It is great to have my friends from the National Party rush in to listen to my speech, in readiness of a very significant contribution—as always—and confident that I will be very keen to point out to them the error of their ways, particularly with respect to agriculture policy.
Before I turn to that important matter I just want to say that in my 20 years in this place I have been through three electoral redistributions—that is, for those listening, changes to electoral boundaries. The last one was a particularly willing one for me, because New South Wales lost a seat in the House of Representatives. And, in the end, that seat happened to be mine. Fortuitously—and I hear my friends applauding now—I survived that process and I remain in this place. I want to reflect on some of the opportunities that has presented to me as a local member.
I lament the very many people in communities, friendships, including work working relationships, I lost when large parts of my electorate were carved out of the new Hunter electorate. I miss those people very much. It is a challenging thing when you spend so many years developing those relationships and suddenly you lose them. But I have been delighted, and it has brought me some new energy to meet so many new people in so many new communities, and I have been delighted to find the same sense of community spirit and commitment within those townships—that is, the townships on the western side of Lake Macquarie, in places like Cameron Park, Edgeworth and West Wallsend.
I should not be surprised, because I am a boy who grew up on what was affectionately known as the coalfields towns, including Cessnock, Kurri Kurri and Maitland, which—not so much Maitland but certainly Cessnock and Kurri Kurri and the villages in between—were built around poppet heads of the underground coalmines of the day. Many of the townships on the western side of Lake Macquarie had a similar birth, both coalmines and coalmines that feed the electricity generators on the western side of Lake Macquarie. Of course, I have a significant coal fire generation capacity in the original parts of my electorate. So it is not surprising, on reflection, to find the same strong sense of community spirit and camaraderie in the new parts of the Hunter electorate as I enjoyed in the original parts of the electorate.
I am not going to pretend I have had the opportunity to meet every person or even every group on the western side of the lake, but I have been busy meeting as many people as I can, building on those relationships, including working relationships, working closely with Lake Macquarie City Council. It is an outstanding council and I look forward to working with them, and I look forward to working with the community.
The Hunter Region is strong—probably stronger and more economically diverse than ever before. It is certainly stronger and more economically diverse than when I arrived in this place 20 years ago. Unemployment is much lower, but it remains too high. At one point, during the height of the mining investment boom, unemployment in my electorate sank to about 3.5 per cent, a long way from the 13½ per cent we suffered when I was elected in 1996.
But, alas, it is on the rise again as the heat comes out of the mining boom and people struggle and scramble to make a transition into employment elsewhere.
As the member for Paterson so eloquently pointed out earlier today in her first speech in this place—a fantastic speech, I have to say—youth unemployment is a real concern. It is far too high. It is not at its peak. It is not the highest it has ever been, but it is certainly stubbornly high. It is that issue which has probably driven me more than any other issue in my 20 years in this place—seeking ways to break that cycle of unemployment, which is commonly known as intergenerational unemployment. Over those many years in this place, I have been involved in both the development and the implementation of a whole range of labour market programs designed to break that cycle, and we need to keep finding the best ways to do that. The programs we have had have all played their roles. Even the unfortunately named Work for the Dole plays a role, but the outcomes are very limited and the success rate is very low. I think it is around 15 per cent for Work for the Dole. I am just old enough to remember the RED scheme implemented by the Whitlam government. We have had plenty of labour market programs over that time, but we are yet to see one which produces the sorts of results we would find satisfying both as members of parliament and members of the community.
I came to the conclusion over those many years of work that the only real way to break that cycle is to intervene at the youngest age. There is one place that almost all kids eventually go and that is a place called kindergarten. We need to give our schools, and in particular our public schools, the resources to identify children who come with challenges. Some of these kids, unfortunately, are effectively born to be idle. They have not spent their early years in a household culture where work is the norm and where people wake up at a particular time to an alarm clock to go to work. We need intervention very early.
At the same time we need the resources to intervene with the kids that demonstrate a particular talent so that we can ensure that those children reach their full potential. This is why the government's approach to schools funding is so disappointing for me. That is why the cuts to Gonski have so failed my community. Like we all do, I went to school presentations at the end of last year, and at every school that I attended the principal publicly thanked me and, through me, the Australian Labor Party for the commitment we had made on Gonski. They talked publicly about the difference it was making in their school, both in terms of intervening with children with particular challenges before them but also providing those with more personal talents and more advanced children with the best opportunity in life. I do lament that opportunity foregone.
But, of course, properly resourcing our schools will not deal with all our transitional issues. We are an economy which is very, very strong in the services and manufacturing sectors, although much of our manufacturing sector is in itself tied to coalmining. But the day will come when the big power generators of the Hunter electorate will no longer be in commission. Liddell Power Station, for example, will probably reach the end of its natural life in around a decade. Some, such as Eraring and Bayswater, will remain longer but their time will come within my lifetime. And when those coal-powered generators go, so too, potentially, will the coalmines that supply the coal to those diverse coal-fired generators. The transition will be very large and we cannot expect that new coal-fired generators will replace those generators—they will not, quite clearly. If they are to be replaced by other fossil-fuelled generators, they will be gas generators. But there are question marks about whether the efficiency of high-voltage transmission will continue to necessitate the locating of power generators so far from our capital cities.
These are big transitional issues that we need to grapple with as a parliament and as local communities, including in partnership with our state governments and local government bodies. But what does not help is this ongoing demonisation of renewable energy, which will be an important part of the energy mix. Leaders from Howard through to Rudd and Gillard and Abbott and now Prime Minister Turnbull have all had market-based policies—although it is a little bit doubtful with respect to the current Prime Minister's policy, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt—designed to help us through that transition. We need to depoliticise this debate and to start bringing some common sense to the debate, rather than watch on and see people like the Deputy Prime Minister so ridiculously reacting to what happened only a week or so ago in South Australia.
I think the Hunter has a big opportunity in agriculture. This can be one of our new sectors. It is part of our economy now but I believe it can be much greater. But it will only happen if the government in this place put the right policies in place. We have heard here lots about the growing food demand in Asia and the so-called dining boom. But, as I always say, the dining boom will not just come to us; we need to go to it. For us, the dining boom will not be so much about volume, as important as that might be; it will be about value. We in this place should be developing strategic plans for pushing our agricultural sector further up the value curve and securing a greater return on the investment of our limited natural resources in this country. It is a myth to say that we are a land with an abundance of water. We are, of course, the driest inhabited continent on the earth, in the world, and our fertile soils, as a proportion of our land mass, are very limited indeed. We need strategic plans to ensure that those resources are being invested wisely and most efficiently and in the most productive way.
The other issue is of course our human resources. Our human resources are critical. I will use that point to make two additional points. The relocation of the APVMA is the most ridiculous policy proposition I have ever seen in my 20 years here. It is populism at its worst; it is pork-barrelling at its worst. The idea of moving 180 or so scientists and lawyers and other professionals who are living here in Canberra, with their children in schools in Canberra, to Armidale in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister is an outrageous proposition. It is outrageous not just because of the nature of the pork-barrelling but because of the impact it is going to have on the agriculture sector. The agriculture sector needs, for example, crop protection sprays and other chemicals; it needs veterinary medicines. It needs those medicines and sprays to be approved in a timely manner. This move to Armidale is going destroy the APVMA. These professionals are not going to move. Today I ask only one thing of the Deputy Prime Minister: table the cost-benefit analysis—the $272,000 worth that the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned to look at this relocation. Why won't he table the cost-benefit analysis on this relocation? I will tell you why, Mr Deputy Speaker: he knows that it shows the relocation will be a disaster for Australian agriculture.
My two friends at the table—members of the National Party or the LNP; before I get picked up on a technical point—the member for Mallee and the member for Hinkler say nothing about this attack on Australia's agriculture sector. The question has to be asked in their electorates: why are they remaining silent? More particularly, I cannot say they have all been remaining silent on the issue of the backpackers tax, which is another human resource issue. The member for Mallee, in particular, has been quite vocal, and I congratulate him for that. I cannot say the same for all of his LNP colleagues in Queensland, unfortunately, or, indeed, those who hunt around the Wagga Wagga area. This has been a debacle from day one. There have been some expressions of concern from the other side but nothing like the vocal opposition we would expect from them.
I was astonished to have a briefing from Treasury on Thursday where I was told that the modelling on the fall-off on backpackers shows no change between 32.5 per cent tax and 19 per cent tax. I see the member for Mallee nodding his head. I am shocked that he knew this already. If he knows this, why hasn't the member for Mallee been more vocal? Why is the member for Mallee accepting, without reservation, a move first from zero to 32.5 per cent tax and now a move from 32.5 to 19 per cent, notwithstanding the fact that he knows—he has seen the modelling—that it is going to make no difference. The labour shortages caused by this ill-conceived tax are going to continue to impact on farmers, including farmers in his electorate, and these two sitting on the other side of the table are going to say absolutely nothing about it.