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APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 1) 2010-2011

Cognate bills:

APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 2) 2010-2011

May 26, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.48 am) — I congratulate the member for Dobell on his fine contribution. It was not quite as robust as his character assault on me in the main chamber the other evening. Nonetheless, he gave me a very warm welcome here today. Stay around, member for Dobell. You might be surprised—there may be many things that you and I agree on. The member for Dobell raised some concerns about Indigenous issues, which I will be touching on later, as well as youth unemployment and support for quality public infrastructure. We agree, I think, on the core point he made about the need to deliver value for money, which has been the fundamental flaw in so many of this government’s programs.
The member also touched on his government’s supposed commitment to investing in the environment, but I remind the House that this budget includes a $10 million cut to Landcare, the practical environmentalists of our nation. That any government could cut funding to Landcare—the 100,000 Landcare volunteers who give up their weekends throughout the year to make a practical contribution to the environment throughout Australia—is beyond belief.

I do rise to speak in relation to the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and related bills and, more broadly, on some of the issues, challenges and opportunities for the people of Gippsland. As we approach a federal election in the weeks ahead, the people of Gippsland are quite rightly assessing the performance of the Rudd government over the past 2½ years and considering how they will cast their vote. For me, the report card I am getting back from the people of Gippsland is that this government has promised a lot but failed to deliver. We have had programs such as Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch, the debacle over the Green Loans Program and Home Sustainability Assessment Scheme, and of course the Home Insulation Program which resulted, tragically, in four lives being lost, widespread rorting of taxpayers’ money and billions of dollars wasted.

The member for Dobell also referred to the school halls program, the so-called Building the Education Revolution, which has been mismanaged from the start. In its desperate push to throw the money out the door and hope some of it hit the target, this government has taken far too many shortcuts and has failed to actually deliver value for money in a strategic way throughout Australia. I must report that throughout my electorate the Catholic and independent schools which had more control over the funding in the Victorian sense seemed to achieve far greater value than the state school system. Many state school principals have contacted my office, and I have spoken to them out in their schools and inspected the facilities they have had constructed. They are basically saying the same thing: while they are happy to receive funding, they are very disappointed with the process and the fact that they have not got value for money, and they would have achieved more if they had had more control over the funding.

This was an issue I raised with the minister as early as March 2009. Basically this is a minister who refuses to take advice from anyone. She seems to have this opinion that only she knows best. Unfortunately the end result has been an enormous waste of taxpayers’ dollars in primary schools right throughout Australia. I have no problem in visiting these schools, inspecting the facilities and even attending the openings which the Labor ministers seem to take as a great affront. They seem to have this twisted view of the world: that this is their money, that somehow the local member of parliament should not attend if the school invites them. I make no apology for supporting my schools, attending the opening functions if they request me to attend and ensuring that they get value for money for taxpayers’ dollars, because unfortunately the minister herself has been neglectful of her duty in that regard.

There have been other failures in recent times. We have had the childcare promise broken. There was a promise of 260 centres, and that has been abandoned. Then of course there is ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’, the emissions trading scheme. We have a government that was too arrogant to listen to the people in regional communities who were most affected by this emissions trading scheme. They refused to visit regional areas despite repeated requests from the Latrobe Valley community, which has the lion’s share of power generation in Victoria. The government and senior ministers refused to visit and explain how the system will work. The end result has been a huge community backlash against the program. Now we have a situation where this Prime Minister, who is basically just too gutless to govern, will not stand up for what he says he believes in. Really, the electorate is just starting to wonder now, ‘Does he believe in anything?’ Of course there is one key area this budget has managed to deliver in for this government: government advertising of $126 million for this year. For a government who promised to cut back on spending on advertising dollars and to provide an open and transparent process through the Auditor General, it is amazing that we have already seen the first of the ad campaigns starting, dealing with the health issue.

The overwhelming sentiment that I am receiving from my electorate is that Australians are feeling like they are being ripped off. That is probably what happens when you buy products online. There were a lot of promises made in a very slick internet advertising campaign and a very slick catalogue. It is a bit like getting a Christmas catalogue: when you get home on Christmas day and open the present—when you unwrap it, when you peel it back—what you bought just does not live up to expectations. This is a government that has not lived up to expectations. The issue really comes right back to the simple fact that Australians are sick of the reckless spending. Anyone can shout the bar, but leaving taxpayers to foot the bill at the end of the night is going to leave us with an enormous hangover for years to come.

Rather than go on and regale the House with my blow-by-blow description of the budget, I would like to reflect on a couple of other issues in a broader sense in my electorate, particularly dealing with young people in the electorate of Gippsland. There is no question that young people in our community at the moment face very challenging times, particularly in regional areas. They are being pulled in various directions through mass media, access to the internet and a whole range of other influences on their lives that perhaps previous generations have not had to deal with. I strongly believe that as a member of parliament and in my own role in Gippsland one of my key responsibilities is to work with the young people in my community to help them achieve their full potential. That involves supporting young people as much as we possibly can. I do note that one of the positive announcements in recent times is that the government has finally come to the party and supported a mentoring program in the electorate, which has been strongly backed by the local community.

One area where I believe we can do a lot more to support our young people is encouraging their engagement in community and sporting activities. I have found throughout my life that the young people who have been able to participate in sport or in some form of community activities at a young age tend to go on to become the good citizens we want to see when they reach adulthood. For that I give credit to organisations like the surf lifesaving movement with its Nippers program, which really gives these young people an experience of working as part of a team, of doing something for their community. It is one area that I think governments at all levels need to look at and find ways to engage young people in the community as much as they possibly can. Don’t give them the chance to become alienated in any way whatsoever, whether it is for social reasons or economic reasons. We need to break down those barriers to make sure that young people from a very early age, even as early as five, six and seven years old, are involved in community activities and sporting activities or artistic pursuits in ways that they can participate and be part of our community. The benefits in the long term are there for all to see.

It is on the point of helping young people achieve their full potential that I have experienced one of my greatest disappointments in my short term in parliament, and that has been the way the youth allowance debate unfolded over the past 12 months. I believe we can do a lot better and have to do a lot better in future in providing access to university for students from regional communities. I will continue to work in my role to secure additional funding in future to make sure that young people in regional areas are not facing the uphill battle they currently face in comparison with their city counterparts. Basically I believe we need to have a tertiary access allowance of some form which recognises the additional costs that regional students face for accommodation when they are forced to move away from home to attend university. It is something I will keep working for within my own party and in the joint party room of the coalition, but also in raising the issue in a public sense and encouraging the government to have another look at what they have done on Youth Allowance and the whole issue of student income support, to ensure we get more fairness and more equity for regional students.

Like a lot of MPs, I get to speak to a lot of school groups. There are about 15 secondary schools in my electorate and I talk to students in my electorate about the need to aim high, to aspire to achieve their dreams, to raise their aspirations, because in my community we have a very limited number of students who go on to university education. I also talk to the students about an issue which is very dear to my heart, and that is about making unemployment an absolute last resort for them. I encourage the students to think along the lines that we do have a welfare safety net in Australia but it should not be seen as a welfare security blanket. In regional areas we often have difficulties securing permanent and long-term employment opportunities for young people and we need to make sure that our young people are thinking along these lines, that they will continue to learn, continue to invest in themselves and learn new skills and get involved in training and see unemployment benefits as an absolute last resort. In my electorate there are sections of the community where we are faced now with a second and third generation of welfare recipients. It is a major issue for us as a country when we have people who, through a whole range of circumstances, have now got themselves in the situation where up to three generations have never been gainfully employed and have never had the benefits that come from working in paid employment.

I believe we need to have this debate in a broader sense in our community about how we treat people who, for whatever reason, cannot find work. I had the experience of being on the dole once about 20 years ago when I moved to Queensland. Without my support network, family and friends I found it hard to get work. I think I was on the dole for about six or eight weeks and I found that even in that short amount of time you start losing your self-esteem. For people who are on the dole it is very easy to get into lazy habits. Even in as little as two or three months people’s attitude changes to themselves and to how they view their role in our community. So I believe we need to be creating a very positive work ethic in our community and arguing the case that if you are fit and able to work you should be working.

I think we need to have a very close look at our welfare system and at the obligations we place on people who are receiving Newstart allowances. I believe that in the short term we are going to have to have a very close look at the obligation to make a contribution to the community. This is not a question of bashing dole bludgers or trying to engage in some sort of class warfare; this issue of passive welfare is destroying lives in my electorate. We are doing these people an absolute disservice if we wind back the mutual obligation. We are doing them a disservice. It is destroying families, and the young people growing up in these households lack the benefit of positive role models, which I think is so important to young people in our community.

The wasted human capital associated with this issue is one area that we need to have a much closer look at. Paid employment is the way out of poverty for so many people. It is a way out of the social and economic dysfunction that occurs in some of our towns. The self-respect that people gain, the sense of responsibility, their work ethic and their taking control of their own destiny are so important. They are lessons that government handouts will never teach people.

The Work for the Dole program is one that I am concerned about. I read a report in the Australian on 7 April this year claiming that the number of people involved in Work for the Dole schemes is down from 22,000 in 2005 to 12,000 this year. It is also reported that at the time the Minister for Employment Participation, Mark Arbib, indicated that there were actually an additional 46,200 job seekers in training and that had risen to 76,000 in that same four- or five-year period. His argument was that the best way to help job seekers is to ensure that they get work focused training to get them into jobs. I do accept that, and I hope it is the case and that the minister is working towards that end. But the generational welfare issue remains a major area of concern for me, and I urge the minister to continue to engage with the Work for the Dole program to ensure that people have that opportunity to receive training and to invest in their own skills for the future and have the self-esteem and the decency of paid employment.

My comments in relation to providing extra support to break welfare dependency extend to another group of people in my community who I believe need more help from this government. In my maiden speech I referred to an aim to make sure that our treatment of people who are socially or economically disadvantaged as one of the main focuses during my term in office. That commitment has been strengthened by the things that I have witnessed and the people I have spoken to over the past two years. I commended the government when it took the step of increasing the rate of the single age pension. At the same time, I have condemned the state government of Victoria for ripping that money out of the hands of many older people through increases in public housing rents. Giving with one hand and taking with the other does nothing to restore public trust in our system of government and adds further cost-of-living pressures to our older generations who have done so much to build the wealthy nation that we enjoy today. I will continue to advocate on behalf of older Australians and self-funded retirees and pensioners to make sure that they get a fair go in the future.

There is another group of people in my electorate who is also deserving of more support, and that is people with disabilities and their carers. At this point I refer to a speech made by the member for Maribyrnong, the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, on 1 April. I have enjoyed some brief conversations and discussions with the member for Maribyrnong on this topic and have written to him on numerous occasions on behalf of families in my community. Normally I would apologise for the paper warfare, but when it comes to people with disabilities and their needs I want to make sure that he is well aware of the issues as they are presented to people from regional communities and surrounding the whole disability sector. But I am heartened by the parliamentary secretary’s responses and his efforts so far. I believe he does have genuine compassion and empathy for this issue and that he has a determination to make a difference.

Some things have to be well above party politics, and I hope that improvements to disability services and support for carers will fall into this category in the months and years ahead. I believe we can do more, and we simply must do more. I quote the comments that the member made in a speech to the Press Club:

Today I want to talk about another group of Australians: Australians with the same ilk of courage, spirit and ethos, whose circumstances are vastly different from most, whose days and nights are a mighty struggle to achieve a capacity and independence that others of us have never once wondered about and always presumed to be available; Australians who speak clearly and strongly to themselves—or they simply wouldn’t survive—but whose voices are rarely heard by the broader many who live in their midst and otherwise occupy this nation.

I’m talking of a silent, aching struggle, ever infused by love, affecting millions of lives, which falls mostly under the radar.

It happens daily, quietly, inexorably, and has been going on for too many years to count or know. It is invisible, or at least so accepted and entrenched in our society that we fail to see its most fundamental infringement of human rights and dignity.

It goes on, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think you get the sense of it. These are fine words, and I think they are inspirational words, from the parliamentary secretary. They are challenging words for us as members of this place. They challenge us to rise to the occasion and do more to support people with disabilities and their carers.

I recommend the member’s speech to those who are interested in the topic. In particular, I encourage them to consider the issue of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which he raises in his speech, which is currently the subject of an investigation by the Productivity Commission. I acknowledge, as have other members, that it will be expensive to introduce. But we owe it to the children, young adults and older people with disabilities and to their carers to do more for them in the future. The disability service providers and carers in my electorate do a remarkable job already in our community, but they could do a lot more, and we need to help them as much as we can in the future.

In the time that is left to me, I want to reflect on a couple of regional development opportunities in my electorate, which are of great importance to the people of Gippsland. To begin with, I want to raise the future of the East Sale RAAF Base within the current review of defence facilities around our nation, and also the assessment of the interim basic flying training project. I would like to congratulate some local residents, the Mayor of Wellington Shire, Scott Rosetti, state MP Peter Ryan and the Victorian government, for working together to put the best possible case forward on behalf of my community hosting the interim basic flying training facility. The community has engaged with the local government and the state government in this regard and there has been community support through a postcard to the minister campaign to make sure that the people of Gippsland’s views are well known here in Canberra. My only hope is that, when the decision is made, it is made on its merits and there is no political interference whatsoever. Of course, if that is the case, we will respect the umpire’s decision. We know it is a difficult decision, but we will respect the decision as long as it is based on merit.

I recently had the opportunity to tour the facilities at East Sale RAAF Base in the company of the Leader of the Nationals. We were very well received by the new senior ADF officer Group Captain Glen Coy and his personnel. I want to in passing comment on what a great job East Sale RAAF Base personnel do, the way they conduct themselves in our community and the warm welcome they give to members of parliament from all sides. I know members from interstate have participated in the work experience program, for want of a better phrase, and they have all enjoyed their experience at East Sale. It is a very welcoming base and they do a great job in our community.

Another organisation I want to briefly mention is the Centenary House facility in the Latrobe Valley. I have spoken before about the magnificent work that Centenary House does in our community, but it is worth repeating that this organisation provides supported accommodation for people while they are receiving cancer treatment in the Traralgon area. The first stage of development was funded by the state and the federal government in a bipartisan way. And I am happy to report that quite recently the federal government announced $1.5 million for the next stage of the project, which will allow the development of nine more units. That $1.5 million will be complemented by an enormous amount of local fundraising as well. It is a good example of governments working with the community and it is a project that I think will deliver enormous benefits for the broader Gippsland region in the years ahead. I welcome the minister’s support and encourage her to visit at some stage to get a firsthand appreciation of the work that is being done there.

I do not wish to be entirely negative about the government’s budget. I have just mentioned one project that was very well received in my community. I am not one who believes in opposition just for the sake of opposition. I think it is a false belief that is sometimes perpetuated in the media that one side has a mortgage on all the good ideas and that one side believes everything the government does is bad. It is just folly. The simple fact is that MPs, ministers and governments from both sides of politics are generally quite well intentioned but sometimes things go wrong. Unfortunately for this government, when things go wrong, they have to be held to account. This government must and will be held to account in the weeks and months ahead when Australian people vote. Simply too many things have gone wrong for the Australian public to ignore this government’s basic incompetence when it comes to delivering value for money for Australian taxpayers.

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