Mr COULTON (Parkes—Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment) (15:29):
From time to time, as I go around my regional electorate, I come across a bit of criticism as a local member. People might express some frustration and talk about things that maybe they're not completely happy about, but there are a couple of things I say that brings their attention and makes them focus. The first thing I say is, 'Shorten Labor government,' and then a bit of a grey pallor appears. Then I say, 'Joel Fitzgibbon, agriculture minister,' and that completely spooks them. They remember the member for Hunter because he was the defence minister who got sacked. Of course they remember the member for Hunter! They remember the member for Hunter because he represents iconic towns like Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Valley and Cessnock, which have a great heritage of mining but have a member who doesn't give a toss about miners. Of course they know who the member for Hunter is. We sit here and we've just had just had 10 minutes of the member for Hunter pontificating about a scenario that is so far from the truth it's ludicrous, and talking about leadership and representation of regional Australia.
Most of my career I've sat up that way, but I was on that side of the chamber in 2008. I sat in the chamber on one particular day when the vote was lost to retain the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund. That money was set aside by the good management of the Howard government for the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund. Where did it go? I tell you where it went: it went into $900 cash handouts to dead people and people living on the Greek islands. That's where it went. For six years there was nothing in telecommunications for the bush. In the last five years, 600 phone towers have been commissioned. I've seen them. On another day in 2008 or 2009, I remember the member for Watson saying: 'We will no longer use the word drought. Drought has been replaced by dryness. We won't use that word; we will now just talk about dryness. We'll give a few crackers, a few dollars, to an area somewhere over in Western Australia, and we'll do a trial to prove that this is a permanent situation. We no longer have droughts; we now have permanent dryness.' That was the Labor government's attempt at any sort of a drought policy.
I might remind the member for Hunter that we've spent $1.8 billion in this drought, and one of the reasons—if he had any understanding of agriculture at all he would know this—our farmers are doing so well is that they managed to get into this drought with better water systems. They were able to get the tax advantages and they managed to use the water infrastructure fund to improve the water supply. They had grain storages put up because of the tax incentives to do so, and they were able to manage their larger properties because of the GABSI program where the drains were replaced with piping and capping, enabling management of their pasture for a much longer time.
People in regional Australia have understood, over the last five years, what it's like to have a government and members that understand their needs. That's why they're seeing the rollout of the Inland Rail. That's why we're seeing, as we speak, contracts that have been let and rail lying along the side of the corridor between Parkes and Narromine, ready to be laid. There will be a corridor of commerce that will go all the way from Melbourne to Brisbane. It will not only improve the efficiency of road transport but also enable exporters from regional Australia to have better access to ports at a cheaper rate of freight. Within a year or two, in 2020, we'll see the Pacific Highway completed, largely because of a deal that was done by Warren Truss to fund 80 per cent of that from the Commonwealth. We've just seen the announcement of the funding of the Coffs Harbour bypass and, Mr Deputy Speaker, the magnificent infrastructure in your electorate—that magnificent bridge over the Clarence River at Yamba. Funding from the Commonwealth government enabled that to happen.
The members opposite don't really understand what makes regional Australia. I can tell you: it's the people. We don't believe in just patronising people and throwing them on welfare. That's their method. Our method is to actually encourage our young people. Through the Clontarf Foundation we've now got excellent attendance at school. Last year, the graduation of Aboriginal students at Dubbo Senior College was 58, the largest number in any school anywhere in Australia. I went to that graduation. Those young men and women were going into employment; they were going into further education; they were going into training; some of them were going into the Army—because they were encouraged to stay at school through a program that does not patronise those people but gives them encouragement.
Unemployment in my electorate had the third-biggest drop anywhere in Australia. Half of New South Wales—3.8 per cent. The unemployment in Dubbo was 2.2 per cent. The member for Calare was here, and the member for Hunter gave him a bouquet, talking about how wonderful the unemployment rate was in his electorate in Orange.
This government has opened up trade agreements where the Labor Party feared to tread. We've seen FTAs with Japan, China and Korea, which have opened up great trade possibilities for exporters right across the nation, particularly in regional Australia. Just yesterday, through this place, there was the TPP-11, the gold-standard trade agreement across the Pacific region, 11 nations competing on a level playing field of trade which will give enormous opportunities for our exporters. The Labor Party believed it wasn't possible. They thought it was a ridiculous notion to pursue that. We're also seeing an FTA about to be ratified with Peru. I've recently been in Singapore undertaking negotiations on behalf of this country for the RCEP trading group. We are commencing our negotiations with the EU. We understand that.
We've funded the Building Better Regions Fund. In Bourke, in my electorate, we've got an abattoir now that will employ up to 300 local people and harvest the feral goat population that is ever-present in western New South Wales, creating permanent jobs in that western part of New South Wales and export income for Australia through targeted, sensible investment in regional towns.
Those opposite like to take the high moral ground with renewable energy and climate change. I defy any of those people to have a greater example than the Parkes electorate. There are the large-scale solar farms at Nyngan, Broken Hill and Moree; a wind farm at Silverton and another one going up at Coolah; and the highest uptake of individual solar by households right across my electorate, including Dubbo. Farmers are investing in water infrastructure that's generated by solar electricity. Just recently I saw an irrigation pump that was powered by a hectare of solar panels. That farmer got some assistance from the state government, but with the new legislation that went through a month ago he'll be able to write that off his tax in one year. Changes we've made, which came through this House in the last sitting period, allow instant write-off for grain storages, hay, fencing and water.
We're seeing a massive amount of investment because on this side we understand regional Australia. We don't go out with platitudes; we don't buy the RMs and the big hat and go out and speak slowly so the poor folks in the country can understand us, as I've seen in the past. We understand the people we represent. We understand that working Australians are the heart of this nation and we support them, unlike those opposite, who have been captured by the latte-sipping set from the leafy suburbs of the capital cities. They come in here and have the hide to bring up a matter of public importance as puerile as this one. You'd think the member for Hunter might come up with something more original. It seems we have a bit of deja vu all over again, every couple of weeks.