House debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2020


Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020

5:15 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020. When I first thought about running for parliament to become the member for Paterson back in 2016, I couldn't imagine any greater feeling of pride than representing the community that I not only live in with my family but also was born in. My electorate has a vast range of people. There are a lot of blue-collar workers and families in the west, in places like Kurri Kurri and Maitland, and lots of people in the east, who choose to retire in the magnificent Port Stephens area. These areas are growing at an incredible rate and they are becoming more and more dynamic by the day. But, regardless of the identity of my constituents, I still take great pride in bringing their messages to Canberra and in representing them. At the end of the day, even when this rorting non-hose-holding Liberal-National government turn their backs on my community and bunk off instead of bunking down, I've tried to stand by my constituents and to represent them to the best of my ability. More often than not, this has paid off.

When I decided to run in 2016, I put a lot of thought into the priorities of my electorate. Although the list of things that should be done was endless, narrowing those down to a few projects that could be done first was a challenge. When it came to that list, the raising of Testers Hollow was one of the first things. Many locals believe that it should have been raised in the 1930s. In fact, my great-grandparents used to row a little wooden boat across the hollow when it flooded. So I was particularly happy, after I made the announcement in the 2016 election that the Labor Party would, in fact, raise Testers Hollow, that the Liberals decided to back my idea and came to the party with funds. They also pledged a commitment to Testers Hollow, and in 2017 the funds were allocated to the project. Last year, the plans for this section of road were released for public consultation, and today I was delighted to see that tenders have been called to raise Testers Hollow—tick! So far the project is on track, and I'm proud to know that my voice in this place has helped this project move along.

That wasn't the only thing that I've thrown my support behind, and I'm proud to witness results. In March last year I was alarmed to see a 'for lease' sign in the window of my local Kurri Kurri Centrelink, I thought, 'How can this be possible? Why would they be leasing the local Centrelink?' So I set about talking to people in my community. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people, who live in Kurri Kurri, Weston and Heddon Greta who rely on Kurri Kurri's Centrelink. I wrote to the Minister for Human Services and asked what was going on. Then I was directed to speak to the national manager of Centrelink, who told me at the time that Centrelink and the building owners were unable to reach an agreement on the lease. Well, this was a big concern to my constituents in my home town. So I persevered with contact to the minister, to the department and to the national manager of Centrelink, and finally we were able to have a lease agreement and the signs were removed. Little did I know it at the time, but this was actually a huge win. Recent reports show that several Centrelink offices across Australia have been secretly closed down without so much as a phone call to the local member or a conversation with the local community or the staff that work at Centrelink. Disgraceful! Thankfully, Kurri Kurri Centrelink was spared.

Another incredible win for our community is the PFAS class action against the government, which reached an in-principle agreement late last week. I've spoken about this extensively in this place. In fact, I had pause today to reflect on my first speech, which I made as I stood here with dark brown hair and fewer wrinkles. Grey has come and so have more worry lines, and I do attribute it largely to PFAS. When I look back on my first speech and think about what I said on that day, I stand by those words:

This government must stand by the Williamtown community, who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in an impossible situation. Their properties are no longer fit for purpose—they are devalued and potentially worthless. Their soil and water is contaminated, their health potentially compromised, their lives destroyed, their anxieties heightened, and their trust and faith in all of us low. The PFAS contamination must be stopped, land and soil remediated, and people who want out must be able to go. Governments cannot be allowed to poison our environment and our people. Governments cannot be allowed to walk away. It is time for this government to put things right.

I want to say that it is good. We called for these people to have options, and now they do. Finally, after almost five long years of speeches, of Senate hearings, of joint standing committee inquiries, of reports, of officialdom, of bureaucrats, of trauma, of tears, my community will finally get the chance to make some decisions about their future. I welcome that. Above all I welcome the opportunity to be able to repair some of the terrible damage that has occurred between our community and RAAF Base Williamtown. Williamtown was always a RAAF community. Thousands of people have come through the base and made it a terrific Defence institution for our country. Then, when we learnt about PFAS, we turned on Defence because we felt so violated, so literally contaminated. So winning this class action means not only can the people of Williamtown get on with their lives, but we can start to mend those breaks that have occurred between our community and the Department of Defence. That is really an important and good thing.

Outcomes like this are what I dreamed of when I got this job. If anyone ever says to me, 'What can a backbencher from a little backwater in opposition achieve in their first term of government?' I would say go and look at the PFAS class action from Williamtown in 2020. We achieved that. We had a win. I am so proud of my community and to serve them in this place.

In November 2017 Newcastle Airport, which happened to share the facility with RAAF Base Williamtown, unveiled its $1.6 million international arrival and departure facilities. It took less then a year for an international route to be announced. I would like to think that my advocacy played a small role in this achievement. In fact, it was interesting when the then CEO of Virgin came to Canberra to meet some of the people who'd been elected in 2016. We were all sitting around a dinner table. He asked us what we would like to have in terms of our electorates. He was just chatting generally to us. People around the table were talking very wisely about tourism and how they could benefit from tourism and how Virgin might play a role. I remember saying at the time, 'I'm from the seat of Paterson. In Paterson we have the fabulous Newcastle Airport. I would like an international route and a lounge. We don't have either of those.' The next day I got a lovely email from the CEO of Virgin, who said, 'I'm not sure we can help you with the lounge, but we might be interested in flying to an international destination out of Newcastle.' So, over the next three months, working with Peter Cock and the board of Newcastle Airport Pty Ltd, we worked with Virgin to get a flight—an international flight. I want to thank the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, who really did help us with that. He expedited some of the processes we needed to get through, so that when we held the Newcastle 500 supercars we were able to fly people from Auckland to Newcastle and back again over the February period of the year. So that has been an enormous success, and now we're looking at how we can expand that service. I'm so pleased that we were able to capture that extra piece of revenue and income for our region, and the supercars have been a wonderful boom too. It's great to work with my colleague, the member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon, in progressing our region forward.

The list of achievements that we've had in Paterson is good, but there are lots of things that we want to get on to now. And the very forefront of these priorities is the M1 extension. If you've ever driven between Sydney and Brisbane, you would know where I'm talking about. There's a set of traffic lights when you get to the end of the M1 at Beresfield where you have to sit, often for a long time, behind stacks and stacks of cars, trucks and caravans and everyone who's tried to head north. You turn right at the lights, up over the flyover, down around the big sweeping bend and up over the bridge to Hexham and on your way. Well, that's how it should work. If you're coming from Brisbane back to Sydney, you have to travel over the very antiquated Hexham Bridge, which is a very narrow bridge and has its problems, and back the other way. It is hopeless. In peak times, it's as slow as a wet week, and in holiday times, you just sit, often, for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, to get through two kilometre of road. It is so frustrating for people. The road is used by hundreds of thousands of Australians every single year. It is the last choke point between Sydney and Brisbane. Adding complexity to that, it is one of the main arterial points between western New South Wales and the Port of Newcastle, which sees lots of grain and other goods coming from the west over to the point. And mixed into this we have all our locals, who are busily just trying to get from the areas of Maitland and Kurri Kurri over to Newcastle to go to work. So it is a nightmare.

For the past 15 years, all levels of government and the community have called for this road to be extended. When will the Morrison government and the Berejiklian Liberal government in New South Wales stop dragging their feet? In 2016 Infrastructure Australia listed the Pacific Highway M1 extension from Raymond Terrace to Black Hill as a priority, with a near term of zero to five years. The 2020 Infrastructure priority list reveals this project is still a priority, yet nothing has been done. The Morrison government blames the Berejiklian government. The Berejiklian government blames the Morrison government. If either of those governments cared about regional infrastructure, which they should, the project would be a high priority. The business case would have been completed by the state government and the project would be underway. Instead, only four per cent of the funding for the M1 extension has been made available by the Morrison government in the next five years.

The Pacific Highway is one of the most used roads in New South Wales. According to Infrastructure Australia, more than 21,000 vehicles use the M1 in afternoon peak times and this number is expected to increase by over 35 per cent by 2031—at least 7,500 vehicles. In holiday travel times, the stretch of road is reduced to as little as 20 kilometres per hour, adding over two hours to the journey.

This important project would include 15 kilometres of dual carriageway motorway with two lanes in each direction, bypassing Hexham and Heatherbrae; a new interchange at Black Hill, Tarro, Tomago and Raymond Terrace; and a 2.6 kilometre bridge over Woodlands Close, the Main Northern Railway, the New England Highway and the Hunter River. The project will create hundreds of jobs during construction in the Hunter and Port Stephens regions and boost productivity by reducing traffic congestion—we're always hearing about congestion-busting ideas from the other side—for local residents, tourists, businesses and truck drivers. If you have ever used this road or been stuck on this road this affects you. I'm asking every single person, whether you live in my electorate, North Sydney or North Brisbane: please sign my petition so I can bring it here to Parliament House. I am running a campaign called We Want a Clean Run on the M1. Get on it with me so we can save you time on this last choke point on the M1 between Sydney and Brisbane.

Another huge concern for my constituents has been the recent change to bulk-billing. From January this year the Morrison government and his Department of Health have implemented the modified Monash model, which decides how much incentive doctors in regional areas will receive to bulk-bill. In short, regional areas like mine, like Raymond Terrace and Kurri Kurri, have been put in the same billing basket as the CBD of Sydney. How can this be? It is clearly an error in the model. It needs desperate attention because people in regional and rural Australia, in the seat of Paterson, need as much medical help as those in the CBD of Sydney. The Morrison government must make a change to the modified Monash model.

(Quorum formed)


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