House debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2024

Grievance Debate

Nicholls Electorate

6:49 pm

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

I got elected to this place in May 2022, but I lived in my electorate of Nicholls all my life, so I believe I'm well placed to talk about what had happened previously and what I'm seeing happen now. As former Prime Minister Howard said, 'When you change the government, you change the country.' Indeed, we have seen change, but in my electorate we have not seen change for the better.

In my previous life before coming to this place, I worked in agricultural science. I also worked as the CEO of the committee for Greater Shepparton and I spent a lot of time advocating for projects and working with the government of the day. The government of the day for that period was the coalition government, and I found them incredibly good to work with and incredibly receptive. Two things struck me about the previous coalition government. They would roll their sleeves up and do things—not just talk about it but do things and build things—and they didn't have a Canberra-centric approach to life. They would say, 'If you come up with a good idea that you've developed in your region, we'll try to find a way to fund it.' Numerous excellent projects came out of that.

What I'm seeing now is that I come to the government with projects and programs that will help my community, and they say, 'You have to go see this minister to see if it fits within this tight bucket.' When I do go to do that, inevitably it doesn't, and these things don't get funded.

Let's talk a bit about what I saw before, when we had the 10 years of the previous coalition government, and what I'm seeing now. In terms of infrastructure, the previous coalition government had an excellent record in my electorate and in the surrounding regions. The big-ticket item is the Echuca-Moama bridge. For years, Echuca had had one insufficient bridge crossing the Murray, one of our greatest rivers. Echuca and the town on the other side of the Murray, Moama, are inextricably linked, as are many of the communities that span the New South Wales and Victorian sides of the Murray. In particular, the Nationals in the state and the coalition in government took a really pragmatic approach, saying, 'Let's get this thing funded and let's get it built,' and it was a very proud day for many people—I was just campaigning, so I had advocated for it, but it was the people in government, particularly the then infrastructure minister, Minister Chester, who made sure that the money was found for this project and that the project was built. It was opened, and it has made a huge difference to the lives of the people in Echuca-Moama. That's delivery. It was ironic to see some of my political opponents, whose campaign against me was to say the Nationals have never delivered anything, campaigning on the Echuca-Moama bridge. The irony was stark.

The Shepparton ring road was enhanced. That takes a lot of north-south traffic out of the main CBD of Shepparton. That was enhanced under the previous coalition government. The Shepparton Art Museum was built. Sometime we on this side get accused of not being interested in culture. That's not what I found. I found that, if we as a community went to the coalition government—my predecessor was then the member for Nicholls, Mr Drum. If we went to him saying, 'This is what we want as a community,' the Nationals said, 'If it's important to you, it's important to us and we're funding it.' The Shepparton Art Museum got built, and now it's a wonderful part of the cultural life of Shepparton. It brings tourists in and it's home to one of the most significant exhibitions of Namatjira paintings and also one of the most significant ceramics collections in Australia.

And $208 million was put toward the Shepparton bypass, which is some money that the previous coalition government put towards a really important project to try to get the Victorian government moving. Since May 2022, when I was fortunate enough to win the election, come up here and make some great friends, including those who I see opposite, the government has funded nothing, built nothing, taken the $208 million away from the Shepparton bypass in the 90-day review—and that's just in my electorate; other programs have been cut—and we just don't see the infrastructure pipeline that we used to see with the previous coalition government.

In relation to agriculture, which is such an important industry in my electorate, no-one was 100 per cent happy with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It was brought in by the then Gillard government, and the now Leader of the House, Minister Burke, was the water minister at the time. He did come to an understanding around various elements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Then, when the coalition government came in, the then minister, Minister Littleproud, worked really constructively with the Victorian Labor government, and other Labor states, to come to an arrangement which gave agricultural investors in my area confidence to say: 'This is what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is now. There's a huge amount of water that's been taken away from the regions, but it needed to be, for the environment, and, while we don't like it, we accept it, and the extra 450 gigalitres is contingent on a socioeconomic neutrality test—that is, you can't hurt the communities, in terms of society and economy, by taking this water away.' That was well understood, and investment confidence was there.

Since May 2022, we've seen Minister Plibersek come in and rip that agreement up and attempt to take more irrigation water away from the communities that I represent. That has been devastating for them, and it will be devastating into the future.

Also in relation to industrial relations, the PALM scheme was working well for everyone. Now, I know that there are members opposite—I don't think those members have, but there are other people from over there who have spoken—who see basically every farmer as exploiting everyone, everywhere, which is patently not the truth. The PALM scheme was working well for everyone. It was working well for the people from the Pacific. It was working well for the orchardists. The respect which those two groups of people had for each other was highlighted in a funeral of an orchardist I went to, where the South Pacific workers who had been to that orchardist's farm for 15 years were singing at his funeral. That's the respect that they had for this orchardist.

Now the PALM scheme isn't working well for anyone. It doesn't work. If it doesn't work well for farmers, they won't use it. If they don't use it, then the people from the Pacific who've been getting the benefit from it won't get that benefit anymore. So that's been a retrograde step since the election of the Albanese government.

And of course there's the cost of living. It was pretty stable previously. Inflation was stable. People were going along pretty well. Interest rates were okay. Energy prices were stable. Everything was sort of going okay. Then the pandemic hit, and some of the courageous decisions that were taken by then Treasurer Frydenberg, around JobKeeper, to try and keep people connected with their businesses, I think saw Australia through that terrible time much better than a lot of other places. So I really commend the previous coalition government on that. I had people contacting me, as the CEO of the Committee for Greater Shepparton, because a lot of the businesses were our members, and saying: 'Can you pass on to Drummie to pass on to Josh Frydenberg that you have saved us. You have saved our businesses and kept us going, because we were thinking that we might have gone out of business.' So that was a great effort, and a great bit of courage by that Treasurer. I know everyone's talking about Nemesis at the moment. What I saw on Nemesis was that Josh Frydenberg said, 'We had to go against some of our principles, but, when it's a crisis, you've got to do that.' And he did.

But since the election of the Albanese government, the cost-of-living crisis has been exacerbated, and it has got worse. People are ringing me, as the member, and saying, 'What am I going to do? Inflation's out of control. The interest rates are out of control. Energy prices are out of control. And groceries are going up.' So I ask in this debate: are we, as a country, heading in the right direction with the Albanese government? The people in my electorate are saying, 'Things were better beforehand'—notwithstanding this bragging about an $800 tax cut. We were better off beforehand; we're worse off now, and I hope that gets reflected at the next election.