Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017; Second Reading
When you look at the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017, you can see a Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources who is about to get things done. Whatever it takes, he will be the minister in charge of ag and he will get things done. This is an enabling bill that's going to offer his whole sector an opportunity for them to access low-interest loans and to have a support mechanism put in place that's going to be able to assist them. Whenever there is this uncontrollable variation with the climate affecting production, they are going to have this vehicle to access.
The member for Hunter, Mr Fitzgibbon, has simply played politics with his amendment, where he moved that all words after 'that' be omitted and that 'the House declines to give this bill a second reading as it places the government's political interests ahead of the interests of Australian farmers'. So we will not be supporting the member for Hunter's amendment. We are here to get this bill through the House, if we can. We are here to give the people who are involved in agricultural businesses an opportunity to have some assistance, because we know there are a million great things happening out there in the world of agriculture and a whole range of these businesses just need a little bit of assistance along the way.
It's been put to us by the Labor Party that somehow or other we have a very poor minister for agriculture. That is not the message that we hear when we are on the ground. That is not the message that we hear when we go out around regional and rural Australia and talk about farming businesses, farming enterprises and the secondary industries associated with farming, whether they be the transport industries that hang off the back of agriculture, the processing plants that are also directly associated with agriculture, the export markets that are driven by what we're doing with agriculture or the water efficiency contracts that are out there, making sure that we are doing as much as we possibly can to save as much water as we possibly can and still increase our productivity. When we are talking to these people, the people who are actually driving the nation, driving the economy of rural and regional Australia, they are quite proud of the bloke that is known as Barnaby. He doesn't need a second name. They actually love the bloke they know as Barnaby. He's the one who's getting things done. He's the one they can relate to. He's the one who actually works for their interests. He's the one who lives in New England and comes to Canberra to work for the people of his electorate. His electorate extends far beyond that of New England. It extends right across rural and regional Australia. He doesn't need any protecting. He doesn't need any shepherding or assistance in these couple of days that he's going through. He's big enough and tough enough to deal with that himself.
This is a bill about getting things done. This is an opportunity to create the Regional Investment Corporation, a $4 billion corporation which will assist with agricultural industry businesses as they need a little bit of start-up. While I'm starting off this contribution, I would like to read in some of the accomplishments of the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources over the last 12 months since we've been in government and he has been the minister. The ag white paper continues to deliver real, tangible benefits, and that is what this minister is about. $250 million a year is going into farm business concessional loans, and we know how important and successful these concessional loans have been. When the dairy industry hit the hurdles that it did, a little over 12 months ago, its cries for assistance were met with an increase in concessional loans. Barnaby Joyce went down and met with the dairy farmers and was able to push through some of the farm household allowance issues preventing assistance going to farming families that were stuck with either Murray Goulburn or Fonterra and had seen their farmgate milk price slashed to an amount that was actually below production costs. Again, people in real trouble were able to go to a minister who understood their industry and was able to assist with the farm household allowances and/or low interest concessional loans.
We have over 1,200 farming businesses in Australia now accessing low interest concessional loans. There is over $670 million in loans out there right now. Australians who were finding the banks' interest too onerous in these tough times were able to access these low interest concessional loans. That's 1,200 people who are anywhere from around $20,000 to $50,000 a year better off by accessing these low-interest loans. That's not counting the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of farmers who started this process of obtaining a government low interest concessional loan, then took that threat back to their own commercial bank and were able to get them to sharpen their pencils and bring down the cost of their existing loan. Without following through on the full threat of moving their indemnities and assets across to the government funded low-interest loans, they were able to stay with the commercial entities. Tens of thousands of other farming businesses have benefited from the fact that we have this instrument out there and are able to offer it to people in trouble.
We have put another $200 million into strengthening biosecurity in this country. These things have a genuine impact on our agricultural businesses. We have done amazing things with free trade agreements. The boost that has come from our free trade agreements has been phenomenal. The free trade agreements we signed with Japan, South Korea and China have seen enormous increases in our amounts of trade with those countries. We've also seen the food labelling laws—another election promise that Barnaby Joyce was able to push through now that we're in government. He's been able to get it to a stage now where Australians will be able to shop with genuine confidence that the labels on the goods in the supermarket will give them an accurate, simple, basic understanding of the content inside those products on the shelf. They will have a very accurate understanding, with a quick glance, of what percentage of these products were in fact made in Australia, what was grown in Australia, and what's been grown somewhere else and simply packaged in Australia and put on the shelf as a product of Australia.
The wine equalisation tax is another area where this minister has been able to push ahead and reach an agreement. This has been kicking around in the wine industry for 10 to 12 years. A whole range of interests were competing against each other and nobody was quite able to put this one to bed, but Barnaby Joyce has been able to come into this area—
The minister for agriculture has been able to put this issue of the wine equalisation tax to bed and has seen enormous benefits because of that. Now we have an industry that will continue to grow, with the confidence that everybody is paying the right amount of tax. When the sugar industry was having its internal troubles, they didn't run to Joel Fitzgibbon, the member for Hunter, to see if he could help; they simply came to Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister, the leader of the National Party, and he was able to put the pressure on the industry to fix this. Again, these are the types of actions that are needed when you are in the industry and looking for genuine leadership and an understanding of the industry and the industry's concerns so that you can fix the problem when the commercialities of the industry are caught between the processors and the providers of the primary produce.
One of the biggest things we have been able to do is put some genuine stewardship around the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan for a balance between environmental water and water for active and productive agriculture. This is an area where we have a whole raft of competing elements. Certainly we have the environmental group, who want unspecified quantities of water returned to the river system so that the Murray mouth can be flushed out. The lakes down around Adelaide are estuarine by nature, but the environmental movement wants to keep these estuarine lakes as freshwater lakes. They want to keep the Murray mouth open, even though historically it has always closed over in times of low flow. These unnatural environmental outcomes are somehow or other the Labor Party's policies. They would have the Murray River doing unnatural things because it suits their green constituency.
The free trade agreements with Korea and with China and Japan have seen incredible results recently in beef, table grapes, macadamias and a whole range of horticultural produce, and these are further benefits we are finding from the leadership of this minister. What we're also talking about is projects that are needed within the irrigation regions, such as the work that Rubicon Water are doing, and not just throughout northern Victoria. They are a Shepparton based company but they are now working in China, India and North America. They are creating thousands and thousands of megalitres of available water because they are creating all these water savings.
There are a whole raft of on-farm efficiencies that are quite expensive, but there are productivity benefits to having your farm properly laser graded and properly channelled, with the most modern fittings and technology. This is where, again, we are going to be able to save literally billions of dollars in water, which can be used either for the environment or for further agricultural production. Although some of these on-farm improvements are very expensive, this is where an instrument like the Regional Investment Corporation will be able to offer businesses an opportunity to invest in agriculture at a lower interest rate. That is something that will be snapped up. It will be very well received. That's why when people look at what the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources is doing they say: 'Here's a minister who's actually getting things done. He's giving us a chance.'
We have seen gene technology come to the fore in relation to the dairy cattle industry. Artificial insemination has been around for many a year, but it has got to the stage now where you can actually take the genes from a $250,000 heifer, mix them in a test tube with the semen of a $200,000 bull, and start rolling out a production line of dairy cattle. Where they were once only able to produce the heifers, the females, the ability that science is now offering agriculture in gene technology is unbelievable. Again, this type of work is expensive, and industry needs to have a vehicle such as the one the minister for agriculture is presenting to the Australian people.
If you want to make a difference in ag and you want to work your way through to the top, these technologies and advancements and this introduction of science into agriculture shouldn't be available just for those who have enough money to do all this themselves. And this is what Barnaby Joyce, the minister for agriculture, is doing. He is offering low-interest loans, offering finance to these businesses that have an opportunity to put food on our table and to increase productivity. He's the one who is actually getting this work done.
When you look at the Labor Party, they have no credibility when it comes to agriculture. The biggest decision the Labor Party made when they were last in government was that they stopped the live cattle export trade because of a Four Corners story. They just stopped it. They banned it for months, and then they decided they'd get it up and going again, and they were surprised to see that Indonesia wasn't quite so readily accessible anymore. That decision from the Labor Party cost beef producers in this country tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. No-one can find the minister who did this. No-one can find anybody who actually made this decision. It must have been made by someone who was invisible. Whenever you put the Labor Party in charge—we've seen what they will do with water; we've seen what they did with the live cattle exports, and they need to be protected— (Time expired)
I rise to actually speak about the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 and to give some context about why we are debating this bill today. Listening to the member for Murray, he basically went around the world—I would say more of a eulogy to the Deputy Prime Minister—and spoke about the wondrous greatness of the man that is Barnaby Joyce. Listening to him very carefully and sitting through that speech, I noticed one thing: he listed a great list of achievements, but the one achievement the people of Australia and the people of New England would like to know about their member is: is he able to sit in this House? Is he legitimate? Can he serve as the agriculture and water minister? Can he serve in the cabinet? Can he serve as a local member? That's the question. He is so—
A government member interjecting—
Indeed, we need consistent rules across both sides of the chamber. You're correct, Mr Deputy Speaker. And if there was ever a case of pork-barrelling to the electorate, this bill is nothing more than a pork barrel. We know that this government works from inept policy to inept policy. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister can't think of anything better than wasting taxpayers' dollars in what can only be described as a senseless move to set up the Regional Investment Corporation—we didn't hear about that from the member for Murray or any of those opposite—at a cost to taxpayers of $81.4 million over the forward estimates. We know the Deputy Prime Minister has a lot on his plate, but reading this bill and going through what it's going to mean, the purpose of this bill is to establish an organisation to do something that the states and the Northern Territory are already doing. The RIC will administer farm business loans, as we heard, and, on behalf of the Commonwealth, administer grants of financial assistance to the states and the Northern Territory for water infrastructure projects, concessional loans, from 1 July 2018. But the loans have already been delivered by the state and Northern Territory governments and will continue to be administered by the states and the Northern Territory.
So this can hardly be true, when, as a result of all of this, taxpayers are going to be sent a bill of $81.4 million. Further to this, the Regional Investment Corporation, put forward by the potentially invalid Deputy Prime Minister and invalid government, has been developed with no cost-benefit analysis as to whether the corporation will actually deliver on any of the claims—a great idea apparently by this Deputy Prime Minister, backed in by members of the government more desperate to prop up the problems of the Deputy Prime Minister than actually talk about the bill, but without any cost-benefit analysis put forward by the government.
We know they have some form in this area, because there's been no transparent or fair process undertaken by the government in determining where to locate the Regional Investment Corporation. The bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, and they tabled their findings only a matter of days ago. The committee recommended the bill be passed in its current form, yet the government has already made amendments to its own bill. We know there's a lot of confusion on that side of the parliament, whether it be about legitimacy to serve in the parliament, about turning up to vote or about seconding and moving the wrong motions. A Senate standing committee recommends passing the bill in its current form, yet the government is making amendments.
The Deputy Prime Minister, we know, has been declared a New Zealand citizen, yet the Prime Minister says he can stay, when we know the other senior minister responsible for this has had to stand down. It hasn't been a great week or month for the National Party. Where's the consistency there? The government knows that the corporation is going to be established in the member for Calare's electorate. We know this isn't a coincidence, but we know that the government is claiming that the establishment of the RIC is 'the logical step in meeting the government's commitment to agriculture, as set out in the landmark Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, in excess of $4 billion.'
This statement is exaggerated and gives the impression that somehow the government has provided meaningful investment in agriculture. It has not. In fact the bulk of the $4 billion is made up of concessional loans that farmers are currently not taking up. We know this is because of the design of the program, with the government failing to properly consult or understand if their new drought loan scheme would be attractive to drought-affected farmers.
The RIC will face the same difficulties. Its role will be to provide loans to farm businesses subject to the applicant meeting certain criteria which will be centred on the viability of the farm business. It's important to understand that the RIC will be bank 'of last resort', but the farm businesses will need to be assessed as being viable. Whether a farm business is determined as being viable has been a major issue for the states when developing the guidelines for concessional loans, with no signs that this will be resolved under the new proposed RIC. On top of all of this, the government has not taken any genuine consultation about the functions and responsibilities of the RIC, and is establishing the RIC in Orange with no cost-benefit analysis about the outgoing costs either.
What's more, the government has chosen to establish the RIC in Orange using the same type of government policy order that was used when the then Deputy Prime Minister announced the decision—and who can forget this one—to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to the northern New South Wales town of Armidale, in the Deputy Prime Minister's electorate of New England, by 2019. As reported by the independent government news website, the APVMA relocation, which involved about 190 staff, mostly highly specialised, failed a government-commissioned cost-benefit analysis.
We get lots of lectures from those opposite about reining in expenditure of taxpayers' dollars, and about government efficiency, but when the rubber hits the road, time and time again they've just been found nothing more than professional pork barrels. We know that that decision led to many staff walking out the door, including the chief executive and some of our top regulatory scientists and lawyers. The government also conducted its own $272,000 cost-benefit analysis, which found there were no material economic advantages to support the relocation. Think about this: they are making decisions in their own interests, not making decisions in the national interest.
Further to this, Ernst and Young established the move would cost at least $23.19 million. This includes redundancies for 85 per cent of the APVMA staff the report identified as unwilling to move to Armidale. The plan to move the agricultural chemicals regulator exposed the government, we know, to further ridicule after it was revealed that the Canberra based public servants were working out of Armidale's McDonald's, using the free wi-fi because they had nowhere else to work. That came out at a February Senate estimates hearing.
I'm speaking to the amendments. Perhaps you could help the assistant minister, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons, just to keep up with the process of the parliament. It might be useful. He is in charge of something; I would hope that he could understand how the parliament works. But, then again, he was one of the rogue 15 who refused to turn up to vote yesterday, when the government again lost another—
I will take the interjection each time they raise it, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Mallee of the National Party defended that decision by saying:
I guess much public policy is constructed in coffee shops around Canberra by public departments.
It's good to know that the government is happy not only to slug the taxpayer with expensive and unneeded relocation costs, much like in the bill that is before the House, but to leave public department workers with nowhere to work.
Who could forget the government document that was leaked to Fairfax in April which gives the APVMA staff suggested scripted replies to recite if they were asked about the relocation? Do you remember that one? They were for use during 'barbecue conversations' and 'other social settings'. The guideline came from the chief operating officer, under a section headed 'Script and Standard Words', a series of bullet points offering conversation suggestions to use for 'all audiences'. One piece of barbecue banter included:
It's no secret the agency is changing—and that doesn't have to be a bad thing.
Employees unsure if they will make the move are advised to say:
I'm listening to what our executive have to say about the transition, but for the moment I'm getting on with the job.
What episode of Utopia did this government rip that out of? Talk about unwilling to listen, talk about unwilling to govern—now they're just simply willing to pork barrel.
On top of that, we've seen a Senate committee report, The operation, effectiveness, and consequences of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (Location of Corporate Commonwealth Entities) Order 2016. We note the terms of reference for this report noted the committee would focus on the policy of relocating Commonwealth corporate entities with agriculture policies or regulatory responsibilities. In the report handed down on 9 June, the recommendations included:
The committee recommends that the move of the APVMA be paused until the APVMA concludes its review of its business model.
And it recommended that:
… the Finance Minister apply greater scrutiny to future requests or orders to be made under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 with a specific focus on consideration being given to the following:
They're a bit anti a cost-benefit analysis on the other side. They don't like the taxpayer getting value for money.
I will take the interjection from the genius at the despatch box, the member for Hume. We're now getting lectures about how great the NBN is and how much the government is to be congratulated. I have heard it all. I have heard the minister and future leader ranting and raving about how the regional communities which she allegedly represents have never been so lucky as under the NBN and that they should be grateful for an inferior service, delays and inferior delivery—
I was just taking the interjections from the minister at the table, but I'll continue. Thank you for your protection. The committee recommended:
So I ask—through you, Mr Deputy Speaker—the assistant minister at the table: where's the cost-benefit analysis for this bill? If he would like to jump up now and table it, I will yield the balance of my time to the government. If he can jump up now and provide that, I will remain silent.
He's just yelling out now, 'It doesn't exist and we don't have to provide one. We don't have to answer to regional Australia.' I say government should answer when legislation and proposals are put on the table. He claims that the government knows best. Well, we on this side know from listening to our communities, from listening to regional and remote Australia, that they are being badly let down by this government. They are being badly neglected by a government and, let's face it, by a Deputy Prime Minister that we don't even know should even be in this parliament.
The assistant minister is still interjecting, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons—defying you, defying everyone else. But, then, we know arrogance is a sign of this government. From listening to them today and listening to them speaking about this bill—not providing evidence about what the benefits are, certainly not providing a cost-benefit analysis—we know that, when it comes to delivering for regional and rural Australians, they talk big, they talk a big game, but they deliver very, very little.
We know, when it comes to delivering for those on the ground, including my own home state, this government simply cannot be trusted—a bit like a Deputy Prime Minister unable to fill in basic forms, and no-one is able to determine whether he should be the responsible minister. It will be interesting to note whether he comes into this parliament and actually makes announcements. We know he's gone into some sort of witness protection program. But we know that this bill is nothing more than the pork barrel that the government has been continuing on, and we will continue to expose that every single time. (Time expired)
I welcome the opportunity to return this debate to some facts—the fact that the coalition government is delivering on its election commitment to establish a Regional Investment Corporation, to streamline delivery of up to $4 billion in farm business concessional loans and the national water infrastructure loan facility. The corporation, as we know, will be established in Orange, in the central west of New South Wales, and it will be open for business from 1 July 2018.
The corporation will be established as a separate entity within the Agriculture and Water Resources portfolio, the concept being that farmers will be able to access farm business concessional loans quickly and easily with a streamlined and nationally consistent application and approval process. The corporation will also provide the flexibility for the Australian government to respond quickly and efficiently to emerging issues such as drought or even an industry crisis. Quicker and easier access and more flexibility are envisaged through the Commonwealth being able to act directly—rather than, as was the case previously, through state based agencies. The corporation will administer up to $2 billion in concessional loans designed to encourage growth, investment and resilience in our rural and regional communities. Concessional loans support the long-term strength, resilience and profitability of farm businesses by helping them to build and maintain diversity in the markets that they supply domestically and internationally.
The corporation will also, as I said, deliver the $2 billion national water infrastructure loan facility, which has been established to provide concessional loans to the states and territories to fast-track priority water infrastructure projects. The facility provides the incentive, therefore, for states and territories to get priority water infrastructure projects underway in order to increase agricultural productivity, generate local jobs and simply create more opportunities and growth for regional communities.
Labor says it will scrap the Regional Investment Corporation. Following the 2017 budget, Labor announced they would not support this corporation in the future and proposed to pocket $28.5 million, they said, in establishment costs as budget savings. However, over the past four years, the Commonwealth has paid $37.65 million to the state governments and the Northern Territory government to administer various programs. Therefore, establishing the corporation will be, in its own right, a significant budget saving, to the benefit of the Australian taxpayer.
Of course, Labor falsely claims farmers are choosing not to take up these loans. The reality is that 1,342 farm businesses have been approved for $724.4 million of assistance. In contrast, therefore, to Labor's bleatings and continued lack of understanding of agriculture and its importance to our economy, the government, through the Regional Investment Corporation, will be focused on assistance that includes the Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme, drought assistance concessional loans, dairy recovery concessional loans and business improvement concessional loans. The Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme assists eligible farmers to continue to improve their farm businesses and to become financially self-reliant—helping their local economies and communities, therefore, to prosper. Drought assistance concessional loans can be used by a farm business so it can maintain operation during a drought, to recover when that drought breaks and to prepare for future droughts. Dairy recovery concessional loans are available to assist commercially viable dairy farm businesses affected by the retrospective decisions in 2016 by Murray Goulburn, Fonterra and National Dairy Products to reduce farm gate milk prices. I note, as a former state minister for agriculture in Queensland, that at the time our state agency, the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority, or QRAA, was the leading agency in the country and was asked by the federal government to administer schemes in both the Northern Territory and Western Australia. I also note that Queensland farmers were collectively the largest recipients of some of the concessional loan categories.
It should be noted that the Commonwealth's drought policy program seeks to help build the sustainability and resilience of farmers, to help them to prepare to manage through droughts and other challenges that affect farming industries. When the coalition came into power in 2013, we inherited essentially an empty cupboard on drought policy. Labor had abolished the longstanding exceptional circumstances drought support policy and cut the then agriculture department's budget in half. They abolished Land & Water Australia and threatened the longstanding policy to match farmers' research and development levies, with the former Labor agriculture minister at the time, Tony Burke, asking the Productivity Commission to review the rural research and development system. Labor wanted to review it such that research and development funds, which are matched by taxpayers, would end up going towards their own government priorities, in contrast with the policies identified by farmers themselves, who pay those levies.
Exacerbating those problems under Labor—particularly in the drought-ravaged regions of Northern Australia, in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia—was Labor's economic and trade catastrophe of the live cattle export ban. That has been documented widely as an exemplar of Labor's ignorance of agriculture, regional Australia and our international trade relationships. Certainly on the eastern seaboard, and elsewhere in our country, the beef industry—and not just the live cattle export industry—continues to recover from that catastrophe. By contrast, the coalition has confirmed that farmers' research and development funds should continue to be prioritised, on behalf of the levy payers that pay levies into those funds, towards projects that have the intention of boosting farm gate returns, of putting in place assistance measures where needed for this very important sector of our economy that is the basis of most, if not all, of our regional communities, and developing the trade deals vital for our future prosperity.
In terms of the Regional Investment Corporation details, first of all can I say that concessional loans is an issue in which we must have a government focus to support and facilitate an industry that is first and foremost focused on productivity through production and marketing systems throughout such systems. I'm talking there, of course, about production related research and development; the trade deals for which our government has gained accolades from the agricultural industry right across Australia; the detail of trade protocols that must then be worked through and are being worked through with the likes of Korea, Japan, China and other countries that our Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and his cabinet colleagues continue to focus on; and small business support in regional areas, especially ones that are farming and agribusiness focused, through taxation relief, the instant asset write-off, of course, and the like. In terms of agriculture and agribusiness in our country, the government must be there to support, where necessary, regional communities through the programs that will come under the purview of the Regional Investment Corporation, such as the ones we are discussing today, for drought and other negative impacts, industry issues and, at times, market failure.
The second key area I want to address in a little further detail is the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, which I think provides an exciting basis for regional development in the future across the country. Unfortunately, the likes of state Labor in my state of Queensland, for example, are proving to be totally unwilling to participate in the scheme to the detriment of regional economies in our great state, such as that in the region around the Rookwood Weir proposal that the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources promotes vigorously at every opportunity. We know that Labor and the Greens don't like the idea of catalytic infrastructure projects, such as weirs, dams and water pipelines, that promise so much to the productive future of regional Australia. The facts clearly reveal the coalition government, in contrast to those opposite, through the Regional Investment Corporation, are very much focused on such productive infrastructure to support such industries, producers and regional economies alike.
The latter period of my term as agriculture minister in Queensland coincided, if you like, with the member for Hunter's brief stint as the federal Labor Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. He and I very clearly discussed the utter confusion created by his Labor predecessor, the then Senator Ludwig, by announcing suggested assistance programs that had no details and no time lines and were all done, I can confirm, with no reference to industry across the country, including AgForce and the Queensland Farmers' Federation in my state of Queensland, the National Farmers' Federation itself, of course, and other state agencies right across the country. I was pleased to see, therefore, that, upon the change of government and the appointment of the member for New England as our Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, that we saw immediate moves towards clarity on assistance schemes for rural producers and regional communities. He, I and colleagues across the country moved very quickly through detailed and constructive conversations about the contrast between state-based farm assistance delivery mechanisms, as I said in our case to QRAA, or the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority, and the processes that he quite rightly was focused on in his reinvigorated federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
As I said, at one stage, such was its expertise, QRAA was the leading state agency and was required to administer schemes for other regions, such as the Northern Territory and Western Australia. But I could very clearly understand the federal minister's frustrations, though, with some state agency processes that simply did not facilitate the timely and responsive distribution of federal assistance that he, as federal minister, was and remains intent upon. I therefore congratulate our Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources on this move towards national consistency, responsiveness and, ultimately, fair dinkum service to farmers and regional communities in each state and territory when the need presents itself.
As a passionate regional member of this House, I also wish to make comment on the establishment of the Regional Investment Corporation in the location of Orange in the electorate of Calare, represented by my colleague Mr Andrew Gee. Here is our government walking the talk in terms of encouraging regional development and decentralisation through our country. I'm aware that such topics have been considered over recent terms of government and through various inquiries, and I acknowledge that the current Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, which I chair, will undertake its own considerations of such matters in the coming months. But I believe the establishment of the corporation in a regional location such as Orange should be recognised as a very commendable move, and something that any regional member of this House would welcome in their own electorates—certainly I would in Groom. I congratulate the member for Calare on his successful advocacy in this regard.
The Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 gives effect to the coalition's election commitment to establish such a corporation. As I've outlined, as a Commonwealth corporate entity, it will deliver our farm business concessional loan and water infrastructure loan programs. And the fact that it will do so from a regional location such as Orange represents an appropriate and welcome move from the minister for agriculture. I, therefore, congratulate him on behalf of regional Australia and producers from one end to the other. I thank him and his team for delivering on this government commitment that will benefit all of us throughout the nation.
I stand to support the amendment that opposes the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017, which is before us. It is another demonstration of pork-barrelling by this Deputy Prime Minister, and this government, in a way that is just trying to shore up his mates in the National Party. The Regional Investment Corporation is first and foremost a pork-barrel exercise by this government. That's what it is. I'm also going to set out in my contribution today why this is actually a very bad example of decentralisation: Orange is the wrong town.
Can I begin, though, by saying loudly and clearly that regional development is important. However, I want to put clearly on the record that it should never be about taking public sector jobs—jobs that are in established networks—and resources from Canberra and dumping them in regional areas like we have seen in Armidale. There needs to be research, support and evidence and a process in place to demonstrate that the place where we're establishing our public sector and our public sector jobs is actually going to work.
The Regional Investment Finance Corporation, which this bill seeks to create, will administer farm business loans on behalf of the Commonwealth—well, it will try and do that—when our state governments are already doing this. This is an example of creating more bureaucracy. That is what this government has done. It also doesn't address the core issue that we have with the Drought Concessional Loans Scheme, which is that it was set up poorly by this government, and, therefore, it has been poorly taken up. I have met with the dairy farmers, who the previous member spoke about, in the Murray region. Time and time again, they told me that one of the fundamental problems with the way the government had designed the concessional loan scheme was they couldn't get their bank to be involved. They weren't willing to be part of the refinancing process. The banks themselves weren't interested in the way the government had set up the Drought Concessional Loans Scheme. Farmers also told me that what they didn't want was more debt. They were over government policy that was all about extending their debt. It wasn't what they wanted. They wanted support in upgrading and updating their infrastructure, but what they didn't want was more debt. That was just another problem that they identified in the government's approach to agriculture.
So, why is it that I am arguing that Orange is not the best choice for this new Regional Investment Corporation?
I point out that the government did very little research. The Bendigo Advertisersaid:
Bendigo was one of seven regional centres considered for the new bureaucracy along with Albury-Wodonga, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Lithgow and Toowoomba.
Yet the government didn't ask the City of Greater Bendigo how we could best host this facility, didn't engage with Bendigo Bank, the largest bank outside a metropolitan city, with its head office in Bendigo, and didn't consult with Rural Finance, also based in Bendigo. It was just a gift to a National Party mate. They didn't do their homework or make the business case as to why Orange should be the home for the Regional Investment Corporation. The article continued:
Bendigo has missed out on being the home of a new $28 million Commonwealth regional banking agency to deliver $4 billion in loans.
I've already established there's a real question mark about that, because our farmers don't like the way it has been structured. We were one of seven areas to be considered, but how were we considered? What work was done? What research was done?
At the time I also asked what impact this would have on the jobs already in Bendigo. What functions will it try to take over that Rural Finance and the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, both based in Bendigo, are involved in? The comments at the time, from the Nationals senator whose office is in Bendigo, were disappointing:
… the government body would bring jobs to Orange—
Not Bendigo; Orange. The senator went on to say:
[Bendigo] weren't successful this time, but we'll just keep on batting.
That doesn't give much comfort to the people who work for the Bendigo Bank or the people who work for Rural Finance. This is what the senator said:
Having a facility like the Rural Investment Corporation in a place like Orange, there might be people growing up … in regional Victoria that, once they go to Melbourne or Sydney, and get that commerce degree, they'll be able to seek out a job opportunity … in the Rural Investment Corporation in Orange.
You have to do better than that. That is an appalling response to the people of Bendigo—that your kids might move to Melbourne or Sydney to study at university and then one day may go to Orange. That is not how it works.
We have La Trobe University's Bendigo campus, whose finance degree already has graduates. When they finish their studies, they transition into working for Bendigo Bank and Rural Finance. We already have established pathways. In fact, Bendigo Bank and the Rural Finance Corporation, both based in Bendigo, comprise the largest financial sector hub in regional Australia. It's not Orange, it's not Wagga Wagga; it's Bendigo. Over a thousand people are employed at the head office of Bendigo Bank, and a couple of hundred are employed in Rural Finance—the state based enterprise that the former Liberal-National government in Victoria, respecting the work of Bendigo Bank and acknowledging the expertise in our town, sold to Bendigo Bank.
It's not just our finance sector that is strong in Bendigo. The Vic Farmers Federation is based in Bendigo. A large network of financial planners are based in Bendigo. We have all the support services for not just Victorian based farmers but South Australian and southern New South Wales based farmers, all who engage with and have their finances organised through Bendigo. When I met with Rural Finance during the Sheep and Wool Show that was hosted in Bendigo, they said that they have customers and clients throughout Australia. They already have the network. They can't work out why the government would plonk this new bureaucracy in Orange when they could've brought it to Bendigo's financial sector.
The other thing it demonstrates is the unwillingness of this government, when it comes to decentralisation, ag finances and our farmers, to work with our state governments. In a meeting with the Prime Minister, the Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, said that if he's looking at creating a body such as this, he should consider Bendigo, because we have 'expertise in finance'. Dan Andrews first suggested to the Prime Minister that Bendigo would be a prime location to host this facility. But no: rather than working with the states, looking at best practice, and working with the bodies who will ultimately still deliver these loans this is, instead, another pork-barrelling exercise whose impact on current jobs in the finance sector is unknown.
In raising the concerns on behalf of my community I did write to the Deputy Prime Minister back in May. I'm still waiting for a response. I did ask these questions. Why was Bendigo overlooked, given the workforce that we have, being the home of the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, which is the only Australian bank headquarters located outside a capital city? We have a highly skilled workforce with expertise in the health, finance and education sectors. So why was Bendigo overlooked? I also asked about whether the new corporation would have a negative impact on the functions and the jobs at Rural Finance, which is part of the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. Rural Finance offers agriculture-related services such as a drought concessional loans scheme, a farm business loans scheme and other industry and business loans. So I want to know the impact that this government will have on the people and jobs at Rural Finance.
I'm still waiting for a response. I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister has been quite distracted—perhaps he knew back then of the problem with his citizenship—but quite frankly it's not good enough for the people of Bendigo and central Victoria that they continue to wait for answers from this government.
This is one reason Labor is opposed to this government's approach to agriculture and decentralisation. Time and time again we have seen pork-barrelling from this government. It's the only way to describe it. We see policy on the run, belated coming out, changing the rules, setting up new rules. They first of all said that to be considered for a shift of public sector agencies and jobs you needed to have a stand-alone university and you needed to be more than 100 kilometres from a metropolitan city. Well, that original proposal put forward by this government ruled out every single part of Victoria, because while Bendigo is more than 100 kilometres from Melbourne its university is a satellite campus of a university based in Melbourne. So then they said, 'No, we're going to change that.' Their policy on decentralisation and regional development is a shambles. It is nothing but a smokescreen to try and cover up the fact that they are just pork-barrelling for their own electorates.
Don't get me wrong: I support the concept of growing public sector jobs in the regions. However, what this government does time and time again is shut down jobs in one part of the community in regional Australia and open them up in another. That's not creating new jobs, that's displacing jobs. That's creating uncertainty within those agencies, creating problems and then moving them somewhere else. An example from my electorate is that we used to be the home of the Australian Emergency Management Institute on Mount Macedon. In an area that was devastated by bushfires we had world-class experts and a place for training management expertise in emergency disasters. Lots of people who work in the emergency services space spoke very highly of the quality and skill of this institute. Then one night, in a federal budget, they announced they were closing it and turning it into a virtual institute so that people could do the training online, missing the critical fact that they were losing 60 jobs in the Macedon Ranges and losing the ability to debrief, train, discuss and develop expertise and excellence in terms of emergency management face to face. Later we found that they established a new part of it in Brisbane. That's not new jobs for Brisbane—that jobs stolen from Bendigo.
They did the same with the ATO. They shut down the Bendigo ATO office, as well as other ATO offices around the country, and announced great news: 600 new ATO jobs in Gosford. Again, all they did was move jobs around, displacing families, sacking workers and creating instability in delivery of service. That is not good decentralisation policy; that is chaotic policy, which is about nothing but trying to deliver votes and save your own job.
Labor is opposed to this bill because it establishes the Regional Investment Corporation but there was no business case done and there was no decent consultation work done with the states. You have to be able to partner with the states for this to be successful. It also doesn't address the underlying problems that we have with the drought concessional loan scheme, it doesn't go to the core needs of the farmers, and it moves people away from where the expertise is in rural finance. People of Bendigo and central Victoria shake their heads at the way in which this government is behaving, particularly when it comes to our town and particularly when it comes to jobs. We on this side call on the government to do better. When you are talking about establishing an institute like this, do the research: is it necessary? Will it add value? Will it create jobs, not take away jobs? Will it build upon the expertise we have in our regions?
I would like to think that in Bendigo we are experts at everything, but we're not. We don't have a good dairy footprint. Bendigo would not be a good place for the headquarters of a dairy institute. However, what we are very good at is rural finance. What we are very good at is making sure that we support farmers, support innovation and support people's access to capital so they can grow their businesses. Having a facility like the Regional Investment Corporation in Orange does only one thing; it satisfies National Party voters. It satisfies the Deputy Prime Minister's push for decentralisation but it doesn't actually demonstrate best practice in decentralisation or regional development. I encourage all those in this House to rethink the move the government is making and to support the amendment moved by the member for Hunter. We are serious about regional development. This is not it.
I'm going to start my contribution by reflecting on the speech that the member for Bendigo has just given in the parliament. I must say I'm quite confused. The member spent the first half of her contribution talking about why the Regional Investment Corporation should be in Bendigo and then the second half of her speech talking about why the Regional Investment Corporation should not exist at all. So, really, it doesn't make a lot of sense. What was most significant about the member for Bendigo's contribution was that she spent no time talking about our farmers. She spent no time recognising the incredible contribution that they make to this nation and the incredible importance of agriculture to our nation. That's of course what the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 is all about.
The member for Bendigo was also very critical of the Deputy Prime Minister and his focus on decentralisation. Well, that's not surprising from one of the members opposite, who are, particularly in Victoria, so city-centric that they even forget farmers exist half the time. We have heard that time and time again. And under Daniel Andrews we have seen an incredibly city-centric state government with an incredible focus on the needs of people living in metropolitan Melbourne and not nearly enough focus on those living in regional Victoria. What a shame we didn't hear the member for Bendigo take the opportunity to support decentralisation, which is a very important part of our government's agenda. I am very, very proud of how we are supporting decentralisation, because it is delivering, in spades, an important policy for our region, in Corangamite and across the greater Geelong region.
While this was a bipartisan decision, it was with great pride that the Minister for Social Services joined me in Geelong to turn the sod on the beginning of the construction of the National Disability Insurance Agency. I take issue with the member for Bendigo's reflection that it's not really appropriate to move public servants out of Canberra. We think it's very important that we spread these agencies around the nation, and Geelong is a very significant example. That is going to be an incredible organisation in Geelong. It is already up and running, of course, but the new national headquarters, once they are built, will bring literally hundreds of jobs to our region. We have also brought to Geelong the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Data Acquisition Centre—another great investment of the Turnbull government bringing hundreds of jobs to Geelong and, again, another example of how we are working hard to embrace decentralisation, to stand up for regional communities, to stand up for farmers and to make sure that the regions are not forgotten, as they were under Labor.
The Regional Investment Corporation Bill delivers on an important election commitment that we made to establish a Regional Investment Corporation to be the single delivery agency for the Commonwealth's Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme, the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility and any other future programs. This is incredibly important, because it means that in the future farmers will be able to access farm business concessional loan funding quickly and easily, with a streamlined and nationally consistent application and approval process. In the wake of our very important announcement prior to the election last year of the dairy concessional loan package and the dairy rescue package, we saw issues with the Victorian government failing to deliver that program as it was intended. So we think that this is going to be much more efficient. We saw that previously, with each state delivering the program, loan decisions were not being made in a consistent way across the country. The Regional Investment Corporation will administer up to $2 billion in concessional loans and that's designed to encourage growth, investment and resilience in our rural and regional communities. The RIC will also deliver the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility. Again, it is very, very important that we have a streamlined and more efficient approach than we have had in the past.
To date, almost $725 million in farm business concessional loans have been approved to over 1,340 farm businesses, with over 1,100 farm businesses being approved for a drought related or farm finance concessional loan as well. And 228 farm businesses, which equates to some $129 million, have been approved for a dairy recovery concessional loan. So, once again, we see the Turnbull government standing up for regional communities. I'm incredibly proud of this particular announcement and the fact that we are, again, delivering another one of our important election commitments.
As I said, we received a tirade of complaints from the member for Bendigo, but there was very poor focus on the needs of regional communities. Perhaps there is no greater example of need than when the dairy farmers in Victoria hit very tough times. That was very much exacerbated because of the actions of companies such as Murray Goulburn and Fonterra and those terrible clawbacks, which have, in part, been remedied. I certainly welcome the ACC's decision to commence legal proceedings, because the actions of Murray Goulburn, frankly, were utterly disgraceful. Legal proceedings are on foot where Murray Goulburn has been accused of unconscionable conduct and of making false or misleading representation. When that occurred, we moved very quickly as a government to stand up for farmers. $550 million in Recovery Concessional Loans were announced. We also announced $900,000 for an additional nine rural financial counsellors, $900,000 for Dairy Australia's Tactics for Tight Times and various other measures to support the farmers. I have to say, while there are still challenges ahead, the dairy farmers in Corangamite and in south-west Victoria are certainly doing a lot better.
They are also doing a lot better because we are investing right across the board in regional communities through our Building Better Regions Fund, a very significant fund investing in community infrastructure and local programs to ensure that every single regional community has a voice. In Corangamite we are investing the total value of this program—more than half a billion dollars—in duplicating the Princes Highway. That has absolutely inspired business investment and confidence with a road from Geelong to Colac. Now we see a situation in Colac where there is a housing shortage because of the amount of employment in the town and because of the fact that unemployment has gone from double figures, when Labor was in power, down to under five per cent. That is why we invest in this important infrastructure. It is because it drives jobs, drives investment, brings industries into the regions and, of course, builds that much-needed confidence that did not exist under the previous Labor government.
We have put record funding into the Roads to Recovery Program—$40 million. We're upgrading the Great Ocean Road. This is the road that Labor forgot. This is the road that the previous Labor government refused to fund. This government, recognising the national significance of this road and the geotechnical challenges in maintaining this road, have now put in $50 million. That has made an incredible difference to communities along the Great Ocean Road and, of course, to our tourism and visitor economy, which is so important for Victoria.
One of the greatest contrasts between our government and those opposite is investment in mobile communications. What a poor reflection it is on the Labor Party that they did not see any value in investing in improving mobile communications in Australia. We are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into that program. Some 18 mobile base stations are being funded in Corangamite. There are many challenges, of course. That program, too, is making a significant difference because, for the first time, regional communities feel that they have a voice under the Liberal-National federal coalition. The NBN is being rolled out. That was a very paltry performance under the previous government. Over 50,000 homes are now NBN-ready in Corangamite.
Another incredibly significant investment in regional communities is the regional rail program across Victoria. I commend the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the member for Gippsland, for his commitment as well. In Corangamite, right through to Warrnambool and Wannon—there was great support from the member for Wannon as well—we are investing $224 million in upgrading passenger rail. I campaigned night and day for this investment, and I'm very, very proud that the track between Waurn Ponds and South Geelong is being duplicated. Mind you, we are concerned about the state's slowness in delivering its business plan. But we are pleased that, after a lot of campaigning and advocacy, this program has been accepted by the state government and we're now seeing those critical upgrades.
We need a fast train between Melbourne and Geelong. The Regional Rail Link—another absolutely dismal Labor project, frankly—is a multibillion dollar project that has now delivered a suburban rail service to the people of Geelong. The Regional Rail Link has been a disaster for regional communities in Colac, Birregurra, Warrnambool and Geelong whereby the rail is now going via places such as Tarneit. It really has been a monumental waste of money. It needs to be fixed.
Another big focus that I have been working very hard on is the delivery of a city deal for the Geelong and Great Ocean Road region. I'm pleased the state has finally determined that the Geelong and Corangamite regions should be the priority location for a city deal in Victoria. But, of course, there is a lot of hard work to be done and we're still working very hard to deliver a city deal for our regions.
So I commend this bill to the House. This is another example of our government standing up for farmers. This comes on top of some other very significant national programs and national initiatives led by our very significant free trade agreements, which have opened up new export markets for our farmers. Those free trade agreements have also delivered great new confidence for agribusinesses and our farmers. I represent many small towns. I have a strong mantra: community first; politics second. But, also, in a place like Corangamite, where there are so many small towns, every community matters. That's why, in another example of how we are standing up for the regions, our Stronger Communities Program is making such a difference. That's been a great success, providing matching funding to community organisations and volunteer groups around the country, with a maximum of $150,000 per electorate. It's making a real difference. Communities under this government feel that they have a voice at last, and their projects are recognised and they are being funded. I'm delighted that I've received some wonderful applications for the next round of the Stronger Communities Program, and that that program has been embraced so widely.
It is very disappointing that Labor has announced it will not support the RIC. It proposes to pocket the so-called savings. Once again, we see Labor members opposite failing to understand why streamlined programs and the delivery of these important programs is so important, particularly in times of crisis when you can't get caught up in bureaucracy and when farmers can't go through the rigmarole of dealing with state and Commonwealth agencies. We just can't tolerate that. So it's really disappointing that Labor is not interested in the more efficient delivery of these important programs that make such a difference to regional communities.
I commend the bill to the House. Once again, I recognise just how important it is that the Turnbull government is standing up for regional communities, including in my electorate of Corangamite.
I really wish that that was true in relation to regions in my part of the world, but we're yet to see it. Perhaps, as I go on, you will see how the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is an example of those opposite being full of talk, but, at the end of the day, having a serious problem with transparency, and pretending that they're actually doing something to help people on the land. I want to put on the record from the start how important our farmers are. They are economic drivers in our regions. Of course they're essential to our country; that's why we support them. But they deserve better than they're getting from those opposite.
The previous speaker, the member for Corangamite, was talking about the fact that her region has not been forgotten by the current federal government. I guess that's part of the problem, because that's the pork-barrelling that we're getting used to seeing, and it's not good for our country. It's not good for the economic development of our country for someone to just decide to move government agencies to areas where you have, say, the Deputy Prime Minister. We all want to see federal investment in regional areas of our country. That's why it would have been good to see something come out of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund by now. It was announced two years ago, and still not a dollar has been spent. Those opposite want to give away perhaps a billion dollars to a coal company called Adani, but, as far as helping people in the regions of the north, there is nothing—zero, zilch. This Regional Investment Corporation exercise looks like another run of that.
I don't know what it is with this government and transparency. What is it with this government establishing boards and organisations that are effectively able to operate opaquely and without any real oversight? How come we're seeing, yet again, an organisation being set up that will not be subject to reasonable scrutiny? How is it that the government can keep setting up organisations, stacking them with their mates and having those organisations operate in the shadows, without any credible form of oversight at all?
As mentioned, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has had some difficulties in actually helping businesses—small businesses, medium businesses, even big businesses—thus far. We're not happy with the $5 billion NAIF—it is yet another blatant exercise in pork barrelling.
Of course we're for regional development and regional investment—that's why we wanted to see something come out of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It's a national imperative but it's also really important that the communities in our part of the world, the regions of the north, see some investment from the federal government. Developing the north is not a new idea, but it's certainly one whose time has come. Agricultural businesses across the north could really do with a helping hand from the federal government but they're yet to really see any assistance. I reflected just the other day on the absolute shambles that was the handling of the backpacker tax by the exact people opposite who now want to set up another corporation that's going to pretend to assist.
If anything like this new corporation is going to be set up, it needs to be done in a way that's transparent. Obviously it needs to be done in a timely manner, to minimise the amount of money spent on administration of that fund—unfortunately, the only money spent on the NAIF is for the executive and board; as I said, not a dollar has come into the territory or across the north—and, perhaps more importantly, it needs to be done in manner that actually works and is actually taken up by the producers. They're the people that the previous speaker, the member for Corangamite, said they were supportive of, but there is no evidence of actions or outcomes matching the rhetoric. As I said, we're not seeing that with the NAIF at all. We're not really seeing it in this bill, either, and it's not really what we've been seeing from this government. This entire bill has been drafted with no cost-benefit analysis whatsoever. That's disgraceful, but no-one knows if this bill will actually deliver on the claims the government has made. No-one knows if we'll fast track the construction of dams and priority water infrastructure; no-one knows if it will stimulate investment and economic growth and increase agricultural productivity in rural and regional communities. But that hasn't stopped this government from banging the drum, as they did with the $5 billion NAIF, that this corporation will bring productivity, investment and economic growth. I query why they think this is going to happen, and I query where the government has got the information from that it is going to bring economic growth.
Maybe that's what will happen where the corporation will be established, Orange—and we see the government establishing yet another government agency in a government electorate. First it was Armidale in New England and now it's Orange. I like Orange. It's a nice place if you like the cold. It gets bitterly cold in Orange, but it's a nice place with good people. But, as the member for Bendigo said, you've got to worry about the rationale. So first there is no cost-benefit analysis and then there is no real rationale for locating it in the city of Orange. There was no transparent or fair process undertaken to determine where to base this corporation so, unfortunately, just as we saw with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority that was moved to the current Deputy Prime Minister's electorate, we have seen no rationale whatsoever. It's even worse because what it is proposed that this corporation does is exactly what all the states and territories are already doing. What's the point of doing something that is already being done by state governments? We heard before that it would be happening more speedily than what the states and territories are doing. But I can tell you that, if the NAIF is anything to go by, I currently have a bit more confidence in the states and territories working with the regions than I have in the current federal government in actually getting some support out the door for our regions.
There are proponents across the north of Australia that are keen for this concessional loan assistance so that they can drive their regional productivity and have successful businesses that do well and bring prosperity to our country. I'm just saying that it's an example of where it's not happening. The Northern Territory government, for example, is running the Drought Concessional Loans Scheme, which already provides concessional loan support to farmers in the Territory. So it's already doing that. What my concern is, and the concern of many on this side, is that those opposite want to set up a process that is duplicating what is already being done to provide a veneer of them actually doing something productive to help out farmers and others on the land. So I don't think that anybody will be taking this up.
It's supposed to be a loan scheme of last resort, but at the same time the farm business will need to be deemed a viable operation. Whether a farm business is determined as being viable has been a major issue for the states and territories when developing their guidelines for concessional loans. This will still be a problem with the new concessional loans scheme. It just looks like a policy for appearances. I remember well when the NAIF was launched and deliberately deceptive statements went out on all media across the north of Australia: $5 billion for the north. It's the appearance of things. What I'm concerned about is that those opposite are not fair dinkum. There has failed to be a consistent, coherent rationale for the establishment of this corporation. There have been mixed messages about the policy objectives of the establishment of this corporation.
Further, the concessional loans are only for a period of 10 years. What happens to these farmers after the 10-year period? Where do they go after that? Will they need to go back to their old banks and ask if they can go back on the books? The government is claiming that the loans offered will not be the same as those currently being offered through state and territory governments, but it has completely failed to explain the differences. The government has not undertaken any genuine consultation about the functions and responsibilities of this corporation. The NAIF was launched two years ago, and the only thing we have seen come out of it is the wages of the executives, with no real output. I fail to see why this new Regional Investment Corporation set up by the government will be any different. The board of this corporation have extended powers and even less oversight. That's a concern, because when you're talking about millions or billions of dollars of taxpayers' funds there needs to be sufficient oversight and transparency. But the government has completely failed to ensure safeguards from political influence. This is very concerning and adds to the worries we have about the effectiveness of this scheme.
I am not convinced that this agency will be any better at delivering for Australians than the NAIF currently is. It needs a review and it needs to be assessed again. This fund is supposed to provide emergency relief to farmers, but if it's administered the same way the NAIF has been, as we fear it will be, in a year's time all those farmers will still be waiting. This government has shown how incompetent it is in delivering these funding agencies. We know that from our own experiences in the north. It's also shown how opaque and how far removed it has made these agencies from proper scrutiny. It's shown it can't be trusted to establish these agencies.
As I mentioned at the outset, people on this side support working people in our regions in producing for our country. One example is the agricultural output of the rural area just outside Darwin, which is incredible. They're producing more than the Ord River system is producing at this point in time. We're fair dinkum about supporting people on the land. We want to make sure the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility works. Should we come into government at the next election, we'll be working with the NAIF to get it working properly, to make sure there's proper oversight and to ensure that it's not just jobs for the boys but that it is actually helping proponents on the land.
Our concern with this bill is that, again, we have a suggestion of a corporation which appears to be helping people in the regions but which seems to be another exercise in creating agencies to go into electorates held by those opposite. That's not a way to develop our regions. It seems that this bill is designed to come up with an organisation that duplicates what states and territories are doing and that doesn't have proper oversight, and, for that reason, we're not supportive.
I rise to support the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017. The introduction of this bill into parliament is another significant step towards seeing the $4 billion Regional Investment Corporation open for business by July 2018. Before I talk about the Regional Investment Corporation, I want to make a couple of comments about the contribution by the member for Bendigo. When I listened to that speech, I thought it was a long and meandering contribution. On the one hand, she seemed to be saying that the Regional Investment Corporation was a bad thing and that it shouldn't be supported. On the other hand, she was saying that it should have come to Bendigo. Well, member for Bendigo, I've got some advice for you. I'm trying to get the member some jobs in her own seat through the Murray-Darling medical school. If she is serious about building employment in her region, she should get up, put her shoulder to the wheel and do a bit of fighting and lobbying for projects like the Murray-Darling medical school, instead of coming into this place and giving long and meandering incongruous contributions, like that which she gave this afternoon.
The Regional Investment Corporation is one of the key election commitments of the Liberals and Nationals. It will improve the delivery of funds to farmers and ensure greater national consistency in farm business loan assessments. It will determine guidelines, policies and procedures needed for the delivery of farm business and water infrastructure loans. It will assess farm business loan applications. It will make decisions on farm business loan approvals, and it will work with states and territories and other parties on water infrastructure proposals. It will also provide expert evidence to the government on water infrastructure proposals. It will enter into agreements, on behalf of the Commonwealth, with states and territories for those water infrastructure loans and it will administer approved farm business and water infrastructure loans. It will provide advice to the government on the needs of the agricultural sector and opportunities to improve its programs.
While it's not a bank in a formal sense, the RIC's delivery of loans makes it a significant financial institution. It won't mean the Australian government becomes a lender of last resort. It is expected that the eligibility criteria will require applicants to be viable businesses, with the support of their existing commercial lenders. It will be administering $2 billion in concessional loans, which are designed to encourage growth, investment and resilience in our rural and regional communities. To date, more than $725 million in farm business concessional loans has been approved to over 1,340 farm businesses, with over 1,100 farm businesses approved for drought-related or farm finance concessional loans.
As we've heard in this House today, currently the Australian government's farm business and concessional loans are delivered through the states and territories. But we're committed to $350 million in farm business concessional loans per year for 10 years in the agricultural competitiveness white paper. It's fair to say that, in the past, the delivery of these loans has proved very challenging, which is why we need the RIC, because we've had protracted negotiations with the states on loan guidelines and administration funding, and they've led to delays in making loans available to farmers experiencing drought and hardship. The different state assessment processes have also resulted in a lack of national consistency in the delivery of these loans, and some states have even refused to make some loan products available, denying farmers access to the same facilities that are available to farmers in other states. That's just not right. We need to be getting help to farmers when it's needed and we need to get them that help quickly. It needs to be done as efficiently as possible, and that's what the RIC will do.
Additionally, the RIC will deliver the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, providing concessional loans to the states and territories to fast-track priority water infrastructure projects. These loans will provide an incentive to states and territories to get these projects cracking. Water security is vitally important to our country communities, and a lack of water security is one of the biggest impediments to growth in regional Australia. I'm speaking here of economic growth, population growth, and the development of these communities generally. Indeed, in 2010 Orange itself almost ran out of water. Water security is very close to the hearts of country people, and this facility can make a big difference to country communities. There wouldn't be a country community anywhere in Australia that wouldn't support this facility and this initiative.
Now, the introduction of this legislation of course follows the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister on 16 May that central western New South Wales will host the Regional Investment Corporation. I have to say that that announcement was warmly welcomed by the communities of the west. We need all the help we can get out there. I heard the member for Hunter say in this House last night how well Orange is going economically. The inference was that the Regional Investment Corporation isn't really needed there, because Orange is going okay and it can take care of itself. When I heard those words, it sounded to me like an excuse for inaction. It was very disturbing.
Let me tell you what's happened economically in our area in recent times. Orange is resilient, but it's taken its knocks and so has the whole area. Electrolux was once one of the largest employers in our area. It was Australia's last fridge-making plant. The factory had been operating in Orange since the Second World War, and it was making a healthy profit. It was making millions of dollars in profit every year for its owners, and that was thanks to the great work of its managers and its wonderful local workforce. But in a boardroom in Sweden, the management of Electrolux decided that, despite the Orange operation being profitable, more money could be made in Thailand, where the workers are paid $2.50 an hour. In the blink of an eye, 550 jobs were gone. We not only lost those jobs, but we lost another 100 to 200 contractors as well. Up to 750 jobs were lost in one hit. Tens of millions of dollars in wages alone was ripped out of the local economy—that's tens of millions of dollars gone every year. The knock-on effect from the closure has been keenly felt. There are still ex-Electrolux employees looking for work. There have been a number of major closures around Australia in recent years, including those relating to the car industry and the power industry. But if you look at the job losses on a per capita basis in Orange, there would be few areas that have copped a bigger hit in recent times. On top of the Electrolux hit, we've had other losses, such as the rail engineering firm Downer EDI pulling out of Bathurst—with the loss of 100 jobs—and the downturn in mining, and there have been others.
The RIC will initially mean 25 to 30 jobs, but, in country communities, those jobs matter. Given the economies of Bathurst and Orange are now so closely connected, with hundreds of people commuting between the two cities every day, there is no doubt that folks from Bathurst, Blayney and Cabonne will certainly get a chance to apply for, and indeed bag, one of those jobs. The Labor Party should be supporting jobs in Orange. The member for Hunter can be sure that at the upcoming local government elections, the state election in 2019 and the next federal election, I'll be reminding the communities in our area which party turned its back on these communities and these jobs.
Following the 2017 budget, Labor announced it would not be supporting the RIC and would be pocketing the $28.5 million in RIC establishment costs as budget savings. But, over the past four years, the Commonwealth has paid $37.65 million to the states and Northern Territory governments to administer the concessional loans. Labor states such as Victoria and Western Australia want to be paid even more to deliver these loans by up to five or eight per cent, which would cost the Commonwealth between $59 million to $89 million over four years. So the RIC will save the Commonwealth government money. It's a good deal for taxpayers. It's also revenue neutral. The interest rates it will charge are intended to be set at a level that covers the cost to the government of raising the capital for the loans and also the corporation's operating costs. I note that Labor has falsely claimed that the farmers are choosing not to take these loans up, but the reality is that 1,342 farm businesses have been approved for $724.4 million. So the RIC will stimulate growth and development in country communities, and that's precisely what the Australian government should be doing. I note that the recruitment for the RIC board positions and chair has already started, which is very positive news.
This announcement has had widespread support from Regional Development Australia. The RDA vice-chair, Reg Kidd, said that the announcement:
… represented a huge boost for the region and was recognition that Central West NSW was one of the most suitable and attractive regions in the country for investment and the location of government agencies.
… … …
It not only benefits our regional communities, but it provides the government with much stronger regional partnerships and taps in to the expertise we already have here.
I think that that was very well said by Mr Kidd and Regional Development Australia.
The National Farmers Federation has welcomed the announcement. President Fiona Simpson has stated:
It just make sense for an agency charged with administering concessional loans to farmers to be based in the regions where farm businesses operate.
What she says is true. She knows country Australia. She's from the New England area herself on the Liverpool Plains.
Orange is an important agricultural hub in our region, and the Orange branch of NSW Farmers has also been very supportive. Bruce Reynolds, Peter West, Fiona Hall, Sim Gaeta and Annette Brown have all been very positive about this. One of the reasons that Orange has been chosen is its proven track record in agricultural and rural financing. It's renowned for its rural-financing sector, with the New South Wales Rural Assistance Authority; the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries; Macquarie bank's rural investment arm, Paraway Pastoral Co.; and NAB's rural-banking arm all based in the area. In 2015, Paraway Pastoral Co.'s head office was decentralised as well from Sydney to Orange. It's a huge operation in terms of its large-scale sheep and cattle enterprises across Australia, and it has become one of the largest pastoral landowners in the country with over 4.4 million hectares.
So we have this track record, and we have the expertise out here. The member for Hunter said in his offering last night that it's because of political threats that it's coming to Orange. Cast your mind back to the last federal election, Member for Hunter, where we were fortunate enough to win every booth in Orange, including those booths that the Labor Party used to call their own. They are some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia, and they don't vote for the Labor Party anymore. The reason they don't vote for the Labor Party any more is that the Labor Party have forsaken them. The Labor Party don't represent country people anymore, don't represent people of disadvantage in the regions and don't speak for them.
You don't. You turn your backs on them, you ignore them and you take them for granted. That's not the way we operate in country Australia. As I've indicated, the people in Orange will remember who has supported them and who is not supporting them.
This is just part of the wider decentralisation strategy of the Australian government, and we need to support it. And when the opponents of decentralisation in the Labor Party stand up and say that we shouldn't be doing it, that we shouldn't be moving jobs out of capital cities, to people in the country, they're talking a totally different language. It just epitomises the great divide between the cities and the bush, the way the Labor Party talks about decentralisation. I just don't understand it. People in country New South Wales and country Australia understand the value and importance of decentralisation, but every time you say you want to decentralise a government department those on the opposition benches scream blue murder and say the sky is going to fall.
The member for Hunter should take note of a number of those councils in Labor controlled seats that made submissions to the recent Senate inquiry supporting decentralisation. People support it, and they want it, and they want their elected representatives to go in and fight for it. By not supporting decentralisation the member for Hunter is failing to back the country communities he claims to represent. Those on the opposition benches who continually oppose decentralisation are selling regional communities out; you really are. That's why you're losing touch. It's because of the influence of the city interests, which have basically taken hold of the opposition benches, which is very disappointing. There was a time that, when they had these seats, they used to stand up and fight for them, and they'd back them. But they don't anymore.
The Liberals and Nationals have a very strong record of standing up and fighting for people in the country. We've got the backpacker tax sorted; we've got the wine equalisation tax sorted; the instant asset write-off has been sorted; Gonski funding has been sorted, with country schools being the biggest winners; and country-of-origin labelling laws—the list goes on and on. And this latest decentralisation initiative is part of a wider Australian government policy of decentralising departments to country areas and letting all Australians share in the wealth of this nation, which is what we should be doing, and I commend this bill to the House. I also commend it to other members and hope that they will support it. (Time expired)
It's great to follow the new member for Calare—an absolute fighter for regional Australia and of course following on from the former member, Mr Cobb. I'm sure that the new member for Calare will be just as consistent, just as strong, and will do a wonderful job in his role.
But I do rise to speak on the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017, which is another important 2016 election commitment that we, the coalition government, are delivering. By establishing this corporation the government is recognising the significant contribution that regional communities, where about 33 per cent of the population live, make to Australia. The Regional Investment Corporation will deliver up to $4 billion in concessional loans under the government's farm business concessional loans program and the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility. It will streamline the administration of farm business loans, delivering national consistency and ensuring that loans are carefully and promptly assessed to help farmers in need.
Currently there are different agreements with the states and territories, and there has been inconsistency with loan decisions. The corporation will have a client focused culture that is receptive to and understands the unique nature of farming. As a former farmer, I can tell you that it is unique. It certainly teaches you a couple of things, and the first one is resilience. You absolutely need resilience to be in that game. The second is acceptance—to manage the things you have no control over, particularly the weather.
The corporation will also provide independent advice to government on projects for consideration under the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility and then deliver approved grants of financial assistance loans to the states and territories to fast-track the construction of priority water infrastructure projects. The Commonwealth has offered concessional loans since 2013-14 to help farm businesses through these difficult times. Farmers have many variables to deal with in their business—the weather, which of course affects growing conditions, and fluctuations in price. Having been in the game most of my life, I can tell you that it was on only one occasion that I saw all those things come together—price, crop, delivery, and in the bank. But at the moment agriculture is the shining star of our economy, along with tourism. Our growers are going incredibly well, and I congratulate them on their persistence. In recent years the canegrowers in my electorate of Hinkler have been faced with the decision to either irrigate or hold off and wait for rain, because electricity costs are playing a huge role in those decisions as to whether they even turn the pump on. At the start of this year, a third-generation Bundaberg farmer, Dean Cayley, told me he's not sure that there will be a fourth generation of cane farmers in his family due to electricity prices. In his view, electricity prices are out of control. Of course, it's not just cane farmers; it is right across rural production. One of the electricity bills for a 90-day period in which he estimated that he only irrigated for about half of that time was $20,307. He was expecting the bill for the next quarter to triple to $60,000 just in electricity costs for irrigation.
Farmers live and work with this type of uncertainty every single day. There are occasions when they do need a hand. There is no doubt these loans are successfully providing practical support to the farm businesses that have received them, with over $680 million in loans approved to 1,275 farm businesses as at 30 April 2017. The farm business loans offered by the corporation will help viable farm businesses return to normal operating conditions. That's important. They will also boost farm productivity and cash flow and provide positive economic and social flow-on effects for regional Australia. They will help those businesses take advantage of emerging opportunities at a time when the ag sector is performing incredibly well.
Ag is a key pillar of our economy. It is performing extremely well, and, in fact, had record farmgate production value in the last 12 months. In June the gross value of farm production was forecast by ABARES to reach $62.8 billion in 2016-17. Ag is growing faster than any other sector at 15 per cent in the 12 months to the March quarter. While a slight dip is forecast for the gross value of Australian farm production in 2017-18, it is still expected to be nine per cent higher than the average of $55 billion over the previous five years. The gross value of livestock production is forecast to increase by 3½ per cent to $30 billion in 2017-18, driven by forecast increases in prices for livestock products, particularly wool and dairy. Export earnings from farm commodities are forecast to remain at $48 billion for 2017-18. A number of agricultural commodities are expected to see rises in their export earnings—beef and veal up four per cent, wool up six per cent, dairy up 14 per cent, cotton up 34 per cent, wine up five per cent, lamb up four per cent and rock lobsters up two per cent. Export earnings for fisheries' products are forecast to increase by 1.2 per cent to $1.5 billion in 2017-18.
Last year I visited the Geraldton Fishermen's Co-operative in North Fremantle. It is the world's largest processor and exporter of rock lobsters. The cooperative has a membership of some 200 fishermen, employs 350 Australians and currently sells around $450 million worth of rock lobsters every single year. It's benefited greatly from Australia's free trade agreement with China, which has seen the tariff for fresh or chilled rock lobsters reduced to just six per cent. For the first six months of 2016, direct Chinese imports of live, fresh and chilled Australian rock lobster more than tripled compared to the same period in 2015 to reach $20.7 million. GFC have invested heavily in response to ChAFTA. They have a live lobster facility within the grounds of Guangzhou airport in China. I also visited that facility last year. Another live lobster facility is under construction at Perth international airport and, once complete, will aim to have the shortest tank-to-tank flight time, just 14 hours. They are an absolute success. They are an export success story. I have seen it firsthand. I congratulate them on the work that they do in delivering live rock lobsters to Chinese consumers.
Coming from a farming family, as I said, and having a major primary producing region in my electorate, I understand firsthand the vital role that ag plays in our economy, our communities and our way of life in regional Australia. I know all too well that water is absolutely critical. I certainly remember well having very little water supply—20 per cent of allocation—drought-stricken crop and a price which was the worst that the world had ever seen for sugar at 4½c a pound. That certainly left me and my wife scratching our heads. But, like many others, we worked our way through that. But these are the challenges of agricultural production.
Water and water infrastructure is critical for our future prosperity not only for ag industries but right across regional Australia. So we as a government are committed to working with the states and territories to identify and build water infrastructure for the 21st century. We need to secure Australia's water resources. The coalition government has committed $500 million under the National Water Infrastructure and Development Fund, including $247 million for priority projects committed to in the 2016 election, $130 million for Rookwood Weir, $59.5 million for 39 feasibility studies across the nation and approximately $30 million for 16 studies in Queensland, and 15 feasibility studies and one water resource assessment have been undertaken by the CSIRO.
One of those projects is a feasibility study into upgrading the capacity of the Bundaberg Channel in my electorate of Hinkler, which has been around for many decades. The study will look at the most effective options for channel upgrades and improve water security and augmentation of the Bundaberg Water Supply Scheme, with the possibility of 100,000 megalitres of additional water becoming available for use. That is a substantial boost to the local economy, if we can manage to pull that project off. Also, we will look at the potential for the additional water to supply new and existing customers within the scheme, or new areas outside of the scheme, because, clearly, efficiencies make all the difference. We can expand our agricultural area if we have less loss. The first milestone for that project was completed in April 2017 with the payment of $140,000 to the Queensland government. This included completion of a demand assessment for uptake of allocations for Paradise Dam and the review of previous supply studies completed by Psi Delta for SunWater. The demand potentially includes supply of water from the Paradise Dam to the Gayndah regional irrigation district. The demand assessment also identified possible infrastructure required to enable water supplies to potential new demand areas and customers. The business case to examine options for system upgrades and expansion, including into underdeveloped cropping areas, is underway right now. The business case will examine the development costs, the approvals, the benefits and what the expansion options are for phase 1. That business case and study are due to be completed by 30 April 2018.
Another feasibility study we have undertaken is into the Gayndah Regional Irrigation Development project. This is an incredibly important project for Central Queensland, particularly for the sugar industry. The study will look at the feasibility of new water storage and irrigation infrastructure options which could provide up to an additional 28,000 million litres to develop 6,400 hectares of sugar cane in the Gayndah region of the Burnett River catchment. That would boost production for one of our local mills by some 500,000 tonnes of cane. That is a substantial investment. That cane would be then sent by rail to the Isis Central Sugar Mill, just outside of Childers, for processing. This could result in the creation of an estimated 92 jobs and an injection of $60 million a year into our regional economy. This project will investigate reinstating the crest level of the Claude Wharton Weir, utilising existing water reserves and the transfer of un-utilised water allocations to service priority irrigation areas in the Reids Creek and Byrnestown/Wetherton areas to expand cane production to that 6,400 hectares. The first milestone was completed on time in May 2017 and the first payment of $600,000 has been made to the Queensland state government. This included analysis by GHD to identify options for increasing the supply of water to priority bring irrigation waters in the North Burnett, including Reids Creek, Byrnestown and Wetherton. Options assessed as technically feasible include either harvesting water from the Burnett River at Mount Lawless or accessing water for the Paradise Dam via pumping releases from the river at Mingo crossing to Byrnestown. The business case will assess all of those and will be completed by April 2018.
We've committed 100 per cent for the funding for these feasibility studies. However, the Queensland state Labor government had to be forced into committing to deliver the projects—for free money! There was 100 per cent funding from the Commonwealth and we still had challenges with the Queensland state government. The Queensland state minister for water supply attempted to accuse us of failing to tell proponents of water feasibility studies that funding would be once yearly in arrears. This was despite the same minister actually signing, on behalf of the Queensland government, the National Partnership Agreement for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund in May 2016. So, clearly, the minister really should read his contracts a little bit more closely.
The agreement sets out that the federal government will make annual payments for projects on the advice from the Queensland government that the agreed milestones have been met, and that's exactly what happened. Under that fund, the state or territory government is the project proponent and funding is provided to them directly. The fund is intended to support state and territory governments to deliver key water infrastructure projects, which is their responsibility, and to help them attract co-investment from project partners. The feasibility studies are an important step. They will create the groundwork for states to draw on the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, for which $2 billion has been committed as concessional loans to accelerate the construction of new water and infrastructure into the future.
Regional Australia deserves well paid and highly skilled jobs just as much as any other area of the country. To achieve that, we need to deliver consistent water supply and infrastructure. It will allow regional Australia to expand and provide more jobs, and we can continue to produce the wonderful produce that everyone around the world desires and wants to pay a premium price for. It is up to us to ensure we deliver the infrastructure that is required, and certainly this bill is part of that process. I commend to it the House.
That was an extraordinary double punch from the National Party. I really struggled to listen to much of it. We had the member for Calare—I thought some of his contribution regarding people in Orange was worthy of listening to. I understand exactly the sort of king-hit that communities can get from losing manufacturing industries. We're about to lose a car industry, thanks to this government, so I feel very keenly for those people in Orange who lost their jobs at that plant. It's all the more galling when you know that the plant was profitable. But that wasn't a decision of government; that was a corporate decision. It should be condemned for the profit-chasing, job-destroying rationale that it was. But the rest of his speech was a replication of the normal National Party talking points, which we got a bit of from the member for Hinkler and which, no doubt, we'll get a bit of from the next speaker as well. It is all this sort of stuff about Labor not knowing the country, blah, blah, blah. I grew up in a rural community. I grew up with farmers.
No, Kapunda. I do know something of Mildura. I spent my time picking apricots and peaches up and down the river. I understand the wealth that irrigation can produce. I understand the wealth that farmers create for this country and just how hard they work and the conditions they work in. I can remember people going broke. People I went to school with—their parents going broke. And it is a very difficult, harrowing experience for everybody in the community. So we don't want to lessen some of the emotive stuff that gets talked about in this chamber. But we do have to acknowledge the other thing that country people tend to hate, in my experience, which is boondoggles. They don't like boondoggles, they don't like waste and they don't like chaos. They tend to be pretty orderly people.
And what do we see from this government? This week we have seen complete chaos—chaos flowing on from a government that's essentially had two prime ministers and a Leader of the Opposition in it. I think they've had three Defence ministers, 14 or 15 other ministerial changes—
Mr Tehan interjecting—
Of course, those opposite sitting at the table—the Minister for Veterans' Affairs likes the chaos because he's been promoted through it. It's been a great boon to his career. He wouldn't have gone very far if there had been stability in their ranks. I'm not so sure about—
Mr McCormack interjecting—
According to the next speaker, it was just merit.
That is an interjection I will take. I have reflected on that from time to time! The point is: chaos is not good for the country, farmers, in particular. I go out to the country, and they ask me, 'What the hell's going on?' They are certainly not impressed with loose accountability in the Commonwealth government. They don't like it under a government of any shade. And that is essentially what we have here. We have decentralisation on the back of an envelope, decentralisation for the National Party, which, of course, represents a sectional interest of farmers—east coast farmers, east coast communities, upriver communities.
I remember vividly that at Balaclava—a great country town, a very conservative place, a lot of good farmers—they had a meeting before the 2007 election, and one of them got up and said, 'I'm voting Labor.' There was a hush in the room. He said, 'I hate the way the Liberal Party always outsources agricultural policy to the National Party.' The reason that point had such power is that it's the truth. There's this outsourcing of agricultural policy, every time, to a section of the rural community—certainly not the whole rural community in the seats they represent, and certainly not the rural community of Australia. We saw that in the wheat bill very many years ago, and we see it here too.
Basically we're opposing this bill because of the serious governance issues. There are governance issues that have been pointed out by the National Farmers' Federation and there are governance issues that have been pointed out by the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA. They're all in the report of the Senate committee inquiry into this bill. So it is a very serious thing.
These are some of the things in the dissenting report, and I don't mind reading them. There is no coherent policy rationale for the establishment of the RIC. There have been mixed messages when enunciating the policy objectives for this. The government's failed to undertake a cost-benefit analysis, to give us some confidence that spending $28 million of taxpayers' money establishing and operating this delivers good value. It goes on:
… the government:
They've had to use the external affairs power to give this constitutional underpinning, and there are some doubts about that. Also, essentially, ministerial review will be kept secret. We have to remember that this corporation will effectively operate as a bank underwritten by the Commonwealth. Coming from the state of South Australia I can tell you there are some risks in that, if you don't have proper oversight. We have seen those risks over time, and they can be as devastating for rural communities as they are for city communities.
So this is a very concerning bit of legislation, put up by a minister who, let's face it, has had better weeks and is not really across the details—not quite across the details of the Constitution, for instance! There is a bit of a difficulty there. You can feel those at the table espying a few more opportunities to slide up—
Mr McCormack interjecting—
You'll have 7½ minutes in your speaking opportunity. I'm sure you can set us right about how you really don't want to be promoted and you are happy where you are! We don't need to talk about the leadership of the National Party—a return to the grey conservatism; no more colourful leaders for the National Party.
That is a fair point. But the previous speaker, the member for Hinkler, talked about water infrastructure and you gave him wide latitude, so I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed wide latitude—not that I'm dissenting from your ruling. I'm just pointing out that the previous speaker, in a very calm voice, talked about all sorts of things, such as water infrastructure, and I know a bit about water infrastructure, because there's a project in the north of my electorate which is very important to South Australia. This project is so important to South Australia that the government, at the last election, basically made an election promise to provide funding for a feasibility study into this. Now the feasibility study is in, and guess what? This thing adds up: 3½ thousand jobs, lots of investment. All it needs is $110 million from the state government and $46 million from the Commonwealth government.
I've written to the Deputy Prime Minister about this project. I know many other people have put in their two bob's worth about this project. It's a very important project because it takes treated effluent water which is currently discharged into the gulf and, protecting the environment, pumps it north onto farming land which is, I suppose, less productive than some of the farming land in my electorate, and it can be used for intensive horticultural purposes. This project, the Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme, also has a commitment from the opposition. Bill Shorten came out about three or four weeks ago now and committed to this project. He said, 'If the government doesn't do this, we will.' I might add that we committed to it at the previous election as well, because South Australia needs jobs. Just like Orange, which the member for Calare was talking about, we're about to get king hit. Why are we about to get king hit? I'll tell you why: because of this government.
We would still have a car industry today if the investment decision hadn't lined up with the prime ministership of Tony Abbott. That's actually what cost this country the car industry—those two things lining up. It is a devastating king hit to my electorate, to South Australia, to Victoria and to our manufacturing ability, capacity and coherence. So many things hang off the car industry. There are rural communities affected, too. In my home town of Kapunda, the hay mill used to take all the empty shipping containers from Holden and fill them up with hay to export. Now they have to import empty shipping containers, from Victoria or somewhere else, presumably, to go out again. So there were all these economies of scale that hung off the car industry.
This is a very serious issue. We need jobs in South Australia. We don't need criticism, which we constantly get from the Commonwealth government. We don't need platitudes, which we constantly get from the Commonwealth government. What we actually need is jobs. Here is a situation where you have the Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme sitting there ready to go—jobs, investment, improvements, all the things the previous speaker talked about—and why can't we sign off on it? I'll tell you why: because this government's paralysed by the intransigence of the member for New England. He's putting his own interests ahead of the government. We all know what the honourable thing is to put the government out of its misery. We all know what the sensible thing would have been to do: to say, 'I'm a New Zealander; technicality; I will honourably resign and go to the people.' Let them return him, if that's the case. But he doesn't do that. Instead he holds the government and the country to ransom, and in the process he's holding this project to ransom. Let's be clear about this. There are projects all over this country which require his undivided attention, his undivided authority, his uncompromised authority.
So there are some very serious issues in this bill about governance. It tells you a lot about the National Party and how they operate; how they operate for one group of farmers, the silver circle that you will find in any country town and any rural community. They don't operate for everybody in rural communities, and they certainly don't represent South Australian farmers. The problem with the Liberal Party, particularly the South Australian Liberal Party and the Liberal Party out west, is they don't do a very good job of standing up to the National Party. It's always been the National Party tail wagging the Liberal Party dog.
With those kind comments about the government, its coherence, its prospects and its performance, I will say that we oppose the bill. We oppose it for good, sound reasons, reasons that my conservative grandfather would have been happy to say: don't waste money on boondoggles and don't have what effectively are government-owned banks let loose with little oversight. With that I will conclude my remarks.
Australia's agricultural production under the Liberal-National government has experienced strong economic growth. The strong performance of the sector is support by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics, forecasting the gross value of Australian farm production to reach $61.3 billion in 2017-18. The agricultural sector is the pillar of rural and regional communities, with the effects of a poor or good season being felt far beyond the farm gate. The men and women—I would say boys and girls too, because farming is a family enterprise—cultivate the land, feed our nation and sell high quality food and fibre to the world. They're the ones who keep this nation going. The economy is all the better for it.
In my electorate of the Riverina and the central west, our local economy is backed by a thriving agricultural sector and diverse small businesses. From Yerong Creek to Peak Hill and everywhere in between, from canola to barley, wool to dairy and food processing to winemaking, produce of almost every variety is grown in that fine area in south-west New South Wales. As one of the nation's most important food bowls, the region makes a mighty contribution, growing some of Australia's best fresh food and produce. But we also recognise that with the good seasons invariably also come the bad.
The Regional Investment Corporation, a commitment made before the last election—and we won the last election—will continue to back our regional and rural communities. We want to support the hardworking farmers and their families who turn the land every day to feed our nation and the world. The establishment of the Regional Investment Corporation will help secure economic growth and investment in rural and regional Australia whilst also supporting our country communities to become more resilient in times of hardship. In the 2017 budget, handed down on 9 May with such aplomb by the Treasurer, the member for Cook, we delivered on this commitment. The Regional Investment Corporation will deliver up to $4 billion in concessional loans under the government's farm business concessional loans program and the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility. The establishment of the corporation will streamline Commonwealth financing and concessional loan processing to enable new dams to be financed quickly and ensure drought loans are speedily approved to help farmers in need.
The corporation has been a long-time goal of the Deputy Prime Minister. Some have called it the 'Barnaby bank'. He is of course the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia and the member for New England. His work to get it established is a testament to his advocacy, determination, drive and vision. It will operate as a separate entity within the agriculture and water resources portfolio. When hardship occurs or unforeseen circumstances such as a drought or industry crisis hit, the corporation provides the ability to act swiftly to respond and support our farmers as required.
I was born and raised on family farms. I understand the challenges faced when a whole season is at stake due to low rainfall. I get it. Pressures at home rise and families come under severe financial strain at times. The Nationals in government have a strong record of delivering assistance to farmers when times are tough, and we're helped all along the way particularly by regional Liberals such as the member for Wannon, the minister at the table. He's the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.
More than $1.1 billion has been provided to support farmers since the coalition was elected in 2013. This is in direct contrast to Labor. Labor has a shell of a drought policy, demonstrating its lack of support for farmers, regional communities and agriculture more broadly. Under Labor, the longstanding exceptional circumstances drought support policy was cut. Under Labor, the department of agriculture's budget was slashed—indeed, cut in half. Under Labor, the former agriculture minister, the member for Watson, directed the Productivity Commission to review the rural research and development system, threatening longstanding policy which matched the investment from farmers' R&D levies. Instead, Labor wanted the R&D funds to be directed towards government priorities rather than matters put on the table directly by the farmers who pay the levies. There's a good reason that farmers cannot and do not trust Labor. There's a good reason for it.
Labor have said they will scrap the Regional Investment Corporation and pocket the budget savings. They will do what they always do. They make up these pretend numbers, they spend the money and then, when the money doesn't come in, the money is gone and the economy is the worse for it. But, hopefully, they won't get back into government any time soon.
Last year, the Victorian Labor government delayed delivery of dairy recovery concessional loans by playing crude political games. The Regional Investment Corporation is the solution to address the politics from Labor, whether it's federally or whether it's at a state level. The corporation will administer the $2 billion in concessional loans to support the long-term strength, sustainability and profitability of farm businesses. And farm businesses, I have to say, are the backbone of the economy—just like all small businesses are—and they're benefitting from the tax rate going down to 27½ per cent, the lowest it's been since 1940, the lowest it's been for 77 years. They're also benefitting from the redefinition of what a small business is, from a $2 million turnover to a $10 million turnover, and that enables tens of thousands of small businesses, many of them farmers, to take advantage of this fantastic initiative and of the Regional Investment Corporation. They are also taking advantage of the instant asset write-off, of our fencing programs and of our programs funding water infrastructure, and they're benefitting as a result. They're also taking advantage of the free trade agreements we have been able to broker with China, South Korea and Japan. There's never been a better time to be a farmer, never been a better time to be a small-business person, certainly in regional Australia, where we have a decentralisation plan which is working.
The Regional Investment Corporation is the solution, and it's a good one. The corporation will administer the $2 billion in concessional loans, and it supports country communities. This assists them to grow and build while maintaining diversity and competition in the markets they supply. The Regional Investment Corporation will also deliver the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, to provide concessional loans to the states and territories to fast-track priority water infrastructure projects. What could be more pertinent in this day and age than building water infrastructure? I have heard the member for New England, the Deputy Prime Minister, talking about that ad nauseam—as he should be. We want a secure water supply to unlock even more potential in the agriculture sector and to drive investment across regional and rural Australia, whether it's northern Australia or southern Australia, or in your own area, Deputy Speaker Hogan.
Building and securing new investment in water infrastructure projects will generate local jobs—that's what this government is all about: jobs, jobs and more jobs—and open new possibilities for regional communities. The loan facility will provide an initiative to the states and territories to pursue priority water infrastructure projects. With the successful passage of this bill, the Regional Investment Corporation will be open for business next year, in 2018. That's because our nation is open for business. It was a closed shop under those opposite, but we're open for business. There are trading possibilities and, with small business front and centre of this government's priorities, we are open for business.
Located in Orange in the Central West, it's estimated the corporation will directly employ up to 30 people. That might not seem a lot, but 30 people in a place the size of Orange is significant. Not only has this been met with excitement by the member for Calare, who described the move as the 'country version of Wall Street', but the move is backed by Orange city councillor and local real estate agent Chris Gryllis, who said:
These are jobs that we can do with and as a real estate agent, as a citizen of Orange, and as a councillor, we welcome this initiative.
Of course he's optimistic; of course he's enthusiastic about this. Why wouldn't he be? Establishing the corporation in Orange in the Central West of New South Wales also fits within the government's decentralisation agenda—and what a good agenda that is. President of the National Farmers' Federation, Fiona Simson, supports the move. She said:
It just makes sense for an agency charged with administering concessional loans to farmers to be based in the regions where farm businesses operate.
Moving government departments to the regions puts money back into towns, and local business benefits. We want to see regional communities reach the greatest potential for economic growth and agricultural productivity.
Over the longer term, decentralisation of government agencies such as the Regional Investment Corporation will create new career pathways and build local capacity for our young people to live and work in the communities they grew up in. Sadly, sometimes in country communities our best exports are our young people. We want to give them the incentive, if they have left, to come back; but better still we want to give them the incentive to stay and not leave in the first place. Our regional towns and communities will now become centres of excellence—they always were, but they just need a bit of prodding sometimes—creating long-term confidence and sustainability within regional Australia.
We know that the contribution that agriculture makes nationally to our bottom line and locally in our regional towns and communities is enormous. The Nationals and Liberals stand united with farmers, and we have the record to prove it. We've delivered a $4 billion agricultural competitiveness white paper, the most substantive investment in agriculture to date. We've strengthened the rural research and development system, with the $190 million Rural R&D for Profit initiative and confirmed that farmers' R&D funds should be prioritised towards initiatives to boost farmgate returns.
Protecting commodities from pests and diseases is an ongoing challenge, and we're delivering $25.8 million for the control of pest weeds and animals in drought affected regions. There was also a boost of $200 million through the agricultural competitiveness white paper. I have often heard the member for New England in question time come to this despatch box and talk about the eradication programs we're funding to eliminate wild dogs and the like and just get mocked by those opposite, who don't understand what those dogs do to regional communities and the regional stock on which we all rely.
We're providing security of future funding for the Rural Financial Counselling Service and extra resources to ensure that farmers have the support that at times they desperately need. And drought affected communities are supported by the $35 million Drought Communities Program to help fund local projects and provide employment opportunities in 23 municipalities across Australia. We have strengthened the Farm Management Deposits Scheme to help farm businesses deal more effectively with fluctuations in cash flow due to environmental and market changes.
We have delivered other policies that will directly benefit farmers. Developing northern Australia is part of the government's vision to unlock new opportunities in the north. The northern Australia white paper provides $700 million—they're big numbers, but they're what we're delivering—for priority road projects in the north, including $100 million to improve northern cattle supply chains. Beef roads—how important!
Throughout my electorate, on my small business roadshow, I have spoken with farmers in dozens of communities and heard just how helpful the instant asset write-off is for investment in capital equipment and in the office. That is why the government extended the instant asset write-off in the budget this year—because it's just so valuable to small businesses. Farmers and stakeholders told us so. That $20,000 makes all the difference. Farmers can fully deduct the cost of water facilities and fencing in the year those things are purchased, and fodder storage assets over three years. It is important stuff, good stuff.
Through our reforms to section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act, which were passed in the Senate last night, we're levelling the playing field for small business, including farm businesses. The government have a proud record of delivering the policies to support farmers and farm businesses to manage through drought. We know how important cash flow and equity are. Unlike Labor, the Liberals and Nationals are committed to investing in agriculture and supporting it through hardship. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has forecast significant growth in global food and fibre demand, which will require a 70 per cent increase in food production alone by 2050 compared with average 2007 levels, and that's not including fibre production. Building sustainability in the sector will boost future productivity and provide economic stability.
Our agricultural industries are fundamental to the prosperity of regional Australia and the nation. They are part of our plan to create more local jobs in country communities. Ag is the fabric of our country communities, an important pillar of our economy which has the support of this government. Through this bill we'll continue to back farmers, day in, day out.
Connectivity and synergy are not just buzzwords. It's all about trading partners, it's all about regionalism and it's all about decentralisation. I particularly like the story of Craig Shapiro, a financial services, city, big end of town boy—he wouldn't mind me calling him that. He's one of a growing number of city investors looking to regional Australia. He's the CEO and co-founder of the Blue River Group, which last year purchased the 94-year-old Wagga Wagga dairy company Riverina Fresh. He understands how important regional areas are. He is a fantastic corporate decentralisation story, and we want to see more of it.
That's why this bill is so important. I condemn the member for Hunter's stunt, his second reading amendment, but I do commend the motion. It's a good motion. Parliament should get behind it.
I'm very pleased to be speaking on the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 and speaking in favour of the member for Hunter's excellent amendment to it, which should be passed by all members of this House. It should enjoy their support.
I'll be voting against this bill, and I will be voting against this bill for three reasons. The first is the irregular fashion in which it comes to the parliament, and I want to have a bit to say about that. The second reason that I want to put to the parliament is some of the deep concerns that have been raised by stakeholders and experts about the structure of the bill, the lack of a cost-benefit analysis, and the fact that the structure being established by the bill could be deeply flawed from the get-go. The third reason I want to bring to the fore in this debate is that any bill that has 'development of regional Australia' as its title and objective needs to have at its core the objective of dealing with the growing inequality between Australians who live in some of the richest suburbs of our capital cities and those who come from regional areas such as those that you and I represent, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan. I want to address that issue.
My first objection is the irregular fashion in which the bill comes before the House. The bill was introduced into the House by a minister who, by his own admission, is not eligible to be elected as a member of this House. We know, through the minister's own admission, when he stood up in question time yesterday, without urging or provocation, that each and every time he put his hand up to be elected to the other place or this place, he was a citizen of a foreign power: he was a citizen of the wonderful country of New Zealand. I have nothing against the great country of New Zealand, unlike some of the members opposite who have made utterances. I have to say, I envy their rugby playing abilities; I'd like to win a Bledisloe Cup sometime this century. But being a citizen of a foreign power renders you ineligible to be a member of this place or the other place.
There are many who argue that we should give the member for New England, the Deputy Prime Minister, the benefit of the doubt. That's not the standard the government set for the unfortunate senators who have been caught by section 44 of the Constitution. To his credit, the senator for Queensland, Matt Canavan, has done the right thing. We can only imagine the conversations that went on behind closed doors, in the Prime Minister's office, between the Prime Minister and the senator for Queensland. We can only imagine that he was leant upon: 'We do not need a scandal over this; we're calling upon you to no longer exercise a vote in the Senate and step down from your role as a cabinet minister.' That was the standard the government set for their own senator. Why is it different for the Deputy Prime Minister?
If you don't judge the member for New England by the standard the government set for the senator for Queensland, you should at least judge the member for New England by the standard he set for himself. When the unfortunate Greens senators from Western Australia and Queensland were caught by the provisions of section 44(i) of the Constitution, it was none other than the member for New England who said: 'So sad, too bad; these people have to go. It's not an academic requirement; it's an actual requirement.' He said, effectively, 'They should've done their homework; they are ineligible to stand, because of their own sloppiness and carelessness.'
This is no ancillary issue. If this legislation is to be voted on by this House, we need to be assured, as members of parliament, that it has been brought to this parliament in the proper way. If it's found, as in all likelihood it could be, that the member for New England is ineligible to be a member, let alone a minister or a Deputy Prime Minister, it is not proper that members of this House are asked to vote on this bill this evening or tomorrow. It is not proper that we're allowed to do that. The government should either get another qualified minister to come before us today and move this bill, or they should let it stand on the Notice Paper until they're able to clear up the situation of the member for New England.
It's not as though section 44 of the Constitution has crept up on us. And I see the member for Flynn in the House today. He's had a bit to say on this as well—a good man, an honest man, a straight speaker. I like that sort of National Party MP—somebody who speaks his mind, whether it's in the interest of his party or not. I heard his comments in relation to the senator for Queensland. Those very same comments could be made in respect of the leader of his own party and the Deputy Prime Minister. It's not as though section 44 of the Constitution has crept up on us. It has been there since 1901. And it's not as though it's unknown to members of this place, either, at least after 1987, when the then senator for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, Robert Wood, from New South Wales, was elected to this place. He was a citizen of the United Kingdom at the same time as he was a citizen of Australia, a dual citizen. The High Court in the case of Robert Wood found that he was ineligible.
Now, you could say that 1987 was a long, long time ago. You could be forgiven for saying that it was maybe sloppy, that he had a bad memory, that it could be forgiven. Well, if that was the only case that had been considered by the High Court on section 44, you could say, 'Okay, they're sloppy, but give them the benefit of the doubt.' That is not the case. In the case of Sykes v Cleary, in 1992, the very same section of the Constitution was considered. And I've got to say: not one, not two but three candidates in that election were rendered ineligible because they fell afoul of section 44 of the Constitution. Three candidates were rendered ineligible—a message to all parties to do your homework. In considering that application, the High Court gave quite detailed instructions on what a diligent candidate should do prior to nominating to stand in this place or the other place so they did not fall afoul of the constitution. Even if your memory does not go back as far—
I'm asked by the member for Wakefield whether there are any more cases. Well, it just so happens that there are. In 1996 one member for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly—and I see that the current member for Lindsay is in the chamber today, and an excellent member for Lindsay she is as well; I know the very detailed steps she went through when she filled in her application form prior to the 2016 election. I'm sure she was asked by her party organisation: 'Where were you born? Where was your mother born? Where was your father born? Where was your mother's mother born and your mother's father born? Where was your father's father born and where was your father's mother born?' I could go on, but I make the point: each and every Labor member on this side of the House filled in such a form, and if they tripped any of the wires set out in that form, we got a bunch of lawyers on our doorstep. How difficult is it to do the basic homework?
Are they more cases? Well, there's going to be a rash of cases. I'm asked whether there are other cases after Free v Kelly in 1996. There was an unfortunate senator from the One Nation party by the name of Hill, in Queensland, who made the same fundamental mistake. Now, you could perhaps be a little bit understanding if you were considering the situation of a minor party and a relatively new party, such as the Australian Greens. You could understand that they haven't been around a long time. And perhaps, run in the way they are, they haven't got the professional infrastructure in place to ensure that they get their nomination forms right.
You might also say that in the case of a relatively new party, as the Nuclear Disarmament Party was back in 1987, you could forgive them. You might also say to the Liberal Party of Australia, 'Well, you were a bit sloppy back in 1996, but you got your house in order.' But the National party, which prides itself as being one of the oldest parties in Australia—one of the oldest—
They used to be called the Country Party when they truly represented the country people. Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, you might say that they have had plenty of time to study the case law, to read the Constitution and to understand what it says and how it operates.
There are two things that should not come as a surprise to most members—I say 'most members'—in this place: there is an Australian Constitution; and, if you know your father, where he was born. These are two things that should not come as a surprise to most members of this place. Against that background, I simply make this point: we can judge the member for New England, if indeed he is entitled to bear that title, by the community standard, and the community standard I dare say is going to be a bit harsh. They're going to know that the average cost of a by-election over the last five years is $1 million. I'm quite certain that the great citizens in New England will be saying, 'If I had $1 million to spend, I probably wouldn't want to spend it helping Barnaby Joyce'—sorry, the member for New England—'get his homework right.' There are a lot better uses for $1 million throughout the towns in the electorate of New England.
So our objection to this bill, quite apart from the substance of it, is the manner in which it has been brought before the House. It is irregular. It is not on all fours. There are great doubts about the minister who moved the motion in this House—and that alone should be enough for members in this House to ask themselves: 'If the minister who moved this bill in the House didn't do sufficient homework to ensure that he's eligible to stand for election, should we be confident that the bill that he brought before the House has got all of the i's dotted and the t's crossed?' It so happens that that is not the case.
The bill has been subject to some inquiry and some scrutiny, and there are many stakeholders who are deeply concerned. They rightly point to the fact that, if we are going to spend $4 billion worth of taxpayers' money, we are going to want to ensure we have governance structures in place that give us sufficient confidence that this money is going to be well spent.
If we then turn our minds to the details of the bill, we see that the board is relatively small—relatively small for an organisation which is going to be disbursing around $4 billion. In the analysis that I have done, it is quite possible for these funds to be disbursed with the say-so of only two members of the board.
Two people—$4 billion, two people. That alone should be enough for all right-minded members of this place to have deep concerns about it. Indeed, these concerns were echoed by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development of Western Australia, who made these very same points. They were one of many stakeholders who said there are deep concerns about the governance structure set up by the bill. If time permitted, I would talk about the deep problems we have with inequality in this country that this bill does not deal with. All members, for the three reasons that I have set out, should reject the bill before the House.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to be following the member for Whitlam, who really gave a good analysis of the current constitutional situation that we do have with the Deputy Prime Minister's invalid status as we know it. Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, as you know, I am critical of the National party on some occasions in this House, but even I was surprised when the Deputy Prime Minister stood up and basically said that he doesn't really have a right to be here because he is in fact a citizen of New Zealand. Even I was surprised at the extent of the sloppiness of such an incident.
As the previous speaker highlighted and outlined, how could it have come to this? How could this be the situation that we are facing in our current parliament? It really reflects on the lack of detail by the Deputy Prime Minister, and he is quite rightly being constantly criticised for that—it was a massive oversight, and it does reflect on the status of the bill as well, not just the House. That is a starting point that we should be looking at—we do need to highlight the fact that we are in a very difficult constitutional position, with perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister's election being invalid, and perhaps he shouldn't actually be in the House at all.
Having said that, I will turn to the Regional Investment Corporation Bill. I support the amendment moved by the member for Hunter. It's important to note that this bill is all about the government putting their political interests ahead of Australia's farmers and people living in regional Australia. That is essentially what it is about. As I have pointed out in this House many times before, the National Party regularly fails regional Australia on so many issues. I've also said many times that National Party choices hurt—and, indeed, they do across a whole range of issues. But we have to remember that this bill is all about political interests, not actually about protecting those people who live in regional and rural Australia.
The bill seeks to establish the Regional Investment Corporation, and supposedly this entity will hold responsibility for administering farm business loans and, on the government's behalf, will administer grants of financial assistance to the states and territories for water infrastructure projects. Let's have a look at the background. It was back in June 2016 that the Deputy Prime Minister said the coalition is:
… committed to streamlining Commonwealth financing and concessional loan processing to enable new dams to be financed quickly and ensure drought loans are speedily approved to help farmers in need.
Later on I will get to the issue of the coalition's, and particularly the National Party's, obsession with dams, and I would like to highlight one of their previous attempts to build a major dam in my electorate of Richmond in northern New South Wales 10 years ago. It is still a major issue within our region and one of the many reasons the National Party aren't trusted with their plans to build a major dam. We will get to that in a little while. I will go back to what the Deputy Prime Minister said. He went on to state:
The Regional Investment Corporation will be established as the single administrator for the $4.5 billion in Agriculture and Water Resources portfolio financing and concessional loans initiatives.
That is what he said as background, but in actual fact the Deputy Prime Minister wants to spend $4 billion on a federal government organisation that will replicate what the individual states and Northern Territory are actually already doing. So, in fact, the Regional Investment Corporation is just another pork-barrel by the Deputy Prime Minister and the National Party, which only aims to serve a political purpose—that's it. They have $4 billion for these political purposes and $4 billion to replicate what the states are essentially doing. But, whilst they are doing that, we're seeing a lack of investment in the communities that need it, particularly in our rural and regional areas. What about seniors, many of whom are struggling to get access to basic home care packages and are often forced to wait to access their age pension? What about locals in my home state of New South Wales—your home state too, Deputy Speaker Hogan—who have got increased electricity prices due to the Liberal-National Party sell-off of the poles and wires? What about support for them? It's all about priorities.
What we are seeing with this bill is priorities about political purposes, not priorities about services that people throughout the country and regional Australia need. Remember, this is the government that's also cutting funding for our TAFEs, our apprenticeships and our schools. It's a government that's got plans for $100,000 university degrees. Indeed, the government could be using these much-needed funds to protect Medicare or invest in our hospitals. The Deputy Prime Minister wants to spend this money on a federal government organisation that will replicate what's already in place. I think many speakers have highlighted that. As we have said, this organisation will administer the loans for water infrastructure projects, and these concessional loans will be administered from 1 July 2018, but they have already been delivered by the states and Northern Territory governments and will be continued to be administered by them.
The government contend that the establishment of the RIC will pressure the banks to provide increased support for farmers doing it tough, and the Deputy Prime Minister assures us that the process of financing dams and approving drought loans will be made a lot easier—that's what he's saying. He alleges also that the RIC manifests their commitment to agriculture. They would like us to have the impression that this supposed largesse represents a significant investment in agriculture, a claim that was further outlined in their self-titled 'landmark' agriculture white paper. They are saying that the investment is in excess of $4 billion. The white paper was not only long overdue but monumentally disappointing. It was in short a huge calamity, a failure of epic proportions. The bulk of the $4 billion actually consists of concessional loans that farmers are not taking up. This begs the question: why are farmers choosing not to take up the concessional loans in their current format? It is because both their design and the application process have been problematic. As per the Liberal-National government's usual ad hoc approach, they failed to properly consult or to understand whether their drought loan scheme would be attractive to the drought affected farmers, those who actually need it the most.
The RIC would pose the same challenges, given that it is basically the same scheme. The most important criteria that applicants need to meet concern the viability of the farm business. By the time these businesses get to the RIC, meeting these criteria would, indeed, be almost impossible. This is just $4 billion of administrative pork barrelling that will not really assist or streamline the process of farmers getting the help that they need.
We are, of course, talking about investments in dams and water infrastructure. As I said earlier, I want to highlight a big issue in relation to this in my electorate. We will turn our minds back 10 years when the then environment minister, now the Prime Minister, wanted to put a massive dam in the middle of my electorate. It was a huge issue that really goes to the heart of the coalition's obsession with dams. It still is a major community issue. The then environment minister in the Howard government was leading the charge to build a massive dam on the Oxley River, near the beautiful village of Tyalgum, in order to pipe water to South-East Queensland. There was a huge community response. We had massive marches, community meetings and petitions. The community were absolutely opposed to this and made their voices clear. Labor came out early and said we wouldn't allow that to happen, that we were opposed to building the dam in Tyalgum. As I said, it is still an issue that comes up quite a lot, and it really goes to the heart, particularly in my electorate in northern New South Wales, of the National Party's obsession about dams. In fact, they still have an obsession about building a dam at Byrill Creek. The National Party, at all levels of government, are pushing very hard to build another dam there, which is my electorate, and I can report to the House that Labor, at all levels of government, whether federal, state or local, oppose this dam as well for a whole variety of reasons. First, of course, are the environmental concerns, but there are financial concerns as well. It would be a massive impost on ratepayers in our area. This will continue for many years as well, and Labor are very clear on our position. We will continue to criticise the National Party's obsession with the dam at Byrill Creek, just as we continue to highlight their actions back in 2007. Many people in my region remember that the current Prime Minister was the one who wanted to dam northern New South Wales.
It is important to highlight that in the context of this bill. It is a stark reminder that the National Party do not have the farmers' best interests at heart. They simply don't care about the needs of those people, because they continue to assert that the RIC loans will not be the same as those currently offered by the states and the Territory. As we have said, there is no discernible difference. In addition, the loans are for a period of 10 years and, following that period, the farm business will need to negotiate with the bank for further assistance.
As per its usual fiscal irresponsibility, the government has not undertaken genuine consultation about the functions and obligations of the Regional Investment Corporation, including where it will be located. We have had a number of people raise this issue, and we have raised it because it is of real concern. The Deputy Prime Minister has been traipsing around Orange declaring that having the RIC there makes sense. It is hard to see how he can make these sweeping statements when there's been no discernible cost-benefit analysis of the ongoing price tag. The government has chosen to arbitrarily establish the corporation in Orange, where—what a coincidence!—the National Party member for Calare has his seat. This random resolution was obviously made using the same type of decision or order used to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to the Deputy Prime Minister's own electorate of New England—or 'New Zealand', as everyone's been saying today.
Of course, the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee found that decision should be rescinded and also recommended that the finance minister should apply greater scrutiny to future requests such as these, and this would and should include a cost-benefit analysis. In circumstances where that cost-benefit analysis could identify a net gain from the proposed order, the finance minister would then compel the relevant minister to explain the grounds on which the order was made. For a person from regional Australia, of course, it is always good to see new entities there, but what we also have to have is transparency and a clear process. Obviously, we haven't seen it in either of these cases, and it is something this government seems to keep doing. What we need to have is a clearer, transparent process.
The Senate committee's inquiry into the relocation of the APVMA also heard evidence provided by key scientific industry and agriculture stakeholders about their real concerns about the loss of expert regulatory scientists. Such concerns that are raised with the Deputy Prime Minister tend to get ignored. He is just not interested in hearing any of these claims. He's claiming that the RIC will help fast-track the construction of all these projects and provide all of this investment and economic growth to so many regions, and it really shows, yet again, this government's lack of understanding or concern for transparency, oversight and proper planning. They lack an appreciation of what's really needed in those regional areas.
In contrast, under Labor, we will ensure that farmers do not have to go through another expensive government organisation for vital assistance. The government are just providing another roadblock for people to get assistance. We have said we will continue with those loans in full, and instead of wasting time and money on new organisations we will seek to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of delivery by working with the states on this to try and streamline the process, to make it easier and to make sure help is getting to the areas where it is required. It is only Labor that can be trusted to look after our farming communities and regional and rural Australia. We have said that we can deliver much more cost-effective, efficient and much needed assistance to the farming and agricultural sector.
The Deputy Prime Minister and those in the National Party are consumed with all of their internal concerns, starting with their leader, who, as we've said, is not even validly in the House. It continues on to all of the concerns and the internal infighting within the National Party. They are totally consumed with themselves and have no concern at all for what's actually happening. There are so many real issues in regional and rural Australia, many of which have been imposed by this government and by this National Party. They need to take full responsibility for all of those funding cuts in vital areas like education and health. They are responsible for the cuts to penalty rates, which are destroying regional economies. We are seeing a whole range of issues. In my state, New South Wales, we are seeing that at a state and a federal level as well.
So, people in country areas are really saying that they are fully aware of what the National Party are not doing for them, and they are also fully aware that the National Party are very consumed with their own internal dynamics. People in country areas are angry and disappointed, particularly with the Deputy Prime Minister's actions of late and his sloppiness with his citizenship issues. It has made the National Party a laughing-stock in the state and the country, and obviously within his electorate as well. It highlights all the issues that many of us have raised about the fact that the National Party are just not up to it. They can't even get their paperwork right, for goodness sake. How can they govern the country? They can't even get the basics right. And they have stopped listening to what people are saying—they have stopped listening to their concerns.
But I can tell people in country Australia that Labor continues to listen, because we do have a strong commitment to what they need within the regions—to what families who are doing it tough need. Labor is listening and we are delivering so many policies that will help regional and rural Australia, because we understand, because we listen, and because our job here is to deliver for them. There is a very stark contrast between us and the National Party, who are consumed at the moment with the Deputy Prime Minister and the invalid status of his presence in this House.
I'm definitely powerful; I have a very large electorate, and a very large agricultural sector. I can assure the last speaker that we are very focused on the needs of regional Australia, together with my National Party colleagues. I must say it was very pleasing to hear the last speaker actually talk a little bit about farmers, because I was a bit concerned that maybe we weren't even going to focus on farmers in this debate—so, credit to the last speaker.
But anyway, let's get to the bill. We know that this bill establishes the Regional Investment Corporation, which I will from now on call the RIC, which will deliver the Commonwealth's concessional loan scheme, removing this funding from the state bodies that currently administer them. This is simply because the current system significantly inhibits our ability as a government—that is my personal view, given I'm from Western Australia, and I'll talk about that a little later—and this bill will allow us to respond to changing conditions on the ground for farmers, which, as we know, will change from season to season. For example, in my electorate of Durack, we know that the Wheatbelt and the Mid West have had some excellent years in a row—not so at the moment; it's a bit patchy. The rain has arrived late for many of the farmers in the Mid West of my electorate and also in the north-eastern Wheatbelt and it may have arrived just in time for many of the farmers in the central Wheatbelt, but it certainly won't be the bumper season for wheat and canola that we've seen of late.
Our ability, as a government, to assist those farmers in the north-eastern portion of the Wheatbelt and throughout the Mid West is hampered by the current model for distributing these concessional loans to our state governments, who in turn distribute it to the farmers. In short, it's going through a second pair of hands. When you're a farmer in need of help, you need direct help; you don't want to wait for another layer of bureaucracy. We all know that cutting out the middleman is going to quicken the process. We're ensuring that, by cutting out the middleman, the loan decisions are being made on the same criteria and basis across the country. I can guarantee you that is not happening at the moment. This means that the federal government concessional loans will be on the same terms, no matter which state or territory of this country you live in. That is, simply, fair and reasonable governance of Commonwealth taxpayer funds.
Further to its function of delivering concessional loans for farmers, the RIC will also be able to deliver loans for state and territory governments for water resource management projects in the future. I encourage the Western Australia government to put their thinking cap on and start thinking about the types of projects it may wish to have the federal government involved in. Personally, I'm thrilled that my electorate is now going to have this facility available for concessional loans for water. I am lucky enough to have a fantastic example in my electorate of the federal and state governments working together to manage and enhance water resources. I'm talking about the Ord River project, up near Kununurra. This is a great example of both levels of government coming together to develop a real, thriving, diverse agricultural industry in a very remote part of the east Kimberly. In fact, I had the pleasure of being there only a couple of weeks ago. I went out to the end of Ord stage 2, to the Northern Territory border, and had the obligatory photo taken. What we've been able to achieve out there is truly remarkable. I'm very pleased that the federal government continues to support the Ord River development. We have committed $5 million to a feasibility study for Ord stage 3. We'll take the Ord River development across the Western Australia border into the Northern Territory. The Western Australia government and the Northern Territory government will need to work together to bring the benefit of Ord stage 3 to Australia.
We know these concessional and water infrastructure loans are important for many reasons. They will facilitate further investment in the agricultural industry. At a local level they will support businesses and communities against the devastating effects that drought can bring—we've seen that just recently—but they will also support the farming businesses where, for whatever reason, they're in need of a concessional loan. That's what we are doing, and we've heard from all our speakers on this side about how we all think this is a very good idea and is supporting the farming industry.
But let's talk about those opposite, because I think it's worth having a look at their record and their support for the agricultural industry in this country. Let us not forget the past actions of those members opposite. How could we forget that knee-jerk, community-destroying decision on the cattle live export ban, over which this government, as we stand here today, is being sued for an amount of $600 million?
I mean, how careless can you be? They are the party ripping money out of the agricultural sector so that they can prop up their legion of other policy failures, which of course include things like the 5,000 people who died at sea and also those young men who died installing pink batts. They literally cut the federal agriculture department's funding in half. Yet the member for Hunter has the gall to enter this House and propose an amendment that calls this government self-serving in terms of this piece of legislation. We all know what he would do if Labor were on this side of the House. The regions would again be an afterthought. We have seen that time and time again here, as part of this debate, where there's been no focus on exactly what we're talking about here. Rather, they are talking about politics and issues relating to the Deputy Prime Minister. That's not what we're here to do today. We're here to talk about how as a government we can actually help the agriculture industry. We know that the regions would again be an afterthought, as the Labor Party would pick up where they left off, destroying our economy with their economic vandalism. Those members opposite don't care about drought relief. We saw that when we came to office in 2013, because there was nothing in place to support farmers in trouble; nothing for us to inherit that was going to support the agricultural regions.
Let's look at what Labor did cut during their six years of government and perhaps do a bit of a comparison. As I said previously, they cut the ag department's budget in half. The live export ban could cost the Australian public some $600 million plus the damage done to international supply chains, regional communities here and investor faith in government stability in Australia. All of that was put at risk. They removed the exceptional circumstances drought support policy and they abolished Land and Water Australia. They wanted to remove the research and development levy from the control of farmers so that they could decide what to spend the farmers' money on. This is Labor's agricultural record. No wonder we didn't get much of a contribution from those opposite today, because, quite frankly, they don't get the agricultural region and they don't get farmers, so they have nothing to contribute.
The Australian public and Australian farmers deserve better than what they were served up. Interestingly enough, in 2016, when I was manning a polling booth in Geraldton, which is in the heart of my electorate in Western Australia, a gentleman came up to me, shook my hand and told me he was voting Liberal. I said, 'Thank you very much, that's good of you.' He said, 'Well, I wouldn't be voting Labor.' I said. 'Why is that?' He said, 'Labor's live export ban.' I can only assume he was a farmer. It was some five years ago when Labor signed off on that policy, but farmers don't forget. Why would they, when the government turned its back on them? The member for Hunter and the rest of those opposite should heed that warning. Farmers have very long memories and they won't forget.
In fact, we've seen this with many of the contributions here today. As I said earlier, the member for Bendigo didn't mention farmers once. I would have to go through Hansard, and I'm happy to be corrected if I don't get it right, but I think she did not mention farmers once. This particular corporation we are talking about—the Regional Investment Corporation—will actually be there to serve. That is the point of this legislation: a corporation which is there to serve. It should not have been about the public servants within the corporation, but unfortunately that's what the member for Bendigo was more interested in talking about.
Let's talk about why this bill is required. In our current system, which the coalition had to fix up in 2013 when we arrived, we knew that there were no concessional loan schemes. So we negotiated with various state and territory governments. This system may work great if your state government has reached a suitable agreement with the federal government. But, sadly, in Western Australia we witnessed a very slow and cumbersome system, despite everyone's best efforts, which led to minimal take-up from our farmers. So the system that we've currently got would, if Labor had their way, be to say to a farmer in Victoria or New South Wales, 'Well, you're okay, because the current system suits you, but if you happen to be a farmer in Kununurra, or if you are a farmer from the Wheatbelt, or if you are a farmer from the midwest, then we, the federal government, will not be there to support you.' And I think that's quite absurd. We actually need to fix the current system that we've got.
Those opposite who are arguing against this legislation—or, frankly, not even talking about the legislation—are really arguing that the farmers of the Northern Territory—because they've also suffered the same—and Western Australia are not worth helping. Well, quite frankly, I think that's ridiculous, and I don't agree with that. I believe that all farmers in Australia should be treated equally by our government, which is why I'm a supporter of removing the concessional loan scheme arrangements from the states and returning them to the federal government with the creation of the new Regional Investment Corporation. This will ensure equity in the system across states and territories, ensuring that federal money is spent equitably.
The current system we've got is not the federal government's fault, as the government has negotiated in good faith with all states and territories, and it's certainly not Labor's fault either. They had no real agricultural policy when they left office, so we can't exactly blame them for the current mess—especially for those farmers in Western Australia—because we started from a standing start. I don't believe it's the Western Australian government's fault either, because these things happen, it isn't always the way we would like it to be, and I think they used all their best efforts. But that's beside the point: it's not about whose fault it is, because the only people who are currently suffering from the current arrangement that we have are the farmers of Western Australia. Some of the hardest working men and women in one of the biggest growth industries in the country are currently being hamstrung by our current arrangements, and I don't think that's good enough.
With the time remaining, I just want to be able to assure the farmers and the pastoralists of my electorate that I'm doing everything I can to ensure that the federal government supports them with respect to the concessional loan scheme. It's also a shout-out to the Western Australian government, because I would like them to get organised with respect to what water policies they might be coming to talk to us about. By July 2018, we will have the federal concessional loan body set up to deliver this service to the farmers. On that basis, I commend this bill to the House.
I'm proud to rise and talk about the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 and the challenge that farmers face and their abandonment by the current government. There is a giant elephant in the room whenever we talk about the agricultural industry, and that's climate change. Climate change is the single greatest challenge to the prosperity of farmers. Quite frankly, if you don't have farmland that can produce things, we're not going to have many farmers in this country. The Garnaut review in 2008 found that unchecked climate change will destroy 98 per cent of the farming land in the Murray-Darling Basin. Whenever I talk to farmers, they're already recognising the impact of climate change. You have only to look in the Hunter Valley, where I go to talk to the winemakers. Their harvests are coming early, their growing seasons for grapes are getting shorter, and they are having to develop very different strategies to manage the impact of climate change on the winemaking industry—an incredibly important industry to Australia.
I find it farcical that this government claims to be the best friend of farmers—and that's what the second reading amendment moved by the member for Hunter goes to—when it doesn't talk about the single greatest challenge facing farmers in any of its policies, and that's climate change. You only have to look at its complete abandonment of its emissions reduction fund, supposedly the centrepiece of its efforts to combat climate change: a policy that the current Prime Minister—and I say 'current' intentionally—said is a fig leaf for doing nothing and is fiscal recklessness on a grand scale. Well, it's been so fiscally reckless that the government has stopped funding it. There was no additional funding for it in this year's budget. The money will run out quite soon, and experts have demonstrated that they are leaving massive gaps in emissions reductions if we are to meet our 2030 targets—even the government's own inadequate 2030 targets.
So, all we've got from those on the other side are lies and obfuscation on this very important issue. They've got a so-called review into the emissions reduction fund, but we've seen nothing out of it. All we've seen is a party riven by divisions, where the minister for energy gets overruled by the member for Hughes and the member for Warringah on a regular basis, and where the minister got rolled on an emissions intensity scheme within 12 hours of floating the possibility. I've got zero confidence that this government will be able to combat climate change, which is singlehandedly the greatest issue facing farmers in this country. That's what we should be debating in this bill and in this chamber.