Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Matters of Public Importance


4:30 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 29 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Hughes:

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 Albanese Labor Government to guarantee maintaining the Australia Government's critical and job creating infrastructure investment to secure the future prosperity and sustainability for regional and rural 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 discussion. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:31 pm

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

Mr Acting Deputy President, $21 billion in federal budget funding was dedicated for regional Australia, and it is now under serious threat from Labor's budget cuts. Prior to the election, the Nationals secured this $21 billion in new funding for community facilities, health care, water infrastructure, roads and highways, and education and training, securing tens of thousands of regional jobs. But now, when Labor needs to pay for its excessive promises, the first place they look is to the regions to rip money out under the guise of saying it is wasteful spending. The regions are not wasteful.

We have seen this playbook before, with Prime Minister Albanese having already developed a proven formula for cutting funding from regional Australia. The first thing they do is claim the coalition is rorting projects to favour regional communities. Well, regional funding should go to regional communities. Then they introduce Labor's own program to pay for their pre-election pork-barrelling of key marginal Labor seats while claiming new rules will be introduced. And then, when they have been in government for a year or two, they ignore the rules altogether.

In fact, when he was infrastructure minister in the Rudd government, Mr Albanese cut funding to vital projects in communities in coalition held seats, claiming the funding was nothing but pork-barrelling. He then replaced the program with a Labor program called the Better Regions program, which saw 90 per cent of its regional funding spent on Labor seats. Fast forward to 2010 and a damning ANAO report found that then infrastructure minister Albanese had failed his own guidelines in dishing out $550 million via the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program. As was reported at the time, the ANAO found that projects in coalition held seats were twice as likely to miss out on funding. Only 18 per cent of applications for funding in coalition held seats were approved, compared to 42 per cent of applications for funding in ALP held electorates. In safe coalition seats, that rate was just over 10 per cent.

At the time, Tom Dusevic, the national chief reporter for The Australian, wrote:

Anthony Albanese has the gap-toothed charm of a shire president, a hands-on approach and a God-given talent for reading an electoral map.

The Auditor-General's report on the $550 million strategic projects part of the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, released yesterday, provides overwhelming proof that Labor has lost its virginity, and so has "Albo", in the time-honoured art of pork-barrelling.

But when the coalition made sure regional funding goes to regional areas, we were accused of pork-barrelling—but we say it's delivering.

By 2012 the Auditor-General was reporting details of over 33 cases over a two-year period in which Labor ministers, including the now Prime Minister, violated their own anti-pork-barrelling rules. Mr Albanese, when he was transport minister, approved three Roads to Recovery grants in his own inner-city electorate of Grayndler without notifying the finance minister as was required. The then environment minister, Tony Burke, failed to report an almost $500,000 Landcare grant in his inner-Sydney electorate of Watson. We've heard from those opposite time and time again that they are pure. Yet, as the Financial Review reported earlier this year, Labor was facing accusations of hypocrisy after making an estimated $750 million in grant promises to their marginal seats, despite years of attacking the coalition for doing so. I call on this government to ensure that the $21 billion in regional funding goes to the regions.

4:36 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

It is such a pleasure to be standing here today talking about the failure of the Albanese Labor government to guarantee maintaining the government's critical job-creating infrastructure investment to secure the future prosperity and sustainability of regional and rural Australia. For me, coming from the beautiful state of Tasmania, this is a cause that is very close to my heart. Over the last decade or so we have seen great improvements in the outcomes for Tasmanians due to the strong work of the previous federal coalition government and the state Tasmanian Liberal government.

We know that over the last few months, during the election campaign, the Albanese Labor government made many promises to Tasmanians as to what would be delivered, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing whether or not those commitments are maintained, because we know that many election commitments are currently under review. The government has made quite a big deal of, on one hand, spending the months in the lead-up to the election talking to local stakeholders, making commitments about projects that would be funded, and then as soon as the election was won and done for them, saying, 'Well, all of our commitments are under review; all of our commitments will be reconsidered as part of the budget process.' I think it is only fair that many Tasmanians and many Australians are asking the very genuine question of whether or not the Albanese Labor government is going to maintain those commitments to regional and rural Tasmania and regional and rural Australia into the future.

4:39 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Chandler for her contribution to this MPI debate, because it enables me to follow on and remind Senator Chandler and the chamber of exactly what the environment was that we entered into during the election campaign. We had a government led by Mr Morrison which was riven with waste, rorts and lost opportunities. This was the environment that led to the election campaign. On 21 March people responded by electing an Albanese Labor government and rejecting the rorts of the Liberal-National coalition. That's exactly what happened. It really is galling that you come in here with an MPI without any attempt to acknowledge what was actually happening in the region. In July—

Senator McKenzie, who's normally very polite, abides by the standing orders and sits politely, is really fired up now. She doesn't like to be reminded of how they shafted rural and regional Australia. That's exactly—

You can argue all you like, but I want to go back—not too far back, because this is a new government. This new government is in the lead-up to the very first Albanese Labor budget in October. I'm immensely looking forward to it delivering on our election commitment.

Senator McKenzie and other senators in this chamber would probably know that 28 July of this year was the day the Australian National Audit Office issued a scathing report into the coalition's management of the $1.15 billion Building Better Regions Fund. It was a scathing report. I want to take this opportunity because obviously, on the presentation of this MPI, the coalition have either forgotten their period in government or are trying to whitewash history. But it's not going to wash out in the community—not out in the regions; not out in rural Australia—because they remember the rorts, the waste and the lost opportunity. There was no strategy for these regions, just pork-barrelling, and that is not delivering—

I cannot believe Senator McKenzie believes that throwing in a bit of pork every three years makes up for not having an actual strategy for regional and rural Australia. This is what they're putting forward now. Seriously! They might not want to be reminded, but these are the actual facts. I know facts are not something that rate highly on the other side, but I'm going to remind people of a media release that the now Minister Catherine King put out when the ANAO report was released on 28 July 2022 about the Building Better Regions Fund.

I'm going to have to take back my remarks about Senator McKenzie normally being well-behaved, because she has proven me wrong. It's a terrible day.

This is what I want to remind the coalition, the chamber and, of course, those who are listening in to this debate: over five rounds of the program, 65 per cent of the infrastructure grants went to projects that were not assessed as having the most merit—65 per cent! Former coalition ministers made decisions on the basis of 'choose your own adventure' criteria that weren't fully explained to those applying for grants. They did not keep proper records of decisions. It's unheard of—seriously! The Audit Office also found that seats held by the Nationals benefited most from the decisions to ignore the merit list, which I find highly interesting, given, of course—

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

So how did regional Tasmania get anything?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, you had a Nationals senator that loaded up his pork and went roaming around. That's what happened. We are talking about grants without merits—those that they ordered. Not me. This is not—

O pposition senators interjecting

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Excuse me, please, Senator Brown. I'm getting sick of saying this. I am very lenient, but, when there are three of you who don't actually whisper, it starts becoming annoying. I ask that Senator Brown be heard in silence.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. As I was going to remind the senators here and listening to the debate: it's not what I'm saying. That's not what the Labor Party is saying. The Audit Office found that seats held by the Nationals benefited most from the decision to ignore the merit list. It's the Audit Office that's saying this. It's not me. It's not the Labor Party. It's not the government. I'm here reminding you of this as you attempt this whitewash of an MPI that you're putting up here today.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and assure the Senate that this government is committed to developing Australia's regions. Unlike those opposite, the government is also committed to transparency and integrity when it comes to spending public funds. As I've already indicated, you don't have to go any further than the Auditor-General's report from 28 July of this year on the Building Better Regions Fund. My concern—particularly as the National Party talk about being those representing the bush—has always been that all they do is bring out the pork once every three years, and there's no real strategy or vision at all for the regions or the bush. No matter how often they try to rewrite history, it's not going to wash in this chamber because everyone knows exactly what was happening. Everyone knows.

On 21 May this year, people had had enough of it. What we do know and what we've seen is that decisions were ignored. We had the famous ministerial panel that made the final funding decisions, which obviously relied solely on those mysterious 'other factors' when making decisions. It was a disgrace. It is a disgrace. Shoddy processes like this can only mislead our regional communities and the hardworking volunteers who apply for funding.

That is why this government has been, and will be, reviewing all programs and commitments made by the previous government. We've said that before, and that is what we will be doing. All of our regional communities deserve better when it comes to infrastructure, but that infrastructure must meet local community needs and be delivered in a sustainable way. That is why all funding decisions made by this government will be transparent and will take into consideration the needs of regional communities.

4:49 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I speak to Senator Hughes's matter of public importance on the need for infrastructure in rural and regional Australia. I welcome this discussion and agree that rural infrastructure is a pressing need. So I ask: what the hell did Senator Hughes's party do about infrastructure over the last 10 years? I'll save the public looking it up—nothing. In fact, the last 10 years have been counterproductive. Inland Rail has been so poorly handled that only a few kilometres of track have been built. The Liberals and Nationals insisted on bringing Inland Rail into the city of Brisbane instead of the regional centre of the Port of Gladstone—a much more logical destination. In the process, Inland Rail will traverse the Condamine floodplain. In the recent rains, Millmerran would have been flooded as a result of the Inland Rail embankment, damming the floodplain. Recent rains have issued their warning, and the Albanese government must change the route of Inland Rail, sending it north to Gladstone. How many major dams did the Morrison government build? None. The NBN rollout was a disaster and many locations across rural Australia have an internet connection that can only be described as a joke.

So I agree: now is the time to get going on infrastructure. Growing our economy and putting the excess liquidity introduced during reckless COVID mismanagement to good use in building productive infrastructure is a solution to inflation. Productive capacity will restore our economy to an even keel and guarantee our economic and national security moving forward. It will increase our country's productive capacity.

One Nation are committed to rebuilding this country, literally. I have already succeeded in bringing Project Iron Boomerang before the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for a significant inquiry. Project Iron Boomerang is an exciting and visionary project that consists of a 3,300-kilometre railway and multipurpose easement across the Top End. The route does not pass through any national parks and can be privately funded, such is the interest overseas and in Australia in the project. The name comes from how the railway will be used—bringing Western Australian iron ore across to Queensland's coal, where steel parks will turn those into quality Australian steel for domestic and export markets. Trains will then return, carrying Queensland coal to steel parks in Western Australia, producing more steel for export—boomerang!

The rail line will open up rare earth deposits that are currently stranded assets without the power to mine and the transport to bring to market. Rare earths are key ingredients in wind turbines, battery storage and most modern electronics, including phones and computers. Australia must take its place in producing these minerals using well-paid workers, not the child and slave labour currently featuring strongly in world supply chains. World steel demand is expected to increase at two to three per cent growth over the next 30 years as the emerging economies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh replace falling demand from the USA and Europe.

Project Iron Boomerang will reduce long supply chains on iron ore and coal exports with much shorter supply chains. Iron Boomerang will use electric gas-powered locomotives. Large ore-carrying ships burn 10,000 litres of oil per hour. For those pushing 2050 net zero economic insanity, the reduction in taking ships off the water will be significant in cutting carbon dioxide from human activity.

Every tonne of steel made in Australia will take the world closer to the UN's unfounded 2050 net zero target that Labor, the Greens and the Liberals and Nationals slavishly adopt. And there will be a lot of high-quality steel. East West Line Parks have received formal expressions of interest from some of the world's largest steel manufacturers to locate steel mills in the vicinity of Murrumba, in Queensland, and the Pilbara of Western Australia. Ten steel mills are anticipated, producing 88,000 tons of high-quality steel and creating 40,000 breadwinner jobs for Australians. If that sounds optimistic, understand the world steel market is currently worth US$1.3 trillion. Australia has just six per cent of that. Iron Boomerang will make Australian steel cheaper than that of market leader China, and higher quality.

The attraction to Labor should be clear. A huge increase in Australian steel production will save the jobs of union coalminers that the Albanese government threatens in Labor's sellout to green ideology. The multipurpose corridor I mentioned earlier will carry water from Lake Argyle and Hells Gate through the corridor, along with internet and power cables. This will allow for the provision of water, power and internet to hundreds of remote communities across the Top End, lifting up the lives of those mostly Aboriginal communities in a way that 100 years of shallow, patronising federal government policy never has. That's the power of infrastructure. I thank Senator Hughes for her excellent motion.

4:54 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

McKENZIE (—) (): As the shadow minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development and the leader of the National Party in this chamber, it gives me great pleasure to stand and contribute to this debate today. The only place that the newly elected Labor government is looking for budget savings, the only areas in the budget that they have flagged themselves—whether it was the finance minister in this chamber, the Treasurer in the other chamber or the minister who is tasked with the responsibility to develop regional Australia—are all, every program and every project, having the red line run over them.

I'm very proud to have been part of a government that backed the ambition of regional Australia, that backed our industry, that didn't think that for the nine million of us who don't live in capital cities you don't get to go to a great school or that you don't get access to quality health care. That is actually the reality out in the regions, and that's why for the Labor Party—and Senator Brown was starting on the rhetoric there today—the programs are wasteful; spending money in the regions is wasteful; spending money in the regions is politically motivated, for the National Party. Well, come out to Dubbo, come out to Orbost, come out to Mildura, come out to Whyalla, come out to Geraldton, come out to Cloncurry—

thank you, Senator McDonald—and have a conversation with these communities, who, as citizens who work hard and pay their taxes, ask why they can't get a doctor, why their kids shouldn't have access to high-quality education, why their roads are crumbling and why their economies aren't diversifying. That is what these programs and projects have been focused on for over 10 years. We are very, very proud to have been able to secure, in the March budget, an additional $21 billion of new money for rural and regional Australia, because, as our nation embarks on a trajectory to net zero by 2050, guess what? It's not going to be a win for all. Some communities are going to be more significantly impacted than others. The Labor Party signed us up to a more ambitious target. You won the election; tickety-boo. Where is the commensurate commitment to fund rural and regional communities' ability to seize the opportunities that you tell us are coming and also to overcome the challenges that are coming their way?

I completely reject any notion that funding a cancer centre in Dubbo is a waste. That's what you're telling us. I completely reject the notion that funding La Trobe University's joint venture with Goulburn Valley Health in my own home state, in Shepparton, is a waste. The only way you're going to get doctors out into country towns and regional centres is by actually training country kids in country communities, because do you know what? They want to practise in the country. We know it works, because that's what the research over a long period of time has told us. So, instead of trying to force people who don't want to be in the country out, we have focused on building facilities and partnering with local healthcare providers to train people locally. The very programs that the Labor Party wants to slash, the very projects that Jim Chalmers right now is running his red pen through, are the very projects that will underpin not just the economic future of rural and regional Australia but also our social infrastructure—the things that should be about equity in a country as rich as Australia.

In a country as wealthy as ours, where you live should not make a difference to your educational attainment, your health outcomes or your median income level. But the sad fact is that these things do matter. The real reason the Labor Party is framing this budget up on the notion that investing in rural and regional Australia means waste or that somehow it's politically motivated is so that they can, in the upcoming budget, slash funding to our hospitals, our schools and our sporting fields. The facilities that you all take for granted in your capital cities are facilities that we desperately need. The reason the National Party fights so hard within successful coalition governments is that it is about need. All of these programs that you want to cut, whether it's the Building Better Regions Fund, the Roads to Recovery Program or the Bridges Renewal Program, are so oversubscribed. It's not because rural and regional Australia thinks it deserves more than it's fair share but because there is such a need out there.

There is a reason why you didn't win the seat of Braddon, Senator Brown. It's because Braddon knows the best way for them to secure a better future for their families over coming decades is to vote for Gavin Pearce, the Liberal member for Braddon. No National Party there. The reason why people in Gippsland vote for Darren Chester, why people in Calare vote for Andrew Gee, why people in Gladstone vote for Col Boyce, why they vote for the Liberal Party in Western Australian seats, why they vote for Rowan Ramsey and Tony Pasin in regional South Australia, is that they know the first thing you do when you come to power is you look to cut funding to nearly nine million Australians because it's an easy hit and you will never lose a vote from it.

You come in here and you champion that you are the party for all Australians, that you are the party for working Australians. You are not. If you were, you would absolutely back not slashing one dollar from the regions; you'd back their ambition and plans to grow. Their children deserve a prosperous and sustainable future just as much as your kids do. So we will not stop being offended by your ambition to cut the programs and projects that we have fought so hard to have handed down in the budget.

I want to also address some of Senator Brown's contributions around the politicisation of funding to rural and regional Australia. When we look back on ANAO reports, there is one that stands out to me. It is one centred on the last time the Labor party was in government. There was a senior infrastructure minister called Anthony Albanese, and his junior minister for regional development was Minister Catherine King—there are some familiar names there. That was a scathing report. The figures Senator Brown quoted go nothing to what this team did. They redefined what a region was—it's not a country town of 20,000 people, it's not Wangaratta or Benalla or Cairns; it's Perth. Senator Ciccone, your party defines Perth as a regional centre, and therefore gives funding under regional development programs to Perth. But what I think was more scathing was that this minister ignored 80 per cent of the recommended projects from the department of infrastructure. So to be lectured on politicisation of funding by the Labor party, honestly, thank goodness—

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I recall a more recent ANAO report.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

All money expended on projects eligible for funding—absolutely every single one, not like Catherine King. I am happy to send you a copy of the report, Senator Chisholm. Thankfully we do have an ICAC now.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, I just remind you to make your remarks to the chair.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. It's great to see you, Chair. We are offended and dismayed by this government's decision to turn their backs on rural and regional Australia, the nine million of us who live outside of capital cities deserve your focus. We provide the ballast economically for this country. If you believe in equality of opportunity, then you have to believe that country kids deserve a quality education at a public school, and they deserve to be able to access health care just like everybody in the city. That means guaranteeing no cuts to rural and regional Australia in Jim Chalmers's budget.

5:04 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President O'Neill, it's nice to see you in the chair. Let's put on the record the facts in relation to investment in regional Australia. After 10 very long years, Senator McKenzie—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—is coming into this chamber and rewriting history. They have denied the Australian community, particularly those living in regional Australia, opportunities because of the rorting that they did while they were in government, and then the former minister herself comes into this chamber to try and rewrite history.

What we have in the new Albanese Labor government is a Prime Minister who understands, along with every member of ours in the House of Representatives and in this chamber, the importance of regional Australia and what it means to the Australian economy. The Prime Minister, who has in the past been a brilliant infrastructure minister, knows the value of investing. But what we will always do is make sure that all funding is accountable and transparent and will be delivered to regional Australia and the communities that need it most. It will not be delivered for the target seats that those opposite were trying to save so they could stay in government. They do not respect the Australian taxpayer. When they were in government, for the last 10 years, all they ever did was ensure that they would hold their seats to keep themselves in their big white limousines. That's what they did. If there had been a real commitment from Senator McKenzie and others on that side, they would not have been rorting the system; they would not have been promising and making commitments to car parks and train stations where there were none; they wouldn't have spent in excess of $50 million that they didn't need to spend in acquiring land in New South Wales in relation to the airport there.

So there is going to be a stark difference in how we as a government under Anthony Albanese will handle and use taxpayers' money, because we don't consider it our money, unlike the Liberals and Nationals when they were in government. We will actually deliver—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley, sorry to interrupt you. Can you resume your seat for a moment? Thank you. I'm loath to interrupt the debate, but there is a constant calling out from the members of the opposition. It would be much more orderly and in accordance with the Senate standing orders for you to resist from calling out across the chamber. I ask you to give respect to your fellow senator as she makes her points in this robust democracy that we exist in. Senator Polley, you have the call.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much. As I was saying, the Albanese Labor government will always ensure that there is integrity, transparency and accountability in all funding across this country. But, even more so, we will invest in regional Australia because we know how important it is. It isn't going to just pass by. Senators from that side come in and want to talk about health care or education for regional Australians when they did nothing but cut health care. We know how much they dislike Medicare. We know how critical our hospital infrastructure is to regional Australia. We also know, and I know, only too well that ambulances are ramping at every hospital around this country because of the lack of funding from the previous government.

But I just want to remind people, because this is really important. Coming from Tasmania, as a senator for Tasmania, I know that during the federal campaign we made commitments to invest in jobs in regional areas. So, in May, what we did was make a commitment to Northern Tasmania's Firmus Tas, a great new initiative; we invested $5 million in LINE Hydrogen for them to start their project off because we actually care about delivering better outcomes for Northern Tasmanians; and we made a commitment to Waverley Woollen Mills so we can start manufacturing. I'm sure my two fellow Tasmanian senators who belong to the Liberal Party would support our funding to all of those businesses in Tasmania.

Waverley Woollen Mills is a very old woollen mill that is now doing some amazing work and developing future projects for itself to ensure that it has a business model that is going to take it forward. They're getting into recycling and all sorts of wonderful things, creating real jobs in Northern Tasmania. We did that, and I'd be very surprised if those fundings aren't part of the budget that will be announced in October.

But there's a difference between coming into this place and defending your old policies—when you had policies, because you don't have policies now—and coming in here and trying to rewrite history. It's very different. (Time expired)

5:10 pm

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am so glad to add my voice to this matter of importance. I'll add to the echo in the chamber of 'wow' which is coming from the opposite side based on what I've seen in my short time here.

What I saw at the last election was that the Australian public wanted to end the system that was enabling grant programs in this country to be co-opted by politicians for pork-barrelling. For many, many years it has been talked about right here in this chamber. Further, I think the Australian public got sick of a government that had a complete mishmash of policy objectives with no real outcomes. Fixing a pothole—

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

What? You don't want to fix potholes?

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

or a pipe line, upgrading a building that's no longer fit for purpose might be huge media moments to senators over there because they can cut a red ribbon and talk about investing—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I would ask all senators in the chamber to show some respect, please. Senator, you have the call.

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. Investing in public infrastructure is vital to Australians. These investments can have real and tangible impacts on the lives of Australians, but it's also important to note that the new projects are in fact a symptom of state capture. The approach of keeping their mates in business and lining their pockets, rather than maintaining and upgrading the current infrastructure, has left us in this current situation. This means our rural and regional areas are the most marginalised.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, they are, and that's why they need support!

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Hospitals and rural—

Sorry, Acting Deputy President.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senators, over this week alone—

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

We're furiously agreeing. We're in furious agreement!

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It doesn't mean you have to heckle, Bridget. Seriously!

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, would you mind resuming your seat? Thank you. Senators, I have asked, and I expect, that each senator is going to have the opportunity to make their contribution and be heard in silence. Thank you, Senator Cox.

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Acting Deputy President. We note that hospitals in rural and regional areas don't have enough money to repair and upgrade their facilities, there has been a constant backlog of highway repairs needed, and there has been little to no investment to upgrade our rail network, not to mention the infrastructure for the transition of electric vehicles. However, under the previous government, billions of dollars was invested into infrastructure projects related to fossil fuels. Over $1 billion was committed to the Beetaloo via both direct and indirect funding. The indirect investments included: $173.6 million for the NT gas industry road upgrade; $300 million for low-emission LNG, clean hydrogen production at Darwin, and carbon capture and storage infrastructure; and $1.5 billion for a new port infrastructure at the Middle Arm harbour, which we heard about today during question time. All of this investment happened while First Nations communities, in the Northern Territory in particular, have entire families living in one room. So rural and regional communities who need health and education facilities and roads are being taken for a ride.

Once again the major parties are propping up the fossil fuel industry in this place at the expense of everybody else. Once again the major parties are doing the dirty work of those fossil fuel companies so that they can keep raking in millions of dollars of donations. These companies don't need the money. They are making record-breaking profits and they are not paying any taxes on them. So, yes, I agree infrastructure is important and we need to invest in it. But we need investment into regional and rural Australia that is linked to and led by Australian communities, that includes an independent assessment of the applications with clear and transparent criteria in their decision-making processes.

Like previous governments, this government is continuing to support the fossil fuel industry that is destroying our planet and is funnelling public money through these infrastructure projects to pave the way for them to keep going and, worse still, to have those assets abandoned. We need to transition to renewable energy, and we need to do it now. The good news is that this is already starting to happen, and we are seeing the global pressure from our markets for fossil fuels to dry up.

So why does the government keep spending more money in building new infrastructure for these projects, especially when the science has told us that we can't open up any more new coal and gas mines or extend the life of the existing ones? This continued investment is propping up a dying industry which will only benefit the executives of these companies whilst throwing workers and communities under the bus. They will continue to extract dirty fossil fuels as long as they can, long after the supply chain is gone and no longer profitable.

My colleague Senator Penny Allman-Payne has a bill which will establish the National Energy Transition Authority to guide Australia's shift into an economy powered by reliable, secure and low-cost renewable energy. This can only be done by working with communities, workers, unions, industry and government at all levels to create jobs and to open up those new export markets. The climate crisis is here, and there is no doubt. But our infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose, and some of it was not fit for purpose to begin with. We need to make sure that we are making an investment in the right place. (Time expired)

5:16 pm

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

I'd like to start with an apology to those opposite, because in my speech today I'll be mentioning places that they've never heard of. They are places where the coalition spent many millions of dollars to deliver life-changing projects that reflect the importance of those places away from the big football stadiums, Cross River Rail and eight-lane highways—places where $3 million can build a new grandstand at the local football club and transform the entire district for generations.

Without viable regional communities, Australia stops. Without consistent and significant funding of roads and community infrastructure, regional Australia does it a whole lot tougher. The coalition understands this. The National Party understands this. But those who really need to understand it, the Labor government, are happy for regional Australia to fend for itself. But, of course, they still want all the goodies the regions produce—all that tax and royalties from mining and all that healthy trade surplus and GDP boost from agriculture.

Currently, the resources sector as a whole supports over 1.1 million direct and indirect jobs within Australia, contributing over $32.6 billion in direct salaries in 2021. The government has even acknowledged that the resources sector is to thank for a $50 billion budget boost this year. The Australian oil and gas industry directly and indirectly supports over 80,000 jobs. It contributed over $5.35 billion in tax in 2019-20 and recorded a $15.9 billion surplus in the trade of oil and gas. Over the past decade, the oil and gas industry paid more than over $64.4 billion to the government, with contributions spanning decades, totalling $161 billion since the mid-1980s. That is a lot of roads, hospitals and schools that ordinary taxpayers didn't have to fund. Let's not forget that mine workers earn about twice the national average wage, and their taxes also flow into Canberra's coffers. Agriculture is worth $71 billion a year to the Australian economy, almost exclusively generated in the regions. Both of these industries support entire towns by providing employment.

When you look at these staggering figures, it's hard to believe any government would consider cutting the artery to the beating heart of its economy. But that's what Labor are proposing. They had an election promise to scrap the Community Development Grants Program, the scheme responsible for completing Charleston Dam near Forsayth in Far North Queensland, which I opened this year. This dam has opened up the area to tourism at unheard-of levels and provided water security for the agricultural district. I can point to Tully, also in Far North Queensland. Under the Community Development Grants Program, the town received $3 million for a new grandstand at the rugby league ground. This grandstand now allows Tully to host higher-standard league matches, as well as tossing the golden gumboot, and allows it to host large conferences and events. Let's also not forget the $1.5 million to dredge an important waterway at Cardwell in North Queensland. This is just a snapshot of my home region—not a National Party seat either, can I mention? Similar stories of relatively small funding making a massive difference can be found around the country. In comparison to the money generated in regional Australia, these are truly paltry amounts, yet they represent so much more than just numbers on a balance sheet.

Labor likes to describe this investment as pork-barrelling. Try explaining that to a country netball club that finally got a roof over its court or a town that can now boast that its roads are fully sealed. The Prime Minister said recently:

We will fund projects including in regional Australia that stack up, that represent good investment for taxpayers.

If you apply a return on investment standard for funding for regional areas, nothing will ever get approved under this government. A bureaucrat will say there's just not enough population to justify widening a road at Boulia, or a new town hall at Kununurra, which is exactly why the coalition viewed funding arrangements through a prism of community benefits.

It's not just the minor projects facing Labor's axe. We also read that the $5 billion Inland Rail extension to Gladstone is likely to be axed. What an appalling signal to send regional Queenslanders who committed the cardinal sin of not voting Labor at the last election. Labor's attitude to the regions threatened to widen the divide between city and country, between the haves and have-nots. If you live in the city, Labor will spend billions to make sure you can get to work five minutes earlier, but if you need a new hall for the CWA ladies in your small town, you'd better start selling raffle tickets. Some 8.8 million people live in regional Australia, and they're not asking for special treatment. They're simply asking for a level playing field.

Labor says funding for the regions is pork-barrelling and waste. We say it's delivering for the families, the men and the women and the Indigenous communities that deliver the food, the fibre and the mining that feeds, clothes and enriches all of Australia. So on behalf of the Boulias, the Tullys the Katherines, the Hughendens and the Kununurras, I'm asking Labor to view funding for regional Australia as among the most important duties they can undertake. We need to keep the regions attractive to young families by providing good Internet, safe roads, great health and aged care, and excellent schools. This will have the added effect of reducing urban congestion and easing pressure on city infrastructure. Spending money in regional Australia is not a cost—it's an investment. I would ask the government to remember this at budget time, because it is these towns and these people who without this appropriate infrastructure investment in social services, infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals and Internet connectivity will be forced to be FIFO workers, to live on the coast and fly out to these communities. We know what the result of that is. The result is divorce, broken families and poorer mental health.

In the regions you can have a great lifestyle. You can have a fantastic community. Families can go home and play sport. They can be involved with their children's lives. They can volunteer at the local race club. They can be an important part of the community where people know their names. Instead, if it were left up to these centralised governments, people would live more and more on the coast, going away from these great communities and leaving all of these important industries to be FIFO industries. That's not the Australian way to do it. We didn't grow up, we didn't raise our culture, and we don't look back on our history as being a whole country of people who just appear on Monday morning and fly out on Friday night. That doesn't build the pubs, the community halls, the dances, the races and the great jobs that you can have. There's more responsibility at a younger age and really rewarding, productive jobs. For Indigenous communities, particularly in the north of Australia but also right across, it's about investment in roads that are all-weather, meaning that they are not cut off for five months of the year, that they can access modern culture and that they can engage in genuine jobs. It means they're not all forced to be rangers. They can have other jobs. That's what we're denying people when we stop these investments in regional and rural Australia.

People call for funding into regional Australia. That funding is best understood by the men and women who represent those communities, who come from those places and, yes, darn it, make decisions. They tell their bureaucrats: 'Great. Here is a list of projects that you've approved as all being eligible, but we're going to pick this one, because we know they don't have the best grant writer in Australia. We know they don't have thousands of people to support these projects and sign petitions and glue themselves to the street.' What we have is local members who go into bat for the little towns and communities who do the jobs, who support these communities, who give young people great lifestyles and who give us the culture that we like to celebrate when we talk about being Australian.

So every time you hear Labor say 'pork-barrelling', in your head you can say, 'Cutting us off at the knees, turning us into a nation of FIFO workers with mental health problems, with divorce and without the great lifestyle that they are being denied in rural and regional Australia.'

5:26 pm

Photo of Ross CadellRoss Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Regional infrastructure is so important. It is the projects that go into small towns and regions that get jobs, get people moving in and start rebuilding economies after the move to the cities. I spoke in my maiden speech in this place about the fact that we are hampered in regions because the cost-benefit ratios measure economic benefit, not need. When they put thousands of people saving five minutes on the way to work in a city above dozens of people being able to drive safely down a road, it is wrong.

When we sit there and think of regional towns, the jobs they have lost over the cutbacks and the displacements over some time, it is investments like these that get people coming back. When they come back, the whole town grows. We have seen the money drain from the regions. We've seen deals done were suddenly farmers have to deal with Woolworths and Coles and they lose money from the farm, so they lay off a farmhand. Suddenly the farm isn't as expensive, so the bank closes. That takes a few tellers and a bank manager away, so the school is no longer viable and we lose the school.

Everything we can do to put money back into these regions multiplies and makes regions better. During COVID, we saw a migration of people from the cities to the regions. We saw them going to where they could have a life, going where their kids could have a future, going where they could have lifestyle. That is despite regions being down on the services normally offered in cities.

When those across the road say we are pork-barrelling and funding our seats, it's not new. It's not pork-barrelling. Sometimes you know things. Sometimes you know people, sometimes you know projects. Senator McDonald spoke previously about good grant writers. There is an industry in a grant writing where they get commissions on getting things through, even if the project is not up to standard in reality. They can make the good appear brilliant; they can make the bad appear good. They overrun true projects funded by true local champions that will make a difference in communities. Doing that—having members stand up and say, 'This is important to my people. This is important to my town'—is not new. I would like to quote from the ANAO report into the last Labor government:

In one instance, ministers—

In brackets, Albanese—

made an explicit decision to approve an application that was known to be otherwise ineligible under the guidelines…

I'll quote another:

In one instance, Ministers—

In brackets, Albanese—

explicitly decided to waive the project eligibility criteria for an application they wished to fund …

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, I remind you to use people's correct title from the other place.

Photo of Ross CadellRoss Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In a quote? It was required for Albanese—sorry Madam Acting Deputy President. So, these things happen. It is not new. It is not us reinventing the wheel. It is what happens when people stand up and see projects. I'm not going to have a go at the now Prime Minister for this. Maybe he knew something that the grant writers didn't. Maybe he knew something. Cost benefit ratios don't know the project.

They talk about National Party seats. There was a program, a big program—not just little programs; they're big programs. If we're talking about transitioning and diversifying our economy in regions that are energy and carbon dependent, significant funds were set aside under the previous government to assist communities to do that.

I come from the Hunter Valley. I work at the world's largest coal port. There was an allocation of $250 million under a regional transitional program to assist the port to diversify. It is gone. The future of kids in the Hunter is gone. You are taking that opportunity away from them. You are taking a chance at a better life away from them. It's in a Labor seat. As long as Newcastle is there it will vote Labor. But what do we get? We get $500 million for a high-speed rail—what are we talking about?—study, not even a project, and I quote the Prime Minister, 'to allow people from the Hunter to get to Sydney'. The Hunter is not the servants' quarters of Sydney. We are not the workers' quarters of Sydney. We have a right to our own lives. We have a right to our own aspirations and that is being taken away.

On 20 April 2022 then Treasurer Josh Frydenberg handed down the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook that included a document of community projects. Every one of those projects was warranted and needed. They are across all seats. Members of parliament on both sides were approached, plans and costings were delivered, discussions were had with councils and communities, and the benefits would be delivered. But every one of those projects is being reviewed. Labor say they are reviewing those measures from PEFO. What will Treasurer Jim Chalmers, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and infrastructure minister Catherine King do to look after our communities if they take this away? The answer is: nothing.

On that list on their website there are projects from every state, every region, every party, and they all fall down. Here in Canberra: renovate and rebuild the AIS arena at $11.4 million. Is that to go? We're looking at Lindsay: Bennett Park upgrade at $0.59 million. Pick a seat. They're all here. In Brisbane—probably not the safest Liberal Party seat in the history of the world—the Brothers Rugby Club facilities upgrade is $2.5 million. (Time expired)