Senate debates

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Ministerial Statements


4:37 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This year's budget is a budget for the bush. It follows on from the regional budget of last year to cement our government's commitment to rural and regional Australia. Despite the challenges of the past few years in the regions, with drought, flood, fire and now a mouse plague, our regional industries have carried this nation through the COVID pandemic, and that is why our regional investment is the right thing to do for the nation and for our ongoing economic recovery. The pandemic has changed the way we view our regions. With 43,000 Australians opting to make the move from the city to the regions, it is vital that we as a government invest in the infrastructure and services needed to ensure our regions remain the best places in the world to live. From my perspective, regional New South Wales is certainly the best place to live, but it will be even better, thanks to the commitment of the Nationals in this government to continue to deliver services over the great divide.

For the first time ever this is a health budget specifically focused on the almost eight million Australians who live and work in the regions. All Australians, regardless of where they live, should have access to high-quality health care, and that is what we as a government are delivering. To do this we know that we must attract, train and retain doctors in the bush. That is why we are investing for the long term. This year we saw the first intake into the Murray-Darling medical schools, with three of the five campuses located in New South Wales and the campuses in Wagga Wagga and Orange accepting students from February this year. As well as piloting new workforce programs in New South Wales to better support our young doctors, including working with the Murrumbidgee Local Health District, our government is developing a streamlined program to support the National Rural Generalist Pathway and complementing that with training for early-career allied health professionals through an expanded allied health rural generalist pathway. But we know we also need an immediate measure to help our existing regional doctors, and that is why we are providing a new, progressive bulk-billing schedule to better acknowledge the remoteness under the Medicare Benefits Schedule. We understand doctors face greater health complexities and challenges in regional and remote areas, and that is why more than 12,000 GPs across the nation will be eligible for this higher bulk-billing incentive, but only GPs based in regional areas.

We are also looking after those who've looked after us. Rural, regional and remote communities will see improvements to residential aged-care funding models, an expansion of home-care packages, direct funding for infrastructure upgrades and greater support for our aged-care workforce. We are also acutely aware of the need to look after our mental as well as our physical health: $2.3 billion is being invested into mental health and suicide prevention, the largest investment in Australia's history. That includes a new national network of 57 additional mental health treatment centres and satellites as well as expansion of the very successful headspace program, and this will all bolster services for young and old in the bush.

The Nationals have always advocated for better communications in regional areas. We fought for and implemented the Mobile Black Spot Program, which in New South Wales has now seen 284 mobile towers delivered. We've also developed and we are delivering the Regional Connectivity Program, which enables communities to identify the right local solution for better online digital access. Already in New South Wales 15 projects have been funded, including mobile voice and data coverage, fixed wireless, and fibre broadband services. This includes projects like the Murrumbateman fixed wireless network and the connecting the outback project in Boggabri.

Importantly, this budget provides business and personal tax relief. The instant asset write-off has been a boon for small business and farmers across the nation. I personally know of farm machinery suppliers who are struggling to keep up with demand because of the success of this program, so we're extending it. Further to this, over three million low- and middle-income earners in New South Wales alone will receive tax relief of up to about $1,080 over the financial year, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the increased excise rebate for small distilleries and independent brewers. In New South Wales there are 87-plus small distilleries who will benefit from the increase from $100,000 to $350,000 for this rebate, which brings them in line with our very successful wine industry. When this move was announced, it was within hours that I got my first letter from a small distiller saying they are now going to advertise for more staff and reinvest, because with distilleries and breweries, like wineries, a dollar invested in their business is multiple dollars invested in their communities as they boost regional tourism and the hospitality sector as well.

As ever, the Nationals are committed to our regional infrastructure. Roads, rail and freight keep our people moving. We know local roads are just as important as our major highways and corridors. That is why we are investing $278.5 million more in the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program rolled out by local governments and $270 million in New South Wales alone for road safety projects. We are finally investing in the Great Western Highway to improve the flow of traffic over the Great Dividing Range from Katoomba to Lithgow. Our commitment to Inland Rail is ongoing, and we are increasing commitment to the Building Better Regions Fund, providing a sixth round. This fund has already seen 249 projects in New South Wales alone—projects like the Orange City Council central business district revitalisation or the Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens visitor centre.

And jobs; we are always committed to jobs. This budget increases our JobTrainer package to see ongoing investment into the future workforce that we need to support our industries. Working with the states, we're providing free or low-fee access to courses for in-demand industries like agriculture, manufacturing and construction—industries so important to our regional economies. We've also extended the apprenticeship wage subsidy measure, which has been so successful at enabling employers to take on and train new staff—new staff, new skilled work men and women who will then go on to service our towns and our industries.

I could not be more proud of this budget. I could not be more proud of the team I work with to ensure that this budget is focused not just on where our major population centres are but on where our economy is driven from. It is our regional economy, the resources sector, the agricultural sector, that has kept us ticking over for the last few years, and particularly during this pandemic. So I congratulate the government and I congratulate my colleagues. I commend this budget and our regional budget statement to the chamber.

4:47 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As leader of the National Party in the Senate, I too want to speak to the tabling of the ministerial regional budget statement, Supporting regional recovery and growth, a specific set of plans, commitments and strategies to really prioritise rural and regional Australia as we enter COVID-19 recovery.

As we in the National Party know—we live, we work, we raise our families out there in the regions—it's been tough. We've had drought in Senator McDonald's patch for upwards of seven years. Thanks to some great rains in the New Year, there were a lot of smiling faces at Beef Week in Rockhampton last week. We also were hit by bushfires over the summer 18 months ago. Recovery is tough when overnight you lose everything that you and your family had worked for. Obviously COVID-19 has had a significant impact on rural and regional Australia. We've struggled to find a workforce, with international borders closed. Sadly, as many premiers slammed close state and domestic borders due to COVID-19, we saw rural and regional communities in those border towns severely impacted.

With the budget of 2021, I'm very proud to be part of a coalition government that backs in the resourcefulness, the resilience, the strength and the opportunity of rural and regional communities. We're getting on with it out there. This budget supports jobs and drives growth. It's going to help rebuild the national economy, which you do in a country like Australia by focusing on manufacturing, by focusing on ensuring our resources sector is strong and by focusing on agriculture. This budget has some great measures for all three of those areas.

You also do it through an infrastructure commitment that doesn't focus just on roads, rail and bridges. These are incredibly important to get product and people moving along the highways and byways of regional communities to the ports in capital cities and export markets around the globe. But it is also digital connectivity, digital infrastructure, that's going to be incredibly important going forward, not just so we can educate our kids, do our banking or participate in social connection but so we can access health care and drive productivity growth in our businesses and on farms. There are some fantastic, innovative initiatives occurring in this space which I'm very excited to see going forward. Other National Party senators tonight will be participating in this contribution by highlighting how our government has delivered for each and every state and for communities right around our country, and I know they're as happy as I am that we can get this going.

The biosecurity announcement, championed by David Littleproud, is fundamental to our ongoing success as an agricultural trading nation. We have a brand globally that people trust because when they buy our clean, green produce it is pest and disease free. Because it comes from Australia, they can trust that that is the case. But as trade and the movement of people across the globe increases so too does the risk. Our reputation as a global exporter of great agricultural products could be tarnished through lax biosecurity, so I'm stoked to see that there is to be $400 million invested in biosecurity measures to safeguard our farmers from pest and diseases.

We've got $87 million on the table to diversify our markets. That is particularly important in light of the recent trade tensions between Australia and China—noting that tariffs have recently left local producers of wine, seafood, cotton, barley and beef out in the cold. And it's working. This money puts agricultural counsellors in our embassies to help connect producers to potential opportunities in new and emerging markets. It's very, very important to have a people-to-people, networked relationship that can build trust. North-east Victorian wine growers have told me they've spent years building markets in China only to have orders cancelled, so this is very welcome news.

We've got money for the Future Drought Fund, and I want to touch, Madam Acting Deputy President, on water. I'm from the great state of Victoria. We have significant primary producers within the Murray-Darling Basin system and we have significant population centres within that system. We say no to the 450-gigalitre buyback, and the budget backs this with $1.3 billion to recover water for the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin whilst maintaining water for irrigated agriculture. We're also providing a further $22.3 million to help develop business cases for eight water infrastructure projects, to help secure our water future. Out in the regions we know that, if you add water to our can-do, Australian farmers will go from strength to strength in producing world class food and fibre. There are two projects based in my home state: the Coliban Regional Rural Modernisation project and the Sunbury-Bulla-Keilor Agricultural Rejuvenation project.

Jobs are a huge focus in this budget. We've heard farmers calling out for fruit pickers because worker and skill shortages have had serious ramifications for their production and bottom line. Our budget's AgMove initiative will help with relocation assistance to get workers into jobs on farms. We've seen a massive shift in Australia during COVID. Australians have been realigning their values, having a rethink about the type of life they want to live. Do they want to be stuck in a two-bedroom apartment in Southbank? No. It's not much of a life if Daniel Andrews is going to lock you down every second for weeks and months on end. Rather, they're voting with their feet. Twenty-six thousand Melburnians have moved out. We're hoping they don't all go to the Sunshine Coast. We hope that they come out to our regional capitals and live and raise a family there with the increased digital connectivity that our government has provided over the last eight years and will continue to develop and grow. They will be able to participate in global economies and stay connected with jobs across the world whilst having a unique liveability that only living in the regions can provide.

The budget is also backing our youth with an apprenticeship and skills plan that wants to see not only young people in particular but all Australians move into the jobs of the future. It's not enough just saying 'job available'; you've got to match the skill set, the know-how and the education offering for Australians to take advantage of those opportunities. We also want sophisticated advanced manufacturing out in the regions as we turn that beautiful primary product into a highly value-added advanced manufacturing food or fibre product. I'm super excited with what we're already doing out there but making sure we have a highly skilled workforce to meet that demand is something that this budget addresses. We also address the resource opportunities out there. We want to make sure that the energy and gas-powered opportunities that will drive additional manufacturing opportunities through the regions are also supported by this budget.

I'm particularly excited about the values underpinning this budget. That is about personal income tax and business incentives that help businesses invest back into themselves so they can employ more Australians. We know out in rural and regional Australia that has been a super successful program that we extend in this budget.

Rural and regional Australia drive our national economy. Our government absolutely backs the regions in to not just recover from COVID-19, bushfires and droughts but, with this budget, build them back better. I'm super excited to be part of a government that's absolutely committed to growth and development in rural and regional Australia.

4:57 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm incredibly pleased to speak today on the budget, focusing particularly on the regional Australia element. This would have to be a period of enormous opportunity and growth for the regions in Australia. Despite the incredible impacts of COVID-19, it has been the regions that have continued to power this country. I particularly think of all the workforce in mining camps and agricultural parts of the country who had to go through that initial lockdown period. Those workers had to make the decision to move to a state or a part of the country, sometimes leaving their families behind for a very long period of time, while they dug in and committed to ensuring that Australia continued staying at work, continued mining, continued agriculture, and continued feeding this country. That of course also includes the truck drivers of this nation, the supply chains of this country, that just kept on keeping on despite the challenges of border crossings, of COVID tests and of being away from home. We know that our truck drivers have all the challenges across the land with not enough amenities, and that is something that I know the state governments and territories will be focused on.

Regional Australia, though, is made up of not only industries but also, most importantly, communities and people. So, whilst I'm particularly excited about the $10 billion worth of infrastructure development commitment to regional Australia, I want to touch on a couple of them, like the $400 million for the inland freight route from Mungindi to Charters Towers. This is incredibly important for our truck and transport operators, who are having to deal with roads that have not been maintained sufficiently by that state government. This will give them a safer and smoother passage to transport animals, goods and, sometimes, people.

Money—$240 million—has also been made available for the Cairns Western Arterial Road duplication. Again, this is an important part of allowing our northern Queensland communities to develop. The instant asset write-off—touched on so many times over the last few months—has been an incredible boon to agricultural, mining and other businesses, allowing them to reinvest in capital that improves their businesses and to establish themselves for years to come. That is incredibly important. This budget is not just about money that will be used in the short term; it is about establishing the regions for a generation to come. The telehealth program, which leapt forward by maybe as much as 10 years, allows Australians, particularly in regional Australia, to contact their doctors and to have consultations without leaving their homes. Remember, in regional Australia a doctor might be hours away.

This budget has particularly reinvested in the northern Australia agenda. The northern Australia reinsurance pool—$10 billion over 10 years—will ensure that people who've bought into units, families in homes, people in businesses, can continue to access capital in the north. Of course you cannot do this without insurance, and certainly the insurance market in northern Queensland had failed.

I want to touch on some of those community elements that I mentioned earlier, like the idea of committing to preschool places for Australian children. We know that the education of three- and four-year-olds has a significant and long-lasting benefit on their later educational outcomes. The increase of the child-care subsidy, in part, will affect around 250,000 families. The preschool places will apply to children who live right across this country. We know we have about 1,500 children being educated by distance education because of their geographical isolation. How terrific that that will extend to them!

I want to correct an earlier statement. I believe I said $10 billion; it's $110 billion of rolling infrastructure program over the next 10 years. This is a huge amount of money. It is very significant for developing the part of the country where we grow the food and fibre, we mine the resources and we raise our families. It is a terrific part of the world to be in.

The Northern Australia Beef Roads Program is also a terrific program. Mayors right across the state have called for it, but there's been no greater advocate than the mayor of the Blackall-Tambo shire, Andrew Martin. All the shires between there and Rockhampton have been calling for additional funds. This budget has committed another $100 million towards the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program. We know that improving roads improves safety for truck drivers and it also improves animal welfare outcomes for beef cattle. It means that cattle are transported in a way that has less impact on them and they lose less weight—a terrific outcome for everybody involved.

Water projects have already been touched on by Senator McKenzie. I'll touch on those in the great state of Queensland and particularly the Big Rocks Weir at Charters Towers where $30 million has been committed by the federal government. We are now just waiting for the Queensland government to discover where Charters Towers is so that they too can support the town water supply that this Big Rocks Weir will address. Money has also been made available to Geoscience Australia for the Great Artesian Basin water balance model. How important is this! We'll finally get more accurate information on the water that is available from our terrific water resource in the Great Artesian Basin and understand the recharges and the aquifers that surround it. There's $24 million for the Hells Gate Dam, in addition to the Big Rocks Weir. The Hughenden irrigation scheme business case has $10 million. There is $11 million for that terrific project, the Mareeba-Dimbulah Water Supply Scheme efficiency improvement. And, of course, there's $3 million for the Upper Burdekin feasibility study.

I could go on and on and on about all the terrific announcements in this budget and in recent months, but I specifically want to finish on the amazing support for regional aviation in this country. With the shutdowns that we experienced at the beginning of the COVID crisis last year, we discovered just how much is carried by our regional airlines. It's not just people; it's also freight, medicine, specialists flying to places like Mount Isa to provide cancer treatments. These are all critical areas that are supported by the airline industry. It was immediately apparent to the minister for transport, and he developed the Domestic Aviation Network Support scheme, commonly known as DANS, and the Regional Airline Network Support scheme, RANS. This has been supported by the Remote Airstrip Upgrade Program, with $8.2 million in funding, which is improving emergency landing strips across the north. Of course, there is the Regional Airports Program.

Something that has been little discussed is the Women in the Aviation Industry Initiative. Currently, women in aviation make up only about four per cent of pilots, and even less, as you'd imagine, of the engineers and maintenance crew. So this $4 million of funding assistance will allow support for women to have opportunities to get into the aviation sector—a terrific sector, an incredibly important one in a nation as great and as large as ours. I reflect on the founders of Qantas Airways, who talked about the tyranny of distance and how aviation can solve some of those problems for regional Australia. That is another important element of this incredibly regionally focused budget—something that I'm very proud of and that I know will establish regional Australia for another generation to come.

5:07 pm

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to welcome and commend the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development on rural and regional budget outcomes. This is a good budget for the Northern Territory—a great budget for the Northern Territory. But, let's face it: every federal budget is great for the Northern Territory because, without it, we would flounder and we would not be able to provide the great services that we need to provide to Territorians. Years of economic mismanagement by successive Labor governments have left us broke. So, unfortunately at the moment, we rely almost solely on the federal government for infrastructure and for running many of our vital programs, such as health, education and remote policing.

Despite the inability of some senators opposite to either understand or appreciate the positive commitments by the coalition government to the Northern Territory's economic future, the 2021-22 budget has a huge amount in it for Territorians. The only road to nowhere is the one between the ears of some senators opposite, because within this budget is a long list of infrastructure expenditure which is already underway, and the biggest obstacle to the rollout of these commitments is the inability of their political mates—the Gunner Labor government—to keep up with the funding we provide. If the Northern Territory government could in fact keep up, if it had the capacity to deliver with the current funding available, then the coalition government could make money available for projects that are vital for Territorians, such as improved roads and other vital infrastructure that allows us to travel around our 1.4 million square kilometres. But the Northern Territory government doesn't have the capacity. They don't have the capacity and they don't have the competency to deliver many of these projects. In fact, they are going to add an additional 44 public servants to the 21,000 Territory public servants just so they can try and keep up with the amount of projects being funded by the federal government.

If we look at infrastructure spending, the federal budget has allocated more than $323 million for road infrastructure in the Northern Territory. This includes $150 million for the NT national network highway upgrades, which will result in safer travel and reduced travel times and boost employment across the Northern Territory, building on the $46 million provided earlier for priority sections of the Stuart, Victoria and Barkly highways. There is more than $173 million for gas roads around the Beetaloo Basin to support the gas industry—but not only the gas industry, because these roads are also used by pastoralists, used by people for remote Indigenous communities and used by people providing services to those cattle stations and remote communities. There is more than $4.3 million for the Alice Springs to Darwin corridor.

Then, if we look at Our North, Our Future, there's $189.6 million in the 2021-26 package which supports the government's JobMaker plan and the Modern Manufacturing Strategy, which is something that we in the Nationals are very passionate about. This will also support the gas-fired recovery program and the Ag2030 agenda to boost Australia's agricultural production.

New measures for northern Australia include piloting of a regions-of-growth approach worth $9.3 million over five years. The regions-of-growth pilot program will provide specialists to help connect businesses to economic opportunities in areas such as advanced manufacturing, critical minerals development or in agriculture. A northern Australia development program worth $111.9 million over five years will help businesses scale up and diversify and build resilience through the northern Australian development co-investment grants program.

If we look at regional connectivity—so important to us in the north—the government has provided $130.4 million to improve connectivity in rural, regional and remote communities, further driving Australia's regionally-led recovery from the COVID-19 impact. The pandemic has shown many Australians the value of regions like the Northern Territory, both as economic powerhouses and as desirable destinations to live, work and raise a family. This government recognises that regional communities need improvements to their connectivity in order to take advantage of this so-called 'regional migration' of people moving out of the cities and into the regions. And we in the Northern Territory certainly welcome the people that have chosen to make the Northern Territory somewhere where they live and work throughout this pandemic.

We also welcome schemes such as the reinsurance pool, a $10 billion government guarantee to make insurance affordable and accessible for those who live in areas that are plagued by floods and cyclones. This pool is going to reduce insurance premiums across northern Australia by over $1.5 billion. This will go to households, strata title and small businesses over 10 years—again, vital in the Northern Territory, where we're subject regularly to both cyclones and floods.

If we look at a summary of the infrastructure spend in the Northern Territory, bearing in mind that the Northern Territory has one per cent of Australia's population, in the current budget year for infrastructure we have a 2.5 per cent share of the budget; in the forward estimates we have a 2.1 per cent share; of the 10-year pipeline we have a 2.3 per cent share; and over the last 10 years we have had a 2.2 per cent share. So, in every single aspect of that infrastructure spend, we are getting well and truly double what we should be entitled to compared to our population and the national average. This shows this government's commitment to the people of the Northern Territory and to the people of rural and regional Australia.

I will just say to those who seek to be critical of this budget: from a Northern Territory perspective, this budget has been endorsed and in fact praised by our Chief Minister, Michael Gunner; the employment minister, Paul Kirby; the Leader of the Opposition, Lia Finocchiaro; and major industry groups such as Group Training Northern Territory, Master Builders Northern Territory and the Chamber of Commerce Northern Territory. Hospitality and tourism have endorsed this budget and very much welcomed the announcement on student visas. Whilst we look forward to jobs creation, one of the issues that we have at the moment in the Northern Territory, particularly in the agriculture, tourism and hospitality industries, is actually getting people to work in these industries. So we very much welcome the announcement of an increase to the number of hours able to be worked by our international students, to allow these students to fill gaps for tourism and hospitality. And we obviously have our schemes for the agriculture sector as well, to attract Australians to come and work in agriculture in the Northern Territory. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.