I begin my contribution to the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2018-2019 and related bills by associating myself with those very fine words from the member for Greenway.
She is absolutely correct. Over the last five years, the Turnbull and Abbott governments have continued to eat away at our ABC—a national icon and an institution particularly needed in rural and regional Australia, including in my own region. I just make a genuine appeal to the government to restore the ABC's funding and to give the ABC every opportunity it has to thrive, as it has done for so long, and, in doing so, extending so many important broadcasting services to rural and regional Australia.
Yesterday I spoke on the government's tax changes, where I canvassed the economy pretty extensively. I won't go there again today in respect of these bills. Rather, I want to talk briefly about three things. I want to speak about Qantas's plans for a new pilot training school, a very important move by them; I want to speak about AGL's Liddell power plant in my electorate; and I want to talk a little about Australian agriculture and its future—in particular, the performance of its ministers and the impact that has had on the agriculture department.
It's well known that we have a massive shortage of pilots, not only here in Australia but internationally. In fact, many of our pilots are being poached by other countries, which exacerbates the problem here in Australia. To its credit, Qantas has taken the initiative of doing something about it and is massively expanding domestic training here in Australia. In doing so, it intends to establish at least one new flying school. I had the opportunity to speak with Qantas executives last night and they said that it might no longer be just one school, that it might be a number of schools. They made that comment mainly because there has emerged intense competition amongst regional towns for the opportunity to host such a school.
If it were to be one single school, we'd be talking about literally hundreds of trainees each year going through the school, wherever it might be situated. Obviously, that would be a significant economic boost for any township or local community. I'm told that up to 40 towns or more have expressed an interest across every state and territory, so it's an interesting venture for Qantas and it will be a challenge for Qantas to make its decision. As was pointed out to me last night, it will be one friend and potentially 39 upset communities—although, as I said, maybe in the end Qantas will do a number of smaller schools rather than one big school.
But today, as I did last night, I'm making a pitch for my own local community. My hometown, Cessnock, has a largely-unused aerodrome, as we traditionally called it. It's used by private pilots only—often by people visiting the vineyards, of course. But it is an aerodrome in good shape and which, in fact, still has some infrastructure around it. Whether it be fit for purpose for Qantas is another question, but I don't think they expect to walk into any town where the building for a physical school would be ready for them.
Cessnock is only two hours drive from Sydney on the M1, so I can think of no better location. It's close to Sydney but not too close for air traffic purposes. I'm told that the aircraft involved would only be light aircraft, so I don't see any real community opposition. I see it as only a win-win for Cessnock. Of course, Qantas will make its own decision on the merits of each of the propositions put to it, but I can't imagine somewhere better, at least in terms of location, than my home town of Cessnock. The aerodrome is nestled right in the heart of Hunter wine country. While I'm sure Qantas is keen not to be mixing the consumption of our world's finest wines with flying, in my experience, if you want to retain people on these courses, it's good to have them train somewhere not isolated but close to a capital city and somewhere that is just generally a wonderful place to spend a large part of their life for 15 months or so. Again, I think Cessnock fits that bill exactly.
Given the intensity of the competition, I expect state governments will become involved. Qantas will enjoy, one would think, the outcomes of the energies of each of those state governments as they seek to ensure that the school, or schools, is situated in their own state. So, today I make an appeal to the Premier of New South Wales and her senior cabinet colleagues to have a look at the proposition of Cessnock as the host of that training school and to do all it can to give us the very best chance of securing that school.
I think one of the things that Qantas will have in mind is the desire to avoid going somewhere where they're not particularly wanted for some reason, whether it be flight path issues et cetera or whether it be an already busy town that doesn't have the infrastructure to host the additional demand on that infrastructure. I should have said that Cessnock has the benefit of lots of accommodation capacity, because the tourism traffic is lumpy; it's mainly around weekends. So I think there's an opportunity to argue the case on accommodation.
But there are a number of things that could be done in Cessnock that would enhance our bid for that school, and chief amongst them is access from the CBD onto the new Hunter Expressway. Labor funded and built the Hunter Expressway. It has been a great boon not only for Cessnock but for the region. There's also the unexpected or impossible-to-avoid other effects of a big project like that—for instance, the way it redirects other local traffic and the demand it puts on other local roads. Cessnock desperately needs the help of the state government, and I would like to think the Commonwealth could play a role, too. We need a link to the Hunter Expressway and some form of ring-road around Cessnock so that the people living in the growing suburbs aren't using the CBD for their exit out of town as they commute to work each morning and their arrival home each evening. So I make an appeal to Gladys Berejiklian to look at that proposal and to do everything she can, along with her cabinet colleagues, to secure that school for Cessnock, remembering that a very large corrective services or jail project has just been imposed on the local town, with no infrastructure support to accommodate the change and the demand that that massive jail expansion is creating. So there is every reason for Gladys Berejiklian to become more engaged in Cessnock, our aspirations and our challenges.
I want to say something quickly about Alinta's bid for AGL. I view this as a stunt. I don't believe Alinta was ever serious about buying the Liddell Power Station. I think it was a stunt encouraged by our Prime Minister to try to skew the debate around energy in his favour. I believe Alinta might have had some hope of taking the power station but only on the expectation that they would be heavily subsidised by the Turnbull government. I believe that they believed it was a possibility, because the Prime Minister was so determined and so politically desperate to make that proposition work.
I recently met with the mayor of Port Augusta, Sam Johnson, a very capable person, and he reminded me of Alinta's history in his own backyard. When Alinta closed down power stations without giving any real notice to the community and the council, it had devastating economic effects for Port Augusta. Thankfully his community—in part, I suspect, due to the good work of the council and the former Labor South Australian government—has regenerated itself, basically on the back of renewable energy technologies. But Alinta has a bad track record. Its Chinese-based partner, or the entity which would have controlled Alinta, I'm told is registered in the Cayman Islands, and that sends all the wrong signals to the Australian community generally. I think people know what that means.
I lament the fact that AGL's plans for investment in the upper Hunter have been frustrated and delayed. We should be getting on with the very good plan they have to ensure that the upper Hunter remains the powerhouse of New South Wales, and every day that the Prime Minister runs interference on it is a day delayed along our path to greater energy capacity as well as renewable forms of energy generation. This will create many jobs for many, many decades to come, not just for a couple of years such as with the proposed extension of Liddell. Of course coal-fired power generation will continue to play a role with the upgrade of the Bayswater Power Station, just across the road from Liddell. If AGL is allowed to get on with its plans, we will remain the powerhouse of New South Wales and we will continue to create jobs in power generation—in coal, in gas, in large-scale solar, in battery storage and pumped hydro. It's a very good plan, and the Prime Minister should get out of the way.
I'm genuinely concerned for our agriculture sector. There is a lot of talk about going to $100 billion in value by 2030. I think we can do much better than that. That is just normal trajectory. That would be a performance that would just match what we'd done for the last 10 or 20 years. We can do better, but we need real government guidance and real government leadership. We need an agriculture department that is capable, effective, efficient and properly resourced, and that's not what we have at the moment. In Senate estimates last night, we canvassed the department's 2017-18 corporate plan. Under the banner of 'Our capability', and under 'Policy' specifically, it says: Consultation with stakeholders has indicated the department needs to strengthen its capability to develop agriculture and water resources policy, and to influence other policies affecting our portfolio industries and rural communities.
In its testimony, the secretary of the department did better than that, or put the point more bluntly: the department, under the watch of Barnaby Joyce, lost its policy capacity and so far has done no better under the new minister. Nothing could be more important than policy capacity.
In their corporate plan they go on about the need to identify 'policy skills gaps', 'shifting to a longer term focus' and 'improving our engagement with stakeholders to build trust'. This is the key point: there is no trust. When you force the relocation of an entity like the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, you don't build trust with stakeholders, industry or your staff. You do just the opposite. When you take roles and responsibilities off states so that you can create a pork-barrelling exercise in the name of the Regional Investment Corporation, you don't build trust. You do just the opposite. And if we're going to be successful in agriculture, if we're going to meet our aspirations, the role of the states will be absolutely crucial. What the member for New England has done in the past, as agriculture minister, does not build trust with the states. It does exactly the opposite. When you give the live sheep trade an unconditional pass to go on with its atrocities in animal welfare, you don't build trust. You build disaster. And when you blame the regulator, your own department, for the debacle that is the live sheep trade, you don't build trust. You undermine your departmental officials and leave them with the view that they're not valued and they'd be better off somewhere else.