31 May 2023
Mr COULTON (Parkes—Chief Nationals Whip) (19:20): I rise tonight to speak on the appropriation bills. I’m not sure if this is the 15th or 16th appropriation speech that I have made in this place. I always like to start on a positive, so I commend the government on the bulk-billing increase for GPs. I think that was a positive thing to do. That’s the positive bit out of the way.
I’ve heard other contributors in their speeches on these appropriation bills talk about the changes to the distribution priority areas. Members who live in periurban and areas close to capital cities were saying how good it is now that they have doctors because of the change to the distribution priority areas. Well, good on them—except I know where they came from. They came from regional Australia. I know that the week that that policy was announced Western Health lost six doctors out of towns in western New South Wales. The issue we confront is a lack of understanding around regional Australia.
We hear a lot about support for the Voice and our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, but at the same time we have policies that are taking away the services in those towns. It is good news that there is more money for parents with kids in child care—and it is good luck if you have a place—but in Mungindi there’s no facility and no ability to get funds to build a facility so that the younger families that have moved back to make their life in the rural town of Mungindi actually have somewhere to send their kids. One thing the pandemic has shown us is that you can work remotely. We’re seeing in particularly some of the farm families one partner, or both of them, running a business from the farm and working remotely, but they have to have somewhere that looks after the kids. While the extra money for parents for child care looks goods on the surface, if you haven’t got a place to put that child that’s a problem. I have a staff member in Broken Hill who wants to come back from maternity leave but can’t find a place for her child to go, so that’s an issue.
One of the concerns I have with the budget is that, because the minister has called for a review of major infrastructure projects, they have largely been pulled out of the picture, so it’s very hard to get a clear picture of what’s happening with infrastructure projects. With programs like Roads to Recovery, Roads of Strategic Importance, and Local Roads and Community Infrastructure—all these programs that are building roads to help the productivity of this nation—there is now a degree of uncertainty.
Roads of Strategic Importance has been a great program. The road that connects Coonamble and Tooraweenah provides access for people and produce. Produce can go to markets in the Hunter. Tourists can go through Warrumbungle and Coonamble up to Lightning Ridge and into Queensland without having to travel on a dangerous dirt road. The Roads of Strategic Importance is terrific for that. The County Boundary Road up near Croppa Creek connects high-producing grain farms. A safe all-weather road for high mass vehicles will increase productivity.
One of the things that concern me most in infrastructure is Inland Rail. Most of the funding for Inland Rail is off budget, okay, but some associated things were in the budget. A great example of that is the money that was there for grade separations. So where the railway line’s coming through, a grade separation provides a safe interface between busy roads and the rail. Generally, you would have an overpass—sometimes it’s rail over road, but it’s mostly road over rail. Now that funding has been pushed off budget, has been pushed forward into future years. Has that been pushed forward onto the never-never because the project is in jeopardy?
There is a lack of understanding of what this project is. Basically, the Inland Rail is to provide an efficient connection between Melbourne and Brisbane for intermodal freight. A B-double goes up the Newell Highway, through Dubbo, every 70 seconds at the moment. That’s increasing exponentially year on year on year, and it’s not sustainable. The Inland Rail would take a lot of that freight off the highway. For those who are concerned about reducing our emissions, one train takes 150 trucks off the road. This reduces carbon emissions by millions of tonnes a year. And that’s just the basic part of it. As well as that, grain producers, cotton producers et cetera along the way will have a more efficient and cheaper access to ports.
More importantly, it will be a catalyst for other industries to grow. While the uncertainty is there, you have to understand it’s not just the rail project. In Moree we’ve got the special activation precinct where the New South Wales government has already put $300 million into the project. Local businesses are planning how to take advantage of that. Horticulture is looking to come and take advantage. Once again, with an Indigenous population of about 22 per cent, Moree getting permanent, well-paid jobs in those areas is empowering people, is giving them a future. When a family has a job, a lot of the other issues that they deal with fall away. A lot of the social issues fall away. This is the double standard we see when on the one hand we withdraw projects that employ local Aboriginal people while on the other hand we’re espousing virtue of care.
If you go right down the rail line, there’s the inland port at Narrabri with the potential to be connected to gas from the Pilliga gas field—the possibilities for what can be manufactured are endless. Our cities are now choked up and there’s difficulty getting large-mass vehicles into those industrial areas of the city, and there is competition between industrial land and residential areas. It makes perfect sense to move a lot of that industry out into regional areas, grow those communities with the efficient connection of rail not only to the port, but to every capital city in Australia. The Inland Rail, for the first time in the history of this country, would have every capital city connected by a standard gauge railway. So to have the minister talk about this as a National Party ‘vanity project’, to talk about it as ‘pork-barrelling’—this is the greatest piece of nation-building infrastructure we’ve seen in this country for the last 100 years. This is like the Harbour Bridge for regional Australia, and it has been treated as a political pawn.
What do you say to the younger person who’s gone to the finance company, bought a truck and a couple of side tipping trailers to go on behind because they believed there was a project that was going to go on for the next four or five years? They were told that. They were told that by me, as a matter of fact, so you can imagine where we sit on that. What are they going to tell their finance company? They’ll say, ‘Well, the project’s under a cloud at the moment. We’re parked up. We thought we were going to go from one to the other to the other, and now we’re parked up. What do we do?’ What about the 40 or 50 Aboriginal people in Moree who had their first job for a long time who are now back on Newstart? What are you going to tell them? They thought that they had a career building railway lines that was going to last for some time. It is now under a cloud. I’m certainly hoping that it will continue. I am saying to Minister King: please come out with some positive messaging about this project. If she’s going to knock it on the head, do it today, because the uncertainty is causing an enormous amount of grief in my part of the world.
We’ve got to look at regional Australia as servicing. We need to service the area that’s actually carrying this country economically. We came through the pandemic because of our exports in minerals, gas and agricultural produce. All those things come from the Parkes electorate, as do the raw materials that are being developed for the cleaner, newer economy. Cobalt, lithium, rare earths—all of those things are there, but they need the infrastructure to actually be developed. Regional Australia isn’t a place to be pitied. It’s not a place to be ignored. It’s not a place to be derided. It’s the future of this country. It’s the powerhouse that pays the bills. And this budget has, quite frankly, ignored regional Australia.
We’ve had the pharmacists in today, and the Prime Minister clearly had been speaking to them at his own pharmacy. The pharmacists in Rozelle are probably not at risk compared to the pharmacists at Bourke, Warialda or Brewarrina. In many cases, because of the transient nature of the doctors coming through, the pharmacist is the constant. The pharmacist at Bourke was telling me that some of the Aboriginal folk out there would come to him and ask them what their script meant, because the pharmacist was the person that had been there all the time and they could trust them and have that relationship with them. Forget the politicking. I know the campaign has upset members of the government, but we can’t afford to lose our pharmacists.
I heard the previous member talk about aged care. I think the money going to paying aged-care workers is a good thing. I think they deserve it. They are unsung heroes, and I have got the greatest respect. But, once again, you’ve got to think things through. Saying you are going to have a registered nurse 24/7 when there is no-one there to do that on 1 July—we’ve got aged-care facilities in my electorate that are terrified they will be noncompliant, and they don’t know what that will mean. They haven’t been told what it means if they can’t get an exemption. Some of the smaller towns can get an exemption, but I know it’s a real concern to Southern Cross Care out at Broken Hill, because they are really struggling to get that certainty of having staff there.
I am happy to work with the government. Minister King has asked me to go on a bipartisan committee to help with regional funding, and I will do that. I think it’s important that we try and work together as best we can. But I’ve got to say I can’t hide my disappointment in the way that regional Australia has been treated by this budget.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 19:34