Local, Independant and Effective

A thousand reasons for the government to listen to Indi on the budget

Posted June 09, 2017


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (17:17): As I rise today to speak about the 2017-18 budget—Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2017-2018—the fourth since my election as a member of the Australian parliament, I want to highlight to the residents of Indi my focus on the electorate I proudly call home. My vision for Indi is for a community that works with its leaders and representatives to develop opportunities for growth and solutions to challenges as they arise. It is a vision for a prosperous and caring community which values inclusiveness, diversity, honesty and the hard work of all those who seek to realise the goal of making life in our part of regional and rural Australia the best it can be and admired by all.

Today in this speech, I will focus on three main topics: the findings of the Indi survey on the budget, the priority of regional higher education, and I will conclude with my actions on behalf of my community and the next steps in the process of engagement.

Since the Turnbull government's second budget was handed down, I have been listening to my community's responses—what they liked, what failed to hit the mark and what suggestions they would make that would help the government to improve the lives of all those living in rural and regional Australia. The message has been clear—there is a high level of inequality supported by policy that does not consider regional Australia, and too many policy and funding models are based on metropolitan populations. We have just heard very strongly—endorsed by the member for McMillan—that same point.

I will go to the survey. My community is familiar with my call for their opinions. After the 2014 and 2015 budgets, I toured Indi to gauge their priorities and suggestions. Alongside the meetings and informal gatherings in towns and cities throughout the electorate, the phone calls received and walk-ins to my electorate offices by those wanting to share their thoughts, this year I have also sought to engage online with constituents. So thank you to all those individuals, who made in excess of 1,000 responses to my survey.

In summary, 54 per cent of responses were from women; 41.7 per cent were from people aged 41 to 64; and 33.6 per cent were from people aged over 65. Most heartening for me of all that has been done was that young people aged between 14 and 25 heard my call to share their thoughts and opinions. Increasingly, they are responding to my commitment to them to ensure that young people's voices are heard by this government. Almost 140 young people, or 17 per cent of the survey's respondents, got online and on their phones and let me know what they thought about a budget that will play a major role in shaping their futures.

During the week following the budget, I hosted three young people's breakfasts, in Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla. Youth workers Anthony Nicholson and Rachel Habgood, of Wodonga; Tom Arnold, of Wangaratta; and Amanda Aldous, of Benalla, together with my staff, were instrumental in bringing together these young people before they headed to school, university and TAFE and to work. And their message was clear: to recognise their energy and commitment and remove the barriers to their education, employment and wellbeing.

Many of these young people made mention of the government's proposed changes to higher education, rightly arguing that rural students should be on an equal footing with their metropolitan counterparts. These proposed changes will further disadvantage young people in my electorate, forcing them to pay higher university fees on top of housing, transport and other living costs that they must pay when they move away from home.

Some respondents argued that Australia can afford to educate its citizens for free, in turn creating a smarter workforce with better paid jobs, who pay their taxes and thus provide a higher standard of living for us all. They encouraged the government to support schools in lower socioeconomic areas ahead of wealthier schools and in turn lift overall standards in our clever country and to provide additional financial support to students in regional and rural areas through more scholarships, bursaries and grants, helping them to meet the added costs of their relocation.

Deputy Speaker, I give notice that next week, as a result of this survey, I will introduce a notice of motion seeking to provide financial incentives for those wanting to study in rural and regional areas.

The proposed tertiary education changes are also a challenge for regional universities in their bid to provide relevant degree courses in the regions. The Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University, Professor John Dewar, describes the budget as a 'triple whammy' for regional higher education, incorporating three threats to the university's long-term viability. The first is by increasing student contributions and lowering the threshold at which the debt becomes payable. He believes that demand will fall among regional students. They already participate in higher education at a much lower rate than their city counterparts, and many are the first member in their family to go university. The need has never been greater for a highly educated and skilled regional workforce. Economic development and job creation in Indi will be dependent on the skills provided by postsecondary education. We want more, not fewer, students studying.

The second blow, says Professor Dewar, is the likelihood that the demand-driven system will continue to take a growing number of regional students away from their communities and to city universities, which is known as the 'brain drain'—present company excepted. Alarmingly, already that number has increased by more than 76 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

The third and final blow is the rising cost of delivering courses at regional campuses. Professor Dewar argues that there is no budget measure that will address higher costs for regional universities, which want to remain in their regional communities.

I welcome the government's commitment to an independent review of regional, rural and remote education, led by Emeritus Professor John Halsey, of Flinders University. The latest advice from the federal Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham, and his department is that this review will cover the full gamut of education throughout rural and regional Australia, from preschool through to university and the transition to work. The final report is due by the end of the year. I will invite Professor Halsey to visit Indi and meet the education community, families, employers, government agencies and students.

Education was one of three priorities in my survey, rated among the most important by a staggering 92 per cent of all those who responded to the budget survey. The next priorities were health and welfare at 93 per cent, and the environment and renewable energy came third at 89 per cent. Also important to more than 70 per cent of respondents was employment, passenger train services and regional policy, the NBN and mobile phone blackspots.

There was much good news for Indi in the budget. My community welcomed the $100 million to finally fix the North East rail line. Led by the Hume Rail Corridor Group and the Border Rail Action Group, many years of hard work has made the case for providing an updated, reliable, punctual and comfortable passenger rail service between the Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne. This service has the potential to deliver up to 385,000 extra trips a year, benefitting the economies of all towns and cities in my electorate, driving economic growth and improving quality of life. It is time this overdue project is delivered and no more money or time is wasted. It is time for a plan that makes crystal clear the responsibilities of all stakeholders, the timetables and the outcomes that must be met. Today in question time I asked the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport to take the leadership role to make this happen.

Increased investment in roads and infrastructure programs will support the electorate's nine local governments to build their communities and address real need. We welcome the increase in Roads to Recovery funding by $50 million per annum, continuation of the Stronger Communities Program, which is a great program for our communities, and the announcement of round 2 of the Building Better Regions Fund, another program that is delivering enormous benefits in the country areas. I also welcome the lifting of the financial assistance grants indexation freeze. I particularly welcome improved mental health services for veterans of the Australian Defence Forces, the energy offset payment for pensioners and the $4.7 billion investment in inland rail. What a difference that is going to make to rural and regional Australia—truly nation-building.

Indi is well placed to claim a share of the $1.5 billion announced in the budget for vocational training and employment skills programs. Vocational education leaders in my electorate have made progress to develop local and cross-border training programs for young people in the north-east. These programs will go a long way to improving the options for the more than 15,000 young people in my electorate aged between 15 and 24. Minister, can I say what a delight it was to have you in my electorate. Thank you for your support for this really important age group.

On health, there is a strong view that it should be higher income earners who bear the cost of the Medicare levy and there is an expectation that lifting the freeze on GP co-payments should see more bulk-billing services in small rural towns. There is recognition of the burden of the higher cost of health services, particularly the rising costs of private health care to a declining membership.

Deputy Speaker Morton, as you know as a rural person, country people are innovative and no more so than in my electorate. I will work with the community on the many suggestions and solutions they offered as part of the survey: incentives for specialists for regional areas; greater use of remote diagnostics via the internet; the increased need for funding for appropriate mental health services for the young, right through to our senior citizens; and funding for aged care and pension payments, particularly for the pensioners reliant on rental accommodation and those whose incomes are not supplemented by retirement savings. The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme is welcome and its funding via an increased Medicare levy is viewed as a positive move by government to improve services in the long term, particularly for the disabled and their families. However, there is a note of caution among respondents that the money needs to be spent wisely for those most in need.

On the environment and renewable energy, there is a clear push throughout Indi for sustainability and financial support to make the most of renewable energy sources. Rising costs of energy have impacted heavily, both domestically and on businesses and is a particular concern to the people in my electorate. The respondents, however, made clear that there is strong opposition to coal and coal seam gas exploration and objection to tax-funded support for those operating within this sector. Indi residents want the government to plan for the effects of climate change, and they seek support for the development of solar and wind energy.

The largest number of submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network into the rollout of the NBN came from Indi, and my community reinforced their comments, saying that copper wire is outdated and that the NBN program should utilise fibre-optic cabling. Moving from ADSL to NBN is described by some as a complete shambles, and many are indignant at the slow pace of the rollout. Those unable to access the NBN resort to expensive mobile broadband, and slow internet speeds make it very difficult for young people to study. Indi has been blessed to receive funding to address 38 mobile phone blackspots, but the pace of the rollout is slow. Emergency services during fire seasons continue to be impacted by black spots, and it is not just remote areas where services are poor; some areas very close to the city have no coverage.

In summary, the Indi budget survey has identified health, education and environment as the electorate's major priorities. The percentage of respondents who highlighted their priorities were 93 per cent for health and welfare; 92 per cent for education; 89 per cent for renewable energy; 88 per cent for employment; 82 per cent for trains; 78 per cent for regional policy; 76 per cent for the NBN; and 58 per cent for the arts. The next step is my publishing of the report and the distribution to the more than 400 constituents who asked for a hard copy. There will be a new round of kitchen table conversations and the second Indi Summit in 2018.

In closing, I highlight my vision for Indi, a prosperous and caring community. I look forward to reporting back to my electorate, reflecting the priorities they have highlighted. I highlight my commitment to work with the Minister for Education and Training on higher education, to work with the Prime Minister for a minister for youth, and to work with my community so we are not just coming and asking the government to solve the problems but doing it together. Finally, thank you to the people of Indi. It is an absolute pleasure to be your representative.

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