Wednesday, 5 February 2020
While we are still in the midst of fighting these fires, we really need to aggressively address the recovery issues now, and so there are a number of ideas that I've been gleaning from the community that I want to put forward in this first instalment, as a suggestion to the government.
We've been seeing a lot of this relief stuff come through but unfortunately now it is taking business away from those small businesses that really need to be getting back up and running. I would like to suggest that people adopt a voucher approach or a ticket approach to support those businesses and encourage people to come to them to buy their goods. We had a situation in Cobargo, for example, where the co-op there that sells poly pipe was being asked to distribute it for free—they did it, but we need to now start supporting those small businesses locally by channelling things through them. A good suggestion is tax deduction for accommodation in fire-affected areas. This would be a great way of getting an immediate impact by encouraging people to come now to take the holidays that they need to, particularly over the winter season when there's going to be some new activities and festivals introduced to try to bridge the gap between the summer seasons. It would be good if we could extend BAS relief to those businesses until next summer, because they really need to bridge that gap, as I mentioned, and that would be very helpful.
I'd just like to pass on to the government: walk away from the decentralisation policy. It doesn't create new jobs in the regions. It's stealing from one region to create a job in another. My region depends so much on the lifeblood of the travelling and driving holiday-makers from the Canberra, Queanbeyan, Yass and Murrumbateman area, and it really needs them right now. So please walk away from this decentralisation policy.
On the assistance that the government could provide, it would be great if through the next few months it could step in to supplement—and replace in many cases—the sponsorship that local small businesses would normally provide to festivals like the Narooma Oyster Festival, which they just won't be able to do for a number of months. In that vein the government could also temporarily fund project managers over this period to help implement these new festivals and activities that are going to be needed to keep these small businesses alive, otherwise many will fold.
We need to have small-business advisers and Centrelink people in the field now, in temporary shopfronts, in a number of locations right around our region. It doesn't have to be permanent but the biggest feedback I'm getting is just how tough it is to navigate online and other processes to access the assistance—it's just a nightmare. A small-business adviser or Centrelink person in those key locations in towns around the region is very important.
I want to see us double the number of Indigenous rangers so we can get them involved in the cultural burning program and also get our Indigenous youth employed.
There are a lot of infrastructure projects we could be looking to bring forward like the Brindabella road across to Tumut, the rail project to Eden, the caravan park at Tumbarumba, the Tumut airport, the Bobeyan Road, B-double access from the port of Eden up to the Monaro Highway and the wave attenuator at Eden. These are quick-fix projects which would be real value adds to the economy in general and very good investments and would get work happening right now. We need to restore funding to the Destination Southern NSW organisation. Its funding was cut and we really need marketing support now, so restoring that funding would be terrific.
In particular, I want to focus on the Carbon Farming Initiative and the use of climate change as part of this recovery process. We can't resuscitate our timber industry unless we enhance the Carbon Farming Initiative to allow international trading, because investors aren't going to get involved when they have to wait 11 or 25 years for a return. The Australian Forest Products Association and the Softwoods Working Group all really want to see this happen. An international trading regime would attract investors so they could start earning money from replanting forests from day one because the forests would be a carbon sink. That would be the short term fix they really need right now.
In addition to that, farmers can come on board by offering up sequestration options on their properties. Our plan was to create a timber co-op so that farmers could assign less productive or marginal parts of their property to timber plantation and, similarly, earn money from the sequestration opportunities that offers for, potentially, local investors, because there's a lot of money sloshing around in our managed funds—$3 trillion. A lot of that could be directed and focused on the sorts of climate change options that create the new economy. The fifth industrial revolution is going to be about decarbonising and new energy sources and new farming techniques. We can get started on that right now. So I really urge the government to at least carve out the Carbon Farming Initiative as part of that effort.
It's been a tough start to the year and, indeed, the decade for Australians. The devastating bushfires have been tough for many in bushfire affected communities. But the bushfire recovery effort has already begun, and the Morrison government, the Rural Fire Service, the Country Fire Authority and the Australian Defence Force are all to be congratulated on their timely and practical response to the fires.
The Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, has made a number of important announcements that will ensure the health and wellbeing of these communities now and into the future. This includes $76 million for assistance with mental health in the gruelling period of recovery for those fire affected communities. My in-laws were affected by the bushfires on Black Saturday. Having watched that community recover from the bushfire, I know it doesn't take days and it doesn't take weeks; it takes months to years. Ensuring that we have support for these people as they rebuild their lives and their communities is essential.
A further $5 million has been committed to undertake medical research into the health effects of the fires and to understand what can be done to prevent adverse health consequences in any future events. We all know about the smoke pools across the major cities on the east coast. It will be important to understand not just the effect that has on immediate admissions to hospitals with asthma but also the long-term effects that may occur. We need to make sure we can monitor those aspects.
But it's not just immediate help that these rural communities are going to require. In the long run, all levels of government will need to work together to make sure we support and sustain health services in these rural and remote communities as they rebuild. I'd like to pick up on a point that the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt, made about attracting and retaining rural GPs to remote and rural communities. Approximately 80 per cent of Australia's population lives on the east coast of Australia, meaning there are huge expanses of sparsely populated areas. Attracting and retaining rural GPs is one of the biggest challenges facing rural and regional health services. The distance between towns, and the cost of providing health services with towns getting smaller, makes it harder to attract professionals like doctors. It can be harder to find a spouse or a partner. They're away from family and friends. It's very important in this rebuild that we make note that, as these communities are under stress, so too are the services that will be provided to them.
The federal government has announced recently a rural generalist pathway. This is a really important initiative. It's the creation of a new specialty known as the rural generalist medicine pathway, and it sits under the specialty of general practice. The Australian government has allocated $62 million to the pathway. It's supporting 186 rural generalist training positions, with another 100 in 2021. It builds on the government's $550 million Stronger Rural Health Strategy.
Local GPs in the country do so much work and it is so varied. Births, chronic disease management, palliative care, emergency services, surgery and dealing with the rise of mental health issues are just a few of the daily issues that can face a local GP. We need to incentivise doctors to stay in these country towns or return back to their home town once they've completed their training in the city. It is a two-way street. If you have a well-serviced town with a good doctor, people will stay. If you have a town that's busy with patients, doctors will stay.
The commitment of successive governments to the delivery of innovative services has helped bridge the gap in health outcomes for Australians living in rural and remote communities. As a nation, we have benefited from the emergence of the digital age for those in rural and remote communities. They can now access telehealth, meaning a doctor is just a phone call or a video chat away. There has also been an increase in funding to regional universities. There has been a federal government workforce incentive program for the doctors' stream.
Most importantly, at the heart of these intentions is a commitment to support and encourage equitable access to high-quality health care for those who don't live in our cities. The government's announcement on creating a national rural generalist pathway helps deliver on that vision. As a country, as we rebuild after these terrible bushfires, it will be important to make sure that we provide the services needed by all Australians across this wide brown land.