By Mehroz Siraj
Queenslanders living in the regional areas of their state have collectively rejected Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first federal budget, arguing that regional areas would be worse off under the Coalition government.
Treasurer Hockey’s declaration of raising fuel indexation, cutting education and infrastructure spending, along with the government’s failure to annually commit a billion dollars towards development of northern Australia has made many Queenslanders weary of the Coalition’s governance of the economy.
This lack of trust has been well reflected in many recent opinion polls which have shown that after just one year in government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s approval ratings have plummeted below the lowly numbers previously recorded by his two Labor predecessors, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
An Australia-wide poll conducted by Fairfax media after Treasurer Hockey’s budget speech last week showed that over 78 per cent of the regional Australians surveyed rejected most of the budget’s provisions, mainly the decision to raise fuel indexation.
This could push up fuel prices another 4 cents a litre for communities whose sole modes of transport around their towns are automobiles.
A detailed study of the budget papers has revealed that many initiatives and programmes that were being previously funded across Queensland by previous governments would now be scrapped or replaced.
Queensland experts believe that the previously guaranteed annual allocation of $50million towards the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) would now be scrapped.
The budget papers have failed to mention this project, which is of a critical importance not only to Queensland, but also to New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
The project and the management board overlooking its daily operations have been working on fixing broken water pipes and drainage systems across eastern Australia with maximum environmental benefit to local communities.
“In the last 15 years, we have saved over 200,000 mega litres of water, that is 200,000 full-sized swimming pools, every year that it is saved,” Bill Bode, a member of GABSI committee board told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last week.
He cautioned that in the absence of further guaranteed funding, all the good work done so far could come to a naught and that future challenges and objectives would be left incomplete.
“There are bores up there that still have not been fixed that are flowing at over a million gallons a day. It is a complete waste of water,” he said, arguing that any inability to fix them would lead to a national water shortage in the coming years.
Much like the GABSI scheme, the axe has also fallen upon Queensland’s growing ethanol bio-fuels production industry, wherein the current regime of zero per cent taxation on production would be replaced by a pro-rated indexation excise in June 2015.
According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report, the indexation would start at a base minimum of 2.5 cents a litre and will be in force till 2021, when it would be applied at the rate of 12.5 cents a litre.
This would add an extra $136million into the federal coffers.
Condemning the policy, Agforce Grains President Wayne Newton argued that this new tax would seriously limit the ability of the state’s ethanol producers and sugar cane farmers to compete effectively with the larger businesses.
“We are quite disappointed. The ability to actually run as a profitable plant is quite reliant on the excise concessions that they have been receiving from the government,” he said.
Local farmer Paul Schembri agreed with these viewpoints, arguing that this policy backflip of the government proved that Abbott cabinet was not serious about assisting the alternative fuels industry.
“It is a disincentive to anyone in the sugar industry when you have uncertainty around policy,” he said, arguing that incoherent policies would kill off any prospective innovation and investments within the alternative energy business.
Farmers like Schembri are also calling on the federal government to honour commitments of allocating a billion dollars of funding for the development of agriculture and infrastructure in northern Australia.
Analysts point out that the budget does not guarantee these funds over the next five years.
Criticizing the Abbott government’s tall talking and lack of action on this issue, Barry Hughes of the Gulf Graziers Group said that any reduction in the funding of economic activities in northern Queensland would impact the entire country as a whole.
“Talking the talk is one thing, walking the walk and backing that up with the infrastructure requirements, the roads, the ports, the processing plants, etc, is another,” he said.
“We need the government now to step up to the plate and start to deliver on what they have talked loudly and long about—the ability of the northern Australian landscape to produce,” he added.
The voices and perspectives of the budget’s stakeholders in Queensland have been well heard and corroborated by the state’s politicians who are currently occupying the Opposition benches in the state and the federal parliaments.
While giving a scathing review of the budget last week, independent parliamentarian Bob Katter said that the state-wide budgetary cuts would lead to an increase in overall unemployment across Queensland.
Condemning the new taxes on the ethanol industry, he said that these new taxes would reduce new investments in alternative energy projects whilst up to 30,000 jobs in the state would be at risk.
“This has to be a mild insanity. If this was Friday night football you would be sent off, maybe not put on report,” he told the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin.
Praising the managerial oversight of former Treasurer Wayne Swan, Katter said that the last Labor government’s annual commitment of a billion dollars for northern Australia’s economic development should have been carried forward by the Abbott-Hockey administration.
Criticizing the government’s decision of giving Queensland farmers soft loans of over $320million instead, Katter remarked that Queenslanders never wanted them in the first place.
“We have never (in the bush) asked for subsidies or hand-outs,” he told the Rockhampton daily.
“We have however, asked for a level playing field and the government continues to give out political lollypops instead of real action on the value of the dollar and the massive tariffs and subsidies enjoyed by every other country, while ours are near zero,” he said.
Katter heavily criticized the government’s failure to enforce a strong tariffs regime that was aimed at making agricultural imports more expensive for businesses and consumers alike.
This failure meant that Queensland’s farmers would continue to work in economically tough and challenging circumstances as competition from cheaper overseas imports would become unsustainable, he said.