I rise to speak on these appropriation bills which deliver this government’s third budget. As the Independent member for Indi, I seek out my constituents’ views on the issues that come before the federal parliament: the high cost of living, health and aged care, climate change and energy, housing, and much more. I approached this budget—and in fact every budget—no differently. I reach out widely across my electorate to understand where Indi is thriving and where we need a boost from the federal government to fully reach our potential. This includes the nine local government areas of Indi—health providers, including Albury-Wodonga Health; education providers, like GOTAFE and Wodonga TAFE; the peak tourism bodies, which are huge drivers of Indi’s economy, like Tourism North East and the alpine resorts; and many, many more. These vital organisations have underscored for me the challenges that we collectively face: the impacts of severe weather events like the flooding in 2022 and the impacts of the pandemic-driven regional population boom. They’ve not gone away.

The hardworking Indi electorate offices are the key point of contact for everyday Indi constituents. My staff in these offices hear about people’s experiences and struggles and provide support to constituents in areas from health care, NDIS and social services to immigration, housing and many more things. I want to thank everyone of those groups and individuals that wrote to me, met with me, called and emailed my office about what they wanted to see in this budget. I’m proud to represent these voices. I’m proud to represent them in my annual budget submission, which I presented to the Treasurer before the budget. I now want to address that budget itself and whether it met the needs and the expectations of the people I represent.

The member for Macnamara just listed many arts organisations that have benefited from this budget, but he forgot one really important one, the only regional arts organisation that was included in that funding. I’m really pleased the budget included $7.3 million for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Australia’s national youth circus located on the border of my electorate in Albury-Wodonga. This money will help fund additional staff, including circus program teachers. I called for this support for the fruit flies in my budget submission. It’s a really significant investment in our region’s talented young people, and the border community should feel very proud about this recognition. Congratulations to the CEO Richard Hull and all of the fruities, staff and students, for this absolutely fantastic boost—in fact, the best boost they’ve had in funding in their 48-year history.

Like much of Australia, cost-of-living pressures are being felt strongly across Indi. I’m acutely aware that households are struggling to stay on top of daily expenses like energy bills, like rent or mortgage payments, like groceries and like trips to the doctor. These are all essential items. In my budget submission, I called for practical measures the government can take to lighten the load on households without increasing inflation. I’m pleased the government announced in the budget that it will extend and expand Energy Bill Relief Fund to provide a $300 rebate to all households, and $325 to eligible small businesses. Reducing power bills will be a welcome relief to Indi households and businesses. This will help them, but really it is just a start. The government needs to follow the lead of the states and make it easier for households to access new rooftop solar home batteries and energy efficiency upgrades, because that’s the kind of investment that will permanently lower energy bills.

I’m also deeply disappointed that the government did not expand the energy efficiency grants for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Making it easier for households and businesses to electrify is one of the best ways to reduce energy bills now and, again, one of the best ways for long-term savings.

The government have failed to improve cost of living for the most vulnerable by failing again to increase JobSeeker in this budget. Since 2019 I have pushed the government of the day to raise the rate. The experts are backing me in this call. It’s a recommendation of the government’s own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee. Make no mistake the government have the means to raise JobSeeker. They did it in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, when JobSeeker was increased by $550 a fortnight. The positive impact of that was profound. The Productivity Commission said as a result Australia experienced an unprecedented fall in income inequality. That this budget fails to increase JobSeeker, or any other related working age payments, is truly a very big missed opportunity.

To address the cost-of-living crisis requires action on the housing crisis. According to CoreLogic just this week, house prices in regional Australia are the highest they’ve ever been and are growing faster than the capital cities. Government action is desperately needed. For the 50 per cent of renters in Indi experiencing housing stress, the announcement to increase all Commonwealth rent assistance maximum rates by 10 per cent from September this year—that will help. An additional $1 billion in grants for transitional housing for women and children experiencing domestic violence and for youth is so important, but it must reach women and children in regional areas.

The additional $1 billion for critical enabling infrastructure provided in the budget is exactly what I’ve been calling on this government to deliver. Local governments in my electorate and right across regional Australia desperately need more funding to connect the utilities, including sewerage and water infrastructure, required to unlock new housing supply. This funding is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough, and I’ll tell you why. My proposal for a regional housing infrastructure fund shows that the regions alone require up to $2 billion for the crucial infrastructure that will help to address the housing crisis, but the government has only invested $1.5 billion to meet the needs of the whole nation, and, despite 30 per cent of Australians living in regional communities, there is absolutely no guarantee from this government that a fair share of this funding will flow to them. The government fails to answer why there is no dedicated amount of funding to build homes in regional and rural Australia. Regional councils and the communities that they represent should not be forced to compete with major cities for housing funding. It simply isn’t fair.

After assistance with social security payments and housing, one of the topics constituents call my office about most frequently is access to health services in Indi. Health services in my electorate desperately need government support, leadership and action. My electorate is serviced by the only cross-border health service in Australia, and we have been waiting years to see the funding for a fit-for-purpose single-site hospital. We know that, in a publicly released letter, the state governments in Victoria and New South Wales have been told their funding commitment to redeveloping Albury Base Hospital will not even come close to meeting the needs of this rapidly growing community, and the implications of this are truly dire. People across the Albury-Wodonga region will continue to face longer wait times. Doctors, nurses and allied health professionals will be spread across two sites, and our system will remain under stress and strain.

I was glad to see in the budget an increase in federal funding towards public hospitals from 2025 under the National Health Reform Agreement, with the Commonwealth government’s contribution increasing from 40 to 45 per cent. This increase means there is now no excuse—no excuse at all—for the New South Wales and Victorian governments to withhold funding for a single-site Albury-Wodonga hospital. Indeed, I call on the Prime Minister and the health minister here to hold them to account on this. An increase in funding means they need to finally give due attention to Albury Wodonga Health and a single-site hospital on the border, because in the regions we deserve a hospital that puts people at the centre of service delivery and is capable of training and retaining a world-class healthcare workforce.

Regional towns must be set up to attract and hold onto the skilled professionals required to meet our healthcare needs, our aged-care needs and our childcare needs. But to achieve this requires meaningful investment in regional development. The Regional Ministerial Budget Statement acknowledges this, stating that health and aged care are fundamental to making regions increasingly better places to live, work and invest. Well, yes, of course I agree with this. However, in addressing measures to improve regional outcomes, the budget statement simply repurposes budget announcements that apply to all Australians no matter where they live, like funding for an additional Medicare urgent-care clinic. Tacking the phrase ‘including in regional Australia’ on the end of funding announcements does not equate to good policymaking for regional Australia. It simply doesn’t.

The budget leans heavily on the Future Made in Australia as an investment opportunity for regional, rural and remote Australia—billions of dollars to produce renewable hydrogen, refine and processed critical minerals, manufacture solar panels and more. I welcome new investment in renewable energy, a necessity to get us on the pathway to achieving net zero by 2050. What I didn’t see, though, was how regional communities will have a say in and benefit from these projects and the energy transformation.

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy knows all too well how I feel about this. It’s why last year I worked with him to get up an independent community engagement review into renewable energy infrastructure, led by former Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner Professor Andrew Dyer. This review confirmed what I have heard right across Indi: that regional Australians feel like the renewable transition is happening to them; it’s not happening with them. Over 90 per cent of the review’s survey respondents were dissatisfied with the extent to which project developers engaged with the local community. This is serious.

I’ve called on the government to implement Professor Dyer’s recommendations in the federal budget, and I’m pleased to see a start on this. The budget provides $20.7 million to improve engagement with communities impacted by renewable energy projects; movement on national developer standards; and a package to realise community benefits—all recommendations of the Dyer review. With no information, though, about how this $20.7 million will be delivered, the devil will be in the detail, and I want to see these measures deliver long-term prosperity for regional communities. The government must offer meaningful, tangible, touchable community benefit, if it wants to make its Future Made in Australia plan one that will truly succeed.

Like me, local governments in Indi are relieved to see in the budget increased funding under the Roads to Recovery Program, which will rise from $500 million to $1 billion per year. Regional and rural roads are eroding before our eyes after flooding. Councils are struggling to find the funds to repair them, let alone to build them back better to withstand future severe weather events. As a member of the Standing Committee on Regional Development, Infrastructure and Transport inquiring into roads last year, I heard about expanding Roads to Recovery as the type of funding our roads need.

But, in many ways, this budget is a missed opportunity for investment in regional, rural and remote Australia. The government’s flagship regional grant programs, the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program and the Growing Regions Program, are not allocated additional funding rounds, despite the growing need and increasing price tag on development projects. In fact, the first round of successful and unsuccessful applicants has only just been announced.

Now, I’m pleased that two projects in my electorate—one in Mansfield, the Lords Reserve pavilion; and one in Benalla, the art gallery—received much-needed funding. The Benalla and Mansfield communities will see benefits from these projects for years to come.

But the recent announcements left many, many people disappointed. Despite communities around Australia asking for more than $2.7 billion in projects, the government has funded just $207 million—only seven per cent of what regional Australia needs. It shows that these programs are underfunded and oversubscribed, despite the obvious need in regional communities. The ask is massive because the need is massive, and there’s nowhere else to go. It’s why, in my Indi budget submission, I made the case for increased and ongoing investment in these grant programs that specifically fund regional and rural projects. Regional and rural councils continuously make the case to me about how hard it is to compete with their metro and suburban counterparts for the same pools of grant funding because they don’t often have the resources and the ratepayer base to match Commonwealth funds.

This budget has some welcome measures, and I understand the government’s challenges in not wanting to fuel inflation. It’s vital that we bring inflation down, to ease cost-of-living pressure. However, where the government has announced funding in their housing and their Future Made in Australia policies in particular, the regions remain a blind spot. I’m worried about it, and I want the government to step up to the challenge.

Regional Australia powers the nation. We feed and clothe the nation. I want to see the government put focus on the regions so that we’re not constantly competing with the cities for our fair share of funding, and I will keep advocating for measures that ensure a prosperous and thriving future for all regional and rural communities.

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