In Parliament

2011 In Parliament

2011 JUNE 14 – Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012 – Consideration in Detail Ð Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Portfolio

APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2011-2012 – CONSIDERATION IN DETAIL – SUSTAINABILITY, ENVIRONMENT, WATER, POPULATION AND COMMUNITIES PORTFOLIO

June 14, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:45) – Thank you, Minister. My question is, similarly, quite brief. Minister, in 2007 the government allocated $3 million over three years to improve land management practices to reduce the nutrient levels of water flowing into the Gippsland Lakes. Naturally, that is directed at the threat of algal blooms, which have been quite a blight on the lakes over the past 20 or 30 years. That money was managed by the West Gippsland CMA in consultation with the Gippsland Lakes task force. To the best of my knowledge, there is no commitment for the continuation of funding in this current budget cycle. I am interested to know whether the minister can provide an update on the success and/or failure of the program and whether there is any intention to provide additional funding in the future for these types of practical environmental initiatives and for monitoring the Gippsland Lakes and river catchments?

From my experience, providing seed funding for landholders and farmers and then leveraging off that money and providing the capital works has been very successful in the Macalister irrigation district and has proven to be a good model. I am interested in knowing what the government’s response to that is. Also, given that the new Victorian state government has allocated $10 million in its term for the Gippsland Lakes projects, I think there is a real opportunity for the Commonwealth to work in partnership with the state government and leverage off that funding.

Mr BURKE (Watson—Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (21:34) – ….. The member for Gippsland then asked about a 2007 election promise—$3 million which dealt with water flowing into Gippsland Lakes. I know the promise well. I was responsible for implementing it after we came to office. When the Gippsland Lakes commitment was made, there was no such program as Caring for our Country. We now have Caring for our Country. The Gippsland Lakes program in its initial form was an election promise in advance of Caring for our Country coming into existence and further funds for programs of that type continue to find eligibility through Caring for our Country when the rounds for that program take place.

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2011 JUNE 14 – Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012 – Consideration in Detail Ð Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Portfolio

APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2011-2012 – CONSIDERATION IN DETAIL – AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO

June 14, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (17:39) – I will take up a similar vein to that of the shadow minister, in relation to pest species. In particular, I note the minister’s comments in relation to the productivity reform agenda. I also want to refer to the Australian Pest Animal Strategy, where it was estimated that 11 of Australia’s pest animals in 2004 were costing Australian producers in the order of $720 million a year. We are talking about foxes, dogs, rabbits et cetera. The minister would be well and truly aware of the impact they are having. I note that pest animal management requires a coordinated approach of all levels of government in partnership with industry and, of course, land managers and volunteers. Some of the comments made in that strategy were:

The benefits of management should exceed the costs of implementing control.

And:

As part of an integrated pest animal management program, commercial harvesting may offset management costs.

Where I am leading to, Minister, is the Victorian government’s commitment on bounties to be directed at foxes and wild dogs as part of their approach to the control of foxes and wild dogs.

I do not think I need to labour the point too much. I am sure that the minister is aware both in his role as the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and as a former agriculture minister of the enormous social, economic and environmental impact that wild dogs in particular are having in the Gippsland region and also throughout the north-east. But, given the increased value of lamb at the moment, the economic impact has become even more of a concern for producers in my region. My question is quite open ended, Minister. I am just wondering what the government’s view about a nationally consistent approach is, given that obviously these species do not respect state borders. We have the state government of Victoria heading in one direction with its suite of measures, those being the bounty and aerial baiting, trapping and shooting. I would be interested to know what the government’s view is about its role at a national level and also the level of funding that it anticipates will be required to do its share of the heavy lifting in that particular area—and your view, perhaps, of how you see the federal government having more of a leadership role in coordinating the wild dog control aspect in particular.

Mr BURKE (Watson—Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (17:54) – A number of issues have been raised. If I start to work through them, hopefully that will get us a fair way. There is some information that is still coming to me. As it comes I will be able to answer those issues as well.

Mr Chester – Where’s your iPad tonight?

Mr BURKE – I will have the iPad later tonight, when it is my area. I am reliant on paper here.

Mr Sidebottom – It’s in his head.

Mr BURKE – ….. The member for Gippsland then asked about pest animals generally, with specific reference to wild dogs and other animals. The first answer to that is that, in working these issues through with the states, eradication jobs in the first instance do fall to state jurisdictions. They then come to a ministerial council where it is worked out whether a cooperative approach might be possible. The department does fund a number of surveillance programs from the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer. We do work closely with state and territory governments but funding is also available through Landcare, the National Landcare Program, and through Caring for our Country. I will simply give an example which, while it is probably not of great concern to the Victorian end of the country, is one of the great examples of the extraordinary damage that is done by an invasive species, and that is the damage currently being caused across the north of Australia in the rangelands by camels. One of the biggest projects that Caring for our Country has ever undertaken was $19 million to deal with the problem of camels across the country. One of the challenges is that whenever we act we need to do it at the same time as the states are acting. (Extension of time granted) 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.

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2011 JUNE 14 – Taxation of Alternative Fuels Legislation Amendment Bill 2011

TAXATION OF ALTERNATIVE FUELS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2011

June 14, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (19:18) – I rise to join the debate on the Taxation of Alternative Fuels Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and, in doing so, will highlight what I believe is this government’s failure to provide relief for Australian families who are struggling with the increased cost of living.

This government is completely out of touch with everyday Australians. It promised before the 2007 election to reduce the cost of living. What we have seen is a succession of failures. We had Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch and failed government programs, such as the home insulation bungle which tragically cost four young men their lives. We had the Green Loans assistance program, under which the government trained upwards of 10,000 people with the false lure of a job that was never there for them. Then, of course, we had the blowout in the schools halls program and the government’s failure to achieve value for money. To make matters worse, this failure to deliver value for money has left the Labor government desperate for more tax revenue, so it is turning to the Australian people once more.

This Prime Minister talks about a year of decisions and delivery. Her only decisions seem to be the order in which she introduces each new tax and when to take delivery of more money from Australian families, who cannot afford another two years of this government’s mismanagement. Already this year we have seen the flood levy, which was imposed on people whether or not they had donated to the many thousands of Australians who suffered in the floods over the summer. The flood levy completely undermined the Australian ethos of voluntarily lending a hand to a mate in need. This Prime Minister is so out of touch that she thinks she can legislate mateship. We have also seen the government’s botched handling of the mining tax—and there is still a lot more to go in that debate—and the carbon tax, which will destroy jobs in regional areas, particularly in regional areas like the Latrobe Valley in the heart of my electorate.

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency continues to stand up in this House and talk about so-called dangerous climate change and the thousand biggest polluters. It is as if every word has been focus-grouped within an inch of its life to make sure that the key messages get out: ‘We must always refer to dangerous climate change and to the thousand biggest polluters.’ In fact, this government is imposing a tax on about 22 million Australian households, who are apparently 22 million of Australia’s biggest polluters. Just today, we heard the coal industry express concerns about up to 4,000 jobs being lost under the carbon tax. I have had reports previously in my electorate relating to the prospect under the CPRS of 3,000 jobs being forgone in the broader Gippsland region. Families in my electorate do not want a household assistance package from this government. They want the decency of a job, to be able to attend their place of work and to earn income to pay their mortgage and pay off their car loan. They do not want this government’s household assistance package; they want to be able to go about their lives without having their jobs sacrificed on a whim of this government.

Now we have this fuel tax, which has been presented to the House in the form of this legislation. It will have a direct impact on the cost of living, particularly in regional areas. I will focus mainly on the LPG proposals, which go to the heart of the problem for regional motorists. We are talking about introducing a new fuel tax which will increase to 12½c per litre over five years. That does not make sense on several levels. To begin with, this government likes to talk a lot about its environmental credentials. It is estimated that a taxi run on LPG emits up to 13 per cent less in carbon emissions than a petrol run taxi. For a government that claims it wants to take action on so-called dangerous climate change, the hypocrisy in making an alternative, cleaner fuel more expensive and less attractive for people to use is obvious for all to see. This is a tax grab, pure and simple, and the government should not pretend otherwise. The hypocrisy and the policy inconsistency get worse when you consider the current incentives to increase the use of LPG as a transport fuel. That is not my stated intention. The AusIndustry website refers to the LPG Vehicle Scheme statistics:

The objective of the LPG Vehicle Scheme is to increase the use of LPG is a transport fuel. The Scheme provides grants for:

the LPG conversion of a registered vehicle; or

the purchase of a new LPG vehicle (this includes vehicles fitted with LPG at the time of manufacture and vehicles fitted with LPG after manufacture but prior to first registration).

As at 30 April 2011, under the LPG Vehicle Scheme there have been 283,512 grants paid. In terms of the LPG Vehicle Scheme grants statistics by state, you will see that Victoria, with 135,500, has taken up the scheme more than most. Even after Labor cut the incentives for the fuel conversion program, it still proved popular particularly, as I said, in Victoria.

The people of Gippsland have been some of the heaviest users of the grants program, given the extra distances motorists in my electorate travel. It is so popular in regional areas because our communities are faced with a high cost of personal transportation. They are doing everything they possibly can to reduce their household bills. The average vehicle in a regional area will travel further each year and motorists have the opportunity to recoup the conversion cost in a far shorter time. Under this exercise, the government is sending a very mixed message to the broader community. The scheme will no longer be seen as attractive because recouping the value of conversions obviously takes longer and motorists know the excise will only ever increase under a Labor government.

Some people would say that, at 12½c per litre, it will not have that big an impact on the rate of conversions, but the simple fact of the matter is that motorists will see this as just the beginning. They know that, whenever Labor need more taxes, they will be going back to the Australian people. They will have their hands in the pockets of the motorists of Australia and the LPG excise will only increase in the future.

This will also have perverse impacts on the autogas conversion industry and on various small business owners right across my electorate. I believe many others will suffer as a direct result and jobs will be lost in the community. There is no question that the impact on the wider community will be felt whether they have an LPG powered vehicle or not. I would like to refer to a statement by the President of the Australian Taxi Industry Association, John Bowe, in May this year, who highlighted the concerns of his industry particularly relating to increased costs. The ATIA has raised these concerns with all members of parliament and says:

The introduction of excise on LPG is at total odds with the Government’s policy on energy security and carbon reduction. Why tax an alternative fuel that will underpin our future energy needs, and is cleaner and greener than petrol and diesel?

LPG is a cheaper, greener alternative fuel choice the taxi industry. A taxi powered by LPG emits up to 13% less carbon emissions—

as I noted earlier—

than a petrol-run taxi. It is also up to 50% cheaper than petrol at the bowser.

If the excise is introduced many jobs in the tax industry could be lost. The increase in costs to many of our passengers will be unbearable. Our drivers and fleet operators will not be able to afford to absorb such a price hike either.

It is inevitable, if this excise is introduced, that taxi fares will also increase and have an adverse impact particularly on members of our community who, for whatever reason, are unable to drive themselves—through disability or age—and rely on the public transport system, which, in many regional areas, means the taxi system. In vast parts of my electorate the only form of public transport is the taxi.

Further, in his comments, John Bowe said:

Many taxi licence owners and fleet operators feel they were ‘duped’ into converting the vehicles to LPG and opting to use the greener gaseous fuel to run their business. The Government encouraged LPG conversions with rebates and other incentives. When taxi fleet operators opted to for LPG, they did so in good faith. They believed they were doing the right thing by environment, their business and customers.

If a carbon tax is imposed, a further 4.5 cents per litre would be added to the cost of LPG—a double whammy for those who can least afford it.

The excise on LPG will punish those passengers and consumers who are already struggling with the rising cost of living and want the alternative cheaper option.

As John Bowe said in his final comments:

We strongly believe that any excise will hurt the taxi industry, bring the LPG industry to its knees, and will hurt other industries and small businesses that rely on LPG.

Again, the regional areas will be most adversely affected, but that does not seem to bother those opposite. It certainly does not worry the Treasurer, who does not even bother to answer questions on this topic. I first wrote to the Treasurer on this issue in October last year on behalf of Mrs Patricia Thatcher of Boolarra, who was concerned about the cost of living. She had heard about the likelihood of excise coming into play in a few months time so she converted her vehicle to LPG. I had no reply from the Treasurer, but I understood that perhaps coming out of the election period he was very busy. So I wrote to him again in February this year but had no reply. I wrote to him on 19 May, but again there was no response whatsoever.

Apart from you, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, a champion of a regional location, I fear this is the most city-centric cabinet imaginable. Regional Australia does not have a voice in the Gillard government’s cabinet. Issues like the increased cost of living for regional motorists are something they simply do not understand. You only have to look at the ministerial list to get some indication of this government’s lack of compassion and understanding of the issues affecting regional people. The Minister for Regional Development and Local Government, the Hon. Simon Crean, the member for Hotham, has his electorate office in Clayton. The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport—a very important portfolio for regional people—the member for Grayndler, has his office is in Marrickville.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams) – Order! The honourable member needs to address the bill before the chair.

Mr CHESTER – Certainly. As I was saying, the increasing costs associated with LPG excise will have a direct impact on regional communities. The point I am making is that no-one in the cabinet is standing up and fighting against this LPG excise because none of the members of the cabinet actually live in and understand regional communities. We have the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke, whose electorate office is in Kingsgrove in the heart of Sydney. Surely the Minister for Resources and Energy would stand up for regional communities, but his electorate office is in Preston—so why would he? The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has his electorate office in Brisbane. Not a single member of this government’s cabinet lives and works in regional communities and has a deep understanding of the issues affecting regional people on a daily basis. Regional Australia simply does not have a voice in the Gillard government cabinet and these ministers simply do not understand the issues we face on a daily basis.

It makes no sense to be applying this tax to LPG along with CNG and LNG at a time when Australian families are struggling with an increased cost of living and the government is spending billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The Energy Grants (Cleaner Fuels) Scheme Amendment Bill 2011 is a worthy bill and it has the coalition’s support, as other speakers have indicated. It is an interesting tactic to say the least that the minister has sought to combine all these pieces of legislation and then include a clause which basically says that the whole lot needs to pass or the biofuels industry gets the bullet. It is like trying to hold a metaphorical gun to the head of this legislation—pass the other three or the good one gets it. It is not so subtle a piece of political extortion to try and gain support for three pieces of legislation which are clearly contentious. The coalition had previously flagged its intention to oppose this new excise but by adding it to the support for the biofuels industry the government had hoped to wedge this side of the House into supporting its latest tax grab. I support the coalition’s decision to oppose the first three bills and I also welcome the amendment from the shadow minister to break the nexus between these bills. Our amendment will make the Energy Grants (Cleaner Fuels) Scheme Amendment Bill 2011 effective from 1 July and we will continue to protect Australian families from this high-taxing and wasteful government which is completely out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of regional communities.

(Time expired)

2011 JUNE 2 – Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012 – Consideration in Detail – Prime Minister and Cabinet Portfolio (Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government)

APPROPRIATION BILL (NO.1) 2011-2012 – CONSIDERATION IN DETAIL – PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET PORTFOLIO (REGIONAL AUSTRALIA, REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT)

June 2, 2011

Mr LYONS (Bass) (11:34) – I am very much a regional person; I am from the electorate of Bass. For those who do not know, most people in Tasmania actually do not live in a capital city. Tasmania is similar to Queensland in that it has a very dispersed population. I travel around my region a lot, and the way things are developing is fantastic, with irrigation schemes in the north-east and the NBN starting in Scottsdale. I am also very keen on health. The Launceston General Hospital is probably one of the best regional hospitals in Australia. The minister’s brother was a registrar there some time ago, so I hope that every time he thinks about hospitals he thinks about the Launceston General and that we are on the agenda and very much the target for whatever needs to be done in health around the country.

Launceston General Hospital is a 300-bed hospital and there has been some fantastic work done there. Going back through the history, things that have been commenced in Launceston include the first anaesthetic for Australia and the first reattachment of an amputated hand in Australia. When I think about some of the great advances that have happened at the Launceston General Hospital I think what a great idea it is to support regional Australia. These are not things that have happened in a capital city. These are regional events, and they have happened because we have had management that has pushed down decisions and allowed individuals to come forward with some great ideas and innovations. It is a fantastic place to be, and the model in Tasmania is a great model for Australia. I look forward to there being three regional areas in Tasmania, three regional local health networks. It is obvious that we should be managing our health services at the lowest possible level, where people have full information. It is a very simple proposal, and I am sure it will be acceptable to and indeed promoted by those opposite. A lot of them are in regions and I am sure that if they came to Launceston they could learn a lot that they could take back to their regions.

The hospital in Launceston has had some magnificent work done in recent times. I remember when I was working there as a business manager I did a sketch on a map of how we could expand the emergency department, and I now see it coming up in concrete—fantastic. I see the cancer centre, where they have three linear accelerators, and I see how they have moved the central sterilising department onto the same level as the operating theatres. When the hospital was built they had to save 15 per cent, and at that time they chopped down the size of rooms by 15 per cent. Most of the rooms then had to be rebuilt because they were not big enough to take equipment in the operating theatre. I am absolutely over the moon about the work that is going on at the Launceston General Hospital not because it is a great edifice, which it is, but because it is going to help the people. I am looking forward to the great work that is going to be continued at the Launceston General Hospital. We also have the university in the top level of a new building, which is going to be fantastic. We need to have some additional level-four work for the university.

I am really looking forward to the minister’s answer as to how the budget improves services to regional Australia.

Mr Chester: I could answer that question, Simon.

Mr CREAN (Hotham—Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (11:39) – I thank the member for Bass for his question. I had the opportunity in the week after the budget to go down to the Launceston General Hospital with him, and what we saw there was an investment from a previous budget for significant expansion in a wonderful new facility.

The member for Gippsland says he could have answered the question that the member for Bass asked. That is probably true. But what his government never did was to fund it in the way we have funded it. What we have had to do in the last three years and now into this term is to overcome a decade of neglect of our ageing hospital infrastructure. The member for Gippsland would also be aware that in this budget alone there are important new medical facilities in Timboon and Bairnsdale in his electorate. There were 63 projects announced in this budget.

Mr Chester – Not Timboon though.

Mr CREAN – Yours is not Timboon? Then just Bairnsdale. The truth is that there were 63 projects—

Mr Chester – And Traralgon.

Mr CREAN – And Traralgon as well. I think that might have been an earlier one. This is a love-in because I think there is a recognition of the huge new commitment of resources that we are making to regional Australia. The question of the member for Bass is very instructive because he asked how we are improving the services. This is where the Launceston General Hospital has been excellent in joining the dots because, yes, we have funded the physical infrastructure. There is a magnificent new structure down there, in two parts. I think it will be opened officially in October. It is very interesting that they have taken the challenge of the application of the national broadband rollout to see how they can deliver better health services from that new base.

We know that Tasmania was one of the earliest recipients of the national broadband rollout. With Launceston hospital at the moment, patients with complex medical conditions who require acute care are faced with long delays, discomfort and the inconvenience of travelling to Launceston, where they occupy the emergency department whilst being assessed and a clinical care plan is developed before they are admitted to an acute care bed. That is a very costly system. When they connect up this new physical facility with the application of the broadband network, specialists will be able to assess patients remotely, engage directly in real time with the GP and make decisions as to whether transport to Launceston hospital is necessary. This will keep patient trips to a minimum, it will not overload the emergency department and it will free up this new facility—which the member for Bass and I visited when we were down there—where analysis of patients who are judged as needing to come in will be received immediately and their complex range of issues will be seen to.

We are not just making a huge commitment to the regions in this budget. We understand the importance of building new infrastructure, but this is a great example of where, in challenging communities to come up with creative solutions as to how they deliver the services—and there are eight hubs that the Launceston hospital has to service—we actually end up saving money. So there is an economic return for the nation quite apart from better health service delivery to the patient. I suggest this is where those on the other side, instead of criticising the rollout of the National Broadband Network, understand its inherent potential and engage in it. I might say for the regional members: in the regions they get it. There is no question as to whether we should be rolling out the fibre; it is a question of when. The debate that goes on here about whether we should be funding it or not is simply seen as surreal, and indeed it is.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:44) – Firstly, let me thank the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government for his attendance here today. We do appreciate the opportunity to raise issues in this manner. I will not take up every comment made by the minister but get to my questions as quickly as I can. However, I will take exception to the suggestion by the minister that there has been a decade of neglect in regional areas. I think the minister knows full well that many things were achieved under the previous government and that they were good for regional Australia. I know the rhetoric sounds good and it might look okay in the Hansard but the bottom line is that I do not think any government sets out to neglect regional areas or any other particular area; there are just some ways of doing it better. I am one of the members on this side of the House who is very passionate about regional areas, and I will certainly commend the government when it does something positive and hold it to account when it does not. That is my approach, Minister Crean.

It is with that very brief preamble that I want to raise a genuine question to the minister about the first round of the Regional Development Australia Fund. It is an issue which I have written to you on. It is in relation to the eligibility criteria for a particular project in my electorate—a plan by Southern Rural Water to work in conjunction with the Macalister Irrigation District to do upgrading on some irrigation infrastructure. It is a very good project, and it would tick a lot of boxes along the parameters that the minister has talked about here today. At the moment, though, as I understand it, the Regional Development Australia-Gippsland board encouraged Southern Rural Water to be part of the process and to make an application through round 1. But it was only late in the process that it came to their attention that a not-for-profit state government enterprise such as Southern Rural Water was not eligible to apply for funding under the RDA round 1. I think this is a problem on a couple of points. One is that Southern Rural Water would be the only organisation in my electorate with the capacity to deliver a project like this. It has the relationship with the irrigators themselves; it has the infrastructure capacity; it has all the know-how to get the project done. I respectfully seek the minister’s advice on whether the eligibility criteria from round 1 could be reinterpreted or whether in subsequent rounds it could include a combined application. I do not expect the minister to announce funding for it on the spot but it would be nice if a project like this could at least be considered rather than be ruled out on a technicality. That is the question I raise on behalf of the Southern Rural Water board people, who have worked hard in this area, on behalf of RDA-Gippsland and also on behalf of the irrigators, who are very keen to upgrade the infrastructure in that area.

I take up the minister’s comments regarding the opportunity for this fund to leverage funding from other sources. This is one of those projects that would have that capacity. The irrigators understand that, if the infrastructure is going to be upgraded, they are going to benefit from more water and they are going to be expected to dip into their pockets in order to get those benefits. This would have broader benefits—beyond the social and even the economic, through to the environment for the Gippsland Lakes. So it is something that, as I said previously, does tick a lot of boxes. I would appreciate the minister’s comment on that.

The other area I want to briefly raise is the term ‘localism’, which the minister currently uses a lot. I like the term and I think I know where you are coming from with it, but I want to make the point that it does not get on the ground sometimes when it comes to federal or even state government announcements on infrastructure or other types of projects. A lot of these projects do not get on the ground in regional communities. My classic example is the BER program—the Building the Education Revolution program. From day 1, I said to the minister for education at the time: ‘If you are going to run a program like this, let local building contractors have a crack at the contracts.’ What we saw with this program was a whole bunch of portables that were built in Bendigo and sent to Gippsland on the backs of trucks. The workmanship on the ground was shoddy on many occasions. There was no pride shown because the people who were doing the work were not from my community. I do not think we leveraged the money off it that we could have. If you had come to my school community and said, ‘I’ve got 400 grand for you to do a project in your school,’ you would have been amazed at what they could turn 400 grand into. We have plumbers on our school boards. We have local tradies whose kids are at our schools. They will move heaven and earth to provide facilities for the schools that their kids attend. I think we lost a lot of money in that project because we did not give the local blokes a chance to actually implement it. I think that was a mistake. So when we talk about localism, I would like to know that in the future we would make a commitment to a least let the local people compete—at least let them have a crack at the contracts. There was no way that my schools were going to be able to compete with Bendigo Relocatable Buildings—no chance of that. The local people would have leveraged off that project and delivered more value for money.

In the brief time I have left, I refer to another comment you made, Minister, in relation to diversification of the economic base. I raise a point in regard to tourism. There is a really good opportunity for the federal government to do more in the regional infrastructure and tourism space. We have some outstanding natural attractions in regional areas. It is very hard for businesses in those communities to leverage off those great natural attractions unless governments are prepared to commit funding to the infrastructure that we need. I have not got a long wish list in front of me today, but there are plenty of things that we could be doing in the regional tourism space, with the cooperation of local, state and federal governments. Once again, I thank you for being here today and for the opportunity to raise those few issues.

Mr CREAN (Hotham—Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (11:49) – I should not let the preamble go without passing this comment. I do acknowledge that there were important things done by the government that preceded the Rudd Labor government. But if you go to the question of essential health infrastructure and education infrastructure, there was no capacity in that government to fund it through Commonwealth funding. I remember the debate because I was the shadow Treasurer at the time and I suggested that the Commonwealth actually establish an intergenerational fund—which is what I called it because the Intergenerational Report was out and about—and that we should take the proceeds of what the nation had earned in the prosperous times and reinvest them into the future. Your Treasurer of the day, Peter Costello, ridiculed the idea and then came up with the Future Fund. But the future fund that he introduced was limited because the future fund that he said he was establishing was simply to pay off the Commonwealth’s liability for Commonwealth superannuation. We accepted that was an important contingent liability that we needed to address, but we said, ‘Why should the nation’s surplus only go to pay off the debts from Commonwealth public servants? Why shouldn’t it be used for the bigger issues of the nation?’ Of course, your Treasurer of the day ridiculed that concept. So when we came to office we kept the Future Fund. We said that we were prepared to spend not just the earnings on the fund but also, where necessary, the capital on the fund—but we set up two more funds, one for education and one for health. So my point is that when one looks at the issue—and this was raised by way of a preamble saying that they did not neglect anything—you just did not have the capacity, because you did not think it through. We had it.

So let us move on to the next point, and that is your specific example of Southern Rural Water. I know that you have written to us about it, and I have asked the department to look at this because this issue has been raised in a number of other contexts. At the moment the guidelines for the first round, as I understand them, do prevent that consideration. If in fact the analysis that goes through the panel says ‘but for that consideration this would have been the most worthy project’ then I think that is something that we might need to look at in terms of subsequent rounds. I am not just taking that on notice; I am actually already looking at it and will come back and advise about that at a later date.

I might have said earlier, although I thought I had left it more flexible than this, that the first round would be announced on 1 July. Obviously, because there have been so many that have come in, it might take a bit longer than that 1 July date to be able to announce the first round. We will have to take advice on that. Obviously, we put the funding out immediately that the budget was announced and opened the first round, and we want to try and have this thing hit the ground as fast as is possible.

On the localism question, you do not have to convince me about the importance of it. I saw it in practice when I was the primary industries minister and also when I was the employment and training minister. That is how the area consultative committees were established. That is how we used the Landcare groups and the catchment management groups for better natural resource management initiatives. Indeed, one of the recommendations out of the Orgill review of the BER goes to that very question of recognising that for future programs there should be better local input. I hope that what we are doing in this budget is not just to signal our intention to commit resources to the regions but to also genuinely embrace localism and embed it in the way in which we govern things and embed it in a way that cannot be unpicked, just as other governments could not unpick superannuation and could not unpick Medicare. I happen to believe that localism is the right way to go because it can give you a more efficient outcome if you are creatively engaging locals. What I say to the locals and the communities is this: ‘Just don’t give me wish lists. I want the proposals that stack up.’ If we are going to make this system work, we have got to show that we are spending the nation’s resources more efficiently than spending through the sorts of examples that you alluded to before. If we get it right that will embed localism.

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 30 – Motions – 40th Anniversary of the Ramsar Convention

40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RAMSAR CONVENTION

May 30, 2011

Debate resumed, on motion by Mr Chester:

That this House:

(1) notes that: 
    (a) 2011 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Ramsar Convention and the establishment of a list of wetlands of international importance; and 
    (b) the existence of 64 Ramsar-listed sites in Australia covering 8.1 million hectares; and

(2) highlights the:
    (a) social, economic, environmental and cultural importance of conserving wetlands through wise use and management; and
    (b) need for ongoing Commonwealth funding to other agencies, including volunteer organisations, which play an important role in educational initiatives and practical environmental projects to protect and enhance Australia’s wetlands.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (19:20) – In speaking to this motion on the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar convention I want to highlight the critical importance of wetlands in Australia but particularly in the Gippsland electorate, where we have two Ramsar listed wetland sites—Corner Inlet and the Gippsland Lakes. With this anniversary of the convention, it is timely to reflect on the mission statement:

The conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.

The term ‘wise use’ is one which appeals to me personally. ‘Wise use’ has at its heart the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources for the benefit of humankind. I make that point because it is central to my view of natural resource management, particularly when we are talking about vast holdings of public land, like we have in Gippsland, and the complex environmental systems at play in areas such as the Gippsland Lakes and Corner Inlet.

While the Greens in this place advocate a policy of lock it up and leave it, I believe in practical land management and engaging the local communities. I believe we need to have a balanced approach with a focus on working with our local communities and listening to those communities, not inflicting policies from the cities. Our wetlands are a treasure trove of biodiversity, but they are not museum pieces. They certainly need active management and we need to get amongst them to fully appreciate what is available to us.

Many of our reserves of public land in Gippsland are overrun with feral animals and introduced weeds, and the environmental features which led to the decision to establish a protected area in the first place have been severely compromised by lack of action on the ground. When we are talking about wetlands, the impact of foxes and cats in particular has had a devastating impact on a wide variety of bird species. The underinvestment in programs to reduce the impact of noxious species is a fault of both state and federal governments. I do not lay the blame before one side of politics over another. I believe there is a critical need for ongoing Commonwealth funding to state agencies and volunteer organisations, which play a critical role in practical environmental management.

To make my point, I cannot go past the current government’s failure in relation to Landcare. This government stripped $11 million out of the forward estimates for Landcare but can still find room in the budget for $13 million worth of climate change advertising. Given a choice between propaganda and propagation, there are no surprises here—the government has opted to preserve itself rather than preserve the environment.

I recently attended the Yarram Yarram Landcare awards and spoke to people who are making a difference every day through their stewardship of their own land and the work they do as volunteers on public land. Their work in the catchment areas is undoubtedly providing benefits to the Ramsar listed wetlands of Corner Inlet, and I thank them on behalf of all Gippslanders for their willingness to make such an important contribution. In this the 40th anniversary year of the Ramsar convention, the current federal government should be investing more in supporting the volunteers who are keen to protect and enhance their local environment, and it should begin by reinstating the money it has stripped from Landcare to help employ facilitators to maximise the value of the volunteer effort on the ground in regional communities.

It might surprise some opposite that the National Party is advocating such a strong position in relation to the Ramsar convention and wetland areas, but it is the people of regional Australia who have been at the forefront of practical land management over many generations and we will not sit back and allow ourselves to be painted as being somehow anti-environment when it is our communities doing the hard work on a daily basis, getting our hands dirty and actually getting out there and supporting the environment.

For people to value our wetlands they need to be able to visit them, and so I support the development of infrastructure and facilities that allow humans to gain a close-up appreciation of our fragile wetlands. Again, we need a balanced approach. This is not to suggest there should be open slather on development; it is to make the point that local communities, which are often called on to be the custodians of such assets and provide a great deal of the practical environmental work in regional areas, should be able to benefit commercially from our wetland areas. There are economic opportunities to be found in our world-class wetlands but the lack of facilities on public land is a major issue for the Gippsland tourism industry. Wise use of our wetlands should involve the development of facilities such as boardwalks, viewing platforms, environmentally appropriate accommodation and other infrastructure which allows locals to benefit from the jobs which exist in ecotourism. It is an opportunity that we have failed to capitalise on in Gippsland, and the federal government should be working in partnership with the state government to support such activities in the future.

I recently wrote to both the state and federal environment ministers in relation to the Rotamah Island Bird Observatory, on the Gippsland Lakes. I will give House a more fulsome account of the island at some stage in the future, but suffice it to say that there is an opportunity there for both state and federal governments to work in partnership with the passionate members of my community to achieve some great environmental outcomes.

Briefly, in the time that I have left, I would like to reflect on this government’s lack of commitment to the Gippsland Lakes and their Ramsar listed wetland areas. While the federal government commits over $200 million over a five-year period for the Great Barrier Reef, it has committed just $3 million for the Gippsland Lakes, which the locals regard as the Great Barrier Reef of the south, and this funding expires this year. There are many individuals, community groups and landholder organisations that are passionate about our lakes and rivers and are ready to do their share of the practical work that is required. It is a pity that the same level of passion does not exist in the ministerial offices in Canberra. (Time expired)

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 30 – Private Members’ Business – Youth Allowance

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS – YOUTH ALLOWANCE

May 30, 2011

Mr PYNE (Sturt—Manager of Opposition Business) (20:06) – It is kind of so many of my colleagues to come into the House to listen to this debate tonight on the youth allowance. They have had many opportunities to be part of debates on the youth allowance, and it is nice that they are now finally taking the youth allowance issue seriously and coming into the parliament in such large numbers in order to find out why they should support the coalition’s motion to extend the eligibility requirements for youth allowance for young people in inner regional Australia. I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that the Government has:
    (a) admitted there is a problem with the criteria for independent youth allowance for inner regional students;
    (b) committed to bringing forward its review of the matter with the broad purpose of finding a permanent solution to address the disadvantages that currently exist for rural and regional students in qualifying for financial assistance; and
    (c) indicated it will remove the difference between the inner regional areas and the other regional zones for the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance; and

(2) calls on the Government to bring forward its timetable for resolving the matter, and in particular ensure that:
    (a) the review is completed and funds to pay for the measure are secured by l July 2011;
    (b) the current eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance for persons whose homes are located in Outer Regional Australia, Remote Australia, and Very Remote Australia according to the Remoteness Structure defined in subsection 1067A(10F) of the Social Security Act 1991 also apply to those with homes in Inner Regional Australia from 1 July 2011; and
    (c) all students who had a gap year in 2010 (ie, 2009 Year 12 school leavers) and who meet the relevant criteria qualify for the payment.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:46) – In joining the debate I want to pay tribute in particular to the regional MPs on this side of the House, who have pursued the issue of student income support with such vigour over the past three years. I want to thank the shadow minister for education for his tireless pursuit of this on behalf of regional students and I also thank Senator Fiona Nash, who has been a great champion in the other place for regional students. I also recognise the members for Forrest and Barker, who have already spoken here tonight. I also thank every regional MP on this side of the House who has been prepared to stand up for rural and regional Australian students. If the time was not so limited for this debate tonight I am sure there would be a line-up at the door of regional MPs, like the member for Dawson, who is in this place, and Deputy Speaker Scott, the member for Maranoa, and my good friend the member for Wannon, who I know is very passionate about getting a fair go for students in his electorate.

That is the bottom line in this debate. It is about getting a fair go and abolishing the discriminatory system that was introduced by this Prime Minister when she was the Minister for Education. The motion specifically refers to the issue of independent youth allowance. I take up the comments from the member for Braddon, when he described this motion as a stunt. He knows it is not a stunt, because he knows there is a problem with the independent youth allowance system and these discriminatory boundaries, these lines on a map, between inner regional and outer regional. I also take up his comments in relation to the income thresholds for dependent youth allowance. No-one on this side that I am aware of has had a problem with the revised income thresholds. We are specifically talking about the independent youth allowance and the inner regional and outer regional boundaries.

This is Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s mess. From the day the former education minister started amending the system of student income support, she talked big and she delivered a mess. Even the government has admitted that the system of discriminating against students, with definitions of ‘inner regional’ and ‘outer regional’ for the purpose of calculating the independent youth allowance, is a complete mess. We have these ridiculous lines on a map, which other members have already spoken about here tonight. The workforce criterion for achieving independent youth allowance in inner regional areas of 30 hours per week over a two-year period is almost impossible in many parts of regional Australia and completely impossible in all the rest. It is a very difficult criterion for students in small regional towns to meet.

The other problem we have, and the reason this motion is so important, is that the students from the 2009 and 2010 academic years will be treated inconsistently compared to their brothers and sisters or cousins from other towns who may have gone through year 12 at a previous time. So we have students from different years being treated inconsistently with their cohorts.

This motion gives the government a clear way forward. This government is always complaining that the opposition is too negative. Well, we are putting forward a positive solution here tonight to remove the discriminatory criteria by 1 July this year and to start fixing the mess. Many on this side of the House understand the problems with the current system of student income support and the impact it has on regional students. Some on the other side, including the member for Braddon, claimed to also understand the issues, which left me wondering why this government refused to act. Then it dawned on me. Regional Australia does not have a voice in the Gillard government cabinet. It is the most city-centric ministerial list you will ever see. I invite anyone to have a look. The minister for regional development, the member for Hotham, has his electorate office in Clayton. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, a Queensland senator, has his electorate office in Brisbane. The Minister for Resources and Energy, the member for Batman, has his office in Preston. The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the member for Grayndler, has his office in Marrickville. I could go on, but the bottom line is that none of the senior ministers with carriage of issues that are critical to the future of rural and regional Australia actually lives in regional Australia. The minister for tertiary education is a senator for Western Australia, whose electorate office is in Perth.

These people simply do not understand the cost barriers faced by regional families in sending their children to university. They do not live and work in regional communities and they do not understand the hopes and aspirations of regional families. It is an absolute disgrace that we would have such a city-centric cabinet table that fails to stand up for the interests of regional people.

Finally, let me quote from someone who does get it, a concerned parent, Mr Rob Oliver from Sale, who made a submission to the government’s current review. He submitted the following in a letter:

In summary the outcome of your review needs to be immediate action to fix this mess and give all regional students the same access to independent youth allowance. The entire community does not want to hear hollow rhetoric about an education revolution when the government’s own actions with respect to youth allowance are inhibiting the education of our country students.

That says it all. This government cannot keep hiding behind its slogan of ‘the education revolution’. It has to deliver a fairer deal for regional families. It has to fix the mess that Julia Gillard created.

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 26 – Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012

APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2011-2012

May 26, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10:34) – I would like to raise several issues today in relation to the federal budget and also some broader concerns within my electorate. Firstly I want to highlight the need for the federal government to support an application for $65 million to expand and enhance the Latrobe Regional Hospital under the Health and Hospitals Fund regional priority round. This application is for funding to build a new improved emergency department and additional endoscopy facilities and offer more beds for acute care.

By way of background, LRH is a designated regional health service and major provider of acute, subacute, mental health and specialist age care services for the Gippsland community. LRH is also an important teaching and training facility working in close partnership with Monash University School of Rural Health and Monash University Gippsland Medical School. Gippsland has some of the poorest health outcomes in Victoria. Current facilities fall well below existing standards and are not adequate to meet growing community needs, which are affecting LRH’s ability to meet its designated role as a regional hospital and a teaching facility. This situation will be exacerbated in the future with predicted growth in demand of 13 per cent over the next 10 years. It is critical in that regard that the federal government recognises the growth that is going on in the Latrobe Valley community. With an ageing population, the increase in demand on our health services is apparent and I encourage the federal government to continue to invest in facilities at LRH in particular. The improved facilities and the increased capabilities will also make it easier for us to recruit and train medical specialists in the region and reduce the burden on Melbourne health services. Naturally there is a double benefit in that regard—we can actually service more people in our local communities rather than having them be forced to go to Melbourne, adding to the waiting lists in Melbourne. This is an opportunity for us in regional areas. I am advised that the cost of unnecessary patient transport at the moment is in the vicinity of $29 million a year, and that money could be recouped by government as a result of expanding this facility so that more patients can be treated in the Latrobe Valley.

We also have the hidden health issue of patients who are deciding not to seek treatment because it is too difficult for them to access it, particularly in communities like Gippsland where the travel to Melbourne can be in excess of three or four hours. People are making the decision that it is all too hard to go to Melbourne, find accommodation and access services in the city. I admit it is hard to measure this particular issue, but I constantly receive anecdotal information about people from the more remote parts of my region who are choosing not to pursue advanced treatment because they have to go to Melbourne. It is a key concern for us in our regional communities.

It is one of the reasons I have been so keen to be an advocate in this place for Rotary Gippsland Centenary House, which provides accommodation units for people who are receiving treatment at LRH. I would like to congratulate the federal government and the state government for continuing the level of bipartisan support for this magnificent facility. The Gillard government has supported the community fundraising efforts by providing $1.5 million for the next stage of the development, which will see nine more units being built. I actually inspected the progress on these units only a few weeks ago and I can report to the House that all is going very well there. It is going to be a magnificent addition to this facility, which has been such a crucial part of providing accommodation and care for people as they are away from their home at a very stressful time in their lives. I do take this opportunity to encourage the minister to visit our region for the official opening of this facility. It would be great to see her there for the occasion, which we hope will be towards the end of this year. I am sure she will be impressed by the work of local builders. I congratulate the organisers and the board of management for engaging the local building firms to undertake this project.

The planned upgrade that we are talking about is stage 2A of a larger redevelopment, so we are talking about substantial amounts of money. A master plan has been endorsed by the Victorian Department of Health, under both the previous Labor state government and the current coalition government. The project does have government support. It also has widespread community support, particularly the rebuilding of the hospital’s emergency department where waiting times have become an issue of increasing concern. I have a great deal of sympathy for the staff at the front-line of the emergency department. They often cop all the poor headlines in terms of people being forced to wait for treatment and to wait on trolleys for extended periods of time. The staff bear the brunt of that criticism when, really, they are completely overwhelmed by the demand for services. I do encourage the federal government to continue to work with the state government on this most important upgrade and opportunity to expand the facilities at LRH.

On another positive note, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity now to mention the $23 million worth of funding announced by the federal government on 7 April last year. This funding was to expand the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre and provide an additional 414 radiation treatments and 8,000 chemotherapy treatments. I understand expressions of interest will be advertised next week for construction on this project. Again, it is a project which is much needed, tragically, in my community. The expansion of the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre will make LRH one of the prime facilities for the delivery of cancer care services in Victoria and according to LRH staff this funding will allow for a significant expansion of the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and dialysis units as well as an expansion to the pharmacy. It is tragic but it is a fact of life in my region that there is a growing need for cancer treatment in the broader Gippsland community and it is essential that patients can access these services in our region. The expansion will make LRH a leader in this area as the cancer centre doubles in size. On behalf of my community, I do welcome the funding from the federal government in that regard.

It is also important, in the context of that federal funding, to mention the fact—and reflect on it—of the inspirational efforts of the local community and the financial contribution they have been able to make to support this initiative. The Gippsland Cancer Care Centre has been the beneficiary of many fundraising events in recent years, several of which I have had the opportunity to attend. They have always been very well run. I refer to things like gala balls and community fun runs. It is a remarkable effort when you look at the socioeconomics of my community. They have been able to raise in excess of $3.5 million since the Gippsland Cancer Centre Appeal was launched in 2003. That is in addition to the fundraising that has been going on for Gippsland Rotary Centenary House. So I do take this opportunity to thank my community for their work in that regard. I thank the various board members who have served as volunteers on those fundraising committees, the business sponsors, the philanthropic organisations and the members of the broader general public who have been prepared to give their time and their money in such a generous manner. I think regional communities are renowned for such efforts and it is a real tribute to the people of Gippsland that they are such committed stakeholders in our health services. Although I have focused a lot on the Latrobe Valley here today, let me assure the House that right across my region there are auxiliaries and community based boards which are doing an extraordinary job every day of the week to supplement whatever government funding is available through the various health budgets. Without the efforts of these volunteers the health situation in every part of Gippsland would be far worse.

On a separate issue also to do with public health, I want to draw the attention of the House to an issue which is developing as quite a significant concern in the Bairnsdale district—a colony of flying foxes which roosts on the banks of the Mitchell River. It has been the subject of increased public debate in East Gippsland. I acknowledge that this is primarily a state issue but federal responsibilities do come into force under the provisions of the EPBC Act. I have brought this issue to the attention of the minister for environment but the urgency of the issue is about to escalate following the issuing of a health warning by the Victorian Department of Health only yesterday. A flying fox found at Bairnsdale has been detected as carrying the Australian bat lyssavirus and I will refer directly to the warning by Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Dr John Carnie. He says:

Under no circumstances should people handle flying foxes on their property as some diseases they carry, such as Australian Bat Lyssavirus, are transmissible to humans, …

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is a rare, but fatal disease which may be transmitted from flying foxes to humans.

Domestic pets may also be at risk. The virus is transmitted through being scratched or bitten by a flying fox.

It goes on to say:

Although it is known that many flying foxes across Australia carry the virus, instances of transmission to humans are very rare, with only two cases ever having been recorded—both of which were seen in Queensland.

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is detected from time to time in flying foxes in Victoria, but no human cases have ever occurred here. The disease has never occurred in domestic pets in Victoria.

While that is reassuring to some extent, the fact that the Victorian Chief Health Officer has had to issue a warning in relation to flying foxes in the Bairnsdale area is of great concern to my community. I would also like to refer to comments from a nearby resident who has written to the federal minister for regional development to raise her concerns in this regard. The letter describes the situation in Bairnsdale:

Since 2003 we have had a problem with bats. The bats have created a very comfortable colony amongst the residents of Bairnsdale, which increases by the year and have extended to 33,000 in number at times … As we have had an unusually wet year, the putrid smell has become unbearable for anyone living within the town.

The bat colony is in a forested area along the Mitchell River amongst poplar trees, situated within meters, between and in front of residential homes in the township and affects residents as far as a kilometer away …

The letter goes on to describe the battle by residents to have poplar trees removed. It is worth reflecting that the poplar trees are an introduced species and they are affected by white ants, in this particular case. The resident is critical of the lack of action by the Department of Sustainability of Environment, and I quote her again:

We do understand that the bat colony is protected, we are not asking for them to be killed, just removed. We feel that if the trees (which are considered dangerous and overhang a public footpath/bicycle track along the river banks) are removed, the bats are intelligent enough to find another forested area (of which there is plenty in the Gippsland area) in which to live.

We are now given to understand from a report issued by the DSE that they want the bat colony to remain, as they consider it to be a tourist attraction and if the trees are removed, they will erect artificial roosts for the bats! The report also states that they wish to educate us on the benefits of ‘co-habiting with wildlife’. We think that this is plain stupidity given that the people writing these reports do not live anywhere near the bats and consequently, do not have to tolerate the constant noise and putrid stench from these animals, with which we have to live.

Having had the opportunity to inspect the colony personally, I have to agree with the letter writer: there is a stench associated with the flying foxes. The quality of life of nearby residents is being severely compromised and the constant noise is having an impact on people’s health—and that is without even considering the issue of disease which may be borne by the flying foxes. So this warning from Victoria’s chief health officer will, I think, escalate the concerns within my community. At a local level I have been working with my local state MP, Tim Bull, who I know is trying to find a way through the layers of bureaucracy to resolve the situation. At a federal level I will be seeking assurances from the federal government that it will not be using the provisions of the EPBC Act as an excuse to interfere in this matter. The location of the colony is a real problem for my community, and the local agencies need to develop a management plan which balances difficult environmental issues but clearly places the rights of the human population ahead of the flying foxes.

In the short amount of time I have left I would like to reflect on one other matter which relates to the federal budget, the federal government’s failure to support my efforts to secure Commonwealth funding for the Princes Highway east of Sale. I have raised this issue in the House on several occasions in the past. I have also raised it directly with the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and, to be fair to the minister, he has given me a fair hearing in this matter. I have tabled petitions from my community, which reflects the level of concern throughout the Broader Gippsland region. The Princes Highway east of Sale is currently not eligible for Commonwealth funding in any form whatsoever; it is a responsibility primarily of the state government. The highway from Sale to Traralgon has been the beneficiary of about $140 million of federal funding under a joint project to see some duplication works undertaken. That does not gel with the people of Gippsland. It does not make sense for them that such a major highway, which is in desperate need of government funding to improve it from Sale to the New South Wales border, will not be able to access Commonwealth funding in the future. The stretch of highway I am talking about has one of the highest accident and fatality rates in Victoria. Tragically, there was another death this week. Hardly a month goes by without a fatality on that road. I am not saying every accident is a result of the condition of the road, but there is no question that it is a contributing factor to the high accident and fatality rates.

I have been working with my local state MP, Tim Bull, in relation to this matter and just recently we both wrote a letter to the state minister seeking support to fund a safety audit and the development of a 10-year strategy to upgrade the highway east of Sale. We also want the state minister to assist us in lobbying the federal government to make the highway east of Sale eligible for Commonwealth funding.

From my previous discussions with regional VicRoads staff, there does not seem to be a long-term plan in place for the staged upgrade of even the most basic safety features such as shoulder sealing, more overtaking lines, realignment of dangerous corners and improvements to the road surface. With an increase in the use of the road by large recreational vehicles, along with the increased size of the commercial vehicles on the road—the trucks, the caravans and those large Winnebago type vehicles—we are seeing a very close interface between large vehicles when they pass each other on some sections of the road, particularly east of Orbost to the New South Wales border, where there is no shoulder for more than 40 kilometres. The margin for error is so small that we desperately need to do something about it. I fear that we are going to have a major accident on the road involving a bus carrying children or tourists through the region and it is going to take a situation like that before the state and federal governments recognise their responsibilities to undertake a major program of upgrading this stretch of highway. In my view, too much of the current debate about highway funding east of Sale is based on anecdotal evidence. There needs to be a complete safety audit with a view towards developing a 10-year strategy so the federal government can then buy into it and take responsibility for parts of the road that need to be upgraded.

In addition to the petition, which is still out there gathering signatures, our view is being supported by the local chambers of commerce. I believe that there is a real opportunity here for both the state and the federal road ministers to work in partnership with my community. I invite both the state and the federal road ministers to come to Gippsland, take a firsthand look at the road and see for themselves the risks that our motorists are faced with on a daily basis.

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 25 – Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011

CARBON CREDITS (CARBON FARMING INITIATIVE) BILL 2011

May 25, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (18:22) – In joining the debate on the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 I intend to take up where the shadow minister for agriculture left off earlier this morning by posing the question: why would we trust this government in relation to the future of farming? It is like there is a message coming from those opposite: I am from the Labor Party and I am here to help. And as the shadow minister rightly indicated the bill before the House is incomplete and misleading. The shadow minister used the phrase that it is like ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. At the risk of prolonging the rural metaphors for too much longer, there are so many holes in this you could drive a Mack truck through it.

This government expects the coalition to blindly accept this bill. They seem to be simply saying, ‘Trust us and we will add the details later on in the regulations.’ You will have to excuse my cynicism, but the people of my electorate have no reason whatsoever to trust this government when it comes to its policies relating to climate change and emissions reductions.

This bill, as those opposite have indicated, feeds directly into the broader debate about this government’s policies on so-called ‘dangerous’ climate change. The minister for climate change was in Gippsland last week and was on ABC Radio, where he almost tied himself in knots avoiding using the word ‘tax’. During the interview I counted the number of times the minister referred to the government’s carbon policy, and it was all about a ‘carbon price’. Obviously the focus groups have tried to sanitise the tax now. It has got to be a carbon price. We do not talk about tax any more, apparently. Painfully avoiding the word ‘tax’ will not escape the attention of the people of Gippsland, who, as on many occasions in the past, will be at the pointy end of any government policies in relation to the emission of carbon dioxide.

On a more positive note, it was good that the minister actually visited Gippsland. He is the first cabinet minister to visit and actually consult with my community in relation to the government’s climate change policy. I appreciate that he took the time to attend a summit in the electorate. But I would encourage him to go out into the broader community. If he had he would have picked up on the anger and disappointment within my community about the way this government has conducted itself on this particular issue. The bottom line is that the people in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley do not want this government’s household assistance package. They want to keep their jobs.

This government accuses the coalition of running a scare campaign, yet listen to their rhetoric. Listen to the words they use out in the community in relation to their policies on carbon dioxide emissions. They love using the term ‘dangerous climate change’. They cannot help themselves—they have to refer to ‘dirty’ coal-fired power stations. They must always mention ‘1,000 biggest polluters’. They do not mention the fact that they also happen to be some of the biggest employers in this nation. Let’s vilify them as these ‘dirty polluters’ who are causing ‘dangerous climate change’. This rhetoric has got to stop. This government is embarrassing itself with the public by its attempt to vilify some of the most successful businesses in our nation, and they are also vilifying the men and women who work in these coal-fired power stations, who have done nothing more than they were asked to do by our nation. They have provided cheap, reliable baseload energy for our nation and now this Labor Party—the party that used to stand up for workers—is vilifying these people in communities like the Latrobe Valley. This government should be embarrassed by its conduct.

We also have the government out there talking about ‘saving’ the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu, as if Australia alone could actually do anything in terms of the ultimate environmental impacts of any forecast in relation to climate change. This deliberate scaring and spreading of myths is all about gaining support for a tax.

Government MPs are also desperately trying to avoid mentioning this fundamental breach of trust. This is where the government has its biggest problem in the electorate. Before the election this Prime Minister said:

There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.

It is becoming abundantly clear that this Prime Minister is not leading anything, when you have Kevin Rudd running foreign policy, Bob Brown running domestic policy and the Prime Minister running out of excuses. But put that aside. The fundamental breach of trust is where this government has its greatest problem. You now bring this bill into the House and expect Gippslanders to take you on trust that the Carbon Farming Initiative is in their interests, when the government has not even released the details of how the carbon tax, which will directly feed into this process, will play out in the broader community.

When government ministers come to my electorate, I have constantly asked them just to be honest in this debate about climate change. And I can report a small breakthrough this week. We had Minister Combet actually admitting that no Australian solution to this problem would save the Great Barrier Reef. He has finally come out and explained that it will take global action. But, if you had listened over the past three years during which I have been in this place, we have heard constantly from those opposite how they are taking action now to save the Great Barrier Reef. But Australia emits only 1.5 per cent of total global emissions. If we cut all our emissions, we do not do anything about the other 98.5 per cent, so how is that going to save the Great Barrier Reef.

Stop telling people lies about what can be achieved by Australians acting independently of other nations. It is great that the minister this week finally indicated that we are better off directing our money and energy at direct local action ahead of any global efforts in terms of the so-called ‘saving’ of the Great Barrier Reef. We have had our own climate change zealot in Tim Flannery out there admitting the same thing this week. He even went a step further when, in March this year, he said:

If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow, the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop for several hundred years, perhaps over 1000 years.

To me that is a very telling admission by Mr Flannery, because he has finally acknowledged that we are talking about long-term change. The temperature of the planet is not going to drop for several hundred years and perhaps over 1,000 years. That is what Mr Flannery said. He also said this week that reputable scientists do have different views on man’s impact and man’s contribution to climate change. So, finally, there is a little bit of honesty coming into the debate and some sort of recognition that not everyone who has some degree of caution in relation to the more extreme forecasts is a sceptic or somehow a denier, now that even Mr Flannery admits that there are reputable scientists who have different views.

We are after all only talking about models and forecasts. Just as an aside, when the weather bureau cannot reliably tell me what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and then tells me that in 100 years there are going to be sea level rises of a metre as a result of climate change, I think I am entitled to exercise a level of caution in deciding whether to accept everything that is put to me about weather, climate and long-term trends. This government wants to take reckless action that will send Australian jobs overseas by driving up the costs of production, yet, as Tim Flannery has indicated, the average temperature of the planet will not move for 1,000 years.

I want to refer specifically to the concerns I have about the future of the Latrobe Valley under this government. When the minister visited the Latrobe Valley he repeatedly refused to give a guarantee that this government will actually undertake a social and economic analysis of the impact of its policies in our community. The question must now be asked: what is the minister hiding? Why won’t the Gillard government be honest with the people of the Latrobe Valley and undertake a full assessment of the costs and benefits of its policies in relation to climate change and emissions reductions? That is the fundamental point for the people in my region. If the government is not prepared to explain what the actual costs and benefits to them and their households will be, why would we take it at its word on the carbon tax or any other policy? The Latrobe Valley, as I have said many times in this place and I say again tonight, is absolutely at the pointy end of this debate, yet the government has refused to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of how its policies will play out in a regional community like Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley. Extending the argument, why would farming families take this government at its word on the bill before the House when the Labor Party is happy to strip water out of communities in the Murray-Darling Basin without any consideration whatsoever of the broader social and economic impacts?

We are faced with the same situation here in relation to the government’s policies on pricing carbon. Instead of the empty rhetoric we have been getting, the families in the Latrobe Valley deserve to know whether their jobs will be affected under this government’s carbon tax. If the government does not know the answer yet—if the government does not know whether or not jobs will be lost—how can it realistically expect the people of my community to support its policies?

I do acknowledge that the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government acknowledged today in the media that coal will play an important part in our nation’s energy needs for decades into the future. That is a breakthrough. It is a breakthrough to have a government minister actually acknowledge the importance of coal. I wonder how Labor’s partners in government, the Greens, reacted to that? I wonder if that statement had to be run past the Greens’ media unit, since the Greens have such have such a hold over this government? I sincerely hope there will be other ministers who will state the obvious fact that coal is such an important part of the future energy needs of our nation.

I believe the Latrobe Valley has a great future. Our challenge, though, is to get rid of this government to allow us to achieve that future. In the Latrobe Valley we have 500 years worth of brown coal reserves. I cannot think of another nation in the world with an extraordinary natural resource of that capacity that would simply be saying, ‘We can’t use dirty brown coal; we’re going to leave it in the ground.’ That is a ridiculous proposition in a world where energy demand is growing. Our challenge—

Mr Adams – That’s cheap populism.

Mr CHESTER – I will take up that interjection. Now we know what backbenchers from the Labor Party actually think. They think it is cheap populism to talk about Latrobe Valley power workers’ jobs. Well, congratulations to the backbenchers of the Labor Party. That is what they now think about the workers of our nation. Congratulations! It is no wonder the Labor Party cannot hold a seat east of Melbourne if that is what they think of the workers these days. You should be embarrassed.

There are 500 years worth of brown coal. It is a reliable natural resource. It provides a cheap form of energy, and our challenge is to use it in the most environmentally friendly way possible. There have been some remarkable efforts over the past decade by companies that are exploring ways to reduce the moisture content and export brown coal. There is a well-advanced proposal to use the carbon dioxide emissions to grow algae for several environmentally friendly products, and I understand there have been some great breakthroughs with a particular project in the Townsville area. Carbon geosequestration remains, I admit, something of a holy grail for the coal-fired power stations, and it is doubtful whether it will proceed on an industrial scale in the foreseeable future, but the research and development is needed in this particular space.

The point I am trying to make is that over the past six or seven decades working families—who the Labor Party used to speak so much about—in the Latrobe Valley have made an enormous contribution to the Australian nation, and they will continue to do so if they are supported in the future. They should not be vilified in this place. The government should not be using terms like ‘dirty coal-fired power stations’ and ‘the 1,000 biggest polluters’. It should start acknowledging some of the positive achievements of these families working in my region. The Nationals do support a range of policies that provide for direct action to meet the agreed emissions reduction target of five per cent by 2020, but our policy is to avoid the punitive nature of the carbon tax and provide incentives for these companies to invest in technology and new systems to reduce their emissions. Some very successful trial projects have already been undertaken in the Latrobe Valley region with funding from both the former Labor state government and the coalition government at a federal level.

We do support direct and practical environmental action that achieves a positive outcome, makes sense in terms of improved productivity and builds a bridge with the sections of the community who have some reasonable doubts about some of the more extreme forecasts. I believe that is the real opportunity for us in building community consensus about the need to undertake practical environmental works.

This government has a long list of failures when it comes to its so-called green programs. There was the home insulation disaster in which four people tragically lost their lives. We had the abandoned cash-for-clunkers policy and the green loans and home assessors programs. The wasteful and reckless policy we have seen from this government is probably the worst in living memory, and now the government expects us to trust it with this important piece of legislation—the same government that could not deliver any of these programs just mentioned, the same government that cut $11 million out of the forward budget estimates for Landcare.

So we have a government that will cut money out of Landcare but is still able to find money for a climate change advertising campaign. Given a choice between propaganda and propagation, this government will always go for self-promotion and the propaganda campaign. I do not believe that the community trusts this government to be able to deliver any program, particularly something as complex as this carbon farming initiative. Like other speakers on this side of the House I will reserve my judgment until we see the full details of this bill, but I am not convinced that this government understands the risky nature of the path it wants to lead Australian farmers down. At a time when food security should be the focus of national attention, we run the risk of introducing a scheme that will see prime agricultural land turned into forests on the back of government incentives. Any schemes that distort land use decisions and result in large tracts of prime agricultural land being turned into plantations are a huge risk for the future of rural and regional Australia. Our prime agricultural land must be protected from this type of government interference. I congratulate the many members on this side of the House who expressed similar sentiments. I am not against tree planting or reforestation projects in the appropriate places, such as on the more marginal land in our nation, but that has not been the experience of many rural and regional communities over recent years. I fear that this government does not properly understand the needs of regional communities. Simply saying ‘trust us’ will not wash with farming families.

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 25 – Committee for Gippsland / Lakes Entrance Primary School

COMMITTEE FOR GIPPSLAND / LAKES ENTRANCE PRIMARY SCHOOL

May 25, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:53) – I rise to congratulate Gippsland business owners and community leaders on the formation of the Committee for Gippsland. The new committee was officially launched by the Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan, and has recently appointed a young lady from our region, Mary Aldred, as its chief executive. The committee is chaired by Harry Rijs from Patties Foods in Bairnsdale.

The Rijs family have made a very long and extraordinary contribution to the Gippsland region and Harry is continuing that service in this role. Next week the members of the committee will be in Canberra and I am looking forward to meeting with them and helping to set priorities for Gippsland’s future.

Part of that future is our shared interest in providing opportunities for young people, like the students from the Lakes Entrance Primary School, who are in the gallery here today. It is great to see the Lakes Entrance Primary School students here with their teachers and I hope that members recognise that the Lakes Entrance Primary School is one of the finest primary schools in regional Australia. Of course, I am completely biased because my four children have all attended Lakes Entrance Primary School. It is wonderful to see the students here today and I am sure all members will join with me in welcoming them and thanking the Parliamentary Education Office for the work they do in helping our young people gain a better appreciation of our civic duties here in the parliament. I welcome Lakes Entrance Primary School students to the parliament. I hope they enjoy their time here in our nation’s capital and travel safely back to the electorate by the end of the week.

(Time expired)

2011 MAY 25 – Childcare

CHILDCARE

May 25, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (09:30) – I rise to highlight this government’s failure to deliver on its rhetoric in relation to providing affordable child care to all Australian families. This government is good at making big announcements but when it comes to delivering results on the ground it seems that regional communities always miss out. I have a copy of the Women’s budget statement 2011-12 where the Minister for the Status of Women refers to early childhood education and care and states:

Child care is essential in enabling parents who are primary carers …, often women, to enter and remain in the workforce.

Feelgood statements like this do not deliver a service on the ground. This government promised to build 260 new childcare centres and it has delivered fewer than 40, with the minister claiming that private providers were covering the needs in our community. What about places where private providers will never go? What about the smaller regional and rural centres where there will never be enough people to make a childcare centre profitable for a private operator?

The government had a program to help those people in those communities as well. It was called the Take a Break program. Last year the Gillard government cut funding for that program as well. Just to save a miserable $12.6 million over four years, the Labor government withdrew a service and support for a childcare program which provided a service to regional communities which even the minister acknowledges is, and I quote the minister again:

… essential in enabling parents who are the primary carers …, often women, to enter and remain in the workforce.

The federal government used to provide 70 per cent of the funding for this program. Now it provides nothing and that is exactly the level of service families in my electorate are likely to face within a few months.

The budget cuts were announced last year but the Victorian government at the time provided a stay of execution for these much-needed services, with funding continuing until the end of the current financial year. The new Victorian coalition government has provided another reprieve with funding guaranteed until the end of December. But if the Gillard government does not come good with its support, this program will be abolished.

Those opposite might think I am exaggerating the importance of this service, so let me quote from some of the letters I have received in the past week and forwarded to the minister’s office. One from Lenore Richardson at Swifts Creek states: ‘Being so far from any other town, it is impossible for families to make other arrangements regarding child care. Some young families do not have the support of a family member to help them. This could result in them having to leave our district to find help and work. If the community centre loses funding for their child care, it will be a tragic loss to our whole community.’

Angela Savage, Executive Officer of the Association of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres, states: ‘Gormandale is a low-income community under a lot of stress as a result of the 2009 bushfires. Increasing childcare fees is not an option for the community house. The service will be forced to close its doors. There is no public transport in the area and no alternative childcare service within 25 kilometres.’

Murray Kibble, Manager of the Swifts Creek Community Centre, explains: ‘We already subsidise the services through fundraising and other activities run by the community centre to ensure it is affordable for families in the region. We use the funding purely to assist with the staff wages as per the amendments to the Children’s Services Act made in May 2009. We still subsidise the direct wages of the childcare staff by an average of $8,000 per year.’

I call on the government to adopt to the coalition’s policy position and reintroduce the $12.6 million occasional care funding which provides a vital service in regional areas like Swifts Creek, Gormandale and Heyfield.

(Time expired)

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