Mr GIBBONS (5:10 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker. Please accept my congratulations on your appointment to the Speaker’s Panel and those of your colleagues. Being elected to the federal parliament is one of, if not, the highest honours that anyone can receive from their community. The electors of Bendigo have demonstrated a great confidence in me, and I intend to justify that confidence.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my campaign team, in particular Leigh Svendson, Jacinta Allan, Peter Stevenson, Bob Cameron MLA, David and Helen Kennedy, Lorna Erwin, Bill Murray, Margaret Lewis, Len Peacock, Marty Stradbrook, John McQuilten and Elaine Walsh, as well as the many hundreds of members and volunteers, all of whom played an important part in winning Bendigo for Labor. It would be nice if I were able to think that they could not have achieved this victory without me, because I know that I could not have achieved it without them.
To my wife Diane, my mother Jasmine, my sisters Karen and Jane and my brother Dale: I express my sincere thanks for their support and encouragement. I also acknowledge the important influence of my late father, Jim Gibbons , the only left leaning `used car dealer’ I have ever known. He would be extremely proud if he were alive today.
I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, and the Labor team. They waged a great campaign, resulting in many new MPs being elected on this side of the House. I am proud to be among them, and I look forward to working with them over the coming years. I would also like to take this opportunity to wish my immediate predecessor, Bruce Reid, and his family a long, happy and healthy retirement.
I stand in this House with a diverse background. I have worked as a carer for disabled people. I have been, I am proud to say, a trade union official and have started and operated a successful small business. I have worked for three state Labor leaders and served as chairman of directors, vice-chairman and treasurer at the Bendigo hospital, which is the major referral centre for the Bendigo region. The hospital then had an annual budget of around $40 million per year and a staff of 700.
My first job was as an apprentice motor mechanic and later a storeman in the automotive parts industry. I spent 15 years as a semi-professional musician playing in and around Bendigo and regional Victoria. I believe this varied background will equip me to represent the people of Bendigo and its surrounding communities very effectively.
I come into this place as the 15th federal member for Bendigo since Federation. There have been 6½ Labor MPs and 6½ conservative MPs for Bendigo since 1901—the two remaining halves coming in the form of one William Morris Hughes, that legendary ratter, who held the seat of Bendigo from 1917 to 1922. He obviously could not make up his mind whether he was a conservative or a Labor man. So you can see that, to that extent, I am in somewhat dubious company. But there have been many fine representatives of Bendigo from both sides of the House, and I would like to acknowledge some of them from our side of politics today.
For example, Percy Clarey held Bendigo for Labor from 1949 to 1960 and was a former President of the ACTU. Noel Beaton succeeded him in 1960 and retired in 1969, when my good friend David Kennedy was elected in a by-election and was then re-elected in the general election later that year. John Brumby was the next Labor MP for Bendigo, and he held the seat from 1983 to 1990. He will, no doubt, be the next Premier of Victoria, and I can think of no-one better equipped, more hardworking or more dedicated to occupy that office. If I can be as effective a member for Bendigo as those I have just mentioned, I am sure the electors of Bendigo will be well satisfied.
Bendigo is fast becoming the privatisation capital of Australia as conservative governments continue to implement the economic rationalist dogmas that are devastating regional Australia. In the years since the Kennett government and the Howard government took office, the Bendigo district has lost over 1,600 full-time public sector jobs as a result of privatisation, preparation for privatisation and public sector cuts.
These massive job losses have been imposed on areas including health, education, the SEC or Powercorp, the Gas and Fuel Corporation, Coliban Water, Telstra, the Veterinary Laboratory, the Australian Taxation Office, VicRoads, local government agencies, the Bendigo Railway Workshops, Australian Defence Industries, the Army Topographic Survey Establishment, La Trobe University (Bendigo), the Family Court, the Department of Social Security and Centrelink. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have official unemployment figures for the electorate in the order of 11 per cent. I believe the true figures are in fact much higher. Even heavier, of course, is the level of youth unemployment in the Bendigo region.
There are answers to tackling the unemployment problem, but if we are to begin to turn the tide we have to scrap the economic rationalist principles that I believe are largely to blame for the present levels. Governments at federal and state level must also accept that regions like Bendigo need to have a strong government infrastructure base as a foundation for their economic future. We must have appropriately funded government agencies including health, education and local government institutions. These continue to be major providers of employment «in» Bendigo, Castlemaine, Heathcote and Maryborough and were formerly the lifeblood of smaller towns like Wedderburn, Elmore, Maldon, Dunolly, Bridgewater and Inglewood.
Telstra alone has shed close to 300 full-time jobs from the Bendigo district over the past 2½ years, resulting in the loss of some $12 million per year from the Bendigo district’s economy. This has had a devastating impact on our small businesses and has contributed to the large number of empty shops and offices throughout the city of Bendigo in particular. What is most disturbing is that the latest round of Telstra job losses comes from the Bendigo Fault Centre, with the remaining 52 jobs being relocated to Launceston, Tasmania. The service is still being provided, but only from Launceston. So Launceston gains Telstra’s entire Southern Regional Fault Service Centre, with over 100 jobs, entirely at Bendigo’s expense.
When central Victorians were asked to indicate their preference for a communications carrier, between Telstra and Optus, a massive 96 per cent voted to stay with Telstra. I wonder what would happen now if that ballot was repeated. The people would undoubtedly desert Telstra in large numbers in favour of their competitors—and no wonder.
The federal government has the capacity and indeed the responsibility to review its policy of arms-length involvement in not only Telstra but every aspect of government services so that regions like Bendigo not only maintain current employment levels and government agencies but begin to increase employment levels by developing new services into the future. We can then set about attracting appropriate private sector industries to our region, especially in the information technology and telecommunications areas which the Bendigo region is well placed to provide.
The changes will at least signal our commitment to address the terrible inequities that are changing the face of regional Australia. Once we were a country where the ideal was that all should have enough to live with dignity; we had jobs and we had a good social security safety net. Now, with record unemployment, we are becoming a land where those who are comfortable and secure are in danger of living in fear of those who have lost all hope.
Our small town communities are being devastated by the economic policies of conservative governments. I refer in particular to the Victorian state government’s plans to impose a new sewerage scheme on people who cannot afford it and who do not need or want it. For a lot of people in small towns around Bendigo this was a major issue in the federal election. They wanted to send a clear signal to the coalition parties in Victoria that they are tired of having conservative governments impose their ideas against the will of the majority of the people.
The costs involve head-works charges of some $1,950 plus anything up to $3,000 per household for internal plumbing. This is far in excess of what most residents in these towns can afford. For pensioners, unemployed and others on low incomes these costs are absolutely ruinous. I congratulate the North Central Waste Water Alliance for its energetic campaign and, in particular, I congratulate John Olsen, Alister Gray and the others who have been leading figures in standing up for their communities against the uncaring attitude of remote and big governments.
In contrast to the Victorian government, we have the New South Wales government providing the same service for its smaller communities by funding 75 per cent of the head-works costs out of state government funds with local government picking up the remaining 25 per cent and in most cases not passing these costs on to their residents. The contrast is staggering. On the one hand, we have the Victorian government riding roughshod over its people and imposing its privatisation mania in spite of public opposition. On the other hand, we have the New South Wales Labor government listening to its people and governing in accordance with its wishes. I will continue to support the Waste Water Alliance in their campaign for a fair deal. Small towns in the Bendigo electorate sent a very clear message to the conservative parties in the October election and it must be heeded.
The coalition’s economic policies are also having a devastating effect on the Australian Defence Industries plant in Bendigo. This industry is a major component of Bendigo’s economy, with a current employment level of around 360 jobs. The massive scaling back of 150 jobs by the coalition in the pre-privatisation process has stripped away much needed personnel expertise, which will be lost to the region forever. We do not know what number of jobs will be retained with privatisation or even if the plant will in fact survive into the future.
The performance of the coalition has been especially disgraceful considering that the current Prime Minister aimed to lead the public to believe in the 1996 election campaign that ADI Bendigo would not be privatised. Another example of broken promises to Bendigo is the failure to deliver the $2 million promised to the Bendigo Art Gallery for redevelopment. In the 1996 election in Bendigo the coalition promised to contribute the $2 million. They broke that promise as soon as the election was out of the way. In fact, until a few weeks before the October election this year, they even denied they ever made the commitment. Then, suddenly, with the election on the way, they announced that they would pay the $2 million. The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, then claimed that the cheque was `as good as in the mail’. I can just see the headline: `Coalition keep promise they never made’.
Also under threat alongside ADI is Bendigo’s Army Topographical Survey Establishment, which is scheduled to have its building sold out from under it. This is a magnificent historic building and property called `Fortuna’, which is a major part of Bendigo’s history and heritage. This property will also face the auctioneer’s hammer under the coalition’s program of unloading large numbers of Defence properties across Australia. Another 150 jobs are therefore placed at risk.
I will now deal with the GST and its effect on the people of the Bendigo federal electorate. Labor secured a swing of around 4.6 per cent in Bendigo. This was the second largest swing in the marginal federal seats in Victoria, and the largest swing in regional Victoria. Labor in Bendigo campaigned vigorously against the GST. There was widespread concern over the far-reaching effects of the GST, especially among pensioners, the unemployed and low income earners. Small businesses also were constantly expressing their fears and worries over the burden the GST would cause to them as unpaid tax collectors.
In Maryborough, which relies heavily on its book printing industry, the GST will increase its cost of inputs by a massive 4.5 per cent. This comes on top of the coalition’s scrapping of the printing industry’s book bounty. This latter move has increased the industry’s costs by some four per cent and threatens the future viability of the industry and the security of about 600 jobs. Is it any wonder that people are deserting the coalition when it has no industry policy and no regional development policy other than increasing the costs of production and destroying jobs with the GST?
The Bendigo electorate and regional Australia need a genuine industry policy and a genuine regional development policy to ensure the future of our existing industries and to add to economic growth and jobs growth. Regional Australia desperately needs the vision and policies of the kind that were spelled out during the election campaign by the Labor team.
Another issue of widespread concern has been the move to establish a casino in Bendigo. This proposal emerged early in August and received the enthusiastic encouragement of the Victorian state government. It is noteworthy that the state government’s support for the proposal came after the federal coalition had announced an inquiry into the effects of gaming throughout Australia. No doubt honourable members are only too well aware of the community concern that has arisen in Victoria since the establishment of Crown Casino and the development of the casino culture, especially with its close links with the Victorian state government. It is therefore hardly surprising that there has been extensive concern expressed in Bendigo over the casino proposal and the state government’s backing for it.
A nation is measured by the way it cares for its elderly citizens. Older Australians are entitled to security and peace of mind, and the past 2½ years have been anything but comforting to our elderly. I refer to the disruptive and unfair scheme of nursing home fees introduced by the coalition government. The scheme has caused enormous heartache and distress for senior citizens, and this anxiety was experienced by many in the Bendigo electorate. To add to this, the state coalition government plans to privatise some 60 nursing home beds in Bendigo, beds which are now very capably administered by the Bendigo Health Care Group. The Bendigo Health Care Group has been debarred from tendering for its own beds, despite the fact that it would prefer to submit a tender.
I have lived in Bendigo for the past 43 years and have spent all my working life in Bendigo. I can think of no better place to live. It is a great city and a great community, and I want to see it flourish and prosper. I want a sound future for the rural communities and the cities and towns of the electorate.
I noticed in the window of the Government Whip’s Office a poster which states `Ballarat—the greatest Victorian city’. I have some bad news for the honourable member for Ballarat: that poster is wrong. Bendigo offers a richer history, although similar to Ballarat. The Australian constitution was in fact drafted in Bendigo by Sir John Quick, who was the first MHR for Bendigo. In more recent times Bendigo has enjoyed a faster growth rate than has its sister city. Bendigo holds the Challenge Cup, which is a basketball competition between the two cities, I remind the honourable member.
Bendigo’s regional daily newspaper beat all comers in the tabloid section for the Asian Pacific region, in only its second edition after becoming a tabloid. Bendigo’s local TV news service consistently outrates the Ballarat service per head of population. Bendigo has its own banking group, which has pioneered the community banking concept as a result of the major banks closing some 1,132 small branches throughout Australia. This excellent service allows small towns to establish their own bank branch, with the Bendigo Bank providing the infrastructure and support, and the bank and the community share all of the revenue. This innovative service was designed and implemented in Bendigo, and now the ANZ Bank and the Bank of Melbourne are considering implementing a similar service.
I could go on for some time speaking on the merits of Bendigo in relation to its sister city but I will not, except to say finally that Bendigo enjoys a far more attractive climate than does Ballarat. In fact, I recently had the pleasure of being in that city when it actually stopped raining, but that was only because it hailed.
I have focused in my speech today on local issues, because my election campaign was very much a local campaign which concentrated on the matters that have been uppermost in the minds of the local people. Each of these issues was, of course, a reflection of nationwide and state-wide issues. The voters in the Bendigo electorate showed convincingly that government must come back to the people and put the needs of ordinary citizens before the narrow economic ideology that has driven the conservative parties.
I believe that Labor is the only party with the intellectual capacity to establish and implement policies that benefit all Australians, irrespective of their economic circumstance. Labor is the only party capable of governing with the required compassion for those who are unable, for a variety of reasons, to fend for themselves. Bendigo’s vote for Labor is indeed heartening, and I look forward to working in partnership with the electorate I have been elected to represent, and to helping achieve Labor’s victory at the next election. It is only after a major change in ideology that we will realise our true goals of seeing each and every Australian function at their full potential.
Honourable members —Hear, hear!