2011 In Parliament
2011 MAR 21 – Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (Abolition of Alpine Grazing) Bill 2011
ENVIRONMENT PROTECTION AND BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION (ABOLITION OF ALPINE GRAZING) BILL 2011
March 21, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.02 am) — I rise to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (Abolition of Alpine Grazing) Bill 2011. In doing so, I wish to highlight the absolutely overwhelming hypocrisy of the Greens and the blind subservience of the Australian Labor Party, and in particular the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Let us begin with the Greens. The Leader of the Greens is currently parading around Australia calling for better protection of democratic rights for people living in the territories. Senator Brown is all for protecting those rights it seems, particularly if he personally supports the issues such as gay marriage or euthanasia, which may emerge as a result. But the grand hypocrisy is exposed on this issue, where the bill proposed by the member for Melbourne is squarely targeted at removing the right of the Victorian government to take action to assess the strategic use of cattle grazing as a tool to reduce bushfire risk in Victoria’s high country.
Senator Brown is out there right now talking about equal rights for territories and the member for Melbourne is in here today trying to take those rights away from the people of Victoria. The Greens’ defence of democratic rights does not apply to the Victorian government, which, at last year’s state election, won a clear mandate for its policy of returning cattle to the Alpine National Park.
The bitter irony of this bill is the sanctimonious nature of the Greens when it comes to telling country people how to live their lives. Regional Australians have had a gutful of city based Greens when it comes to telling us how to live our lives, what industries we are allowed to have, what jobs we are allowed to have and how our communities should enjoy their particular pastimes. The Greens have never created a job in regional Australia and they are a direct threat to a host of traditional industries, including the agricultural sector, commercial fishing, mining and power generation. It is no surprise that the Greens received just six per cent of the primary vote in the seat of Gippsland during the federal election and the same in the seat of Gippsland East during the state election. We do not vote for the Greens in regional Australia because they simply do not understand us. Within the Greens they do not have any appreciation of the practical realities of living and working in a sustainable way with the environment.
The Greens’ and Labor’s approach to the environment is to lock it up and leave it—to ban anything that offends their view of the world. ‘Lock it up and leave it’ is not an environmental policy; it is a recipe for disaster as we have seen with the recent wildfires that have devastated vast expanses of public land in Gippsland and beyond.
The bill before us today is another prime example of the Greens’ failure to embrace the concept of practical environmental management. It talks about banning cattle in the Alpine National Park because of the claimed significant impact on native vegetation and animals. Member for Melbourne: seriously, give me a break! The current trial involves 400 cattle spread across 26,000 hectares of national park. Even the minister for the environment did more damage when he raced up there in his convoy of four-wheel-drives, and I do not think he even managed to find a herd of cows while on that photo opportunity!
The Greens and the minister are getting all hot and sweaty about 400 cattle but not a word is said about the other environmental issues facing the national park. There was not a word in the member for Melbourne’s address about the thousands of feral horses, which the Parks Victoria website notes have severe environmental impacts such as erosion, damage to bog habitat and soil loss. There was not a word about the wild deer which live in the high country. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 samba deer are estimated to live in the high country causing damage. There was not a word from the member for Melbourne about wild dogs, which a recent report indicated are costing the community $18 million per year and are feasting on native wildlife every day of the week. There was not a word about the environmental damage caused by the ski fields. But that would probably be something the member for Melbourne supports, because no doubt his constituents are visiting the ski fields on a regular basis. In the Greens’ twisted logic, it is okay to have hundreds of thousands of snow skiers, construction of chalets and the building of ski runs, but heaven forbid if our regional communities seeks to graze a few hundred head of cattle to help reduce the bushfire risk.
If the Greens were genuine about their desire to protect the environment they would be knocking on the door of the minister for the environment and demanding that he reinstate the $11 million he stripped out of Landcare when he was the minister for agriculture.
This is the grand hypocrisy that we have come to expect from the Greens—there is absolutely nothing new about that—but what is also emerging in this debate is the complete subservience of the Labor Party to its Greens masters. The Labor Party may be in government, but there is no doubt the Greens are in charge. The member for Melbourne has whistled, and like a faithful dog the minister for the environment has raced across the chamber to lick his face. Those opposite are just so obedient when the Greens want action. But it is no surprise when more than 40 of the Labor members in this place rely on Greens preferences for their political survival. The heritage, culture and knowledge of the mountain cattlemen, which has been built up over more than 100 years, are assets to our community and they should not be vilified by the Labor Party and the Greens in this place.
APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 3) 2010-2011
APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 4) 2010-2011
March 1, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.59 pm) — I recognise the member for Canberra in this place. I think it is the first time I have spoken after her and I congratulate her on her election. In her presentation the member for Canberra spoke quite passionately about the issues relating to education—in fact, I think she used the phrase that education is a vaccine against poverty and a vaccine against social disadvantage. Without wishing to prolong the metaphor any further, I must say that regional Australia does need an injection of fairness and equity when it comes to education. So, in rising to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and the related bill, I note the proposed amendment by the member for Sturt and I give credit to him for his relentless pursuit of the government in relation to the issues of student income support.
Today this government has another chance to do the right thing, the decent thing, and live up to its hollow rhetoric about the education revolution. It has a chance to deliver a fair go for all regional students seeking to access the independent youth allowance. In this, the Gillard government’s year of decision and delivery, the Prime Minister has the opportunity to fix up the mess she has created in the area of student income support.
The amendment put forward by the member for Sturt is about fairness. It is about equity and it is about tidying up the mess that was created by the former Minister for Education and now Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. I acknowledge that the amendment put forward will not solve all the issues relating to equity of access to tertiary studies for regional students, but at least it will stop the current discrimination on the basis of random lines on a map that has heavily disadvantaged students who attended year 12 in 2009 and also disadvantaged students from regional areas who are undertaking gap years at the moment.
We need to be very clear about what we are debating in this amendment moved by the member for Sturt. It relates specifically to the independent youth allowance and the workforce criteria imposed in the aftermath of the former education minister’s failed attempts to overhaul student income support. We have this ridiculous system now of lines on a map which define areas as being either inner regional or outer regional for the purpose of accessing independent youth allowance. The students who live in those areas face different workforce criteria to achieve their independence.
The ridiculous situation is that, in my electorate, you have towns such as Yarram, Heyfield and Maffra, which are very small and service small agricultural areas around them, which are regarded as inner regional under this government’s classification. The workforce criteria of 30 hours per week over two years is almost impossible to achieve for many students in the small country towns that are in that inner regional classification. Towns like Yarram, Heyfield and Maffra are classified the same as Hobart under this system for the purpose of calculating the independent youth allowance. So we have Hobart, with a population of about 250,000, and we have a town like Yarram, with a population of about 1,750 people. So I invite members opposite to come to Yarram and explain the fairness of that system to the people in my community. This is a recognised problem with the system. The minister himself has acknowledged there is a problem with the system. We need to get on and fix the mess.
While I am talking about the Yarram community, I have a speech here that was given last year by the president of the school council at Yarram Secondary College, Mr Garry Stephens. Garry has been a great servant of that community, both in his role within the business community and in his willingness to work on behalf of the school on the school council. He has been a fierce advocate for the Yarram community. This is what Garry told people attending the speech afternoon last year:
Rural communities need to continue to get a message to all levels of Government that we are at a disadvantage in sending our year 12 students onto tertiary study and that if more rural people are going to be able to study at tertiary level we need better living away from home allowances and financial support for our students.
In this place, we often get caught up in political arguments. This is a comment from a fellow on the ground in a regional community, with strong business experience and direct experience in the Yarram Secondary College, giving a bit of free advice to the minister. I encourage the minister to start listening to people like Garry Stephens from the Yarram community.
As I said, even the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations himself has acknowledged that we have a mess. He was talking on Gippsland ABC Radio last week, trying to make a positive out of this government’s decision to bring forward the review and make changes allegedly from 1 January next year. The minister admitted on radio that the current system was ‘an inelegant solution’. He also admitted it was ‘a bit untidy’. ‘A bit untidy’ would have to be an early nomination for the understatement of the year. What we have is an absolute mess which is jeopardising young people’s careers, frustrating the hell out of teachers, making parents angry and causing Centrelink staff to run around in circles trying to figure out how to implement the system. So to say it is an inelegant solution and a bit untidy is the greatest understatement of the year so far.
The minister has put forward a pathetic solution. His solution is to bring forward the review process and make a promise about what might happen on 1 January next year. I will just have a quiet word about something that needs to be recognised by the Independents who have backed the government on this promise of action. What are the Independents actually saying to the students of 2009 and 2010 in these so-called inner regional areas and who have basically been left out in the cold by this decision? As the member for Sturt noted in his address, Senator Evans himself has already backed down on the deal; he has backed away from any promises or any undertakings to these students on the level of support and whether he will actually abolish the inner regional and outer regional boundaries.
The big issues surround uncertainty. We have students, we have parents, we have teachers who are making plans now for the rest of their lives. In about year 10 students in regional communities start working out their pathway—how they are going to possibly get to university. Many of the students in my community come from poorer socioeconomic groups, as is very typical of rural communities, with lower household incomes. I have acknowledged from day one that the changes to the income thresholds in terms of accessing the dependent youth allowance have been very positive. There is no argument on this side of the chamber with the government’s changes. The argument is about the independent youth allowance and the students who have taken a gap year. The students from 2009 in inner regional areas face a whole different classification, a whole different workforce criteria, to some other students who are actually in the same class. If I can give the example of Yarram again, if you are attending Yarram Secondary College the chances are you are going to school with a kid from Port Albert, seven kilometres down the road. The kid from Port Albert is regarded as outer regional; the students who live and attend school in the Yarram community itself are regarded as inner regional.
I support a complete overhaul of the system. The holding pattern from 1 July this year should be to abolish the current arrangement of inner regional and outer regional, and the changes from 1 January next year should include a tertiary access allowance which addresses this fundamental inequity and the fundamental differences which exist between country students who are forced to move away from home to attend university and their city counterparts who can stay at home while pursuing their academic dreams.
Members opposite like to talk a lot about the so-called transformational powers of education. I have heard it many times; it must be in the key messages sheet that was sent out at one stage by the minister for education. Instead of talking about the transformational powers of education, now it is time to deliver—to start working to reduce the economic barriers for regional students who are forced to leave home to attend university. I acknowledge that governments are not the complete solution to this problem. We have problems with aspiration in many of our regional communities. We need to encourage young people in regional areas to remain at school and to achieve their full potential. I believe we need to make sure that we value education more highly in our regional communities. We need to work with the parents and we need to work with the students themselves, particularly in regional areas.
The problem is, if students see some form of roadblock in front of them, whether it be a fight in this place about the whole issue of student income support or any other issue, and they realise that university is perhaps beyond their reach, their aspirations are killed off. That is a critical issue we need to consider in this place in our debate about student income support. Gippsland has one of the worst year 12 retention rates in Victoria. About 65 per cent of students in my community finish year 12, compared to a metropolitan average in excess of 80 per cent. There is a key issue here in terms of the importance to regional communities of training our own young people to take on roles in areas like health, engineering and other tertiary-qualified professions—these students are the ones who are more likely to return in the future.
The other important point to note is that we can send a very strong message to mature age professionals that if you move to a regional area, if you bring your highly valued skills that we need in our community, your child is likely to receive some support when they have to leave to attend university down the track. We will actually help you out with the additional costs. Right now it is a barrier to getting health professionals and other professionals to move to regional communities because they see this big bill looming in the future in terms of sending their child off to university. We need to understand these costs and why they are different for regional areas. It is at least $12,000 to $15,000 more than if your child can stay at home with you while they are attending university. That is after-tax income, it must be noted. We are sucking wealth out of regional communities, as it is often to pay a city based landlord who receives a tax advantage from negatively gearing the property the students are living in. I believe these are fundamental issues we have to address in terms of student income support, and so far the government has talked about an education revolution but has really just tinkered around the edges. I believe we may need to be creative in the future as well. If you accept my premise that all students who are forced to move away from home to further their studies should receive some form of tertiary access allowance, we may need to look at the actual tax deductibility status of the accommodation cost to their parents.
I believe this review should go ahead. I support the government in that regard. But it should be broad enough to consider a whole range of student income support measures. I believe there is a potential for a tertiary access allowance at a specified amount for all students who are required to live away from home, who have no option other than to live away from home, and an extra component that is income-tested to assist lower and middle income earners. There may be something more we can do, as I said, in terms of more innovative tax treatment of the accommodation costs. It is very difficult for us to attract the high income earning professionals in many regional areas and the education opportunities must be at least part of the problem that we need to address.
The scope of the problem is referred to in a recent report into deferral rates put forward under the title Deferring a university offer in regional Victoria. Among the findings of the report was that the actual rate of deferral amongst regional people has been consistently higher than that of their Melbourne metropolitan counterparts. Over the last seven years in regional Victoria this rate rose from 9.9 per cent in 2004 to 15.2 per cent in 2010, with the rate reaching as high as 21.6 per cent in 2009. That is an interesting statistic in many regards because there was a peak in deferrals in 2009, when there was a sharp rise from 15.9 to 21.6 per cent in rural areas. While the data itself does not support a firm conclusion, you have to speculate that some of the changes that were announced to youth allowance and the confusion that was created in the May 2009 budget added to the deferral rate. So it is a very real issue. When we started legislating and changing the system, the reaction straightaway was a six per cent increase in deferrals from rural areas.
The other point I want to make from this report is that the factors that have been studied all combine to present evidence of what they call cumulative and enduring disadvantage among non-metropolitan school completers in terms of university entry. I believe that the uncertainty we have created over the past two years in relation to this whole debate about student income support is making it more difficult for students as they plan for the next five years. The submission by Deakin University to the inquiry into the extent of and nature of disadvantage in rural and regional Victoria dealt with issues directly relating to access to education. Amongst its conclusions, Deakin University said:
Increasing participation in higher education in regional Victoria is crucial to addressing disadvantage and inequality. If participation rates in regional Victoria are to be increased to achieve attainment goals there is much work to be done to change attitudes and culture. Appropriate financial incentives and access strategies must be identified and implemented.
Improving access to higher education for rural and regional students requires a range of responses … from Government in terms of incentives for rural and regional students and funding incentives for regional University Campuses and delivery.
Time prevents me from going into all the other recommendations and conclusions from Deakin University. But it just reinforces my overall point, that if the government is genuine in its attempts to give regional students a fair go it will put some real substance into its so-called education revolution.
Senator Fiona Nash, along with the member for Sturt, the member for Forrest and others, has been at the forefront of this debate and there have been many other coalition members and senators who have fought the good fight. We must continue to highlight this issue in the interests of fairness and equity for regional Australians.
TAX LAWS AMENDMENT (TEMPORARY FLOOD RECONSTRUCTION LEVY) BILL 2011
INCOME TAX RATES AMENDMENT (TEMPORARY FLOOD RECONSTRUCTION LEVY) BILL 2011
February 23, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.46 am) — I rise to speak in relation to the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. Before I do, I would like to seek a moment of indulgence to briefly reflect on the terrible tragedy which has befallen our New Zealand friends. There is no other nation more closely linked to Australia than New Zealand, and when our Kiwi cousins suffer we suffer with them. The earthquake in Christchurch may have occurred in New Zealand, but it has certainly shaken all Australians as well. As we watched the drama unfold yesterday on our television screens, and again this morning, we could not help but feel the pain of those who have lost loved ones or who have been injured in this terrible disaster. I would like to associate myself and the people of Gippsland with the comments made by the Prime Minister and the opposition leader in this House yesterday.
We must stand ready to help our Anzac mates in their time of need, and I think it is a great tribute to our nation that we already have rescue crews on the ground working through the rubble and doing their best to recover people from this disaster. We hope for miracles today in Christchurch. It is going to be a very difficult time for everyone involved in this rescue effort. We hope for miracles; we pray that they will be safe, and we pray that the rescuers themselves will be safe and given the strength to do the job on behalf of our nation. There are many New Zealanders in my electorate, and I am sure most members would have many Kiwis in their electorates and throughout Australia, and our thoughts and prayers are with them all today.
In relation to the bill before the House, I will be voting against the proposed tax for several reasons. But before I outline my exact reasons I want to clarify a couple of points. First is this Labor myth which has been perpetuated again by the gentleman just speaking: that somehow the coalition is against rebuilding the disaster-hit communities. The coalition stands shoulder to shoulder with all Australians, and we are committed to getting on with the job of rebuilding these communities.
I find it offensive in the extreme that those opposite suggest there is any sense of backsliding in our determination and commitment to help rebuild those communities that have been affected by these events. The people in Queensland who have been hit by floods and cyclones, the New South Wales floods, the Victorian and Tasmanian floods and the Western Australian bushfires show that it has been a terrible summer of natural disasters across Australia. It has been tragic in the lives lost and also in terms of damage to private property and public assets. Quite rightly, the people of Australia look to us in this place to provide some leadership on the rebuilding effort.
I believe that it is reasonable and appropriate for us to agree on the fact that we need to rebuild. But we can have a difference of opinion about how the federal government pays for that and how it should be funded. I take offence on behalf of the member for Brisbane, who is in the chamber today, at the suggestions by the previous speaker that somehow she should hang her head in shame when I know the tireless work that she has done on behalf of her community and that all other Queensland members have done on behalf of their communities to support them in their hour of need. I think the Queensland MPs on both sides of the house have done an extraordinary job in extremely difficult conditions. I find it appalling that any member would suggest that there is any lack of commitment from the coalition in the rebuilding effort. We stand ready to support our fellow Australians and we stand with them shoulder to shoulder on the rebuilding effort. We should be spared the self-righteous indignation we have seen and the aspersions that have been thrown from the other side of the House to suggest there is reluctance on this side of the House to support Australians in their hour of need. We just do not believe that we need to impose another tax to do it. We believe there are other ways to fund the work, and we believe that it is not the time for hitting Australian families with another tax when they are already struggling under the cost of living; this is not the time to slug them in that manner.
I stress also that we are talking about public assets and how the federal government pays its share of the reconstruction bill under natural disaster arrangements. We are not talking about people’s homes. There has been a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters, so to speak, by some of the speakers opposite, to suggest that somehow we are not going to help people in their own homes. The issue of people rebuilding their own homes is quite rightly a matter for them and their insurance company and, again, a lot of local members have worked tirelessly to hold the insurance companies to account in this regard. The issues relating to private property losses are a completely separate matter to the flood levy bill that we are debating here today.
One of the problems we have in debating this topic is that the full extent of the damage to public infrastructure is still not known. I believe it is almost inevitable that the Commonwealth will face extra costs beyond what are forecast now. As the full extent of damage to public assets becomes apparent in the weeks and months ahead there will be additional costs borne by the Commonwealth. I have had some experience in this regard in my own electorate of Gippsland. We live in a flood-prone area; there are six or seven major rivers flowing through the electorate, and on every occasion where there has been a major flooding event the first assessment of damage has never been accurate. It has never been accurate, and the cost has always gone up when we have started to realise how much of the public assets have been undermined—roads, rail or riverbanks— whatever they may be. I fear that the full cost of this flooding and these natural disasters across Australia, particularly in Queensland and Victoria—where we still have water lying across vast expanses of the north-west—will not be known for many weeks and months. I believe there will be additional costs to be borne by the Commonwealth.
A point I believe is also worth reflecting on is that there is a very real risk of more flooding in the weeks ahead. Our catchments in many parts of Australia are completely soaked. It will not take a rain event of the same magnitude to cause equivalent damage in the future. We have the very real risk of further flooding this year in many parts of Australia, and the Commonwealth must stand ready to accept the fact that there could be a larger bill coming our way. The damage bill could easily escalate in the weeks ahead, and the Prime Minister has said in the past that this levy that is proposed and put before the House today will not be increased and any additional costs will be met by cuts or deferrals to other programs in the budget. So it really does beg the question: why not make that decision now instead of imposing another tax on Australian families who are already struggling under the increased cost of living?
My reasons for opposing a levy come down to a few key points. Firstly, if the government had managed the budget properly in the first place, we simply would not be in this mess. Secondly, any new tax that is imposed will have a definite flow-on impact on consumer confidence, impacting particularly on small businesses in regional communities. Finally, and I believe most critically, there is a genuine risk that any new tax will reduce the community’s willingness to donate in future emergencies that may occur because they fear they will be hit by another government tax in the future. That is a very important point to remember, and I will come back to that in a moment.
The issue of the government’s management of the budget is key to this whole debate. Labor simply cannot manage money. In the past three years they have a record of expensive bungling and mismanagement al most across the board. There is hardly a minister who has not been touched by some example of mismanagement and a failure to deliver value for money to Australian taxpayers. We have had the home insulation scheme, and the great tragedy of that scheme was that young men lost their lives. In economic terms, it was a waste of $2.5 billion.
We had the school program, which the previous speaker was most indignant about. There was a cost blow-out of more than $1 billion before the program even started. We have a $16 billion program, and in my electorate BER now stands for ‘builders’ early retirement’. The BER program has been an opportunity to gouge money out of Australian taxpayers, and the state Labor government failed miserably in its job to be a watchdog and a guardian of taxpayers’ funds to ensure value for money. There was at least $2.7 billion wasted under that program, and I fear that in my electorate the state schools are the ones that fared worst of all. My children attend state schools—and I am a fierce advocate for state schools—in my community, and it is a great irony that this government, which claims to stand up for the state school system, would allow their state government cohorts to see a worse quality result in state primary schools across our nation in comparison to the Catholic and independent sector. I am still receiving reports in my electorate of poor workmanship, almost invariably carried out by building firms which have travelled out of Melbourne to undertake work in my electorate and have no local ties whatsoever. They have undertaken work at inflated prices and left my school communities very bitter indeed.
We also had the government’s appalling effort with the Green Loans program. Too many assessors were trained, and people were out of pocket by several thousand dollars and had their hopes of starting their own small business dashed—another example of a Labor Party which cannot manage money. There was the panicked response to the global financial crisis. There was the handing out of $900 cheques to a total of about $13 billion. It still stuns me that someone—in fact, several ministers on the other side—thought it was a good idea to hand out $900 cheques for people to buy plasma TVs with. That was about all we got out of it. It was a ridiculous policy position, and we find ourselves without any shots left in the locker when it comes to paying for natural disasters when we have spent $13 billion of borrowed money on $900 cheques.
A prudent government, a decent government, would have had plenty of money in the bank if it had not panicked and squandered so much in the previous year, but that is typical of this government. It always panics under pressure. It treats taxpayers’ money as if it is a blank cheque. It has failed to deliver value for money on a wide range of projects and has even had to resort to hiring a former Liberal finance minister to oversee spending on the flood recovery program. It begs the question about the former Labor finance minister: was he busy or something, or was he not even asked? Did they go straight to a former Liberal finance minister to oversee the government’s expenditure in the flood recovery?
If Labor had not wasted so much money over the past three years, there would have been plenty of capacity to manage a disaster of this magnitude—and I accept these were major disasters, right across the nation; everyone accepts that. But a decent government which had been prudent with the Australian taxpayers’ money would have been in a position to fund this recovery effort. That is what people expect governments to do with their taxes: manage the economy well, achieve value for money with every project, and put some money away for the proverbial rainy day. This government inherited a set of budget books which were in great shape, and it has destroyed them. Labor’s first response is to introduce a tax. In a $350 billion budget, it is hard to believe that the $1.8 billion to be raised from this new tax could not be found in budget savings measures. But avoiding the hard decisions is the Labor way.
As I said earlier, I am also concerned that any new tax will have a flow-on impact on consumer confidence and affect small business owners, both within the disaster areas and beyond. A lot of members have tried to downplay the significance of the tax by running through the income thresholds and indicating that many taxpayers will only pay $5 per week. That has been their claim, and I do not have any reason to doubt their word on that, but the Treasurer has not even been able to tell us how many people will pay the tax in the first place. He has not even been able to tell us that most basic of all facts. How can we sure that it will secure the $1.8 billion that they have talked about? Maybe it will be more; maybe it will be much less than that. How would we know? The Treasurer himself does not know.
In any case, I believe that taking any disposable income out of the economy at a time like this is a bad move, and I detect a real softness in the Australian economy at the moment in terms of the retail sector and the hospitality industry. Small businesses are doing it pretty tough at the moment. I am not sure that those on the other side actually realise that. There is a real softness in the market in terms of retail and hospitality. Small business people are struggling, and anything which damages consumer confidence at a time like this will be bad for small business and bad for employment, particularly in regional communities like mine. Consumer confidence, as we all know, is a very fickle beast, and this new tax will undermine that confidence and have a negative impact on spending in the small business community in particular.
Finally, I believe—and I think this is the most contentious point of this whole new tax—that there is a risk that any new tax will reduce the community’s willingness to donate in future emergencies, because people will fear that they will be hit by another tax. I think that is a key point and is the big difference between the government’s levy and those that have been introduced in the past and by the Howard government in particular. Those opposite have had a field day, running through previous levies and pretending that they were all the same. But the key difference is that with the previous levies—whether for the gun buyback, the dairy industry or others that have been raised—no-one was actually asked to make a personal donation in advance of that levy. Former Prime Minister John Howard did not go out into the community and say, ‘Here, donate some money and I am going to buy back some guns.’ He just introduced the levy, and people had not made a personal commitment of any funds at all.
I think there is a fundamental difference between this levy and the previous levies that members have talked about. I believe there will be a genuine reluctance in the future for people to donate, and it is disappointing, because people throughout Australia—in response to the Black Saturday bushfires and these most recent disasters—have been extraordinarily generous in giving their hard-earned cash over to community organisations to help with the recovery effort. They give because they want to give, but I worry that in the future they will say, ‘I was going to give $100 but, hang on, I might just give $50 because chances are I’m going to be hit with a tax down the track,’ and they will hang onto that fifty bucks. I think that is a real problem for us with this new tax.
The other issue is that, even if you have already donated your time, goods or cash, you will still have to pay this tax if you exceed the income thresholds. Many members on this side have talked about that issue, and I think it is a fundamental difference that the members opposite need to understand. You cannot tax the Australian ethos of helping out a mate. You do not tax the Australian spirit out of existence, and I fear that is what we are doing with this new flood levy. People have already given, and they are going to be hit with a tax and will be reluctant to give in the future.
My final word of warning is to Queenslanders: watch very closely how the Labor Party administers the donated funds. After the bushfires in 2009 the Australian community donated about $380 million, and that $380 million was so heavily politicised by John Brumby’s government it was an absolute disgrace. John Brumby as Premier issued media releases from his office, on his letterhead, pretending the money had come from the Victorian government when it came from donated funds from bushfire contributions. So I appeal to the Queensland government not to make the same mistake and politicise the donated funds.
This flood tax is another Labor failure and it should be voted against in the House.
ALPINE NATIONAL PARK
February 23, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.54 am) — I rise to express my support for the Victorian coalition government’s decision to allow a trial of cattle grazing in the high country to help reduce the severity of bushfires. In expressing my support for the current trial, I condemn the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities for his theatrical display in support of the Greens during question time yesterday. If ever we needed any further proof that Labor is in government but the Greens are in charge, we had it yesterday. In response to a question from the member for Melbourne, the environment minister could not wait to fall in behind his Green masters. It was like whistling to a kelpie in the high country: Bandt whistled and Burke came bounding across the chamber, wagging his tail! I was worried he was going to lick the face of the member for Melbourne, such was his enthusiasm to please his master!
Labor may be in government but there is no doubt the Greens are in charge—and, come 1 July, it is going to get worse for regional Australians. When the Greens secure the balance of power in the Senate, regional Australians have a lot to be worried about. The Greens want to ban live exports, they want to ban rodeos, they want to shut down commercial fishing and the timber industry, they hate recreational anglers and they are already talking about a private member’s bill to kick the cattlemen out of the high country.
Let me tell the House about the boiling resentment in my community. People have had an absolute gutful of city based Greens and Labor MPs telling them how to live their lives. The Greens have never created a job in regional Australia and they are a direct threat to jobs in our traditional industries. The minister for the environment needs to think twice before he becomes the wagging tail for every dog of a policy that the Greens put forward.
The issue of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park is a contentious one; I acknowledge that. There are strong views on both sides of the debate. But the Victorian government took a clear policy to the state election in November last year that it would take action to return cattle if it was elected. It won a clear mandate for that policy, particularly in the seat of Gippsland East, where Tim Bull removed the last remaining Independent from office. The Labor Party has been wiped out in eastern Victoria because it would not listen to locals.
The Victorian government wants to take direct action to help reduce the severity of further bushfires. We need to reduce the fuel load in the high country. We know that hot fires destroy the environment. But in the past the more extreme elements of the Greens have even opposed fuel reduction burns. Returning the cattle for a trial has been conducted in a responsible manner; for example, there are no cattle in the areas regarded as environmentally sensitive such as the Bogong High Plains.
I can tell you what is up there: noxious weeds, about 8,000 wild brumbies and thousands of deer. We got rid of one ‘Brumby’ in Victoria last year, but there are a lot more to go. If the minister and the member for Melbourne were serious about caring for the environment, they would support practical action. The trial to assess the impact of cattle grazing on reducing fire intensity deserves our support, particularly in the aftermath of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires.
The Greens and Labor have a ‘lock it up and leave it’ mentality when it comes to managing parks and the environment. If the environment minister wants to be taken seriously, why doesn’t he reinstate the $11 million he ripped out of Landcare in his previous job. If the member for Melbourne wants to take on a real environmental issue, support the coalition’s efforts to control wild dogs, foxes and weeds, which are destroying the natural environment.
MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – CARBON TAX
February 23, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.07 pm) — I have just listened with great interest to the contribution of the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on the matter of public importance proposed by the member for Flinders. My electorate has a number of lower socioeconomic areas, and I admit I am a fairly simple country fellow, but I picked up on some of the minister’s comments there. Why would you need to compensate people if electricity and petrol prices are not going to go through the roof? Simply by its very design, isn’t the carbon tax’s intention to drive up the cost of living and to try to change people’s behaviour? I can understand that the minister is a bit embarrassed about his government’s position, in particular when it comes to lower income earners.
It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report to the House today that it is only 127 days until the lunatics take charge of the asylum. That is right—in 127 days, the Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate, and all of their watermelon policies will come rolling through the corridors of this place. Every one of their red-on-the-inside-and-green-on-the-outside policies will be rolled out as the Greens strut their stuff on the national stage. It will not just be this carbon tax: if the Greens have their way, in 127 days we will start paying more for electricity, more for petrol and more for food, and businesses will be hit with extra taxes just to make sure they do not make too much money and actually employ Australians in meaningful jobs.
I raise that point in the context of today’s debate because we are already seeing the impact of the Greens on this Labor government. From the moment the Prime Minister signed her agreement with the Greens leader, Bob Brown, it has been hard to tell who is in charge. Is it Julia Brown or is it Bob Gillard? At first it was a bit hard to tell. How the Prime Minister must regret that photo opportunity in her office. In amongst that nest of grinning Greens, her cover was blown to pieces. The Labor Party is in government, but the Greens are in charge. How else do we explain the backflip on the carbon tax? The Labor Party was saying ‘Absolutely not, no way’ before the election, but now just a few months later it is the only way to go.
People listening at home and in the gallery may be saying: ‘So what? Those Greens seem like a nice bunch—all warm and fuzzy, cuddling up to koalas, strapping themselves to a few gum trees every now and then and maybe saving a few whales. What’s this bloke from Gippsland whingeing about? Why is he so worried about these Greens?’ All I can say is: don’t be fooled—I have seen the Greens at work in my electorate. Don’t be fooled by their empty rhetoric about saving the planet. Don’t be fooled by the happy snaps with koalas and the watermelon style policies of the Greens. Between them, the Greens and Labor are the greatest threat that regional Australia has ever experienced.
The Greens want higher taxes on the mining industry. They want a big new electricity tax, to ban live exports of animals, to ban rodeos, to shut down commercial fishing and to shut down the timber industry. They hate recreational anglers, and they are already talking about a private member’s bill to kick the cattlemen out of the high country. I noticed that the minister agrees with the Greens on that point. You have to ask yourself what is next for the Greens. Will it be pony clubs? Zoos? Horse racing? Where does it stop for the Greens, and where does it stop for the Labor Party? When are they going to cut their ties with the Greens?
I have a suggestion: let the member for Melbourne trial the Greens policies in the next 127 days and see how the people in his electorate go. Let us make a little trial project out of his electorate. If you do not want those nasty coal fired power stations providing energy, good luck with your solar panels in Melbourne in the middle of winter. I am happy for the Greens to eat their mung beans and sit around wearing their hemp underpants, but they should stop telling the rest of Australia how to live their lives. As I have told the House before and have said in my electorate on many occasions, there is a boiling resentment in my community. People have had an absolute gutful of city based Greens and Labor MPs telling them how to live their lives. The Greens have never helped to create a single job in regional Australia, and they are a direct threat to jobs in many of our traditional industries.
Mr Perrett — Adam Bandt got a job.
Mr CHESTER — I take up the member for Moreton’s interjection. I said that the Greens have never helped to create a job in regional Australia and they are a direct threat to every person’s job in many of our traditional industries. Has anyone in this place ever taken a close look at the Greens elected representatives and taken notice of where they draw their vote? Let us start with Victoria—in Melbourne, where the new member for Melbourne recorded a healthy 36 per cent of the primary vote. Let us next move a few kilometres out of the city to the seat of La Trobe, where the Greens picked up 12 per cent and handed the seat to the Labor Party. There is a pattern of that right around Australia. There are 44 Labor MPs who owe their seats to the Greens, but we will talk about that topic on another day.
Mr Burke interjecting —
Mr CHESTER — It is no wonder that Labor MPs will never speak out against the Greens. The minister at the table will never speak out against the Greens in his new role as Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. They will never speak out against the Greens because they cannot win their seats without them—44 Labor MPs in this place relying on preferences from the Greens to get them across the line. The Greens own the Labor Party, lock, stock and barrel.
Let us move out to some semiregional seats. In McEwen and Corangamite, the Greens’ vote is down to
11 per cent, and—surprise, surprise!—their preferences got the Labor candidate across the line again. Let us now move out to the true regional seats in Victoria. In the seat of Mallee, the Greens vote is just 7.8 per cent. In Gippsland, my own seat, they get 6.5 per cent of the vote and in Murray they get six per cent. Isn’t it funny that the further you move away from the city and the closer you get to the natural environment the fewer people believe the Greens and all their bulldust. There is a very good reason for that. It is that country people are practical people. They understand that to make an omelette you have to break an egg. They know that if you want to have a high-grade feature red gum dining table in your kitchen you need to use some timber from a tree. They know that if we want to feed our nation we have to balance the needs of the rivers and the soil with the crops we are growing and the animals we are feeding. That is the grand hypocrisy of the Greens and the people who vote for them. Go around to the houses of some of the Greens and their supporters and check what they are made from. Is it Australian timber or illegally grown Indonesian rainforest timber? Check in their fridges. No, they would not have fridges, would they, because of all that nasty pollution from burning coal? But, if they did have fridges, they would be full of fresh products from Australian farmers—probably those same horrible irrigators they want to shut down in the Murray-Darling irrigation district.
Then check their power supply—if they are they on the grid. Are they getting some of that cheap and reliable baseload energy from the Latrobe Valley in my electorate? I am sick to death of people in my community being vilified for working in power stations while the same people attacking them are running air conditioners on hot summer days and benefiting from the cheap and reliable energy we provide.
And while I am on the power industry I want to mention the Greens’ plan to shut down the Hazelwood power station. The Greens say they can shut it down and replace it with renewable energy. Give us all a break! Hazelwood generates about 1,600 megawatts of power each year. The average wind turbine can do 1.5 megawatts of installed capacity, so you would need to build 1,000 of them in Victoria just to replace Hazelwood. But—hang on a second—they only work for about 30 per cent of the time, so you would have to build three times as many wind turbines to achieve that same level of installed capacity. So we are talking about 3,000 wind turbines in Victoria to replace Hazelwood power station.
The Greens are conning Australians and it is about time that the Labor Party called their bluff. Our economy has been built on access to cheap, reliable baseload power—and I stress the word ‘baseload’. When we talk about energy security policies, we need to talk about the baseload power that powers our factories, hospitals, small businesses and households. They rely on it. Under the Greens’ and Labor’s plans for an electricity tax—let us call it what it is—power prices will go through the roof, small businesses will suffer and households will suffer, and it will not make a single bit of difference to the environment.
I know that the other side will not change their minds, because they owe everything to the Greens. They know they need the Greens’ preferences. But I have a bit of electoral advice for them—just for free— and the minister for the environment might want to listen to this very closely as well. Yesterday in the House, it was like The Sound of Music as the minister held hands with the member for Melbourne and danced through the fields in his tirade against the mountain cattlemen. You could almost hear the von Trapps singing in the background as he raced across the chamber in this embrace with the member for Melbourne in his opposition to the mountain cattlemen. It was beautiful to watch: the Greens and Labor, hand in hand, attacking a great and iconic tradition of Australian regional life.
Mr Burke interjecting —
Mr CHESTER — Minister, you may laugh; and the members may laugh. Funnily enough, it was good enough for Sydney to have the cattlemen on horseback parading in the Olympics opening ceremony. The men were in their Driza-Bones, and you all cheered madly. But it is not good enough to let them do their job for regional Australia. The sheer impracticality of Labor and the Greens is on show again: ‘We don’t mind a bit of theatre when it is in Sydney, but we really don’t want those nasty cows eating any grass.’ Heaven forbid that they reduce the fuel load in the forest and actually help to reduce the severity of future fires. We would not want that to happen, would we? No. They were happy to cheer the mountain cattlemen at the Sydney Olympics but they do not actually want them doing their job out in regional Australia.
Make no mistake: Labor will pay a heavy electoral price for its dalliance and unquestioning service to the Greens. In Victoria we remember the member for Narracan, Ian Maxfield. This was the man who chaired the committee which did the hatchet job on the mountain cattlemen for Steve Bracks; he has gone, defeated by a Liberal candidate. Remember Brendan Jenkins, the member for Morwell—the man who sat back and failed to stand up to Melbourne Labor and the Greens on anything? He has gone too, defeated by the Nationals.
Mr Broadbent — Nice bloke.
Mr CHESTER — Nice bloke. Labor has been wiped out in eastern Victoria because they refused to listen to the people who live and work in those communities. They just took their orders from their Melbourne and Canberra bosses. It is time for the members opposite to show some courage. It is time for them to start putting the Greens last on their how-to-vote cards and to start protecting jobs in regional Australia. I can tell you now, Minister, that when you put the Greens last on your how-to-vote cards it is a very satisfying feeling, and I invite you to do so.
2011 FEB 21 – Ministerial Statements – Commemoration of the 2nd Anniversary of the Black Saturday Bushfires
MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – COMMEMORATION OF THE 2ND ANNIVERSARY OF THE BLACK SATURDAY BUSHFIRES
February 21, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.42 pm) — I join with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the member for Griffith, in his contribution to this debate, particularly in the context of his role at the time as the Prime Minister. The member for Griffith called me on the phone the day after Black Saturday, as I was driving between Rosedale and Sale. He said, ‘It’s Kevin—Kevin Rudd.’ I said, Sure, Kev, how ya going?’ assuming it was one of my mates from the function I had been at the night before. He said, ‘No, Darren, it is Kevin.’ So I pulled over to the side of the road, as I was having a bit of a panic attack, thinking, ‘What does the Prime Minister want with me?’ I thank you, Member for Griffith—when you were Prime Minister at the time—not only for the compassion you showed the people of Gippsland but also for the energy you had for the task in making people feel confident that the nation was behind them. I still remember your comment about rebuilding the community ‘brick by brick’. I think the people in the most adversely affected areas appreciated the support you gave them at that time. I certainly cannot find any fault with the way you conducted yourself as our national leader at that time. The parliament itself performed at its best in the aftermath of the bushfires. I had enormous support from not only my colleagues on this side of the House but also those on the other side. I greatly appreciated that at what was a very emotional time for many people.
In joining the debate I want to commend all other members who have already spoken on their contributions. I thank them for making sure that the victims of the 2009 bushfires are not forgotten in this place. As the years pass and the memories for those of us who were not directly in the firestorm may fade, the recollections for many people in the community are as vivid as though it happened only yesterday. In my community it only takes a forecast of a hot northerly wind or a forecast of a summer day of 42 degrees to remind people of the pain and suffering that our community felt and then endured on Black Saturday. Many of the survivors I have spoken to over the past two years have told me that they just have to smell wood smoke and it is enough to spark some unwelcome memories for them and trigger a nervous reaction. But as the bushland is regenerating in Gippsland and as homes and public buildings have been constructed we need to remember that many people still face enormous personal battles as they rebuild their lives. As I said at the outset, we must never forget them and we must support them as they recover at their own pace from this disaster. As the member for Griffith indicated, this will be very much a defining moment in people’s lives. They will define their lives from what they did before the bushfires to what they have done after the bushfires. I think some people will not completely recover; others will recover at a different pace. But we need to be with them and support them in that process.
The bushfires of 2009 claimed 173 lives across Victoria, including 11 Gippslanders in very small communities like Callignee, Koornalla, Traralgon South, Hazelwood and Jeeralang. These were small communities where a lot of people knew the victims very well, so it was a blow to their families, to their friends and to a much wider community of people who were directly affected by the personal losses. I do not want to dwell too much on the past today, but it is important to remember the lives that we lost, the enormous destruction of homes and public facilities and just the sheer scope of the disaster as it spread right across Victoria.
In addition to the Black Saturday fires, my community suffered the previous week with 30 homes and 79 sheds destroyed in the Boolarra fire, which is often forgotten about by people outside Gippsland. By any estimation, the Boolarra fire itself was a terrible event which struck right across that district, but the size and scope of the disaster which followed just seven days later dwarfed the tragedy in Boolarra.
On this, the second anniversary of the bushfires, however, I can report plenty of positive news in my community. In Boolarra itself I recently attended the official opening of the new CFA sheds. It was a great tribute to the hard work of the local community and businesses which helped to sponsor the project. I wish we had the people of Boolarra building some of our other public projects throughout Victoria, because they achieved an enormous amount of value for money for their work. The way they pulled together and were able to build that facility is a real credit to the whole community. The official opening was a huge community occasion and a real celebration for the Boolarra district.
That has probably been the biggest positive to arise from the ashes of Black Saturday in Gippsland. Our communities really have pulled together. We have seen an enormous unity of purpose and community spirit on display across our region. We have certainly been challenged by the fires, but by no means have we been beaten. I would like to reflect on the words of some of the local people who have been directly involved in the recovery from the disaster, in some quotes from them on the second anniversary of Black Saturday. Ange Gordon, who is the former Traralgon South and District Community Recovery Committee chair, told the local media:
At the end of the day, you can reflect back (on the past two years) and say it has been long and hard but here we are and you can get bigger and stronger communities out of going through these adversities …
In a similar theme, Tineke Westwood, from the Traralgon South area, whose home was actually destroyed by the fires, said:
It’s not a fake positivity, I could be upset and cry and sulk, but what’s the point?
We’re a very lucky family because we’re alive, we got out on time.
Finally, the eastern region task force leader, Anthony Matters, who is assisting with the flood recovery efforts in Queensland, said:
It feels like we are part of a bigger community to lend a hand to those across the other side of the state …
Members came to our aid during the fires … it is fulfilling to be able to lend a hand.
In the time I have available I would also like to note the contribution by my state colleague the member for Morwell, Russell Northe. Russell’s efforts during the Black Saturday bushfires, the response phase and the long months of recovery have been quite extraordinary—an outstanding service to his electorate. I think that was reflected in the support he received at the recent state election. Often you do not know what to do as a local member in these situations. My heart goes out to the members from Queensland who experienced Cyclone Yasi and the flooding, along with the member for Mallee, in northern Victoria, and other members. When you have these natural disasters you really do not know what to do as a local member. Russell Northe was able to just be there for his people. Morwell is quite a small electorate, but he was able to be there for the people and offer them support, follow up on their concerns and chase down any assistance that was required, perhaps when it was not provided quickly enough. He did a power of work for his community, and I commend him for that. Russell recently spoke also in state parliament on the anniversary of the bushfires, and I will just reflect for a moment on a couple of comments he made. He said:
… I am absolutely filled with pride at the generosity and goodwill that has been displayed 1000 times over by so many wonderful people in the Gippsland community, to the extent that now many of those people are also extending their offer of support to those impacted by the floods in Queensland and Victoria.
That is something that we are very proud of. The people of Gippsland, despite the adversity they have been through, are now actively participating in the disaster recovery efforts around the state.
I would also like to commend the other members—the member for McEwen, who is in the chamber, and his predecessor, Fran Bailey, as well. I congratulate him, naturally, on winning the seat but I would also like to recognise the work that Fran did in probably one of the worst affected parts, if not the worst affected part, of the state. I know that a couple of times I had the opportunity to meet with Fran and other affected members, with the Prime Minister, and I can reassure the people of McEwen that they had a real champion in the room. She was very dogged in her pursuit of making sure that her community’s concerns were heard.
I would also like to commend my neighbour in Gippsland, the member for McMillan. He is another man who was very dogged in his determination to make sure that the people of McMillan were never going to be forgotten in the aftermath of the bushfires. And in his presence, I note the member for Maribyrnong who had charge of the bushfire reconstruction in a ministerial capacity. He also did a very good job in presenting the views of the Victorian community to the federal parliament. In many ways the recovery effort has become a guidebook on how to go about some of these things. I think we learned a lot as a nation on how to go about a disaster of this scale. I know the member for Maribyrnong believes that it has probably assisted him in his current role of dealing with flood disasters. We have learnt a lot from that experience and I will talk little bit about that in a few moments time.
I would also like to recognise the member for Indi and the member for Bendigo, whose electorates were also directly affected. I would also acknowledge the member for Wentworth, who at the time was the opposition leader, who came to Gippsland and spent several hours with me going around talking to people who were directly affected. There were no TV cameras or newspaper photographers there. It was just a matter of going out to meet with the affected communities and helping them gain some understanding. I know that he was struck by the ferocity of the fire. At one place, in Callignee, we came across a four-wheel drive where, on one side of the vehicle facing the fire front, the alloy wheels had melted and were lying on the ground in a pool of silver. On the other side of the car, not in the direct line of the fire front, there was still rubber on the tyres. It just goes to demonstrate that the radiant heat must have been extraordinary. Seeking any form of shelter for people caught in those fires would have been extremely difficult. I know the member for Wentworth was certainly struck by the extent of the damage and the ferocity of the blaze that had gone through the Callignee area.
I believe that the members of both sides of parliament were very strong in adversity but they only had to look at the communities across Victoria to draw inspiration. We had people who were doing such extraordinary things. The Minister for Foreign Affairs talked a moment ago about the number of people prepared to drive long distances just to be a part of it, just to provide some support to their fellow Australians in need. Everyone simply wanted to do their bit. This summer, we are again seeing people who are determined to assist the people across Queensland and northern Victoria who have been affected by flooding.
I still believe we have a long way to go though. On the second anniversary the rebuilding of private homes is continuing, but many families have suffered relationship breakdowns in the aftermath of the tragedy. The social costs that we are starting to see in our communities is something that perhaps goes unnoticed in this place. You can see a house rebuilt, you can see a community hall rebuilt, but the lives of families that have been directly affected are very difficult to repair. Some families have been torn apart in the aftermath of the tragedy.
We do live in a very fire prone environment in Victoria and there will always be days of high fire risk and summers which are hotter and drier than the one we are currently experiencing. But even during this comparatively mild summer there is a fire risk. Gippsland this year has experienced one major outbreak on 11,000 hectares, which burnt two houses and some sheds in the Tostaree region of East Gippsland. Thankfully though, there was no loss of life. I thank the firefighting personnel for their efforts in extremely difficult conditions on that day.
We will continue to experience bushfires in the future and it is up to governments, I believe, to do everything in their power to help prevent outbreaks wherever possible, to minimise the impacts of fires when they occur and to assist the communities as they recover—as we have done over the past two years. We simply must learn the lessons of 2009. One lesson which is patently obvious to me is that there needs to be an increased focus on fuel reduction burning. I note the commitment of the new Victorian government to treble the amount of burning it undertakes across Victoria. Fuel reduction burning will not prevent fires but it will reduce their intensity. Some extreme elements of the Greens have in the past opposed fuel reduction burning and the tragedy of Black Saturday seems to have silenced a lot of them. We need to undertake an extensive program of burning right across regional Victoria and on the suburban interfaces to protect life and property and to sustain the environment—and that is a point that is well worth making. The bushfires which raged across Victoria in 2009 were extraordinarily hot. They scorched the earth and devastated the natural environment as well as man-made structures in their path. The impact on wildlife will be impossible to calculate. As an environmental measure and for the protection of life and property we must commit ourselves to delivering an extensive fuel reduction program across Victoria and across our nation.
I am also concerned about the development of early warning systems. I believe we have to be very careful in the way that we portray these early warning systems to the broader public. We need to make sure that these systems, which have great merit, are not something that the public become dependent upon. They cannot be allowed to get to the situation where they believe they are going to get a warning of when to evacuate, that they are going to get some sort of message on their mobile phone telling them where the danger is and when they have to get out. It is simply not going to be achievable in much of the environment across Victoria. In many parts of Victoria we have mobile phone black spots where text messages, particularly in the most fire prone areas, simply will not get through. So we need to be very careful in the expectation we raise in the community about early warning systems.
I also think we need to make sure we do not scare people away from regional areas. Much of the commentary in the media in the aftermath of the bushfires was so extreme, warning of catastrophic days and extreme weather events as if you simply cannot visit parts of regional Victoria. I think that is a message that we need to be very careful about. We run the risk of destroying small business, destroying our tourism industry and scaring the tree changers—the people interested in moving to regional communities. We run the risk of scaring them away with some of these messages. You can live in regional Victoria. You can have a great life in regional Victoria. We need to make sure that people are well prepared for bushfire events, that they understand the risk but that we do not scare them away.
I also think that we need to remain vigilant and impose some very severe penalties upon those who deliberately light fires on days of extreme danger. I do not believe we have gone far enough with our efforts to protect the community from arsonists. I have sought a national database of arsonists to ensure that people who have committed such crimes in the past are subjected to increased monitoring in the future. These particular individuals are known to wait for the right conditions to light fires. If they are caught, part of their punishment needs to be ongoing scrutiny. It may sound draconian to some, but I would have no hesitation in supporting the development of a national database of high-risk offenders, including monitoring and surveillance measures and the use of electronic devices to track their movements for the rest of their miserable lives. The pain and suffering caused by deliberately lit fires demands extreme action to help protect our community from such criminal acts in the future. I urge both state and federal governments to think very seriously about how we are going to make sure that people who have committed such crimes in the past are constantly monitored, particularly on days when extreme fire events are possible. As we reflect on the 2009 bushfires, we must commit ourselves in this place to learning from the experience and doing everything in our power to prevent such a tragic loss of life in the future. I believe we owe that much to 173 victims and their families.
SOCIAL SECURITY AMENDMENT (INCOME SUPPORT FOR REGIONAL STUDENTS) BILL 2011
February 21, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (1.36 pm) — In opposing the government’s motion I endorse the comments of the member for Forrest because this debate is all about a fair go for regional students. I would also like to reflect on what we are seeing here today: the true colours of this government and its so-called education revolution as it attempts to effectively gag this debate on one of the most important issues facing rural and regional communities.
The Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 has passed the Senate and should be debated in this chamber. If the government wants to hide behind constitutional issues it can bring in its own legislation to reflect the intent of the Senate bill. A failure to do so is an insult to the thousands of young regional Australians trapped in the mess that was created by the former Minister for Education, Julia Gillard.
Make no mistake, the government’s attempts to block debate on this bill have nothing to do with the Constitution, nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of student income support; they have everything to do with protecting the hide of the current Prime Minister. From the day the former education minister started amending the system of student income support, she talked big and she delivered a mess to regional Australia. This was no education revolution; it was tinkering around the edges and it distorted the system to such an extent that regional students have borne the brunt of the changes. The government at that time insisted that the changes were budget neutral, but at the same time this government was throwing $900 cheques around like they were confetti at a wedding. It is an appalling message that they sent to the students of Australia: the Labor government believed that plasma TVs were more important than giving regional students a fair go and handed out $13 billion in cash handouts and have shafted regional students in the process.
I congratulate the Senate, and in particular I congratulate Senator Fiona Nash, for introducing this bill. I thank her for her doggedness and her determination because she understands the plight of regional students. She is a woman of substance, much like the member for Forrest and the member for Murray and others who have spoken in the past on the need to get a better deal for regional students.
We have heard from several members on this side already, and many on this side understand the problems with the current system of student income support. There are a few on the other side who I believe understand as well but they are just too scared to come out publicly and raise their voices. Whatever happened to this government’s promise to let the light shine in? Let us have this debate, let us do the right thing by regional students and start fixing the mess. There is absolutely nothing to stop this government adopting the bill and introducing it themselves if they are so worried about its constitutionality. Minister Evans has already publicly acknowledged there is a problem with the current system. He is trying to cut a deal with the Independents for a review and changes to be made next year. But if that deal goes ahead, we will have another class of forgotten students—the class of 2009—who will be out of the loop in respect of the issue of inner regional independent youth allowance. I say again: the government has the capacity to fix the mess now and deliver a fair go for all regional students rather than the discriminatory boundaries we currently have between inner regional and outer regional.
The Leader of the House claimed earlier that his side has more regional members of parliament—and finally one regional MP has made his way into the chamber—so let us hear from them. Let us hear from the regional MPs from the Labor Party’s side. The member for Corangamite, the member for Bendigo, let us hear what they have to say because their students are also being discriminated against in this process. They clearly did not care enough to come in here and listen to the debate here today, or perhaps they have been gagged as well?
Mr Albanese — Where are your mates? You’ve got none!
Mr CHESTER — I would invite members from the other side to come over and participate in the debate.
Mr Albanese — Where are your mates? Where are they?
Mr CHESTER — I take up the Leader of the House’s comment about where are they? Where are your regional MPs? Why aren’t they speaking out? Have you gagged them as well?
Mr Albanese — Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order: it is a bit rough when there are no members of the National Party in the chamber to hear him speak, for him to be critical of—
Mr CHESTER — What’s your point of order?
Mr Albanese — He is casting aspersions on members, which is against the standing orders!
The DEPUTY SPEAKER — There is no point of order. The Leader of the House will resume his seat.
Mr CHESTER — I invite regional MPs from the other side to speak up on youth allowance, to speak up on the issue of inner regional and outer regional boundaries. I invite them to speak up because the member for Corangamite has towns like Colac, which is considered inner regional. They have to have different workforce criteria for participation in the independent youth allowance, so I invite them to come out and speak and raise their voices on this issue.
The bill, which has passed the Senate and should be debated in this House, is not the final solution, but it is a lot better than the current mess of inner regional and outer regional boundaries which exist today and discriminate against so many regional students. What we need is a complete overhaul of the system of student income support with a focus on levelling the playing field. In the interest of fairness and equity, regional students should have a tertiary access allowance they can access which compensates them and their families for the additional costs of moving away from home, which metropolitan students do not incur.
This government cannot keep hiding behind its ‘education revolution’ slogan. It has to deliver a better deal for regional families, and this bill should be debated. By declining to consider the bill, the House is denying a fair go for regional students.
February 10, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.52 am) — I would like to bring the attention of the House to an issue of concern in the electorate of Gippsland in relation to a media release issued by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport headlined ‘Funds re-profiled to assist with flood recovery’. In the media release the minister announces that $20 million of the Princes Highway East (Traralgon to Sale) project will be ‘re-profiled in light of the revised construction timetable brought about by the restrictions placed on the project under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act’. This is a $175 million project, and I know that the people of Gippsland will be disappointed but will understand in this case the minister’s need to reprofile this funding having regard to the national effort to rebuild infrastructure related to the flood disasters, particularly in Queensland and northern Victoria. As I said, it will be an issue of concern for the people of Gippsland, but I think in the circumstances they will be very reasonable and will understand, given their own experiences of natural disasters and the support they have received in the past.
Having said that, I have written to the minister today seeking some assurances and further information about the project. Given that this project has enjoyed bipartisan support dating back to prior to the 2007 election—both sides of the House have made some significant policy commitments to the Princes Highway East duplication work—I have sought some assurances from the minister’s office to make sure my community is properly informed, particularly about what these environmental issues are and what the reprofiling actually means in terms of the current timetable. As the minister is well aware, the first stage of the Princes Highway East project is part of a much larger duplication project, which is estimated to cost in the order of $500 million. It is certainly important from a road safety perspective and also for productivity in the broader Gippsland region.
When I say ‘productivity’ I am referring, of course, to the movement particularly of agricultural products in and out of our region but also to bringing the Gippsland region closer to the eastern suburbs growth corridor of Melbourne and bringing the beaches and lakes of our region closer from a tourism perspective. Reducing the travel time for people moving through the region is very important for us in terms of promoting our industries. The project has certainly received support in the past from both sides of this House and I hope that will continue. I have had the opportunity to speak publicly about this $20 million deferral and I have made it clear to the people of Gippsland that I understand the circumstances and I am looking forward to working with the federal minister and the new state minister, Terry Mulder, to ensure that future funding is forthcoming for the project.
Beyond the duplication project between Traralgon and Sale, the need remains for funding more generally for the Princes Highway east of Sale, which has one of the worst accident rates in regional Victoria. I will be working very closely with the newly elected state member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, as a partnership to ensure that both the state and federal governments make further commitments to ensuring the safety of motorists, locals and tourists, travelling in Gippsland.
SURF LIFE SAVING CLUBS
February 9, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (7.56 pm) — Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I take this opportunity to wish you and all other members in this place all the best for the new year.
The Australia Day awards in the East Gippsland region were a time of great celebration for my community. In particular, I would like to take the opportunity tonight to congratulate our Citizen of the Year, a lady by the name of Kristine Cordery. Kristine is well known to the people in the Lakes Entrance district for her involvement with the Lakes Entrance Surf Life Saving Club. Those members who have a surf lifesaving club in their electorate will understand well the important role that the surf lifesaving movement plays right throughout Australia.
In our club in my home town of Lakes Entrance, where my four children are actually involved in the surf lifesaving program, we are very passionate about our surf lifesaving club. We are very proud of the achievements of the young people in our ranks and also in this case our more mature members of the club and our office bearers.
Kristine is one of a great team at the surf lifesaving club in Lakes Entrance. Having taken on the role of treasurer for many years and a range of important positions in the club, she has been instrumental in our club lifting itself in terms of professionalism for a volunteer organisation and also in lifting its professionalism to go on to be recognised as the Australian Surf Life Saving Club of the Year just a couple of years ago. That came about after Lakes Entrance hosted the Victo rian junior titles in 2008. Then, in 2010, the club hosted both the junior and senior Victorian titles—the first time in history that those two titles have been held on the one beach on the one weekend. In just a few weeks time, on the March long weekend, Lakes Entrance will again host the state junior and senior titles. As I said at the outset, Kristine Cordery, our Citizen of the Year, has been instrumental in helping our club deliver those programs.
I believe that the surf lifesaving movement is, without doubt, one of the great movements across Australia. What I particularly like about the surf lifesaving clubs is the structure that they provide for young people. Many of our other community organisations do not have that capacity to get young people involved at a very early age. We have nippers on the beach from the time they are seven years old, and from that they progress through the ranks and learn skills. By the time they are 13 these young people are actually doing patrols on the beach and have the capacity to save lives if they are called upon. I think that is a great thing to teach young people at such an early age. It is a fun way for them to get out and enjoy the beach but also to make a contribution to their community. I am particularly impressed with the way the Victorian surf lifesaving movement operates.
In my electorate I am fortunate to have three surf lifesaving clubs: the Lakes Entrance one, of which I am a member, and also the Seaspray club and the Woodside club. I happened to be present in Seaspray on Australia Day, when the club hosted their own junior carnival. It was a great occasion for the Seaspray club as it was also the day that the new Victorian police and emergency services minister visited and announced funding for an upgrade of their clubhouse. I think that is a great thing, and I think it is a great thing that the current Victorian government has actually taken up what the previous Victorian government was doing in investing in new facilities for our surf clubs. It is such a critical thing for the young people involved and also for the senior members to realise that the government actually recognises the contribution they make to the community by being prepared to give them decent facilities.
Our surf clubs not only rely on government funding but also rely very heavily on the goodwill of donors and businesses in our community. There are many businesses that go out of their way to make a contribution to the surf lifesaving movement because they recognise how important it is to provide safe patrolled beaches in our coastal towns.
CONDOLENCES- AUSTRALIAN NATURAL DISASTERS
February 9, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.05 pm) — I join with other members in extending my condolences to the victims of natural disasters across the summer months. Australia has some remarkable and beautiful landscapes, but as we are only too well aware, nature can turn quite savage on us. Across the summer months we saw that all too frequently across our nation. Queensland, tragically, was the epicentre for much of the natural disasters. The focus of our nation turned towards the Sunshine State as it experienced more than its share of rainfall over an extended period of time.
We are not unused to natural disasters in Australia but I think what struck lot of us this time was perhaps the media coverage and the graphic images we were able to see in real time, almost, from towns such as Toowoomba and of the aftermath in the Lockyer Valley. To see the vision and images, shot either through the commercial media or on BlackBerries and mobile phones, which were then put out into the mainstream media, and actually see what was happening in real time—on the web or on the television networks—was something that captivated many people and brought the focus of our nation onto the Queensland community in very graphic terms.
Gippslanders are in the good fortune on this particular occasion to have basically escaped unscathed from the disasters. In previous times we have experienced floods, fires and major storm events, and there is no question that Gippslanders’ hearts went out to our fellow Australians as they experienced these disasters over the summer months.
The reaction of our nation as reflected through the members of parliament in this place is something we can be very proud of. I have listened in to many of the members of parliament from both sides of the House as they have given their reports from the front line and given very emotional accounts of how their communities were tested and how their communities have responded magnificently. Naturally our thoughts and our prayers go out to the people whose loved ones have been killed or injured or who themselves have been injured in these disasters. This will be a defining moment in many people’s lives. They will define their lives by what they did prior to the floods and what their lives were like after the floods. Many people will need support for many years to come. This is not something that people get over very quickly.
I know from my own personal experience in the Black Saturday bushfires two years ago— which, incidentally, we commemorated this week—and from the Black Saturday bushfire victims that some people seem to be able to get on with their lives quite quickly and seem to cope quite readily with adversity, but for others it seems to fester away in them and the events will re-present many weeks, months and years afterwards. Some people simply do not recover completely. We need to be careful and aware of that in this place. In the support we put in place for those communities we need to be aware that we are going to have to be there for the long haul. Long after we fix the bridges, the roads are back in place, the rail lines are working, small businesses are being cleaned up and the customers are coming back to our tourism resorts, our people are still going to bear the emotional scars of what they have been through.
Anyone who has spoken to people who were directly involved in either the flooding in Queensland or Cyclone Yasi has heard their tales of the trauma they have been through. We need to understand that as a nation we have to stand ready to support those people for many, many years to come. I am one of many MPs, I am sure, who have been touched by the emotional stories from our colleagues. I commend the members on both sides of the House for the way they have conducted themselves in this condolence motion and the way they have brought the stories of their people to life. They have brought the stories of their communities and explained to us who were not there exactly what impact these disasters have had.
In addition to the personal injuries and the deaths there are obviously the economic costs when we are talking about our agricultural sector, and I think that story will get worse as the months go on. There are economic costs to the agricultural sector in terms of lost crops and lost hope. We are talking about some of our farmers who were looking at some of the best crops they had ever seen. Having had them cruelly washed away or blown away will be very difficult for those farming families to cope with. And, of course, I just referred to the tourism industry and our small business sector. These challenges are going to face these communities for a very long period of time. I congratulate the members for giving a very full account of the experience and the challenges that their communities are going to face into the future.
Of course, it was not only Queensland that was touched by tragedy over the summer months and touched by natural disasters. In Victoria we had quite dramatic rainfall events, particularly in the north-west, which inundated towns. The town of Charlton was inundated on three separate occasions, I think, and Rochester on two occasions, and many other towns faced significant damage. While not as traumatic, perhaps, as the inland tsunami which seemed to hit Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, it was still quite devastating for those people, and the impact of that flood is also going to be felt for a very long period of time. I understand that the people of Tasmania and Western Australia were also affected, and now we have had the bushfires in Western Australia as well.
The challenge for us as we move from this immediate response phase is to be there for the long haul of the recovery—to make sure that in this place we stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Australians and let them know that we will be there to support them. As I said previously, the time frame for the recovery from the Black Saturday bushfires has made it very apparent to me that this is not a short-term operation. It is going to take a long period of time for our communities to repair themselves.
I believe that the nation is looking towards this parliament and this place, looking to us in our roles here as elected members and expecting us to demonstrate leadership in our roles and in the way we are prepared to work together to achieve the rebuilding process. I think we are united in many aspects on both sides of the House in our commitment to rebuild these communities. I do not think there is any doubt about that. I know there will be some debate about how we go about that process and how we fund that process, but even when we have differences of opinion I think the people of Australia are expecting us to demonstrate leadership and respect for each other and put aside some of our differences to recognise that the bigger picture here is the people who have been directly affected, their lives and how we repair their communities and let them go on and be prosperous into the future. I think there is a strong expectation in our community as they look at this place for us to not forget the fine words we have said in the condolence motion as we prepare for the future and as we rebuild these communities.
I am not by any means seeking to lecture other members, other than to say that there are many things that unite us in this tragic sequence of natural disasters and we would be well advised to live up to the expectations of those people who have been most directly affected. I think in those people we have seen such great spirit, such incredible willingness, such selflessness, humility, determination, strength and resilience—they have demonstrated such character traits—that we can reflect those in this place as we go about helping them in their rebuilding process.
The local members go back to their communities this week. I guess in some ways our local members have had some respite; they have come to Canberra and they have been able to get their gumboots and their working clothes off for a week. At the same time, back in their communities, people have been slogging it out, out there doing that repair work. In Western Australia they have still been putting out the fires this week. But as the local members go back to their communities I wish them every success in their roles. I urge them to keep the pressure on the banks, to keep the pressure on the insurance companies, to keep the pressure on government departments and to make sure that their people are well looked after.
In closing, I would like to extend my thanks, as many others have, to the countless people who have made a contribution throughout our community. I know the emergency service workers will be tired. They have put in an enormous effort over the last month and they will be required to do even more in the weeks ahead. I also extend my thanks to our military personnel who were incredible in the response phase and for the courage they have shown in saving lives in extraordinary circumstances. I recall hearing members talk about the helicopter pilots indicating they have never seen conditions like it. I acknowledge the bravery of those people and I wish them well as they go back to their lives. I thank the volunteers and the people who have travelled for miles just to go and extend a helping hand to their fellow Australians in need. I also thank the people who have been involved in fundraising programs right across Australia. I think it is one of the great things about the Australian spirit that people just want to do something. We found that out with previous disasters like the Black Saturday bushfires where people just wanted to do something to extend a helping hand to their mates or to an Australian in need. We have seen that again here.
We honour the victims of these natural disasters by the lessons we learn from them. We honour the victims by choosing to serve our community here in this place as members of parliament. But we do not need to be members of parliament to honour them. We need to take this message back to our community about the spirit they have shown, the resilience they have shown during these traumatic times and the way the experience has brought our community together and united us: we do not need to wait for a natural disaster to occur to repeat this in the future. There is a real message here for us as Australians that we have a remarkable capacity within our population to work together and achieve great things when we are tested.
The challenge for us now, after these natural disasters, is to go back to our communities and encourage each other to build on that spirit and to continue to make a contribution to our community in whatever way we can, whether it is as a volunteer for our local Red Cross, in a Rotary club or as a surf life-saving volunteer. I encourage my fellow Australians to take inspiration from what they have seen over these months, to take inspiration from the volunteers, the emergency service workers and the military personnel, and to look back at their own community now and decide what they can do to make a contribution to their community on a daily basis. It is something we can take out of this disaster as a positive.
Finally, I simply say from the people of Gippsland, our hearts go out to those who have been affected over these summer months. I am sure I speak on behalf of the entire population of Gippsland when I say our thoughts and prayers are with you as you recover and we wish you every strength in the future.
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