Parliamentary Committees and Inquiries Acts Amendment Bill 2015

26 February 2015

February 26, 2015

MS RYAN (Euroa) — I am pleased to rise to contribute to this debate on the Parliamentary Committees and Inquiries Acts Amendment Bill 2015. The Nationals oppose this bill, which seeks to change the structure of parliamentary committees. Those opposite are seeking to rationalise six existing joint investigatory committees into three new committees in addition to making a number of minor and technical changes. The bill proposes amalgamating the Economic Development, Infrastructure and Outer Suburban/Interface Services Committee and the Education and Training Committee to create the Economic, Education, Jobs and Skills Committee; amalgamating the Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee with the Road Safety Committee to create the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee; and amalgamating the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Rural and Regional Committee to form the Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee.

These changes may seem minor, but they will have a profound impact. Members opposite argue that the functions of these committees will be exactly the same, but it will not be possible for these committees to do twice as much work as committees did during the last Parliament. I would submit that either those opposite are too lazy to do the work that is needed on parliamentary committees or they are seeking to stifle debate on these very important issues. The government wants to restrict these committees to prevent scrutiny, and earlier in the debate we heard the member for Brighton outline some of the very hypocritical comments of the member for Bendigo East, who described a previous effort in the last Parliament to make some sensible changes to the committee structure as 'gagging' the committees. It is interesting to now see a role reversal on the other side of the house.

How quickly things change. Less than a year ago the now Attorney-General released Labor's election platform, which promised more transparency and more scrutiny. In a media release titled 'More government scrutiny under Labor reform plan', the Attorney-General said that 'an Andrews Labor government will not be afraid of genuine scrutiny'. In the first couple of weeks of this Parliament we have already seen how untrue that is, with the farce that question time has become and the apparent abolition of Dorothy Dixers, which have simply been replaced by ministers statements.

I am particularly concerned that the changes outlined in this bill will take away a dedicated focus on rural and regional Victoria. There will be less opportunity for regional Victorians to have input into public policy, particularly through public hearings. The Rural and Regional Committee was tasked with two main focus points, being the provision of services to regional Victoria and the development of regional Victoria, and the committee's reports over the years have provided incredibly important insights into the issues and opportunities that affect rural and regional Victoria.

For example, the inquiry into the opportunities for increasing exports of goods and services from regional Victoria, undertaken in the last Parliament, found that to grow regional exports much-needed government support was required to identify and support our competitive advantages, reduce costs of production and increase efficiencies while also seeking greater access to existing and emerging export markets. The report of that inquiry acknowledged the critical role that rural and regional Victoria plays in the state's exports, in particular in relation to primary production like agriculture. It also noted that in the near future agriculture will become increasingly important to the state's economy, particularly with the growing wealth of the large developing economies to Australia's north. Victoria's dairy and meat sectors are already recognised throughout the world as being among the best in the marketplace.

Outbound and inbound trade missions and other international representations from the Victorian and commonwealth governments are critical to opening up new and emerging markets to greater exports from regional Victoria. This was a major focus of the coalition government through its $50 million international engagement strategy. In 2011, I was pleased to accompany the then Premier, Ted Baillieu, to China, where we took some 400 businesses and 600 delegates on the largest ever trade mission from Victoria. If members were to speak to any of the delegates on that trade mission, they would get a real sense of how important it was to them and to their businesses.

However, in the early days of this Labor government we have already seen that it simply does not understand the importance of agricultural exports. There was no ministerial representation at the Gulfood expo in Dubai this year. A spokesperson for the Minister for Agriculture said, when questioned about that decision, that 'future overseas visits and trade missions will be considered in the context of the minister's existing and future priorities'. What could be more important to the agriculture minister than securing new export markets for the industry?

In that same report on increasing exports, the Rural and Regional Committee acknowledged the expectation that governments would provide a world-class telecommunications network across rural and regional Victoria that meets the demands of businesses, including Victoria's growing tourism market and education sector. The coalition government responded to that with a $40 million blackspot program, which was widely well received throughout regional communities. That program was designed to leverage money from the commonwealth's $100 million fund.

Across my electorate there are communities that face serious challenges as a result of communications blackspots, including Goorambat, Tatong, Reedy Creek, Broadford, Tarcombe and Upton Hill, just to name a few. As the Rural and Regional Committee noted, addressing these blackspots and providing adequate communications infrastructure across electorates such as Euroa does not just address the serious risk to emergency services but also grows businesses and jobs. Of all the 23 recommendations, one of the most critical was that the Victorian government continue to support policies that grow regional towns and cities.

Another inquiry of the Rural and Regional Committee during the last Parliament was the inquiry into the extent and nature of disadvantage and inequity in rural and regional Victoria, which is an issue that The Nationals members in this house are passionate about. It was another incredibly important piece of work. The committee examined the evidence of disadvantage in rural and regional Victoria with a view to identifying the social groups most affected by disadvantage and the geographical locations in rural and regional Victoria where disadvantage is most severe. The purpose was to prioritise these areas for future action by government.

Again we see that the role of these committees and inquiries is to highlight priority areas for government to act upon, and that underpins the concerns on this side of the house that in collapsing these committees we will see a reduction in the scrutiny of government policy and in the number of ideas that can be put forward to government. If we look through the recommendations of these committees and note the number of recommendations that are adopted by government, we can see just how important they are in policy formulation.

In conclusion, members opposite claim they care about regional communities and regional industries, but they do not care enough to give them a dedicated voice in Parliament. By not ensuring that the scrutiny of government policy for rural and regional Victoria will continue, they have seriously let regional communities down. While the opposition would be happy to have a discussion with the government about how the committee system can best operate, it cannot support the rationalisation of committees in a manner that will reduce representation of the issues that are important to rural and regional Victoria.

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