Appropriation Bill - May 23 2012

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (12:09): Driving around my electorate of Riverina, the third largest by size in New South Wales and the 14th biggest in Australia, has given me plenty of thinking time in recent months. This is because the mobile telephone coverage is not what it ought to be and certainly not even what it once was.

I was once able to name all Riverina's mobile coverage black spots and they included but were not limited to Murrulebale north of Marrar, Tooma near Tumbarumba and pockets around Gundagai, Borambola, Grong Grong, Humula, Sebastopol, Tallimba and Tarcutta.
Happily, a new tower has been erected at Mangoplah, which was one of the problem districts, and this will be officially opened on Wednesday, 6 June. Unfortunately, in recent months Riverina mobile coverage elsewhere has deteriorated to the extent that if you get just a few kilometres away from a built-up area you lose reception. Because of the drastic loss of coverage, instead of being able to use my hands-free phone whilst driving, I have to wait until I am in a town to retrieve messages and return calls. This is a great inconvenience. I say this because, at the same time, this government is pumping $37 billion of borrowed money into a broadband network we cannot afford. Mobile services across regional Australia are going from bad to worse. While it is merely an inconvenience for me, for many others it is a safety issue, and that is deeply concerning. 

Many of the calls of complaint to my office lately have suggested that country mobile services are being downgraded as part of a strategy for people to get on board the new technology rollout, which might be all right for those fortunate enough to be in the designated areas for the first phase but is tough luck for those who are not. Telstra officials have admitted to me that the mobile coverage in the Riverina is not as good as it ought to be, and the corporation's commitment to my region has not, I feel, been strengthened by the fact that the general manager for Riverina-Murray, based in Albury-Wodonga, has been replaced by someone looking after a far bigger area and working out of Canberra. 

This has everything to do with Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2012-13 and related bills before the House because huge money is going into ripping out the copper wire network, which has served us well, to be replaced by optical fibre, when wireless technology would have done the job and funding could have—and I would argue, should have—been given to installing telecommunications towers to serve regional and remote communities. 
The government has resorted to accounting tricks and money shuffles to manufacture the appearance of a wafer-thin budget surplus of $1.5 billion in 2012-13. But the appearance of a surplus is really just an illusion. Whilst the Treasurer and Prime Minister tell us that budget 2012 was a tough budget, the reality is that Labor is spending money at an unprecedented rate and its economic malaise is hurting Australia, particularly regional Australia. It is hurting families and hurting Australian workers and it will continue to do so for generations to come. Indeed, it would take Labor 96 years to pay off $144 billion of net debt, based on the Treasurer's tiny surplus announced in his 8 May budget. 

Budget 2012 delivered Australia the world's biggest carbon tax, a record debt ceiling of $300 billion, a record net debt of $145 billion, higher unemployment and Labor's fourth massive deficit in four years. Labor inherited $70 billion of Commonwealth assets and a $20 billion surplus from sound fiscal management by the coalition yet has produced the four biggest deficits in Australia's history. 

In the past four years, Labor has delivered cumulative record deficits of $174 billion, and interest payments on Labor's debt alone are set to reach $8 billion per year by 2015-16, and that equates to $22 million a day on interest payments. As a fuel outlet proprietor from Narrandera said to me yesterday, 'Our great-grandchildren will still be paying off Labor's waste.' The blow-out in this year's deficit, from $23 billion to $44 billion, means more borrowing and more debt which future generations will have to pay. All of this is in spite of, in real terms, the government experiencing the fastest growth in revenue since the 1980s. 

Five days before the last election, the Prime Minister promised that there would be no carbon tax under the government she led. Therefore, it is not surprising that this tax is not wanted by the Australian public. There was no need for the government to waste $1 million commissioning a report to be told this. It would have known this from the start if it was actually listening to the Australian people. But Labor has not listened to the people; instead it takes its cues from the Greens. The result is that people stopped listening to Labor a long time ago. An election cannot come soon enough. 

The carbon tax is going to send energy bills soaring. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal hearing into the draft increase of 16 per cent was told that the prices needed to go higher, with Australian Power & Gas wanting prices to increase by 25 per cent. Energy companies will need to increase prices to cover infrastructure upgrades, and the additional cost of the carbon tax is making things worse. It is natural that a company passes on its costs to the consumer, but in this case it is the government imposing the cost, unnecessarily, on the Australian public in the first place. 

Wagga Wagga City Council—and, moreover, the hardworking residents, families and ratepayers of that fine city—has been declared among eight councils on Labor's hit list of the 248 so-called biggest polluters. How a regional council based in a city of 63,000 people, good people, can be considered a dirty polluter is beyond belief. That residents will be slugged with annual carbon tax bills of $660,000 plus—that is the amount in the first year, and it will only increase—just for taking their rubbish to the Gregadoo Waste Management Centre would be laughable if it were not so serious. That money would be far better spent on fixing potholes, buying library books or on maintaining the city's beautiful open parks and gardens than sending it offshore to Bolivia, Nigeria or Russia to buy carbon credits courtesy of some nonexistent carbon sink. Now we find out from Senate estimates on Monday that Coolamon Shire Council and Griffith City Council are also in Labor's carbon-tax crosshairs. There are 112 councils in total in Labor's sights, 79 per cent of which are in regional Australia. There are eight that the Clean Energy Regulator wrote to last month and they are included in the initial list of 248 entities to pay the tax. There are also another 104 councils that may be liable to pay the tax. 

While the government is giving councils a 12-month reprieve and is assisting them to determine how much methane over 40 to 60 years is likely to be emitted from waste decomposition, it cannot give them any advice as to what the price of those emissions might be in 33 years time. The government does not even know what the price will be in three years time. The key thing here is that you get to charge for waste disposal only once, when it is dropped off, but the liability will be with you for 40 to 60 years. As the 7 May editorial in the Wagga Wagga newspaper, the Daily Advertiser, declared: 
Wagga City Council is being forced to pay $23 per tonne carbon tax. What a load of rot! This climate change nonsense is now totally out of control. 
   …   …   … 
Really, there is no need for this tax. 
   …   …   … 
For heaven's sake, just what is the federal government thinking? 
Well written! 

This government has also wasted money on the tangling bureaucracy which surrounds the set-top box program. Almost a quarter of the $308 million to put set-top boxes in pensioners' homes was spent on administration. The cost to the government of having a set-top box installed is about $350 per box. Harvey Norman in Wagga Wagga can do this for $99. It could install three boxes for less than the cost of one of the government's boxes. Disturbingly, the government also appears to be being charged for work that is not completed by contractors. I have a constituent who recently had a set-top box installed in his home by two contractors. On completing the installation they laid out equipment which they claimed was a safety check and then had him sign a job form. At the time his wife was gravely ill and he was in the process of taking her to the hospital, so he did not pay too much attention to what he was signing. He informed me that the contractors laid out an aerial and cable and took photos of these, and he was concerned that the government was being rorted by contractors who were charging for services and equipment which had never been supplied nor installed. 

My constituent was also concerned about the way in which the ease of installation and explanation is portrayed in the television advertisements yet when he asked to be shown how to use the new system he was told, 'You'll work it out'. Where is the accountability for these services being rendered? What safeguards are in place to ensure taxpayers are paying only for what is being carried out? Furthermore, my constituent felt too scared for me to name him in this speech for fear of having a brick thrown through his window. He believes that many elderly people feel they have no choice but to sign the forms, no matter what they say, as the contractors make them feel intimidated and if they do not sign they will take the set-top box away. However, it is not only the set-top box program that has been problematic for people in the Riverina. With the digital switchover, many residents who currently receive a perfect analogue signal will be left with a bad or no digital reception. 

One constituent, Marie Chilton from Book Book, is having a great deal of difficulty sorting out television for the digital switchover. She had a contractor come to install a set-top box but was advised that she had no signal whatsoever and would have to get a satellite dish. As there is no assistance for the purchase of a satellite dish Mrs Chilton will face the cost of this herself. Additionally, she rents the property and therefore cannot claim the tax back that homeowners can get. Her landlord refuses to pay to install the satellite dish. I have written to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy on Mrs Chilton's behalf and was advised by his staff that she may—and I reiterate 'may'—qualify for assistance with the installation of a satellite dish but will have to cover the cost of the dish herself. Mrs Chilton does not understand why the government would spend all this money switching over when she currently receives all the channels perfectly via analogue, yet she is facing so many hassles to switch to digital. This is another example of this Labor government not considering the impact of its actions on regional Australians and senior Australians. 

That said, Riverina secured nearly $17.5 million in health infrastructure funding despite what was a tough federal budget—the toughest federal budget in a quarter of a century. The Griffith Community Private Hospital development was allocated the $11.388 million it needed for the project and Hillston's multipurpose service redevelopment received $6 million. I know how much this will mean for those communities who worked so hard to ensure their submissions were successful. Having updated decent facilities in centres in the western Riverina also eases the pressure on Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, which gained $55.1 million in last year's budget as the major health facility in our region. I acknowledge the local health funding. 

However, the budget was not otherwise friendly for regional Australia. Labor has stripped $5.5 billion from defence, which, considering that Wagga Wagga is a tri-service city, is sure to have an impact. The cuts ensure that as a percentage of gross domestic product spending on defence is now at its lowest level since 1938—the year before World War II began. Twenty Army major capital facilities projects have been delayed by up to three years, including the construction of Kapooka's working accommodation. There is the removal of recreational leave travel for single members over the age of 21. They were entitled to go back to their next of kin once or twice a year but that has now been cut. They cannot travel back to see their next of kin, because Labor cannot stop spending. The gap year program for Air Force, Army and Navy, to give young people leaving year 12 the opportunity to go into the military for 12 months, has been axed. There is a 10 per cent reduction in Army Reserve training salaries—so 10 per cent of our Army Reserve is being cut. 
What will that do to our regional communities and to our men and women who do so much to help serve their nation? 

Labor has badly let down the disability sector, giving just $1 billion over four years to start the National Disability Insurance Scheme, when the Productivity Commission said $3.9 billion was needed. Whilst Labor members might say that Labor is doing everything it can and that the coalition is doing nothing, the National Disability Insurance Scheme does have bipartisan support. I was the first federal parliamentarian in New South Wales to sign up to the program. 
Ms Rishworth interjecting— 

Mr McCORMACK: The member for Kingston can complain all she likes, but there is bipartisan support—and to go down that path of using the most vulnerable members in the community is absolutely shameful. These people absolutely need security on their funding and they will receive it, as there is bipartisan support. 

The government has deferred $941 million of vital Murray-Darling Basin infrastructure money to 2015-16. Yet money for buybacks is still very much on the table. I just had a group of schoolchildren from St Patrick's Primary School at Griffith visit, and one thing the adults accompanying those children wanted to know was what this government is going to do with the Murray-Darling Basin. I have to say that I do not know. This government does not recognise the fact that farmers grow the food to feed this nation. These people know how to use water very economically. They need the water to be able to grow the food to sustain our nation and other nations into the future, but they are being hit hard every which way they go. This government has not provided the sort of money it needs to for vital infrastructure which would put environmental water back into the system. But no—this government just continues to buy back water from the productive farmers and take money away, which is nothing short of theft. 

In this budget, spending on roads is the lowest it has been in a decade, and that is just shameful. Aged care will cost a whole lot more thanks to this budget—which, overall, is a figure-fixing exercise in order to produce an illusionary budget surplus. I question Labor's claim of achieving a surplus when Labor has increased the Commonwealth's borrowings limit by $50 billion to $300 billion. It is like a bank overdraft. Anyone in business and anyone who has ever run a small business knows that you should not spend beyond your capacity to pay back your debts.
But, unfortunately, not many on the Labor side have actually ever run a business. They have never grasped that you need to actually make money to be able to pay your debts, because a lot of them are, unfortunately, people straight from the unions—union hacks—and they have no idea about how to run a business and therefore they have no idea as to how to end up with a black line on the bottom of their profit and loss statement. And that shows, because all we ever seem to get is a red line on the bottom of Labor's budget. 

There is no business acumen in this reckless and wasteful Labor government. This budget has badly let down regional Australia. It has badly let down Australia as a whole. Unfortunately, our defence and our security will be the poorer because of this budget, as will small business—and families certainly will be because of the impending carbon tax, which is only a little more than a month away. That is going to have a very harmful effect on people's ability to meet the high cost-of-living pressures into the future.

Cristy Houghton