House debates

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Rural and Regional Australia

3:19 pm

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

I would like to begin by giving up a bit of my time to express support for the former defence minister for the initiative put forward by the Leader of the Opposition on the Invictus Games. I associate myself with the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in support of those contesting the games. I wish them the very, very best.

Today we gave the member for New England an opportunity to show his leadership right here in question time. Of course he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, unsurprisingly. But what people in the towns, large and small, in rural and regional Australia are asking themselves is: why doesn't the government give a toss about them? Why are the National Party, in particular, so focused on and so intensely debating their own political internals, while there are so many challenges to be dealt with in rural and regional Australia?

I've said here many times before that, every time a government take the budget knife to funding in schools and education, hospitals and higher education, the pain is disproportionately felt in rural and regional Australia. When they cut funding to schools, rural schools feel it most. In fact, many of them become unviable. When they cut university funding, it hits regional universities hardest. When they cut hospital funding, regional hospitals feel it most. When they freeze the Medicare rebate, it's residents in rural and regional Australia who are affected most. When they cut vocational education and training, it's the rural TAFE facilities that come under threat the most. And, when you make a mess of the NBN, it's the people in rural and regional Australia who feel it most.

Possibly the greatest betrayal by this government with respect to rural and regional residents in the last five years is its total inability and unwillingness to further progress drought policy reform. We are in the middle of one of the most severe, most protracted and hottest droughts probably now in our history, and this government has been caught asleep at the wheel. What will we get next Friday—tomorrow week? We're going to have a national drought summit, five years into the term of this hopeless government.

And now, five minutes or more to an election campaign, the National Party—that's not their real name; they're actually called The Nationals, but they have a bit of an identity crisis and universally call themselves the National Party—want to bring their chief wrecker back to the leadership of the party. They want to bring the member for New England back. This is the same bloke who has a one-dimensional approach to public policy. The word for that is 'chaos'—chaos and dysfunction. When the member for New England left the agricultural portfolio, I said in this place, 'Today the member for New England moves on, and today we start cleaning up the mess.' It will take a long, long time—in fact, it won't be entirely cleaned up until we have elected a Shorten Labor government.

At a time when the country was crying out for leadership and unity, the member for New England gave them populism and division, pork barrels and false hope. The most recent thought bubble is a royal commission into the retailing sector. It's not really about the retailing sector; it's about the aspirations of the member for New England. This is from the party which voted against a banking royal commission on no less than 23 occasions. I say: shame on them. Of course the National Party represent the majority of the country's poorest electorates. That's the way they like to keep them—poor—because that's what works best for them electorally. There is a political model: divide the community and back a side. The National Party aren't about unity and community. They are about dividing, pushing the issues and taking a side—and then, of course, from time to time feeding them a few crumbs to keep them voting for the National Party.

One small example is the Regional Investment Corporation. Now, think about it: the National Party thinks that you create jobs by moving them from one place to another. Well, of course, that doesn't work. The interesting thing about the Regional Investment Corporation is they don't mention it anymore. I was fascinated when, yesterday, the member for Calare asked the Deputy Prime Minister a question about drought. The Regional Investment Corporation is supposed to be about drought. That's what they tell us. Wouldn't you think the Deputy Prime Minister, answering a question from the member who represents Orange, where they put the Regional Investment Corporation, would have mentioned that organisation? I didn't hear the words pass his lips. You've got to wonder why. Maybe it's because it was stillborn—still no CEO, still no staff, still no office, and still no work to do. It's $28 million of taxpayers' money for a boondoggle, a pork-barrelling exercise that will eventually achieve nothing.

Let us just pretend for a moment that, maybe, the Regional Investment Corporation was a good idea for a local community in that it was going to create jobs and economic activity. Then, if you were going to utilise it, dispatch it to do that, you'd pick a town like Mackay, with eight per cent unemployment, Rockhampton, with eight per cent unemployment, or maybe Shepparton, with six per cent unemployment. No, it's going to Orange, with 3.8 per cent unemployment. We know why it's going to Orange. It's because that's where the Nationals lost a state seat for the first time in about 69 years or so. That's why it's going to Orange.

No-one will forget the pork barrels and the boondoggles, but all of them were signed off by cabinet, the Prime Minister of the day and the Treasurer of the day. And there's one constant in all of that—it's the now Prime Minister of this country. You can nearly forgive Barnaby Joyce for his antics; that's just him. But why would the now Prime Minister sign off on all this waste and mismanagement? Why would the Prime Minister allow the member for New England to move the pesticides authority from Canberra to Armidale? Why would he do that, knowing the damage it would cause the authority, the farmers, the veterinarians and the companion animal owners who rely on the authority for the safe medicines and other products they receive?

We all know what it was about. It was all about managing the member for New England. Today, he is a bigger management issue than ever before. And why? Because this Prime Minister decided he'd manage him by giving him a promotion. Let's make him the drought envoy, and that'll keep him quiet. We'll give him extra staff and resources. He'll be able to fly around the country and he'll be happy. Well, that worked well! I wonder what the member for Parkes is thinking about this and will pass comment on in his contribution today.

I've been doing the numbers myself—I know this area just a little—and I reckon the 22 members of the Nationals party room are split three ways: seven, seven, seven, plus one—Barnaby Joyce. There are those sticking with the Deputy Prime Minister, there are those pushing for the member for New England and there are those in the middle who are just in despair. I suspect the member for Parkes is in that corner. The member for Calare must surely be in the corner of the member for New England, because he got the Regional Investment Corporation, although it hasn't manifested into anything yet.

One minister today got it right, I think, when he said, as reported in TheSydney Morning Herald, 'They have lost their minds'. But Bernard Keane, in Crikey, might have trumped him when his headline read, 'The return of Joyce is the final insult to an angry electorate'. There's only one way to get us all talking positively about the opportunities in rural and regional Australia. There's only one way to restore services in rural and regional Australia, and that, of course, is to elect a Shorten Labor government. I say bring the election on—and bring it on now. (Time expired)

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