Monday, 26 October 2009
Far North Queensland: Infrastructure
The unemployment rate in Far North Queensland hit 13.8 per cent in September—one of the highest in the country, if not the highest. Unemployment has effectively doubled since the global financial crisis hit and led to the global recession. The tourism and construction industries in Cairns are being hard hit, and many people have lost their jobs or are under threat of losing their jobs through no fault of their own. This is why the government needed to act early and decisively in response to the global financial crisis through the support it provided in the Nation Building and Jobs Plan.
The Rudd government’s $42 billion economic stimulus through the Nation Building and Jobs Plan alone is contributing more than $150 million in education investments in my electorate of Leichhardt. This is on top of the $50 million investment we are making in a new dental school or the investments we are putting into schools through our trades training centres, including the construction of a new marine skills training centre. This is real bricks and mortar infrastructure. The schools modernisation program is the biggest in Australia’s history. Schools are receiving infrastructure refurbishments and other improvements that are well overdue, and local tradies—plumbers, carpenters and electricians—are getting solid work from it. I have visited a number of schools recently in Far North Queensland. I was out at Edge Hill State School looking at the work that Metro Builders are doing there. And it is a similar situation at Caravonica State School, where 40 or 50 tradies are getting work through the education project. Down at Hambeldon State School, Laurie Lindner builders have 20 or 30 fellows and women working, constructing a new library multipurpose centre—a $3 million investment.
Construction projects like these are going on all over my electorate, thanks to the government’s response to the global recession through our economic stimulus plan. Recently we announced another 218 social houses would be built in the region to further stimulate the local economy and the construction industry. These are in addition to the five defence houses that are currently well underway. In addition to the nation-building stimulus package, of which nearly 70 per cent is for infrastructure, Cairns has been recognised as an area that needs additional support. Cairns has been formally recognised, therefore, by the Australian government as a priority employment area.
Recently the government held a Keep Australia Working forum attended by the Minister for Employment Participation, Mark Arbib, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Employment, Jason Clare. The forum identified that work could be done to continue to support jobs in the short term but that we would also work to diversify our economy. We are an economy very much based on tourism and the construction industry, and people are tired of the boom-bust cycle. We need to ensure, though, in the short term that local businesses are getting the stimulus work. Many of these construction projects are only just getting underway, so we are running a major projects forum this Friday in partnership with the state government. It will not only include the stimulus projects but also projects like the dental school, investments in Indigenous housing and other Indigenous infrastructure, the state government’s $450 million hospital redevelopment and a major prison redevelopment at Lotus Glen. Lead contractors will be available at the major projects forum to hear directly from contractors about tendering and quoting for some of the jobs involved in the construction of these projects. This is important work that we are doing to make sure that local businesses are getting part of the action from the stimulus work, much of which is only just getting underway.
A local employment coordinator has been appointed to the region. Amanda Altman, who has been doing the job in the interim, has done a fantastic job. I would like to thank her and congratulate her for the work that she has been doing, including pulling together this major projects forum. Mr Peter Doutre will be starting as the coordinator next week. He is a man who brings great experience to the job. He has been a leader in Centrelink; he was involved in the Centrelink response to the Victorian bushfires and in the Northern Territory intervention. I am looking forward to him coming back to Cairns and starting work as our local employment coordinator. I am confident that his extensive experience will help us to combat the global recession and support jobs on our local community.
I also thank Minister Arbib. He has been very supportive, as have other ministers, of the work that I have been doing in the local community. In the past week I have spoken to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister Ferguson, Minister Crean and others as well as Minister Arbib. We recognise that we need to continue to do work in the short term to support jobs. We had a jobs expo planned for next year, and I said to Minister Arbib that that was not good enough as we have seen unemployment continue to go up. He has agreed to bring that jobs forum forward to December so that young people leaving school in Cairns can go along to the forum, meet employers and get put in touch with real jobs. The apprenticeship kick-start program that kicks off on 1 December is going to be an important part of that forum as well. I am looking forward to Minister Arbib coming up directly after these parliamentary sittings to promote that and again meet with local employers.
Jobs are not created only by government; they are mainly created in the private sector and so we need to work with and partner the private sector. I was pleased that last week the peak business organisations in Cairns—Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Advance Cairns and the Cairns Chamber of Commerce—brought forward a new plan to keep Cairns people working. Their plan involves a range of different areas. We are already working on some of them, including access into Papua New Guinea in the mining sector, and we are looking at getting some of those mining companies to come to the jobs expo. The plan also talked about aviation access. This is something I have been working on with Minister Albanese to see how we can attract more international carriers into Cairns and in particular get them to triangulate through Cairns to major cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. I hope there will be some regulatory reform as an outcome from the aviation white paper due later this year. The local businesses plan also included requesting some changes to taxation. It proposed tax concessions for local Cairns employers through interest-free deferral of pay-as-you-go, GST contributions for employers until 30 June 2010 and tax-free use of annual leave until 31 March 2011. There are difficult issues involved when you start to look at getting tax concessions for a particular region, but I will be taking these up with the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer.
The ATO has already given special consideration to businesses doing it tough during the global recession. Where businesses are having difficulty meeting their tax debts, the ATO will be fair and reasonable, treating them with the empathy that they deserve. The ATO is more than willing to enter into payment arrangements, without penalties and the general interest charge, that suit business cash flow and see them through the worst effects of the global financial crisis. I thank the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer for their support on this. We have also seen measures like the reduction in pay-as-you-go tax instalments from nine per cent to two per cent in 2009-10 and, of course, the small business and general business tax breaks, which have been well utilised by small businesses in my electorate.
The plan called A New Deal for Cairns involves some local projects. One of them is a project that has been put forward by the Cairns Regional Council for a new performing arts precinct. The concept is something that I support. I think it is a fantastic concept: a performing arts centre on the waterfront. This is a $200 million plus project, though, and it really needs to be staged. The council need to bring forward a detailed business plan before we can effectively respond to this. They need to demonstrate how they are going to not only provide their share of the capital in terms of a local council but get the state on board. They also need to show how they will ensure the ongoing running costs of this facility. They are also talking about a proposal for the redevelopment of the city centre of Cairns. I think this is a fantastic idea. The community infrastructure program that Anthony Albanese has put together is something that we will look to in terms of that project.
The work that the Rudd government is doing and the partnerships that I am building with the local business community are really important in supporting jobs in our local community. That stands in stark contrast to the opposition who, since the beginning, have been opposing our stimulus measures. Just recently they were talking again about wanting to pull the rug out from under economies like mine in Cairns by pulling back on the stimulus measures. Unemployment is at almost 14 per cent in Cairns. Families are being impacted through no fault of their own and they do not need the opposition talking about stimulus being pulled back in places like Cairns. We are determined to continue to work with the local business community. I will continue to work with my ministerial colleagues as part of the government—Minister Arbib, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others—to make sure that we are doing all we can to support employment in my local community. I am pleased the local business community have brought forward their plan A New Deal for Cairns. I will continue to work with them, the local employment coordinator and the government to make sure that we can make a difference in the local community and support jobs in the short term while we work to diversify the economy of Cairns as we move forward.