Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Ministerial Statements

Regional Budget Statement

5:53 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to take note of the Regional ministerial budget statement 2023-24, released last night. I fully commend the response by the National Party leader and Shadow Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud in fully attacking and disclosing the real truth about Labor's budget deficit for the regions. If you thought the Labor Party had it in for the regions after the October budget, when they slashed over $22 billion of projects, programs and funding, they left absolutely no doubt last night. There were no new rail programs, no new road funding and no new regional grant funding applications, the types of programs that have underpinned small communities' and regional capitals' need for community and social infrastructure. There was no vision in last night's budget for the nine million of us who do not live in capital cities, who actually underpin the wealth of this nation, the nine million of us that grow clean, green product that feeds and sustains us here, domestically, but that we also export to markets around the globe. I know my colleague Senator McDonald will go into the resources sector in more detail shortly, but without the resources sector from the regions, Jim Chalmers would absolutely have no surplus in last night's budget. So it is very much the wealth producing areas of our nation that have copped it in the neck from a Labor Party that only has its eye and concern on those in capital cities and suburbs.

There were new suburban programs—no worries, tick, tick, tick—but nothing for rural and regional Australia. We are 30 per cent of the population, 40 per cent of our economic output with zero focus and concern of the Labor Party. Was there a plan to deal with the rural doctor shortage? No. Was there a plan to more broadly deal with the lack of primary health care in regional capitals, rural country towns and, appallingly, in remote Indigenous communities? No. No, there wasn't. Was there one additional childcare place for people in country towns and rural capitals? No. They were talking a big game about childcare affordability, but what if you can't even access a place? The affordability of the place means nothing.

This Prime Minister, this government, won the election. We live in a democracy and we respect democratic traditions. He promised to govern for all Australians. For those of us that don't live in capital cities in this country, we ain't feeling it. We are feeling forgotten and neglected. We've seen in the budget an increase in taxes on our trucking industry, on our buses and on heavy vehicles large and small. From the big B-doubles that take cattle from Cloncurry to ports for the live export trade to small delivery vans in regional capitals, every single truck driver will be seeing an increase in the fuel excise to the tune of $1.1 billion over the next three years. That's a tax on every single thing we make and every single thing we produce. The Labor Party like to claim this budget isn't inflationary, yet every decision they seem to make is not putting a downward pressure on inflation.

The highlight of hypocrisy last night was the announcement of a tax on Australian farmers—for what? For a biosecurity system. Australian farmers aren't producing the risk to our biosecurity system. They're actually the ones that were yelling the loudest when this government fumbled our response to foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Indonesia and Bali, when those opposite first came to power. It's Australian farmers who have been begging for a tight, sustainable biosecurity system that makes sure that those who are the risk bearers actually pay for it, who are the passengers that are coming through our airports. They are the importers, the bulk commodity importers, with the shipping containers. I am a former agriculture minister. Varroa mite and brown marmorated stink bug are things I didn't know about before I got that role. The brown marmorated stink bug came in on imported Italian plastic chairs in a shipping container, yet we refuse to charge those that are holding the risk. The bulk commodity importers are not paying it. Who are they slugging? Australian farmers, whose skyrocketing input costs mean that they are price takers.

I tell you, John Kerin would absolutely be rolling in his grave, given his love for rural and regional Australia, his adoration for our agriculture industry, to see a Labor Party that, in their first serious budget, does nothing for rural and regional Australia. The Stronger Communities program: gone. The Resilient Regional Leaders program: gone—and the enhanced regional security screening program for regional airports. And heaven forbid we might want to go and see a specialist in a capital city and not have to drive seven hours to get there. Do you know why there's a higher death rate in rural and regional communities? It's because they just choose not to go to the specialist. They can't afford a week off farm or a week away from the kids, so they just don't go to that specialist check-up. So airports are not just important for the import and export of goods. It is about access to health care, access to education, and economic benefits—scrapped.

The national freight and supply chain priorities, the Inland Rail Interface Improvement program: we've heard this government scathing about the Inland Rail. I've been on the ground in regional New South Wales in the last couple of weeks. This is a project that is delivering economic benefits right now. This government has nothing good to say about rural and regional Australia. We've had enough of it. Do you know why they don't vote for you? Because you don't back them. You don't back our industries. You don't back our access to services that you all take for granted. If you want to talk about vulnerable people and communities, we know about them, because we represent them. The eight electorates with the lowest median income level in this country are National Party electorates. Those with the highest Indigenous populations are National Party electorates.

So, we don't come here with some confected concern, some theoretical ideological approach to making things more sustainable. We actually know what is required. You've had this consistent focus on funding huge stadium projects in capital cities or on funding Daniel Andrews's pet project of the suburban rail loop—$2.2 billion—in Victoria, rather than putting it in to road or rail projects which will lower emissions and take freight trucks off roads and make our roads safer. That's another thing you've done: you've cut the road safety funding. So, the only thing in this budget for us out in the regions is the quiet but succinct and very deeply held acknowledgement that this Labor Party doesn't care about those of us who don't live in capitals, and it's hard to not think that that is a very partisan decision to make.

I commend my leader's response in the other place. I condemn Catherine King and her failure to deliver for regional Australia in this budget, and Jim Chalmers and Anthony Albanese. I look forward to the re-election of a coalition government that will once again reinvest in the heart of our nation: rural and regional Australia.

6:03 pm

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the statement by the Minister for Infrastructure, Regional Development and Local Government, the regional budget statement. The problems faced by regional Australians are very close to my heart as a regional Queenslander. Regional Australia gives a lot to this country, providing most of the food to the cities and accounting for over half of the money brought in from tourism. But supporting our regions means listening to the people who live there. It means understanding that scratching the surface of regional Australia reveals dark depths of inequality and poverty, particularly in many smaller communities.

People living in regional and remote communities in this country die younger and from preventable causes at rates that are much higher than those of their counterparts in the capital cities. Bridging this divide means acknowledging the unique workforce and inequality problems that undermine prosperity in the regions. I've been travelling around regional Queensland in recent weeks, talking to specialists who work in my community, health specialists who travel into my community, regional doctors and other regional health workers. They tell me that part of attracting to regional Australia a health workforce that is well paid includes making sure that there are good homes and education options for these people and their children, as well as professional development opportunities.

Health intervention is welcome, but, without a house to live in or a way to get there, a lot of regions are already struggling to retain the doctors, nurses and medical undergraduates that they need to get the care that people deserve. Right now there is a shortfall of social and affordable housing in regional areas of 227,000. Thirteen hundred is not even going to slice off the top of that. Rather than genuinely engaging with the scale of the housing crisis, this budget has handwaved away the millions of people who are struggling to keep a roof over their head, especially in the regions. Handing out $1.12 a day in rent assistance while rents increase 10 times faster is a fig leaf thrown into a fire. Getting serious about regional Australia means actually providing housing in regional Australia.

I was elected by the people of Queensland to represent their best interests. That means actually standing up and fighting for them, particularly the 81,500 people without an affordable home in regional Queensland. Funnily enough, for my colleagues in the room, scrapping stage 3 tax cuts would absolutely be a regional budget measure. Right now 12 out of the bottom 20 electorates that are set to receive the absolute least from stage 3 cuts are rural and regional seats. These tax cuts do nothing for regional Australia. In Queensland, this means towns like Bundaberg, Charleville, Gympie and virtually all of south-western Queensland from Toowoomba to the border will get next to nothing in the stage 3 cuts. Scrapping the stage 3 cuts would be a regional measure.

Funding of $40.4 million for schools in Central Australia shows us that the Labor Party knows that public schools aren't properly funded in this country. Plugging the funding shortfall for some schools for only two years does not go anywhere near far enough to put our public education system back on track. Right now, public schools are underfunded across the board. This is felt particularly acutely in regional Australia, where I have spent the bulk of my teaching career, where families without resources to board their kids find themselves in a public school system with dwindling resources and a lack of capacity to really provide for those kids. Teachers should not be stretched to their limits to provide our young people with the basic right to a world-class public education. Right now, the government could untie its hands from the arbitrary 20 per cent cap on funding, and they could lift every public school in this country up to and above the minimum school resource standard. Every budget that we don't do this is another year that cements our education system as amongst the most privatised and underfunded public sectors in the world.

Although regional Australia provides for over half of our tourism dollars, this budget has also extended nothing to protecting the environment that brings that money in. Throwing a couple of million dollars towards world heritage properties does absolutely nothing towards genuinely curbing the incoming biodiversity loss we are facing. There has been no attempt in this budget to address the genuine causes of biodiversity loss or to ban native forest logging. It is not true that the government just can't afford better environmental protection. The budget showed us what Labor prioritises, and it is not the environment.

We also need to see genuine spending on emergency response capacity. An investment of $200 million per year is completely dwarfed by the billions that we continue to heap onto fossil fuel corporations to allow them to accelerate climate change and the resulting environment damage. The continued acceleration of the climate crisis means that the impacts will grow in their cost and the devastation of natural disasters will increase, and this will impact people in regional communities. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority estimated that, to recover the economic losses caused by natural disasters, Australia must invest $3.5 billion every year just on natural disaster mitigation and resilience. But what did we see in the budget? We saw an investment of $200 million per year. It won't even touch the sides.

To realistically prepare regional Australia for insurance costs would involve not opening any new coal or gas projects. This is in line with the scientific consensus of how we avoid climate catastrophe. Resilience and mitigation investment should be drawn from the fossil fuel projects we currently subsidise. As a regional Queenslander and as your Greens representative for regional development, I am here to fight for what the regions need, which is health, housing, a world-class public education, a healthy environment and a sustainable economic future.

6:12 pm

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

I rise to take note of the regional ministerial budget statement given by the minister in the other place. I want to acknowledge a number of the items that Senator McKenzie has already spoken about and also a number of the things that Senator Allman-Payne has spoken about, which is the very real and distinct challenges for regional Australia. We live in a vast continent. Queensland, in particular, is one of the most decentralised states in all the world, yet that does not seem to have been reflected in any way in this budget.

It is just devastating to listen to interviews with peak bodies, with industry sectors and with communities across Australia as they have reflected on exactly that. They reflected on things like: the lack of funding for first and last mile road spending; the removal of water projects, particularly in northern Australia, as well as right across the country; and the inability of this government to articulate a food security commitment to agricultural production across Australia. This is something that we do incredibly well, and food security and affordable food with good nutritional content is something that we should remain focused on—not just for people who can afford to go to lovely farmers markets in the cities but for people who live in really remote places where their food is not fresh, the nutritional value has fallen and the prices are eye watering. One of the things that the coalition government committed to was expenditure for a cold store in Alice Springs to try and improve the quality of food that's distributed to different parts of the country.

I digress. There is so much to talk about regarding regional Australia. Education is something that Senator Allman-Payne touched on already. I want to go further afield again to the geographically isolated children of the families who work on remote cattle stations and to people in remote mining communities, who do travelling work, whether it's contract work or work in remote communities. These kids and families have really been completely forgotten. They did so much work prior to this election in speaking to Labor ministers about basic support to be able to allow these families to educate their kids. During COVID a lot of parents got firsthand knowledge of what it was like to educate their children. It's hard work, and it's incredibly important work. These kids are missing out. There was no acknowledgement of a number of the issues that were raised with the government and certainly no funding in this budget for them.

I think about the forgotten flood, which is what I've taken to calling the floods in Far North Queensland that ran up through the Leichhardt River and devastated some of those communities. Tens of thousands of head of cattle were strung up in trees and washed out to sea, and there were communities where the water went above head level, through homes and through little classrooms, and yet the disaster relief agency has not even heard of some of these places because the government, in their wisdom, decided that they wouldn't mobilise the Army. Instead, these people have been left completely forgotten, unable to apply for assistance because their address doesn't fit the government's formatted 'Five Smith Street' kind of address profile, which is just incredibly frustrating in this day and age.

We've talked about the increase of the Medicare, but there is still no acknowledgement or limited acknowledgement of the additional training places that we need for nurses in regional places and for GPs in regional places, so I just wonder how deep we're going to let the regions slide and how much disadvantage we're going to bake in. We had plans to be continuously upgrading services, roads and blackspot programs, but, again, under this government they have just been completely politicised and ripped away.

I watched the biosecurity announcement discussion from the agricultural minister. It is really distressing to see that somehow farmers are responsible and not the people who bring in pests and weeds into this country. But it is farmers! Yet, again, in Queensland the state Labor government is pulling biosecurity officers out of regional communities, which means of course that there is no front line, as the minister keeps talking about.

The childcare subsidy—what a terrific announcement if it was available to all Australians, which, of course, it's not. In regional Australia there are very limited childcare centres and even more limited childcare workers, which means that this budget package will only apply it to people who live in inner-city areas. Again, it's another tragedy for women and parents who are trying to go back to work to work in these really important sectors, whether it be tourism or agriculture or—and this is the elephant in the room—the resources sector, because this budget has been funded by the strength of the resources sector, not through any action of this Labor government at all. In fact, Labor has done everything it possibly can to attack the resources sector and the communities that keep this country going. Labor is using this resources windfall to hide their reckless spending, which, as economists and commentators over the last 24 hours have described, will only further drive up inflation, will further drive up interest rates and will further drive up the cost of living for Australians right across the country. So, I guess what they say is true: you will always pay more under Labor.

As for the resources sector, the finance minister was not able to say the words iron ore, coal or gas. In fact, in the Treasurer's speech, last night, he spoke about 'things' we export and 'key exports'. That was as close as he could come to acknowledging the industries that have paid the bills and allowed him to enjoy the coalition-led surplus that he talked about last night. Iron ore exports earned $121 billion for this nation, coal exports earned $128 billion and gas LNG exports earned $91 billion. That is $464 billion that was brought into this country's accounts, yet this government could not even say that word, could not acknowledge those sectors and those employees—14.5 per cent of GDP.

The workforce sector, the income paid to those well-paid jobs, mostly in the regions, is $38.1 billion. The PAYG tax take from those wages has funded much of the government's largesse, yet they could not acknowledge those men and women working in those industries. There was $16.7 billion from oil and gas but not an acknowledgement of them, the industry or the people. Over 40 per cent of the corporate tax take came from oil and gas yet there was no acknowledgement. The Treasurer could not say thank you, could not acknowledge the risk, the hard work and the investment that these businesses have made to access, yes, Australia's resources, but with no acknowledgement of the benefits that they provide to this country. There are 286,000 people directly employed by the resources sector and 1.1 million people indirectly supported but there was no acknowledgement of the resources sector. And guess what? There is no easy replacement for those jobs. The minimum salary in those industries is $150,000 a year, and you are not going to get that polishing solar panels. What is our replacement that we propose to fund this country's fabulous First World lifestyle, particularly if you live in a city? So the regions have definitely got it in the neck.

There has been almost no acknowledgement of the important infrastructure that is required, or of the support for education, for health, for other services that are so desperately needed in regional Australia, yet this Labor government has completely sold them out.

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

Are you seeking leave to continue your remarks?

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

Indeed, I am.

Debate interrupted.