Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Matters of Public Importance
I thank the member for New England for his contribution—as always, it is thoughtful and appropriate. This MPI was initiated by the member for Lyne and it requests that we debate the urgent need to shape regional Australia’s future. It is a good subject. It is a thoughtful subject. It is one to which our diligent consideration is due. I have often thought about this subject at great length, not just because of my portfolio interest in regional Australia. Over many years of long drives across Australia from Canberra to Perth to be with my family, I spent a lot of time looking at regional Australia and talking to people in regional towns. It came to me very early on that the spark of energy and the life that is created in good regional centres comes down so often to a grumpy sense of self-reliance that healthy communities have. Take a township like Merredin, with its pride in its public gardens and its swimming pools, and its pride in being not just a tidy town but a safe town, a town always working on the next creative and thoughtful idea to get its business precinct working even better and a town where the local swimming pool always looks clean and tidy and is full of kids. In a town in a wheat belt that has frequently done it tough—and in those days Merredin did it particularly tough—you can tell that what kept that town going was not its natural wealth or the bounty from the hills but the spirit of the people. I came to the conclusion that communities with a sense of self-reliance—on many occasions, a grumpy sense of self-reliance—are those communities that (a) cope best and (b) build the best environments for their families.
This debate goes to the core of a number of significant issues. In doing that, it points out the differences in views of the world demonstrated in the commentary of the member for Lyne and the member for New England and the views of the Australian government. Those differences are legitimate but they are differences on a spectrum. They are not differences that go to the very core of personal behaviour or political behaviour. It is a sad statement that in the better part of the last 15 years, regional development as shaped by the former federal government was in fact pork-barrelling. It is a sad commentary on communities and the spirit of communities that in fact the three-volume report produced by the Australian National Audit Office that was so deeply critical of the former government’s programs is what gets the publicity. We could equally have published, I have no doubt, a 30-volume report stating all the good things done by regional communities. But the truth of it is that when we are dealing with public money, it is the incompetence and the malevolence that gets the public eye and not the things that made communities strong. The malevolence was there and obvious for the Audit Office to see.
In 1996, when the former government was elected, I am sure that Prime Minister Howard felt confident that he would be the Prime Minister for a while—for at least two, three, four or five terms. He saw then, 13 years ago, no need for a government department to look after regional Australia. So what did he do? He abolished it. He wiped it off the face of the earth. He took it out of Canberra and destroyed it entirely. What did his Nationals colleagues do to stand up for regional Australia then? Nothing. In fact, the Nationals and now disgraced minister John Sharp said in a media release on 17 July 1996: ‘There is no clear rationale or constitutional basis for Commonwealth involvement in regional Australia.’ The department went and more followed. But, in one simple statement, that minister negated the reason for even his party to exist, and people in regional Australia heard that. Maybe that is why we have had such a decline in the number of Nationals in this place. In 1986, at the height of the coalition government, there were 18 members of the Nationals. In 1998, there were 16. By 2001, there were 13. By 2004, there were 12. At the last federal election in 2007, there were 10. At the moment, we have only nine. One might well be moved to ask the question: what do the Nationals and the dodo have in common? It is no wonder regional Australia has deserted the Nationals. The Nationals deserted regional Australia the moment they entered into a coalition with former Prime Minister Howard.
It is worth contemplating the history and the record of the member for Lyne. He was elected to the Macquarie Street parliament, the New South Wales parliament, 13 years ago as a member of the Nationals. In 2002, he resigned from the Nationals to become an Independent. He was re-elected as an Independent. In 2008, he resigned from the New South Wales parliament to run as an Independent in the seat vacated by the former Deputy Prime Minister, the seat of Lyne. He won that seat with 63.8 per cent of the primary vote. He took that vote to 73.87 per cent of the two-party preferred vote—a victory in a local community that is not just a confirmation of an outstanding candidate; it is a confirmation of the view of the people of Lyne that they wanted someone who would stand up for them and not someone who would stand with the coalition and stand against local communities. It is a fascinating insight into the way in which people of regional Australia actually read us in this place, and they read us like a book. If the history of the last 15 years of the voting patterns in regional Australia says anything, it says that. It also says that regional Australia want outstanding candidates and outstanding politicians who do not stand up for themselves but stand up for people in communities.
Mr Oakeshott spoke at length about a range of issues in his electorate of Lyne. In the past he has also made comment about the transition of area consultative committees to the yet to be formed Regional Development Australia organisation, an attempt by this government to create a single organisation to engage in dialogue with regional Australia and to do it in a transparent and open way. It is to ensure also on behalf of the Australian government that when support is provided to regional communities, to local communities, it is done in a transparent way and it is done to local government—to an elected entity which has, firstly, a capacity to deliver projects. I heard the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government speaking earlier about the million dollars which had been provided to the ethanol plant at Gunnedah. One might reasonably assume that if one went to Gunnedah and looked at the site for that ethanol plant, they might see one. But, no, the million dollars got consumed. There is no ethanol plant. The Audit Office went to look for it and could not find it. It was not hiding behind a bushel; it was not hiding anywhere. They just did not build it. But it was paid for with taxpayers’ money.
In the last budget the Rudd government provided $17.9 million for Regional Development Australia. This is more than had been provided in the previous year by the then Howard government, supported by the then National Party in government. This year we are providing $800 million—record funding—for infrastructure in regional and local communities. The Australian government has a strong track record in supporting regional Australia and working with local government—local government that will not always support everything that we do and that frequently will offer their own views about public policy matters and about their communities. And do you know what? Offering their own views, having that grumpy sense of self-reliance, having a view about their communities and how they want them shaped—that is what we need to be responding to in this place, not forming our own views and forcing it on the local communities. (Time expired)