SPEECH - Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2021-2022 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2021-2022

17 February 2022

I'm pleased to speak on these appropriation bills, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2021-2022 and its cognate bill, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2021-2022. Labor is not in the habit of blocking supply. As is always the case, we will be supporting these bills, but this is an opportunity to put on record the disappointment of my community in the failure of the Morrison government to follow good governance principles and to deliver on what are core areas of concern for people living in my community.

Certainly, this is a government that has been racked with stories of mismanagement, impropriety, wastefulness and outright corruption. There has been allegation after allegation about the way in which the government makes decisions and, accordingly, appropriates funds. We've seen the colossal distress in our communities caused by robodebt—again, where the government is simply not acting legally—followed up by car rorts and a whole lot of other inappropriate uses of funds. Not just is it wasteful to expend public money in such a shoddy manner; it is downright insulting to people in communities like Newcastle, who seem to constantly miss out. The government are blinded by their blinkers.

I want to go now to an organisation which was caught in the middle of the despicable behaviour that we now identify as sports rorts. Newcastle Olympic Football Club is one of the many sporting organisations that got dudded by this government's infamous sports rorts. It was cheated out of half a million dollars, despite its hard work and excellent submission. An independent assessment gave them a very high score, much higher than many others and one that ordinarily would have enabled them to be granted the funds, but we watched those in government-held seats, some of whom had received much lower scores indeed, get the funding. If the government had done the right thing then, Newcastle Olympic Football Club would have upgraded facilities by now; instead, they will now have to spend years trying to secure money from other sources, all the while watching construction costs skyrocket. This project is going to be infinitely more expensive now than it would have been when they put in their proposal for what, I must say, is a much-needed upgrade of their facilities. Newcastle Olympic Football Club has been selected as a training venue for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, which is great, but that is in doubt because of this shameful rorting of public money. Any club that's trying to increase women's sporting participation should be rewarded, in my view, not ripped off by a government addicted to rorting and skewing public funds.

Another example of that has been the use of the Building Better Regions Fund. We know that in the most recent round there was some $300 million in funding available. But $270 of that went to coalition and marginally held seats. These rorts prevent great shovel-ready projects from proceeding, although they should, on any merits based assessment, get the tick. I deeply regret that projects in my electorate have missed out, like the $8.5 million for the revitalisation of the Victoria Theatre, which seems to have been completely overlooked. There's also the $2.5 million small business support centre that is absolutely needed in my community but missed out on funding altogether. You would think that in a post-COVID reconstruction phase shovel-ready projects that have widespread community support and great cost-benefit analysis would be rewarded by this government, but that is sadly not the case.

Another matter that I want to bring to the attention of the House is how appalling it is that in 2022 we find ourselves unable to use mobile phones in our homes if we live in certain parts of even Newcastle, the second-largest city in New South Wales. I continue to get complaints from constituents in the northern part of Stockton who are unable to make use of their smart phones. We all know that every day we are increasingly reliant upon our smart phones. It astonishes me, but it is in keeping with the botching of the telecommunications rollout in this country under this government. We've seen the complete botch of the National Broadband Network scheme. It will take a new government, an Albanese Labor government, to remedy a far from satisfactory attempt to use multiple kinds of technologies to patch together what should have been one of the biggest nation-building projects Australia has seen. We were told it would deliver remarkable results for people whatever they live in Australia.

That was the intent, but it has failed. People like Mr William Snow have been in my electorate office trying to get support for tackling this apparent blackspot in the northern parts of Stockton, in Newcastle. But the Morrison government's blackspot program of course doesn't cover people in my community. Their own program to rectify this problem excludes communities like Stockton from being eligible. It is a pity that we do not see a stronger commitment to ensuring that telecommunications, whether phone services or internet services, are the very best they can be wherever you live in Australia. Heaven help those living in remote rural parts of Australia, if you can't get good telecommunications in the second-largest city in New South Wales.

I'd also like to touch on a matter that has been very distressing for my community, and that is the terrible difficulty that Afghani refugees are having in trying to seek entry to Australia. Like many Australians, I watched with horror as we saw the Taliban resume control of Kabul. I have many, many distressed people in my electorate, including Afghani Australians and defence personnel who had served alongside Afghani men and women, and I share their pain and their heartache. It's been almost six months since people fled Kabul in those scenes of apparent trauma, distress and a state of emergency. Afghani Australians are especially distraught as they have not even received acknowledgement for visa applications they have submitted for their loved ones, who are in life-threatening situations, from the Department of Home Affairs. Six months after the return of the Taliban to power, no humanitarian visas have been granted by the Australian government. The government said that they would prioritise visa applications for people with links to Australia, and women and children, but I have literally hundreds of my constituents contacting me who have submitted urgent visa applications for their family members but are being completely left in the dark by this government. The government has not acted with urgency.

A few weeks ago, after a scathing Senate committee report criticised the government's lack of action, the government announced that it would be allocating 15,000 visas to Afghan nationals. But what was missing from that headline was the fact that the allocation would be made over the next four years and that the humanitarian visas would come out of the already existing annual humanitarian program of 13,750. I also understand that 4,300 Afghans evacuated in August last year will also be counted as part of the 15,000 humanitarian places over the next four years. So we find that this government announcement, like so many when you scratch the surface, actually reduces the number of newly allocated places. This announcement completely fails to address the urgent need for an expansion of protective resettlement of Afghans who are in imminent danger from the Taliban regime. The Australian government can and must do so much more for the people of Afghanistan. For so many Afghans who risked their lives serving alongside our ADF personnel, a four-year wait under Taliban rule will have lethal consequences. They should be able to come and join their families in Australia. That was the priority they were given by this government, and it should be honoured.

In the time remaining, I'd just like to touch on two other issues. One is GP shortages in my electorate and the other is the crisis in housing. In 1975, it was the Whitlam government, of course, that made the historic introduction of universal healthcare to Australia to ensure that your access to healthcare was never reliant on some kind of postcode lottery or dependent on the amount of money you had in your bank account. Ever since, however, we have seen ongoing efforts by consecutive conservative governments to chip away at the universality of our healthcare.

Recent cuts to bulk-billing incentives and Medicare rebates, alongside the despicable closure on Christmas Eve of a GP after-hours service that was attached to the Calvary Mater hospital in my electorate, have resulted in devastating impacts for people in my community. Time and time again, the people of Newcastle tell me they cannot find a bulk-billing GP. That is a direct result of the Morrison government's withdrawal of bulk-billing incentive payments. People who can afford to go to a non-bulk-billing doctor tell me that they can't actually get an appointment see that that doctor. That again is a direct result of the Morrison government's decision to remove areas like Newcastle and the Hunter region from the distribution priority area classification list.

It's made it extremely difficult for local medical practices to recruit and retain doctors. The Fletcher Clinic in my electorate is one of many GP clinics across Newcastle affected by this decision. Madison, the practice manager at the Fletcher Clinic, told me they are in desperate need of a new doctor. They are working overtime to meet demand, which has only been made worse by the pandemic. They are concerned that they can't meet existing need, and there is a whole new housing development proposal for Minmi, and there are other new housing areas that are proceeding in the district, that will bring increased demand. They already have 6½ thousand patients on their books today. This reckless act by the Morrison government will simply add to further health inequality in Australia—and it certainly wouldn't happen on the North Shore of Sydney or, might I say, in the Sutherland shire.

Finally, I want to touch on the fact that Australia, and Newcastle in particular, is facing a housing crisis. Novocastrians are now waiting five to 10 years on social housing waiting lists. Thirty-one per cent of public housing dwellings in New South Wales don't meet basic minimal standards. They're the worst in the country, in fact. Now almost one-third of public housing households live in dirty and unsafe conditions.

In the last 12 months private rentals have increased in my electorate by nearly $5,000 in some suburbs, like Mayfield West. Nurses, teachers and tradies can't take up jobs in our regions because they can't find places to live. Open houses become more like mosh pits because families can't find a place to call home. Police were needed to be called to manage the chaos of crowds of up to 200 people desperate to inspect a property.

The system is broken. For nearly a decade this Liberal government has ignored the urgent need for social and affordable housing, saying, 'It's not our problem.' Well, it is. We need national leadership. No more delays and no more excuses, Mr Morrison. Now is the time to fix Australia's housing crisis.