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Thank you, Rebecca, for that introduction and thank you for the invaluable work you and your team do with the Royal Flying Doctor Service over in WA.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather – the Ngunnawal people– and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
So much of what we love about the regions, where we live – the beauty of the environment and the natural diversity – is a legacy of the tens of thousands of years over which indigenous Australians have cherished and protected their traditional country.
This is a legacy which continues to this day.
If you pick up any of our national newspapers from the past twenty years too often the stories about our regions have been ones of loss, of disaster and of inequality.
Businesses closing, populations dwindling, the 100-year-old footy club or RSL having to be wound down. Flood, fire, and drought. Generational inequality in wealth distribution, health outcomes and educational attainment.
We know that all of these things are part of our regional story, but they are not and never have been the whole.
The story of our regions is one of innovation, adaptation and of strong economic growth.
Not just in mining and agriculture but in manufacturing, defence, and the services sector.
It is a story of incredible diversity, or richness of culture, heritage and place.
Those of us who call our regions home understand that our national story is as much about the contribution our regional centres, towns and villages to the economic growth of the nation, as it is about our capital cities.
Not the cities pulling along the regions, or the cities being the hub and the regions out on the spokes, but the interconnections between all of these.
Regional Australia may today contribute 37 per cent of our total population, but our economic contribution is substantial.
This has never been clearer than over the past year.
Much has been said and written about the success of regional Australia during the pandemic. We have had relatively few COVID cases, we have fed the nation, we maintained economic activity and we have been havens for many.
That is not to say that regional Australia has escaped the impacts of COVID.
Regions are diverse, and our success or otherwise has always been highly dependent on the makeup of our local economies.
Through the pandemic, regions where local economies are centred on mining or agriculture have maintained their strength, while those dependent on retail or tourism, particularly international, have struggled.
For example, the most recent estimates show that right now the electorate of Leichhardt, centred on Cairns, has 8,000 workers on JobKeeper, while Herbert centred on Townsville has 3,000.
Last September, Byron Bay and Dubbo had almost the same number of JobKeeper applications, despite Dubbo being roughly 4 times larger in population.
While there are many reasons to look hopefully at the prospects of a regional recovery, it cannot be taken for granted and it won’t happen without a deliberate plan.
Like everyone here I see the enormous possibilities that rest in our regions.
For the first time in a long time our national mainstream media is paying attention to the regions.
There are conversations happening in boardrooms and households across the country about what our regions have to offer and the call we have all been making for a while now, that the regions are ready, seems to be getting more traction than ever before.
We are at a critical moment.
But how do we translate this moment into tangible, sustainable and long-term gains in economic and social prosperity across our regions?
That is the challenge for all of us and why this conference is so timely.
Labor’s proud record
No one political party can claim a monopoly on understanding or delivering for the regions, but I am proud of Labor’s regional development legacy.
Post World War II it was Curtin and Chifley who saw the regions as an untapped source of growth to drive economic recovery.
Whitlam and Uren saw the power, particularly of local government as being central to tackling social and economic inequality.
The huge investments, for their time, in regional transport, housing employment and education infrastructure under the Hawke and Keating governments saw regional centres such as Geelong, Newcastle, Mackay, Townsville, Bunbury, Launceston and Hobart begin the process of renewal and regeneration into the regional powerhouses that they are today.
More recently, under the stewardship of Simon Crean and Anthony Albanese, Labor established Regional Development Australia, with a strong focus on both economic and social development of regions and ensured that local government had a seat at the table in national decision making.
Substantial investments were made in regional roads and rail, regional schools and hospitals and critically rolling out fibre to the home NBN – starting in our regions.
I would argue that the last time this nation actually had a coherent strategic regional policy was when Labor was last in office.
But that is all history.
As we head into the next federal election – and I am of the view it will be around this time next year rather than this year – there is substantial work underway developing our regional polices.
You will have seen that one of the seven key vision statements Anthony Albanese made last year was about unlocking the potential economic growth of our regions.
Our National Conference, which will be held for the first time on line at the end of this month, will debate our draft National Platform – it will be open to observers across the country – and I know there will be many issues debated that will be of interest to our regions and I hope many of you take the opportunity to tune in.
Whilst I am not in a position today to outline all of our regional policies, I do want to lay down these markers.
Regional Development Policy Architecture
The first is the need for a reinvigoration of the national regional development policy architecture.
This means addressing regional and city deals, putting local government in national cabinet, and fostering better national coordination across portfolios and further developing Regional Development Australia Committees.
Regions are crying out for genuine partnerships with Government.
Regional and City Deals, and I mention those as they cover a handful of regional cities, were supposed to see the commonwealth step into this role.
These deals do have promise, but they are being undermined by a lack of delivery, opaque processes and are increasingly turning away from their long term goals of being a 20 year vision for the development of a region, towards being just another mechanism to deliver funds to certain chosen regions over others.
While Labor will honor existing regional and city deals, we want to do better with a much stronger emphasis on partnership and longer-term place-based planning.
Regions need a renewed focus on building the enablers of regionalisation: digital connectivity, education and workforce capacity, housing, and infrastructure.
We have already called for and will in government give local government a seat and voice in a meaningful National Cabinet process.
There is also a need for a stronger coordinating role across portfolios to leverage better outcomes for our regions.
This could be, as some have called for, a regional commissioner or a strengthened regional cabinet committee, a cross portfolio and jurisdictional national cabinet process, or all of the above.
Labor is yet to decide, but I am open to your ideas.
And that leads me to the second marker I want to lay down.
Labor established Regional Development Australia because we knew we had to provide regions with a stronger voice in the future of their communities but also to provide a direct link between our federal policy making process and the local level.
RDAs followed a long history of REDOs, ACCs, and other local regional development bodies – largely established by Labor governments.
It is time for a revitalisation of the RDA structure and purpose.
I do want to see a much stronger partnership with Local Government in this regard.
I don’t want another process that sees yet more regional plans developed – what I want to see is a more coherent and logical architecture for how federal government works in the regions.
Having spent time in the health portfolio, I have a keen interested in any possible links to the Primary Health Networks and existing federal government service systems in our regions as well.
We should build on what works and improve what doesn’t. In this, I am open to your ideas
Under an Albanese Labor Government, a revitalised Regional Development Australia will play a key role in what I call “smart regionalisation”. The purposeful and deliberative policies designed to enable regions to grow their economic and social prosperity.
I cannot tell you the absolute cringe I get when I hear people talk about decentralisation.
I have heard it for years – it has been held out to us in the regions as the holy grail. If only the government would move a whole government department to our town, if only a big manufacturer like Mars or McCain’s established another factory in our town like they did in the seventies.
It is true there are great examples of where decentralisation has worked: The State Revenue Office moving to my hometown of Ballarat, WorkSafe to Geelong.
There are of course others around the country.
I watched during the last term as the Government went around to our regions with just this sort of decentralisation agenda, while at the same time they cut hundreds of high paying, secure regional public sector jobs at Centrelink, Medicare, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the local Austrade and AusIndustry staff who were in place when I was first elected.
In their rush to digitisation of the services sector, the Government forgot the need for jobs and the actual delivery of services in our regions.
Regional policy has to be a purposeful exercise.
Governments must engage with local communities, listen to local leaders, do the hard work to find out what investments are needed to grow local economies, to improve liveability and enhance productivity.
For Cairns and Gippsland, this might mean tourism investments, but it will also mean improving connectivity and seeding new industries and jobs in sectors like hydrogen and defence.
For Shepperton, it might mean supporting further high value food processing.
For Wollongong, the production of green steel.
It can mean investing in resources, renewable energy, healthcare, the service economy, exclusive tourism experiences of fine food and wine.
It means investing in those industries that will create good, secure jobs for a local, regional community.
It means harnessing existing strengths and turning them into lasting engines of growth.
Labor’s National Rail Plan is an example designed to leverage government investment in rail infrastructure to grow secure manufacturing jobs and build more trains in Australia.
This would bring more jobs and investment to regional communities such as Maryborough in Queensland, Newcastle, Bendigo and Ballarat.
Smarter Leveraging of investment
And that leads me to the third marker I want to lay down, that is a much stronger focus of leveraging investments across portfolios to grow regional economic and social prosperity.
This may be looking at how Infrastructure Australia can play a greater role in urban and regional renewal.
This may mean reviewing depreciation rates for regional projects, but it might also mean looking at existing infrastructure projects such as investments along our national corridors and leveraging investments in other types of infrastructure at the same time.
For example, as we look at road and rail improvements, why are we not also at the same time investing in digital connectivity along the same corridors, building electric charging stations, and looking at tourism infrastructure and jobs growth opportunities across those same corridors?
Where are our national procurement policies that ensure that these billions of dollars of investment are increasing local apprentices and trainees and creating local jobs?
If regions are to lead our growth and achieve their potential, this is essential.
How we see regions
Driving this approach is an understanding that all regions are not the same.
Bendigo is different from Launceston; the Spencer Gulf is different from Townsville and Busselton is different from Broome.
These regions have different strengths, weaknesses, needs and possibilities.
The key is to identify what those strengths are, invest in them, build on them, and help regions across Australia reach their potential.
I do want to make some final comments about my concerns with the government’s current approach.
I worry that the stranglehold the National Party seems to have within the government on regional programs is not serving our regions well.
As I travel the country and meet with leaders of our diverse regions, I hear frustration of the lottery of regional grants programs, confusion of how to enter into a city or regional deals and what they are and are not.
I hear concern about the patchiness of economic recovery initiatives, such as no support for local government run airports and the recent announcement regarding first 13, now 15, and soon, if you’re lucky, maybe more destinations for subsidised flights.
And, most concerningly, the deliberate attempts to pit regions against each other when it comes to action on climate change, despite the fact that it is regional Australia which will bear the brunt of its impacts.
Just last month the Deputy Prime Minister intervened to set up an argument over agriculture potentially being excluded in the Morrison Government’s entirely hypothetical zero net emissions 2050.
The fact is that the National Farmers’ Federation and all its state branches support a target of zero net emissions by 2050.
Meat and Livestock Australia support carbon neutrality by 2030.
GrainGrowers Australia support zero net emissions by 2050.
Why? Because they, like most regional Australians, know that it is in our long-term economic interests to do so.
Regional Australians see the effects of climate change all around us.
We are already engaged at the business, community and local government level in reducing emissions and increasing our reliance on renewable energy.
We are actually crying out to be part of the solution because we know there are jobs there.
I worry that we are lacking at the national level a deliberative, purposeful approach to how we grow our regions.
I welcome the campaign launched by the RAI alongside the government today, but I am not surprised there has been some negative reaction from regional Australian’s worried about what it might mean for housing affordability.
It is one thing to fund a marketing campaign to change the narrative of our regions, but it is altogether another thing to actually have credible, sustained policies in place to deal with housing affordability in our regions.
We cannot allow the boom in some regions to see the young and older vulnerable people squeezed out of our communities.
Labor sees what the regions can be, and we are determined to work with you, in partnership, to fulfil our regions’ potential.
Modern Australia’s prosperity needs our regions to succeed.
Our nation’s future economic growth will not happen without it.
Regions are rising, regions are ready, but the regions do need a government that invests in them, understands them, and works hand in hand with them.
A government that is on their side.
CATHERINE KING – SPEECH – THE OPPORTUNITY FOR THE REGIONS – ADDRESS TO REGIONAL AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE – CANBERRA – WEDNESDAY, 17 MARCH 2021
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