ABC NSW STATEWIDE DRIVE WITH EWAN GILBERT
WEDNESDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: Anthony Albanese’s vision statement on the regions; transition to renewables; high speed rail and inland rail; JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
EWAN GILBERT: Catherine King is Labor’s spokesperson for Regional Development and joins us this afternoon. Good afternoon, Catherine.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Good to be with you and, how are you?
GILBERT: I’m very well thank you. I’ve read the whole speech, it’s a great vision I guess, but what’s new in it that we haven’t heard talked about for decades really?
KING: Well, the first thing that we’ve seen in the speech, and this is one of Anthony’s vision statements that he’s been making, looking at how we view the country going forward into the future and the fact that he’s made one about regional Australia shows the significance that we do see our regions as playing. But what we have seen, I guess from the regional policy space for quite some time is a scattering of different programs that are not joined up, that don’t really have at the heart of them a focus on what is it that we need to do in order to actually drive regional economic growth? How do we improve productivity in our regions? How do we actually view our regions as the sort of complex things that are? You know, they’re not all the same. There are significant advantages in some versus others, but there are also really interesting things happening, whether it be from manufacturing and advanced manufacturing, through to really some, you know, really complex, lovely models in tourism. So that’s what’s different about the speech is it’s really trying to say, we understand how complex these regions are. We understand that throughout our history, we have turned, particularly Labor has turned to the regions to say you’re where a lot of the growth is going to come from, but we need to get it right from a policy point of view to enable that growth to occur, and that’s really what the speech was about, and right at its heart is smart regionalisation which is more of a sophisticated look that has a decentralisation might work in this country.
GILBERT: Okay. I will dive into that, in a moment. Any sort of concrete plans or projects that were named?
KING: Well, obviously Anthony’s been talking for a long time, you know, this is a long term visionary project around high speed rail and how that can unlock the potential of our regions and unlock travel to our regions develop new regional cities.
GILBERT: This is from Brisbane to Melbourne?
KING: Yeah, he has certainly talked about that previously for a long period of time. Again, getting Inland Rail right, something that we started for a long period of time, but also again about how you can join up policies? You join up what are we doing in terms of investing in regional universities and regional TAFEs, how do you join that up to your jobs growth? How do you make sure that through government procurement policy, we’re actually harnessing the benefit of that? So, he talked about trains in particular and train manufacturing, he talked about that in both Maryborough in Queensland and Newcastle in New South Wales and the importance of that to local economies. So that’s really the focus of the speech today.
GILBERT: What would Labor do differently to the government that’s in place at the moment, do you think, on a practical level?
KING: Well, the first thing is actually have a regional policy. There isn’t at the moment, like, there actually literally is not one. There isn’t a policy that says this is where we want regional Australia to be in 10, 20, 50 years and this is how we’re going to get there. There actually isn’t one at all. Okay, so that’s a start.
GILBERT: You mentioned the two words, smart regionalisation. It sounds like jargon, I guess it is jargon, what does it actually mean though?
KING: So what we’ve seen is this sort of, and you’ve seen the federal government pursue this, is there is sort of somehow this notion that if you grab a government department from the federal level, like the APVMA for example, and you plonk that into a region, that that’s decentralisation, you’re decentralising commonwealth jobs, and it’s held out as a hope to regional communities constantly as if this is going to be the saviour for growing jobs. And you know, we’ve been talking about it for a long period of time, and it’s just basically doesn’t quite work that way.
GILBERT: It does though doesn’t it? It has worked for the communities that some of these Commonwealth departments have been plonked into.
KING: It’s worked in some, some state governments, it’s certainly worked. It hasn’t really worked at the Commonwealth level. I don’t think the APVMA it would be held up as any grand shining light of success in growing new regional jobs. To be fair to say, I don’t think that…
GILBERT: The tax department is a good example?
KING: The tax department has been, although what we have been seeing through government services, whether it’s the ATO or whether it’s Centrelink, whether it’s Department of Veterans Affairs, is in fact the government cutting those jobs from regional towns so even in the government services space, we’ve seen a massive shrinking of the number of staff who are employed in our regions out of the government services space. And again, that is one of the areas you have to concentrate on. If you’re going to have decent government services in the region, you don’t cut jobs out of it, you actually want to grow them, they’re good paying jobs, we want to make sure they’re out in the regions. But more importantly, what we’re actually seeing post-COVID, is the understanding that people can and are able to work differently, and I think that’s one of the really interesting things that has come out of this is that people are looking to the regions. I think if you speak to some regions, like my hometown of Ballarat that we’re in at the moment, we’re seeing suddenly land sales absolutely skyrocket because people from cities are starting to say, actually, we want to start to think about being potentially within commuting distance, but not always working out of the cities, we actually want to start to move to regions. We’re seeing new businesses start up in those regions as well as people want to settle there and these are people who have no connection with the town previously. They don’t have families here, they haven’t lived in a country area or grown up in a country area before, and we’re starting to see that in regional towns right the way across the country as people think about the quality of life they have and how they can work differently. So, what that means is you’ve got to think about what are the connections. So obviously, our broadband communication, mobile communication, transport, and quality and liability. So those actually then lend themselves to really strong policies in those spaces to improve those connectivities. And that’s really what smart regionalisation is about, where’s the growth coming from? Where’s the growth in wealth going to come from into the future and how do you facilitate and support that?
GILBERT: Okay, I know you mentioned broadband, the internet is a sore point for many communities, I mean, in others it’s fantastic, it’s fine. What can you do on that front?
KING: Well, I think the National Broadband Network was an incredibly visionary project and it’s high speed rail for, in essence, communications. It’s the same sort of visionary project that it was and people would have said It’s crazy to build it. But what happened is we had the job half done. We have fibre to the home in a number of places, I’ve got that in the centre of town in Ballarat but you don’t have to go far from the exchange and suddenly it’s not as good as it could be. So, going back and having a look at where, you know, where is it not working? Where are the connectivity problems? And how do you actually start to try and build a proper network as opposed to what the government’s done, which is left the job, basically came in and said, we don’t want to have fibre to the home anymore, we’re going to have fibre to the node.
GILBERT: So, you would have fibre to the home? You would roll out fibre to the home for all those places that don’t have it?
KING: Well, we haven’t announced any policies in that space.
GILBERT: But you like that idea?
KING: The first thing you need to actually do is go and look at where it’s failing, where do people not have connectivity. The fact that we had, particularly here in Victoria at the moment where we are still with home-schooling, the fact that in my own community, I’ve had people who just had no connectivity at all to be able to educate the kids, the fact that we’ve got still across the country is where you’d start. You’d start where the problems are and look at trying to solve those problems. So that might be a range of technologies to do that, but that’s what you’d have to do.
GILBERT: Okay, Mr Albanese as part of his speech confirmed the party’s vision for the future powered by renewable energy, what he didn’t really mention though I guess was what that means for the future of the thousands of people who already work and are employed in fossil fuel power generation. Is there a plan for those people in those jobs?
KING: Yeah, of course and we’ve always talked about that. We understand that, you know, things are moving in terms of energy production. We’ve seen that again here in Victoria, we’ve seen that in other states. As coal-powered power stations do start to age and are changing and we’re seeing renewables come on board in other places as well. But what you have to do is actually transition your economy, you can’t do it quickly, you have to work with local communities and work with your economy to actually get that transition. And there are good new jobs. There are good jobs in renewables, and they are absolutely and utterly in our regions and they should be in our regions. Obviously, there’s jobs, you know whether it’s in hydrogen, whether it’s in wind, whether it’s in solar, and again, we’re not taking any advantage of those at all, and at the same time, you’ve got to make sure that you support workers who are in those communities to continue the work that they’re doing, and to transition away from those energy sources, which is happening naturally anyway. Go down to the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and you can see it, but there’s just been no plan to actually transition it properly.
GILBERT: I guess, the worrying thing for some of those workers is that the skills aren’t always directly transferable to other forms of energy or mining, for example, and it may mean that you have to leave the community that you’ve lived in for decades.
KING: Yeah, and you don’t want that to happen. That’s been the challenge, as I said, when you look at places like the Latrobe Valley, which has got massive potential, it’s an incredibly beautiful place, it’s got lots of natural assets, but getting that employment in those areas. And again, when we were last in government we had things like local employment coordinators in those areas, we had massive investment of infrastructure money through the airport, through roads, through rail and connectivity, that actually allowed people to stay in those communities, and be able to move about to work within those communities as well and to transition through those. Now, that’s the challenge. But if you don’t plan for it, then these jobs disappear anyway, like you’ve got to actually plan for it, and that’s the problem at the moment. Without a regional development policy, without a plan to actually look at how we manage these changes, then people do become dislocated, and that’s not what we want to have happen. We want people to stay in their communities, we want them to have good high paying, quality jobs.
GILBERT: Okay, doesn’t the fact that you mentioned, there is all sorts of people in the cities that want to move out to the regions at the moment as spurred on by COVID, of course, doesn’t that suggest that something’s gone right over the past few years?
KING: Well, I guess to some extent, you know, people are wanting to move to areas, we’ve been hidden secrets a lot of our regions for a long period of time. I think people haven’t really looked to the regions, there’s been small pockets of that occurring, and I think to some extent, often it’s been when cities have become less affordable that we’re starting to say people move to the regions. But I can tell you, when people do move to the regions, they often are a bit shocked about how life is a little bit more difficult. It is harder to find appointments to get in to see your doctors, you do have to move about in different ways, connectivity can be difficult. And I think the amount of complaints I get about, you know, why we need to improve all of those things and I think we should be doing that and making it much more productive for people to be able to work and live in those regions.
GILBERT: Okay. Catherine King is with us this afternoon, Labor’s spokeswoman for regional development. Just before you go, Catherine, can I just ask you about the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments. There was a survey of employers out this week by the National Skills Commission that says about 40% of those looking for new staff are struggling to find them, and I know that some Liberal MPs have certainly raised concerns that the current increased rate for JobKeeper and JobSeeker recipients might be acting as a disincentive for people to apply for work and that may be felt most harshly in the regions, your thoughts on that?
KING: In Victoria, my home state, we’re in a bit of a different place to the rest of the country at the moment. I mean, the thought that at the end of this month that the JobKeeper payments are going to drop is going to see basically people lose their jobs who have had that connection with employment and that’s really been the focus from my point of view as a Victorian MP. And I think that the government, let’s be frank here, they didn’t want a wage subsidy in the first place. They basically prorogued parliament, we had a day sitting then we were all sent home and we weren’t going to come back until August. It wasn’t until the business community and unions and the terrible queues that we saw at Centrelink forced them into it. I’m not at all surprised you’ve got Liberals out there trying to get the government to withdraw as quickly as it possibly can from JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments.
GILBERT: Okay, but there are recruiters and there are employers in in regional New South Wales, for example, who are having a really hard time getting people to apply for work at the moment?
KING: Well, I’m surprised by that because that certainly has not been my experience in my hometown, and equally I think, you know, you’ve got to be careful that these are not Liberals using that as an excuse to see this very important wage subsidy that’s keeping people connected with their employers cut or withdrawn too quickly and unfortunately that looks like what is going to be the case.
GILBERT: Okay, Catherine King, glad to talk to you this afternoon. Thank you very much.
KING: Good to talk to you.
CATHERINE KING – TRANSCRIPT – RADIO INTERVIEW – ABC NSW STATEWIDE DRIVE – WEDNESDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 2020