Thursday, 18 October 2018
Matters of Public Importance
Rural and Regional Australia
I've 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's failure to provide leadership for rural and regional Australia.
I call upon all 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—
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)
From time to time, as I go around my regional electorate, I come across a bit of criticism as a local member. People might express some frustration and talk about things that maybe they're not completely happy about, but there are a couple of things I say that brings their attention and makes them focus. The first thing I say is, 'Shorten Labor government,' and then a bit of a grey pallor appears. Then I say, 'Joel Fitzgibbon, agriculture minister,' and that completely spooks them. We've just had 10—
They remember the member for Hunter because he was the defence minister who got sacked. Of course they remember the member for Hunter! They remember the member for Hunter because he represents iconic towns like Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Valley and Cessnock, which have a great heritage of mining but have a member who doesn't give a toss about miners. Of course they know who the member for Hunter is. We sit here and we've just had just had 10 minutes of the member for Hunter pontificating about a scenario that is so far from the truth it's ludicrous, and talking about leadership and representation of regional Australia.
Most of my career I've sat up that way, but I was on that side of the chamber in 2008. I sat in the chamber on one particular day when the vote was lost to retain the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund. That money was set aside by the good management of the Howard government for the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund. Where did it go? I'll tell you where it went: it went into $900 cash handouts to dead people and people living on the Greek islands. That's where it went. For six—
Mr Stephen Jones interjecting—
The member for Whitlam might like to zip it because I didn't say a word while the member for Hunter was speaking. For six years there was nothing in telecommunications for the bush. In the last five years, 600 phone towers have been commissioned. I've seen them. On another day in 2008 or 2009, I remember the member for Watson saying, 'We will no longer use the word 'drought'. 'Drought' has been replaced by 'dryness'. We won't use that word; we will now just talk about dryness. We'll give a few crackers, a few dollars, to an area somewhere over in Western Australia, and we'll do a trial to prove that this is a permanent situation. We no longer have droughts; we now have permanent dryness.' That was the Labor government's attempt at any sort of drought policy.
I might remind the member for Hunter that we've spent $1.8 billion on this drought, and one of the reasons—if he had any understanding of agriculture at all he would know this—our farmers are doing so well is that they managed to get into this drought with better water systems. They were able to get the tax advantages and they managed to use the water infrastructure fund to improve the water supply. They had grain storages put up because of the tax incentives to do so, and they were able to manage their larger properties because of the GABSI program where the drains were replaced with piping and capping, enabling management of their pasture for a much longer time.
People in regional Australia have understood, over the last five years, what it's like to have a government and members that understand their needs. That's why they're seeing the rollout of the Inland Rail. That's why we're seeing, as we speak, contracts that have been let and rail lying along the side of the corridor between Parkes and Narromine, ready to be laid. There will be a corridor of commerce that will go all the way from Melbourne to Brisbane. It will not only improve the efficiency of road transport but also enable exporters from regional Australia to have better access to ports at a cheaper rate of freight. Within a year or two, in 2020, we'll see the Pacific Highway completed, largely because of a deal that was done by Warren Truss to fund 80 per cent of that from the Commonwealth. We've just seen the announcement of the funding of the Coffs Harbour bypass and, Mr Deputy Speaker, the magnificent infrastructure in your electorate—that magnificent bridge over the Clarence River at Yamba. Funding from the Commonwealth government enabled that to happen.
The members opposite don't really understand what makes regional Australia. I can tell you: it's the people. We don't believe in just patronising people and throwing them on welfare. That's their method. Our method is to actually encourage our young people. Through the Clontarf Foundation we've now got excellent attendance at school. Last year, the graduation of Aboriginal students at Dubbo Senior College was 58, the largest number in any school anywhere in Australia. I went to that graduation. Those young men and women were going into employment; they were going into further education; they were going into training; some of them were going into the Army—because they were encouraged to stay at school through a program that does not patronise those people but gives them encouragement.
Unemployment in my electorate had the third-biggest drop anywhere in Australia. Half of New South Wales—3.8 per cent. The unemployment in Dubbo was 2.2 per cent. The member for Calare was here, and the member for Hunter gave him a bouquet, talking about how wonderful the unemployment rate was in his electorate in Orange.
This government has opened up trade agreements where the Labor Party feared to tread. We've seen FTAs with Japan, China and Korea, which have opened up great trade possibilities for exporters right across the nation, particularly in regional Australia. Just yesterday, through this place, there was the TPP-11, the gold-standard trade agreement across the Pacific region, 11 nations competing on a level playing field of trade which will give enormous opportunities for our exporters. The Labor Party believed it wasn't possible. They thought it was a ridiculous notion to pursue that. We're also seeing an FTA about to be ratified with Peru. I've recently been in Singapore undertaking negotiations on behalf of this country for the RCEP trading group. We are commencing our negotiations with the EU. We understand that.
We've funded the Building Better Regions Fund. In Bourke, in my electorate, we've got an abattoir now that will employ up to 300 local people and harvest the feral goat population that is ever-present in western New South Wales, creating permanent jobs in that western part of New South Wales and export income for Australia through targeted, sensible investment in regional towns.
Those opposite like to take the high moral ground with renewable energy and climate change. I defy any of those people to have a greater example than the Parkes electorate. There are the large-scale solar farms at Nyngan, Broken Hill and Moree; a wind farm at Silverton and another one going up at Coolah; and the highest uptake of individual solar by households right across my electorate, including Dubbo. Farmers are investing in water infrastructure that's generated by solar electricity. Just recently I saw an irrigation pump that was powered by a hectare of solar panels. That farmer got some assistance from the state government, but with the new legislation that went through a month ago he'll be able to write that off his tax in one year. Changes we've made, which came through this House in the last sitting period, allow instant write-off for grain storages, hay, fencing and water.
We're seeing a massive amount of investment because on this side we understand regional Australia. We don't go out with platitudes; we don't buy the RMs and the big hat and go out and speak slowly so the poor folks in the country can understand us, as I've seen in the past. We understand the people we represent. We understand that working Australians are the heart of this nation and we support them, unlike those opposite, who have been captured by the latte-sipping set from the leafy suburbs of the capital cities. They come in here and have the hide to bring up a matter of public importance as puerile as this one. You'd think the member for Hunter might come up with something more original. It seems we have a bit of deja vu all over again, every couple of weeks. (Time expired)
There are 12 sitting days for this parliament between now and Christmas, and, instead of coming up with a plan to deal with the issues that are confronting people in regional Australia, the best thing that this proud National Party can do is go to war with themselves. You know that they're in strife when the most productive thing they've got to say is about us. They've been given all this time to talk about their plans for regional Australia and the best thing they can do is to attack us. No wonder they are in such strife!
There is a reason why they don't have a plan for regional Australia: they've had three Prime Ministers, three Treasurers, three Deputy Prime Ministers and, I kid you not, since the last election to today they have had four ministers for regional development. Is it any wonder that they haven't got a clue when it comes to the issues facing people in regional Australia? Is it any wonder that they can spend 18 months trumpeting a decentralisation plan? Eighteen months ago they heralded, with great fanfare, that they had a plan to decentralise government work from Canberra, to send it out to the regions. Well, we waited with bated breath. We were told there was a hard deadline in December last year. We thought there were going to be some big announcements coming, along with Santa Claus, but there were no announcements and no decentralisation.
Then, with great fanfare, on budget night we saw the Deputy Prime Minister issue his famous press release saying, 'Decentralisation in our time'. But if you looked at the numbers, there were 100 jobs decentralised. And, if you looked at the fine print, 80 of those 100 jobs involved moving workers from one capital city to another capital city! Our favourite was the 34 jobs that moved from Sydney to far west Parramatta! This was their decentralisation plan. Is it any wonder that these guys are starting to ask questions of themselves?
I was pleased to see the member for Capricornia starting to ask some questions of her side today as well. This is the one who is welcoming Barnaby back with great hope. While she's doing the numbers on their own backbench, she might start looking at doing some numbers on decentralisation in her own electorate. While she's been here in Canberra and in other places around the country, talking about their great initiative in decentralisation, under her watch—under her government—we've seen 50 Public Service jobs ripped out of her electorate. That's what National Party-style decentralisation gives to you.
If it were just decentralisation and if that were the level of hypocrisy and carnage, you'd say, 'Fair go, these guys are dealing with a drought.' And the drought is having devastating effects throughout eastern Australia, there is no doubt about that. But it's the ideas drought on their side of the chamber that is having the most impact. I was pleased to hear the minister talk about telecommunications. These guys have had 18 plans in 13 years and still could not deliver a broadband plan for regional Australia. I've got to say that it takes a lot of genius to say, 'We'll only spend $36 billion on the NBN'—their fibre-to-the-node second-rate NBN—and then have to fess up and say, 'We've actually spent $50 billion,' only to deliver a service which is no better than that which they replaced. Is it any wonder that NBN complaints have gone through the roof under this mob here, with a 53 per cent increase?
Mr Coulton interjecting—
I hear the minister complaining. They bagged it, they voted against it—year after year after year—and now they're putting press releases out saying, 'Thanks to us you've got the NBN!' These guys are the champions with the jam tin on a string. If we were to leave it to them, that would be the broadband connection that people in country Australia would get. Under their watch, complaints in the telecommunications sector are at four times the level that they are in the financial services sector, and we got a royal commission in the banking and financial sector. These guys reckon that business as usual is okay and that they're going very, very well. (Time expired)
Labor does have a plan. It's the same plan they had last time. It's a plan to tax more. It's a plan to spend less in the regions. It's a plan to make life harder for regional Australia. I know this plan. I know this plan because the people I represent remember this plan. They used this plan last time. Come on, member for Hunter, I'd hoped you'd come up with something original.
Let's reflect on the plan last time Labor were in power. There was massive uncertainty under water. Remember those public meetings? Thousands of people turned up. They pulled out water infrastructure. When Senator Penny Wong was water minister, she said that not only is there no future in this block, you have to pull up the water infrastructure from that block and shut it down for five years. Do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? Those blocks that were shut down by Penny Wong for having no future are now getting replanted in my patch. That was their plan. Wait, there was another plan they had: shut down live exports. That was by former Prime Minister Gillard, which offended our markets. The one thing about markets is you have to give guarantee of supply, and we shut those down. They locked up infrastructure. There was no delivery on water by the member for Watson. I remember walking around this place as president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, trying to get them to commit to the Sunraysia Modernisation Project. They wouldn't do it. You know what, it's built. It was committed to by us and built by us. We remember your plan, Labor, and your plan isn't so original, I've got to say. Your plan is the same old plan: tax more, spend less in the regions and make life harder for regional Australia.
I just want to touch on our plan. Our plan has been one of delivery. We have free trade agreements with China, Japan, Korea, Peru, Indonesia, and Trans-Pacific Partnership 11. We're opening up markets everywhere. If you opposite got in power, we know what you'd do: you'd shut those down. We're investing in rail and investing in airports. There's the $20,000 instant tax write-off, which actually helps small business and actually helps to stimulate the retailers. Six hundred mobile phone towers were turned on. That is our plan.
Labor still has the same plan in Victoria. I'm pleased to be given the opportunity now to compare what's going on in Victoria in the lead-up to the election. Did you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in a number of days the Victorian Labor government will go into caretaker mode. You would think that they would be having a bit of a dip if they wanted to deliver for regional Victoria. I happen to represent 36 per cent of the state—the best part of the state. The National Party, in that 36 per cent, in the lead-up to this election, have committed $10 million for sporting facilities in Mildura, renewal of passenger rail to Mildura and Horsham, a 32-bed extension of the Mildura hospital, a $44 million new hospital in Swan Hill, a $7 million drug rehab centre and an $80 million rail upgrade. You would think at least one of those would get a 'Me too!' from the Victorian Labor government if they wanted to get re-elected. Not one is—no sports stadium, no passenger rail for regional areas, no 32-bed extension for the Mildura hospital, no $44 million new hospital in Swan Hill, no $7 million drug rehab centre and no $80 million rail upgrade.
I want to tell you something else about a plan. I came to this place five years ago and I said, 'I want to see a radiation treatment bunker for Mildura.' A few days ago it was committed to. The federal government has backed this. What we need to see from the Victorian government is the ability to allow public patients to use that, to come on board. They go into caretaker mode in less than a week, but have they come on board? No. No plan for regional Australia.
I see they have gone all quiet on that side. That's because when you put it all down on paper and lay it all out, there are millions and millions of dollars in regional Australia that have been delivered by the National Party, but not even an attempt by the state Labor government to match it, and not even an attempt to match it by the Labor Party in this place. The shadow minister for agriculture wants to be the man, but he isn't muscling up to the task. He's had all that time in opposition, and all he's got to present to this parliament is the same Labor plan, which is a plan to tax more, a plan to spend less in regional Australia and a plan to make life very difficult for the people who live in regional Australia.
I'll just remind the chamber that the member for Mallee last year was the only government MP not to put his name to a dissenting report rejecting a parliamentary paper criticising the NBN. He said he believes some of the complaints about this rollout have some merits. I think that goes to show that, while the previous government speaker was going on about how wonderful the NBN has been under this government, the member for Mallee seems not to completely agree with this statement.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this MPI. As a member who lives in a regional and rural part of this country, in Tasmania—the majority of Tasmania is actually regional—I don't see why those opposite can say we don't care about ourselves, really.
You have to look at what's going on opposite. We've had three Prime Ministers and two Deputy Prime Ministers with maybe another one coming back again. Chaos and dysfunction are the hallmarks of this government. Today the chaos and dysfunction continues, and, if it weren't so funny, it would be quite sad. Actually, I do feel quite saddened by what is going on. The muppet show is now performing in New England and Wagga Wagga, Statler and Waldorf going toe to toe—or is Grover from Maranoa getting ready to make his move? While this muppet show goes on, as people jockey for position, it's the people of regional Australia who are getting left behind, and this is why I'm feeling very sad about what is happening to the state of affairs in this government.
In my state and my electorate there has been nothing but a litany of failure: cuts to our local university campus; cuts to our schools, our hospitals, our TAFE; axing of visiting medical specialist services; and a failure to deliver the mobile phone blackspot program where it is actually needed. The rolling out of a second-rate NBN to our two biggest cities, Burnie and Devonport, has put our region at a competitive disadvantage. Thank you very, very much! This government wanted to put the west coast of Tasmania, which is mineral rich—you used to have to send files on discs to Mineral Resources Tasmania—on satellite. Those mining companies couldn't even operate on satellite. It took the community to stand up and push back, and they finally have the 'wonderful' fibre to the node, which is not what they were after but is what they got. The government was bizarrely replacing old copper with new copper in a place like the west coast, which has some of the highest rainfall in the country.
That's right: the only funding this government has delivered is what the former Labor government had in its forward estimates for mobile phone towers.
Government members interjecting—
Oh, is that laughter over there? Yes, it is quite ridiculous, isn't it? Even today the government have not allocated one extra cent for the next tranche of Tasmanian irrigation projects. There has been inaction since the dairy crisis of 2016, when I did ask the then agriculture minister to come to Tasmania and speak to my dairy farmers and he refused. They have failed to secure export protocols for our blueberries into China, overseeing an agriculture labour shortage, with the only solution being a thought bubble developed with no consultation.
I just want to go to this labour shortage and their thought bubble about getting people who are on benefits into the agriculture sector. If you ever needed evidence that the government have lost the plot, look no further than this thought bubble, which is full of hot air. It's like a brain fart, really. It's their very simplistic solution to a complex problem. In my state, the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association does not support this thought bubble. Neither does the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and neither does the Tasmanian Council of Social Service. It's unique when you can't even get the farmers to agree with a solution with that side of the House, who say they're all about regional Australia and farmers. Who did they actually consult on this idea? I think it was—I don't know; was it their own backsides? I'm not sure. But no-one actually supports this thought bubble.
Who's going to pay for the accommodation of these workers, who have to go to rural parts of the country? Where are they going to stay? How are they going to get there? Some of these people don't have cars, and many of these people are in my electorate. The farms are in my electorate, and did they even bother to speak to the farmers there? No. But I have. They know that that is not the solution to this issue at all. This is another policy failure from a government that have lost touch with the regions. The muppet show rolls on, but our regions need people who will stand up for them, and that is the Labor Party.
I do wonder what the member for Braddon was consuming before she came into the chamber, because some of the things she said were quite outrageous, particularly about the NBN. I know you haven't been around that long, Member for Braddon, but if you read your history you will find that the Howard government actually put $2 billion into a telecommunications fund for the future of the rural telecommunications industry. It was the very first thing that Kevin Rudd hoovered up to build his NBN, which he said he would build for $4.5 billion. I might point out that for the mining communities on the western side of Tasmania your side of politics proposed that it be delivered by satellite. We have done exactly the same on that front.
The coalition believes in regional Australia and that's why we provide good policy. Since the change of government in 2013, I can tell you that I have noticed a difference of the first order in my electorate—whether it be the significant steps taken very quickly by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to make sure that the steel industry survived in Whyalla. It is a very important industry. We have a new owner and we are going to knock the spots off that place, and the government stands ready to help Sandhu Gupta with his vision in Whyalla. Or whether it be the duplication of the Joy Baluch AM Bridge in Port Augusta, something I'm sure you know about, Deputy Speaker Hogan, because that's exactly where you come from. The $200 billion that will fix up this bottleneck and safety valve for Port Augusta comes from this government. The dual lanes straight through the middle of Port Wakefield and the overpass on the northern side show that this government has an absolute vision for those who live in the country. The Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, the $20 million that went into the Upper Spencer Gulf as a depressed region—we are backing businesses to employ more people and grow their businesses. There is the BBRF, the Building Better Regions Fund, which has contributed more than $40 million into my electorate and there is the Mobile Black Spot Program. The mobile black spots were raised by the other side of the chamber—they said it was their money that built it. Good grief, give me a break! Not one mobile phone tower was delivered by that side of the chamber when they were in government for six years. We have put $120 million into that project and we'll deliver over 800 new towers.
I'm very proud to say that I was a farmer before I came into this place. It is in agriculture, the underlying industry that finances regional Australia, that I think the government has done some of its finest work. We had the ag white paper and we have doubled the FMDs. Incidentally, the Farm Management Deposits were instigated by the Howard government. We've doubled the limits. We have brought the banks on board to allow offset against farm loans. We've accelerated the deductibility on water, fodder and new fencing. Let me tell you a story about fodder. We're pretty short of fodder at the moment and I know some farmers who invested in a big way to store a lot of hay. They have sold a lot of the hay and made a lot of money and the farmer said to me the other day, 'Do you know what we're going to do? Next time we get a good season we're going to use the money we made out of that lot to build more sheds and store more hay for the next drought.' That's what good policy delivers: good decisions on the ground. We've had the $20,000 instant tax write-off and the FTAs with China, South Korea and Japan. It's cleaned up the wine backlog—the wine glut. We've cleaned out those stocks, and the wine industry is once again soaring high. That's a very good thing for South Australia.
We've moved well on drought. We have farm household support and the then Prime Minister announced that we would have $12,000 per farming couple as a cash bonus over the next 12 months. We've delivered extra money to allow people to apply for farm household support. We've got the drought concessional loans. We've got the farm finance concessional loans. We've put extra money into support for mental health for farmers who are under pressure at the moment. Because the members of parliament on this side of the chamber represent the vast bulk of regional Australia, we understand regional Australia. That's why we deliver good policy for regional Australia. That's why we have delivered great outcomes. I have really noticed what the last five years have been like compared with the six years before that. There has been a vast improvement.
At a time when people in the bush are looking for stability, the member for New England follows in the footsteps of his friend and colleague the member for Warringah, providing only doubt and destabilisation. We all heard his recent comments in the media almost daring his fellow National Party members to offer him his old job back—'Come on, I'm up for it; I'd be good.' I looked at him today when he was standing in the chamber to answer the question posed by the member for Hunter. You could see it was almost like a job interview—a role-play for: 'If you had me back, this is how great I can be. Look at what you're missing. Come on, give me a second chance.' Will they give him a second chance? That is the big question. To be frank with you, what a joke. Their constituencies deserve better. Some of the poorest areas in our country are so sadly represented by people who are, quite frankly, just prepared to accept any sort of crumb of leadership.
Let's talk about the many failings of the Liberal-National coalition when it comes to rural and regional Australia. There are the cuts to school funding. They might talk about 'record money being spent'—well, of course the population goes up and the funding goes up, but that just goes up by way of people being born. The higher the population, the more kids there are going to school. It's not actually about real increases to funding for education. And, as was mentioned before, every cut to schools impacts regional and rural schools far more than their city cousins.
Cuts to hospital funding and freezes to the Medicare rebate hurt people in the regional and rural areas far more than people in the cities. We already know there are people with a major health condition, such as cancer, for example. We all know plenty of people who are trying to battle that insidious disease. Well, those living in regional and rural areas have poorer survival rates than those living in the major cities. The further patients living with cancer are from the major cities, the more likely they are to die within five years of contracting cancer. That's totally unacceptable. How can this government continue to navel-gaze when the people of the bush, quite truthfully, are dying from a preventable disease? It's far more serious than the charades put forward in this place.
Of course, the other big white elephant in the room is the NBN. We hear them joking about, 'When you had it, there were no complaints.' We thought of it, we rolled it out, and we would have administered it at a far higher standard than anyone in this joke of a government has ever done. It is the greatest infrastructure project this nation has seen in many decades.
While we're talking about infrastructure: I was privileged to be the deputy chair of a joint select committee put up to look at decentralisation and regional development. I can tell you that we travelled the country, and people from the regions were begging for decent infrastructure. Local government organisations were coming, looking not only for cash but also for creative ideas from a good government to really put some energy and some employment back in the region. Sadly, they are begging for that. Quite interestingly, I can't help but note that, in my tenure as deputy chair, I saw three chairs come through that committee. They were being promoted, demoted and moved all about this unstable government at a rapid rate. One of the most interesting points I did note from that was—if you remember back to April 2017—a dictum put forth from the then minister for regional Australia, Fiona Nash. She said that she was writing to every department to ask why they shouldn't decentralise and that they were going to have to respond by August. Well, 12 months has gone by since that—
Yes, which August? I take that creative interjection from my friend and colleague the member for Herbert. I daresay August will come and go into the future, and that letter will never be responded to.
I'll tell you what: it is a great travesty to treat our regions with such disrespect. People from the bush and people from the regions are some of the hardest working, most decent, most generous and most caring people. They're looking for good representation. They want to see our country go forward. They want to see their kids do well. They want to see them go to well-funded schools. They want to be able to go to a hospital and not sit in emergency for five hours plus. In fact, someone said to me last week: 'Meryl, my father-in-law went to hospital. He'd had a stroke. There was one doctor for 800 people, and now the thing that has happened to him has irrevocably changed his life.' That's because, as we all know, with stroke victims, you need to have very, very prompt attention. Well, that wasn't coming. That was in a big hospital. The government are a joke. They are not delivering the leadership that we need and deserve in our regions.
I think I'm the only dairy farmer from a rural and regional area in this chamber. I'm very, very proud to represent my part of the world, and I'm very proud of being an actual, active dairy farmer. For those opposite: to understand rural and regional Australia, how about you walk a mile in my shoes as a dairy farmer for a start, before you start making comments about what leadership really is?
I want to talk about how proud I am of what we've done as a government in this space. But first I will take you back to look at the simple things that matter most and to look at something that the previous government did. One of the first things that the then Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, did as part of the Labor government was to make significant changes to youth allowance. Any genuine rural and regional member in this place understands how important access to youth allowance and support is for young people who have no choice but to leave their small rural and regional community to go away to study. But the Labor government at the time made significant changes to youth allowance, which meant that young people in my part of the world could not get youth allowance at all. Labor deemed them to be in an 'inner regional' area, and, if you were in an 'inner regional' area, you weren't allowed to go to university—you weren't allowed to get independent youth allowance; you weren't allowed to go and have the same opportunities as someone in a city environment.
The then Labor government made changes to youth allowance to the point where young people were desperate. There were hundreds of young people and their families who came to me. I moved a private member's motion on it and took a consistent approach, a persistent approach, to what Labor did. Frequently, in the supermarket, a mum and a dad or a family would come up to me to say, 'Do you understand just what this is doing to our children and the future of children in rural and regional Australia?'
When you talk about leadership, why not talk about the leaders of the future and their education? But Labor made a major change to youth allowance which actually stopped young people from my part of the world going on to university. I had a mum who said to me, 'I've actually got five kids, and they are great kids; the five of them want to be GPs, but I can only afford to send one to university under these new rules.' How do you think she felt about that? But Labor didn't care about that at all. Labor did not care about the opportunities for rural and regional students.
The members sitting opposite were not here at that time and did not see what it did to rural and regional students. It was absolutely horrendous, and you should hang your heads in shame over that, because it took a private member's motion in here to start to bring the then Labor government to its senses. It was okay to say that young people in rural and regional areas weren't able to access youth allowance! Obviously, you in rural and regional areas don't understand how critical this is.
We've made significant changes that have allowed increased numbers of young people to actually pursue their dreams and go on to university and then to come back to rural and regional areas in time. And I'm very proud of that.
But the damage was done. There were young people who actually changed plans, who said to me: 'I'm not even saying to my mum or dad—or my teachers—that I actually want to go on to university, because I know they can't afford it. So I'm taking another pathway and going into work.' They were the decisions that they made—life-changing decisions. That is what leadership is actually about in here: it's about making good decisions about young people, especially about their education.
I also want to talk briefly about our investment in mobile blackspot towers. When an anaesthetist who lives in Ferguson Valley had to park his car on a hill to be able to get calls, when he was on call, from the local hospital, you know there's a problem. But of course Labor didn't invest one dollar in mobile blackspots. And we have. When I look at the difference that that has made, right around my electorate, to that anaesthetist and then to the health care that's being provided to people in my electorate, I am very, very proud of this program. But I have no doubt that this was not a program that was supported by Labor then, and, if you're talking about regional leadership, this is a core part of it.
I thank the member for Hunter for bringing forward this very important MPI, because it gives me an opportunity to read off a litany of evidence that shows very clearly that this government hasn't got a clue about regional Queensland, especially Townsville. Townsville's unemployment rate has almost doubled under the LNP, under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments. When Labor left federal government in 2013, our unemployment rate was lower than both the state and national averages. Now Townsville's unemployment rate is higher than the state average and almost double the national average. Under the previous Labor government, manufacturing in Townsville soared. When Labor left federal government in 2013, more than 8,400 people were employed in manufacturing. But under the Abbott and Turnbull governments manufacturing nosedived, with job losses of 3,000.
In Herbert the number of apprentices and trainees has almost halved, 46 per cent in fact, since the LNP took office. That's 1,557 fewer apprentices and trainees because of the LNP's $3 billion cut to TAFE. And now Townsville is experiencing massive shortages of skilled tradespeople. The LNP's changes to early learning will mean that 2,484 families in Townsville will be worse off to the tune of more than $2,000.
The LNP's Medicare freeze has hurt Townsville badly. The LNP's freeze is forcing out-of-pocket medical expenses to rise and therefore forcing fewer people to see GPs. The high cost of medical services has stopped seven per cent of North Queenslanders accessing health care when needed in the past year. Six point five per cent of people in the north over the age of 15 have reported delaying or not going to a specialist, GP, imaging or pathology service between 2016 and 2017 due to cost. The northern Queensland region had the 10th highest rate of people delaying medical care due to the cost in that 12-month period. The median out-of-pocket cost in the year was $142 per patient. This is not the fault of GPs. It is the LNP government's fault. The researchers named the LNP policy causing the detrimental effects, finding the variation in the amounts patients spend out of pocket on health services was influenced by factors such as availability of bulk-billed services and non-hospital primary and specialist services subsidised by Medicare. The Medicare freeze has negatively impacted Queenslanders more than overall patients in metropolitan areas, who are less likely to have out-of-pocket costs than their relatives in regional areas.
What has the freeze led to? More people being admitted to hospital. Recent reports show that in the Townsville hospital the emergency department is treating an average of 55 people per day for minor ailments that they should be having seen to at the GP clinic. Twenty-six per cent of patients—that's 6,475 people over the last six months—are presenting at the Townsville hospital with minor ailments like coughs and colds, all because this out-of-touch LNP government would rather give tax handouts to big business and the big banks, as opposed to funding our hospitals. That is a disgraceful list of priorities. The cuts to health don't stop there. The architect of the health cuts has also cut $9 million from the Townsville hospital. That's on top of the Medicare freeze. What does that mean for our regional hospitals? It means a loss of four beds, 12 fewer doctors and 25 fewer nurses.
But the LNP's demolition of regional Queensland doesn't stop at health. There are cuts to our universities. The architect of the cuts, former Treasurer now Prime Minister Scott Morrison, signed off on $38 million of cuts to Central Queensland University. He signed off on $36 million of cuts to James Cook University. These cuts have seen Townsville's 14 JCU staff lose their jobs and the loss of an arts degree.
Then there are the LNP cuts to the National Partnership on Remote Housing. This has seen seven jobs lost on Palm Island and some of those apprenticeships. In fact, they have entirely cut this program from Queensland because the LNP doesn't understand remote Queensland at all. The LNP Morrison government does not work for regional Queenslanders. They work for their banking and big business mates in Sydney.
Only Labor will fund hospitals. Only Labor will fund our schools. Only Labor will fund TAFE and universities. It will only ever be Labor that will get Townsville back on track, delivering jobs and apprenticeships and providing the infrastructure that we need to kick off our economy.
It's awful to be in this place and listen to that long, miserable diatribe from the opposition. If anyone tuned in to get a sense of what's really going on in regional Australia, all they would hear is this long, tedious, miserable series of negative statements. Member for Hunter, you've got to gee them up. You've got to generate some enthusiasm among your troops for what it's like to live, work and raise a family in rural and regional Australia, because the government members who actually do those things—and I've got many in the House with me today—celebrate the good. You will understand that very well, Deputy Speaker Hogan, given your location on the northern New South Wales coast. The member for Capricornia is sitting at the table. Frequently I meet with people in her shires, and what they paint for me is a picture of growing optimism, growing infrastructure and growing confidence. I don't think that would exist if those opposite were sitting here on the treasury bench.
On the weekend, typically for me, I travelled to celebrate a million-dollar investment in Yarrawonga Manufactured Housing. Under a massive cover in a small town on the Murray, we are building cabin-style accommodation, temporary affordable housing, that can be transported all around the country: to remote communities, to Indigenous communities, to lifestyle villages. It's all happening there. We're seeing investment in trades and in training, and the young people coming to town talk to me about the confidence they have in this government. It's the reason they feel they can move their families there—cue our decentralisation agenda!
Then I went through some outback country, towards Hay, to talk to farmers, and of course we talked about the drought. But they are there for the long term and they love where they live. I then went to a salami festival in a place called Euston, quite close to Mildura, where we celebrated the diversity of the Italian culture that's made that region so special. There were lots of different salamis there! But there were also lots of markets. There were people selling beer and gin. In fact, there was somebody who has one of those boutique gin distilleries in Mildura, in the member for Mallee's electorate. He was in a Hawaiian shirt, with a bowler hat, riding around on a trike and handing out some very nice gin. That's small business. He has the confidence to do what he's doing and know that this government will back him.
The government deliver for every single rural and regional Australian through our rural and regional members. We are rolling out a $75 billion 10-year program of investment, and one of the biggest infrastructure investments is the $8 billion Inland Rail. If you're someone who lives on the eastern seaboard, you might not see the relevance of this, important though your local commute to work is. But if you live in my electorate—and much of eastern Australia—you know the government has its eye on the future, because we will have an effective rail corridor running between Melbourne and Brisbane, through our regions, with good branch rail networks so we can deliver our produce to that network to go to the port of Brisbane, the port of Melbourne and in between.
As I said: small business. We've put in place the lowest tax rate in 78 years. Millions of small and medium-sized businesses across Australia, 20,000 in my electorate alone, will pay less tax five years sooner with new laws fast-tracking tax relief for the sector passing the parliament today. We've extended the $20,000 instant asset write-off. Over 4,000 businesses in the electorate of Farrer are taking advantage of this, and my region is no exception.
Communications? Yes, we can do more. I'd love to see more. I'm at the front line demanding more, as are all my rural and regional colleagues. But we remember the six years when Labor was in power. We didn't have a single mobile phone station anywhere for a whole six years. We've got a lot of catching up to do. We're getting there.
If you want to represent the regions, you have to live in the regions. I'm not saying I take a single vote for granted in my electorate of Farrer, and I know my colleagues don't in their electorates. If you don't know your rural and regional member of parliament—who they are, their face, their reputation—and don't have a sense of what they do then that member of parliament probably isn't doing a good job. You know you can't get away with it in regional Australia. That's why we work so hard: because we love what we do; we love the people we represent. We don't need the negativity that comes piling on with the pure political opportunism that we've heard in the debate on this motion. It's late on a Thursday afternoon and it's all about how awful it is in regional Australia. That would be the take-home message from anyone listening this afternoon. It's not our message.