Thank you Maurice Reilly as CEO and National Press Club and Lara Tingle as President for hosting me today and putting regional Australia on the NPC’s agenda.
Thank you Kath for moderating today – your reporting on rural and regional affairs is an important contribution to the national discussion.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to Elders both past, present and future.
Last Sunday in Shepparton’s Queen’s Gardens a brass statue was unveiled to commemorate the life of a great Australian soldier who led the charge of the 4thLight Horse at Beersheba in 1917 – the last great cavalry charge in history.
Sir Murray Bourchier is not exactly a household Australian name but in northern Victoria he was a towering hero after his World War I service.
But his contribution to his country did not end there.
Bourchier went into politics for the then Country Party and rose to become Deputy Premier of Victoria and later Agent General in London.
I pay tribute to this man today because he possessed traits we, who are privileged to be in public life, aspire to – courage, patriotism, candour, selflessness, service and a deep commitment to the future of our country, but most of all, I pay tribute because he was a great son of regional Australia.
Other countries do not have a major political party based on geography, but because of Australia’s economic history and the dominance of our largest two cities, we do have a party that is exclusively country-based that has been part of the political fabric for more than a century.
For us in the Nationals the regions are not and never will be an add-on.
Which is why we are being given a very stark choice in just a few weeks’ time – at what is a very pivotal juncture for our nation.
For the more than 8 million people who live and work in regional Australia, the choice at this election is even starker, with even starker consequences.
More than any other election in recent memory – it is a choice about our nation’s long-term future.
A choice between a safer, more prosperous and more sustainable future versus one that is more uncertain, more unstable, and that risks weakening our economy.
The Labor Party, the Greens and the independents do not have the political imperative to have an exclusive focus on regional Australia.
Theirs is a one-size-fits all mono-cultural approach to policy and programs; they assume we are all the same.
Their philosophic logic is, that what is good for the city must be, ipso facto, good for the regions.
But we say proudly and unequivocally, and indeed based on very strong evidence, that precisely the opposite is the case.
That what is good for the regions is good for the rest of Australia.
It is our industries – agriculture, mining, fisheries, forestry, manufacturing, transport and tourism – that underpin our national economy and pay for our essential services, fund our schools and universities; our health care and our hospitals, and the Defence Force.
It is our people too – our men and women working day in day out in sometimes very difficult jobs – strong, innovative and resilient people.
Eight out of our top 10 exports come from regional Australia.
And around two thirds of our export income comes from regional Australia.
Take our amazing resources sector – it alone accounts for around 10 per cent of Australia’s GDP and more than 60 per cent of Australia’s exports, directly employing nearly 280,000 people and directly and indirectly supporting the jobs of some 1.1 million Australians. By the end of this financial year, our resource exports are forecast to reach $425 billion.
Yet right now Regional Australia is being presented with some very poor alternatives, including:
- A Labor Party that pays lip service to regional Australia, but really doesn’t care – hence no policy on live exports, scrapping the Ag Visa, slashing the regional communications Budget by $155 million; and threatening to renew water buybacks.
- Minor parties, who exploit peoples’ personal grievances and pain for political gain without ever being responsible for delivering solutions to that pain;
- And perhaps worst of all the so-called “independents”, who think the chaos of a hung Parliament is progress, particularly in the face of a deeply uncertain world.
- The last time Labor independents held sway we were gifted, a Carbon Tax, a Mining Tax and the live export fiasco.
Our political opponents, in varying degrees of hostility, seek to curb, constrain or shut down our traditional industries.
We in the regions also face the systemic bias of sections of the bureaucracy, of the political class and powerful cultural elites that see the regions as less than, or that their ideas are not meritorious.
At best they ignore our views, at worst they see us as an impediment to their long-term political agendas.
The ABC should be applauded for getting its flagship programs out into the regions – and as we saw last week on Insiders where they went to Gladstone – their world-view is different from the audiences in Ultimo.
The proud people of Gladstone completely get that much of the world is shifting on energy and emissions; these are well-informed globally-focused people, who have been at the forefront of industrial and energy issues for decades.
But they are also wary about big promises on green energy that may be years away from fruition, and what will happen if their alumina plant, their smelter or powerhouse, or their LNG plant on Curtis Island closes? We make no apologies for backing in our traditional industries, while at the same time investing in our new industries.
When you’ve been around as long as the Nationals have as a political movement, our communities have dealt with the impacts of structural adjustments and we know the more time and support we can provide the better.
Meanwhile, the Oranges, the Greens and the Teals in cahoots with the Reds have their own aspirational goal to stop the development of all new gas, oil and coal mines dead in their tracks, and close existing ones within just eight years, regardless of the havoc that would cause to our economy and to local communities. They’ve set a deadline – January 1, 2030 all coal exports ended and all fossil fuel mining banned.
And when Labor’s Jim Chalmers conjured up a promise of regional jobs from its Net Zero policy multiplier effect, even former ACTU boss Jennie George called it “unbelievable”.
Our growth plan, based on our track record, by contrast is real and achievable, and today our Government is announcing a commitment to create 450,000 new jobs in regional Australia over the next five years.
The choice is clear – it is only a Liberal and Nationals government that has the vision and the ability to deliver for regional Australia.
Our Government has invested more than $100 billion of investment into our regionsin priority areas such as infrastructure, digital connectivity, education and health just to name a few.
No government has invested more in our regions than this Liberal National Coalition.
In education, our measures have focussed on making sure our regional students have improved access, achievement and aspiration. That’s why we introduced needs-based funding for the first time in Australia and this recognises the challenges facing small regional schools.
We also now have a Regional Education Commissioner to help correct the terrible imbalance between young people in the regions and young people in the cities in reaching their full academic potential.
In health, we have a 10-year Stronger Rural Health Strategy which has already grown the number of full-time equivalent GPs, nurses and allied health professions in regional, rural and remote areas by 5,000 since 2016 [1,300 GPs, 1,200 nurses, 2,500 allied health].
We have recognised the need to increase the number of medical graduates working in rural areas and established the Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network.
The schools are training the new generation of medical students in more than 20 regional and rural communities across NSW and Victoria – this is because we know that when students train in the regions they stay in the regions.
In telecommunications, we continue to ensure that Australians living and working in regional, rural and remote areas are provided the same level of access and service as their counterparts in the city.
We have delivered more than 1270 mobile base stations through our $380 million Mobile Black Spot Program. [Labor delivered zero when they were last in government].
We have installed more than 220 telecommunications infrastructure projects under the Regional Connectivity Program to deliver local place based solutions including improved mobile and data coverage, fixed wireless and satellite broadband upgrades to locations across the country.
These investments have allowed us to rapidly expand critical services like Telehealth out to regional, rural and remote communities that just couldn’t have existed previously.
In infrastructure, we have embarked on significant long-term nation-building projects like the 1,700km Inland Rail. This will better connect producers to markets and greater opportunities for regional centres, while ensuring safer, fewer trucks on the road and lower emissions.
Through our $5.8 billion Roads of Strategic Importance initiative, we are also upgrading key freight routes to help agriculture and mining exporters and improve safety on key roads.
These are just a few key examples from our $120 billion infrastructure pipeline.
In agriculture, the Federal government is backing in the agricultural sector’s ambition to become a $100 billion industry by 2030.
We are helping farmers with labour shortages through the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme and creating a specific Australian Agriculture Visa.
In trade, since 2013 we’ve negotiated 15 Free Trade Agreements with 26 countries, reaching more than 2 billion people.
More recently, we have secured new export agreements with the United Kingdom and India, opening up preferential access to another 1.4 billion customers.
In resources, under our watch, despite COVID-19, mining sector employment has grown by almost 40,000 new jobs since the start of the pandemic. Because we back our miners, not denigrate them.
And we are unlocking new opportunities in critical minerals vital for the new energy economy.
Regional Development programs like the Building Better Regions Fund are delivering tailored projects to help communities – from water recycling facilities to refreshed streetscapes.
This fund has invested $1.38 billion since November 2016, with almost 1,300 projects approved across the first five funding rounds, of which more than 700 have been completed.
IMPACT OF RECORD
The impact of these, and other investments and reforms, are already making regional Australia an even better place to live, work, learn, and start a business.
This has become particularly evident over the past two years since the Pandemic struck.
People are not only moving to the regions, they are also less likely to migrate to the cities, which has been the pattern for many years.
The population of regional Australia grew by almost 80,000 people last year.
This is the first time since 1981 that Australia’s regional population grew more than the capital cities.
Why? Because people are seeing the regions as a viable alternative, in terms of lifestyle, developing their careers and places to do business.
They feel confident in moving to a regional town – knowing that they can access the services and amenities they would expect to find in the big cities.
I want to quote another amazing statistic to illustrate this.
Digital commerce companies Afterpay and Square have some of the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sets of people’s spending patterns, producing a barometer of in-store and on-line data – which shows a rapid take-up of on-line shopping during the pandemic and a collapse in cash.
But the really exciting part of their State of Regional Small Business data shows that small businesses in the regions bounced back faster, with many new businesses creating an on-line presence for the first time, and that the growth in sales by small business in e-commerce was much more rapid in regional Australia than in metropolitan Australia in every Australian state.
This shows that with digital technology and improved telecommunications, your bricks and mortar location does not need to determine your success.
It is part of what Liz Ritchie, CEO of the Regional Australia Institute, as coined as “The Great Regionalisation”.
As a Government, we have delivered over half a million square kilometres in new mobile coverage.
This has transformed communities, business and livelihoods. But we know, as regional Australians, that one big telco company has dominated our market. Which can make it expensive, unreliable and unfair.
There is more to do and our Government has a plan to fix it.
And today I am very pleased to announce, as part of our $1.3 billion commitment to regional communications over 5 years, $418 million from the Connecting Regional Australia initiative is to be spent for Open Access Mobile Expansion in regional Australia.
This will enable mobile base stations to support multiple providers and deliver more than 8,000 kilometers of new coverage.
OUR PLAN AND VISION
We have this record of delivering for our regions but more than this, we have a clear plan and an optimistic vision for their future. This plan is founded on three objectives – making the regional economies and communities more prosperous, more sustainable and secure.
For 75 years the Liberal and National partnership has delivered for regional Australia.
But there are disruptors – the COVID pandemic, an uncertain geopolitical outlook, a digital revolution and our transition to a lower emissions economy by 2050.
These disruptions have also presented opportunities as well for the regions.
Living in rural and regional Australia comes with many benefits – being closer to the beauty of the natural environment.
But with that benefit comes risk. The cost of natural disasters – human, economic and environmental – is growing, now totaling in excess of $16 billion per year and expected to rise to close to $50 billion by 2050.
That is why we are transforming the way we respond to natural disasters.
Following the outcome of the Royal Commission we have invested in mitigation like never before – committing $950 million to future mitigation projects, making communities more resilient to flooding, cyclones and bushfires.
We are using the Emergency Response Fund, set up in 2019 responsibly – to grow to over $6.6 billion in the next 8 years to assist future generations respond to future disasters.
Take the $10 million CSIRO Northern Rivers Resilience Study, which will inform a significant investment of up to $150 million committed from the ERF to assist the northern rivers, and especially Lismore, to mitigate future flood events.
And despite the media commentary to the contrary, what this Government has done after the most recent floods in NSW and QLD is work with both states to deliver the fastest roll out of practical and financial assistance to affect communities – over $3 billion in support out the door in 3 weeks and fastest deployment of ADF.
Communities need to be assured that state and federal governments are working together to ensure that support reaches those in need in a timely manner.
I will be reviewing the disaster recovery funding arrangements and the risk reduction framework in consultation with the states to ensure the future arrangements work for people – not politicians.
COVID 19 also exposed domestic and international supply chain fragilities.
We have a plan to make things in Australia again.
We are strengthening supply chain resilience for critical products, monitoring vulnerability and working with international partners to prevent disruption.
For example, we have a plan to bolster domestic production of urea – a key ingredient in diesel exhaust fluid.
Unless you drive a truck you won’t know what I’m talking about. But without it the supply of food and goods around the country would stop within a matter of weeks.
We’re also establishing a $2 billion critical minerals investment fund to ensure our competitive advantage is maximized – we’re not just digging them up but transforming them into essential products for the global digital hardware industry.
To be prosperous in the 21st century means backing our traditional industries and pivoting to make the most of the opportunities.
We’re coming out of COVID stronger – and we need to keep that momentum going.
Twelve flagship programs will share in $2 billion through the Regional Accelerator Program to unlock growth prospects for local industries and businesses to ensure thriving regions are internationally competitive.
For example, the popular Modern Manufacturing initiative which assists manufacturers to convert good ideas into commercial success will provide the opportunity to diversify local economies and provide dynamic careers in advanced manufacturing.
Since the Budget, I’ve met with regional capitals – Alice Springs, Shepparton, Mildura, Gladstone, Bunbury – to hear directly their plans that will secure their economic prosperity to 2050.
This policy has drawn on the hard work of the Business Council of Australia, Regional Australia Institute, the National Farmers’ Federation, Regional Capitals Australia and the Productivity Commission who favour a place-based, data-driven approach recognizing different regions have different competitive advantages and unique challenges.
Our national economy is underpinned by our wealth generating regions.
Our $7.1 billion Energy Security and Regional Development Plan recognizes that our future economy requires decadal investment in new places and new products so we can continue our record investment in essential services, such as defence, aged care, and health.
It also recognizes the changing environment for communities whose local economies would benefit from greater diversification towards 2050.
We’re opening new frontiers in the Pilbara on low emissions and embracing new opportunities in the Hunter on hydrogen.
This vision will not be realized until long after this generation of MPs has left parliament.
Regional Australians are the original conservationists, long before the environment was weaponized for political purposes.
Making sure our environment is cared for and protected for future generations includes improving the quality and efficient use of our water and our soils.
Our plan to secure Australia’s water future includes measures to make farmers more resilient to drought, building dams to store and regulate water use, and the development of climate services to better inform decision-making.
And when it comes to the Murray–Darling Basin plan there will be no more water buybacks.
Instead, there needs to be a commonsense approach – there needs to be a focus on outcomes not numbers. Because the science is in.
We don’t need to decimate regional communities to achieve a healthy river system.
Our plan for Australian agriculture supports farmers in biodiversity stewardship.
Sustainable regions are about more than the natural environment and having well paid future focused careers – it’s about ensuring the improved well-being of the people who live here.
That means access to high quality health and education services.
We have a plan to get more doctors into more country towns across Australia over the next decade.
And we are continuing our track record of training regional students in the regions. This week we were able to announce $19.5 million for La Trobe University and Goulburn Valley Health to establish a Clinical Health School in Shepparton, which will substantially increase the number of nursing and midwifery and allied health students undertaking their studies and training in the region over the coming decades.
Securing future opportunities in the regions underpins our Regional Accelerator Trailblazer initiative – which I was proud to announce with the Prime Minister.
A partnership between Woodside, Curtin University, UQ and James Cook University with 33 SMEs will deliver over 1300 new jobs over the next decade in critical mineral supply chains.
World class research happening in the regions and in partnership with our local industries.
We don’t want to lose our connection to place and each other – the characteristics that make regional Australia and Australians unique.
MY VISION FOR FUTURE AUSTRALIA
My vision for a future Australia over the coming decades is to have many large successful regional cities that will create a more diverse Australian population along the lines of other great federated countries such as the United States, Germany, Canada and Switzerland.
Take California as just one example.
After the 1906 earthquake California’s state capital was moved from San Francisco to Sacramento. And after embracing decentralisation, that state alone has 75 cities with populations of more than 100,000 people.
If Australia is going to face our challenges, both economic and social, then we need to continue to improve our focus on the regions, and that means reconciling the current divide between city and regions both in terms of outlook, aspiration and comparative well-being.
The fundamental question we all must ask and endeavour to answer is, do we want to be a nation defined by two or three megatropolises? Or do we want to be a nation that is defined by a greater spread with multiple important cities and major centres?
This possibility for our nation has the potential to provide a range of benefits – from reduced congestion and pollution and emissions in our capital cities to greater social cohesion, and a more culturally diverse, equitable and democratic society.
Last century we built hard infrastructure – bridges, ports, roads and rail. This century we are focussing on critical digital infrastructure.
Spreading our population doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us stronger, but only if we can respect each other’s ideas and differences.
It is true that we live in times of some uncertainty, but I look to the future not with trepidation but with enormous optimism.
The Great Regionalisation has once again demonstrated the amazing capacity of our regions to adapt and innovate in times of adversity.
And I believe that our nation will come out of this uncertainty stronger because we will charge forward with country values – courage, candour, selflessness and service – those values exemplified by Sir Murray Bourchier [BOOSHER] and his young soldiers in the deserts of Sinai all those years ago.
This election provides a clear choice, with real consequences for Australia.
For us in the regions, identity and place matter.
We are proud of who we are. We are proud of where we came from. We are proud of what we do.
This election therefore is about the future, but in the main it is about our children’s future and their children’s future.
Perhaps because we think seasonally or inter-generationally or because we are an old party, our policies are designed for the long-term future of our country in the decades ahead, not just an electoral cycle.
It is only a Liberal and Nationals government that will ensure our regions continue to be secure, prosperous and sustainable, now and into the future.