Soon we will know the outcome of a review into student income support reforms including independent youth allowance.
The review was brought forward 12 months by the Labor government to secure the Independents’ support in blocking a Coalition bill that sought to immediately fix problems with independent youth allowance.
Students living in inner regional areas have to work 30 hours a week for up to two years because of changes the Labor government made to the criteria. A fairer criterion applies to students in other regions and the Coalition believes it should apply to inner regional students too.
The review was chaired by former Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Kwong Lee Dow. His report to the government was due on the 1st of July and is expected to be tabled in each house of parliament within 10 sitting days.
The government says any changes won’t be made until after 1 January 2012.
The Coalition believes they should happen immediately after the review to give regional students and their families the certainty they deserve.
The government must also guarantee regional distinctions on the ASGC-RA map that determine eligibility for the allowance are removed.
The Coalition will keep the pressure on the government to fix independent youth allowance as soon as possible.
The Australian Standard Geographical Classification – Remoteness Areas (ASGC-RA) map is also causing angst within the rural health sector.
The map was introduced last July to determine relocation and retention incentives paid to doctors, depending on where they are located. The problem is that many smaller rural towns are in the same classification category as larger regional centres (even Hobart). Many doctors are therefore less inclined to practise in a rural town when they would receive the same payment to work in a regional centre. It has consequently made it more difficult to attract and retain doctors to small rural towns where they are needed.
The Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia has been lobbying the federal government for an immediate and independent review of the system.
The need for an independent review follows the response by health department officials to my questions during the recent senate estimates. They indicated there won’t be a review until at least next year. The officials said there was no evidence that the ASGC-RA map was having a negative impact and that they were getting only anecdotal information from rural health stakeholders. It seems the officials didn’t quite get the point that rural towns are losing doctors to larger regional centres, and something has to be done now.
I have met with the RDAA on this matter and will lobby with them for a review. I also urge you to do the same by contacting the Health Minister Nicola Roxon either by mail to Parliament House, Canberra, ACT, 2601; phone 6277 7220; fax 6273 4146; or email Nicola.Roxon.MP@aph.gov.au.
Agriculture is facing a severe skills and labour shortage, and a dwindling supply of tertiary educated professionals.
The National Farmers Federation estimates up to 100,000 workers over five years will be needed to fill the labour gap on the land post drought. According to the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture (ACDA), there’s a market for about 4000 graduates yet our universities are providing about 800 graduates a year.
Recently I met with the ACDA president, Professor Rick Roush, to discuss these concerns. We were also honoured to have guests of high calibre contributing to the discussion at the Nationals’ Policy Forum at the National Press Club in Canberra These include the Vice Chancellor of the University of New England, Professor Jim Barber, and Charles Sturt University’s Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor Nick Klomp.
With the world’s population predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, future food production and food security must be at the forefront of policy development. We need to have a strong, educated workforce to be able to cope with these increased pressures and challenges.
As the Coalition’s Regional Education spokesperson, I will continue to meet with our agriculture educators and work with my Nationals parliamentary colleagues to come up with a plan to achieve this
Senator Nash at the Lowesdale School
The Liberal-National Coalition has been busy finetuning its policies across all portfolios. I have been working on the Regional Education policy which addresses a broad range of issues raised during the many meetings and visits I’ve had with schools and education stakeholders.
My regional education tour is ongoing and I am constantly in awe of the commitment by teachers, schools and universities to providing a quality education no matter what challenges there may be.
The schools funding review is without doubt one of the leading concerns, which is due to report later this year. The Greens and the Australian Education Union want public funding of non-government schools cut and the Labor government refuses to commit to retain non-government school funding in real terms beyond 2013. If it doesn’t, schools across Australia stand to lose $4.2 billion from 2014 to 2017. In NSW, 355 schools stand to lose around $213 million in annual funding. At least 50 of them are in rural and regional areas. Regional families are already struggling to meet rising living costs, let alone a hike in school fees which would be inevitable to meet this funding shortfall.
The rollout of the National Curriculum, the MySchool website and BER debacles are regularly raised along with less publicised issues like the shortage of teachers in rural and regional schools and access to speech therapists.
Shortly I will be visiting indigenous schools and the School of Air in the Northern Territory with Senator Nigel Scullion.
Help for Farmers
While conditions have improved for farming, there are many farmers in NSW and Victoria struggling with the cumulative effects of drought and the summer floods.
In April I met with rural community representatives at Corowa in southern NSW who are concerned that Exceptional Circumstances (EC) assistance will not be continued.
Grain and fruit crops were lost or downgraded and there were livestock losses from drowning, fly strike and other infection. Farmers were still trying to harvest last year’s crop at the time they should have been sowing this year’s crop. The loss to agriculture from the floods in NSW, Victoria and Queensland is at least $5 billion. In NSW alone, it’s understood almost half of the 2.8 million hectare wheat crop was downgraded due to weather damage – an $850 million loss for the 2010 grain harvest.
The National Rural Advisory Council (NRAC), that assesses EC declared areas, acknowledged high stress levels among farmers yet recommended the assistance stop. My concerns about the emotional toll this is having on our farmers were further compounded when told of mental health issues the Riverina alone. I have no doubt that these issues are much more widespread.
I have written to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard; the Agriculture Minister, Senator Joe Ludwig; and the Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean, urging them to extend EC assistance to flood affected farmers until the end of the year. The Prime Minister referred the matter onto someone else and Ministers Ludwig and Crean have not yet responded.
The gross value of Australian farm production is $41.8 billion a year. Our farmers produce almost 93 per cent of Australia’s domestic food supply, and the agriculture sector employs 1.6 million Australians or 17.2 per cent of the workforce. Add to that the taxes farmers pay in their lifetime, I’d say they’ve well and truly earned the right to some help when it’s needed.
I am very concerned about the disturbing trend of foreign investment in the agricultural sector.
Recently the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, signed off on Cargill’s takeover of the former AWB grain commodity business. The US company also announced plans to buy the 50 per cent take in Teys Bros, one of Australia’s largest beef processing companies. Meantime, Chinese mining company, Shenhua Watermark Coal, has also bought out 43 farms on the Liverpool Plains in northern NSW for exploration.
It’s understood Australia has seen a ten-fold increase in foreign investment under the Labor government in the last three years.
Labor clearly does not think that protecting our agricultural assetsis in the national interest. The Coalition believes there should be a comprehensive review to strengthen Australia’s existing foreign investment review guidelines, and that the Foreign Investment Review Board must investigate investments lower than its current threshold of $231 million.
A Coalition motion requiring the government, through ABARES and the ABS, to compile data on foreign ownership in Australia was passed in parliament earlier this year. The Productivity Commission would then review the data and recommend safeguards for national food security.
The Coalition has also established a Working Group to investigate options to strengthen the rules that govern the sale of Australian agricultural land and agribusinesses to foreign entities. It is chaired by the Nationals Federal Leader, Warren Truss, who’s joined by fellow Nationals John Cobb and Senator Barnaby Joyce. The Working Group will call for submissions and meet with concerned stakeholders, and report in coming months.
Carbon Farming Initiative
The Nationals have concerns about Labor’s Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) which would provide carbon credits for projects that reduce or avoid greenhouse emissions.
While I support improved environmental outcomes from farming practices, I have serious concerns about Labor’s plan that could result in a shift in land use for the worse, with prime agricultural land being replaced with forestry. These concerns were recently confirmed by a CSIRO report that found food production areas within the lower Murray Darling Basin could be replaced with trees under a $36 carbon price.
The Labor government wants parliament to vote on the CFI despite the details being far from finalised. Officials at the recent senate estimates confirmed there is not yet a definition of `common practice’ for farming; the date for when regulations will be finalised is unknown; and there are still no positive and negative lists – what’s in and what’s out - for carbon activities.
Further, ABARES said it was still working on the CFI despite the legislation being before the parliament. The Gillard government arrogantly expects us to vote on it before we have any understanding at all of how any of this is going to be quantified, and any impacts it will have on the agricultural sector.