House debates

Tuesday, 22 November 2022


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2022-2023, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2022-2023, Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2022-2023; Second Reading

6:04 pm

Sam Birrell (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

This budget is really a missed opportunity for rural and regional Australians. It's missing programs for rural and regional Australians and missing projects for rural and regional Australians. If regional Australia were a dartboard, the walls around it would be full of holes. The government isn't spending less, but it is spending less in regional and rural Australia. The regions, including my electorate of Nicholls, are suffering the same cost-of-living pressures as the rest of Australia. The median weekly family income is $1,682 according to the 2021 census data collected by the ABS, and that is significantly less than the median of $2,136 for Victoria and $2,120 nationally, so the people in my electorate are doing it particular tough. For 30 per cent of renters in Nicholls, their weekly rent payments are greater than 30 per cent of their weekly household income, and for those who are in their own home with a mortgage, at the time of the census, 11.5 per cent had monthly payments equal to, or greater than, 30 per cent of their household income. But of course this has got worse because, since the census, interest rates have gone up and up and up, in a bid to curb rapidly rising inflation. The proportion spending more than a third of their income to cover their mortgage will have surely risen significantly, and more rate rises are being flagged. These families in Nicholls are under pressure on multiple fronts. More of their income is going to just keep a roof over their heads, while at the same time they are paying more to put food on the table and put fuel in the family car.

The budget, which enshrines ambitious emissions targets and a rapid transition to renewable energy, places even more pressure on families. Under this budget, the cost of living of many Australians—most Australians, but particularly people in my electorate of Nicholls—is going up. Power prices are going up by more than 50 per cent, and gas prices are going up by more than 40 per cent. Taxes are going up, with $142 billion more in receipts to be collected. Unemployment is forced to go up. Real wages, despite the rhetoric of this government, are forced to go down, and interest rates, as I have already said, are continuing to go up. It's a high-taxing and high-spending budget that does nothing to help families get ahead. Families in Nicholls needed a budget with a clear plan to tackle cost-of-living pressures on families. Instead there has been a commitment that: 'We'll try.' I think the government is out of its depth on energy policy. It has a plan but, as the budget forecasts clearly show, it is a plan to heap greater cost on families while it recklessly pursues its emissions agenda. We need to respond to climate change and we need to reduce emissions, but we don't need to put a wrecking ball through the economy to get there. We don't need to burden families with the soaring costs of energy that are forecast in this budget.

For Nicholls, the budget was not without merit. Two very important projects committed to by the coalition when it was in government were confirmed in the budget. There is $3.3 million under the Community Development Grants Program towards the construction of a new multisports stadium in Yarrawonga—a necessary project that has the backing of the Moira Shire Council, the community, user groups and the Victorian government. The second project, also under the Community Development Grants Program is for $600,000 for Shepparton Foodshare. Foodshare is an amazing volunteer based community organisation that does such important work, including offering relief to families during the recent floods in my electorate. When we had the COVID lockdowns last year, I was part of the volunteer effort that went around taking food to families that couldn't leave their houses because they were locked down. Supermarkets couldn't deliver because so many people were locked down, so Foodshare organised an army of volunteers to take necessary food supplies around to locked down families. This organisation, Foodshare, has never had a permanent home. It has relied instead on the generosity of commercial property owners, but, of course, they keep being bounced around. Their temporary base was actually flooded during the recent crisis. They relocated to another shed and continued their important work, but Foodshare needs a permanent home, and the $600,000 community development grant will give them one.

Those grants were finally confirmed by Labor after they had already flagged their intention to scrap the community development grants. I mourn the loss of the community development program because it did so many really good things in my electorate and in others, but I'm pleased that those two necessary projects were funded. I think that the program has fallen foul of the mistaken view of this government that any non-competitive grant scheme is simply a slush fund for pork-barrelling. It's a politically convenient view, but it ignores the fact that local members are part of their communities—and never is this more true than in regional areas—and are better placed than isolated bureaucracies in Canberra to make sensible determinations about community priorities and needs. Who could argue that grants supporting children to participate in organised sport and stay healthy and socially connected in a regional town, or funding to provide a dedicated base for a community organisation like Shepparton Foodshare, which in turn provides basic food parcels to those in need, are not merit based?

I want to make the point, too, that there was a third community development grant project supported and really driven hard by my predecessor, Damian Drum, in the seat of Nicholls. The Nationals backed a multimillion dollar grant and worked with the community to upgrade the terminal at the Bendigo Airport. That airport is in the Bendigo electorate, which was held by Labor for many years, and is still held by Labor, but this project was supported on merit because of the potential to attract commercial airline services to operate from the Bendigo Airport. Those services would benefit the constituents of Nicholls but also, mainly, the constituents of Bendigo. The flawed premise that any money hard won by the Nationals and dedicated to supporting regional Australia is somehow inappropriate or open to abuse underpins the attitude in this anti-bush budget, and I think that Bendigo effort by my predecessor really underlines that.

The Regional Accelerator Program, a grant program intended to administer over $2 billion over five years across a range of sectors, was scrapped in this budget. Broadly, the program was to target support for regional businesses and communities to access funding for local priorities in infrastructure, manufacturing, industry development, skills training, research and development, and education. We had tranches of funding: regionalisation; modern manufacturing; the critical minerals accelerator; supply chain resilience; Australian apprenticeships initiatives; the Trailblazer Universities Program and education infrastructure; a centre for digital agriculture, innovation and adoption hubs; recycling modernisation; and export market development.

How did this look in Nicholls? I was advocating for a lot of projects as a community leader and a community member before I entered parliament. In an apolitical way, I wanted to work with whichever government was in, whether it was here in Canberra or the Victorian state government. One of the worst things that besets our community is the long-term, critical shortage of health, aged-care and community care workers at our local hospital, Goulburn Valley Health, which is the major regional health facility in Nicholls.

Double the current number of workers is required for the future. Acute shortages already exist in nursing, midwifery and allied health. Often, the best solutions are the solutions that communities come up with themselves, not those that come as a thought bubble from one of the very good workers here in the bureaucracy in Canberra. To improve the recruitment and retention of these workforce groups, La Trobe University, Goulburn Ovens TAFE and Goulburn Valley Health, the hospital, proposed a purpose-built centre of excellence in rural nursing, midwifery and allied health education in the Goulburn Valley. It's called the GV Rural Clinical School, and it's designed to service the mission of each of these organisations that we need to grow our own health workforce.

Through the provision of place based, state-of-the-art learning, teaching and research facilities designed for professional development of student and qualified rural nurses, midwives and allied health clinicians, the partnership would offer flexible undergraduate and postgraduate nursing and midwifery programs. I'm such a big believer in the fact—and I've seen the proof of it—that regionally based tertiary education is what helps develop people in regional areas and what helps a workforce train and work in regional areas. I'm a beneficiary of it. I did a bachelor of applied science in agriculture at the Dookie campus of the University of Melbourne, and I did an MBA at the Shepparton campus of La Trobe University. I'm an example—whether you think I'm a good example or not—of what regional tertiary education can do. That's why I want to come up to this place and work constructively to see it funded.

There's also what's referred to as the magnet effect from increasing opportunities for professional development and models that encourage a culture of learning. It improves recruitment and, importantly, in the health sector it improves the retention of clinicians. The $19 million that the Nationals committed to spend to launch this joint initiative between La Trobe University, Goulburn Valley Health and GOTAFE, which would have seen significantly more young people from the regions trained and go to work in aged care and hospitals where we need nurses—that's gone with the scrapping of this program. It's a really disappointing outcome.

Another disappointing outcome is a plan to fund the Seymour Community Wellbeing Hub, as another great initiative that came out of regional accelerator. It's a plan to address disadvantage in that wonderful community of Seymour, by improving access for 10,000 people to integrated health and mental health support and other community services. When people come in, they're not just being treated for the symptoms of what they might have. They're treated in a holistic way: 'Can we help you with your education? Can we help you with a job? Can we help you with your health? Can we help you with your mental health? How are your kids going?' That's what the Seymour wellness hub was going to do. This is the reality of regional funding under the coalition—important projects that benefit regional communities and add to their wellbeing, prosperity and lifestyle. The wellness hub is another one that's gone as a result of regional accelerator going.

There's a lot in this budget that was really disappointing for regional infrastructure. There are a lot of plans for investment in roads, rail, bridges, dams and community infrastructure facilities. I'm such a believer in the idea that Australia has got to—as I put it—be a bit more like Germany where we’ve got all these smaller, vibrant regional cities dotted around the place, linked together by rail, and we don't just expand the megacities in the way that some nations do. Interestingly, Germany has a population of 80 million and their biggest city, Berlin, is three million. The vibrancy of those manufacturing based towns—and we've got a manufacturing based town in Shepparton—really benefits, but it takes infrastructure, and it takes focusing on those regions.

The member for Riverina is beside me, and as Deputy Prime Minister and minister for infrastructure, committed $400 million to the Shepparton rail corridor, which was going to mean that between Shepparton and Melbourne, we would have gone from 4½ return services a day—and the half is because one of them goes to Melbourne and doesn't come back—to nine services a day. That means that, on the hour at peak times, people will able to jump on one of those new velocity trains. The member for Riverina worked with the Victorian Labor government on that, and people in my part of the world were very impressed with that bipartisan approach. That's the sort of project that a federal government that cares about regions funds. It's going to have a significant improvement in the way that professional people are attracted to Shepparton and the surrounding regions, and that's the sort of visionary nation-building stuff that the member for Riverina, when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, funded.

That's what I wanted to see in this budget, and I didn't see it. Instead, the programs and buckets of money that I was hoping to work with constructively up here, to develop regional Australia, I've seen them go and I haven't seen them replaced with anything. For me, that's the real disappointment. I also want to work constructively with businesses in the manufacturing sector in the Goulburn Valley who want to work constructively on new, lower-emissions energy sources, because I share the desire to reduce our emissions. There were businesses, such as SPC and others, who wanted to dip into the Regional Accelerator Program and look at taking some of their energy use off the grid and develop biogas. There were a whole suite of programs. It's gone now. I think it's a missed opportunity, and I hope we can reconsider and work together towards properly funded regional development.


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