I rise to support the motion that has been put before us today by Ms Pulford. I say from the outset that I am absolutely appalled by the fact the Liberal Party has advised the house it will be voting against this motion.
I can only conclude from the remarks of Mr David O’Brien that The Nationals will also be voting against this motion, which essentially is about the importance of the National Centre for Farmer Health and how there needs to be an immediate restoration of funds so that the centre does not close down, which seems to be imminent.
I have spoken about the National Centre for Farmer Health on many occasions in this place, and today will not be the last time I do so. That is because the Labor Party understands the importance of the National Centre for Farmer Health. The Victorian Farmers Federation also understands the importance of the centre, as do farmers and their families. Health professionals understand the importance of the centre, and the local councils in the area certainly understand its importance. The local media and, very importantly, all local people understand the importance of the centre.
We also have governments from around the world that understand the importance of the centre, and we have been told time and again that there have been a number of agricultural and health professionals and farmers who have come to Hamilton to look at the various works that are under way.
The centre has also won international awards. Canada is now implementing what the National Centre for Farmer Health has been doing in terms of its Sustainable Farm Families program. That is a significant feather in its cap because, as we know, the Canadians had been searching worldwide for a model to adopt, and they found it right here in western Victoria in Hamilton.
The only people who do not seem to understand the real value of the National Centre for Farmer Health are members of the Napthine coalition state government.
That is typified by the fact that they believe its value is only $250 000 per annum, because that is what they have put on the table in terms of its negotiations with the federal government.
They have ripped an enormous amount of money out of the National Centre for Farmer Health budget, to the point where the doors are about to close.
Already a number of staff have had to be retrenched, and further retrenchments are imminent.
It is particularly sad to see because of a community discussion I recall being involved in prior to the 2006 election.
I think it was even before I was elected to this place, and I think the member for Ripon in the Assembly, Joe Helper, was there, as well as a number of other local community members.
It was in held Grey Street, Hamilton, and we were having a general community discussion about the state of the district. We got around to discussing the impact the drought was having on the general community and the farming community in particular, because we knew that at that time around two to three suicides were occurring each week in the local district alone.
A lot of people were not talking about it because they did not want momentum to build around this devastating story of what was occurring. But there was clear evidence that people wanted to do something about it.
It was also becoming clear from the work being done by the health professionals in the Greater Green Triangle that diabetes was a major problem being seen in our farming communities, and heart disease was also right up there in terms of major factors that were impacting on farming families and the agricultural sector.
Farm injuries were still incredibly high, not just in terms of interactions with machinery but also the repetitive work that farmers undertake.
We also heard from various speakers about hearing loss and the impact that that has. We heard there was a need to try to connect what has been happening with the health of individual farmers and the family unit, to make sure that the family unit was sustainable and that farming could continue. The measures to be put in place will affect not just the individual farmer but all members of the family unit.
Those discussions took place and were embedded in the Hamilton community, to the extent that Geoffrey Handbury saw fit to make a very generous contribution of $1 million to set up the centre. He went to the Labor government at the time and said, ‘I’m prepared to stump up $1 million and I would really like you as the state government to match it’. There were a lot of conversations among members of the Labor caucus and particularly the regional members about what we needed to do. This seemed to be a wonderful opportunity to do something that was really hands-on with the local community and took a whole-of-government approach to families, farmers, agriculture and the local economy. That is why this centre is so important. It has traction in the community: it was born from the community and it has continued to work with the community. That has been demonstrated to me time and again.
When I go to Sheepvention, where I have a stall every year and have had for the last nine years, one of the main things that people come up and talk to me about is their direct experience with the National Centre for Farmer Health. They are the first ones to want to sign any petitions for the continuation of the centre. Because they are so involved in what the history of the centre has been about and its continuing work, they know that politics is just being played out here. They know that $250 000 is a really small amount of money for such a successful program. They cannot understand it. I can assure you that, after seeing the budget released yesterday and at what is being spent in metropolitan Melbourne, when only $250 000 is the value that the coalition government places on this centre, they will be suitably appalled. For members of the government to use the fact that the centre has the word ‘national’ in its title as the vehicle to handball its funding to some other level of government reeks of political opportunism and puts a highlight under this government’s credibility when it purports to support farmers and farming families in our local communities.
Mr David O’Brien and Mr Ramsay in their contributions said that funding for the centre should have been provided by the health portfolio. The Labor government made a deliberate decision to have the funding in the agriculture portfolio, and did so because it saw it as a whole package in terms of Future Farming strategies. After the coalition government was elected and moved the funding to the health portfolio, opposition members had a conversation amongst ourselves. We knew that something negative was going to happen. Because the health budget is so large, we thought that the amount of $1 million per annum was just going to get lost or forgotten or withdrawn. Of course we have now seen the ultimate happen, which is the withdrawal of the funding. There was logic in terms of keeping it in agriculture, of it being part of a package and of making sure that it was sustainable so that it would continue to be a budgetary line item.
We are also concerned that members opposite have said they have been lobbying their federal counterparts very hard and that a wonderful job has been done by Dan Tehan, the federal member for Wannon, and by Hugh Delahunty, the member for Lowan in the other place, in lobbying the federal lower house members. However, I suggest to them that they would not need to spend all that time and energy lobbying their colleagues if they just paid up what is a really small amount of money to deliver an exponential improvement in the local economy. Those who say that it is a national centre that works in other states forget that it is not Victorian money that is used when the National Centre for Farmer Health undertakes work in other states; it is those state governments, or those industry stakeholders in those states or regions, that actually put in the money. It is not the Victorian government. They should not try to say it is the Victorian government that is subsidising the work that is being undertaken in other parts of the country, because that is simply wrong. If they were really true and honest with themselves, they would say, ‘We made the wrong decision.
We should not have touched the funding. We should have kept it and, if anything, we should have increased it’.
Those of us who have been on parliamentary committees over the years know that when it comes to rural and regional issues, or any other issue associated with the economy or agriculture — whether it is about health provision, health professionals, a whole gamut of issues — a representative of the National Centre for Farmer Health has always given evidence at those inquiries and has informed this Parliament about what is going on at a grassroots level in a genuine way. Everyone has patted them on the back and praised them, and we have truly appreciated the work they have done in terms of creating databases that were not previously there. People can talk about other programs that might be around, but there is no other program like this and no other database exists. That database is the bread and butter on which all of us can base our decisions and our policy development. Shutting their doors or coming up with some piecemeal arrangement, which I am sure will be in next week’s federal budget, will not address the real issues of how they need to have stability and continuity in the work they are doing in terms of data collection, hands-on, one-on-one, from families and a whole range of other projects they are undertaking. I have to say I have been somewhat bemused by the government’s position on this matter.
I really cannot say that there is one argument that in any way can be taken seriously in terms of asserting that this government truly supports the National Centre for Farming Health, because it does not. The money does not stack up, and I would say that there must be some other element to this, because no logical argument stacks up.
The community knows that. Geoff Handbury has quotes in the local paper saying — and I will get the exact quote because I do not want to upset Mr Handbury — that upon hearing of the government’s decision to take the money away he was staggered to hear the program he had seen develop into a model with international acclaim was not included in the budget.
We have also had Jim Fletcher, who was the chief executive officer of the Western District Health Service, say:
It makes us dismayed and frustrated that we can get international recognition, yet our politicians at this point haven’t been able to provide funding.
La Trobe University Centre for Sustainable Regional Communities director John Martin said the decision to slash the centre’s funding was short-sighted and that the programs delivered by the centre have produced profound results and made the farming population a healthier group of people.
I believe this government has just done the wrong thing, plain and simple. It is a wrong decision to cut this money, and it is also problematic that the minister himself has not really engaged in a serious way with the stakeholders and has continued to refuse to acknowledge the true significance of this centre around Hamilton.
Mr Ramsay — What a shame you could not get Gillard and the others to contribute!
Ms TIERNEY — Mr Ramsay should not try to blame anyone else but his own government. It was his government that took the money away from the centre. This government claims it represents the best interests of rural and regional Victorians, but it cuts funding to this centre.
Honourable members interjecting.
Ms TIERNEY — I believe it is an absolutely disgraceful act. Each and every member who claims to care even a little bit about our farmers in our regions should hang their head in shame.
Again I would urge all members of the government to support this motion.
It supports an organisation that is hands-on, that is working extremely well and that is acknowledged by every single person who is involved with the centre as a groundbreaking organisation that has done a lot of work and continues to do a lot of work. It is this government and this government alone that is preventing it from providing the best possible outcomes in terms of health for farming families. It is this government that is abrogating its responsibility to continue the funding that Labor commenced and Labor maintained.
I say again: forget the time, money and everything else that government members purport to be spending in lobbying their colleagues and just pay up, do the right thing and support Ms Pulford’s motion.