In Parliament

2011 In Parliament

2011 JULY 6 – Health and Ageing Committee Ð Report (Before itÕs too late)

HEALTH AND AGEING COMMITTEE – REPORT (BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE)

July 6, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:32): There are a lot of issues that get debated in this place, and they seem to take on life-and-death proportions inside the Canberra bubble of politicians, media commentators and bureaucrats. But today I am thankful for the opportunity to talk about an issue that really is of life-and-death proportions, and that is the appalling suicide rate in our nation and the need to take more action to reduce both the impact of suicide and suicide attempts within our community.

I am concerned primarily that it is an issue that we rarely talk about, even in this place. I happened to do a bit of a search through Hansard to see what other people have been saying about the issue of suicide in recent times. It surprised me that it has been mentioned only eight times over both chambers in the past two years. That is not meant to be a reflection on anyone at all; it just surprised me that there has not been much of a conversation in this place about the issue itself.

I would like to congratulate the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing for its report, Before it’s too late. I also note that the document really does complement the Senate’s report from last year titled The hidden toll: suicide in Australia. Although I was not part of the inquiry, I have read through both reports and I must say that the contents should be ringing alarm bells throughout this building and right across our nation.

I say at the outset—and other members have noted this as well—that it is a very complex and difficult challenge for us to deal with, and there is plenty of good work that has been done at many different levels in our community and by members of parliament. But we have such a very long way to go, and we need to challenge the taboo in raising this topic for a broader national conversation. One of our greatest challenges is to reduce or remove the stigma about suicide and to talk about it in a responsible and rational manner. I believe we need this national conversation because staying silent simply has not worked. I welcome this opportunity to speak in relation to the report by the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing.

My own experiences in relation to suicide through my previous career as a newspaper journalist perhaps highlight the point that I am trying to make. As a journalist on police rounds you would often be told about a death at the police station. But there was a policy in place within the media network and within our own newspaper not to report such incidents. The nearest comparison I can make is the old saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a person commit suicide and no-one is allowed to talk about it, do their family and friends ever really get to grieve? Although the answer, I think, is self-evident—of course they grieve—if suicide remains such a taboo subject in our community and friends and family are not really allowed to talk about it and family members are too ashamed to admit the actual cause of death, how does the grieving process really get started?

Also, if we are not prepared to talk about it and get a better understanding of what happened, how do we as a community learn from that experience.

I take up the case study mentioned today by the member for Hasluck in what I thought was a terrific speech to the parliament. He highlighted some of the very real concerns where the family and friends of suicide victims—the ones who are left behind—have so many questions about what they could have done. Was there something they may have missed? For those of us who have never experienced a mental illness it is very difficult even to understand why a person would take their own life. Sometimes there are simply no reasons. The previous speaker mentioned some of the risk factors, and there are risk factors that are very well known. But on other occasions there are simply no explanations. Sometimes it really does make no sense at all.

As with any problem, if we can measure it we should be able to manage it. That is an issue in this case because we are talking about something—the suicide death rates in Australia—about which we do not know the full extent of the problem. The official statistics put the suicide rate in Australia at around about 2,000 to 2,200 people per year, but I have read reports in which estimates were put forward that the figure could be as much as 16 per cent higher, which means we could be talking about suicide deaths in the order of 3,000 people per year. Although this confusion is regrettable, it is also understandable because it is very difficult for the authorities involved to be determining the intent when assessing the cause of death in circumstances such as car accidents or drug overdoses. It is very difficult in the absence of compelling evidence like a suicide note to know for sure that the person intended to end their own life. Also, there is a stigma attached to a suicide and therefore pressure, whether it is implied or real, to protect the reputation of the surviving family members or friends, particularly in regional settings, where people get to hear about the suicide and wonder what was wrong and what was going on behind the scenes. Questions are asked, particularly in a smaller regional setting. I am not suggesting for a second that there is any impropriety or anything like that. I am just making the point that the investigators and the authorities are sometimes under implied pressure not to officially declare a suicide in circumstances where it is likely the death was probably self-inflicted and may well have been deliberate but there remained an element of doubt, so an open finding is given.

Whether the figure is 2,000 or 3,000 is probably not overly important in the context of our discussion here today, but it does inform our debate and the fact that we need to take more action as a nation. Even if we take that official figure of around 2,000 it is an alarming figure. It means that during the last four days of parliamentary sittings probably 25 Australians will have ended their lives deliberately.

In the context of the report, Before it’s too late: report on early intervention programs aimed at preventing youth suicide, the rate of youth suicide, which is particularly focused on, is one of great concern to all of us in this place, particularly for those members who represent rural electorates, where the rates of suicide are much higher. Referring to the report, its finding was that for young people aged 15 to 24 suicide is the number one cause of death. Young males in particular in regional areas are one of the highest risk categories for premature death from suicide. Despite an increase in funding over the past decade it still receives less mainstream public policy attention than issues like road safety and even sun protection.

Among the key recommendations in both the reports I have referred to is the view that we need to undertake a national suicide prevention and awareness campaign over five years with adequate and sustained resources. I believe that is a critical step. Such a campaign should target the at-risk groups—other members have talked about the risk factors, which are reasonably well understood—but should also apply at a more universal level to help build resilience, to help an entire community understand what the risk factors may be and, perhaps, to drive the national conversation about this topic, which has been taboo for too long.

I am pleased to say that in Victoria, in a regional sense, that conversation has started in recent weeks, with the ABC regional Statewide Drive radio program playing a significant role. I would like to congratulate the program, its host, Kathy Bedford, and the producers and staff involved. They have tackled in what I believe is a very sensitive manner. I am sure that it is confronting for people, but I think we need to do it, and the media is an important tool at our disposal for raising awareness and assisting our community. I noted in the report and in previous reports we had talks about developing the use of social media so that we are interacting with young people in a medium that suits them.

I would also like to congratulate the government while I have the opportunity on the $18.2 million provided last week for Lifeline to allow toll-free calls from mobile phones. Increasingly young people rely on their mobile phones, and you do not want anyone not being able to seek help simply because they are out of credit on their phone. So I think that is a very important initiative.

I also want to refer, while I have the opportunity, to the comment piece by the 2010 Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, who wrote about the type of conversation that I think we need to have. Regarding the taboo that surrounds suicide, in his comment piece he said:

This culture of secrecy not only increases the risk of suicide, it also hampers the ability of the bereaved families and friends to recover from their loss.

Unlike the road toll, which has reduced by one third to 1,600 deaths a year and continues to decline, suicide remains a taboo subject and is sidelined in social policy.

As a society we remain reluctant to talk about suicide for fear it will inspire “copy cat” behaviour. We have warned off journalists and editors who believe that the issue cannot be routinely covered.

As a result the media fails to bear witness to the corrosive effects of these daily deaths on the family and friends of those who take their lives.

And he goes on to say:

There is no evidence to suggest that sensitive and accurate reporting of suicide inspires others to follow. The exception is the celebrity suicide which the media typically does cover.

As with the road toll, the media should keep and frequently report a tally of the lives lost to suicide through a national campaign backed and funded by the federal government.

There are real solutions available to us to significantly reduce the numbers of Australians who needlessly die by suicide. But to solve this problem, we must first talk about it.

As members of this place, I believe, as the previous speaker indicated, that we do have a very important role to play in helping to deal with this issue. Other members, I am sure, like me, visit a lot of schools. We get to talk to a lot of young people. And we can help to pass on the critical messages which one day may help save a life.

I often think of youth suicide in particular as a permanent solution to what may have been a temporary problem, and I noted the previous speaker indicating that young people can be impetuous; they can take action without fully understanding the consequences. But, with support and treatment and early intervention, I am sure that we can help to save lives.

I am reminded again of an old saying about it taking a village to raise a child. We are all stakeholders in this issue and there is a lot of collective wisdom in this place. As much as we may belittle each other from time to time on different areas of policy, there is collective wisdom in this place, and we have the capacity in this place to do better on this issue. If we see a young person in our community who is struggling as a result of family breakdown, or abusing drugs and alcohol, or clearly suffering from some mental health issues, we need to be prepared to offer some level of support and be able to intervene. We need to have the tools at our disposal to be able to be the person who takes action and gets them the sort of help they need.

The report we are debating today does make that point. The report talks about the training of these so-called gatekeepers and the need for greater collaboration between all levels of government and service providers. One area that really does concern me is that we cannot afford to have these turf wars. We cannot have this silo mentality where one organisation is offering one level of assistance and another is offering something else and they become quite territorial. It makes it very hard for people, particularly young people who are not used to dealing with agencies and authorities and who may be disoriented anyway or unsure of what they need to do next; they do not need to be tied up in some sort of confusing maze of bureaucracy about which agency does what and who they need to go to see to seek help.

So I think there is a need for better collaboration. But, naturally, as a member from a regional area, I also believe there is a massive need for more investment in services in regional areas themselves, where it is often very difficult for people with mental health issues to receive support in their own communities. In my own electorate, almost invariably you have to travel if you need critical mental health assistance. I think we need to get the most out of every service that we already have and avoid duplication and confusion on the ground. On that gatekeeper training, I think that is a very important point made in the report. It is critical for people who work with younger members of our community that they have the skills to monitor, to detect any early warning signs, and then to help facilitate any treatment that may be available in that local community.

But I think the key point in all this is to remember that we can do it. We can save lives if we pass on the skills to our families and friends, and to teachers, youth workers, sports coaches, health professionals and law enforcement officers. Anyone who has regular contact with young people is in a position where they may be able to offer assistance with the right training in the future. As someone who is directly involved in surf lifesaving, I get to meet hundreds of young people in my community every year. They are almost without exception positive young achievers. But even among them you find issues of self-esteem, occasionally even bullying, even in a protected environment like a surf lifesaving club, where some kids do not feel quite up to it. You need to be able to help them to build their resilience and to take on challenges in a controlled manner. I think that is very important for them in helping them to build their self-esteem.

There are things we can do in our daily lives as active members of our community, beyond registered programs that may carry the banner of a suicide prevention program. I am a strong believer in the benefits of physical exercise, particularly in getting young people involved in team sports and community activities where they are part of something which is bigger than themselves and where they can find a role for themselves in the community. They will see that there is hope for them—they will find there is reason in their life and that they are part of something much bigger than they may have realised. On that point, there are many local solutions which we can help to drive within the broader national framework which the two reports talk about.

This is a very complex issue. Time for this discussion today is limited, but I encourage all members who are interested in the topic to continue to be involved. That we are having this conversation in this place is a major step forward; it is a very important step in the right direction. I know it is idealistic to believe that we can save every life, but I sincerely believe we can and must do better. I urge all members to work in a bipartisan manner to help prevent suicide in our community in future. Finally, I thank all the people in our community, the professional workers and the volunteers, who are already making a difference in this area. As a nation, we are indebted to you for the work you do for other people.

(Time expired)

2011 JULY 6 – Carbon Tax

CARBON TAX

July 6, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:58): I rise to speak in relation to the proposed carbon tax. It appears the Prime Minister has done a deal with the Greens and with the Independents, but she has not done a deal with Latrobe Valley power station workers and she has not done a deal with the Australian people. This Prime Minister has not dealt with her fundamental breach of trust—’There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.’ This begs the question: is she really leading this government? No, it is Bob Brown who is in power. Bob Brown was on TV last night and he was smiling way too much. When the Greens are smiling, regional Australians know they are about to cop it in the neck. They want to shut down the coal industry, shut down the export of live cattle, shut down rodeos and shut down steeplechases.

Regional Australians have had an absolute gutful of being told what to do by city based Greens and city based Labor MPs. What happened to your grand old party? You used to stand up for workers. What happened to your party? It is no wonder regional MPs on the other side are afraid to go home. I feel sorry for them. They want to seek refuge. They are probably lining up at the immigration minister’s office now saying, ‘Can I buy a boat?’

(Time expired)

2011 JULY 5 – Presentation of Petition: Milk Pricing / Sale Swing Bridge

PRESENTATION OF PETITION: MILK PRICING / SALE SWING BRIDGE

July 5, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (21:30): I would like to table a petition which has been found to be in order by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions. This petition relates to the potential for negative impacts on the dairy industry, as a direct result of the decision by both Coles and Woolworths to push down the price of milk to unsustainably low levels. In addition to receiving the petition, which has more than 600 signatures, I had the opportunity to meet with concerned residents in Gippsland, representing Gippsland churches, who supported this call for a ‘fair go’ for local dairy farmers. This is, I acknowledge, primarily an economic and industrial issue—and some may argue it is a bit unusual for the churches to be directly intervening—but I believe it is also a classic case of a social justice issue and fighting for a fair deal for smaller players in the marketplace. I can understand why the local churches were so keen to be involved, with their parishioners, who understand the impact that this type of a decision can have on the dairy farmers in my community. My constituents can see through the marketing spin put forward by the supermarket giants that this is about the cost of living and giving a better deal for customers. It is all about market share and I believe the decision to sell home brand milk at $1 per litre has the potential to harm farming families and branded milk producers in the future.

Mr Bruce Scott: It is outrageous.

Mr CHESTER: I take up the comment by the member for Maranoa, who said that it is outrageous. It is outrageous and I think the regional families recognise that and see through this marketing gimmick. In that same vein, I would like to congratulate the operator of a locally owned supermarket, Mr Jim Feltis from Foodworks in Sale, who has countered the corporate giants by putting forward his own position through his small supermarket of $2.50 for two litres of milk and donating 50c from the sale of each product to Australian Dairy Farmers Ltd. I think that is a good way to respond to that particular challenge. So I congratulate Jim for the work that he does in our community as a supporter of so many different community organisations and sporting groups and for working in the community’s interest, which I fear the major supermarket giants are not doing.

The petition read as follows —

To the Honourable The Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives

The petition of certain citizens of Australia draws to the attention of the House:

In May 2010 the Senate Economics References Committee released the report from their inquiry into milk pricing entitled Milking it for all it’s worth — competition and pricing in the Australian dairy industry.

The Senate Committee formed the view that the retail and processor levels are now dominated by two supermarket chains, Coles, and Woolworths, and a handful of (now mostly foreign owned) processors, placing the farmers at a competitive disadvantage. It took the view that the major supermarkets appear to be using their dominant market positions (having captured 80% of the grocery market) to drive down the farmgate price through the sale of generic products that puts pressure on processors who are forced to compete with their own products.

We note that at times this is leading to severe hardship amongst dairy farmers, accelerating the process of forcing some to have to leave their farms.

Your petitioners therefore ask the House to:

Act on the recommendations of the Senate Economics References Committee report Milking it for all it’s worth — competition and pricing in the Australian dairy industry.

from 615 citizens

Petition received.

Mr CHESTER: I would also like to speak on a separate issue in support of efforts to have the Swing Bridge, near Sale, included on the National Heritage list. Peter Synan is a former history teacher of mine, at Sale High School, a local author, a former Mayor of the City of Sale and a person who is heavily involved in environmental campaigns to protect and enhance the environment of the Gippsland Lakes. In short, Peter has been a terrific member of the Sale and district community over many years and is one of nature’s true gentlemen. As an historian, Peter has researched the Swing Bridge and made a submission to the Department of Environment and Resources, which I would like to refer to, in relation to National Heritage listing. He points out that the Swing Bridge, which is located between Sale and Longford, is the oldest operational bridge of its kind in Australia and it has been likened to a giant Meccano set. He says it is the best Australian example of a rare and vanishing engineering structure which was pivotal to early transport and settlement in riverine Australia.

Heritage listing would add to the prestige of the bridge and would no doubt also benefit the local tourism industry. The Sale and district community is making great efforts to improve the Latrobe River environs and the canal which links the Latrobe River to the port of Sale. I think it is worth mentioning, in the context of my comments here tonight, a little bit about the designer of this bridge. The bridge is arguably the greatest engineering work of the renowned Australian architect and civil engineer, John Grainger. Grainger has probably not received what we would regard as proper recognition for his contributions to the Australian built environment. Recognition of the Sale Swing Bridge would go some way to redress that fact.

The bridge itself was built between 1880 and 1883 under Grainger’s supervision. There were some considerable difficulties in that era in terms of managing the foundations of the actual structure and the original design had to be modified during construction. I think the fact that it has lasted so long and is still operational today is a credit to the original design and to the builder, Mr Peter Platt.

The bridge is no doubt a link to our more recent history in Gippsland when Sale was actually an inland port and the rivers were the highways, linking Sale to the sea via the Gippsland Lakes. The 61-metre-long bridge that I am referring to was opened several times a day when the river trade was at its peak and it is now opened, on a less frequent basis, to allow larger recreational vessels to access the port of Sale when travelling through the Gippsland Lakes. I certainly support Peter Synan in his efforts to have the Swing Bridge included on the National Heritage list. I believe it fulfils the criterion as being of outstanding heritage significance to Australia. I think it is deserving of the status that such a listing would bring in recognition of the engineer and also in recognition of an important stage in the settlement of one of the most productive regions in the nation.

(Time expired)

2011 JULY 4 – Private Members’ Business – Wild Dogs

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – WILD DOGS

July 4, 2011

Debate resumed on the motion by Mr Chester:

That this House:

(1) notes:
   (a) the social and economic impact of wild dogs on the sheep, cattle and goat industry across Australia;
   (b) the environmental impact of wild dogs preying on Australia native wildlife; and
   (c) that according to the Australian Pest Animals Strategy, pest animal management requires coordination among all levels of government in partnership with industry, land and water managers and the community; and

(2) highlights the need for a nationally consistent approach to effective wild dog control and ongoing Commonwealth funding to support research and on the ground work to reduce the impact of wild dogs on regional Australians

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:11): I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this issue of great importance to regional Australia. In speaking on this motion, I want to refer to an article in the Sunday Age newspaper on the weekend. It referred to a situation in the suburb of Macleod, where a lady by the name of Amanda Tattam reported on the loss of her six chooks. The chooks were named Honey, Honeyhead, Hannah Montana, Alannah, Chloe and Delta. The chooks were taken by foxes over two consecutive events. She is quoted as saying:

I was devastated, absolutely gutted. We’d raised them from a very young age. I’ve got high fences and they’re well housed, and this latest entry by a fox, everything was bolted.

She went on to say:

The problem is that no one takes responsibility. There is a lot of buck-passing going on … and everyone has given up on even trying to control them.

I do not wish to sound flippant, because I know such a loss is devastating, particularly with young children involved, but all I can say to suburban chook farmers is: welcome to our world. The article refers to foxes, but it could just as easily be referring to wild dogs and their impact on Australian farmers. Wild dog predation on stock and native fauna is destroying regional life in many areas of this country, and I fear that people in the city do not even know that it is happening.

Part of my motivation in moving this motion was to help bridge that gap—to start building an understanding in metropolitan areas about the devastating losses caused by wild dogs. I fear that it will take an attack on a bushwalker by a pack of wild dogs before this issue is brought to the attention of the vast majority of Australians. That is not hyperbole or fear-mongering. The Queensland government’s report and economic assessment of wild dogs made a similar point:

As with semi-urban areas, wild dogs can lower the quality of life in rural areas by posing a constant threat to livestock and, in exceptional circumstances, posing a threat to human safety. Threats to human safety are known to escalate when wild dogs encroach on settlements and are not actively repelled. The tendency for this is greatest at tourist attractions … where some people seek or encourage ‘contact’ with the wild dogs.

I stress that we are talking about exceptional circumstances in this regard, but there nonetheless is a risk to human safety. I am already hearing anecdotal reports in my electorate of Gippsland of wild dogs becoming less frightened, less timid. Farmers are telling me of packs of dogs shadowing their moves from a distance as they tend to their stock. I fear that an injured bushwalker or a young child could be at risk from attack in the future, and I fear that it will take such a horrible incident to make decision makers at all levels of government properly fund on-the-ground measures to reduce the impact of wild dogs on regional communities. I hope we do not need to have a person in my community injured before governments at all levels start taking the threat of wild dogs more seriously.

The motion before the House refers to the social, economic and environmental impacts of wild dogs on the agricultural sector and Australia’s native wildlife. Wild dogs are conservatively estimated to cost the Australian agricultural sector in excess of $60 million per year, and they are an enormous source of anger and frustration in many regional communities. The constant predation in areas such as Gippsland, north-east Victoria and Eden-Monaro has resulted in sheep farmers retreating from some blocks of land, particularly those which interface with national parks. The loss of productivity in Gippsland alone is estimated at $60 million, as farmers have fled from those areas and no longer stock them with sheep. The costs that we are talking about are associated with the direct stock losses, the cost of prevention measures undertaken and the lost productivity. Of course, as stock prices have increased in recent times the value of those losses has escalated, and I think the $60 million figure is actually a conservative amount. I fear it could be much higher than that.

In addition to the economic cost in Victoria of $18 million per year, there are very significant social impacts. I have had the opportunity to speak to many landholders in my electorate, and the wives of farmers and farmers themselves report severe mental health issues stemming from regularly viewing very traumatic scenes of stock attacked by packs of wild dogs. I recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting in Omeo with the Victorian Farmers Federation where local residents stood up and provided their firsthand accounts of the damage that has been caused to their stock. I was there with the member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, and the member for Benalla, Bill Sykes, who are both actively involved in this issue.

We are talking about hardened farmers, people who are used to seeing some difficult scenes on their properties, but they are relating events with tears in their eyes as they describe the horrific scenes they go out to in the morning and see in their paddocks. There are graphic accounts of dogs emerging particularly from sections of public land and preying on young lambs. It is obvious just from talking to these people the stress that they are facing when they encounter such slaughter of stock, on an almost daily basis on many occasions. It is playing on the minds of many people in my community.

The tone of that meeting in Omeo was one of despair. It was also mixed with a barely concealed anger and frustration with the lack of action by governments at all levels. I have most recently been sent photos from one of the landholders in my electorate, and these are horrific scenes. I feel very fortunate that I have not had to go out and see the aftermath of such an attack. The photographs and the evidence of what is occurring, particularly in parts of the high country of Gippsland and the north-east, is something that I think everyone in this chamber should be made aware of. These farmers have the uncertainty when they go to bed at night of not knowing what they will wake up in the morning and find. They go to bed and they can listen to the dogs howling in the bush, and that must be playing on their minds. It is a very, very difficult issue for us. The emotional toll is enormous in regional communities.

One of the farmers in my electorate, Sally Moon, told the Bairnsdale Advertiser, my local paper, in May last year about the toll it was taking on her and her husband, Gordon, and her disappointment with the patronising attitude of government agencies. I will have to refer specifically to the former Brumby government in Victoria, which I feel over 11 years failed to do enough in this area. Sally said: ‘I feel as if we are being totally abandoned. They treat us as if we are grass seed chewing idiots.’ I think that sums up the attitude amongst many farmers—they feel that they are not getting support from governments.

The environmental impacts that I have referred to in this motion relate to the killing of native species by feral dogs, which I believe has been largely ignored by green groups who pretend to care for the environment. I have previously spoken in this place about these impacts, and I quoted at that time a man by the name of Robert Belcher from the Bonang area. He said that every time he opened up a wild dog after it was trapped or had been shot he found it ‘chock-a-block full of either sheep and echidnas, and echidnas are native wildlife’. It is disappointing to me that we cannot hear the green groups talking about these issues. They spend more time talking about the need for humane dog traps than they do about the impact on wildlife or the thrill kills which see dogs ripping apart lambs or maiming sheep and just leaving them in the paddock. Remember that these dogs are not just in there for a feed; it is a thrill kill. There are massive amounts of stock being killed on an all too frequent basis.

The people in my electorate have combined to put a petition to the state government, and I acknowledge that the Victorian government is at least starting to take some serious action in this space. They have put together a $4 million commitment to provide a wild dog bounty and some aerial baiting. After years of neglect I think this is a very positive step in the right direction for the people of Victoria. I also acknowledge that this is primarily a state issue, but the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre was founded by the Commonwealth in 2004. The centre aims to counteract the impact of invasive animals through the development and application of new technologies and by integrating approaches across agencies and jurisdictions. These are words; they sound very impressive. But the people on the ground want action on the ground. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities a question in this place on the specific issue of feral animals and wild dogs. I quote from the answer that the minister gave me:

One of the challenges is that whenever we act we need to do it at the same time as the states are acting … Otherwise, all you do is keep trimming the numbers rather than making a real impact. When it can be coordinated, and from time to time it is done, there is an opportunity to be able to have a very direct impact on invasive species.

Given that the Victorian government is currently making a commitment to take direct action to reduce the impact of wild dogs, I would call on the federal government to be part of that solution.

I have a report here from the Parliamentary Library, which states that the funding allocated in 2009-10 for specific projects on invasive species, in particular, wild dog projects, amounted to $159,000. I do not suggest for a second that those are the only projects the government is undertaking in terms of feral animal control but, for projects specifically dealing with the wild dog issue, funding amounted to $159,000. I think there is now a real opportunity here for us, particularly in Victoria, to leverage off those state funds and make a serious attempt to reduce wild dog predation in Gippsland and right across Victoria.

Although my comments here tonight deal specifically with Victoria, because I am most familiar with those areas, I understand that this issue spreads right across Australia, into Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. It is an issue of great significance to many people who live in rural and regional areas. I am not suggesting at all that there is any easy solution to this problem. But we need to make it a bigger priority for government funding. It will take a partnership approach and a willingness from the new state government in Victoria to allow more flexible working arrangements, to allocate more resources to both professional trapping and shooting, and also helping to meet some of the fencing costs, particularly in those areas where Crown land is housing this menace.

We need to use all the tools that are at our disposal and, as I have said before in this place, we need to adopt a national approach and get serious about reducing the impact of these feral species across state borders. I will refer to my opening comments that, tragically, maybe it does take the slaughter of a few hens by foxes in a suburban environment to bring it home to all Australians that our farmers need more help to deal with wild dogs.

(Time expired)

2011 JULY 4 – Private Members’ Business – Tobacco Plain Packaging

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – TOBACCO PLAIN PACKAGING

July 4, 2011

Debate resumed on motion by Rishworth that this House:

(1) notes the devastating impact of tobacco products on the lives of Australians, with smoking causing numerous life threatening diseases including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer, leukaemia and oral cancers, and that the majority of smokers regret the decision to ever start;

(2) acknowledges that there is significant evidence to suggest that creative design, branding and promotion of tobacco through its packaging:
   (a) reduces the impact of graphic health warnings;
   (b) increases the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products for adolescents; and
   (c) misleads consumers to believe that some tobacco products are less harmful than others;

(3) recognises that this Government is already implementing a suite of reforms aimed at reducing smoking and its harmful effects; and

(4) supports the significant measures proposed by this Government including the measure to mandate plain packaging of tobacco products from 1 July 2012

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:19): It gives me great pleasure to join the debate and to add, perhaps, a healthy dose of reality to this whole debate and the motion before the House, because unfortunately this debate has been more about the government’s political stunts than actually developing good public health policy. I acknowledge the member for Kingston and the comments she made in relation to the need to drive down the horrific toll that tobacco related products have on the health of our nation, and I certainly commend her for those comments and associate myself with those remarks. It is also worth noting that the coalition itself has a very proud history in reducing the smoking toll in this nation. The former Minister for Health and Ageing and now Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, was a critical player in increasing the size of the graphic warnings on cigarette packs and helping to drive down the rates of smoking in Australia. We do understand the need to drive down smoking rates, which is for the good of the individuals concerned and also for the overall health of the nation.

I just encourage the government in this place to ensure that the measures we take are evidence based and scientifically proven. I have some concerns that the measures we are talking about today and will be talking about in the near future fail both those tests. Also, while I have the opportunity to speak: I do not appreciate the way the Minister for Health and Ageing has gone about this. Her self-righteousness and the sanctimonious way she has tried to belittle members on this side of the House in relation to the whole issue of tobacco products I think reflects very poorly on her and reflects poorly on the position she holds in this chamber. If she really wanted to build some consensus on this issue, she would start engaging with us in a much more constructive manner, because there are people on this side of the House who are very passionate about reducing the rates of smoking. I think the minister has done herself a great disservice by trying to score some cheap political points when she should be focused on improving the health outcomes for the Australian people. There is a consensus, I believe, in this place to drive down smoking rates, and I urge the health minister to start engaging with us in a more constructive manner.

This motion claims that there is ‘significant evidence’ to suggest that plain packaging will work—that it will actually drive down the use of tobacco products. I have read a lot of the research that the member referred to and I have read the research material that the minister tabled in the House. It is fair to say that a lot of that evidence is inconclusive at best. It puts forward a range of hypotheses which I am afraid do not come up with a definite conclusion which is quite as convincing as the government would have us believe, so I have some significant doubts about where the government is trying to take us in that regard.

Having said that, I note that the problem the government has in this space is that we are talking about a legal product. I am uneasy about any attempts by a government to strip away the property rights of an individual or a company without any suggestion of any compensation. The concern there is always going to be about what is next. We know that high-fat, high-sugar foods are not necessarily good for us. Are we going to put plain-packaging bans on hamburgers? Is that where we are heading to with this nanny state type of regulation?

I make these comments in a constructive way, because I abhor smoking. My own father died from lung cancer. It is something that I personally feel very strongly about. But I am worried that the government is investing a lot of time and effort in a particular initiative without the evidence base or scientifically proven results that would be worth the expense and the effort of the path we are heading down.

My other key concern is that there is a real concern in the community that Australian taxpayers are being exposed to a potentially massive legal bill. I hope the minister is right when she reassures the Australian people that she has strong legal advice that her position is sound, but I am afraid that the past record of this government and its ineptitude give me no reason whatsoever to be reassured by the minister and her stated confidence on that issue.

There are also some very genuine concerns being put forward by the small-business sector. I do not think the government should be flippant in disregarding the concerns being put forward by these small-business operators. They have concerns about the productivity of their own enterprises, and they are facing really tough times in the small-business sector. They are also making the point that the cigarettes in many states are already behind screens. You cannot see them anyway, so their argument is: how does the plain packaging reduce the incidence of smoking in that regard? There is also a question about the practicalities of how you deal with that in a small-business environment. You need to turn your back on the customer for a longer period. The concern amongst small businesses is that they expose themselves to a security risk for an extra five or 10 seconds while sorting through for the brand they are trying to find when it is plain packaged. Those are legitimate concerns, and I think the government really should listen to the small-business sector and understand why they have such reservations about this issue.

I am not here to ridicule the government or to condemn the motion; I am simply saying that there are some unanswered questions and that I would like to see the government become more constructively engaged with the coalition on this issue. I think the government needs to consult more with the small-business sector, consult more with the coalition and people who are interested in finding some outcomes here, and actually give us some proof that this will work. Maybe a trial is a better way of introducing this particular legislation.

(Time expired)

2011 JUNE 23 – Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oil Transfers) Bill 2011

PROTECTION OF THE SEA (PREVENTION OF POLLUTION FROM SHIPS) AMENDMENT (OIL TRANSFERS) BILL 2011

June 23, 2011

Second Reading

Debate resumed on the motion:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10:45): I join the debate on the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oil Transfers) Bill 2011. I say from the outset that the coalition regards this as a noncontroversial piece of legislation and we will be supporting the bill in its passage through the parliament. I also acknowledge my good friend the Leader of the Nationals, who is the shadow minister for infrastructure and transport and indeed a former minister in this place. He is unable to join the debate today, but he would like me to highlight that the coalition has a strong record of public policy with regard to these matters. It is certainly an area where I believe the wider community expects us as members to ensure that there are appropriate environmental safeguards for this type of activity. Obviously, Madam Acting Deputy Speaker Livermore, in your electorate of  Capricornia you are blessed with some extraordinary marine biodiversity and the community values it very highly. To take appropriate measures in providing sensible safeguards and sensible reforms to accommodate activities in the marine environment is something that the coalition does support.

Australia has been a member of the International Maritime Organisation since its establishment in 1948 and we have played an active role in the development of conventions and treaties over many years. As I said, the coalition and the current government—which I commend for it—have a long history of supporting sensible reforms. This bill amends the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1983 to implement amendments to annex I of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL, to prevent marine pollution during ship-to-ship oil transfer operations. These requirements entered into force internationally on 1 January 2011, and this bill will bring Australia’s legislation into line with this scheme.

The bill requires that all oil tankers with 150 gross tonnage and above involved in ship-to-ship oil transfers have an operations plan prescribing how to conduct those transfers. It is designed to ensure that consideration has been given to the processes involved in the ship-to-ship transfer and that hazard prevention safeguards are in place to prevent an oil spill. These plans will be checked by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to ensure they meet with their requirements. As you would expect, Madam Acting Deputy Speaker, the bill also stipulates that ship-to-ship transfers must be undertaken in accordance with the approved operations plan and that ship-to-ship transfers must be overseen by the master of a ship involved or a suitably qualified person.

I believe that that is an important safeguard. The master of an oil tanker involved in such a transfer will be required to notify the administration of the country in whose waters the transfer will take place at least 48 hours prior to the oil transfer operations to ensure that response equipment is available in case of an oil spill during the transfer. That is a very reasonable consideration. We need to ensure that, in what it is fair to say would be the unlikely event of a spill occurring, it is conducted in a proper and correct manner with the appropriate safeguards. But, in any case, we need to ensure that the appropriate equipment is available on the mainland to deal with any unfortunate or unforeseen events. A record of such transfers needs to be provided at least 48 hours prior to the transfer to ensure that the Australian authorities are in a position to respond. Whilst the measures in this bill are important, it should be noted that, to date, there has been only one ship-to-ship transfer, which I am aware of, in Australian waters. In March this year, Caltex conducted a successful transfer off the coast of Sydney. I note from the minister’s second reading speech an expectation that, in the future, this will become a more common event, particularly in the sense that Australian ports will not be able to cope with the supertankers that are becoming more commonplace and so there will be a need to provide these transfers to smaller vessels that can access Australian ports. Quite simply, it does not really matter how much we do in terms of dredging some of our ports they will not be able to cope with these vessels of enormous capacity, so these ship-to-ship transfers will become more frequent in the future.

I understand that Caltex operates using world best practice standards and carried out the transfer earlier this year in compliance with the requirements of the MARPOL convention even though it had not been officially enacted in Australia at that point. I understand that the transfer was carefully planned and carried out in close consultation with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and it is my understanding that it was a wellconducted operation. Whilst at this point ship-to-ship transfers of this type are not commonplace in Australia, as I have said, I think it is reasonable and prudent of the government to adopt this amendment to the MARPOL convention into Australian law.

I am pleased to support the bill to implement the amendments to the MARPOL convention annex 1 in Australia. It is important that we take these measures to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place to protect our environment when undertaking these potentially hazardous operations. I thank the House.

2011 JUNE 22 – GippsAero

LATROBE REGIONAL AIRPORT

June 22, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (09:35): I join with the member for Hindmarsh in sending a big bouquet to Rotarians everywhere. I would like to speak today in relation to an exciting project with the potential to create up to 200 jobs in Latrobe Valley. I have written to the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government in relation to plans to upgrade the Latrobe regional airport. I had the opportunity last week to visit the airport in the company of the General Manager, Neil Cooper, and the Chairman of the Board, Graeme Middlemiss. I think the fact that Graeme was there is evidence of the bipartisan nature of this particular application; Graeme is a former state Labor candidate but was happy to meet with me and our state member for Morwell, Russell Northe, to take us around the site. While we might not always agree on some political issues, we certainly agree on the need to create jobs in the Latrobe Valley and to take advantage of our skilled workforce to give our young people every opportunity to achieve their full potential, through training and the learning of new skills, to remain in the broader Gippsland region.

Latrobe City Council is seeking $3 million from Regional Development Australia to support this $6.2 million redevelopment of the facilities. The project is the second of three stages designed by the council to create high-quality employment opportunities and to help develop the aviation industry at the site. There are works associated with the new production hangar to accommodate the production of the GA10 Aircraft, which is a new model for Gippsland Aeronautics and I will talk briefly on that in a few moments. Stage 2 works also include the construction of a new development hangar, additional car parking, extension of the airport aprons, taxiways and roadways and the relocation of the existing non-directional beacon. It is a very important project for the Latrobe Valley region, particularly in the context of the challenges facing our community as a result of the uncertainty created by government policy in relation to carbon pricing.

Gippsland Aeronautics is the only commercial aircraft manufacturer in Australia. It is renowned for its famous G8 Airvan, which is often described as the ‘ute of the sky’. It is a very practical aircraft and more than 160 have already been sold throughout Australia and the world. Although the company faced some challenges in the wake of the global financial crisis, where it was difficult for people to secure finance to purchase aircraft, it is now owned by the Indian based firm Mahindra. The production of aircraft, however, remains firmly based in Gippsland and they are doing some excellent work in that regard.

The company has some very bold plans for the future; they are in the process of developing a prototype for the GA10, which is a stretch version of the Airvan with a bigger payload. Another exciting initiative on the way at the moment is to recertify and begin production in Gippsland of the GA18, well known to the aviation enthusiasts in the community as the Nomad. This is an 18-seat, twin turboprop aircraft which is capable of landing and taking off in semi-prepared strips, which is obviously an attraction in developing nations in particular but also throughout regional Australia, where strips are sometimes not up to metropolitan area standards. It is a versatile aircraft, and the aim is to have certification by 2014, with production to commence after that date. These are very exciting plans and it is contingent upon all levels of government to work with the industry to help the aviation sector flourish in the Gippsland region.

(Time expired)

2011 JUNE 22 – Questions Without Notice – Carbon Tax

QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE – CARBON TAX

June 22, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (14:52): My question is to the Treasurer. I refer the Treasurer to the report of the Australian Energy Market Commission that warns a carbon dioxide tax will reduce the value of electricity generators’ assets and reduce their ability to raise capital. Will the Treasurer guarantee that the carbon dioxide tax will not lead to power disruptions or the forced shutdown of power stations such as those in the Latrobe Valley in my electorate?

Mr SWAN (Lilley—Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer) (14:52): We know that a market price is the best way, the least-cost way, of reducing carbon pollution. We also know that in doing that our economy does have to make a transition, because we have to reduce emissions and we have to do it particularly when it involves some of those institutions, such as power stations, which are emitting very large amounts of carbon pollution. Those on that side of the House, in name anyway, share something in common with the government—that is, they have a commitment to reduce emissions by up to five per cent. So everybody in this House knows that we will have to reduce our emissions, particularly from those power stations which are least efficient. That is well known by everybody on both sides of the House, and we should stop the hypocrisy that is coming from that side of the House, which somehow pretends that there will not be some actions taken in this area.

What this government is committed to, however, is ensuring the energy security of our nation. We are absolutely committed to that. We are absolutely committed to assisting our energy-intensive trade-exposed industries in that transition. So we have said very clearly about the revenue which will be raised from a price on carbon that it will go to households but also to industry. We have made that very clear because we, unlike many on that side of the House, understand and believe in the science of climate change and we cannot put our heads in the sand and ignore this challenge. So with us you will get a clear plan for the future which will assist households and a clear plan for the future which will assist industry. That stands in stark—

The SPEAKER: The Treasurer will resume his place. Has the Treasurer concluded?

Mrs Mirabella: What a coward!

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Indi will withdraw.

Mrs Mirabella: I withdraw.

The SPEAKER: I thank the member. The member for Chisholm.

Mr Chester: If it will assist the House, I will withdraw as well.

An honourable member: What did you say?

Mr Chester: ‘Coward’.

Ms Gambaro: Mr Speaker—

The SPEAKER: Before giving the call to the member for Brisbane, given that nobody in the previous interchange had the call, whilst people in the chamber heard it and it was unnecessary behaviour, I was willing to leave it at that. The member for Brisbane on a point of order?

Ms Gambaro: Mr Speaker, I wish to withdraw as well. I said the word ‘coward’.

Mr Pyne interjecting—

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Sturt should not get actively involved. The member for Brisbane will leave the chamber for one hour under standing order 94(a).

The member for Brisbane then left the chamber.

2011 JUNE 15 – Matters of Public Importance – The imminent threat to Australian manufacturing posed by the Government’s carbon tax

MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – THE IMMINENT THREAT TO AUSTRALIAN MANUFACTURING POSED BY THE GOVERNMENT’S CARBON TAX

June 15, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:05) – What a sad day it is when the formerly formidable member for Eden-Monaro has had the surgery as well. They have hidden the scars, but he has become just another zombie as he walks out of this chamber now. He stood up for his clubs in the fight over poker machines, but they got to him in the last two weeks. It is a tragedy to see the formerly formidable member for Eden-Monaro come in here and just parrot the party lines. One of his last references was to the promise of new green jobs. I say to the member for Eden-Monaro as he leaves the chamber: try going to the bank manager tomorrow and getting a new home loan on the back of a job that the Labor Party and the Greens have promised you in the future. You will get laughed out of the bank.

It is with a great deal of sadness that I contribute to this matter of public importance debate to discuss the adverse impacts on the manufacturing sector of the Gillard Labor government’s proposed carbon tax. It is sadness not only for the jobs of hardworking Australians, particularly in regional areas which are being put at risk by this government, but also for the slow and lingering death of the Australian Labor Party under the Julia Gillard prime ministership. We really need to ask how it all came to this. The Labor Party actually used to stand for something. It used to stand up for the workers, or so it claimed. Now they come in here like meek, little mice, who would not dare squeak their concerns on any issue. We need to ask: what happened to the light on the hill? The light is going out and it is probably because of the carbon tax. The only way to get ahead in the modern Labor Party is to come into this place, sit down, shut up and vote the way the party tells you to vote.

The member for Indi talked about the zombie-like presentations from members opposite, as they are forced not to think for themselves but to just parrot the party lines. When we walk through the doors of Parliament House of a morning, we see members from the Labor Party sticking to the script, using the lines from the focus groups. When it comes to the carbon tax, we can see the clear lines they have been told to use. ‘You always have to talk about dangerous climate change—

Ms O’Neill – It’s true.

Mr CHESTER – Yes, it is true that you have to talk about dangerous climate change. It is in the key messages every day; I know that. ‘Don’t forget to mention the thousand biggest polluters. Get that in there if you can. You get the elephant stamp if you get this one right: if you can get the thousand biggest polluters, dangerous climate change and the dirty coal fired power stations in the one grab, you are ministerial material.’ You are on the way to the top! People of regional Australia, people employed in the manufacturing sector, have had an absolute gutful of the way this government are vilifying hardworking Australians who just happen to work for those nasty thousand biggest polluters. Those thousand biggest polluters happen to be some of the biggest employers in this country. Every time they vilify those people, those opposite do themselves an enormous discredit amongst the Australian people.

It has not always been this way. The Labor Party used to stand up for workers. I give the example of the former member for Throsby, Jennie George. I did not always agree with everything Jennie had to say, but at least she had some personal integrity when she stood up to say something in this place. She tried to stand up for the workers who sent her here. Today in the Australian she called for the steel industry to be kept out of the carbon tax until similar regimes are operating in competitor countries. She said:

… I think Australians would agree we have to have a viable domestic steelmaking industry in Australia.

That is hardly a revolutionary thought from a former union boss but it has come as a bolt from the blue for many of those opposite. Ms George wants us to wait until competitor nations have an impost on steel before we introduce such a tax. Why will more members of the modern-day Labor Party not be honest with the Australian people? Why will they not acknowledge that any policy that puts Australian manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage will cost Australia jobs? It will add to the cost of living for households and it will undermine the national economy.

In the last 12 months, I had the bizarre experience on my local ABC radio station when they invited me on to have a chat and have a debate with a union boss. I will not name the union boss for the sake of his own credibility—what is left of it.

Mrs Mirabella – Go on.

Mr CHESTER – Okay. So John Parker from the union gets on the radio and talks about the need for a transitional package, a structural adjustment package, a household assistance program. He had all the Labor buzzwords—maybe they are sending them out to the Latrobe Valley power station unions as well—but he did not say anything about power station workers whose jobs he is meant to be fighting for in the first place.

Ms O’Dwyer – It won’t guarantee jobs.

Mr CHESTER – It will not guarantee their jobs. The Latrobe Valley power station workers who talk to me do not want a household assistance package. They want the decency of a job and that is the simple fact that this Labor Party fail to recognise. I have repeatedly challenged the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency to be honest with the people of my electorate and undertake a cost-benefit analysis and report back to the community on what the impact of this carbon tax is going to be. Everyone recognises that the people of the Latrobe Valley will be in the firing line and likely to be the most adversely affected by this policy. The government cannot expect the families and the workers in the Latrobe Valley to support this tax if the government do not have the honesty to explain to them what the costs and the alleged benefits are going to be. That is a reasonable position I have put to the minister for climate change on many occasions and he is yet to provide any guarantee to power station workers in the Latrobe Valley.

Mr Perrett – Send us a copy of your direct action flyer.

Mr CHESTER – The member for Moreton has woken up. If he cannot tell people how their jobs will be affected under this government’s carbon tax, why would anyone vote for it. Labor’s response is to say that members on this side are scaremongering, that we do not know what we are talking about. How do they respond to industry concerns? Industries like BlueScope Steel have concerns. In relation to a carbon tax, on 28 February this year, chief executive of BlueScope Steel, Paul O’Malley, said:

That is clearly economic vandalism. It clearly says we don’t want manufacturing in Australia.

He further said:

… the policy framework at the moment is wrong. It seems to be captured by people who don’t care whether there are manufacturing jobs in Australia, and you just wonder whether there is an anti-manufacturing focus in Australia and that people want jobs to go offshore.

Suddenly, the member for Moreton is silent. Manufacturing is important in Gippsland. We are renowned for the power stations in the Latrobe Valley, which will also be adversely affected by this government’s plans. We also have a manufacturing sector which provides more than 5,000 jobs across 465 businesses. Businesses like Gippsland aviation, National Foods in Morwell and Patties Foods in Bairnsdale all have very high energy costs and will take a hit under the carbon tax. Another significant employer in my electorate is Murray Goulburn. The dairy industry does not get talked about much in this place, but it is one of the largest exporters in Victoria and it produces 65 per cent of Australia’s milk across 4½ thousand dairy farms. It might be useful for members opposite to start listening to what some of Australia’s major manufacturers are saying. During an interview on ABC Radio about the carbon tax, Murray Goulburn’s Manager of Industry and Government Affairs , Robert Poole, said:

A carbon tax in Australia doesn’t influence the world market price. As everyone should know milk prices in Australia are predominantly driven by that. The price in the international dairy market, including Australia, isn’t going to change because of a carbon tax. Therefore any costs that it … imposes we have to wear and that means our farmers have to wear them.

He further said:

We don’t want our international competitiveness reduced through a tax at this stage … We don’t see that’s going to help the environment and don’t see how that will help us as a major contributor to the Australian economy.

The United Dairy Farmers of Victoria have expressed similar concerns and they have tried to bring them to the attention of government. The member for Eden-Monaro was in the House earlier talking about compensation for emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries. Individual dairy farmers will not benefit from any compensation package under this government. We know that, the government know that and dairy farmers know that as well. UDV president, Chris Griffin said:

Calculations by our organisation indicate that a $20 carbon price would cost the dairy industry over $45 million per annum. This would work out to a $5000 charge for each Australian dairy farm per year.

The biggest concern of all though remains with the fundamental breach of trust between this government and the Australian people. On this point, the Labor Party has simply nowhere to hide. On 20 August last year we had this news clipping from the Australian: ‘PM’s carbon price promise’—here it is in full colour—and the Prime Minister says, ‘I rule out a carbon tax.’

Mr Christensen – Can you read that again?

Mr CHESTER – ‘I rule out a carbon tax.’ That is what the Prime Minister had to say to the Australian people on the eve of the last election. Australians could not trust this Prime Minister before the election and they cannot trust her today when it comes to their jobs. Anything less than taking this back to the Australian people will perpetuate the fraud that this Labor Party has become. It is a government based on a lie and it is addicted to spin, which is completely out of touch with the hopes and the aspirations of regional communities.

(Time expired)

2011 JUNE 15 – Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Financial Viability) Bill 2011

FAMILY ASSISTANCE LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (CHILD CARE FINANCIAL VIABILITY) BILL 2011

June 15, 2011

Mr Chester (Gippsland) (10:08) – I rise to speak in relation to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Financial Viability) Bill 2011. I will begin my contribution by referring specifically to the second reading speech by the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women. There were plenty of rhetorical flourishes in that speech as the minister tried to muster what I regard as quite a broad defence of the government’s appalling record in regional child care. I quote from that speech to set the scene for my comments today. The minister said:

The Australian government recognises that child care is an essential enabler of workforce participation, most particularly for Australian women.

At a time when employers are crying out for workers then it is essential that we are supporting parents who want to return to work to be able to participate confidently.

Parents need to have trust that when they drop their child off in the morning that their child is in quality child care.

Importantly, they also need to know that when they drop their child off at care, someone will be there to meet them each and every day.

This is in the context of the collapse of the ABC Learning Centres, but the message is consistent with the minister’s comments in the Women’s Budget Statement from earlier this year. I quote again:

Childcare is essential in enabling parents who are primary care givers, often women, to enter and remain in the workforce.

As I have said before in this place, this government is very good at making these grand statements, but when it comes to actually delivering on the ground in regional areas it has been a complete failure.

I refer the House specifically to some recent activity in the Victorian state parliament, where there was quite a bit of excitement about the Take a Break occasional care program. For those not familiar with the Take a Break program, the Executive Officer of the Association of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres, Angela Savage, describes Take a Break as follows:

The Take a Break (TAB) occasional child care program provided respite for parents and guardians of children aged from 0-6 years, enabling them to participate in a range of activities including recreational classes, activities, shopping, social events and voluntary community activities.

Two hundred and twenty community organisations received government funding through the TAB program, over 120 of which are Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres. This funding contributes towards the organisation’s child care operating costs, such as salaries, on costs and consumable items. At least 142 childcare workers stand to lose their jobs if the services close.

It goes on to say:

Long day care is not an appropriate or affordable option for all families. Occasional care often provides the only opportunity for these children to socialise and for families to have time out.

The TAB program makes occasional care more affordable for the families who need it. This includes those on low incomes, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, grandparent carers, and parents of children with a disability.

TAB funding is critical to the continued provision of affordable occasional childcare for communities serviced by Neighbourhood Houses, particularly those in rural and regional areas.

The legislation before the House is all about the financial viability of childcare services and providing oversight so that there are no nasty surprises. In her own words, the minister said that it would never happen again. She said that following the catastrophic collapse of ABC Learning, the Australian government committed to strengthen stability of the childcare industry so that parents could be confident that their care arrangements will be there to support them when they need it.

Quite frankly, that is just not the case in regional areas like Gippsland, and it is not the experience of the occasional childcare providers who have had their funding stripped away by this Gillard Labor government. I do not know why anyone is surprised that this government has stripped away funding from the Take a Break program. After all, it has already withdrawn its funding and its promises to build 260 childcare centres, and the people in Yarram in my community are still waiting for the $1.5 million that the Labor candidate promised during the 2011 federal election. Nonetheless, it is worth tracking the reactions to the withdrawal of the funding from the Take a Break program and the action in the Victorian parliament that I mentioned earlier. I have here some copies of Hansard from the Victorian parliament in which the member for Narre Warren South is absolutely outraged. She says:

Our local occasional child-care providers are valued by our local families. They are available for local mums and dads who may need their kids to be cared for while they do the shopping, attend appointments or return to study. These services also provide children with the opportunity to socialise and interact with other children.

She goes on to say:

The Premier just does not know how hard it is for ordinary families to access affordable child care.

That is the Labor member for Narre Warren South in Victoria.

Then we have the Labor member for Yan Yean, who has whipped herself into a frenzy. She thundered in the Victorian parliament:

The action I seek is for the minister to reverse her decision to defund the Take a Break occasional child-care program. Scrapping this important child-care program is one of the massive budget cuts across the education sector.

The member for Yan Yean was directing her anger at the Victorian state minister. Perhaps she should have been directing it to this place, where the federal minister is the one responsible for cutting $12.6 million out of the program. The member for Yan Yean went on to say:

This means that in the district I represent and nearby, occasional child-care services at Eltham, Montmorency, Diamond Creek, Panton Hill, Warrandyte and Greensborough are now at risk … The Premier claims he is supporting families, but at the same time he is making it harder to access occasional child care.

I have a news flash for the member for Yan Yean. It was the federal government, under the Gillard Labor Party, that took 70 per cent of funding away from the Take a Break program in the first place.

But the facts do not get in the way of a story when it comes to the new Labor member for Bendigo West either. This is what she had to say about the Take a Break program:

Six months is all it has taken for the conservatives to reveal their true colours and the fact that, despite their spruiking of false promises, they have never had and will never have the community or families as their no. 1 priority. Worse still, these three centres are not alone, because at least 31 rural towns and regional centres stand to lose their only child-care providers as a result of this government’s budget cuts to community-based occasional child care.

The member goes on:

In Maldon the neighbourhood centre’s occasional child-care program runs for 3 hours a week and provides paid employment for three staff, and it is the only child care offered in Maldon. In Maldon there is no other choice. There is no family day care or after-school-care program. There are 21 occasional child-care places at Maldon’s neighbourhood house. That means 21 families will be affected by these cuts, including single parents, young mums and dads needing a break, parents attending classes or work, and children from Tarrengower Prison.

Now I understand that the government believes that we need to move towards all licensed premises but in the Victorian example the neighbourhood houses were meeting all of the criteria and the neighbourhood houses themselves had taken enormous steps in providing a professional and accredited childcare service. In many regional areas, and I note that the member for Corangamite is in the House this morning, we will have small towns which simply have no option at all for parents as to occasional childcare services. Mr Deputy Speaker, even if you look past the broken promises and the empty rhetoric from those opposite in terms of plans to build 260 childcare centres and to provide $1.5 million for Yarram in my electorate, there is one last insult to rural and regional Australian families in this debate in the House today. It is going to cost $1.9 million for the minister to introduce a watchdog to look over the shoulder of the large childcare providers to make sure that, in her words, ‘this never happens again’. That $1.9 million would fund all of the Take a Break programs in Victoria and families in my electorate would be able to enjoy a small sample of one of the basic services that their city friends take for granted. Instead of more nanny state legislation, why won’t the minister reinstate the funding for the Take a Break program and live up to some of this government’s empty rhetoric?

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