Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Matters of Public Importance
Rural and Regional Services
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Hunter proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government failing rural and regional communities.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
As the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources scurries back to his office to hide away, I can inform the House, if they did not see it, that the Deputy Prime Minister had an opinion piece in The Australian on Monday. In that opinion piece he laid bare the economic, social and political philosophies he brings to his role as Deputy Prime Minister. That is right: it was a pretty short piece! I assume he penned the piece in case his philosophies until this point had been lost in translation. What he did not do in that piece, of course, was outline any plan for the nation or indeed any plan for rural and regional Australia.
He did confirm a few things. He confirmed that he is truly a conservative—someone who supports the status quo and does not like change. This is the minister who leads a party that represents nine of the 10 poorest electorates in this country, yet he looks for no change in his thinking. He is always looking back; he is never looking forward.
He also confirmed that he loves 19th century technology. There was not a word about innovation in his 500-word piece.
We did hear a little about dams. The Deputy Prime Minister said he is going to have a dam here, a dam there and a dam everywhere—every town and community is going to have a dam. We are going to have a dam-led recovery. I can make this prediction right here and now: the Deputy Prime Minister will never build a dam in his time in this place. There have been two very significant, important water projects in recent years, both of them designed, thought of and built by the Labor Party: Chaffey Dam, which the Deputy Prime Minister often likes to claim credit for, wrongly; and of course the Midlands irrigation project in Tasmania—wholly and solely a Labor project.
He also confirmed in his speech something we already knew: he hates renewable energy. He hates renewable energy so much that he blames renewable energy for pushing over those transmission towers in South Australia. Windmills and solar panels pushed those steel transmission towers over. He also made a revelation: he does not like kitchen renovators. In that same context, he also demonstrated that he does not understand the services sector—that is 70 per cent of our output, by the way—and, therefore, certainly does not understand the Australian economy.
There was one other thing we learned from the minister in his piece: the closure of the Hazelwood power station is Labor's fault. The closure of a 45-year-old brown-coal-fired generator in Victoria is all Labor's fault. That is a revelation.
Of course, what the piece lacked was any plan whatsoever for the country. Certainly there was no plan for rural and regional Australia. There was no vision, no strategy, nothing on productivity and nothing on sustainability. Take his own portfolio. This is true of the agriculture sector on this minister's watch. Productivity has flatlined. Profitability is variable and very patchy. Those working in the grains industry and dairy industry in particular are struggling, with no help from this minister. But it gets worse—much worse. Every budget cut we have seen from this government since the 2014 budget, their first budget, has hit adversely and disproportionately those living in rural and regional Australia. Whether we are talking about Gonski and school funding or higher education, it hits the bush hardest. Medicare cuts make things much worse for people living in rural and regional Australia. In our public health system, to state the obvious, bulk-billing rates continue to fall. As to cuts to child care, the critical mass is always lacking in rural towns, so the impact is disproportionate. The piece de resistance, of course, is the national broadband network—an inferior plan rolled out slower and deserting rural and regional Australians.
The minister's crowning glory is his agriculture white paper. We waited forever to get it and it said nothing. It has disappeared without trace. I ask members: when was the last time they heard anyone, either inside or outside this place, refer to the minister's agriculture white paper? It is simply a fizzer. It is a dud. This is a minister and a government without any care for rural and regional Australia. Minister Joyce thinks it is all about sound bites. Putting on an Akubra, going out into the bush, taking some selfies with journalists—that is his plan for the bush. He is full of spin and rhetoric and has no ideas for rural and regional Australia. They are suffering as a consequence. We see inequality grow between capital cities and the bush. We see data coming in all the time that we are more likely to be sick and more likely to die younger than our city cousins, and yet this minister and his government have no plan.
More recently we have had the backpacker tax. What a debacle this has been. Let us quickly go through the history. It was the tax commissioner who originally expressed concern that backpackers were ticking the box declaring themselves residents for tax purposes. That concerned the commissioner. He took the matter to the AAT and secured a ruling. He informed the government that, from now on, unless they did something about it, he was going to start charging backpackers not zero tax but 32.5 per cent. The government could have done something immediately. They knew that backpackers were already falling away for a whole range of reasons. What a genius this government is! 'Backpackers are already falling away, so we have an idea—we'll put a tax on them and only make the matter worse.' They could have acted. They could have immediately changed the definition around backpackers and residence. They could have legislated for a zero tax rate. But instead of acting, they saw the dollar signs. The Treasury told them they could secure $540 million of revenue if they just went along with the tax commissioner. And that is exactly what they did. They put their revenue interest ahead of farmers, growers and tourism operators in this country, particularly hitting those in rural and regional Australia.
Then we had an election campaign. They thought they could get away with this. 'We'll demonise foreign workers'—which of course is what the minister was doing today—'and say this is all about getting an equal do for Australians.' But of course it did not work for them. Halfway through the election campaign, under enormous pressure, what did they do? They concocted a plan. 'We'll say we're having a review'—implying that after the election we will have no backpacker tax. But at the same time they continued to spend the $540 million. Right through that election campaign they continued to spend the money. Finally, in late September, many months later—this is the mob that talked about uncertainty for growers and tourism operators, and growers in particular—they finally came up with a plan. They said, 'We will go to 19 per cent instead. Nineteen sounds pretty good.' There was no modelling, as has been confirmed in the Senate inquiry. There was no measure of the impact on the wider economy. There was certainly no modelling of the impact on those working in the agriculture sector. Notwithstanding the fact that growers, and farmers more generally, lined up at the Senate committee to tell the senators that 19 per cent is still too high, the government are completely ignoring them.
So today they have taken a new tack: now Barnaby Joyce is the workers' friend. He is not talking about—
Now the Deputy Prime Minister is the workers' friend. He has given up the debate about the tax. He has given up even feigning any concern for farmers and growers in this country or, indeed, those working in the tourism sector. He is now the workers' friend. And he has concocted this fiction that somehow backpackers are going to be an advantage, in terms of taxation, to local residents. That is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard. The Deputy Prime Minister should come in here, correct the record and apologise to all those in the Australian community, who he is misleading. More importantly, there are a few other people that need to get on their feet in this place. I think of the member for Mallee, the member for Dawson, the member for Flynn, the member for Page—
Mr Rick Wilson interjecting—
I am going to ignore you, just to make it worse! These are people who are lions in their electorates! They are out there spruiking their wares and talking about rural and regional Australia and what great things they are doing—again 'a dam here, a dam everywhere'. It will never happen. But, when they get down here to Canberra, they fall right into line. They have deserted their constituents. They need to get on board. If the Senate amends that bill to 10½ per cent, and it comes back to the House, the member for Hinkler, the member for Riverina and others will need to come over here and, with the Labor Party, defend their constituents. (Time expired)
We heard from the member for Hunter, 'Here a dam, there a dam, everywhere a dam-dam.' I heard that during the election campaign, too, and I heard it for six long, sorry years, when Labor was in government: 'Here a damn, there a damn, everywhere a damn-damn.' But it was a different spelling, Member for Hunter. It had an 'n' on the end of it, because people were damning the Labor government for its lack of policy, its lack of a plan, its lack of vision. And what did we hear from the member for Hunter over 10 long, sorry minutes? We heard no plan, no vision, no alternative views for regional Australia—so typical of the member for Hunter, so negative. He is obsessed with the member for New England, the Deputy Prime Minister; that is all we ever hear about. But he does not have his own plan. He does not have his own policies.
But we do have policies; we do have plans. I am glad that I am going to be followed by—and the member for Hunter acknowledged him—the member for Hinkler, a great member, a great regional Australian getting on with the job of making sure that his Queensland electorate is front and centre of everything that he does and that we do as a coalition government. He will be followed by the member for Grey, the member for Mallee and the member for O'Connor. I was in his electorate the other day. Kalgoorlie is booming, thanks to the great work that the member for O'Connor is doing and will continue to do—nothing that the member for Hunter ever espoused or came up with in his 79 days as the minister for agriculture. What a memorable 79 days they were—not!
I heard somebody earlier today describe Labor, on their regional Australia policies, as 'inner urban spivs'. I think that was you, Mr Deputy Speaker Coulton! It is not a bad description. It is just extraordinary that the Labor Party would come into this place and lecture the government about its so-called failing of rural and regional communities. It is extraordinary that the very people who imposed the live cattle export ban, who traded votes with the Greens in Balmain before they worried about Brewarrina, would come in here and lecture this government about decisions and delivery. Those opposite are all about the bluff. They are all about the bluff.
Mr Husic interjecting—
We hear the member for Chifley. I doubt he would even know what a farmer looks like! But he eats three days a week—
Mr Husic interjecting—
three times a day, and he relies on farmers to be able to do just that. Labor are all about the lectures. They are all about the posturing. They are the knee-jerk reactors to a television program about live cattle exports. That is all they are. There is no plan. There was no consultation when they were in government—none whatsoever.
Yet today those very people come in here and lecture us. Those opposite come into this place and they cry crocodile tears about investments in the regions. They promised the world to regional communities and, as we saw when they were in government, they delivered absolutely diddly squat—certainly when it came to investment in regional mobile black spots. I have heard the member for McEwen yelling and ranting and raving about mobile black spots, but what did his side of politics do when they had the opportunity? They did nothing—not a single mobile tower, absolutely nothing. It took my friend here the minister at the table, the Minister for Urban Infrastructure, and others on this side to make sure that there was a Mobile Black Spot Program for regional Australia. It was this government that committed $100 million through round 1 of the program, which is delivering 499 new and upgraded mobile base stations across Australia. It was this government that committed a further $60 million towards round 2 of the program. That is vision. That is a plan. Make no mistake, in regional Australia this was the issue that was raised with me no matter where I went, whilst they also damned the Labor side. Country people know this is the government that has actually put money into fixing mobile black spots and other issues that are confronting regional Australia.
Another of those is the agricultural competitiveness white paper. It was a great document. It is delivering issues. It is delivering programs. It is issuing good policy for regional Australia. Speaking of agricultural competitiveness, I note that the member for Maribyrnong said this morning:
We've got a big issue when you have got people coming here on 457, 417 visas, these are visas which give people from overseas temporary work rights in Australia yet we've got auto-electricians and mechanics and carpenters who can't get work in Australia. This government should be prioritising Australian jobs. They should be prioritising helping the Hazelwood workers. They shouldn't be playing silly political games.
The member for Maribyrnong is wrong yet again—yes, wrong yet again. First of all, 417 visas are for working holiday makers. Second, Labor wants to give foreign workers on 417 visas a lower tax rate than hardworking Australians.
That is true, Member for McMahon. It is true. The member for Maribyrnong wants auto-electricians, mechanics and carpenters to pay higher tax than foreign workers. The member for Maribyrnong wants small businesses that employ auto-electricians, mechanics and carpenters to pay more tax, and is refusing to support the government's plan to reduce tax for those small businesses with a turnover of between $2 million and $10 million. That is what he is doing. He wants to price Australians, especially young people who want to be auto-electricians, mechanics and carpenters, out of the job market.
Our working holiday-maker reform package proposes a reduction in the tax rate from 32.5 per cent to 19 per cent. It ensures that backpackers will pay a fair amount of tax on their earnings and it is internationally competitive. Labor does not understand regional Australia. We heard from the member for Gippsland, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, today in parliament talking about the Hazelwood workers. He is surprised by the lack of interest on this issue from those opposite, and I agree with him. Labor has had three days of question time, we have had the news that hundreds of workers will lose their jobs in March next year and not one question from those opposite. Not one shadow minister has visited the Latrobe Valley—what a shame. I think they should. Not one federal Labor MP has asked a question about how the government will respond to this situation, and it is a worrying situation. I feel for the member for Gippsland.
I know how it is when, the people you represent, your constituents, are hard hit by bad government policies, like they were when those opposite were in power and we had the fiasco of the Murray-Darling Basin policy. I absolutely feel for those people and that is why this side of politics is having a cabinet committee to make sure that we do everything we can to help those Hazelwood people. It is no wonder that the blue-collar workers in the Latrobe Valley have called for those opposite to talk about their issue and to actually have some compassion and feeling for them.
Labor is playing politics. Labor is playing politics on everything it does. The stalling of the passage of legislation about the backpackers issue will mean—
You are the ones who are stalling it, and it means that the backpackers will be liable to the 32.5 per cent tax rate from New Year's Day, creating uncertainty and instability for the agriculture, the horticulture, the tourism and the hospitality sectors.
Mr Bowen interjecting—
At least he is trying. He might get a chance as the second speaker for Labor.
Mr Husic interjecting—
He is very trying, I agree with you, member for Chifley. He is very trying and he certainly was when he was the immigration minister, and he was even more trying when he was the Treasurer. Anyway, under the coalition government's changes, a backpacker in Australia will still have more money in their pocket after tax when compared to the take-home pay rates of those working in similar backpacking arrangements in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The government has taken action to provide certainty to employers and backpackers to ensure that the new tax rate can take effect from 1 January 2017.
All the Labor Party is interested in doing is creating chaos, dysfunction and uncertainty for regional Australians. They have no understanding—
Opposition members interjecting—
The member for Moreton has no understanding and no plan. The member for Hunter has no plan. We heard him; he had a 10-minute opportunity to outline Labor's bold policy vision but what have we heard? Nothing—just carping on about the member for New England. As the first Minister for Small Business who comes from the country and who is a member of the Nationals, I am focused on those who do not live in the city getting heard as well. That is why I have been going around the country—not just the capital cities but the regional areas as well—not necessarily talking but listening to the ideas, the views and the outcomes of those people who work hard and who are trying to forge a business for their families, for their communities and for their local economies. I know that the plans to reduce the company tax rate and to expand the number of businesses to which that tax rate would apply are so important to those small businesses. It is the best way to give businesses a plan—
It is a good regional plan.
Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting—
Why do you hate regional small businesses so much, member for Hunter? I do not understand. Why do you not give more small businesses an opportunity by getting on board with our 10-year enterprise tax plan and passing it through this place and through the Senate? The Labor Party used to stand for something and now stands for nothing. It certainly has not and does not represent regional Australia, unfortunately. You need to get onboard with a few of our good policies and all of our great plans for the regions.
It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Riverina when we talk about regional and rural issues. Gee whiz, there was not much of an enthusiastic defence of what the government does. He was sort of begrudgingly talking about a few things and attacking us. He talked about the backpacker debacle; pity he did not talk about the massive cuts to regional and rural Australia. Maybe in his electorate—if you tell us about how the Medicare cuts have affected them or how the education cuts have impacted people there, because the fact is that the cuts in regional and rural Australia have been devastating by this government.
There are many ways to describe this dysfunctional government. We can say it is a government that has no unity, it is a government at war with itself, but for people in the country this is a government that has abandoned them. It has abandoned the people of regional and rural Australia. It has failed us on so many issues—consistently failed us. Country people know that every harsh and cruel budget measure they have taken since 2013 has hit our communities in regional Australia so much more. They are very much aware of that. In regional areas, who do we blame for that? We blame the Nationals for all the extreme, cruel cuts we have seen. As I have told this House many times before, National Party choices hurt. Their choices hurt because they are choices that they make about supporting cuts—or fighting for those cuts as well, I would imagine, very harsh ones.
Let's have a look at what they have done; let's recap some of those National Party choices that have hurt. They have abandoned families with their cuts to education, childcare and family payments. They have abandoned youth people with their cuts to training and also with their plans for $100,000 university degrees, especially hitting kids from regional and rural areas. They have abandoned seniors with their harsh cuts to Medicare and cuts to important health services. They do not invest or encourage economic growth in any regional areas. They do not address those incredibly high levels of unemployment in the regions. And let's look at their NBN. My goodness, what a debacle. That has left regional areas behind. They have consistently failed on all of those points.
The fact is the National Party have just walked away from regional and rural Australia. It starts, of course, with the Deputy Prime Minister and it continues all the way through to those National Party members in the House. A great example is the backpacker tax debacle they have created. My goodness, they have certainly sold out the regions on this.
I think the failure of this government in regional and rural areas can really be epitomised by their harsh and cruel attacks on the health services that our regional Australians rely on, particularly through their cuts to Medicare. We know there is a huge divide about health outcomes when comparing regional areas to urban ones. We all know that. The fact is that the average yearly Medicare spend per individual in rural, regional and remote areas is $536 a year compared to $910 in major cities. That is a huge divide. Another important fact to note comes from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Australia's health 2016, and that is:
In 2009-2011, people living in Remote and Very remote areas had mortality rates 1.4 times as high as people living in Major cities. For nearly all causes of death, rates were higher for people living outside Major cities, with people in Remote and Very remote areas faring the worst.
So our health outcomes are a lot worse.
That is why the National Party cuts to health are so harsh—cuts such as: imposing a GP tax by freezing the Medicare bulk-billing rebates, increasing fees for pathology and bulk-billing and increasing costs for prescription medicines. What all these cuts mean is that people just do not go to the doctor—they just do not seek medical attention—because they simply cannot afford to. That is what they are telling me. In my electorate, we also see the government's failure to respond to massive community calls for a fully funded MRI licence for the Tweed Hospital, a vitally needed health service.
When it comes to education, Labor has a very positive plan—fully funding those Gonski reforms. That stands in contrast to the government's planned cuts of $29 billion. In my electorate of Richmond, $20 million has been cut and in the electorate of Page, $24 million. There are huge cuts right across the board. As I said, another example of this government's failure is the appalling NBN services. This government, and particularly the National Party, has consistently failed and abandoned the people of regional and rural Australia. They are just being left behind when it comes to so many matters. I will continue to raise this in the House; I will continue to condemn the National Party for these cuts because their choices do hurt. Country people also know that it is only the Labor Party that look after their interests and properly fund regional services.
( It is a great pleasure to respond to some of the comments by the member for Hunter. I would say this to the member for Hunter, who, I have to say, I get on well with. In opening the MPI, he asked the question: when was the last time anyone mentioned the agricultural white paper? I can say to the member for Hunter that it is very clear: it was in last week's edition of Queensland Country Life. In fact, you provided a quote and your quote was this:
"Insurance risk mitigation seems the obvious model," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
"This is an initiative in the government’s Agriculture White Paper which I welcome.
There it is: a glowing endorsement in Queensland Country Lifethat you support the agricultural white paper. You also mention the Deputy Prime Minister's op-ed, which was out this week. The line from the op-ed piece that stuck with me was quite simply this: it said you were about to be hit in the face by the stick called reality.
This is the reality. If you are talking about renewables, you should be talking to the people who have technical knowledge. Those people with technical knowledge know how to operate a system: power network, generators, coal fired power stations, hydro, solar—all of those things. The reality is very straightforward. I actually have a degree in electrical engineering; I majored in power systems and have trained as an electrician. I will say to the member for Hunter that we need to get away from the policy wonks, we need to get away from the arguments and we need to provide a reliable supply which can be afforded by the people who have to pay the costs. That is a stick called reality—someone has to pay the bill and at this stage it is the poorest people in our communities. We cannot continue to do that.
You talk about the age of a power station. Would you believe, they actually get maintained. Every year there is a program of maintenance, and they get upgraded. In fact the Kareeya hydro station up in Tully, I understand, was opened in 1955 and it works perfectly well. It is upgraded constantly. Here is perfectly good renewable energy that works as a peaker. It is something which I support, and there should be more of it.
When we talk about hydro, we need dams. The question I put to the member for Hunter is this: you have stated there will be no dams. Do you have knowledge of the Queensland Labor Party's position? Are they not intending to build any dams in Queensland? We have put forward over $100 million to build dam infrastructure. Dams mean jobs. They also mean increasing the value of agricultural land; they mean further production.
We spent an awful lot of time signing up free trade agreements with South Korea, Japan and China to provide opportunities and market access for our producers and our services. We have increased our tourism. In fact, tourism is an enormous contributor to the Australian economy. There is one comment I would make to the member for Richmond: simply saying something does not mean that it is true. It does not matter how many times you say it, it does not make it true. When you talk about the Nationals, you should look at the reality, and the reality is that the Nationals held every seat and every senator, and they gained one. So the people of Australia support the Nationals. They did not lose one seat; in fact they maintained the seat of Capricornia. The member for Capricornia, Michelle Landry, was targeted by every union under the sun, but she held onto the seat with no problems at all.
We are doing things for regional Australia and we will continue to do so. If we talk about the backpacker tax, the reality is straightforward. Every single person who is out there and operates a farm needs labour short term—they need large pools of labour to get their crop off. They need a flexible workforce. That has been provided by backpackers. They are not workers; they are tourists. They come to see this country and they work while they are here. They should contribute to the taxation system. If we accept that, the only debate is about the value. We have put forward a proposition of 19 per cent in consultation with stakeholders. The stakeholders agree—they support 19 per cent wholeheartedly. Right now, the agricultural community needs certainty. Right now they are ringing your offices and they are saying, 'Get on with it.' I can tell you that the reality is: these people—
Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting—
are building our economy. They provide jobs; they pay their bills—unlike many on the other side of the House. They get on with it. The people on this side of the House understand it, because we have done it. We have been out there, we have had dirt under our fingernails. We have taken risks as well. We understand what it is like to be short on cash flow, to have filled the overdraft. To have someone turn around now, after all the months of negotiation, and say they will not support this bill is absolutely outrageous. You should be supporting our agricultural producers. For the first time in a very long time, they can be out making money. I would say to the cross bench and the opposition, and particularly to Senator Lambie: go and talk to your cherry producers, because they are going fantastically well. If they leave that crop in the field, they will not make a cent.
Well might this government talk about the reality stick; it has certainly taken the reality stick to regional and rural communities across our country. It is failing regional and rural communities left, right and centre because people in rural and regional communities experience disadvantages that city people do not. These disadvantages are many, but they are primarily in the areas of health, communications—and isn't that a sorry tale!—and access to the ever-shrinking government services.
These disadvantages are not just anecdotal; they are evidenced by fact. The Australian Bureau of Statistics General social surveyfor 2014 found:
An important issue for people who live in outer regional and remote Australia is access to services …
The main services people had difficulty accessing were doctors—surprise, surprise!—dentists, telecommunications, and government services such as Centrelink. Of those people in outer regional and remote Australia who had difficulty accessing services, nearly half said the main reason was that they were waiting too long for an appointment, or that that appointment was just not available in the time required. But just over a third said they experienced difficulty because there were no services or inadequate services in their area. No services? That is pretty common, actually.
This finding is hardly surprising. The Rural Doctors Association of Australia described the latest medical workforce data—and we are talking about fact here; we are not just pulling anecdotal evidence out of the air, which the government randomly and regularly does—which shows that the number of doctors in rural and remote areas is actually declining, as 'a real alarm bell for governments'. That is what the Rural Doctors Association is telling us. The Rural Doctors Association says that even the smallest reduction in GP numbers has a significant impact in these communities, where there is a higher prevalence of chronic disease, higher mortality rates and, sadly, a higher incidence of suicide.
All the while we are making it harder for doctors to service people. I have been contacted by so many doctors in my electorate saying that it is incredibly difficult. They have increasing costs to run their practices, and yet this government seeks to do nothing. Every harsh and misguided budget since 2014 has hit rural and regional communities disproportionately more. Access to government services is harder than it ever has been, and you do not have to go to remote areas to know that. I am a brand new member in my electorate of Paterson, and—I have to tell you—we are inundated. People are on the phone, walking through the door. We have a Centrelink office just next door. People cannot get satisfaction and they cannot get through on the phone. They are not even having their calls answered, and trying to get their problems solved is near impossible.
Let's talk about technology. The General social survey found that people in outer regional and remote Australia are less likely than people in cities to use technology, to keep in contact with their friends and family via things that people in the city take for granted every day and use quite easily, like texting, email or Skyping. Surely, if there is anything that underlies the disadvantage experienced by regional and rural Australians compared to city dwellers, it is access to technology.
In fact, there is a report specifically dedicated to that. It is called The digital divide, and I would encourage the member for Mallee to have a read of it. I have spoken on it in this place a number of times, as have my colleagues. The digital divide is a technology divide between city and country, and you should be standing up for your constituents.
The second-rate NBN that this Turnbull government has offered up is letting down the people in regional and rural areas worst of all. Despite the Turnbull government's positive rhetoric and spin—saying: 'Oh, now everything's okay with the NBN. It's all being rolled out, it's all fine.'—honestly, it is like the copper that they are buying. It looks flashy and new when it is first cut, but then after a while it soon loses its gloss, and that is what it has done—not unlike this government, actually!—very rapidly lost its gloss. The on-the-ground experience of technology for rural and regional Australians is that it is simply not up to speed. The second-rate NBN does not just cost more; it delivers less.
Labor understands that fast, accessible, affordable broadband is essential for all Australians, but most particularly, for people who live in remote and rural areas. They should not be discriminated against. The successful delivery of the NBN satellite service has the potential to transform health and education and improve the way small businesses do business. (Time expired)
I refer to the member for Paterson where she speaks about a rural doctor shortage. I can tell her I have been dealing in this issue for over 20 years; I know more about rural doctor shortages than most people combined on the other side of this House.
Let me tell you, the reason we have a reduction in doctors is that we are training so many doctors in Australia and we will not tell them where to practice—and neither will your side of politics, let me tell you, but there is much more to be known about that.
I come to the specifics of this MPI today. I refer to the member for Hunter. The member for Hunter is a pretty good bloke. I accept that. But I am very surprised he has put this motion up today, particularly as the shadow minister for agriculture. Yet I am proud to be part of a government that has delivered very well on agriculture. I farmed for 35 years before I got into this place, and as with doctor shortages, my guess is I have forgotten more about farming than the people from the other side would have ever learned about it.
Let us consider for a start the free trade agreement that we have signed with Japan. In fact, the Japanese free trade agreement is a high-water mark, because it has an in-built mechanism for most-preferred-nation trading status with China, with Korea. One of my constituents recently landed the first plane-load of live cattle into China. We have rebuilt the live sheep and cattle trade. What do we get as a result of this? Record prices, a record amount of income coming back into agricultural rural communities. We have delivered the three-year tax write-off for fodder storage infrastructure and an instant tax write-off for fencing and water infrastructure.
Let me tell you about the west of my electorate. Five years ago farmers were getting rid of sheep because they could not afford the $3-plus a kilolitre for water. They do not have clay, they do not have surface dams, they do not have rivers; all they had was this very expensive state supply of water. Now, under these arrangements, they are able to put in plastic water runs, plastic dams and plastic covers on those dams. Some of my friends have done so. It is a remarkable transformation; it is a great opportunity for them. We have introduced the accelerated rate of tax write-off for assets under $20,000, and put an extra $100 million into research.
And let me tell you about FMD, one of the greatest tools ever devised for the farming community. It is an absolute winner. It provides an incentive for farmers to prepare for droughts. It was introduced by a Liberal government, under John Howard. We have doubled the level of FMD available to farmers. There is a great reason to do this. Some of the farmers in my area will have an $800,000 or $1 million budget just to get the crops in the ground. Being able to put a reasonable amount of money aside will give them perhaps two years of operating expenses and the ability to work their way through a drought. And then of course we have given them the ability to offset the income from the FMD against the interest from their borrowings.
We have developed a solid platform of drought assistance around Australia. It must be remembered that those on the other side, the Labor Party, when they were in government dismantled the exceptional circumstances scheme and left nothing in its place—nothing. It is inevitable in Australia that we will have droughts, and preparations need to be made. I commend the agriculture minister for rebuilding that platform. We have introduced country-of-origin food labelling. While its aim is not to benefit farmers, there is almost certainly going to be a spin-off effect for Australian farmers in that a percentage of consumers want to patronise Australian farmers, they want to support Australian industry, and those labels are hitting the shelves now.
Some of the speakers on this motion have talked about telecommunications—the mobile phone black spot program, which has not worked as well in South Australia, I must say, as in the other states, because our state government has been dragging its heels. But it is the first federal money that has gone into mobile phone black spots since John Howard was the Prime Minister. Yet when we recently did an inquiry into agricultural innovation it was made patently clear to us by those who live in the country that higher than any other point of telecommunications is mobile phone black spots. I wish I had another five, 10 or 15 minutes, because the list of achievements of this government is long and important. (Time expired)
This government is most definitely failing regional and rural Australians and communities. What an extraordinary display by the Deputy Prime Minister and other Nationals, particularly the member for Riverina. These are members who are supposed to represent farmers, but today they threw farmers under the harvester. Instead of supporting Labor's sensible compromise on the backpacker tax—a 10.5 per cent rate that keeps us internationally competitive and ensures that our fruit growers can recruit the labour they need—the Nationals have meekly fallen into line with their Liberal masters. How proud you must feel! How proud you must feel, going back to your country electorates and saying, 'We're doing exactly what those city guys, the Libs, want us to do.'
As with so many other issues, when the going gets tough, the Nationals do what they are told by the Liberals, selling out farmers and selling out regional communities. Farmers across Australia and in my electorate are not fooled. They need Labor now—labour on farms and Labor in government. They know that a 32.5 or 19 per cent tax will not get people here. We need to be competitive internationally. The backpacker tax has been a debacle from day one—an abject failure, a betrayal of regional Australia. But it is not too late. There is still time for the Nationals to muscle up, to put farmers first, to back a lower rate of tax and ensure that we get the labour we need on our farms. I will just add that I would love to see more Australians on farms. But I do understand that locals want permanent, well-paying jobs, when farm fruit work is seasonal. I understand why it is not a viable option for farmers to rely on local labour. Its very seasonality makes it ideal for backpackers.
One of the biggest failures in regional communities has been in health care. Communities in my electorate of Lyons report long waits to access their local GP. In New Norfolk the wait for a standard appointment is three weeks. Desperate attempts by the local practice to engage new GPs are held up by reams of red tape, despite the fact that qualified people are available and keen to commence. And this government is nowhere to be seen when it comes to finding solutions. The town of Kempton is losing its GP to retirement, and there are no replacement plans. It is the same story nationwide. The Rural Doctors Association says that this is 'going to send more rural and remote patients to the healthcare equivalent of deepest, darkest Siberia'. In the Meander Valley and on the east coast, changes to Primary Health Networks guidelines threaten the futures of a local social worker, a youth worker, a mental health worker, and podiatry and physiotherapy services. Between them, these workers have for a number of years developed popular and engaging programs that have yielded enviable results. And all of it is at risk because of poorly executed and poorly communicated changes to funding guidelines.
But the failures do not end there. I could talk for hours; I have only 1½ minutes to go. Perhaps we can talk about poor access to education and training opportunities. Too many kids in my electorate leave school early and with comparatively poor outcomes. And that will not be helped by the Turnbull government's $29 billion cuts to classrooms over a decade. For kids who prefer a vocational future, a trade offers fantastic prospects. But $1 billion in cuts to apprenticeships and the axing of trade training centres makes that future harder to achieve. Campbelltown in my electorate would have benefited from the centre planned for the town, but it is not to be. Labor forced the government to abandon its $100,000 university degrees, but other damage has been done: $400 million cut from regional universities nationwide. Poor education and poor training leads irretrievably to poor employment outcomes: 27 per cent youth unemployment in some areas of my electorate. And when you show no regard for local manufacturing, when you cut training and apprenticeships, when you cut funding to infrastructure, is it any wonder that these are the results?
People on low incomes are also being failed in regional communities; 95 per cent of people in my electorate do not benefit from tax cuts for people earning over $80,000, but they do suffer from ever-higher charges for power, water and other utilities. This government is certainly failing them, on every measure. This government is failing regional Australia.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Oh, yes, sanitation …
And the roads …
Irrigation … medicine … education … health.
… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?
And we have the member for Hunter, standing here being the John Cleese of the Australian parliament: 'What have the Nationals ever done for us?'
The people I represent have really, really high bulldust radars, and they can spot things. When they try to remember what the Labor Party has ever done for them: 'Oh, that is right, the carbon tax surcharge on livestock exports; the shut down of the irrigation blocks'—and I was pleased that the member for Hunter actually came to the area and saw some of those irrigation blocks that are getting turned back into productivity as opposed to getting shut down—'and procrastination on road funding and rail funding.' They say, 'I remember what they did for us: they banned live exports and they shut down confidence in our export markets.' That is what they say when trying to remember what Labor has ever done for them. But they remember what the Nationals have done for them. There is a good reason, my friends, that every sitting National Party member won their seat in the last election and we gained some. It is because the people of Australia who had the opportunity—and it is a very unique opportunity, I might say—to vote National have very high bulldust radars. They remember.
This MPI gives me a great opportunity to run through just what the Nationals have done in the electorate of Mallee: $645 million in three years. Take the Murray Basin Rail Project, with $220 million of federal money to standardise the rails. This is the biggest investment federally in rail in the state of Victoria in the history of Victoria, delivered by the National Party. There was $103 million to modernise our irrigation scheme. The largest irrigation upgrade has now been completed on budget and on time—delivered by who? Oh, that is right: this government. Then there is the Western Highway and another $10 million into roads, as opposed to the Labor Party in Victoria, which does not fix a road anymore. Instead of fixing a road, they put up a sign. They put up a sign that says 'Go slower'. We fix the road; they put up a sign. We have just announced $876,000 for the Swan Hill Livestock Exchange, because we believe in the red meat industry.
Let's talk about health. There is $1 million for the oncology unit. People were driving down the road from Horsham to have chemotherapy—and had to stop and throw up on the edge of the road—but we have now delivered $1 million for the oncology unit and that is getting built. There is $2 million for the Longerenong College, to invest in young people in agriculture. There is $10 million for the Mildura runway upgrade. Yes, you can actually fly to Mildura. I know that people over here are passionate about regional Australia—and that is great. Do you know why we are passionate? It is because we have got some great food and we have got some great restaurants. I would like you to come and have a look. Everything you have said here today is probably what you read on the internet and you have not actually come to look. I would like to know how many people have actually come out to regional Australia. I am pleased that the member for Hunter came. He had a cultural experience, talking to some very particular growers in my electorate.
They wouldn't, but they are good fellows, mate. It was good that you came. How did you get there? You flew. Did you know that you can fly to the electorate of Mallee? There are 140 commercial flights each week, because the place is going ahead. There is $10 million for the Grampians Peaks Trail, so people can have a walk around. A few weeks ago we turned on 11 NBN towers around the outskirts of Mildura. There is $1.75 million for the Stawell dark matter laboratory. It is all happening, and it is because this government is delivering for regional Australia. Come out and have a look. You might actually learn something. I am pleased the member for Hunter came to the area—but I hope that you will not just be the John Cleese of the Australian parliament.
I rise in this place to stand up for my community and to say loudly and clearly to the Turnbull government: 'Enough is enough when it comes to your mistreatment of regional, rural and remote Queensland.' As someone who was born and bred in the regional community of Townsville, I will not sit idly by whilst this government tries to rip my community apart. If I have said this once I will probably say it another 100 or 1,000 times: this government is lagging and dragging its feet on action in rural, regional and remote Queensland. Promises have been made to Herbert and they have been broken. Vital regional programs have been announced and yet Townsville has been left out.
This government promised that Townsville would have the first City Deal, which would be connected to the Townsville stadium, yet the Prime Minister has seen fit to give it to his city mates in Sydney. I know that the Prime Minister and the government were dragged kicking and screaming to the table by Labor to deliver the Townsville stadium—a commitment that was made the day before pre-poll opened—but to renege on this promise is a true slap in the face to the Townsville community. Then there is the cooperative research centre. We were promised that the CRC would be up and running in Townsville by mid 2016—but there is no CRC. Over a year ago the government announced the Northern Australia white paper and the NAIF, and still not one project has been announced. There have been massive cuts to Herbert schools, with this government cutting $48 million from Townsville schools in 2018-19.
The health inequality in regional and remote areas compared to the major cities is disgraceful. This government lacks action in addressing it, and this is clearly obvious. The average yearly Medicare spend per individual in rural and remote areas is $536 a year, compared to $910 in major cities. The health of our First Nations people is in a parlous state and the gap is growing, not closing.
Then we have the NBN rollout disaster. Labor's vision for the NBN was for all communities to have access to fast, high-speed internet—opening up education and communication for regional, rural and remote Queensland and Australia. The NBN has rolled out in Townsville, but they have missed the largest Indigenous community in all of Australia—Palm Island. The objectives and purpose of the NBN have been completely ignored by this government, and their lack of action in rolling out the NBN on Palm Island and other remote Indigenous communities is sadly lacking.
Townsville is a great and wonderful place; however, we are facing some tough challenges at the moment. We have over 13 per cent unemployment—youth unemployment is at around 20 per cent—and one of the highest insolvency rates in the nation. Yet, knowing these incredibly dreadful statistics, the Turnbull government announces its Regional Jobs and Investment Package for nine other areas, and not Townsville. This shows a complete lack of understanding of regional Townsville and our needs.
I have actually written a letter to the Prime Minister; the Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash; and Minister for Regional Development, Fiona Nash, asking for clarification as to why Townsville was not considered and to ask them to please reconsider Townsville for this vital investment. As reported in the Townsville Bulletin, the Townsville community is basically being told by this government: 'Be happy with what you've got and cut your whingeing.' This government is failing to act and support the Townsville community. We are disheartened and frustrated with this government. I will work every hour of every day to ensure this government delivers on its commitments to Townsville.
Townsville also has a large aged-care population, and the savage cuts to aged care have left many of our elderly without adequate community services, to keep them living safely in their homes, or access to aged-care facilities. This government's track record of failings is long, and it is not good enough for my community, which deserves so much more.
Townsville needs action, and we needed it yesterday. The people of Townsville are fed up with being taken for granted. And when you take rural, regional and remote Queensland for granted, you do so at your own peril.
I think the member for Hunter is getting a little bit embarrassed by the number of people on this side saying that he is a good bloke, so I will not say that, Member for Hunter, but I will say: you've got a great sense of humour and an enormous amount of chutzpah to put forward this motion that the government is failing rural and regional communities. I will come to Labor's history in rural and regional communities in a moment, particularly in my electorate of O'Connor.
But I want to tell you a story, Mr Deputy Speaker. In early June, the national accounts came out, and there was a slightly higher than expected growth figure. I think it was about 3.25 per cent—the Treasurer is nodding his head over there—and our good friends at the Fairfax Media group, looking for a way to put a negative spin on it, ran a story that said which areas were missing out on the economic growth. I thought I had better take a look at this story just to find out. So I opened up the online story. They had 150 electorates across Australia and their economic growth for the 2014-15 year. Much to my very pleasant surprise, it confirmed what I had suspected: the electorate of O'Connor was growing faster than any other electorate in the country, at 11.7 per cent. I know my Western Australian colleagues over there would welcome that number. There was only one other electorate that even came close, and that was the electorate of Durack—my good friend Melissa is the member there—and that represents about 95 per cent of regional WA. But, to be fair, probably we were bouncing back from some of the previous government's policies. I will just touch on them briefly.
On live exports: we saw in 2011 the closure of the live export trade, which did not just affect those northern cattlemen, Indigenous communities and other people who relied on that trade; it crashed the entire cattle market across Western Australia. People down on the south coast who had never sold a beast onto a boat saw their cattle prices halved. Sheep prices also halved because of the complete lack of confidence in the live export trade. So we were recovering from that particular piece of policy, and then there was the carbon tax.
The carbon tax pushed up electricity prices. So, whether you were a food processor, a miner or just simply a farmer or small-business man getting on with a business, you were whacked with an extra cost. Removing the carbon tax gave us an economic boost across the electorate. Of course, my electorate is one of the iconic mining electorates in Australia, with the town of Kalgoorlie in it. So, even though the mining tax was aimed at the iron ore industry and the big miners—
Mr Keogh interjecting—
And I see the National Party in WA have picked up your ideas, and I will be fighting that to my last breath too; do not worry about that. I will be fighting that mining tax to my last breath, because the impact of that mining tax is exactly the same as the impact of your mining tax—that is, you can go after the big ones, but what it does is crash the confidence in the rest of the industry: the small, the mid-cap miners, the explorers and the people trying to raise capital. The confidence goes out of the industry, and jobs disappear in towns like Kalgoorlie. So it is great to see that we got rid of the mining tax.
The member for Hunter asked: when did we last hear about the agricultural white paper? When I am out talking to farmers, they are talking about aspects of the white paper all the time, like the doubling of farm management deposits from $400,000 to $800,000 to allow farmers to put money aside so that they can support themselves in drought times—not go to the government, cap in hand, asking for money, but support themselves. That is a great initiative, and I congratulate the minister for agriculture on that. As to accelerated depreciation on water, fodder and infrastructure—to be able to write that off over three years—once again, that is an issue that allows farmers in my electorate to provide for themselves to set aside fodder and water for difficult times.
I am going to run out of time, but on free trade agreements I say: free trade agreements are already starting to pay dividends in my electorate. Meat processors are finding that access to markets in China, Japan and Korea is way better than it was. We are seeing record high prices for livestock in sale yards. That is a direct result of our free trade agreements.
I just want to touch very quickly on telecommunications. I have 60 mobile phone towers in O'Connor; $17 million of government investment leveraged $53 million from the Western Australian government and Telstra—60 mobile phone towers, covering 133 of the 177 mobile black spots in my electorate.