Appropriation Bills

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (11.30 am)—I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2010-2011. I should indicate that Appropriation Bill (No. 3) involves a total appropriation of $1.36 billion and this flows from the changes to the estimate of program expenditures, the timing of payments, forecast increases in program take-ups, and some reclassifications and policy decisions that have been taken by the government since the last budget. Appropriation Bill (No. 4) has a total appropriation of $1.02 billion for numerous departments.

I want to take this opportunity in the debate to address a number of specific issues within that range of policy areas and also address some of the local implications for my electorate. I would like first to address the component that addresses the fair entitlements guarantee to protect employee entitlements when employers enter liquidation.

I would indicate that Illawarra workers have been victims over many years now of losing their legal entitlements when companies go broke, starting with the very famous example of Parish meats at Yallah quite a while ago.

The lost entitlements often include superannuation. It is a particularly devastating circumstance for workers when this occurs. It is important that the government is committed to protecting workers who lose entitlements through no fault of their own but due to the insolvency of their employer.

The Fair Entitlements Guarantee was announced as part of the government’s Protecting Workers’ Entitlements policy. We will deliver on that commitment. I know it will be very welcome in my area and I am sure in many other areas of the nation—anywhere where this has been the experience of local workers.

The guarantee improves on the existing General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme, known as GEERS. It improves it in two key areas. Firstly, it increases the redundancy protection under the scheme to pay up to four weeks per year of service rather than the previous cap of a total of 16 weeks. It also removes access to financial assistance for company directors or excluded employees and, unlike GEERS, it enshrines the Fair Entitlements Guarantee in legislation. These are important improvements to the protections we provide.

They recognise that workers’ superannuation is forgone income serving as an insurance against their long-term wellbeing at retirement age. It is very important to the wellbeing of the people in our community.

These changes will provide certainty to those employees. It will ensure that almost all Australian workers will get all of their redundancy entitlements in these situations. Protecting redundancy entitlements is a priority for the government. Consequently, the increased protection of redundancy entitlements has been implemented through changes to GEERS prior to the Fair Entitlements Guarantee legislation coming into effect. This change applies to cases where an employer enters liquidation or bankruptcy on or after 1 January 2011.

The following entitlements currently covered by GEERS will continue to be protected under the new Fair Entitlements Guarantee and they include up to three months unpaid wages and the amounts deducted from wages such as employee superannuation contributions that are not passed on to a superannuation fund up to three months prior to insolvency. It also includes all unpaid annual leave, all long service leave and up to a maximum of five weeks unpaid payment in lieu of notice. I think this is an important component of the appropriation bills before us and something that will certainly be very welcome in my own electorate.

Within this range of appropriation bills there is also increased funding support for regional development. This is something that, since its election in 2007, this government has put a great deal of focus on, and it is particularly important for regions and their wellbeing both economic and social. Over the long term, regions are the drivers of growth in the Australian economy. So whilst the cities are, if you like, the headline growth drivers of the wellbeing of the nation, if they are doing well but the regions are dying on the vine then overall we are not doing well. So it is important that regional development policy addresses linking regions into growth opportunities and encouraging them beyond that to actually become drivers of innovation, productivity and national growth themselves. The regions are the place where those great opportunities for the nation actually are.

In particular I want to acknowledge in addressing this issue the role that the Regional Development Australia Illawarra branch has played in our region since its establishment after we came to government in 2007. It was a combination of the previous area consultative committees of the federal government and the regional development boards of the state government, so they have been combined into one organisation. I was particularly pleased that the RDA Illawarra attracted to its board a really impressive range of local leaders who have done a tremendous job in progressing issues of regional development for the Illawarra. It is headed up by the chair, Eddy De Gabriele, who is a significant businessman in his own right in our region in the employment sector and also a well-known aficionado and official of the soccer industry. He has a widespread coverage of experience and is a well-known Illawarra person for the variety of roles that he plays. He has headed up the RDA tremendously well, seconded in the deputy position by Roger Summerill, who has a long history in communications—in particular with the ABC management over many years and also WIN TV—and who is somebody who brings a profound understanding of our region to that role. The board more broadly has a good variety of expertise in the business and community sectors.

The board has established a tradition now of what is called the State of the Illawarra Regional Leaders Summit.

This is held each year and this summit pushes the region to look at the challenges and opportunities arising over the next 12 months and to come to a consensus view about where the priority efforts of our regional leadership should be placed in progressing the region over those following 12 months. It is really a tremendously useful thing for people like me because, as we would all know in this place, you get lobbied on about 101 ideas in your electorate, with people saying: ‘If only we did this, it would be the thing that would make everything so much better. This would address the unemployment issue. This would progress environmental improvements.

This would address social disadvantage.’ Whatever the case may be, there is no lack of great ideas in all of our communities and so the challenge becomes being under the pump to work out which of those can be best utilised and how to best utilise them. The RDA has fulfilled this role really effectively in the Illawarra and encouraged people to bring all those ideas with a good solid plan—what would be required, how much it would cost, what needs to be done—and then leaders from across all sectors go through those and say, ‘We think these have the best leverage opportunity for us all to get behind them.’ That does not mean the other ideas cannot be progressed by their individual organisations and so forth, but we drive the key ones as a region.

It has been a tremendous initiative and most important from my perspective has been the push to have the National Broadband Network rollout extend as quickly as we can get it to do from the Kiama Minnamurra trial site throughout the region. The RDA has put together a clear priority list for major infrastructure which will connect Wollongong and Port Kembla with better road and rail links, so it is also looking at the transport opportunities and challenges. And we currently have the business case for the Maldon-Dombarton rail link underway. It is a $3 million feasibility study and I was very pleased to see in the release yesterday of the National Freight Strategy by Infrastructure Australia a recognition of the port of Port Kembla as a key national part of that task. Certainly we will be progressing the opportunity for that port to take on a greater role—because it drives jobs growth in our region—and to have that linked effectively by road and rail links.

There is $5.9 million in these bills to strengthen local engagement and improve the whole-of-government coordination of policy for regional Australia. I am very encouraged by the minister. I think Minister Crean has been well and truly known for a long time as an advocate of regional responsibility and autonomy, regions understanding what they need and driving that. This funding is in addition to resources that have already been transferred to the Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government; the former Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government; and the Attorney- General’s Department. The recently established Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government is growing by the day and is a dedicated agency which will have responsibility for regional policy and overseeing the rollout of initiatives across other departments. I believe that if we are to achieve real and long-lasting outcomes for communities across this nation then a coordinated approach is needed.

There is an additional $100 million as part of the government’s partnership with local government, which has been an extraordinarily effective local partnership. I indicate that the government will provide $800 million over five years to establish the priority regional infrastructure program. The funding will be allocated following consultation with local governments and Regional Development Australia committees. The funding will be provided for transport infrastructure such as roads and bridge upgrades, community infrastructure projects such as town halls and sporting facilities, and economic infrastructure projects that support regional economies.

I particularly appreciate the importance of regional infrastructure programs because I look at the great success that has occurred in conjunction with Wollongong City Council over a number of projects that have been funded under the previous community infrastructure funding. For example, what is known as the Blue Mile, which is a development of the foreshore of Wollongong from a fairly run-down footpath making it difficult to access part of the foreshore around the harbour and the bathing pavilion and pools, has been upgraded so that people with mobility issues, the aged and the frail are now able to share that beautiful part of our electorate. It has been a truly successful on-budget, on-time project that the council has rolled out. I would acknowledge that there was some criticism of our council getting that funding by the member for Cook, the shadow minister at the time, who thought that because there had been some issues around the governance of Wollongong council we should not have been given that money. But I can say that, as I was sure at the time, the council has provided an excellent outcome in terms of that investment and it is truly valued by the local community.

In the brief time left to me I highlight that the smart infrastructure facility at the University of Wollongong, which is worth $62 million of which the Commonwealth contributed $35 million, is nearly completed. The member for Throsby and I had a look at that only last week. The construction is coupled with two other buildings invested in by the Commonwealth at the University of Wollongong’s innovation campus which have helped support the region’s construction and building industry during the global financial crisis. In March I will also officially open the Wollongong Workers Educational Association’s new vocational training centre. This is a new building worth nearly $2 million and the Commonwealth contribution is $1.3 million. These investments, together with the Building the Education Revolution program which has been so successful in my schools, investments in TAFE facilities including a new engineering building at the TAFE, and the investments outlined at the university, represent nearly $300 million worth of investment in my area’s skills and education. They are particularly important foundations for the long-term future of the region. I have indicated that the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program has been particularly successful. The Blue Mile project of the Wollongong council involved a $5.9 million investment in local infrastructure in my electorate, and I would particularly commend the $836,000 worth of new investments to be made in the bathers pavilion upgrade at north Wollongong—a project that was well and truly welcomed by local people. (Time expired)