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Luke Foley answers questions in Queanbeyan

Revived Labor takes on ‘ideological’ Liberal, National coalition

NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley came to Queanbeyan mid-March for one of Labor’s new series of ‘town hall meetings’. He was introduced by Bryce Wilson, Labor candidate for Monaro in this most marginal of seats.

The regional backdrop reflects anger about council amalgamations and the broken promises of the sitting National Party member John Barilaro to councils that had a good case for staying independent. (The Bush Bites Back, March Bulletin p4 and online).

However, the 90 or so regional residents who showed up to quiz Foley at the Roos Club largely had other state policies on their mind, wanting to know what Labor’s position is. In response he laid out a platform of change for the next state election.

Re amalgamation and 18 months of administration, Foley did remark that “here” in the Queanbeyan Palerang local government region “you have an administrator who is a political activist”, presumably not of the Labor brand. If elected in two years’ time, Labor will allow voters to petition to de-amalgamate, he promised.

“We are selling off everything not nailed down, for what?”

The anti-public sector ideology driving NSW Coalition policies and ‘reforms’, including asset sales and deregulation, came up regularly in answer to questions about everything from public education (particularly TAFE)  to health to the environment.

The question round started with one about the NSW Coalition’s controversial roll-back of native vegetation and fauna protections, as well as plans to sell off public lands like stock routes and the rollback of Local Land Services capabilities.

The National Party has proven the driver behind many attacks on the public interest and public lands and fauna habitats in regional areas – whether on behalf of big mining or corporate agriculture as in this case. Foley promised that “Labor won’t stand by and allow the National Party to roll this back”.

Labor-instituted NSW laws against clearing of native vegetation had helped Australia meet its Kyoto greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, he reminded. Since then, Queensland’s renewed intense clearance rates started by the LNP (and still ongoing with QLD Labor unable to muster the majority to stop it), with the added threat of NSW joining the destruction, have put Australia shamefully amongst the world’s top land clearing countries.

Economic management and privatization?

“When I get out of Sydney, I understand the two-speed economy in this state. Particularly youth unemployment is shockingly high in regional areas. Let’s rebuild TAFE and apprenticeships,” he said to applause.

“We are selling off everything not nailed down. Profitably government businesses are on the block. Electricity supplies you know about. Let me tell you about the Land Titles offices [the Coalition wants to sell]. This earns $130 million profit annually for the state. Why would you sell it for a one-time cash infusion?  Now they are talking about Sydney Water…”

TAFE: “There are 125,000 fewer students than when this government came to office six years ago. Why?  It’s just an ideological assault from a government hostile to public education. TAFE has been gutted just for ideology.” He gave the example of the Cooma TAFE wool -classing program that has plummeted since the fees were tripled.

[Queanbeyan and regional students are fortunate to have ACT programs through CIT which has not suffered the same assault].

In regard to the influx of private training providers, he said of some, “We shouldn’t give public money to shonks. We will rescue TAFE, 70% of the relevant budget will go to public TAFEs under a Labor government,” he promised,

“The Labor Party must stand up for working class kids. We have to rebuild vocational training.  We’ll make TAFE great again!”  he joked, echoing Trump with a laugh.

Move to privatise hospitals

To a later question about the future of regional hospitals he said: “If you use Cooma or Queanbeyan hospital, be very afraid. This government is on a path to privatize regional hospitals. Five are under consideration now.” Why? Same story, ideology.  If it is allowed to happen, the state can look at a two-tier health system, he warned, threatening Australia’s world-beating tax-supported public health delivery.

The emerging NDIS also raised the subject of privatising essential services. A passionate questioner charged that there will be no choice or flexibility in the private services being put in place now, and “it will be all over” by the time Labor has a chance at government

That being so, Foley could only agree with the old adage: “This government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” and said the government must provide a safety net for gaps in service.

Renewable energy, home ownership, natural gas

Renewal energy was canvassed, with this region, benefitting from the political guidance of keen supporter and federal representative Mike Kelly, drawn as a potential renewable energy hub.

Home ownership for young people?  Foley supports tackling negative gearing perks because “at the moment the scales are not balanced”. With NSW being a particular magnet for foreign investors (and money launderers) Foley also proposes a stamp duty surcharge on foreign housing investors, as does Victoria now.

Other questions canvassed: why should we trust politicians? Foley agreed that a history of broken promises and lost trust had to be repaired, maybe starting with personal appearances like this one.

Fracking and coal seam gas? Australia already has plenty of gas production (conventionally), he noted. “Just we’re selling it to Japan.”  Why should we risk agricultural land, the forests of the Pilliga, etc to go after coal seam gas? Look after Australia’s gas needs first, he said, and the audience nodded in agreement.

Public school needs

The only really localised question concerned a public school for the growing community of Googong that has projections of 19,000 residents in the next couple of decades.

Foley said that 300,000 new school places are needed in the next 15 years (a reflection on the pressures of population growth), Googong being amongst them. Unfortunately. he said, the planning department that approves subdivisions never talks to the education department.

At the current rate it would take 45 years to fulfil current demand. But Labor has made “excellence and equity in education” its top priority for the next election – another promise.

The evening reflected what many people are grappling with in 2017, some questions surprising, some perhaps predictable for a progressive audience, but all got a considered response. It’s nice to hear political representatives close up and personal and providing more than rhetoric. The next two years should be interesting.

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