Consideration in detail: Appropriations Bill No 1 2016-17


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (10:36): I thank the minister, but I cannot thank the minister for the actions of his government when it comes to this portfolio. There is no shortage of members in this place who started their political life in local government—no shortage of them. Unfortunately, when it comes to members of the government, once they enter this place they seem to forget the important contribution that local government makes to civic and economic life in this country. Members opposite have supported the decision of their ministers and their government in reducing funding to local government by close to $1 billion since 2014-15. Close to $1 billion—$925 million—has been slashed from local government financial assistance grants since the 2014-15 budget.

It is important that this house knows what the future of financial assistance grants to councils around the country is going to be under a future Turnbull government. The impact on local governments cannot be underestimated. I have here some examples which I think should be interesting to the minister. Indeed, the minister, as a proud Victorian, should be acquainted with the impact that these cuts are having in his own state. The Victorian Grants Commission only last week published an interesting report that showed the results of the government's heartless cuts to financial assistance grants on his state alone—a cut of $200 million. So $200 million is no longer available for funding the important services provided by Victorian local governments.

Around the country we are seeing the impact of these cuts hurting very, very hard. The Livingstone Shire Council in Queensland are facing a cumulative loss of $2.7 million as a result of this government's cuts to their services. It is no surprise to members in this place that the state of Tasmania is struggling economically. They have limited capacity to raise additional revenues at the local government level, and they are incredibly reliant on the financial assistance grants for the provision of their services. Indeed, for the Burnie City Council of Tasmania, the financial assistance grants represent 7.2 per cent of council's total operating expenditure. The minister might say, 'Well, it's up to the Burnie council to just up the rates.' The Burnie council has some of the highest rates in Tasmania. In a very low-SES area of the state, as anyone who knows anything about Tasmania would attest to, the result of these heartless cuts will be the closure of services, the laying off of staff and, indeed, a pullback from some of the important capital works programs that the council would otherwise be planning.

In the South Burnett Region in Queensland, the South Burnett Regional Council is looking at significant cuts as well, with staff reductions of between 28 and 30 full-time equivalent staff. Again, that is in another struggling region.

The questions that the minister has to answer in this chamber are: what is the future of the Financial Assistance Grant? Can the minister guarantee that there will not be another round of financial assistance grants freezes? What action is the government going to take to ensure that these struggling councils from around the country are going to be put in the same position as they would have been had the Abbott-Turnbull government not imposed these Financial Assistant Grant freezes? How can the government ensure that these councils are going to be in a position to provide the vital services that their residents, their rate payers, so sorely rely on?

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (11:02): I am very pleased to hear the minister trumpet the benefits of the Roads to Recovery Program and, in particular, the increased funds that were won by the previous Labor government for the Roads to Recovery Program. Mr Deputy Speaker, before you arrived in the chamber we negotiated an increase through fuel levies, the revenue for which was allocated to boosting the essential funds available to councils through the Roads to Recovery Program.

However, isn't it true, Minister, that the benefits that you have claimed—being the increases in the Roads to Recovery Program—have been more than offset by the cuts to financial assistance grants? I bring to your attention the situation of councils within your own state of Victoria. The City of Greater Geelong in Victoria advises that, whilst local road funding has increased marginally, the funds that are available to them through the financial assistance grants have been reduced significantly. In fact, they are close to $1 million—$974,723—worse off over the triennium. So it is indeed good news that more money is going to the Roads to Recovery Program, thanks to Labor initiatives.

Councils as a whole would have been better off had the government not put in place the financial assistance grants freeze which is affecting councils right throughout the country and particularly in the state of Victoria. Citizens in Victoria are going through the process of voting in new councillors—they are in the process of electing new councillors as we speak. And it is important to know what the Liberal-National party attitude is towards future funding arrangements as they cast their votes for Liberal, National, Labor, Greens or Independent members of parliament. It is very important that they know what the disposition and attitude is of the Liberal and National party ministers who are responsible for this portfolio.

I am also glad that the member has made a reference to the National Stronger Regions Fund. It is true that they have funded an excellent project in the seat of Whitlam, after strong representations from their local member and the local council. Regrettably, they did not make the decision in round 2, but it does prove that even the minister is not impervious to good reason and a good idea when it is presented to him. So I congratulate them on reaching the right decision, after exhausting every other alternative proposal.

It is also true that if you look at the moneys that have been allocated, particularly in rounds 1 and 2 of the National Stronger Regions Fund, of the 111 successful projects that were funded in round 2 of the National Stronger Regions Fund, $230 million worth of funds were allocated to coalition electorates and only $16 million worth of funds were allocated to Labor electorates. So I put it to the minister that there is still an enormous disparity in the allocation of funds, that this is being used as nothing more than a pork-barrelling trough—particularly for the National Party, but for both Liberal and National parties—in electorates where they are seeking to shore up support, either in those electorates or for the ministers themselves, seeking to shore up support within the cabinet and the backbench.

In the time available to me, I also want to raise questions in relation to the Stronger Communities Program funds. But I see there are 20 seconds left on the clock so I might leave the minister to answer these questions and invite my colleague to raise some questions that are available to him in his portfolio.

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (11:38): I thank the minister for responding to some of the issues and questions that I raised, but I note that I invited the minister to rule out a further freeze—an extension of the existing freeze—on financial assistance grants to local councils. That has not yet occurred.

I turn now to shipping policy and I note that the coalition did not release a shipping policy during the recent election. In fact, the department told estimates on Monday that it had identified no new commitments on shipping from the coalition. The portfolio budget statement for 2016-17 says at page 35 that this year the department will have a target to 'amend regulations to deregulate port service providers and ships undertaking interstate voyages'. Minister, does this mean that the government intends to take the same approach to shipping in this parliament that it took in the previous parliament?

At estimates earlier this week we were told:

The minister has reconfirmed that he wants to introduce legislation into the parliament that will create a competitive and efficient shipping industry that forms part of Australia's national transport network. He has also emphasised the need to provide certainty to that industry.

Minister, are those your sole objectives? Does the minister see that Australia has a national interest in fostering and developing Australian maritime capacity and skills? Will the minister join with Labor in committing to including an objective to foster Australian shipping businesses and skills capacity—that is, Australian maritime capacity and jobs?

Finally, Minister, I will ask some questions concerning the very popular Stronger Communities Program fund—a $45 million-fund that was established in the 2015-16 budget. It is so popular, indeed, that during the last election campaign we had the Prime Minister running around the country, announcing and opening projects which were funded out of this fund. I want to ask the minister whether he can commit to continuation of this fund, as no commitments have been made and no budget allocations have been guaranteed to date. So, can the minister commit and guarantee that this fund will continue?

We have also been advised that there was an underspend and underallocation of the moneys that were available in round 1 of this fund for individual electorates around the country. Can the minister advise the House what happened to that underspend and where it was reallocated? Can the minister also advised the House whether there was an underspend in round 2 of the program? And, if so, what has happened to the moneys that were underspent in round 2 of the program? Can the minister also advise that House of what process was put in place by the ministers office in relation to the approval of projects in round 2, which I note occurred during the caretaker period and that this is an unusual course of events?

I also ask a question in relation to road deaths in Australia. This is a very serious subject, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am sure you would agree with this. Given that road deaths so far in 2016 are almost eight per cent higher than for the same period last year, why is the government cutting funding for the road safety program by over 20 per cent from $24 million to $18.8 million from next year?

I know that this is a matter that is of deep interest to the member for Scullin, and he has spoken to me about this on a number of occasions. I know that the people in his electorate and, in fact, right throughout Melbourne and Victoria are very concerned about that. He has raised with me the question that this is not the right time to make $4 million worth of annual cuts to training for learner drivers in the keys2drive program. So, we ask the minister: isn't road safety a priority for this government and for his ministry?