GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING COMMITTEE NO. 3
Report: Budget Estimates 2011-2012
Debate resumed from 13 March 2012.
The Hon. AMANDA FAZIO
[5.05 p.m.]: I speak to report No. 25 entitled "Budget Estimates 2011-2012" of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3. I had the privilege of representing some of my colleagues during the hearings of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3. I was present for the hearings on the Legislature, which were attended by the President. I was also present for the hearings on the portfolios of the Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Central Coast, the Minister for Transport, and the Minister for Roads and Ports. I particularly want to draw to the attention of the House a motion moved following the hearing regarding the portfolio of the Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Central Coast. The motion was moved because of the appalling behaviour of that Minister.
At the deliberative meeting following the public hearing, I was compelled by the behaviour of the Minister to move the motion. I did not do so lightly; I so moved because the Minister refused to answer any questions from Opposition or crossbench members. He said he was not responsible for anything to do with the Special Minister of State or the Minister for the Central Coast; that his duties as Special Minister of State would come into play only if the Premier referred some particular project to the Special Minister of State. In relation to any questions asked about his Central Coast portfolio, the Minister simply stated that questions on those matters should be directed to the relevant portfolio Ministers; that he had nothing to do with decisions about the provision of services on the Central Coast. That would have been fair enough, except the Minister then took from Government members serving on the Committee questions of exactly the same nature as had been asked by Opposition and crossbench members, and read prepared answers in response to those questions. This indicated that the Minister did take an interest in those matters. In response to this two-faced attitude of the Minister, and because of his disrespect for the role of budget estimates, I was compelled to move:
That the Committee note that the Special Minister of State and Minister for the Central Coast was dismissive and evasive in his answers at a Budget Estimates hearing of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 on 25 October 2011 and demonstrated a lack of commitment to the openness and transparency which was promised by the O'Farrell Government.
The question was put and the vote was tied and therefore had to be resolved in the negative on the casting vote of the chair. This was not something cooked up by me; all non-Government members serving on the Committee considered the motion was appropriate. The other matter that I want to bring to the attention of members is that this was, I believe, the first time in all my 12 years in this place that a dissenting statement has been made by members of a general purpose standing committee dealing with budget estimates. I wholeheartedly concur with the dissenting report lodged by the Hon. Penny Sharpe and the Hon. Mick Veitch that Opposition members believe, given the limitations of the General Purpose Standing Committee, imposed on the committee by Government members with the support of the Christian Democrat member, that the proper role of the committee has been curtailed. They noted this statement about the budget estimates process that is outlined on the parliamentary website:
Each year Government ministers and senior public servants attend an annual Budget Estimates inquiry to answer questions about the expenditure, performance and effectiveness of their departments.
Budget Estimates is a key process for government accountability and transparency. The Budget Estimates inquiries involve hours of detailed questioning by members of the Legislative Council on the decisions, actions and advice of ministers and public servants.
Quite frankly, that has not taken place. I concur with the statements of my colleagues to that effect, because for the entire time that these general purpose standing committees have existed they have always been, with one exception, chaired by members of the crossbench or members of the Opposition. In the same way that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association advocates that the chairs of the Public Accounts Committee should not be members of the Government so the Legislative Council had agreed that the chairs of the General Purpose Standing Committees should not be Government members.
The only time a Government member was elected as a chair of a general purpose standing committee was when I was elected as the chair of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 some years ago when the then Opposition members failed to turn up to the first meeting on time. After waiting about five or 10 minutes the crossbench member nominated me to be the chair. When the Opposition members turned up we then elected the Hon. Greg Pearce as the deputy chair. That is the only time that has happened and it was only because the Opposition members were not organised enough to get themselves to the committee hearing.
This Government campaigned on a platform—a contract that went out to every household in New South Wales—that they would be open and accountable. They then came into Government, did a deal with the Christian Democrats and nobbled the process of the general purpose standing committees by making sure that only crossbench members who they thought were tame would be elected and that Government members of this House would be elected to be the chairs. They effectively have said that they are prepared to trash the tradition of this House as a House of review. I commend the Hon. Penny Sharpe and the Hon. Mick Veitch for their dissenting report because while we can, to some extent, get some information out of Ministers during the budget estimates process, if their answers at the hearings and their answers to questions placed on notice are inadequate there is no way that we can have supplementary hearings, as the crossbench and the Government have colluded to make sure that there is no openness and transparency.
I say shame on the Government because it has completely flouted the conventions of this House. It lied to the public of New South Wales in its campaign about honesty and transparency in government. The Premier even said today how lucky the Queensland Parliament was to not have an upper House. He has shown his absolute contempt for the Legislative Council as a House of review. I think that is a despicable comment. Those opposite, particularly the Hon. Scot MacDonald, who agree with the Premier should resign from the Legislative Council now.
The Hon. JAN BARHAM
[5.12 p.m.]: In my role as a substitute member of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 I speak on report No. 25 entitled "Budget Estimates 2011-2012" in relation to the portfolios of Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing, and the Arts. For many years I have submitted questions and sought answers in relation to matters affecting the arts and tourism, so I was very pleased to be a member of the committee and to have the opportunity to ask questions not only of the Minister but also of Ms Chipchase, Chief Executive Officer of Destination NSW, and to have those questions answered. As many members know, of particular interest to me is the area where I live—Byron Bay, which is one of Australia's most important tourism destinations and comes second, after Sydney, as the most visited place in New South Wales.
The Hon. Paul Green and I agree that local government struggles to meet the demands and pressures of tourism. As I made clear during the budget estimates hearing, council areas such as those represented by the Hon. Paul Green and I have small populations but large visitor numbers which put the infrastructure under extreme pressure. Although the Minister for Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing was not initially enthralled with the idea of infrastructure management and queried whether it was a role for Government and his portfolio, I believe he reached the point where he was willing to accept that it is an important issue. The main concern expressed by the Hon. Paul Green and me was the fact that the State Government makes public funding available for the purpose of marketing an area for tourism, without any consultation with the local government area and without any consideration of whether that locality is able to maintain a standard of public space management that is acceptable for the residential community and visitors. The Minister said, "Our effort is in tourism rather than in infrastructure", but committee members pointed out that good tourism relies on good infrastructure and good facilities.
I appreciated the support of committee members when I raised issues about pressures faced by local government and the sustainability of local government. In my local council area it has been estimated that 22 per cent of council funding goes towards tourism, yet the impact of non-resident visitors to the area is often forgotten—for example, the need for a sewage treatment plant that factors in the additional load that comes from visitors during peak tourism periods. Byron Bay has a population of 10,000 but during the peak tourism season there may be up to 30,000 people in the area. Local government in rural and regional areas is the responsible authority for sewerage and water and the cost of delivering that infrastructure is borne by local government and the local community. It is necessary to provide for the needs of visitors and that is why infrastructure is so important. I, together with other members, attended a briefing by Infrastructure NSW. When I raised this matter, Mr Greiner, Chairman of Infrastructure NSW, acknowledged that this was an important issue for consideration. I will follow that up.
The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox:
It is sensible. It is excellent.
The Hon. JAN BARHAM:
It was an excellent response to an important issue. In the budget estimates hearing I also raised the issue of holiday lettings. I was very pleased to receive an honest response from the Chief Executive Officer of Destination NSW, who recognised that there are concerns in the industry about the unapproved use of dwellings for tourists. I will follow up that issue with the chief executive officer and look forward to ongoing consultation and discussion with her. I raised another important issue at the committee hearing which is often overlooked, that is, the issue of Aboriginal tourism. Aboriginal culture is unique to this country and it is very much at the top of the list of tourists' interests. We have the oldest living culture in the world and it should be nurtured. Close the Gap Day last week highlighted the need for a whole-of-government approach to Aboriginal issues and the benefits in supporting and maintaining a cultural identity in order to provide Aboriginal people with jobs, cultural confidence and satisfaction.
In October the committee was told that consultation had been undertaken and that release of the document was imminent. I am not sure that it has been released; perhaps I should determine the definition of "imminent". I look forward to seeing the report. We were also informed that the Visitor Economy Taskforce has a specific group relating to Aboriginal tourism. I also look forward to seeing the interim report of the Visitor Economy Taskforce, which was to be released in February. It does not appear that has happened, but it is only March. I hope it is released soon so that we can see how the task force has progressed in its consultations and consideration of the issues. Libraries are another area within the responsibility of the Minister. The Government supported the amendments to the Library Act.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps:
That was a great debate.
The Hon. JAN BARHAM:
Yes, we heard considerable debate about members' personal experiences of libraries, which gave us great insight into some of the characters in this place. We learnt a lot about members—where they attended their first library, what their first book was and their first encounters with librarians. However, it is shameful that government funding of public libraries in this State is the lowest in the country. I look forward to an increase in funding to support local government and communities across the State to improve library services. This issue was raised by all committee members, except Government members, as it is a matter of importance for local communities. I appreciate that the House allows for substitution across committees. I am a member of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2 and I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to ask questions relating to issues that were dealt with by another committee. I am aware that the dissenting statement referred to by the Hon. Amanda Fazio raises concerns about the operations and governance of the committees. I trust that the Government will take those comments on board and ensure an exemplary standard of operation during the next budget estimates hearings.
The Hon. MATTHEW MASON-COX
(Parliamentary Secretary) [5.22 p.m.]: I want to briefly comment on General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 report No. 25 entitled " Budget Estimates 2011-2012", not because I was a member of that committee but because of comments that have been made about the process followed by that committee. I found it gratuitous, to say the least, that the Hon. Amanda Fazio made comments in relation to a dissenting statement by the Hon. Penny Sharpe and the Hon. Mick Veitch. It is worth taking a closer look at that dissenting statement to uncover the bold hypocrisy of members opposite. The dissenting statement said:
The Government members with the support of the Christian Democrat member combined to ensure that there was no call back of Ministers or public servants in several portfolios.
That is not unusual. From my experience, that is standard practice of most of the committees on which I served when I was in Opposition. A committee meets to determine whether a supplementary hearing will be held, consideration is given to the evidence taken at the previous hearing, a vote is taken and the committee democratically decides whether to hold supplementary hearings. Nothing different happened in that process in relation to General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3. To suggest that a democratic vote of a committee essentially goes against the role of a committee in this place is grand hypocrisy. It is an outrageous statement and the record should show that this is the democratic role of committees. I am sure the committee chair and committee members made the determination of whether it was necessary to call back Ministers and Government representatives based on the balance of the evidence before them.
It is worth noting that the Hon. Amanda Fazio quite strongly made the point that the Special Minister of State and Minister for the Central Coast did not respond as she would have liked to the questions that were put to him by the Opposition. She made it abundantly clear that she thought none of the Minister's responses was appropriate and that for some of the responses it was not worth having the Minister appear before the committee. Yet, on the other hand, the member complained that the Minister was not brought back for supplementary hearings. She cannot have it both ways. This hypocritical behaviour of the Opposition goes against the role of the committee system. I note also that the dissenting statement said:
While the Government has previously held the chair of GPSC3, it was disappointing that Government members with the support of the Christian Democrat Party member took the chair of the committee.
What is going on here? The committee decides who the chair is and the Opposition complains that it was not one of them. In the past the chair of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 has been the Hon. Amanda Fazio when she was a member of Government. Again, it does not stack up to make gratuitous comments that the committee is for some reason being led by the Government in a way that is not representative of this Chamber. These are democratic decisions made by that committee and to suggest otherwise is absolutely outrageous. The last comment in the dissenting statement was:
The Opposition members believe that given the limitations of GPSC 3 imposed on the committee by Government members with the support of the Christian Democrat member that this role has been curtailed.
That is an outrageous statement. The committee made democratic decisions and the chair of the committee had the casting vote when there was a tied vote, as is the responsibility of the chair. There was nothing untoward in any of this process. This is just the Opposition forgetting that they are no longer in government and forgetting that on many occasions when they were in government they behaved in the same way when making assessments in relation to whether Ministers should be brought back for supplementary hearings. For them to suggest otherwise is rank hypocrisy.
I note also the comment by the Hon. Amanda Fazio in relation to the suggestion that the Government organised a tame crossbench member to be a member of this committee so that the Government could get the results it wanted. That is an outrageous statement by the Hon. Amanda Fazio. I do not think the Hon. Jeremy Buckingham would like to be referred to as tame—he is more like a caged lion. This again reflects poorly on the Opposition and to Government members it looks like sour grapes. It is sad that the Opposition has stooped to this level but I note that it is part of a trend. It is not an isolated incident and has occurred in relation to other committees of this Parliament. I refer, of course, to the Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office where, again, members opposite complained bitterly about democratic processes that were decided by a majority of the committee. Again, when members opposite did not get their way they claimed that the whole system had been rorted. However, the minutes of that committee show a democratic process followed legitimately by the chair, as it has been followed by every Government chair. For the members opposite to reflect poorly on that reflects poorly on themselves.
A similar situation occurred in relation to General Purpose Standing Committee No. 4, of which I am the committee chair. No doubt I will reflect on that matter in an upcoming debate, but it was another example of poor behaviour by those opposite. They are only interested in scoring political points; they are not interested in the real role of this House as a House of review. I commend the report to the House and I commend the chair for her excellent chairpersonship in relation to all of the committee's matters.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM
[5.29 p.m.]: My contribution to this debate was prepared after collaboration with members of the Northern Rivers community who are interested in the report of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 on Budget Estimates 2011-2012 as it relates to regional infrastructure and services as well as issues affecting cross-border communities. Of course, the Northern Rivers district is a cross-border community. I thank Dr Robert Kooyman, David Milledge, Dr Nell Cook, Dr Moya Costello, Mr Doug Ferguson and Mr Ian Gaillard for their assistance. There can be no issue of greater importance for New South Wales Northern Rivers cross-border communities than coal seam gas.
Although the Premier-elect of Queensland recently announced that Scenic Rim communities will be excluded from coal seam gas development, the New South Wales State Government has chosen to speak about the coal seam gas industry in northern New South Wales as though it is a fait accompli. The people of New South Wales are still waiting to be provided with facts and details of the industry's potential impact on social and environmental values. I cite the Government's own commentary about the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales, which states:
Ahead of the granting of the Exploration license, strategic land use planning is a process that will be used for identifying land use practices for different areas ...
In relation to Federal processes, I cite Julia Gillard's letter to Tony Windsor following his successful amendment of the Federal Mining Act that will require consideration of consequences of the cumulative impact of the mining industry. The letter states:
... [It] will be able to take into account existing bioregional assessments, which will incorporate expert analysis of the special characteristics of a region, its ecology, geology and hydrology and related risks ...
The wording of that letter captures the core concerns of cross-border Northern Rivers communities over internationally acknowledged environmental and ecological values of the New South Wales Northern Rivers region. The Northern Rivers communities understand the need to protect the unique values of the region. As communities they have demonstrated, remonstrated, and secured international and national recognition of the environmental and ecological values of the region, and have built their businesses and lives around those assets. They have grown and matured into integrated communities that are dedicated to providing diverse and clean agricultural products while protecting local, regional and continental-scale geological, hydrological and ecological processes. That includes minimising threats to agriculture and other diverse sustainable economic activities that rely on natural systems and processes.
The Northern Rivers region hosts a diverse community and includes Indigenous people, who are the living legacy of our pioneer past, as well as a vibrant culture of more recent settlers who have brought a variety of skills and perspectives to the region. The communities are a rich mix and are a creative and active social milieu that genuinely cares for country. There exists a robust and diverse agriculture that has been, and should remain, the backbone of the region for many generations to come. To threaten the region's future is both short-sighted and economically disastrous. A short list of regional agriculture includes prime beef and dairy production, macadamia orchards, dry land rice, banana plantations and a wide variety of tropical fruit orchards, pig and poultry production as well as soya bean, corn and vegetable production. The region is a leader in organic and low-chemical-use farming methods across the full spectrum of agriculture.
The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox:
Point of order: My point of order relates to relevance. The member is rabbiting on about all manner of things that are not even incidentally related to the terms of reference of the committee.
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Helen Westwood):
Order! There is no point of order. The debate has been wide ranging. The member was being generally relevant.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM:
In relation to the issues raised in the report of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 as they relate to cross-border communities, the Northern Rivers community, which is a cross-border community as far as I know, is the birthplace of a movement that protects rainforest nationally and internationally. Alignment of scientific evidence with the people's movement has resulted in an expanded mosaic of national parks along State borders that are recognised internationally by World Heritage listing and nationwide as natural jewels.
Twenty-two per cent of the region is national park and a further 12 per cent is under forestry. The bulk of our water emanates from those mostly upland treasures and flows to enrich the lowland aquifers and waterways. Consistent with community values and efforts, the region's community movement has protected its water supply and recognises that its future security is central to their own future. The values, assets and processes I have described are the community capital of the Northern Rivers region. That capital is held in trust for long-term benefit and future survival. The values, assets and processes must be protected and sustained.
The recent extended drought across the Australian continent has highlighted the need to conserve and protect our resources, even in the Northern Rivers cross-border areas which are some of the wettest places on earth. The local water management agency, Rous Water, responded with a range of potential infrastructure options and a plan for future water allocation and management. The plan is titled "Water Futures." The Rous website shows no predicted inclusion of water used by the coal seam gas industry, which theoretically is likely to be measured in gigalitres; nor is there any discussion of how to limit input of dangerous chemicals into our water sources and water futures. We already have significant hydrological and ecological problems that have begun to be addressed through community initiatives.
Over-allocation and contamination of water resources will rupture the fine balance of our hydrology and threaten the ecology and industries of the local region. This is the foremost consideration of the Northern Rivers regional community, which is a mature community that has rejected coal seam gas and mining in the region as too great a gamble. The community has opted for the precautionary principle. There is simply no social licence for the coal seam gas industry in the region. The long-term economic benefits for those cross-border communities are their agriculture and nature-based industries, and they must be prioritised.
The Hon. Scot MacDonald:
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM:
That is exactly right. Those sustainable industries create a basis for the future of the Northern Rivers region and must be protected, not replaced by the short-term economic and unsustainable gains of the coal seam gas industry. The region's flourishing educational institutions have built their reputations and research focus on easy access to natural systems. The region's lifestyle and nature-based tourism industry attracts more than two million national and international visitors a year. I note that earlier the Hon. Jan Barham recognised the pressures impacting upon communities in the Northern Rivers region of the State. Taken together, the region's diverse agriculture provides a basis for the area's long-term sustainable future.
In Australia, subsurface water is our greatest yet least understood asset. The latest planning data from the United Nations was confirmed in a press release on 16 January 2012 by the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training. The data explain that 97 per cent of global freshwater is under the ground. The centre considers that natural asset to be a matter of national security. The press release states, "Where national security is concerned, we should spare no effort to assure it." In assessing the risks to the Northern Rivers cross-border communities posed by the coal seam gas industry, the biggest problems are "produced" water that reaches the surface and underground chemical contamination of aquifers. Produced water comprises wastewater that is laden with toxins. It is that type of water that will be brought to the surface as part of the coal seam gas process. The Australian Water Commission recognised that fact in its September 2011 publication titled, "Onshore co-produced water: extent and management".
I conclude by pointing out to the House that the coal seam gas industry is an issue of enormous significance to the Northern Rivers cross-border communities. The infrastructure that the industry will require will displace and threaten agriculture and the natural assets of this vibrant and most beautiful region. My short contribution to this debate was prepared with the assistance of community members, scientists and leaders in tourism. For the Northern Rivers region, there is little to be gained and much to be lost from allowing the coal seam gas industry to operate there. I urge the Government and members of Parliament to take heed of the concerns expressed by the Northern Rivers communities and adopt both the Federal and State governments' criteria I cited at the commencement of my speech. The Northern Rivers community believes that critical evaluation will show the destructive potential of the industry and the potential for loss of irreplaceable community and natural assets. In any cost-benefit analysis, the Northern Rivers region will lose. The communities are saying to the Government and members of this Parliament, "Please help us to protect our water, our ecology, and our home.
The Hon. LYNDA VOLTZ
[5.39 p.m.]: I speak also in debate on the report of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 on Budget Estimates 2011-2012. I was surprised by the contribution of the Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox who said that if one runs a committee, takes control of it and tries to dominate it that in some way works to one's advantage, which is a mistake. Governments often come undone because of their arrogance.
The Hon. Marie Ficarra:
Thanks for the tip. We had 16 years of it.
The Hon. LYNDA VOLTZ:
The Hon. Marie Ficarra can interject as much as she likes but she is wrong if she thinks that only Labor governments come undone as a result of their arrogance. History shows that all governments come undone as a result of their arrogance. This Government was elected on the basis that it would be different—that it would be open and transparent, and that it would change procedures that have been used over at least the past 16 years to select Opposition members and members on the crossbenches as committee chairs. Eventually that kind of arrogance will result in this Government coming undone. I am agnostic about that because, quite frankly, governments come undone because of the things that they do. This Opposition we will work within the confines of a system that is imposed upon it. If some Government members ignore the commitments that they made to open and transparent government, that will reflect on all Government members.
The report of the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 covers a number of portfolio areas, in particular, transport, infrastructure and tourism. I will comment on a couple of specific areas and note the comments of the committee chair, the Hon. Natasha Maclaren-Jones, relating to the tourism portfolio. There is nothing new in her pronouncement that the rebranded Destination NSW has responsibility for the Regional Tourism Partnerships Program, the Regional Tourism Development Program and the Regional Flagship Events Program. These long-term projects were successfully run for decades by the previous Labor Government and have established a significant number of events. One has only to refer to the Denny Ute Muster to realise the significance of those events—longstanding and successful programs that existed under the previous Labor Government and that have been continued by this Government.
The Aboriginal Tourism Action Plan is not new to the tourism industry. We must work together to improve employment in this area because tourism is a significant billion dollar industry in New South Wales. It is important also to provide employment opportunities to members of our community who still face significant employment barriers. One need only visit towns along the coast such as Taree, Kempsey and Byron Bay to see Aboriginal unemployment in those towns. It is important to use the tourism industry to improve Aboriginal employment in the urban areas of western New South Wales—an industry that can provide significant employment. I assume the work that is being done will add to the work of Tourism Australia through its National Indigenous Tourism Product Manual—which is up to at least its third edition—and the work of Tourism NSW under the previous Labor Government, including the principles for development of Aboriginal tourism.
I look forward to seeing the outcome of this tourism plan. However, any Aboriginal tourism operator who went to the Destination NSW website would be unable to find any reference to Aboriginal tourism. Perhaps that is an oversight because of the amalgamation of Events New South Wales and Tourism NSW. The Minister must examine that issue and try to rectify it. The Minister might be interested in pursuing the current proposal to upgrade convention space in Darling Harbour—a long overdue process—which must include an Aboriginal cultural centre. I would congratulate any government that initiated such a proposal, provided employment opportunities for Aboriginal people and ensured recognition of the traditional owners of our land.
In the past a number of Aboriginal communities and tourism Ministers have been concerned about the lack of an Aboriginal tourism facility. Non-Aboriginal tourism operators have tried to impress on governments the importance of such a facility to Australia. It is what makes Australia unique and that is why people visit. Now is the time to redevelop that convention space; it is not too late to do so. Obviously the three consortia have been selected through the expression of interest process to expand that 12-hectare site. A request for proposals will be issued in March this year and I presume that the Minister will soon make that announcement.
With reference to the transport portfolio I am surprised that the committee chair said that the O'Farrell Government is committed to ensuring greater efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of public transport in New South Wales, which will come as a great surprise to some users of the public transport system. Train commuters from the East Hills, Padstow, Revesby, Beverly Hills or Bardwell Park stations might beg to differ. For the past three years, under a Labor government, that train line met CityRail's on-time running benchmarks every month.
The East Hills line is now among the worst performing lines in the system, having failed to meet its three-month 92 per cent on-time running benchmark since the O'Farrell Government was elected. The East Hills line has fallen to 82.7 per cent on-time running under the O'Farrell Government, one of the lowest on-time running figures in the State. The O'Farrell Government has overseen not only a 5.4 per cent increase in fares but also a much poorer performance on the East Hills line, and it is pretty much the same in other parts of the State. Far from being a more effective and efficient transport system, it is a less reliable and more expensive system.
The Government's record in the road portfolio is even worse. This is the only State Government that is incapable of negotiating with the Federal Government on major transport projects. While the Federal Government is able to reach agreement with the West Australian and Victorian governments, the Foghorn Leghorns sitting opposite me in this Chamber walked away from the 50:50 funding split that they supported when they were in opposition. I suggest that constituents around this State would do better if they dragged out those letters Barry told them to tuck away and returned them to their local members. In 2007 the current Minister for Roads and Ports said:
referring to the then roads Minister, Eric Roozendaal—
would have been a statesman and say "Yes, I will match that money and save the lives of people in New South Wales that use this highway."
If this Minister's word is worth anything he might well consider doing likewise.
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD
[5.47 p.m.]: I was not a member of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 but its inquiry covered a wide range of topics that were of interest to me and I will take this opportunity to speak about some of them. I will touch, first, on the Solar Bonus Scheme which epitomises the problems faced by the previous Labor Government and, in particular, the inadequacies of the current Leader of the Opposition, John Robertson. John Robertson was one of the primary architects of the Solar Bonus Scheme. As the Auditor-General noted, it was a failure of policy. Under John Robertson's stewardship that consistent failure has meant that New South Wales households have been left to foot the bill for that disastrous scheme. Initially the scheme, which had bipartisan support, was projected to cost Treasury about $400 million. John Robertson failed to conduct the mandatory reviews. Once the scheme hit 50 megawatts it was supposed to be reviewed but Mr Robertson did not get around to doing that until it hit 100 megawatts and by then it was spiralling out of control.
The Auditor-General forecast that it would head to $1.75 billion. This epitomised the chronic leadership failures of the previous Government, and nothing has changed with the architect. John Robertson just does not seem to understand basic management. In contrast, the new State Liberal-Nationals Government pounced on this policy pretty quickly. There is no question that it was difficult for us, but we recognised that expenditure was ballooning. We proposed a drastic reduction in the feed-in tariff, which took some negotiation. Basically, the bleeding has stopped and the budget is not threatened to the extent to which it was heading. For me, the Solar Bonus Scheme epitomises everything bad about the old Government. The good news is that the new Government identified a problem, measured it and acted on it instead of just making policy on the run and hoping everything turned out for the best.
The Government has been criticised that the take-up of regional relocation grants has not been as quick as some of us might have thought. The program will gather momentum over time. Again it shows a commitment to what this Government is about. Regional communities such as Armidale and Dubbo send proposals to us to undertake programs that provide assistance to people wanting to relocate. The $7,000 regional relocation grant will assist with some moving costs and help people make that decision. This grant will not be the catalyst to make people move, but it might just prompt them over the line. We should give this grant program a go, but it needs an extended period of promotion, which has begun. The regional relocation grant will prove its worth in years to come.
Measures to improve regional infrastructure and services are fantastic for everybody, but especially for those who live in regional areas. Minister Andrew Stoner, the Premier and Cabinet agreed immediately that 30 per cent of infrastructure funding be quarantined for regional New South Wales—areas suffering deficient roads and rail infrastructure. Agreement also was reached that 30 per cent of the funds from the sale of the electricity generators will be quarantined for regional New South Wales. The previous Government did not identify such a need and largely ignored regional New South Wales. Those areas need to progress from the huge deficit in infrastructure. This deliberate funding will assist in that process in the years ahead.
A decade of decentralisation is more than just a banded slogan; it is about giving one's government direction. That will permeate through all funding and planning by this Government. The process is being set in train deliberately. I congratulate Steve Toms, the new Cross Border Commissioner. Steve comes from Glen Innes, just to the north of where I live. He also is the mayor of Glen Innes, and I understand he has also been to Queanbeyan. I live not far from the Queensland border and we experience a number of transport and education issues. Health issues are a particular problem as people move short distances across the border but, of course, they run into administrative hiccups. I look forward to the work that Steve Toms will do and I will give him any assistance I can.
Armidale has popped up as one of the first sites for the National Broadband Network. It is rather attractive, but I think it is a bit like going to the showground; it is all bells and whistles at this stage. Yesterday we saw students from the Armidale Presbyterian Ladies College talking to the Prime Minister in Korea. Those things are wonderful, but it is costing $37 billion. The shadow Minister legitimately criticised it because it could have been done a lot cheaper. It is renationalising communications and the question is: How quickly will the technology date? As the rest of the world moves to wireless, we move to wires under the ground. We will hear more about that, particularly when the Federal Government changes hopefully next year.
I commend the Minister for Roads and Ports, who spoke about the Newell Highway. For 18 months I lived in Griffith and used the Newell Highway regularly. It was very frustrating when the speed limit was reduced from 110 kilometres an hour to 100 kilometres an hour. This highway comprises long straight stretches of road with no definable accident history to justify the change. One of Minister Gay's first actions was to return the speed to the appropriate level of 110 kilometres an hour. This demonstrates a government listening to the community. I acknowledge the chair of the committee, the Hon. Natasha Maclaren-Jones. She has done a fantastic job. The slur about the crossbench member was disappointing as it characterised some sort of ultimatum. I am sure the chair in her reply will respond to the disappointing comment that was made that a crossbench member was somehow a slave to the Government.
Debate adjourned on motion by the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps and set down as an order of the day for a future day.