Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Matters of Public Importance
Rural and Regional Australia
The President has received the following letter from Senator Gallagher:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The failure of the Coalition Government to deliver for rural and regional Australia.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
I rise to raise my concerns about this coalition government's lack of care for regional Australia. The government's failure is twofold. The Morrison Liberal-National government is failing regional areas. It is failing the jobs test; it is not creating jobs in Australia's rural and regional areas. It is failing in the education space for people living in rural and regional areas. People living in rural and regional areas deserve the same opportunities to access skills training and apprenticeships. This government is not delivering on the commitment it made at the last federal election, and the Australian people deserve to know why.
To prepare the regional workforce for jobs of the future, skills must align with the skills of the future. Sadly, under the Morrison government, TAFE and regional jobs are under attack. Tasmania and Australia cannot afford to delay investing in the jobs of the future. Government must build with the private sector a framework for future jobs in the service, agriculture and tourism sectors. These sectors are particularly valuable to my home state of Tasmania. We have been very proud of what we have achieved over the decades, but that is at risk under this government. The government talk the talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but we have not seen the jobs manifest themselves in Tasmania. What we have in fact seen is over 5,200 Tasmanians lose their jobs. They are full-time jobs that have gone, and we've also seen casualisation and underemployment. What I know is that I can't hold my breath waiting for the Liberals' Tasmanian team to be the voice of reason in the Morrison government. We had a new federal member elected at the May election, and she's missing in action. She has not delivered on one commitment that was outlined at the May federal election. She is in hiding.
It's the same with the health system in rural and regional areas, particularly in Tasmania. The Launceston General Hospital is in crisis. We have ambulances ramping. We're threatened with losing our most valuable resource, our medical fraternity. The doctors, the nurses, the ward clerks, the other hospital staff—they are all under stress because we have a Liberal state minister and a Liberal federal minister who have gone missing in action.
The Liberals' Senate team and this Morrison government are planning on ripping more federal Public Service jobs out of Tasmania as they privatise the visa-processing system. This means 2,000 jobs across Australia, 100 jobs in Hobart alone, will go.
That is a fact. Yet those opposite argue that they are the champions of jobs. Well, those on the other side of this chamber, who have the honour of being part of government, have a responsibility to build opportunities with the private sector to create jobs, not to destroy them.
This government talk big on vocational training and jobs, but, instead of investing in TAFE and jobs, they're gutting the TAFE system. This is nowhere more apparent than in Tasmania, where there's been a loss of jobs and apprenticeships. We know that over $3 billion has been cut out of TAFE. That is not good enough. We need more investment in apprentices and vocational training. From all the evidence thus far, my home state of Tasmania is under threat. We have this 'pipeline of new jobs and investment' but no plan for ensuring that it's carried on in the long term. We are short of tradespeople, yet we see this government gutting and cutting the TAFE sector.
Those opposite promised so much at the federal election but they have delivered nothing but job losses in Tasmania. In Northern Tasmania, wages have gone backwards by more than $3 an hour. Jobs and pay in general are stagnating, but we are actually going backwards. It is an indictment of this federal government. (Time expired)
I'll first say, in rising today to speak on this MPI, that I must have woken up this morning in a parallel universe. I thought that Labor had spent the last few months denouncing themselves over just how out of touch with regional and rural Australia they are. Didn't their own internal election review say that Labor's spending announcements and tax policies fuelled anxiety among people in outer urban and regional Australia that Labor would crash the economy and risk their jobs? Didn't their review find that outer metropolitan, provincial and rural Australia swung against Labor? Now they want to come into this chamber and lecture the government on what is best for regional and rural Australia.
Isn't Labor the party that just announced a ban on native forestry in Victoria—a ban which will cost thousands of jobs in regional communities? What's worse is the Victorian Labor government deliberately released that policy on the exact same day that Labor released its federal election review, to give itself some cover from negative press attention. You couldn't get a better example of the complete mess and the absolute hypocrisy that is the Labor Party: the Victorian Labor Party announced a policy to kill off thousands of jobs in the regional communities and used, as cover, a federal Labor review that found Labor is out of touch with regional Australia. And what was the coalition government doing on that exact same day last week? We were announcing a billion-dollar expansion of our drought assistance measures for rural and regional Australia.
As the Prime Minister has said, helping our farmers in regional communities is a top policy priority of this government. We have a comprehensive policy agenda to support the regions—an agenda which was endorsed by voters, particularly in regional Australia. It is an agenda that we are already delivering on, including a plan for agriculture backed by $4 billion in funding; a record investment of $100 billion in infrastructure projects across our country, with a heavy focus on regional roads and rail; additional funding for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund; the $550 million Stronger Rural Health Strategy; and delivering new trade agreements which will allow the produce and products from regional Australia to get to new markets—creating jobs and investment at home. We're backing in forestry, mining and fisheries—all industries which will create jobs in regional Australia, and industries towards which Labor vacillates between being lukewarm at best to downright hostile at worst.
As one Labor frontbencher recently said about the current party, Labor is 'too quick to dismiss people with opposing views as obviously wrong, probably stupid and possibly subhuman'. Where will you find a large proportion of people with opposing views to Labor—those people that, according to one of their own, they treat as 'stupid and possibly subhuman'? You will find them in regional Australia. So, please, give us a spell from the Labor lectures about what regional Australia wants, when this coalition government has a clear plan and is already investing in these areas. In my own state of Tasmania, we are seeing significant investment in agriculture and in Battery of the Nation. We are putting $100 million into irrigation to ensure that our farmers will continue to thrive. We have a plan and we are delivering on that plan—and I'm sick of being lectured by those on the other side that can't seem to see the reality of our hard work.
The island where I live and that I have the fortune to represent in this place, Tasmania, is a large, rural and regional electorate. Contrary to probably what many Australians believe, it is very vulnerable, like the rest of rural and regional Australia, to drought and to bushfires. In the last five summers, we've had three of the worst fires on record that have burned in areas where fires have never been seen, including up through our World Heritage areas, in our alpine areas and our rainforests, on the west coast.
We learnt from the 2016 fires that Tasmania didn't have the resources on hand to immediately tackle these fires—as we also learnt from this summer. My colleague Senator McKim and I initiated a Senate inquiry following the 2016 fires in Tasmania, and we also initiated a Senate inquiry in a committee that I know you have spent a lot of time in, Acting Deputy President Fawcett—the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—that looked at the role of the Australian Defence Force in being better able to assist around a climate emergency. What came out of that committee inquiry and the evidence that we heard from witnesses was a policy, which we launched in 2016 and re-launched in 2018 following the second Senate inquiry, with the Greens committing $500 million to rural and regional Australia for a national disaster response unit. We were the first to come to this place and talk about the need for a whole revamp of the way the federal government interacts with the states around national disasters. This would have been a specialised remote natural disaster operation support capacity for the states and territories, coordinated by the federal government.
This would have covered procurement of an aerial firefighting fleet of fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft to provide direct firefighting capacity. The NDRU would also provide supervision, incident observation, fire mapping and intelligence functions. The fleet would have the flexibility to work in diverse terrain and multiple disaster events. $280 million of that $500 million would go directly into the NDRU's fleet, which could fund up to two large air tankers, five medium air tankers, four light-attack aircraft firefighters and three supervision aircraft, with a combined capacity of almost 150,000 litres. We learnt in the inquiry that we farm out and bring in many of our aircraft from overseas. We have learnt the hard lesson in recent days that some of these fleets aren't available, because fire seasons all around the world aren't as coordinated as they used to be. They are earlier—indeed, they're all year round—and it's very difficult to get these assets. As part of the national agency's setup, it would establish clear lines of responsibility with all relevant state and territory authorities. Just today the Queensland Premier called for more federal coordination and federal investment in exactly this kind of disaster response unit, which could be funded and coordinated by the federal government across all states.
These are the kinds of things we need to be looking at in the future that we are entering—a future of climate change, a future of climate emergency. A government's No. 1 role and responsibility is to protect its citizens. We heard during the Senate inquiry that climate change is one of the biggest threats to our national security. Indeed, previous US President Obama said climate change was the biggest threat to US national security. In terms of the imminent threat, the loss of life, the loss of property, the disruption to communities and the damage to the lives of everyday Australians, I would argue there is no bigger threat than our changing climate and the emergency that that poses. Yet we find funding has been pulled in New South Wales, emergency services have been defunded, Parks and Wildlife have been defunded and the Tasmanian government still hasn't been able to get a remote firefighting capability together after three summers in five years of the most devastating fires we've seen. If the government were true to its word that it wants to protect Australians and protect our national security, it's about time for it to look at exactly this kind of proposal. Put funding into the exact capabilities that we need so we are ready and able to meet the challenges when they arise. Unfortunately and sadly, scientists tell us we will be seeing a lot more of this all year round in this country in the immediate future unless we take strong action on climate change.
I am sad to have to participate in the debate this afternoon on a matter of public importance with regard to the failure of the coalition government to deliver for rural and regional Australia. So much of Australia's identity resides in our belief in the great people in the rural and regional parts of this country—their resilience and their capacity. But what they face is a government that does not stand with them—not practically, though perhaps in word—but is absent. This is a government that continues to deny that it is mismanaging this country and this economy and that it is not serving the people of the bush. They have no plan. Perhaps most egregiously, the headline figure of $7 billion that the government continues to sprout as the amount that was supporting the drought has been found to be a complete misrepresentation of what was going on. That's just the beginning. Let me count just some more of the ways in which this government has failed to deliver for rural and regional Australia.
Let's just start with the ABC cuts and the impact that that is going to have on people in regional Australia. The ABC bought the rights for the Olympic Games, and it brought that wonderful event into the households of Australia for almost 70 years. But after years of cuts at the hands of the Liberal National government, and with a further three years of cuts ahead for the ABC, they've been left with no choice. The ABC has decided to end its 67-year run as the official non-commercial Olympic Games radio broadcaster. Budget pressures and competing budget priorities have been cited by the ABC as critical reasons for it not continuing this great tradition. The ABC warned that the latest round of budget cuts, totalling $83.7 million over the next three years, would make it very difficult for them to meet the charter requirements and audience expectations. But Scott Morrison locked in—
Mr Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, the leader of the Liberal-National government, happily locked in $83.7 million worth of cuts to the ABC. As a result of the decision of the Prime Minister of this country, Australians will miss out on this much-loved content that is part of Australia's media, sporting and cultural identity. This will hit hard in country and remote areas, particularly where the ABC Radio broadcast is often the only way of keeping up-to-date with what's going on at the Olympics. I agree with the Australian Olympic Committee President, John Coates, who said that the decision of this government would especially disappoint rural and regional Australians who might not have access to commercial or television coverage of next year's event. When the government cuts the ABC, Australians miss out, especially those in rural and regional Australia. The government knew that when they made those cuts—$84 million—but they went ahead with them anyway. This is the end of an era in Australian sporting coverage via radio, and that is a decision made by the Australian Prime Minister. That denial of access is on the Prime Minister's hands.
With regard to drought, I was recently in Dubbo. It's located in the vast seat of Parkes, which takes up most of the north-west of New South Wales. I have the privilege of being the duty senator for that area. I visited Dubbo in September with my friend and colleague Jason Clare, the member for Blaxland, who is the shadow minister for regional services, territories and local government, and also the shadow minister for housing and homelessness. In his policy areas he has particular care for the people in regional and rural Australia who are affected by the decisions of this government. We spoke with the local community, farmers, businesses, council, chambers of commerce and charities about the impact of this prolonged drought and the recently implemented water restrictions in Dubbo. Dubbo is a strong and resilient town, but, sadly, it seems to be forgotten by those opposite, because there's no sense of an integrated plan for the town at a federal level, especially when it comes to the drought. The council are doing everything that they can to plan, and their pleas to the federal government are falling on deaf ears.
We've had senators in here running off lists of money that they say are in the pipeline, but there are no pipes. There are no pipelines to feed the water out to Wellington. There's no investment, after seven years in government. They could see there was an opportunity and they denied it. They didn't prepare this country for the drought, because they had no plan, and people in regional and rural Australia are reaping the costs of that failure to invest properly—the failure to plan; the failure to deliver for the people of rural and regional Australia. The coalition have done nothing to prepare those regions of our country, and the communities that live in them, for the drought. They've done nothing since 2013.
We are in the midst of the most extreme drought on record. We know that towns are running out of water, and there has been no meaningful action by this government. The drought rages on. Farmers and rural communities lack a voice in this government, and the consequences are showing. Frankly, it's disturbing how poorly this government has mismanaged water policy in this country. Yes, we need it to rain and rain and rain—if only to just end the fires that are now alight across New South Wales. We went from catastrophe yesterday to emergency today, and there's no end in sight.
For farmers, we need meaningful, futureproofing rain and infrastructure, which the government still are not investing in. I think we can agree that the rural sector is tired of the ad hoc, piecemeal approach to drought reform. Labor have been saying for years that we support any measure the government want to take to support drought-affected farmers and communities. In fact, Mr Albanese was in Dubbo when he made that announcement, in a bipartisan way. You put up any proposal about investment in the bush, in regional and rural Australia, and we will support it. That is what he said, within weeks of taking the role of Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labor Party. And what have we seen? The federal government are sitting on their hands.
We hear announcement after announcement, but the reality is not hitting the ground. There were two more drought thought bubbles last Wednesday and Thursday from this lacklustre government, which fails all the basic tests. These latest political manoeuvrings came after the Prime Minister's bungled Drought Communities Program announcement in September, when Mr Morrison was caught out trying to give funding to councils in Victoria and South Australia that aren't actually in drought—yet there are communities in great need who cannot get assistance in a timely way from this government that seems deaf to their pleas.
Small businesses across these communities are failing by the dozen. This is a government that says it supports small business, but small business cannot thrive in a climate where the government fails to do its job. Small businesses can't build great infrastructure. They rely on governments of vision to do that, and they need that building to be done before droughts hit. Rural and regional centres like Dubbo are resilient and have been incredibly prosperous. They are surviving in extremely difficult circumstances, but they deserve better than an incompetent government that has failed, for over half a decade, to plan for the infrastructure necessary to provide water security to this community and the communities that surround it.
The Morrison government has failed to make the disparity of health outcomes between rural- and metropolitan-dwelling Australians a priority in terms of health policy. Your postcode should not determine your level of health care. But unfortunately, under this inept government, this is the reality for a lot of people. We know that health outcomes for rural Australians are significantly below those in metropolitan Australia. Overall the burden of disease is 10 per cent higher in regional areas, 30 per cent higher in rural areas and a staggering 70 per cent higher in remote Australia. That is happening because the government has not properly looked after getting Australian-trained doctors into the right parts of this country. It has failed on so many fronts. I'd need another 40 minutes to document the gross level of failure of this government— (Time expired)
Thank you to Labor for raising this very important issue. I am very proud to have this opportunity to speak about exactly what the coalition government is doing for rural and regional Australia. Let's not forget that Labor had their chance as well. Labor did not build a dam either. Labor did not build any pipelines. Labor now stand here in hindsight and say: 'We're in drought. What are you doing about it? You should have expected this drought.' Well, hello? We are Australia. We have droughts and floods. And we are the first government to ever put in place a forward plan to help make our country more resilient for the next drought. Where were Labor when we first brought the Future Drought Fund to this place? They refused to support it. Despite what Senator O'Neill says about how Labor have reached out the hand of bipartisanship, they refused to support the first forward-thinking drought program this country has ever seen. It was brought in by the Liberals and the National Party in government.
I could talk for hours about what the coalition government are doing for rural and regional Australia. Where to begin? We are decentralising. We are actually getting people and jobs out of the cities and into the regions. More than 200 have already been moved out of the cities. We are connecting the regions with the continued rollout of the NBN and the Mobile Black Spot Program. And, of course, we are addressing this current challenge of drought. What we are not doing is riding roughshod over the jurisdiction of the states, who have responsibility for town water supplies. We are working with the states, saying: 'What projects do you need? How do you need our help?' Together, we will work on getting through this drought.
The federal government is taking responsibility to help our farmers and communities here and now. We have the farm household allowance. Yesterday's amendments mean that 30,000 more farmers are eligible to access the farm household allowance. We have also introduced new loans programs. We're the first government to extend the drought support package to small businesses in drought-affected communities. Now these small businesses can access no-interest and low-interest loans through the Regional Investment Corporation. We are supporting local councils with the Drought Communities Program, getting $1 million into drought-affected councils, and we've extended that just recently. We're also bringing out another round of the Building Better Regions Fund that is specifically designed to help drought-affected communities build infrastructure and community support programs. And we've announced the water-for-fodder program, with 100 gigalitres of water being added to the southern basin thanks to working cooperatively with the South Australian government.
Our suite of drought relief measures goes to the heart of what actually matters. I live in a drought-impacted community, so I know what matters out there. From small businesses to primary producers, we are working with these communities to take the pressure off in one of the worst droughts in history. But we also know that we will be here again. That is why we brought in the Future Drought Fund. That is why we are delivering priority water infrastructure projects. Our $100 million National Water Grid Authority is now up and running. Specifically, in New South Wales, we are working with the state government to deliver major infrastructure upgrades, including a $650 million upgrade to Wyangala Dam in the state's central west to improve water reliability along the Lachlan River and a $480 million upgrade to Dungowan Dam near Tamworth to improve water security for the region, as well as undertaking a feasibility study into a Mole River dam to improve water reliability along the Border Rivers, which will help both New South Wales and Queensland.
We are the first government in Australia's history to take a long-term, strategic approach to drought, and we are very proud of doing so. But, beyond the drought, we are also thinking about what is needed to help our country communities grow and prosper into the future. We are delivering the infrastructure needed, through several projects. We are also concerned about health. The coalition government are getting 3,000 additional doctors and 3,000 additional nurses and allied health professionals into rural practice. We are addressing rural mental health, supporting headspace services across the nation. We have the $503 million rural mental health strategy. We will continue to grow regional economies through delivering free trade agreements and opening up opportunities through projects like Inland Rail that will connect our regions to our ports to better facilitate agricultural exports. We will continue to deliver the infrastructure needed to improve economic and social outcomes for rural communities. I thank the Labor Party for giving me this opportunity to highlight just some of our projects. (Time expired)
Our nation's heart is very much with the people of the rural and remote parts of Australia. Australians have great respect for their true-blue country communities—including for our farmers, who are doing it very tough at present. This country has been built on the backs of our farmers—firstly, the sheep industry—and, even now, we rely very heavily on the food produced by the hard work of our agriculture and livestock farmers, and other rural industries. Farming is among the few industries that produce considerable value from effectively nothing. The crops and the livestock produced are value-added as they go along the supply chain, to the benefit of the economy. The marketeers add their mark-up, the retailers add their mark-up and the restaurants who prepare the produce for their diners also add a mark-up. At each step of the process the government takes a cut through taxation. The same could also be said of any business that invests in production and in the employment of local people in our country. Some suggest that in the 1930s, during the wool era, there was a six-to-one growth of money for the economy to the benefit of Canberra. Others suggest that figure today could be 11-to-one.
The argument is that our primary producers are a foundational part of the money tree and, if they're gone, their earnings will be gone with them. So it is important that the government ensures rural and regional communities receive the services they need to survive and thrive, but the government is not always supportive of regional and remote communities. One example I've been raising lately is that the government has fallen flat on its support for the dairy industry. I have called for a mandatory code of conduct to protect the dairy industry and to help dairy farmers. The government has also fallen flat on its handling of water. Many landholders see water flow past them yet they are not allowed to access it, due to the act that says someone else owns the licences. Other farmers have seen water from dams like the Paradise Dam in Queensland flowing out to sea.
This matter of public importance here today is about the failure of the coalition government to deliver for rural and regional Australia. That may be the case—and I do support it—but what have the Labor Party been doing while they were in government, not just in the federal government but also the state? I see in the state of Queensland and as I travel around that towns are dying, shops are empty and services have been forsaken. Those communities are crying out about education, about hospitals being taken out of communities. They don't have birthing wards anymore in these communities, they can't get doctors there—they're only fly-in, fly-out—and they don't have aged-care facilities.
People live in these communities. Governments talk about bringing in refugees and migrants and think they can put them into these communities. That's not going to work; we can't keep our own people there. How on earth can we bring people from a totally different culture and way of life and put them in rural and regional Australia when Australians don't want to stay there? The government has tried to address this whole system at the moment with what is happening with our drought. It is what Australia is all about. Whether it's cyclones, droughts or floods, we will continue to go on in the future. It is about having a vision for Australia and having governments look at how we can best stop this from happening. With the droughts, you put in water infrastructure.
Senator Bernardi got up today and said, 'Why would you want to waste so much money on the Bradfield scheme?' Well, I'd say to Australians out there: at least it would provide much needed water to areas throughout Australia. Why on earth, then, would you want to spend $50 billion-plus building submarines in South Australia that are going to be defunct because they're diesel-electric submarines? By the time we get the last one in 2050, they will be defunct. So why are we spending billions of dollars on submarines when we can put in a Bradfield scheme that will deliver water throughout the eastern states, to his state of South Australia, for the cost of $15 billion? I know which one the Australian people would prefer to put their money into.
I'm pleased this debate is here today, because Labor, a lot of times, forget about the bush. They really don't understand. They don't connect with people in the bush and that's why the people don't vote for them. And if the National Party keeps heading down this pathway, people won't be voting for them either, because they are no longer the people of the bush representing the bush. So I'm pleased that we're here and discussing this, because those communities need all the help they can get.
I also rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I do so because this coalition government is failing to deliver for rural and regional Australian families, that failure is hitting hard in my home state of South Australia—a state which, mind you, does care about our subs jobs, which needs our subs jobs—and it would be nice if senators on the other side could actually show our state some support.
This government has failed South Australians on jobs, failed them on health, failed them on education and failed them on the ABC. And it has failed the most vulnerable regional and rural South Australians the most. Across our country, more than one in eight people are living below the poverty line, but the worst statistics are confined to South Australia, which has the highest rate of poverty in comparison to all other jurisdictions in Australia. Within my state, rural and regional South Australians remain the hardest hit by poverty. If you live outside our capital city of Adelaide, you are twice as likely to be living below the poverty line. But it does not have to be this way.
Underlying these statistics are a series of policy decisions and failures by this coalition government that have made the financial pressure being experienced by families in rural and regional South Australia worse—policy decisions like cutting pensions and cutting family payments; refusing to lift the rate of Newstart; attacking Medicare and the universality of our healthcare system; and taking away penalty rates, payments that ensure working Australians can have a quality standard of living and a liveable wage. These policy choices have made it harder and harder for struggling Australians to make ends meet, and these policy decisions have failed rural and regional South Australians more than any other.
Our towns in South Australia are doing it tough. They're doing it really tough. This is plainly evident in the far-too-high rates of unemployment and underemployment in my state. Labour force figures recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show us that South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 7.3 per cent. While costs are going up, wages aren't, and South Australians are earning less than people in most other states and well below the national average. In regional areas, it is even worse. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in their employment trends snapshot report, which was released in September this year, found that in 2018 the unemployment rate for outer regional areas was 6.8 per cent nationally, compared to 5.2 per cent in major cities. For young Australians in rural and regional Australia aged 15 to 24, the statistics are even worse. The unemployment rate in 2018 for young people was 12.7 per cent in inner regional areas and a staggering 15.8 per cent in outer regional areas. If this is not failing young Australians in rural and regional Australia, I don't know what is.
Unemployment is having an impact on entire communities. Businesses are closing as more and more people find themselves out of work and without any form of discretionary income. If you walk through the centre of Murray Bridge, you will find too many empty shops, left vacant by businesses that just could not stay afloat in the current economic environment. And you will find business owners and employees who are scared. They're terrified of what their future holds in a town that they, rightly, love so much.
Rural and regional South Australians and their families deserve better, yet the Liberals who claim to speak for rural and regional South Australians and who actually have control over the policy levers that can help them are sitting on their hands. Let me give you a tip: the most effective policy option in front of you is to raise the rate of Newstart. Ask the BCA. Ask John Howard. Ask KPMG. Increasing Newstart would not only help people doing it tough but deliver immediate and significant economic stimulus, especially in our rural and regional areas. In rural and regional South Australia, there are 19,633 people on Newstart. Just imagine the stimulus impact in these parts of our state if these Newstart recipients had more money in their pockets, more money that would go directly into their local economy. It would mean less financial and economic pressure on South Australian families and a greater spend in shops and businesses across our regions.
On my recent visits to places like Ceduna and Murray Bridge, I spoke to countless residents and business owners who are crying out for economic stimulus in their towns. They are crying out for investment and they are crying out for more jobs. An increase to Newstart could help deliver this, but this government has no plan for rural and regional South Australia and its local economies. The government clearly has no plan to deal with low wages and rising prices. Boosting Newstart would provide much-needed economic stimulus in our regions. It's not just a social policy issue; it's about growing our economy.
The government keep talking about their plans to boost the economy and the importance of regional Australia, yet there is a policy at their fingertips that offers an immediate and localised economic stimulus and they're refusing to consider it in favour of peddling further stigmatisation and demeaning our welfare recipients. Australians are worried about the economy, but the Liberals are pretending there is no problem. They're ignoring rural and regional Australians, who are pleading for the government to come up with a genuine plan to get our economy moving again. But the Liberals just have an agenda for cuts. Since 2014, this government's funding cuts to TAFE, education and health have hit regional communities the hardest. In each budget, the Prime Minister and his government have said they will spend more on regional infrastructure, but he always spends less than promised.
As they say, when all else fails, form a committee. Scott Morrison has now formed two parliamentary committees on the needs of rural and regional Australia. But where is the plan? Where is the economic stimulus that rural and regional Australia so desperately needs? And, beyond these economic questions, where is the government when it comes to the regional health divide?
On 17 October, Ceduna Hospital was forced to suspend its birthing services until December, due to a temporary shortage of staff. The shortage of staff is across a number of areas, including GPs, obstetricians, midwives and anaesthetists. What are the women of Ceduna meant to do now? And where is the government?
In my first speech in this place, I spoke about my Aunty Lynette, from Port Lincoln, and her horror maternal-health story of 40 years ago, when, because of an inability to cater for a high-needs newborn in a local hospital, Lynette was separated from her child for 17 weeks. The baby was in Adelaide in hospital and Lynette was in Port Lincoln, for 17 long, painful, excruciating weeks.
Now, 40 years later, families in Ceduna will be forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to access basic maternal-health services. How can it be the case that so little has changed for rural and regional South Australian women? It is absolutely not good enough. It's not good enough for women and their families in regional South Australia, and it shouldn't be good enough for this government.
The government's failures for regional and rural South Australians just go on and on. Let's look at their record on education. Public schools in Australia teach two in three of all students and the overwhelming majority of Australia's neediest children. Within public schools, we find 82 per cent of the poorest children, 84 per cent of Indigenous children and 74 per cent of children with disability. But, because of this coalition government's cuts, almost nine in 10 public schools will never get to their fair funding level. In South Australia, the re-election of this government meant that schools in our three largest rural and regional electorates of Barker, Mayo and Grey missed out on a total of $97 million of much-needed funding. Murray Bridge High School alone missed out on $1.89 million, Port Lincoln High School missed out on $1.5 million and Port Pirie West Primary School missed out on $440,000. Just imagine the difference this would have made to these schools.
As if the divide that exists on health, education, jobs and wages for rural and regional Australians wasn't enough, the government cuts the ABC. Rural and regional South Australians rely on the ABC like no others. It is essential for local content, stories and emergency information. This year, the Liberals announced yet another cut of $83 million, by freezing indexation of the ABC's operational funding from 2019-20. As if that also wasn't enough, the Liberals have launched the biggest attack on the independence of the ABC in a generation.
After years of cuts at the hands of this coalition government, and with a further three years of cuts ahead of it, the ABC has now sadly decided to end its 67-year run as the official non-commercial Olympic Games radio broadcaster. Now Australians will miss out on much-loved content that is part of Australia's media, sporting and cultural identity.
South Australia is lucky to have four excellent local ABC Radio services around South Australia to complement the metro service. The local ABC presence in these towns is becoming more and more essential as regional newspapers struggle in the changing media landscape. For the sake of those for whom ABC Radio is their main connection to Australia and the world, the government must ensure stable and adequate funding for our national broadcaster. If the coalition government is indeed genuine in its intention to serve regional Australia, then the solution is straightforward: fund the ABC properly.
On these issues, and on so many others, it is painfully clear that the Liberal government is out of touch with regional and rural South Australians. The people of my state deserve so much better, whether they live in the bush or in a town centre. They all deserve a fair go—a job, a good education, quality healthcare services and a properly funded ABC. Instead, they've got a government that refuses to deliver any of these things. They've got a government that has completely failed rural and regional South Australians.
It's my great pleasure to rise and speak on this MPI, at a time when our nation is facing so many bushfire emergencies. I want to make the point that I regret that we are at odds with each other across the chamber, on a contentious proposal by Labor senators, when our nation is in the grips of a national emergency. After the terrible loss of a number of lives and several hundred homes and buildings, all in regional and rural communities—and we know only too well that rural and regional Australians cop the brunt of so many national disasters—it is regrettable that today's MPI is not about the people in those communities at this time of national emergency. I salute the thousands of people working so hard on the frontline in rural and regional New South Wales and Queensland to fight these fires and to protect communities—our volunteer firefighters, and our other emergency services personnel.
I want to correct some of the comments that Senator M Smith made in her contribution. I believe that one of the reasons Labor did not succeed at the last federal election is the Australian people saw through Labor's mistruths. I want to correct Senator M Smith and make it quite clear to the Australian people that this government has not cut pensions, has not cut family payments and is delivering record amounts of education and health funding. When you carry on making ridiculous claims which are not substantiated by any fact, the Australian people lose faith in politicians. I think that's one of the very major reasons why Australians lost faith in Labor.
In fact, in Labor's own review, released a number of days ago, one of the key issues identified on why Labor did not succeed at the federal election was that it turned its back on so many rural and regional communities. I saw that well and good in my former role as the member for Corangamite. I spent a lot of time mopping up the damage from Labor's failed policies and its failure to invest sufficiently in roads, rail and essential communications infrastructure. When Labor was last in power, it did not provide one single dollar for mobile communications. Its carbon tax had such a major impact on our farmers—on our dairy farmers in particular—as well as our manufacturers. Where I am located in regional Victoria—I am proudly based in Geelong and I am looking after Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and the Mallee, as well as parts of Melbourne's west—we see notorious offenders in the likes of Catherine King, Richard Marles, Libby Coker and Lisa Chesters, and many Labor members in Melbourne's west who have not stood up—
These Labor members Madam Deputy President have not stood up for the needs of Victorians. They have not stood up for the fact that we have a disastrous regional rail link. They did not stand up when Daniel Andrews cancelled the East West Link. They did not stand up for their communities when our government offered Victorian state Labor $4 billion to build the East West Link. I see Senator Keneally in the chamber. When she was Premier of New South Wales, I'm sure not even—
I am certainly not reflecting in any negative way on Senator Keneally other than to say that, in contrast to what she might have done when she was Premier of New South Wales, it is disappointing that the Victorian state Labor government has refused our offer of $4 billion. We now see Victorian state Labor not doing anything to extract conventional gas. We see its reckless policies in Victoria—its banning of logging of native forests in Victoria. And, of course, who could forget, Madam Deputy President, when Labor members last year, in this parliament, voted against our $5 billion Future Drought Fund? That says everything that we need to know about Labor members in this place.
Obviously my list of Labor failures is getting to those on the other side—and the list is longer than what I've been able to produce in this chamber. The list is long. Labor has failed rural and regional Australians. I will continue to speak out on behalf of regional communities. (Time expired)
I actually don't need to say much, because this same statement was put to the Australian people in May, and rural and regional Australians answered resoundingly that they have more faith in the coalition to advance their interests. But I'd like to set the record straight. Never before have we had a government so focused on regional and rural Australia. This was evident back in February, when the Prime Minister travelled to Cloncurry and Julia Creek as soon as possible after the devastating floods, and funds were immediately released for farmers and businesses. Now the same support is being provided for these new challenges facing rural and regional Australia, of drought and now fires.
Those who live in the regions are amongst the most innovative and certainly the best land managers in the world, particularly our graziers and farmers. However, we also know that agriculture is dependent on our seasonal conditions and terms of trade. As a government, we are focused on doing everything we can do to support our farming and grazing communities by building resilience and providing opportunity in our agricultural sectors. Approximately 70 per cent of our agricultural production is exported. The increase in research and productivity is something to be celebrated. I look forward to the introduction of the dairy code of conduct, which, like the sugar code of conduct, will provide our agricultural industries with certainty.
We are benefiting from agreements with Japan, China, South Korea, Peru, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Pacific Island nations. We're working to deliver a new agreement with the EU and, together with the UK, are committed to negotiating an Australia-UK FTA as soon as the UK is in a position to do so. Manbulloo, Australia's largest single exporter of mangoes, with farms in Townsville and Katherine, have seen huge growth since the Korea and China FTAs. Scott Koetsier has said that, since the launch of the KAFTA, they've gone from exporting 10 tonnes to over 100 tonnes of mangoes to Korea. This is just one example of the great things the coalition is doing supporting small businesses in rural and regional Australia.
Through the coalition government's 2015 agriculture white paper, we have a long-term $4 billion plan that helps farmers with farm business concessional loans, stronger biosecurity, control of pest animals and weeds and new investment in R&D. To support Australian farmers with labour shortages, we're making the working holiday-maker visas and the Seasonal Worker Program more flexible.
Here's the big one: the Liberals and Nationals government has committed over $6.3 billion for drought relief and recovery. This is on top of the Future Drought Fund to improve drought resilience in regional areas. We have the Northern Australia Beef Roads and Roads of Strategic Importance programs, which have set aside nearly $5 billion to ensure regional and rural Australia have reliable and safe roads. Our Mobile Black Spot Program is delivering 1,047 new mobile phone towers and coverage to almost 40,000 more homes and businesses. Our $550 million Stronger Rural Health Strategy is delivering 3,000 additional doctors and more than 3,000 additional nurses and allied health professionals in rural general practice over the next decade. Rural generalist training funding was committed to during the election. We've established grants for agricultural shows to invest in new infrastructure so they can keep bringing joy to their communities.
Then we get to that four-letter word that makes the Labor Party desperately search for the nearest exit: dams. We've got $2 billion in loans available for those who want to build water infrastructure. Recently we announced $1 billion to upgrade Wyangala Dam and build the new Dungowan Dam in New South Wales. In Queensland we've got the Hells Gate Dam, the Big Rocks Weir, the Hughenden Irrigation Project, the Emu Swamp Dam, Uralla, Nullinga, Nagoya, MITEZ and Forsyth. In total the federal government has now committed about $1.5 billion for 21 water projects across Australia. This desire to help regional and rural Australia is also apparent at the state level in Queensland, where the LNP has unveiled a progressive plan to irrigate the dry interior after decades of shameful inaction by Labor for regional residents and farmers. The coalition's new $525 million Skills Package will deliver up to 80,000 new apprentices over five years in priority areas of skills shortage, unlike Labor in Queensland, who have closed down the Emerald and Longreach agricultural colleges.
More broadly we're looking at our vocational education system. It needs an upgrade to ensure that it remains world-class, modern and flexible. Small businesses are the engine room of our economy. The coalition is helping small businesses invest and grow through increasing and expanding the instant asset write-off, which now covers assets up to $30,000 for a business with a turnover of up to $50 million. We are a vast country and are dependent on air travel. Regional connectivity is important, and the coalition has announced a further $28 million over four years to fund works designed to improve the safety and capacity of remote airstrips. I would like to thank Senator Gallagher for giving me the opportunity to explain how much the coalition is doing. (Time expired)
I, too, thank Senator Gallagher for this opportunity to speak on this timely matter of public importance relating to the coalition's government's support for regional and rural Australia. One thing is extremely clear: the coalition government backs regional Australia. We don't just want our regions to succeed; we want them to thrive. Just like my beloved Collingwood Magpies, we as coalition senators stand side by side with our farmers and small businesses in regional Australia. In my home state of Victoria we have around 21,200 farm businesses employing 77,000 people. Luckily, Victoria, this time around, is not as affected by drought as some states are. The devastation we're seeing in regional and rural New South Wales and Queensland is indeed tragic, and our thoughts are with those affected farmers and communities. Therefore, I note with pride that last week we, the coalition government, announced an additional $709 million towards our drought relief package. This will support farmers affected by drought and will see money flow right through the economy.
The coalition government's strategy is focused on three themes. Firstly, there is immediate action for those in drought. To date, we've helped over 12,700 farming families, with up to $100,000 for each family, paid over four years. It is important to note that this is not a loan, as it does not have to be paid back. However, additionally we are making new and existing drought loans for farmers interest-free for two years. These loans of up to $2 million will mean farmers can continue to purchase fodder, pay for freight and pay their farmhands. This will save farmers who refinance thousands of dollars and will help them get back on their feet when the drought breaks. The second prong of our strategy focuses on support for the wider communities affected by drought. The coalition government have committed an additional $1 million for each of the 122 drought affected councils and shires if they need it. Nationally, another $378 million will go into drought-affected community projects and an extra $138.9 million will go into our Roads to Recovery initiative. The third prong of our strategy addresses long-term resilience and preparedness. One initiative is the 100 gigalitres of water from South Australia that will be used to produce up to 120,000 tonnes of fodder such as silage and pasture. This will be a very big help to farmers in securing supplies.
So many communities across regional Australia have been doing it tough through this drought, and this package will help everyone get through it. It helps to protect jobs and the economy so that, when the drought breaks, we will bounce back even faster. This is one of the most important issues for all levels of government right now. We will continue to respond in practical and pragmatic ways for as long as it takes. Let me be clear: the coalition government is certainly not failing regional and rural Australia. We proudly stand by our strong policies and meaningful actions.