I rise today to speak to Appropriation Bills No. 3 and 4, which the Labor Party has publicly committed to supporting.
I understand that convention requires Shadow Cabinet to support these bills, and I will respectfully adhere to that convention today.
I speak here now to support these Bills. Because, let’s face it.
The $1.5 billion in proposed appropriation that these two Bills address is, for the Turnbull Government, the equivalent of some small change down the back of the lounge.
A few bob in the console of the car.
Maybe an extra coffee.
But let me tell you, Mr Speaker. Where I come from, $1.5 billion is not small change.
It’s not funny money that can change hands with a mere formality, such as this.
It’s a mind-boggling sum.
More than the Lotto win of your dreams.
The kind of money can build region-shaping infrastructure.
Fund life-saving research.
Even move a community off contaminated land.
But I digress.
In the real world, which is where I reside with my constituents in the electorate of Paterson, you’ll find many middle- and lower-income Australians.
People in towns such as Maitland. Raymond Terrace. Kurri Kurri. Williamtown.
There are hospitality workers. There are skilled tradespeople. There are entrepreneurs and innovators. Defence personnel and retail employees and nurses and teachers and police.
There are elderly people and there are unemployed people.
There are jobseekers and there are those who have given up seeking.
Yes, Mr Speaker. I’m talking about real Australia.
Perhaps you’ve heard of us?
I have no doubt that the hard-working souls whom I represent will struggle to accept the fact that the Parliament is approving revenue for the Government to put into play a number of its economic and fiscal outlook measures.
Measures such as $65bmillion in tax cuts for multinational companies and banks.
Measures such as deliberately misleading the Australian people about the impacts of abolishing negative gearing.
In essence, we stand here in this Parliament today rubber-stamping the Turnbull Government’s priorities.
Conservative policies from a conservative Government whose only priority is to look after the top end of town while people in electorates such as mine foot the bill.
Real Australia. You’ve heard of it, no doubt, Mr Speaker?
That’s the place where some workers are up to $70 a week worse off because their penalty rates were axed.
It’s the place where casualization of the workforce is rife.
It’s the place where taxes on workers are rising.
It’s the place where unfair dismissal laws are, in many workplaces, non-existent or unworkable.
It’s the place where there’s high unemployment and chronic underemployment.
It’s the place where wages have grown just 2 per cent in the past year while energy prices have skyrocketed up to 22 per cent.
It’s the place where universities and their students have lost funding, and for many a tertiary education is becoming a financial impossibility.
It’s the place where youth unemployment is among the highest in the State.
Now, Mr Speaker, my colleagues and I have risen to speak about these matters on numerous occasions.
We railed against the Prime Minister’s decision to slice the pay packets of some of our most low-paid and vulnerable workers by abolishing penalty rates.
We’ve decried the Turnbull Government’s lack of a national energy policy, and the effect this has had on the hip pockets of our constituents.
We’ve illustrated our policy differences by telling real stories from ‘Real Australia’.
In this very room I have shared the heartbreaking accounts of elderly people going to bed with the sun in winter, to avoid turning on the heat, and putting themselves at risk of deadly heatstroke to avoid turning on the airconditioning.
I ask you, Mr Speaker: Why does the Prime Minister doggedly pursue the abolition of the energy supplement, which put up to $366 a year back into pensioners’ pockets?
Extreme cold and heat kill. In the year 2018, exposure is entirely avoidable. And this policy is cruel to the point of negligent.
Mr Speaker, how many families could enjoy airconditioning without the stress of bill shock for $1.5billion?
How many young and predominantly female hospitality and retail workers could receive penalty rates for $15billion?
How much support could be provided for tertiary students?
Yes, Mr Speaker, I’m aware that part of this Appropriation is destined for the Department of Education and Training. That’s fantastic.
But how much of it will reach the educators, institutions or students of Paterson?
Diddly squat, I reckon.
Although $69million will go to the Australian National University for a supercomputer.
Mr Speaker, where is the justice? Where is the parity?
And why must money be ripped from the pockets and paypackets of the hard-working people of the regions to fund big business tax cuts and elite wage earners?
Those who are least able to afford it are being whacked with the burden of this Turnbull Government’s budget failures.
That’s a hallmark of the Liberal/National Government, and it’s one of the great many reasons I am proud to stand on this side of the House.
Proud to represent the workers of our nation.
And, most of all, proud to represent the people of Paterson.
Mr Speaker, while convention dictates that I must support this $1.5billion appropriation from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, I must again underline that the worthy people in my community could make great use of those funds.
The Lower Hunter has deep and indelible ties to agriculture. In fact, this Friday evening the Hunter River Agricultural and Horticultural Society will open its 156th ‘Show’.
And while we celebrate this bond with the land, we are this year in mourning as well.
Much of my electorate of Paterson, and indeed the Hunter Valley, is in the grips of a diabolical yet hyper-localised drought.
Over the Christmas season we had day after day of 40-degree-plus temperatures.
On the land, many dams are dry.
The mighty Hunter, Paterson and Williams rivers are dwindling and full of salt.
The earth itself is powder. Any moisture has been long stripped away by the baking heat and arid conditions.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Maitland has recorded its driest January since 1932.
I was born in the electorate, and it’s as dry as I’ve seen it.
This doesn’t just impact the horticultural offerings at the Maitland Show and people’s front lawns, Mr Speaker.
This is people’s livelihoods.
It’s the difference between keeping valuable breeding stock and flogging it off at market rather than forking out tens of thousands of dollars in feed.
It’s the difference between a profitable harvest and watching the topsoil blow away.
Mr Speaker, I’d like you to consider how much difference $1.5billion could make to the farming families who are now at the mercy of these unprecedented weather patterns and global warming.
Generations of history are at stake.
Mental health is a concern.
The Maitland Mercury newspaper, which serves this community, has banded with its sister Fairfax publications the Newcastle Herald, the Singleton Argus and the Hunter Valley News to reveal the terrible hardships being experienced by drought-affected farmers in our area.
And I commend the Newcastle and Hunter Fairfax group for this series; in particular journalist and farmer Belinda-Jane Davis who has long been a staunch advocate for those who live on the land.
Not surprisingly, Fairfax reveals that farmers are saying the Turnbull Government’s version of ‘help’ in these dire circumstances is falling short of the mark.
These people don’t want financial advice or debt restructuring services.
If they want low-interest loans, they can go to a bank.
But the last thing many of them want is to go into more debt to stay afloat.
And a household ‘allowance’ feels too much like a ‘handout’ for many of these proud people who are already psychologically reeling.
The pressures in my farming community are so great that Hunter New England Area Health experts are expressing deep concern for landholders.
As Rural Adversity Mental Health Program co-ordinator Sarah Green told Fairfax Media:
“If you’ve got a shop in town you can escape it for a period of time.
“For farmers, they can’t. They’re sitting there looking at brown dirt day in and day out praying for rain.
“So many farmers I speak to have a big debrief about what’s going on but then they say ‘but mate, I’ll be right when it rains’.
“I have to sit there and say: ‘It’s about being alright when it’s not raining’.”
And, I tell you, Mr Speaker – it’s not raining.
The paddocks aren’t just dry.
They are scorched.
They literally crunch under your feet.
The timing of this diabolical dry is even more devastating for the community of Maitland, where there has been a movement spearheaded by our city’s 2018 Citizen of the Year, Amorelle Dempster, to reconnect the city to its agricultural roots.
In 2016, Amorelle and Slow Food Hunter Valley volunteers came to the rescue of farmers whose acres of pumpkins were destined to be ploughed into the ground.
They took those pumpkins to a pop-up stall in Maitland’s main street.
Council supported the initiative.
Media took up the campaign.
The community came and bought hundreds of tonnes of pumpkins.
And farmers put money in their pockets instead of ploughing pumpkins, and essentially dollars, back into the earth.
This rescue mission was the genesis of the Hunter’s own produce markets.
Today there are regular markets in the Maitland CBD, which provide farmers with a food hub that does not rely on the traditional distribution network.
Food miles have been stripped back to a bare minimum.
Primary producers have diversified their crops to allow them to sell directly to consumers at a fair price.
The movement has even seen new farmers join the ranks and younger members of farming families make the choice to return to the land.
Our diabolical dry now puts this world-leading venture at risk.
Not only are the markets facing the very real risk of not having enough fresh produce to proceed, the farmers themselves are at risk of being chased off their land.
So, I ask you, Mr Speaker. What could be done with this $1.5billion?
How many farmers, families and communities could be supported through this terrible time?
But, let’s really lift the lid on this.
Let’s come back to the Turnbull Government’s tax handouts, which will put $65 billion into the coffers of multinational companies and banks.
I ask you:
What is in the interests of Australians?
Is it *really* tax breaks for the top end of town, while our most vulnerable are forced to carry the can?
Is it *really* ripping away funding and support from students and universities?
Is it *really* axing penalty rates? Ditching the pensioners’ energy supplement? Increasing pension age to 70?
Again, I think not.
The Turnbull Government is manifestly out of touch with Real Australia.
And Real Australia is hurting.