My vision for Indi is one where our communities in rural Australia are prosperous, caring and alive with opportunities for everybody. To be part of the process for implementing that vision is one of the key reasons I am in federal parliament. I am 100 per cent committed to working in partnership with my community, with business and with governments to bring this vision to fruition. Of all the tools at the disposal of government and this parliament, the budget plays a key role in setting the parameters and creating the environment for that vision to be enacted.
The future is not some place we are going to. It is not a set destination. The future in fact is a place we are creating, and I believe the paths to the future are made not found—and the making of those pathways changes both the maker and the destination. What we do is important, but I believe that how we do things is equally important.
With these convictions, I am committed to working closely with my community in my role as MP on both the what and the how of good governance. Consequently, over the three weeks since the budget, I have been talking with my community in multiple ways about the budget. I have been running listening posts, driving the caravan near and far across the valleys and towns of Indi. I have held meetings, walked the streets and gained a sense of what the people of Indi think about the Abbott government's second budget—their hopes, their fears, their likes, their dislikes and their suggestions for improvement. I have called this process the budget impact tour, or BIT. Tonight I am pleased to present a summary of the findings to the House. A full report will be made available and distributed across the network and to my colleagues in early June.
Together with kitchen table conversations and the 'get in Cathy's ear' postcard, the BIT is one of the consultation strategies I am using to ensure that I provide strong, fair and balanced representation on behalf of the people of Indi.
In summary, there were three main themes gathered during this consultation. The first is the impact of the budget on regional Australia; the second is the impact of the budget on individuals, families and businesses; and the third is the opportunities presented in this time of low interest rates and cheap money to invest in infrastructure in regional Australia. In relation to the budget and regional Australia, a major criticism of last year's budget was the lack of understanding, discussion and appreciation of the impact budget strategies would have on regional Australia. Following extensive discussions in my electorate and with colleagues in this place, at the end of March I presented to the House a private member's bill, the charter of budget honesty amendment bill, which outlined key aspects of what a regional budget impact statement would address.
For the information of my colleagues in the House tonight, the key aspects of that bill were the publication of a regional Australia statement, which contains information about the likely impacts on regional Australia of key government initiatives or significant changes since the last financial year. The budget would have regard to the following: the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of government initiatives; the economic drivers of regional communities; the effect that government initiatives may have on regional communities due to lack of infrastructure, particularly mobile phone coverage, reliable internet connections, access to public transport, and the lack of access that people living in regional communities have to government services due to cost, long distances and time; the effect that lack of competition in regional communities has on the cost of living and doing business in regional communities; and, finally, the cost and difficulties involved in complying with regulatory requirements for people and businesses in regional communities.
I am pleased that in this year's budget the government has responded to the call from regional Australia for more information and has tabled the blue book, which does outline key government initiatives. I congratulate the government on this publication. I also note that there is no discussion in the blue book of the likely impacts on regional Australia of key government initiatives and the process made in addressing significant structural inequalities. From my perspective, clearly this is a work in progress, and I will continue to lobby the government and advocate with relevant ministers on the importance of doing this analysis.
To the second part of my speech: the summary of feedback gained during the budget impact tour—the impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses. I will begin with the positives. The budget recognition and support for small business has been widely applauded, as outlined by the member for Braddon. Budget support for stronger communities through the small capital projects grants is seen as a positive initiative, and people are looking forward to seeing the detail and the guidelines. There is a general sense that this budget was not as controversial as last year's; it is seen to be more fair and has addressed some of the problems outlined in last year's budget.
However, the largest particular area of comment to me was in relation to taxation. As I mentioned, there is strong support for changes to small business taxation as well as support for changes to agricultural taxation. But there is a call to align these changes so that agriculture and farming both have immediate access. The current arrangement is that farmers have to wait for two years before they can claim the tax incentives. While there has also been concern about the impact of bracket creep and the burden being carried by middle-class regional Australia, there was strong support for reviewing taxation, and support for the taxation white paper and the related federation white paper.
The second area of great concern was the impact of the budget on social security: changes to pensions, fear of more changes to pensions, the impact of changes to family benefits, maternity leave arrangements, pensions and changes to disability support have all caused great concern. In the health area, there has been concern about changes to arrangements for funding aged care and, in particular, residential aged-care packages, as well as ongoing concern about GP co-payments and what might happen in small rural communities where we have no bulk-billing services.
In the area of telecommunications there is an ongoing and consistent call for better access to mobile phone coverage. The government has an excellent program underway to address this issue, and there was great disappointment in my electorate that the budget failed to put more money into the mobile phone black spots program. I will continue to advocate very strongly to the minister that this needs to be done.
Around transport, fears relating to the potential impact of the sale of the Australian Rail Track Corporation and what this might mean for ongoing train and rail maintenance on the Melbourne-Albury line was a constant concern, as was the need for much more support for the inland freight route and the eventual funding of high-speed rail.
Around agriculture, there was general disappointment in the time it is taking to release the agricultural white paper; and the hope that recommendations in the white paper, when it is released, will be well funded. Particular mention was made of the importance of agricultural research and the need for a long-term strategic approach to investment in innovation, particularly in agricultural innovation.
Other issues canvassed included cuts to our aid budget and support for young people, particularly support for young people to make the transition from school to work, from work to university, from town to city and from city back to town. There was real worry that the long-term implications of cuts to our aid budget would turn up in rural and regional Australia as problems. People have asked me, again, to advocate to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to see what we can do, particularly about providing support to our near neighbours in the Pacific.
Apart from these issues raised during the consultation process, I also had a series of discussions about the government commitment to regional Australia with the financial experts in my community, and a number of questions were raised for consideration by the government. What would it take to get the government to seriously invest in infrastructure in regional Australia? With the low cost of money and low interest rates, the question was asked, 'Why doesn't the government borrow money to invest in infrastructure such as high-speed rail connectivity, telecommunications and regional services?'
I was also asked why there is not a national policy around decentralisation. Why are we getting only ad hoc titbits, moving agricultural research to centres? We need a policy of decentralisation. I was asked what we would have to do to get such a policy in place. How do we grow service industries in regional areas? How do we really grow small business? What can we do to remove the impediments of cross-border anomalies and very specific taxes such as the payroll tax?
I was asked to think about what we need to do to create incentive for regional development, what incentives are needed and how government could provide these. What would we really need to do to get super funds to invest in regional infrastructure?
Generally, the people of Indi were supportive of the government's attempt to manage the budget. However, they want a much greater appreciation of the impact of budget measures on regional Australia, and they want larger investment in regional infrastructure. They are worried about the slow pace of addressing the many mobile phone black spots, and the lack of commitment to high-speed rail and public transport. The people of Indi are calling on the government for inspiration and for partnerships—especially partnerships with young people; for the government to work with young people to enable them to become active participants in our new economy. They see opportunity for the government to provide aspiration—to really move from a sense of entitlement to a sense of innovation. There is so much more we could be doing, and regional Australia wants to partner with government in being part of that innovation.
Many constituents also commented on the important role of young people in regional Australia, and the need to stem the export—to reach out to young people and offer them support, encouragement and mentoring in order for them to reach their potential and become active participants in our regional economies. They said to me that young people do not need punishment—they need encouragement. They need a hand up. We need to be able to ensure that young people's energy, enthusiasm, vitality and skills can be used to help create the future that we all desire—a future full of prosperity and caring and alive with opportunity.
If I could make a note regarding the member for Braddon's speech, he expressed, perhaps, a fear that our regional communities will be full of old people. My sense is if we keep going in that direction, that is where we are headed.
I call on the government to not go in that direction, to actually pay attention to young people in regional Australia and encourage them to come and live in our communities, to open small businesses, to partake in higher education and to be active participants in our communities.
It is my hope that next year's blue book—that concentrates on the government's budget and its impact on regional Australia—will focus on how the budget has impacted on the lives of young people who live in regional Australia, how it has advanced education, how it has given them access to mobile phones and NBN, how it has given them access to public transport, how it has given them access to create jobs and innovative ways of doing agriculture. And, finally, I hope that when we look at the balance of that particular budget that it shows we are in a surplus and that young people choose to come to live in regional Australia because that is the way we want to have it.
IMAGE: Elizabeth Holligan tells Cathy her views on the 2015-16 Budget at a Listening Post in Wangaratta on May 18.