Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and the cognate bill. Over the course of the 11½ years John Howard was Prime Minister and his government was in office, they enjoyed almost unprecedented continued economic growth. They were the golden years, largely fuelled by a resources boom. But in many ways I feel they were wasted years. I am not suggesting that they were years without any economic reform; that would be churlish of me. Of course there was some reform, and much of that reform was supported by the opposition of the day. But in my view, and I think it is a historical fact, infrastructure investment gave way to populist fiscal policy and transfer payment policies.
Mr FITZGIBBON» (Hunter) (6:57 PM) —I thank all members making a contribution to debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and the cognate bill. Over the course of the 11½ years John Howard was Prime Minister and his government was in office, they enjoyed almost unprecedented continued economic growth. They were the golden years, largely fuelled by a resources boom. But in many ways I feel they were wasted years. I am not suggesting that they were years without any economic reform; that would be churlish of me. Of course there was some reform, and much of that reform was supported by the opposition of the day. But in my view, and I think it is a historical fact, infrastructure investment gave way to populist fiscal policy and transfer payment policies.
It was a deadly economic combination which gave rise to significant inflationary pressures in the Australian economy. It is now a historical fact that by the first and second quarters of 2008 those inflationary pressures had really started to build in the Australian economy, and those inflationary pressures were in turn putting pressure on interest rates and therefore mortgage interest rates, and that again in turn put cost pressures on Australian families. Then, just as the new government was fighting to redress the wrongs and, in particular, the infrastructure bottlenecks which were contributing to those inflationary pressures, the global financial crisis came along. I should have touched wood, but I remember joking on many occasions in opposition that it would be just Labor’s luck that when we were returned to government the global economic situation would turn downward, and indeed it did.
Thank God Labor was in power when that global recession was making its way to our shores. That was fortuitous for two reasons. First of all, it is a historical fact that Australia avoided a recession. That is an incontestable fact. We also know that those who sit opposite opposed every measure that the government put forward as a means of avoiding that economic downturn in Australia. Labor’s fiscal stimulus package had many facets or components. There were cash payments to families and bank deposit guarantees. The most high profile component was infrastructure investment. It is those infrastructure investments that I would like to touch on for just a short while this evening.
It is another incontestable fact that the government’s investment in nation building not only saved us from recession but was well targeted. In my own electorate, every primary school has received a significant upgrade. These are primary schools that never dreamed of having the facilities that their students deserve in the 21st century. There are schools that I visited that had kids sitting in halls for some of their classes for want of classroom facilities. New community infrastructure has popped up everywhere: playgrounds, sporting fields, art galleries, skate parks—you name it, it is being built. These are projects that councils have had on their books for years but they were in despair at their inability to fund them and were fearful that they might never be funded. This was community infrastructure, therefore, not in excess of our needs but that was badly needed.
Social housing has had a big funding boost. Far fewer families are now sitting on the waiting list for public housing than there were prior to those investments. Our high schools have new science labs and trades training centres. Kuri Kuri TAFE, which is in my electorate, has had a $7 million hospitality school built, something much needed to address the skills shortage in the hospitality industry in my electorate.
Then there is the well-publicised Hunter Expressway, an investment of $1.7 billion by the federal government. This is the largest land transport project ever constructed in the Hunter region, a project that will transform the Hunter region, making our transport movements far more efficient, relieving many townships of heavy vehicle movements on their local roads, improving road safety and removing a nightmare congestion situation on the New England Highway, which too many Hunter motorists commuting to and from work have to put up with on a daily basis. I inspected the progress of the Hunter Expressway only last Friday at the end of the sitting week. I am impressed by the way that the contractors are moving forward with that project. I am advised by the RTA in New South Wales that the project is well and truly on track for completion by the end of 2012. I welcome that.
The government also provided an equity injection of half a billion dollars into the ARTC to upgrade the rail line that takes our coal from our coalmines in the Upper Hunter to the port of Newcastle. A third track is going to have a significant economic impact on the region by getting more coal to port more quickly and therefore opening up an expansion of the coal-mining industry. That is good for the economy and good for jobs. It is not just a third track; it includes a number of other large projects, including road overpasses over the track, because the track is now wider and safety considerations demand that. It also involves noise attenuation and the removal of gradients along the track which previously significantly slowed—and in some spots still slow—the rail wagons down.
I am a great supporter of this project, but I have been left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth as a result of the way some of the ARTC’s agents have dealt with residents who have been adversely affected by the construction of the project. Some of those have been affected by noise, some by vibration and some by both. I feel that the ARTC’s agents have not on all occasions treated them with the sort of respect and courtesy that they deserve. Other people have been affected by the need to resume land and again I have been left disappointed on occasions by the way that the ARTC’s agents have been treating those people.
Given the ARTC is a wholly owned entity of the Commonwealth government, I expect the ARTC and its agents to act as model litigants. I believe that, when they are dealing with residents who are being affected by the project, as important as it is, they have an obligation to deal with them as courteously as is humanly possible. That certainly has not been the case with respect to a company known as Twojays Engineering and Fabrication in Branxton, in my electorate. It will be necessary for the ARTC not only to resume land but to block the only access they have from one side of the railway track to the other. The resumption of some of the land will require them to actually move their facilities. So this is a big deal for the principals of Twojays Engineering.
From my perspective, the ARTC’s approach to this situation has been one of intimidation and bullying, and far from the sort of approach I would expect from an entity wholly owned by the Commonwealth government. I have written to the ARTC expressing my concerns and I again tonight appeal to the CEO of the ARTC to intervene in the situation, to get the middlemen out of the way, to deal with the principals of Twojays Engineering directly and to bring a common-sense approach to the negotiations over those matters. The third rail track to the port of Newcastle is a great project, and I would hate to see it sullied by some unfortunate events which were, in my view, totally avoidable and should have been avoided.
I have not even got to the National Broadband Network yet, which of course will be a wonderful thing for the Hunter Valley. It is hard for me to believe, given what we know about the technologies, that those opposite would be opposing the rollout of the NBN. We formed, through Regional Development Australia Hunter, a committee to make sure that the Hunter and Central Coast regions—
Mr Craig Thomson interjecting—
Mr «FITZGIBBON» —My colleague with me, the member for Dobell, has been very busy on this matter, making sure that we are well placed to be earlier in that rollout rather than later. We in the Hunter can see the enormous opportunities which will flow from the rollout of the NBN. We intend to be up there in front grabbing those opportunities earlier rather than later.
I would like to say something about the current carbon debate. People often turn to me and say, ‘As the member for Hunter, you must be a bit concerned about what your party is doing on carbon.’ Wrong, absolutely wrong. My coalminers, my power station owners, even those who work in the aluminium industry, understand that we have to make those industries sustainable and the best way to make those industries sustainable is to act on carbon now—act now, not later, before it gets too hard. I have always been very pleased that the coalminers union have been right out there—in front of the Labor Party, in fact—on these issues. They see how important it is to ensure that these industries have a future. They understand that the best way to make them sustainable is to give certainty to the industry and to start a structural shift in the economy which will provide that sustainability.
There has been a big change of attitudes in my electorate. People in my electorate, just like those who live on the North Shore of Sydney, are concerned about climate change. I believe there is an emerging consensus in my electorate that, even if we are in doubt, we should act on climate change; even if there is a question about the science, we should act as a form of insurance. So I do not fear the government’s position on climate change. I am very supportive of it and I am very confident that the majority of my electorate remains very supportive of it as well. We know that the majority of people who sit opposite support it as well. We have seen that in various manifestations, particularly when Mr Turnbull was leading the coalition. We saw it manifest itself through the last leadership challenge, which was of course a very tightly contested event. It is about time, for the sake of all Australians, that the opposition considered taking a bipartisan approach to this issue. That is what the Australian people want. They do not want us arguing about it; they just want us to do it.
I see Mr Entsch, the Chief Opposition Whip, sitting opposite. I remember doing a 7.30 Report program with him on the role of the whips, some time last year, and I have never had so much positive feedback from something I have done on television in all the time I have been here—as positive as it always is, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe the feedback was so positive because they saw Mr Entsch and I agreeing and working together. That is what the Australian people want. On the big issues, and even the small issues like ‘whipping’, they want the major parties, just now and again at least, to come together and agree on something and get on with the job.
That is my very strong view about what is happening in terms of the community’s view on climate change. I think the Liberal Party—and indeed the National Party, but I might be dreaming now—would be doing itself a great service by getting on board the climate change issue and working with us to put the appropriate measures in place. If that means a change of leader, so be it. If Mr Abbott wants to stick his head in the sand and hold his party back, or even take it back to 19th century views, that is a matter for Mr Abbott, but I think the party has a choice and I think it should take the opportunity to rid him of the leadership if that is what it takes to get the consensus.
Last but not least, I am aware that the opposition have now pulled a stunt and moved an amendment with respect to youth allowance. It is a stunt. It has never been done in the 15 years I have been here. It is very clear that if this appropriations bill were amended it would knock out the appropriations and cut off the supply of finance to the government. It is the most irresponsible thing I have seen in the 15 years I have been in this place. The youth allowance policy is a good policy, but the Prime Minister has agreed to review it. For the opposition to try to score a few more political points by coming in here and amending an appropriation bill, which would cut off the supply of money to the government and payment of salaries to public servants and everything that goes with that, I think is highly irresponsible. Shame on them. They should see the error of their ways, withdraw the amendment and not waste the time of the main chamber by voting on another amendment which is nothing more than a stunt. We have had the youth allowance fight three or four times now in both chambers, but they want to have it again. Apparently, they think they are on a winner; I can tell them that they are flogging a dead horse. (Time expired)