House debates

Monday, 28 May 2007

Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008

Second Reading

7:07 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

I would be happy to talk about the coal loader in Newcastle, as the member for Dobell interjects. I have some views on the coal loader in Newcastle that would not quite be consistent with the views of many others in this place. The reality is that coal loader in Newcastle is privately owned by a cooperative of coalmining companies. What is happening at the Newcastle coal port is a great tragedy. More than 60 ships are waiting offshore to collect their coal to take to our, mainly Asian, customers. That is a national disgrace and an international embarrassment.

There are a few bodies responsible for that international embarrassment, and I would nominate three groupings. The first is the coal companies that run that coal loader. In my view, they have abused their monopoly status and have attempted to maintain capacity at just the point of full utilisation. No company or firm facing competition can ever hope to maintain capital at full capacity utilisation. It would not happen in a competitive market, but that is exactly what has happened at Newcastle. There has been no incentive whatsoever to expand that port in the absence of competition. That is a big red mark against the coal companies. A second red mark is against the New South Wales government—and I am happy to say it—for not showing more urgency in approving the expansion of the existing coal loader, run by PWCS, and in approving the application for a third coal loader by a second identity right next door. That lack of urgency on the New South Wales government’s part has held back the development of the third coal loader and taken the pressure off the existing coal loader to expand in the lack of competition.

The third big red mark goes against the federal government for removing the urgency to action by both the coal companies and the state government by giving imprimatur to a quota system, authorised by the ACCC, which has removed that urgency. At the end of the day, that authorisation is the right to immunity from prosecution for an anticompetitive practice, and that is exactly what the quota system is at the port of Newcastle. It is an illegal practice that should never have been allowed and has exacerbated the situation at the port of Newcastle. So there is collective responsibility on the part of the coal companies, the state government and the federal government; they should all collectively hang their heads in shame.

Now that approval has been given to the third coal loader and to the expansion of the existing coal loaders, let us hope that we will see some eventual relief at the port of Newcastle. But it will be too late for the 300 or so miners who have already lost their jobs as a result of that bottleneck at that port. The coalminers are asking how they could possibly lose their jobs in the greatest coal boom we have experienced in at least the last 30 years, if not in the history of our Federation. It is a ridiculous situation. As I said, they should all collectively hang their heads in shame.

I want to say something about the defence aspects of this budget. A lot of fanfare has surrounded the additional defence spending, which is always welcome. Defence spending now represents some $22 billion—right on two per cent of GDP. That is a lot of money to most people, but it is certainly not the peak of our spending. Back in the peak of the Vietnam War we were spending in excess of four per cent of GDP on our defence needs. Of course, when operational tempo is high, the requirement will be to spend more money. We currently have some 3½ thousand members of the ADF deployed overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and other places and therefore the demands for spending on defence will increase.

The question remains as to whether, in this time of high operational tempo, that money is enough. What we certainly cannot afford to be doing is wasting that money. We have seen too much wastage of defence dollars in recent years. Every defence dollar wasted is a dollar not spent on our strategic national interest, and that is the great tragedy of this budget. We welcome the extra money, but we would like to see the money spent more efficiently and more effectively. I do not have time this evening to go through all the examples, but most members of this place are familiar with the long list of cost blow-outs and overruns that have been besetting the ADF in recent years, and much of that comes back to poor government planning, bad and inappropriate government intervention and general mismanagement.

It is interesting to remind the House that in this year’s budget, at the same time as significant extra money was injected into the defence budget, money was again deferred. In other words, we are putting more money in but we cannot spend it because of the government’s mismanagement of the defence procurement program over recent years. We welcome the National Security Committee’s decision not to scrap the Seasprite helicopter project and flush $1 billion down the drain—a decision taken only late last week and taken despite Minister Nelson’s insistence that the project be scrapped and another $1.5 billion be found to start a new project. It has really been a mess and it is time the government lifted its game.

Recruitment and retention are important areas. There is no doubt that recruiting and retaining skilled people are the biggest issues facing the Australian Defence Force at this time and therefore the biggest challenge facing our national security. We welcome the additional money spent on recruitment and retention, but we believe that the government has to get more innovative. You cannot just keep spending and throwing money at the problem. We need new paradigms and new methods to attract people to and retain them in the Defence Force.

I want to wind up by saying something more specific about my electorate. Between 1996 and 2001 I was very proud and privileged to represent the area commonly known now as the Upper Hunter Shire. This included Merriwa, Scone, Aberdeen and Murrurundi, which were the large towns in that region. Sadly, in 2001 I lost those townships as part of the then redistribution. I picked up very large segments of the Maitland LGA. As a result of the last redistribution, I have again lost some parts of the Maitland local government area, particularly parts of east Maitland and areas like Medford, and they will now go into the electorate of Paterson and be represented by the member for Paterson. I have now picked up those parts of the Upper Hunter Shire again. So from election day in October—or whenever it might be—electorate willing, I will for the first time in many years be once again representing those towns that now fall into the local government boundaries of the Upper Hunter Shire.

Last week I started to travel around those areas. I have deliberately not done so before now because they continue to be represented by the former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and there is a certain etiquette involved there, but I have—given that it is getting much closer to the election—decided to start re-establishing myself in those areas. I had a very nice afternoon tea in Merriwa last week, and next week I will be travelling to Scone, Aberdeen and Murrurundi to do the same to reacquaint myself with the people there and rebuild the very good relationships I had not only with local government there previously but with the various community groups and the many people who live in those areas. I look forward—again, electorate willing—to representing those areas once again and working with those community groups and the council in furthering economic development in the area for the benefit of all those who live in the area. I am sad to be losing those parts of east Maitland and those immediate areas which I will not represent after the election, win, lose or draw. I thank the many people who I have met and worked with in those areas for their support and wish them the very best in the future.


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