice of the member for New England in that regard, to listen to the views of others and to return with a realistic package we can all support. It is easy to be popular and to give away money that we do not even have; it is much harder to do the right thing and make the tough decisions.

(Time expired)