Federation Chamber, February 16, 2023
Dr HAINES (Indi) (10:00): Whenever I stand to speak as the Independent federal member for Indi, I’m grateful to the people of our proud Federation seat who gave me the responsibility and the privilege of being their voice in this place. In 2019, when the people of Indi first elected me, they told me they wanted a different style of politics. They wanted integrity and trust returned, real action on climate change and more opportunities for rural, regional and remote Australians. They wanted me to work for them, not for a party machine.
In 2022, their message remained consistent with that. There was frustration at the lack of progress on climate change and a sense that we were missing real opportunities to harness the transition to new renewable energy technology in rural and regional Australia. But the message that came through the loudest, the strongest and the clearest on the street, at the footy grounds and in town halls—no matter what people’s political persuasion was—was that they wanted us to be better representatives. They wanted more accountability, more transparency and more integrity. ‘Keep going on integrity, Helen,’ I would hear: ‘You get that commission, Helen. Clean that place up.’ I heard it everywhere, and I worked doggedly in the last parliament on that mission to implement a federal integrity commission.
I met many times with the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, to talk about my proposal and the need to allow debate on such a vital issue, but I was always told that this wasn’t a major issue for Australians and that it wasn’t a priority. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was absolutely not the case. Integrity in politics and a better standard of behaviour are vitally important to Australians, and we can see that in the election result and in the many new faces in this place—particularly sitting alongside me on the crossbench. There are many, many Australians—most of us, actually—who value integrity. I never doubted it.
I’m proud that already in the first eight months of this parliament we have passed the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and that the NACC will be in action later this year. I’m proud of my role as the deputy chair of the committee that examined the bill, of the improvements we made and the bipartisanship that we brought to that. Now, as the member of Indi, representing the people of Indi who called on me to do this work, I am now the deputy chair of the joint standing committee on the NACC, and I promise I will be an independent voice for integrity on this important oversight body. The work of integrity, of course, is never done. Now that we have the commission, it’s not a case of just set and forget. I want this government to know that I will be watching you closely. In the same way that I spoke up to the former government when it fell short on integrity, I too will speak up if and when you also fall short of what Australians expect.
As the Independent member for Indi, I have the privilege of advocating for what my electorate really needs now and into the future. In the wake of the pandemic, I heard again and again of the need for better investment in our health care in the regions. I heard of the difficulty in getting an appointment with a doctor, of accessing the right specialist somewhere close to home and also of accessing appropriate aged-care services close to where people have spent their lives. A major issue in the election campaign in Indi was funding for a new single-site hospital on the border in Albury-Wodonga, to ensure that the growing population across our region is properly served without the complication of services spread across the whole border region. I know the member for Robertson would understand this. People in rural and regional areas have to travel vast distances to get the kind of health care that people in metropolitan areas simply take for granted.
The Victorian and New South Wales governments have since committed to redevelop the existing hospital site in Albury, with a small amount of federal investment. While the funds committed are well below what we as a community have asked for and need, I am committed to work constructively with all levels of government, including this federal government, to ensure that our community gets the top-quality health service we need an deserve. Under the Albury Wodonga Regional Deal, $35 million will be directed to our local health infrastructure projects and to accommodation for workers in the health sector. This funding was promised in March 2022, before the election, and then recommitted to in the October budget, but it needs to be delivered urgently to allow these projects to start.
I also commit to working with the government to secure funding for better health services right across Indi, including the redevelopment of the Bright Hospital Precinct for better access to services for those suffering from eating disorders—young people in particular. The spike in eating disorders across the nation is extraordinary, and in rural and regional areas such as mine access to services is almost non-existent. The psychologists and the healthcare teams across Indi tell me they simply cannot keep up with demand, and they don’t have the resources they need to meet that demand. I really hope I can work with government on this one. Rural and regional young people, in particular, should not be left abandoned.
As a former nurse and midwife, and then a rural health researcher focussing on rural and public health, I know the impact that a lack of access to proper health care has on people in rural and regional Australia. Just last week we learned that women in remote areas are likely to die 19 years earlier than their city counterparts, and for men in remote areas it is 13.9 years earlier than their city counterparts. This is simply unbelievable in 2023. It’s not good enough. At every chance, I will be working to improve health care for people in regional, rural and remote Australia, so that we can thrive right now and into the future. Surely this is not too much to us.
From big towns like Wondonga and Wangarratta to small towns like Corryong in the north and Alexandra in the south, people of Indi talk to me about health care and, gee, do they talk to me about the crisis in housing! This is the thing: all of these things are interrelated. We are currently experiencing an unprecedented level of housing demand and mortgage and rental stress. A study conducted by national housing welfare organisation Everybody’s Home in March 2022 found that 40.6 per cent of renters in Indi experienced housing stress and 61.4 per cent of homeowners in Indi were under stress with there mortgage. That was last year. We haven’t got the data for this year, but I know it will be worse. A lack of affordable housing has disastrous flow-on and economic impacts. If 10 per cent of workplace positions cannot be filled due to housing shortages, this flows on to a $200 million economic loss. The regions will lose tens of millions of dollars in economic activity if the housing crisis is not met.
If we’re going to improve housing supply, we need build critical enabling infrastructure: sewage, water, electricity. Without that, it does not matter how quickly councils approve lots for housing, they simply cannot be built on. For Benalla and Wangaratta, the cost of enabling infrastructure is out of reach for a small council, and it’s a complete handbrake on our housing supply. As a parliament, we simply must address this.
During the election, I campaigned for a regional housing infrastructure fund—a dedicated fund to build critical infrastructure which would help unlock more housing supply in regional Australia. This is about infrastructure from street lights and water supply to community centres and gardens. The government should work with me on this fund. I’ve spoken to the housing minister about it, and I will continue to. It’s so important, because if the government’s own ambitious housing agenda to build 30,000 new social and affordable homes can be delivered, they need this enabling infrastructure. If it isn’t there, I struggle to see how they could deliver on this election promise.
The government’s proposed housing legislative package seeks to provide an ongoing funding stream to build social and affordable Australian homes. This fund, as we all know here, will cost $10 billion—the biggest government investment in housing in more than a decade. With such an enormous amount of money on the table, I want to see legislation that explicitly considers both social and affordable housing, and the critically-enabling infrastructure to make it happen, in regional, rural and remote Australia. Addressing the housing crisis in regional Australia is the first step in addressing our other challenges: the economy, better health care and better opportunities—I’ve said it over and over. We used to say, ‘Build it and they will come.’ Well, they’ve been coming, and we haven’t built it. None of our issues can be truly fixed if we don’t have places for people to live.
For regional and rural Australia to thrive we also need to think about our local governments. Our councils need appropriate funding to support our growing and changing communities. In Indi, our nine local government areas provide essential services with just small rate bases to call on in really challenging geography. Because of this, they rely heavily on the Commonwealth’s financial assistance grants. Over the last three decades grant payments have declined from one per cent of Commonwealth taxation revenue to just 0.53 per cent, and at the same time the demands on councils have only increased. The No. 1 ask from the nine local governments of Indi, year in, year out, is to increase financial assistance grants. I was pleased to see that the government has committed in its national platform to:
… focus on the long-term financial sustainability of Local Government … including fair increases to Financial Assistance Grants.
So I say to you that we need to see a restoration of these grants to one per cent of federal tax revenue. This is a fair increase. I’ve been pleased to meet with the Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, Kristy McBain, herself a former mayor from a regional community, to make this case. I truly hope she can do better than the previous government on this issue, so that our communities have the infrastructure they need.
Action on climate change is a real priority for the people of Indi—a huge priority—and a huge priority for me. When I first ran for parliament, people said that you can never get elected if you talk about climate change. Well, I’m back here again. Regional Australians understand this; that’s why I am here. Regional Australians are on the forefront of the impacts of climate change, but we also have the most to gain from smart, practical action to lower emissions and create new industries. Renewable energy is the cheapest form of power, and our country is blessed with the world’s best supply of it. This could be our next gold rush in the regions, if we get it right. We must do much more to ensure that we take science backed action on climate change and that we make sure our communities truly benefit from the economic flow of taking that action, because renewable energy could be a huge economic boom for regional Australia. Australia’s regions have all the resources we need to fuel our energy future, powered by the sun and the wind, but we have to make sure that the profits from the generation of renewable energy in Australia aren’t funnelled offshore. They must not be. We have to be certain that the communities at the point of generation of this new renewable energy truly benefit from it. The money needs to flow into the pockets of rural, regional and remote Australia. And that’s why in the last parliament I introduced a bill to create the ‘Australian Local Power Agency’, with a particular focus on regional communities, where energy reliability, stability and security is not always guaranteed—particularly in times of natural disaster.
The government has introduced the Community Batteries for Household Solar Program. It’s a good start to increase energy storage around Australia, to lower bills and emissions, and to take pressure off the grid. That’s why, I’ve got to say, it was very disappointing to me to see the first round of funding from this really important program go to a majority of urban and metropolitan communities. Only 14 per cent of communities who received a grant are in rural Australia. I’m pleased that there’s a minister sitting here right now, because I know that he knows that 30 per cent of Australia’s population actually lives in the regions. To make matters worse, the electorates that received that funding are almost 60 per cent of Labor seats. I know the government will tell me this is an election promise. Well, make some election promises that benefit rural and regional Australians, and that are equitable. It’s not good enough from a government that promises transparency and equity. Do better in the next round!
Community energy is not just about funding batteries. The time is now for the Commonwealth to scale up support for community owned renewable energy. Across regional Australia there are incredible examples of communities working together to own and share renewable energy. In Indi, we have the highest number of community energy groups of any electorate in Australia. These groups are in towns like Yackandandah, Euroa, Benalla, Mansfield, Corryong, Wodonga, to name but some. We are really good at this, but we need more support—we actually need some support! There’s genuine opportunity right now for government to review how ARENA can assist these groups. I’ve spoken to the minister about this. It’s really clear that ARENA is not providing funding to these kinds of projects, and I want to see that changed.
The rising cost of living is hitting households across Australia, including in my community of Indi. Outside of mortgage and rental payments, the biggest bills Australians face are their energy bills. Now, the simplest way the government can assist in lowering both energy bills and emissions is to think domestically: help households and businesses move towards electrification and lower emissions appliances. I brought a policy to the election which would reduce the cost of home batteries and offer no-interest loans for low-income families to switch expensive, old gas appliances like hot-water systems and heaters to new, efficient, electrical versions. Now, I didn’t make this up. Countries across the world are doing this. We need to get on board. Australian households want to do this but there are economic reasons that are holding them back. This is a really great opportunity.
The government’s considering a similar package to be included in the budget. My cheaper home batteries bill that I introduced last year included a plan for no-interest loans as a way to make smart choices, not just for the environment but for the household budget. I plan on reintroducing this bill in this term of parliament, and I really want to work with the government on this one. I think we could do terrific work on this. It’s something that would really make a big difference to the home budget.
I want to talk about farming. Farming generates 16 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions, with emissions rising by 3.3 per cent in the year to September 2022. The government has signed our farmers up to hit net zero emissions by 2050 but has given us very little in the way of actual policies, actual real support, to reduce emissions. We’ve got to support farmers to reduce emissions, not just talk about them. Now, I grew up on a dairy farm, and I still raise cattle today. And as a member for a regional and rural electorate, I know how hard farmers work and I know that they’re always trying to do what’s best for them and their land. But right now it’s way too confusing and difficult to get the right information and support about reducing emissions.
We need to help our farmers protect their access to world markets by supporting them to lower their emissions and to certify their products as zero carbon. My plan would fund 200 agricultural extension officers around regional Australia to help farmers, one-to-one, to lower their emissions, access carbon credits and hit net zero emissions. These extension officers would be qualified and trusted, with the local knowledge to provide on-the-ground assistance to farmers. We’ve done this in the past when we’ve seen major transitions in agriculture. This stuff works. The government could then certify those farms as carbon neutral, which would then help them access price premiums for their products and protect their access to overseas markets. Now, I know this government is considering a range of different programs to reduce emissions in agriculture. An agricultural extension officer network is sensible, it’s efficient, it’s a location appropriate pathway towards delivering these programs, and I really want to work with government on this.
In closing, I want to say that, as a rural and regional Independent—a very, very proud one—I am determined to be a champion for the people of Indi and to bring the perspectives of regional Australia to this parliament. I will continue to be a voice for integrity and transparency, and I will hold this government to account. Residents in Indi know that every time I stand in this place, I will be working to create a community where we have appropriate and accessible health care, aged care and housing. I will stand here for better phone and internet coverage, for safer roads, for action on climate change. I will be working every day of my term as the member for Indi to help our communities to thrive and to be the best that they can be.