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The regions are the key to Australia.
They are the key to our history, our culture, and our future.
They are the key to our recovery from this crisis
The regions are home to about a third of our population, but they punch above their weight in accounting for almost 40 per cent of our national economic outlook and contributing half of our nation’s growth since the Global Financial Crisis
Too often our regional communities are talked about in terms of crisis – of drought, flood, fire and lack of services, when in fact their story is far more complex and their contribution to our nation has been far more significant.
From farming, to resources, energy production, manufacturing, tourism and service provision, our regions contribute so much to our nation – often more than they are given credit for.
Labor knows and recognises this. It is only a month ago that Anthony Albanese delivered his vision statement on regional Australia, talking about the talented, ambitious Australians who work hard and work smart in our regions
The regional people who do so much for our country, and who have the potential to do so much more.
Over recent years, and most acutely over the last 12 months, those strong communities and proud people have been tested.
I won’t pretend that times have been easy.
The regions of Australia have borne the brunt of multiple challenges – drought, flood, fire and pandemic.
Alone, each of these challenges would have historical significance, and would have been remembered as markers of a period. Instead, we had all four over the course of a few months.
Through it all though regional Australians have shown their best and stood up to everything demanded of them.
Communities stood by each other through fire, flood and drought.
Through COVID, Communities came together in new ways, we met on zoom, new businesses emerged and walking outside became our new meeting room.
Now, as we recover, regions are poised to lead the way.
The Deputy Prime Minister and I have many political differences – and arguments over the dispatch box – but we are on a unity ticket when it comes to the joys of living in regional Australia.
I cannot understand why anyone would live anywhere else.
I know that all the regional members of this house share that.
Regions are joyful places, marked by strong communities and proud people.
They are the economic powerhouse of our nation, contributing a third of our national output and providing employment for a third of all working Australians.
Our regions have been central to the economy of our nation through times of crises in our history.
Labor has long known this.
In 1942, with war still raging, John Curtin looked to the regions as a source of untapped economic growth to drive post-war reconstruction.
In the 1970s Gough Whitlam looked to the regions as a source to tackle the entrenched social and inequality that marred our nation.
Bob Hawke helped build regional centres such as Geelong, Newcastle, Mackay, Townsville, Bunbury, Launceston and Hobart into wonderful, vibrant places to live with strong local economies.
Last time Australia faced economic crisis – back in the Global Financial Crisis – another Labor government looked to the regions. We focused on sparking regional growth, building connections between regions and to cities knowing that doing so would build regional resilience.
Today, as we emerge from these crises, the regions can do it again.
However, to drive regional recovery you need a regional policy and a plan.
And this Government – despite the statement of the Deputy Prime Minister – does not have a regional policy, let alone a plan for regional Australia.
As you heard, all they have is a grab bag of programs and funding initiatives, without a central policy to guide them.
They have no clear vision of where regions are now and where we want them to be in the future.
You cannot get to your destination without a map, but the Morrison Government is driving blind.
The Government’s own Strategic Regional Growth Expert Panel – chaired by Peter Ryan, the former Victorian Deputy Premier and Nationals leader – highlighted just this point.
In their final report – which the Government belatedly released only after a Senate order – this expert panel recommended the Commonwealth implement a Regional Development Framework.
They also recommended that the Government deliver a White Paper on Regional Australia “as soon as possible and completed no later than July 2020.”
It’s now October 2020 – where is it?
Instead, regional policy has continued under Prime Minister Morrison the same way it did under Prime Minister’s Abbott and Turnbull – a grab bag of funds largely in the control off the National Party for their use in pork barrelling.
When it comes to the regions, this budget is more of the same.
And now they have gotten so brazen that they don’t even hide it!
Yesterday on ABC Ballarat the Deputy Prime Minister was asked why our part of regional Australia again missed out in the Budget.
His answer: “maybe you need to look at your federal member”.
He isn’t even bothering to hide it – the only regions he cares about are those that elect members of his party room.
The Deputy Prime Minister, openly saying to residents of regional Australia that he will only deliver the infrastructure and services they need when they vote for a member of his party room.
Maybe that is why we don’t have a regional plan, because it might involve supporting all of regional Australia.
Instead, we have a grab bag of funding schemes and endless pork barrelling.
And guess what – it isn’t working.
For regional Australians, outcomes in health, employment and education are generally poorer than in metropolitan areas.
In the regions, we also have greater difficulty in accessing services.
The Morrison Government is doing too little to fix it.
Geographic distance, small markets and economies of scale all contribute of course – but the Government needs to provide the services that can make this better.
The Nationals like to talk themselves up as the party of the bush, but their stranglehold on allocating regional funding continues to the detriment of regional cities and remote Australia.
It has got to change.
The local governments across the country that work so hard to submit applications to the main regional funding program – the Building Better Regions Fund – describe it as nothing short of a lottery.
At least if it were a lottery each region would have its equal chance of winning – but under the Morrison Government money continues to flow to the favourites, and the losers miss out.
Funding under programs such as the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, Building Better Regions Fund and the Drought Communities Program has been so highly partisan that it is no wonder the ANAO is now taking an interest in these programs.
Under round 3 of the Building Better Regions Fund, 155 of 165 projects were in coalition seats or coalition target seats.
Ahead of the last election, four regional Labor seats in Newcastle and the Hunter shared in just over $200,000 through the Community Development Grants program, with two of them receiving nothing while the two neighbouring Nationals seats received $20m each.
And who can forget – the North Sydney Pool.
In the shadows of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, this pool scored a $10m upgrade through the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream – a program designed to “remove barriers” for women participating in sport “in our regions”.
The proud regional community of North Sydney.
So much for the party of the bush.
At its current rate, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will take 150 years to spend it’s $5b – it’s just been extended again because you cannot get the money out the door.
This is no way to grow regions, it serves only to entrench disenchantment, pit regions against each other and deliver worse outcomes.
No one talks up regional Australia like the Nats. But no-one lets down regional Australia like them, either.
They pit regions against one another in grants processes that are tilted in favour of some over others, while its decentralisation agenda – so overhyped and so well advertised – is nothing but a cruel hoax.
We’ve seen the scandal and failure of the APVMA move to New England, while since 2013 the federal government has cut thousands of good regional public sector jobs.
Centrelink offices, veterans’ affairs and Medicare offices have been gutted and closed, removing jobs and services from some of the regions that need them the most.
In Townsville alone 91 federal public service jobs were lost over the 2018/19 financial year, with at least 352 gone since 2013.
While RDAs continue to exist and provide important partnerships in local communities they have largely been sidelined and in some areas do not even have Committees.
The Government’s Strategic Regional Growth Expert Panel recommended their role be strengthened, but again the Morrison Government has failed to listen to their own experts.
The Government’s had three ‘pilot’ regional deals, but in reality, got very little underway.
The recently announced regional partnerships scheme spreads $100m thinly over 10 chosen regions – with little clarity of how those regions were chosen or why.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that these 10 regions have been chosen because “they are regions whose economies have experienced the brunt of natural events such as bushfires, or COVID-19, drought as well”.
But he announced no funding for the NSW Southcoast, no funding for the Blue Mountains, no funding for the Sunshine Coast and no funding for Northern NSW.
Once again, regions are left confused and regions are left behind.
At the same time, five months after the fires came through, only 1 in every $8 earmarked for bushfire recovery had been spent, and even now there are still families waiting for help.
It is nothing short of a disgrace.
In the Government’s budget this week much was made of billions of dollars in infrastructure investments and new grants funding rounds.
But people in our regions have heard many of these announcements before.
With much fanfare, the Bolivia Hill upgrade on the New England Highway was given additional funding.
Only problem, Anthony Albanese funded it in 2012, and it is under construction now, almost complete.
It is no stimulus package for a region doing it tough.
It is a cost blow out.
Regions know that many of these infrastructure projects announced will never be delivered – or if they are it will only be years down the line and at double the cost.
They don’t have to look at the facts of an average infrastructure underspend of $1.2 billion – they know it from the bitter experience of previous disappointments.
At the same time, cash-strapped councils will again put weeks of work and limited resources into grants applications that they know only have a vague hope of seeing success.
There is a better way.
Labor in government created Regional Development Australia – a body to provide strategic input into national programs, help improve the coordination of regional development initiatives, and work closely with local government and other regional organisations.
We should be strengthening our relationship with local government as a mechanism for policy delivery across all our regions.
We provided seed funding for the Regional Australia Institute, creating a voice and a policy body for our regions.
The Regional Australia Institute has been so important in telling our regional stories and strengths, but this Government tried to defund them
We created the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program – which was the largest ever federal investment in local facilities such as parks, swimming pools, sporting fields, community halls and childcare centres across every region – something the government has now tried to mirror with the ingeniously named Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program.
Two-thirds of our infrastructure budget was directed to projects in rural and regional Australia, delivering major safety and capacity improvements to vitally important roads such as the Bruce Highway, Pacific Highway, Hume and Midland highways.
We prioritised Regional Australia in the National Broadband Network rollout – something the Government disparaged, then downgraded, and is now rebuilding at great cost.
Under the $5 billion Heath and Hospitals Fund, we began the process of establishing 25 Regional Cancer Centres, bringing world-class treatment right into the regions.
We announced $475 million in new and upgraded health facilities in regional Australia, funding projects to give greater access to health services for patients living in rural, regional and remote communities.
And we planned a referendum to financially recognise local government in the Constitution.
At the same time, we more than doubled the roads budget, build and upgraded 7,500 km of road, invested in regional aviation, increased local and major road maintenance, fixed blackspots, installed rest stops and book gates and lifted average annual rail spending tenfold.
Importantly, it was Labor who began work on Inland Rail with a $1b investment.
These equally shared and properly targeted investments were essential as Australia recovered from our last economic crisis, and more of the same will be needed as we recover from the next one.
We know from previous economic downturns that regions can take longer to recover depending on the make-up of their local economy. As we know, this downturn came on the back of multiple crises.
Sadly, many regional communities will simply never be the same.
Regional economies are complex and varied, each have been hit in different ways.
Regions highly dependent on tourism and the creative industries have been hit particularly hard.
These are the very industries where high levels of casualisation have meant that JobKeeper payments have not been available for many. The Government chose to leave many behind, and it is hurting the regions.
Those dependent on tourists are of course dependent on aviation – and the Government has done very little to help there, picking favourites in the airline industry and leaving regional and council airports with nothing.
Agriculture and mining dependent regional economies have fared a little better but that has been unevenly spread depending on the specific nature of the activity undertaken.
For instance, while there has been an increase in domestic demand for food production the disruption in international freight routes has placed significant pressure on sectors such as seafood.
If you want to see the different impacts writ large, just look at North Queensland.
Cairns – heavily reliant on tourism – hit hard, while Townsville is reporting a much lower impact due to the nature of its workforce.
These regions would of course be helped by with some investment in skills and training – but anything the Government announces now comes on the back of 7 years if cuts to schools, universities and TAFE.
Today there are 140,000 fewer Australians undertaking apprenticeships or traineeships than in 2013 – an indictment on this Government and a loss that has done real damage to our regions.
The Government talks a big game, but the outcomes speak for themselves.
The truth is there is a huge opportunity for our regions as we emerge from the health and economic crisis of COVID.
This year has providing many with the opportunity to work from home – people no longer have to be tied to tall buildings in the big cities – people are craving liveability and seeing the regions as a viable alternative.
Regions have been real havens for people with fewer cases, less community spread and strong loyalty to supporting local retail and hospitality.
There have been terrific stories of regional innovation, such as GEKKO systems in my community of Ballarat turning their hands from making mining equipment to making ventilators. Businesses in Shepparton manufacturing PPE and breweries and gin distilleries across the country making hand sanitiser.
Our regions have the potential and are ready to go, the Government needs to listen to them, provide the support they need where they need it, and allow the regions to drive us out of this crisis.
The Morrison Government is passing up all those opportunities, preferring to continue with an approach that priorities the re-election of Nationals members over the welfare of all regional Australians.
There is a better way for our regions, a better approach is possible, but we are not seeing it from this government or this budget.