13 November 2019

Rural and Regional South Australia - Matter of Public Importance

I also rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I do so because this coalition government is failing to deliver for rural and regional Australian families, that failure is hitting hard in my home state of South Australia—a state which, mind you, does care about our subs jobs, which needs our subs jobs—and it would be nice if senators on the other side could actually show our state some support.

This government has failed South Australians on jobs, failed them on health, failed them on education and failed them on the ABC. And it has failed the most vulnerable regional and rural South Australians the most. Across our country, more than one in eight people are living below the poverty line, but the worst statistics are confined to South Australia, which has the highest rate of poverty in comparison to all other jurisdictions in Australia. Within my state, rural and regional South Australians remain the hardest hit by poverty. If you live outside our capital city of Adelaide, you are twice as likely to be living below the poverty line. But it does not have to be this way.

Underlying these statistics are a series of policy decisions and failures by this coalition government that have made the financial pressure being experienced by families in rural and regional South Australia worse—policy decisions like cutting pensions and cutting family payments; refusing to lift the rate of Newstart; attacking Medicare and the universality of our healthcare system; and taking away penalty rates, payments that ensure working Australians can have a quality standard of living and a liveable wage. These policy choices have made it harder and harder for struggling Australians to make ends meet, and these policy decisions have failed rural and regional South Australians more than any other.

Our towns in South Australia are doing it tough. They're doing it really tough. This is plainly evident in the far-too-high rates of unemployment and underemployment in my state. Labour force figures recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show us that South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 7.3 per cent. While costs are going up, wages aren't, and South Australians are earning less than people in most other states and well below the national average. In regional areas, it is even worse. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in their employment trends snapshot report, which was released in September this year, found that in 2018 the unemployment rate for outer regional areas was 6.8 per cent nationally, compared to 5.2 per cent in major cities. For young Australians in rural and regional Australia aged 15 to 24, the statistics are even worse. The unemployment rate in 2018 for young people was 12.7 per cent in inner regional areas and a staggering 15.8 per cent in outer regional areas. If this is not failing young Australians in rural and regional Australia, I don't know what is.

Unemployment is having an impact on entire communities. Businesses are closing as more and more people find themselves out of work and without any form of discretionary income. If you walk through the centre of Murray Bridge, you will find too many empty shops, left vacant by businesses that just could not stay afloat in the current economic environment. And you will find business owners and employees who are scared. They're terrified of what their future holds in a town that they, rightly, love so much.

Rural and regional South Australians and their families deserve better, yet the Liberals who claim to speak for rural and regional South Australians and who actually have control over the policy levers that can help them are sitting on their hands. Let me give you a tip: the most effective policy option in front of you is to raise the rate of Newstart. Ask the BCA. Ask John Howard. Ask KPMG. Increasing Newstart would not only help people doing it tough but deliver immediate and significant economic stimulus, especially in our rural and regional areas. In rural and regional South Australia, there are 19,633 people on Newstart. Just imagine the stimulus impact in these parts of our state if these Newstart recipients had more money in their pockets, more money that would go directly into their local economy. It would mean less financial and economic pressure on South Australian families and a greater spend in shops and businesses across our regions.

On my recent visits to places like Ceduna and Murray Bridge, I spoke to countless residents and business owners who are crying out for economic stimulus in their towns. They are crying out for investment and they are crying out for more jobs. An increase to Newstart could help deliver this, but this government has no plan for rural and regional South Australia and its local economies. The government clearly has no plan to deal with low wages and rising prices. Boosting Newstart would provide much-needed economic stimulus in our regions. It's not just a social policy issue; it's about growing our economy.

The government keep talking about their plans to boost the economy and the importance of regional Australia, yet there is a policy at their fingertips that offers an immediate and localised economic stimulus and they're refusing to consider it in favour of peddling further stigmatisation and demeaning our welfare recipients. Australians are worried about the economy, but the Liberals are pretending there is no problem. They're ignoring rural and regional Australians, who are pleading for the government to come up with a genuine plan to get our economy moving again. But the Liberals just have an agenda for cuts. Since 2014, this government's funding cuts to TAFE, education and health have hit regional communities the hardest. In each budget, the Prime Minister and his government have said they will spend more on regional infrastructure, but he always spends less than promised.

As they say, when all else fails, form a committee. Scott Morrison has now formed two parliamentary committees on the needs of rural and regional Australia. But where is the plan? Where is the economic stimulus that rural and regional Australia so desperately needs? And, beyond these economic questions, where is the government when it comes to the regional health divide?

On 17 October, Ceduna Hospital was forced to suspend its birthing services until December, due to a temporary shortage of staff. The shortage of staff is across a number of areas, including GPs, obstetricians, midwives and anaesthetists. What are the women of Ceduna meant to do now? And where is the government?

In my first speech in this place, I spoke about my Aunty Lynette, from Port Lincoln, and her horror maternal-health story of 40 years ago, when, because of an inability to cater for a high-needs newborn in a local hospital, Lynette was separated from her child for 17 weeks. The baby was in Adelaide in hospital and Lynette was in Port Lincoln, for 17 long, painful, excruciating weeks.

Now, 40 years later, families in Ceduna will be forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to access basic maternal-health services. How can it be the case that so little has changed for rural and regional South Australian women? It is absolutely not good enough. It's not good enough for women and their families in regional South Australia, and it shouldn't be good enough for this government.

The government's failures for regional and rural South Australians just go on and on. Let's look at their record on education. Public schools in Australia teach two in three of all students and the overwhelming majority of Australia's neediest children. Within public schools, we find 82 per cent of the poorest children, 84 per cent of Indigenous children and 74 per cent of children with disability. But, because of this coalition government's cuts, almost nine in 10 public schools will never get to their fair funding level. In South Australia, the re-election of this government meant that schools in our three largest rural and regional electorates of Barker, Mayo and Grey missed out on a total of $97 million of much-needed funding. Murray Bridge High School alone missed out on $1.89 million, Port Lincoln High School missed out on $1.5 million and Port Pirie West Primary School missed out on $440,000. Just imagine the difference this would have made to these schools.

As if the divide that exists on health, education, jobs and wages for rural and regional Australians wasn't enough, the government cuts the ABC. Rural and regional South Australians rely on the ABC like no others. It is essential for local content, stories and emergency information. This year, the Liberals announced yet another cut of $83 million, by freezing indexation of the ABC's operational funding from 2019-20. As if that also wasn't enough, the Liberals have launched the biggest attack on the independence of the ABC in a generation.

After years of cuts at the hands of this coalition government, and with a further three years of cuts ahead of it, the ABC has now sadly decided to end its 67-year run as the official non-commercial Olympic Games radio broadcaster. Now Australians will miss out on much-loved content that is part of Australia's media, sporting and cultural identity.

South Australia is lucky to have four excellent local ABC Radio services around South Australia to complement the metro service. The local ABC presence in these towns is becoming more and more essential as regional newspapers struggle in the changing media landscape. For the sake of those for whom ABC Radio is their main connection to Australia and the world, the government must ensure stable and adequate funding for our national broadcaster. If the coalition government is indeed genuine in its intention to serve regional Australia, then the solution is straightforward: fund the ABC properly.

On these issues, and on so many others, it is painfully clear that the Liberal government is out of touch with regional and rural South Australians. The people of my state deserve so much better, whether they live in the bush or in a town centre. They all deserve a fair go—a job, a good education, quality healthcare services and a properly funded ABC. Instead, they've got a government that refuses to deliver any of these things. They've got a government that has completely failed rural and regional South Australians.

13 November 2019