I’m going to start my contribution by reflecting on the speech that the member for Bendigo has just given in the parliament. I must say I’m quite confused. The member spent the first half of her contribution talking about why the Regional Investment Corporation should be in Bendigo and then the second half of her speech talking about why the Regional Investment Corporation should not exist at all. So, really, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. What was most significant about the member for Bendigo’s contribution was that she spent no time talking about our farmers. She spent no time recognising the incredible contribution that they make to this nation and the incredible importance of agriculture to our nation. That’s of course what the Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 is all about.
The member for Bendigo was also very critical of the Deputy Prime Minister and his focus on decentralisation. Well, that’s not surprising from one of the members opposite, who are, particularly in Victoria, so city-centric that they even forget farmers exist half the time. We have heard that time and time again. And under Daniel Andrews we have seen an incredibly city-centric state government with an incredible focus on the needs of people living in metropolitan Melbourne and not nearly enough focus on those living in regional Victoria. What a shame we didn’t hear the member for Bendigo take the opportunity to support decentralisation, which is a very important part of our government’s agenda. I am very, very proud of how we are supporting decentralisation, because it is delivering, in spades, an important policy for our region, in Corangamite and across the greater Geelong region.
While this was a bipartisan decision, it was with great pride that the Minister for Social Services joined me in Geelong to turn the sod on the beginning of the construction of the National Disability Insurance Agency. I take issue with the member for Bendigo’s reflection that it’s not really appropriate to move public servants out of Canberra. We think it’s very important that we spread these agencies around the nation, and Geelong is a very significant example. That is going to be an incredible organisation in Geelong. It is already up and running, of course, but the new national headquarters, once they are built, will bring literally hundreds of jobs to our region.
We have also brought to Geelong the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Data Acquisition Centre—another great investment of the Turnbull government bringing hundreds of jobs to Geelong and, again, another example of how we are working hard to embrace decentralisation, to stand up for regional communities, to stand up for farmers and to make sure that the regions are not forgotten, as they were under Labor.
The Regional Investment Corporation Bill delivers on an important election commitment that we made to establish a Regional Investment Corporation to be the single delivery agency for the Commonwealth’s Farm Business Concessional Loans Scheme, the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility and any other future programs. This is incredibly important, because it means that in the future farmers will be able to access farm business concessional loan funding quickly and easily, with a streamlined and nationally consistent application and approval process. In the wake of our very important announcement prior to the election last year of the dairy concessional loan package and the dairy rescue package, we saw issues with the Victorian government failing to deliver that program as it was intended. So, we think that this is going to be much more efficient. We saw that previously, with each state delivering the program, loan decisions were not being made in a consistent way across the country. The Regional Investment Corporation will administer up to $2 billion in concessional loans and that’s designed to encourage growth, investment, and resilience in our rural and regional communities. The RIC will also deliver the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility. Again, it is very, very important that we have a streamlined and more efficient approach than we have had in the past.
To date, almost $725 million in farm business concessional loans have been approved to over 1,340 farm businesses, with over 1,100 farm businesses being approved for a drought related or farm finance concessional loan as well. And 228 farm businesses, which equates to some $129 million, have been approved for a dairy recovery concessional loan. So, once again, we see the Turnbull government standing up for regional communities. I’m incredibly proud of this particular announcement and the fact that we are, again, delivering another one of our important election commitments.
As I said, we received a tirade of complaints from the member for Bendigo, but there was very poor focus on the needs of regional communities. Perhaps there is no greater example of need than when the dairy farmers in Victoria hit very tough times. That was very much exacerbated because of the actions of companies such as Murray Goulburn and Fonterra and those terrible clawbacks, which have, in part, been remedied. I certainly welcome the ACC’s decision to commence legal proceedings, because the actions of Murray Goulburn, frankly, were utterly disgraceful. Legal proceedings are on foot where Murray Goulburn has been accused of unconscionable conduct and of making false or misleading representation. When that occurred, we moved very quickly as a government to stand up for farmers. $550 million in Recovery Concessional Loans were announced. We also announced $900,000 for an additional nine rural financial counsellors, $900,000 for Dairy Australia’s Tactics for Tight Times and various other measures to support the farmers. I have to say, while there are still challenges ahead, the dairy farmers in Corangamite and in south-west Victoria are certainly doing a lot better.
They are also doing a lot better because we are investing right across the board in regional communities through or Building Better Regions Fund, a very significant fund investing in community infrastructure and local programs to ensure that every single regional community has a voice. In Corangamite we are investing the total value of this program—more than half a billion dollars—in duplicating the Princes Highway.
That has absolutely inspired business investment and confidence with a road from Geelong to Colac. Now we see a situation in Colac where there is a housing shortage because of the amount of employment in the town and because of the fact that unemployment has gone from double figures, when Labor was in power, down to under five per cent. That is why we invest in this important infrastructure. It is because it drives jobs, drives investment, brings industries into the regions and, of course, builds that much-needed confidence that did not exist under the previous Labor government.
We have put record funding into the Roads to Recovery Program—$40 million. We’re upgrading the Great Ocean Road. This is the road that Labor forgot. This is the road that the previous Labor government refused to fund. This government, recognising the national significance of this road and the geotechnical challenges in maintaining this road, have now put in $50 million. That has made an incredible difference to communities along the Great Ocean Road and, of course, to our tourism and visitor economy, which is so important for Victoria.
One of the greatest contrasts between our government and those opposite is investment in mobile communications. What a poor reflection it is on the Labor Party that they did not see any value in investing in improving mobile communications in Australia. We are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into that program. Some 18 mobile base stations are being funded in Corangamite. There are many challenges, of course. That program, too, is making a significant difference because, for the first time, regional communities feel that they have a voice under the Liberal-National federal coalition. The NBN is being rolled out. That was a very paltry performance under the previous government. Over 50,000 homes are now NBN-ready in Corangamite.
Another incredibly significant investment in regional communities is the regional rail program across Victoria. I commend the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the member for Gippsland, for his commitment as well. In Corangamite, right through to Warrnambool and Wannon—there was great support from the member for Wannon as well—we are investing $224 million in upgrading passenger rail. I campaigned night and day for this investment, and I’m very, very proud that the track between Waurn Ponds and South Geelong is being duplicated. Mind you, we are concerned about the state’s slowness in delivering its business plan. But we are pleased that, after a lot of campaigning and advocacy, this program has been accepted by the state government and we’re now seeing those critical upgrades.
We need a fast train between Melbourne and Geelong. The Regional Rail Link—another absolutely dismal Labor project, frankly—is a multibillion dollar project that has now delivered a suburban rail service to the people of Geelong. The Regional Rail Link has been a disaster for regional communities in Colac, Birregurra, Warrnambool and Geelong whereby the rail is now going via places such as Tarneit. It really has been a monumental waste of money. It needs to be fixed.
Another big focus that I have been working very hard on is the delivery of a city deal for the Geelong and Great Ocean Road region. I’m pleased the state has finally determined that the Geelong and Corangamite regions should be the priority location for a city deal in Victoria. But, of course, there is a lot of hard work to be done and we’re still working very hard to deliver a city deal for our regions.
So I commend this bill to the House. This is another example of our government standing up for farmers. This comes on top of some other very significant national programs and national initiatives led by our very significant free trade agreements, which have opened up new export markets for our farmers. Those free trade agreements have also delivered great new confidence for agribusinesses and our farmers. I represent many small towns. I have a strong mantra: community first; politics second. But, also, in a place like Corangamite, where there are so many small towns, every community matters.
That’s why, in another example of how we are standing up for the regions, our Stronger Communities Program is making such a difference. That’s been a great success, providing matching funding to community organisations and volunteer groups around the country, with a maximum of $150,000 per electorate. It’s making a real difference. Communities under this government feel that they have a voice at last, and their projects are recognised and they are being funded. I’m delighted that I’ve received some wonderful applications for the next round of the Stronger Communities Program, and that that program has been embraced so widely.
It is very disappointing that Labor has announced it will not support the RIC. It proposes to pocket the so-called savings. Once again, we see Labor members opposite failing to understand why streamlined programs and the delivery of these important programs is so important, particularly in times of crisis when you can’t get caught up in bureaucracy and when farmers can’t go through the rigmarole of dealing with state and Commonwealth agencies. We just can’t tolerate that. So it’s really disappointing that Labor is not interested in the more efficient delivery of these important programs that make such a difference to regional communities.
I commend the bill to the House. Once again, I recognise just how important it is that the Turnbull government is standing up for regional communities, including in my electorate of Corangamite.
16 August 2017