RURAL COMMUNITIES IMPACTS BILL
Debate resumed from 16 September 2004.
Mr NEVILLE NEWELL
(Tweed—Parliamentary Secretary) [10.56 a.m.]: I oppose the Rural Communities Impacts Bill. This Government is committed to advancing the interests of people in rural and regional New South Wales but it does not believe that the proposal of the honourable member for Oxley represents the best way to achieve that. The honourable member's bill recommends the preparation of rural communities impact statements for all legislation, statutory rules or instruments proposed by a Minister or a Government member. Those statements are then to be tabled in Parliament. There are a number of problems with this proposal. The first is that rural communities impact statements are already prepared as part of Cabinet proposals which have clear economic and social impacts in rural areas. That means the needs of rural communities are considered throughout the policy process.
Where an impact statement shows room for improvement there is a chance to develop a solution to deal with the issue before it goes to Cabinet for discussion and debate. I suggest that is a far more sensible solution than that proposed by the honourable member, who simply wants to tack on an impact statement at the end of the process once bills and instruments have been drafted. This Government believes it is appropriate that the impact of policy on rural communities is considered throughout the policy making process, not only when a bill is introduced in the House. Furthermore, the Government understands that rural communities impact statements are only one of the many ways to engage rural communities and to take their concerns into account when making policy.
We know that no-one understands the needs of rural communities as well as the people who live and work in them. That is why front-line rural agency staff prepare the bulk of the rural communities impact statements. Sadly, the Opposition does not appear to share the Government's view. It does not believe that people living in rural communities should have a say in the issues that affect them. In fact, Opposition members have gone so far as to seek to enshrine in legislation that rural communities impact statements be prepared by a new unit in the Cabinet Office. That is just another example of how out of touch with reality Opposition members are.
Not only will this be an additional burden on the resources of Cabinet Office; it means that rural communities impact statements will be written by people in the city and not by staff of agencies that deal face-to-face with rural communities on a daily basis. Because of the Opposition's already declared intention to sack some 30,000 public servants, this is a sneaky way of putting in place a regime to ensure that those people in rural communities who are writing rural communities impact statements will not be there to write them in the future. If enacted, this bill will require the diversion of significant resources because of the level of detail in the analysis proposed by this bill and the widening of the scope to include statutory rules and planning instruments.
This also has the potential to create significant delays in processing matters. In many cases these resources will be spent in duplicating existing procedures. The Government believes those resources would be better spent delivering services to rural communities, as they are now. There is also an apparent anomaly in the bill, in that it will require impact statements to be prepared only for matters proposed by Ministers or Government members, not private members bills proposed by Opposition and crossbench members. Not only is this inconsistent, it raises some real concerns about the level of scrutiny the Opposition wishes applied to its own legislation. The Government is concerned that this bill contains a number of provisions relating to planning. First, the likely impact on rural communities must be determined before a proposed State environmental planning policy [SEPP] is recommended to the Governor; second, the likely impact on rural communities must be determined before a regional environmental plan [REP] is made; and, third, the likely impact on rural communities must be determined before a local environmental plan [LEP] is made.
These proposals will have serious implications for the legislative framework governing the planning process. The bill proposes a stand-alone Act that will have both a procedural and a process effect on other Acts. This would include the plan-making provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000. However, the bill does not propose to amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act so that all procedures relating to plan making are contained within the one Act. This will result in a lack of clarity in the legislative framework, and has real implications for the Department of Planning and local councils. Furthermore, the bill provides no detail on how local councils will be able to seek or obtain rural communities impact statements from the Cabinet Office, or on how this process fits in with local planning processes or procedures, including draft LEPs and accompanying documents being endorsed by an elected council before public exhibition.
The bill indicates that a rural communities impact statement will be required for all SEPPs and REPs, regardless of whether they apply to rural areas or deal with issues that affect rural communities. A rural communities impact statement will also be required for all LEPs for non-metropolitan areas. The bill defines which councils are designated as being in metropolitan areas for the purposes of the bill and it does allow exemptions with the agreement of the Premier. However, the bill is unclear on the method the Minister should use to determine whether the policy will have a likely impact on rural communities. Furthermore, in terms of the requirements for SEPPs, the rural communities impact statement is to be publicly exhibited with the draft SEPP.
Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, the Minister currently has discretion about whether a draft SEPP will be publicly exhibited, and therefore exhibition does not occur in every case. The proposed provision may have a significant impact on the Minister's ability to introduce a SEPP urgently, if required. Effectively, these additional requirements for rural communities impact statements prepared by the Cabinet Office will add another layer of process, procedures and assessment to plan making and other decision making—another level of bureaucracy. They will also complicate the planning legislative framework. In many cases, this could impose an unnecessary burden, with no discernable benefit over existing process.
The Government is also concerned that the bill is not clear about the consequences of non-compliance with any of its provisions. It simply proposes that the Presiding Officer of the House report on non-compliance. This could lead to increased uncertainty for communities and developers by increasing legal challenges to both environmental planning instruments and statutory rules, such as regulations. The statutory protection given to environmental planning instruments after three months under section 35 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act will not apply to these procedures. This is yet another example by the mover of the bill to give these matters the appropriate consideration. Although the Government is proud of its track record on consulting rural communities and taking their concerns into account when making policy, there is always room for improvement. That is the reason the Government has proposed the preparation of regional strategies for key priority areas in New South Wales as part of its planning reform package.
As part of developing the regional strategy, a strategic assessment will be undertaken to help identify constraints and opportunities, and test the impacts of various alternatives or scenarios for development in rural and regional communities. This is a practical way of addressing the ongoing need for consultation with rural communities to ensure that they are not unfairly affected by development. The existing practice for the preparation of rural communities impact statements is part of a larger framework of engaging rural communities in the decision-making processes that affect them. The Government is proud of its record in this area and will continue to work across the board to make sure that the voices of rural communities are heard in government. I oppose the bill.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE
(Lismore) [11.05 a.m.]: I extend an invitation to the honourable member for Tweed to get out of the surf and come and have a cup of coffee with people in some of the country towns and local rural communities. The necessity for the Rural Communities Impacts Bill has been brought about by the economic hardship being experienced in country and rural communities. I am pleased to speak on it. The honourable member for Tweed has merely said that he will not support the bill. If the Opposition disagrees with any bill, it moves amendments in Committee. The Government should do the same and the Opposition will consider those amendments. To simply say that the bill just will not work is not good enough. The Opposition has listened to the concerns of rural communities. Indeed, I remind the honourable member for Tweed that former Premier Carr said:
I want to make sure that the potential economic impact of any changes is fully understood before State Cabinet makes a decision.
That has not happened with many decisions that affect country, regional and coastal New South Wales. The native vegetation legislation has had an adverse impact on this State. This week the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics released statistics that show rural communities in this State have suffered loss in production of $1.3 million. Naturally, that has an adverse impact on the economies of country and regional New South Wales. It is ironic that in the last few weeks the Government abolished the vendor duty, the dumbest tax introduced into this State. We know that the introduction of the vendor duty had a severe impact in the city and, indeed, the whole State. I know it had a major impact on rural and regional areas. But how was the impact measured?
It has been alleged that the Government has mechanisms in place to deal with such matters. Therefore, the Government should have realised the adverse impact of such a tax when it introduced the vendor duty. Clearly, that mechanism for monitoring the vendor duty, payroll tax and so on is not working. The honourable member for Tweed, in particular, should be aware of the impact of the vendor duty on his electorate. Businesses in the north of the State have had to compete with their counterparts in Queensland, which does not have such a tax. Businesses in those regions are suffering because the Government was not prepared to accept the economic ramifications of its decisions. I note that the Government is adopting yet another Opposition policy and will reintroduce the threshold for land tax from 1 January 2006. However, the people of New South Wales will have to pay that tax for this financial year. If the mechanism is in place, why did it not pick up the ramifications of the Government's changes to the land tax? Once again the Government does not realise and appreciate the impact of the land tax on coastal, regional and rural New South Wales.
Opposition members have experienced first hand the economic downturns and the impact of the Government's decision on rural, regional and coastal New South Wales. This bill provides us with an opportunity to rectify that. It will tie up not only this Government but future governments. For example, the Government has decided to close the hospital at Coraki—I am pleased to see the honourable member for Clarence in the House today—which will have an impact on the community based on the lower river. Was an impact statement done on that decision? No. The hospital is being closed because of financial and budgetary reasons; that is the main driving force. Where is the mechanism, which the honourable member for Tweed said is already in place, to deal with the associated problems?
My area has the Northern Co-operative Meat Company based at Casino and the Cassino RSM pig processing plant based at Booyong. Sadly, a few weeks ago the company withdrew its boning services. Why? There are two or three reasons. One reason is a problem with the supply of bacon pigs to the plant. Why is there a problem with supply? A big percentage of the production comes from Queensland. Producers in Queensland can freight 240 bacon pigs on a double-deck semitrailer. Most producers freight their pigs in that way. However, once the trucks hit the New South Wales border they can only carry 200 equivalent sized pigs legally; the trucks must offload 40 pigs before travelling for about 60, 70 or 80 kilometres in New South Wales. Why? If they do not offload the pigs the truck driver and the trucking company get fined.
The transportation of pigs into New South Wales from Queensland is a major problem and a major cost to producers and the trucking companies. Hence, Queensland producers have decided that it is cheaper to freight the pigs within Queensland and therefore will not supply pigs to the Booyong processing plant. That is a problem for the Northern Co-operative Meat Company because it loads containers for export throughout the world. The co-operative is a proud company with a proud tradition in terms of the product it exports around the world. There is also a problem with exporting the product. Although containers have the capacity to hold many tonnes, the problems with tonnage on New South Wales roads means that containers are loaded only to two-thirds of capacity. As a result, containers shipped around the world are carrying only two-thirds of capacity of product.
In Queensland the same containers are packed to 100 per cent capacity. Shipping containers packed to only two-thirds capacity around the world is a major cost to the industry simply because of 80 kilometres of road transport in New South Wales; once the containers hit the Queensland border they can carry 100 per cent capacity without any problems. Those two issues are having a major impact on employment in our region and indeed throughout the State because other abattoirs are experiencing the same problem. I repeat: If the mechanism to which the honourable member for Tweed referred is in place, why is that problem not being addressed? These problems are having an impact not only on the State economy but also on the nation and on production in New South Wales. The Government needs to address these problems. I could go on at length about the problems associated with country and regional areas that are being impacted by the Government's decisions.
I praise the Leader of The Nationals for introducing this bill. Previous to this bill, the honourable member for Ballina, the Shadow Minister for the North Coast, introduced a bill providing for a cross-border commission. However, the Government voted down that bill because it does not believe there are any cross-border issues. The Rural Communities Impacts Bill gives the Government an opportunity to support country and regional New South Wales. The bill provides for the establishment of an assessment unit to co-ordinate all rural community impact statements not only for this Government but for future governments to adhere to. It is important for the bill to be seen in that light. It means that there will be a unit to consider the economic and social impacts, both good and bad, on areas outside Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong of decisions made by this Government and future governments, regardless of their political persuasion. That is important to the future of country and regional areas.
I compliment the Leader of The Nationals on introducing this bill. I hope that all honourable members will support it, although the honourable member for Tweed indicated that the Government will not. I remind the honourable member that last week his local newspaper reported that the Tweed Chamber of Commerce or a representative of Tweed businesses called on the State Government to address the anomalies across the border to stop the flow of businesses from New South Wales to Queensland. I made a generous offer to the honourable member: When he gets out of the surf and takes time off, I will be happy to take him west of Murwillumbah and into the rural communities that have been impacted by the Government's decisions. I would take him to Woodenbong, Urbenville and Bonalbo, all of which have been impacted by what happened in the timber industry. I have not had time to talk about the timber industry today.
I am more than happy to take the honourable member to those rural communities. I want him to speak to people in rural communities to explain how the control mechanisms put in place by the Government are helping those communities in their time of need and alleviating the impacts of the Government's decisions, which have resulted in the loss of employment in those areas. The Government's decisions have a flow-on effect in country areas. Once families move out there are fewer children, including students, which has the flow-on effect of fewer teachers, and reduced income coming into the communities. And the flow-on effects continue. I ask the Government to reconsider its opposition to this bill. If there are points it does not agree with, it can move amendments. That is what we do. I implore members of the Government to reconsider their decision to vote against the bill because it is very much needed in rural, regional and coastal New South Wales.
Mr STEVE WHAN
(Monaro) [11.20 a.m.]: I oppose the Rural Communities Impacts Bill because it is simply a smokescreen for The Nationals' failure to stand up for regional New South Wales. The honourable member for Tweed made clear the technical flaws in the bill. The honourable member for Lismore suggested we should move amendments. We will not do that, because we are already doing the job. We already have rural community impact statements as part of the Cabinet process. The process suggested by The Nationals would tack on the statements after the Cabinet decision had already been made. This Government conducts the rural impact statement before the decision so Cabinet can take it into account before it makes its decision. That is the right way of doing it.
We already undertake this important process in rural New South Wales. It ensures that when we make decisions we are fully cognisant of the impact on jobs, the economy and rural New South Wales. It is not something The Nationals have invented. The Nationals are introducing this bill because they have to cover for becoming powerless in the Federal and State coalitions and for not standing up for rural New South Wales. They are not being proactive and putting forward policies to help rural areas. They are simply rolling over when the Liberals—State and Federal—tell them they want to introduce a policy.
I take the honourable member for Lismore to task for his gratuitous comments about my colleague the honourable member for Tweed—he referred to him getting out of the surf and things like that. It is a bit rich coming from The Nationals, most of whose members represent the North Coast of New South Wales. That is why we often call them the North Coast Nats. The honourable member for Tweed has spent a lot of time in rural New South Wales with Country Labor members, talking to councils and communities and listening to what is going on in rural areas. If The Nationals were listening they might have been out in the community last week when we were trying to get them to support us in opposing the sale of Telstra, something that will have a serious detrimental long-term impact on rural telecommunications services in New South Wales. Yet again, they did not have the courage to stand up on that. Rural impact statements are important and they should not be treated lightly as a stunt, as we are seeing from The Nationals. We need to see rural impact statements as proposed by this Government, which are backed up by policies that help rural and regional New South Wales. That is the revealing point about The Nationals.
Mr Thomas George:
Point of order: My point of order is relevance. The honourable member is critical of The Nationals and has said that this is a stunt. This bill was introduced in 2003 and it has taken the Government this long to have it debated.
Madam ACTING-SPEAKER (Ms Marianne Saliba):
Order! There is no point of order.
Mr STEVE WHAN:
It is a very long-running stunt, but stunt it is.
Mr Thomas George:
I would have thought you would have more respect for the people of country New South Wales.
Mr STEVE WHAN:
We hear some absolute hypocrisy from the Coalition, and we have seen it today from The Nationals. The honourable member for Lismore strayed from the leave of the bill and talked about tax issues, which the Liberal Party has been talking about. People in rural New South Wales are telling me that they want services delivered. Surprise, surprise, to deliver services we have to raise taxes. Services in rural New South Wales will not be delivered with the Coalition's policy, which would result in a $16 billion black hole. The Nationals are impotent and we are seeing this measure to try to hide some of their impotence.
What would happen if the Government's rural impact statements were in place when the last Coalition Government was in office, when it sacked 2,000 teachers? The impact of that on the rural New South Wales community was massive. It was a disgraceful sacking exercise by that Government. There were no rural impact statements and The Nationals rolled over and let it happen. Where was their rural impact statement when they closed the Cooma railway line? Country New South Wales has found its real voice is Country Labor. We hear a lot of pious comments from The Nationals, but they are silent on so many issues of importance to rural New South Wales when they are told by John Howard they should just roll over and accept it.
I have already mentioned Telstra. It was a disgrace that The Nationals rolled over, laid on their backs and agreed to the sale of Telstra. This week, when we raised in this place the detrimental impact that petrol prices were having on rural New South Wales, The Nationals voted against even discussing petrol prices in this place. What a sellout of country New South Wales. They did not worry about rural impact statements. They did not want to embarrass John Howard by voting with us to tell him that he should send a representative to today's petrol prices summit. John Howard does not give a damn about what The Nationals think because, under pressure from the media and perhaps this Parliament, he has sent a representative to the petrol summit. Even when The Nationals are doing their best to back the Liberals, they are dumped by them. The same happened with the GST. We have seen nothing from The Nationals on the Howard Government's failure on issues such as bulk-billing. Where is the rural impact statement on—
Mr Thomas George:
Point of order: I ask the honourable member to advise the House of the ramifications of the Government's payroll tax.
Madam ACTING-SPEAKER (Ms Marianne Saliba):
Order! There is no point of order.
Mr STEVE WHAN:
We see from these spurious points of order that The Nationals are sensitive about these things. Payroll tax raises a big slab in funding for this Government. It is a major part of our revenue. There are three or four major parts of revenue in New South Wales and they are all opposed by the Opposition—so it says. It tells its communities that it does not support payroll tax, land taxes or any tax. Where do the services come from? Services in rural New South Wales would disappear under the policies of this Opposition.
Where is the rural impact statement that The Nationals insist on to cover the fact that the Federal Government has failed to train enough doctors and nurses to staff medical services in rural New South Wales? Where is the rural impact statement about the fact that one nursing school was closed recently by the Federal Government? Where is the rural impact statement about AusLink and the fact that the Federal Government has failed to put a single cent into upgrading the Barton Highway, a major national highway between Canberra and the Hume Highway, and the Murrumbateman bypass, which has been sitting on the backburner since this Federal Government came to office? There are no rural impact statements.
Mr Thomas George:
Did you make a phone call?
Mr STEVE WHAN:
I have made a number of statements on it. The honourable member for Lismore spoke about the impact on hospitals. This Government has shown its commitment to rural hospitals by rebuilding 50 or so rural hospitals. I have raised before in this House the absolute failure of the Coalition when it was in office. It held the seat of Monaro for 15 years. In the past 50 years it did not rebuild a single hospital. The Cooma hospital was rebuilt by Labor. Queanbeyan and Bombala hospitals are being rebuilt by Labor. Delegate hospital was rebuilt by Labor. It is more than just words; it is about doing things. It is Country Labor that is actually out there and doing things. What about the rural impact of the failure of the Nationals and Liberals when they were in government in New South Wales to do anything about improving water and sewerage in the Monaro electorate? Why was it that when I started working with the Labor Government Nimmitabel still was not getting enough water? Adaminaby had waited 40 years to get its water supply. It now has a fresh water supply. Why is it that Captains Flat did not have a clean water supply?
Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted.