MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE - Budget: Rural and Regional Areas

Budget: Rural and Regional Areas

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:20): Sadly, the Prime Minister's first budget was a shocker for rural and regional Australia. It is fair to say that those on the other side of the chamber spend a fair bit of time talking about the interests of rural and regional Australia, but they are all talk—very rarely do they deliver.

The minister is at the table and he will stand up and say, 'Well, we saved the diesel fuel rebate.' They saved the diesel fuel rebate. They create this straw man and then we are all supposed to breathe a sigh of relief or, indeed, thank them on budget night for not abolishing this important subsidy for rural and regional Australia. They will tell you that there is $100 million in the budget over four years for additional research and development in agriculture. But they took more than that back out from research and development elsewhere and in areas which are critical to rural and regional Australia, for example, the rural industries' RDC, the CSIRO, various other RDCs and our CRCs.

They will tell you about the $370 million new quarantine facility in Victoria. There he is, the minister, turning the first sod. This was fully funded by the former Labor government.

He will tell you that there is drought assistance in the budget, announced after a well-publicised drought tour by himself and the Prime Minister—plenty of pictures, plenty of television cameras involved. Then there was a big announcement: $280 million for farm finance—and I have a picture here of the Prime Minister out there with the farmers and with the minister, looking very concerned about the impact of the drought on our farmers.

The SPEAKER: That isn't a prop, is it?

Mr FITZGIBBON: And yet here we are, three months on after the television news pictures and the newspaper shots, and not one cent of that money has flowed on to struggling farming families.

He will also get up and say, 'We had to do these things to rural and regional Australia because the former government left us with debt.' We do not have time for that debate today but it has been prosecuted by others pretty well, including by the shadow Treasurer and the Leader of the Opposition. And we will continue to have that, no doubt. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a confected budget emergency and that these are unnecessary cuts.

But there is one area which is absolutely uncontested. Indeed, no-one from the government has sought to contest it. It is the fact that this budget, with its tax increases and its funding cuts, falls disproportionately on rural and regional Australia. If you put up fuel taxes it adds to transport costs, and that fuel tax becomes embedded in everything we purchase in rural and regional Australia, including our food. This is a big hit on people who live in the bush.

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you add a GP tax—

The SPEAKER: The Deputy Speaker is coming.

Mr FITZGIBBON: it falls disproportionately, because in rural and regional Australia we do not have as many GPs, there is less competition and therefore we have lower bulk-billing rates. This will exacerbate that situation, Madam Speaker.

If you are going to cut funding to schools, where will that hit? It will hit those small rural schools which lack critical mass. They will be the first ports of call for the state governments when they are seeking to save money. The same applies to hospitals. If you cut hospital funding then the states will go looking for savings and you can bet your last dollar that they will go to the smaller rural and regional hospitals—some older hospitals—for those savings.

The list goes on and on, Madam Deputy Speaker—Madam Speaker, I am sorry. There is the tough crackdown on welfare and the unemployed, which they over there think are popular. But think about kids in rural areas where there simply are not the jobs and there are not necessarily the training places. It is easy for someone living in a capital city to think about a kid walking down the road to a TAFE, but in rural and regional Australia the courses are not always available. Worse than that, nor is the transport. There might be a TAFE course in the next town 100 kilometres away but there is no bus or train in most instances. So this is a real hit on people who live in these communities.

There is an economic concept known as 'dynamic decline', and this is what they do not understand. Typically, an abattoir, say, closes in a rural area. What happens? There are job losses and there is a knock-on effect in the regional economy. The suppliers to the abattoir feel the effect as well, and what happens? Those who are most capable and best placed to go and get a job elsewhere in another town leave. And who is left? The elderly, who are not producing an income in the local economy, or the real hard cases who are not able to leave for whatever reason. So what happens? The economy further declines. It is a downward spiral.

What does the Prime Minister say? 'Earn or learn. Let them go and get a job in another town.' What does the Minister for Social Services say? 'Send them out grape picking in the state nearby.' This reflects a total non-understanding of how regional economies work and how this is going to impact so badly on regional communities.

But do not worry: the agriculture minister has a plan. He has a plan—he has a decentralisation plan. He is going to move his ministerial office from Sydney and put it in Armidale. This is the minister's plan to revitalise regional economies. It is an interesting plan, because I suggest to you, Madam Speaker, that it is a plan to rejuvenate his own political fortunes. This will give him an electoral office in Tamworth and an electoral office in Armidale. Not a bad deal, I would suggest!

Not only that, he is going to move the research and development corporations out of Canberra and into the regions. Now, that sounds a good thing at first glance. Most people will say, 'Oh, that sounds all right. Regional development corporations, let's get them out into the regions where they belong.' For example, he will take the fisheries RDC down to Tasmania. It sounds like a pretty good idea. But is it going to be the RDC for salmon only now, Minister? Is it really going to encapsulate the broad-brush involvement of the fishing industry?

The RDC for forestry—is it going to Tasmania too, Minister?

Mr Joyce interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON: Oh! You are going to sell? That is a very good idea, Minister! That would not surprise me! Nothing you would or could do would surprise me, Minister! I am sure Senator Colbeck is pretty happy about the idea that the forestry components of the department and the RDC might be moving down to Canberra.

This is a budget based on a lie. This is a budget which was made possible by a government which was elected by promising not to cut health, by promising not to cut education, by promising not to cut pension payments and by promising not to raise taxes. Again, all these things are hurting rural and regional Australia most.

Rural and regional Australia is where we get our coal, where we get our iron ore and where we grow our food. When we get up in the morning we turn on the light, it comes from coal or gas produced in regional Australia. When we put our cornflakes into the cereal bowl, it comes from food grown in rural and regional Australia. When we put the sugar on top the same applies. We have our beef or chicken for lunch and it has come from rural and regional Australia. Rural and regional Australia is the heartland of this nation. I am sure that rural and regional Australia felt pretty confident that this government would acknowledge that in this first budget, because that is what they promised to do. They promised to rejuvenate regional Australia.

Let's think about it: they have never really had an interest in regional development. Chifley was the first to really get involved in regional development. Menzies and the Tories that followed him showed no interest at all. Whitlam, of course, kick-started the idea, and had big regional development programs. Fraser came along and showed no interest at all. The Hawke and Keating governments, again, kicked off regional development with gusto. John Howard came along and all he knew was pork-barrelling that produced no structural reform, making no long-term impact on the economic fortunes of rural and regional Australia. Then the Gillard and Rudd governments came along and, in particular, the member for Grayndler and the former member for Hotham spent most of their time here pursuing the interests of rural and regional Australia, developing policy that produced structural reforms that were uplifting for rural and regional Australia.

On the other side, there is none of that. We have a Deputy Prime Minister sitting here with regional development in his title, but I have not seen much. I have seen some road re-announcements, projects that were fully funded by the former Labor government, but I have seen no real plan for a rejuvenation of rural and regional Australia and an acknowledgement of the economic contribution of rural and regional Australia. All we have seen is a budget which hits rural and regional Australia and is bad for rural and regional Australia.

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