Investing in the future of the regions

Speech

fns001/2017

19 April 2017

National Press Club Address

Thank you all and thank you very much, Chris, for that very kind introduction. Can I firstly acknowledge my very good friend and partner in leadership, Barnaby Joyce? Also my colleagues are here, Dr David Gillespie and Andrew Gee. Matt Canavan was on his way, I'm not sure if he's managed to get here yet. I also want to acknowledge my fabulous secretary, Mike Mrdak, and the previous federal director of the National Party, Scott Mitchell, and the current federal director of the National Party, Ben Hindmarsh. And to you all, thank you for coming along this afternoon.

It is great to have the opportunity to put rural, regional and remote Australia firmly in the minds of Australians. Our cities and, indeed, our nation exist because of our regions. Our regions supply the milk city people put on their cereal, the cereal itself, the cheese on their toast, the toast itself, the electricity which runs the toaster, the meat and vegetables for dinner, the gas which cooks that dinner, the fruit and cream for dessert, the water they shower in, and most materials which built the house they live in. When city people wake up in the morning, they should thank regional Australia for their way of life.

The Australian economy is largely driven by its regions. Regional Australia is responsible for 67 per cent of our exports and 45 per cent of domestic tourism. Many of the stocks traded by city trading houses are created in the regions—mining and agriculture stocks, for instance. The vast majority of regional Australia is humming along.

There are, of course, some challenges but the overall story is very positive. Unemployment in regional Australia is 6 per cent, compared to 6.1 per cent in the capital cities. Regional youth unemployment is 12.4 per cent compared to 14.2 per cent in the capital cities. Unemployment in Warrnambool in south-west Victoria is 2.9 per cent, in the Pilbara it is 3.1 per cent, in Darwin it's 3.2, in the southern outback it's 3.5, and in the Darling Downs and Maranoa in Queensland it's 3.8 per cent. Again, I recognise that unemployment is different in different towns, but the overall story is very positive.

Mackay region has 171,000 residents and produces the highest gross regional product per capita in Queensland at $133,143 per person for a total of $22 billion. Mackay is Queensland's economic powerhouse. Investing in regional Australia is like maintaining the alternator which charges your car's battery: it's essential to keep your car running. Strong regions means a strong nation.

In Cooma in southern New South Wales, where I was just a couple of weeks ago, Jane Cay runs Birdsnest—a now global online clothing business which employs 140 people, 130 of whom are women. Stuart and Cedar Anderson from the New South Wales Northern Rivers crowd funded a beehive which dispenses honey on tap. Six months later, their company, Bee Inventive, was receiving $30,000 worth of orders a day from 130 countries.

The Productivity Commission report into regional Australia is due out tomorrow, and it says great things about how well our regions are doing. There are so many amazing things happening in our regions, and yet from most metropolitan media coverage you'd never know it. An analysis of front page stories about regional Victoria in Melbourne's two biggest metropolitan papers in the six months to November 2016 revealed 80 per cent were negative, 15 per cent were neutral, and just 5 per cent were positive.

The same analysis of regional coverage in Sydney's major two papers found that 70 per cent of the regional front page mentions were negative and only 25 per cent were positive. The negative stories were about individual domestic violence incidents, murder, drug use and natural disasters. Reading only this coverage, why would anybody move there? It's as if regional Australia is our nation's best kept secret.

The way we talk about rural, regional and remote Australia is important. The regional tone needs to change from a negative one to an accurate one, and I'm determined to help lead that change. I don't say negative stories in isolation are false, but the failure to report the overwhelmingly positive news from regional Australia produces skewed views. We can't have 16 million capital city Australians getting their information on regional Australia from negative reporting and Farmer Wants A Wife.

There is an unconscious bias about the way many people think about rural, regional and remote Australia, and government investment in it, and ignorance about how each of us relies on Australia's regions to support our lifestyle.

Cities receive huge government investment, which is never labelled a handout or pork-barrelling. Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics analysis found Melbourne and Sydney recovered just 28 and 25 per cent respectively of public transport costs.

That's $4.5 billion a year taxpayer subsidy to keep Sydney and Melbourne from grinding to a halt. Yet I have never read a story which said capital cities were hugely reliant on government handouts. In the past few years, Melbourne's MCG and Tennis Centre received about $100 million in government subsidies, yet when we use a few hundred thousand to improve a country sports ground—often the lifeblood and economic heart of the town—it's labelled pork-barrelling.

When the leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, announced 25 million for a cancer centre in Dubbo, four hours' drive from Sydney, we were accused of pork-barrelling. I was Rural Health Minister and I'm proud of that investment, providing essential services to regional people is good government. It's not pork barrelling. The third of us who live in regional Australia should not be ashamed of expecting a decent level of service.

As I travel rural Australia every week, it's so obvious that great communities have great leadership, and great local leadership. I look at communities like Winton in Queensland—where the mayor up there, Butch Lenton, is an amazing person—and this tiny little community has a dinosaur museum which is extraordinary, the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

They've developed a smart phone app, guiding people to local tourist attractions. And this is a tiny, tiny, tiny, little town in the middle of Queensland. And I look down to Victoria, in Shepparton, where Mayor Donny Adem down there is, again, doing an incredible job with local leadership, recognising that things like culture and attractions are so important to regional communities, and driving things like that down there with the art museum.

Now, tiny little Winton in Queensland and Shepparton in Victoria are very, very different towns, but that local leadership and local drive is the same from both those men in both those communities. Government can't fix everything, and nor can community, which is why we need to invest in partnership together in the future of the regions.

Local communities also need confidence. When government invests in community, it breeds confidence. It shows that government thinks that community is worth investing in, and then local businesses and families invest too.

Partnership investment with local leadership drives real, lasting confidence. That's the way I designed the Building Better Regions Fund—a key election promise—and also the $220 million Regional Jobs and Investment packages.

These packages in these local communities, choosing forward-looking investment priorities, and we fund the projects which best align with those local priorities. The Productivity Commission report backs the approach of enabling and partnering with local leadership. It also notes that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work for the regions, which is something that I've said for a very long time.

I have always wondered why people say life in the big cities is fast-paced. Being stuck in traffic on Sydney's M7 or Melbourne's Monash tollway isn't fast paced, nor is waiting for ages in a taxi queue, or in a bank queue, or waiting to find a parking spot. In the regions, comparatively, you get to work in five minutes—that's fast. Parking 10 metres from the door of your favourite restaurant is fast.

There's time outside work to have a life. Some might think it's the difference between living and merely surviving, and that's why I find it amazing that many Australians have never considered the switch to regional Australia.

City people hear about the sense of community in the country, but I doubt they truly understand what it means. And what it means is this: It means you can send the kids to the neighbours for half an hour while you go to see the doctor; when you have a roadside breakdown, somebody stops to help you; when you embarrassingly discover you have left your wallet in the car as you pay at the local bakery, they say get me next time, mate; when your dog gets out, he is brought back from the guy down the road who greets you at your door with I reckon this little guy belongs to you; when you return to work a couple of days a week, your sister-in-law or your parents look after your kids.

Strategic investment in regional Australia can help fix overcrowding of capital cities, and my good leader has made a lot of comment about this and he's spot on the money. I'm sure most Sydney and Melbourne people have a horror story about the M7 or West Gate Bridge. Building new roads or rails in capital cities costs multiples more than it does in the country because the city projects require bulldozing houses and digging tunnels.

The more people move to the country, the less it costs our nation—and I suspect that's something that many people have never considered. Work by the Department of Planning and Regional Development in Victoria revealed housing 50,000 new people in Sydney cost the government $4 billion in infrastructure; to house those people in regional New South Wales cost $1 billion. For every 50,000 people who choose to live in the country, governments save roughly $3 billion in infrastructure costs. Being good doesn't necessarily mean big, it means being a community of choice.

In March, the Regional Australia Ministerial Taskforce had its first meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, with myself the deputy chair. Issues affecting rural, regional and remote Australians cross many portfolios so a cross-portfolio ministerial taskforce is the best way to tackle it.

The taskforce aims to build on what we've already done, and we've already done a lot for regional communities. And just a couple of things I've had a hand in are, as Rural Health Minister, I redirected $50 million in incentives for doctors in big cities to doctors in small country towns.

Along with the Justice Minister, Michael Keenan, I drove the creation of the National Ice Taskforce, addressing drugs—an insidious problem in our regional communities. Also its report, and under Malcolm Turnbull the Coalition delivered an historic $300 million investment in drug and alcohol education, prevention and treatment. And the AFP said at the time, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.

In keeping with my belief that local knowledge is best, the 31 local Primary Healthcare Networks each invest their share of the funding into the best local measures. Local Drug Action Teams have also begun to roll out now. During the election campaign, I announced we'd create Australia's first Rural Health Commissioner, who will also create a pathway to train rural generalists, those country health professionals who have far broader skills than the typical GP.

The good Dr Dave—Minister Gillespie—has oversighted more than $28 million in investment for 26 Regional health Training Hubs to expand the numbers of medical students and graduates training in regional Australia, and we know how important training our medical students in the regions is. He's also announced $26 million for an additional three university departments of Rural Health.

The Coalition has a solid track record of delivering for the regions. Barnaby Joyce has led the renewal and expansion of the National Party to 22 members, with five now in Cabinet. And I can remember when we came into the party room, and it's very different now. His proudest achievements as part of the National Party: Stopping the carbon tax, building the Inland Rail, and the soon to be delivered multibillion-dollar Regional Investment Bank. Barnaby and I have worked together for 13 years—sometimes it feels like 26.

But I think our friendship has been a great basis for an extremely effective Nationals leadership team. We are so proud to lead our fantastic team of Nationals. They are just terrific men and women, and we are very proud to be part of this Coalition Government that's continuing to deliver for the regions, and we will have more to say about initiatives coming from the Regional Australia Taskforce in due course.

So now on to communications. The Coalition's delivering 765 new and improved mobile phone towers, giving coverage to 32,000 homes and businesses across regional, rural and remote Australia, while Labor never built a single tower, never attempted to, and never spent a cent. Further, reliable broadband has the potential to help transform regional Australia.

Way back in 2004, Barnaby and I actually co-authored a report into regional telecommunications in Australia. As Regional Communications Minister, I have oversight of the fixed wireless network and the Sky Muster satellite, although both are delivered by the NBN Co, which has its own board. The regional rollout of the NBN is already 70 per cent complete, and fixed wireless is a great success story.

Some 171,000 homes and businesses are now connected to fixed wireless. Fixed wireless has the highest satisfaction rating across the NBN and delivers 50 megabits a second download, but NBN has recently announced it will move to 100 megabits download and 40 megabits upload—which is ultrafast.

Businesses like Murray Darling Fisheries at Euberta, 20 kilometres outside of Wagga, have capitalised, doubling exports to China and employing more locals. At Naracoorte, 300 kilometres from Adelaide, Peter and Linda Cerci(*) say fixed wireless hugely improved the education of their two sons, and Lisa now runs an online business selling craft. There are great things happening because of Sky Muster too.

The most recent of the 70,000 to connect are on the second Sky Muster satellite, which Labor had only intended as a back-up, which we repurposed. The Sky Muster trial on a Qantas jet is testing mobile receivers which the Royal Flying Doctors can have in their planes, potentially enabling paramedics to send live data, say from a heart monitor, to a specialist on the ground who can provide life-saving advice—and this is really ground breaking trial stuff. The trial also tests mobile technology for receivers on tractors, utes and bush machinery.

Sky Muster's 101 beams cover every inch of Australia, providing broadband to people who literally never get it otherwise—people in mountains, valleys and stations miles from towns. It's remarkable and our data and cost is hugely better than, say, the US satellite. NBN Co's data shows the Sky Muster service has stabilised, with 80 per cent less network outages than September last year. It was recognised there were some problems by NBN and they've moved to fix them. The customer satisfaction stats are trending upward and contractors are using better installation processes. The average Sky Muster customer uses 23 gigabytes of data a month. A $70 plan gets you 45 gigabytes of peak use, and another 70 off-peak. However, a small percentage of customers are using all their data.

So last week, along with the extremely capable Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, I met with the NBN Co board on rural issues, and particularly around the data issues. We know how important data is to business, and NBN tells us it expects retail business plans offering extra data within a year. NBN is also checking whether its early projections match reality and this, along with other initiatives, is likely to deliver an increase in data to all users, and NBN will report to me on this as soon as possible.

I recognise how important this data issue is for regional Australians. NBN already offers larger plans to schools and distance education students and is working to offer more data to rural and remote medical centres. The Sky Muster satellites were ordered by Labor but, as I said, we are making adjustments to get the best out of them.

In the hills near Apollo Bay in Victoria, Sky Muster customer Wendy Stewart no longer commutes three hours to Melbourne to work, and her daughters no longer go to town to the internet cafe. South of Longreach, Chase Smith used to attend class by phone and had to post a USB stick to school, then wait two weeks for feedback. Now he sees his classmates on video link and receives marked assignments back the same day.

Broadband can help change lives in other ways, too. Mental health is a significant issue in rural and remote areas. Lack of easy access to a nearby psychologist often means mental health issues go untreated.

It's difficult and sometimes impossible for rural and remote Australians to attend face-to-face counselling. Today I announce rural and remote Australians will, for the first time, have access to psychology through teleconferencing paid for by Medicare. This will mean rural and remote Australians can use Skype, FaceTime or video calling to access psychologists and psychiatrists all over Australia from their home or a local medical centre.

Many Australians who were going without mental health treatment will now receive it. And I thank the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, for recognising the importance of this issue to regional Australia, and for delivering the very first outcome from the Regional Australia Ministerial Taskforce in such a short period of time. For those wondering, high definition video conferencing requires internet speed of just 1.5 megabits a second. A typical Sky Muster plan delivers enough data for 66 hours a month of high definition video conferencing.

Ladies and gentlemen, my vision is to help build sustainable rural, regional and remote communities that our children and our grandchildren either want to stay in or come back to. If we attract the brains back to the bush, we'll go a long way to creating sustainable communities into the future. To do that, we need to create more careers, as well as jobs, in the bush.

This requires long-term vision well beyond the next election, which brings me to another priority of mine—decentralisation. I congratulate our Nationals Leader, Barnaby Joyce, for leading the debate and fighting so hard for regional Australia on this issue. To me, decentralisation is about fairness. Rural, regional and remote Australians deserve the careers, flow-on benefits and jobs offered by departments and their agencies just as much as capital city Australians do.

But government decentralisation is only part of the puzzle; corporate decentralisation we also have to focus on. It's been a huge success in some areas. Mars in Albury-Wodonga has been a huge economic driver for that centre.

The Macquarie Bank's agricultural arm has set up offices in Orange and Albury- Wodonga, and they say to find people willing to move from Sydney was—and I quote—really easy. Agriculture has a fantastic future in this country and it is great to see even the big corporates are starting to recognise this.

Last week I had a very productive meeting with business groups about corporate decentralisation. Jennifer Westacott from the BCA and Peter Strong from the Small Business Council has been offered to be very involved in facilitating meetings with companies regarding decentralisation. We need to identify what those barriers are and then we need to find solutions.

There was a suggestion that a database listing the strengths and natural advantages of Australia's regions as they relate to business would be helpful. This would include local work force skills and intellectual capacity, local infrastructure including transport links, natural advantages like, say, climate for a wine region or access to reliable irrigation water, and established local industries and businesses which an arriving business could work with or service.

Businesses interested in establishing in regional Australia could look up which part of the nation is best suited for them and save costs too, as rents, rates and set-up costs are far cheaper in the country.

Corporate decentralisation is a long-term project and I intend to work hard on it. Additionally, the Prime Minister last year tasked me with a whole-of-government decentralisation policy. Moving government functions to the regions means more people in our towns, more customers in our shops, more students in our schools, and more volunteers for the local fire brigade.

Well-managed decentralisation is a smart tactic in the housing affordability battle, as it relieves pressure on capital cities and creates the lure of quality careers in the country. Decentralisation means more career opportunities for our children in the bush so that they can stay in the region they grew up in.

A report to the Canadian Parliament noted: Lack of connection with regional realities is the trend among public servants; they view the world through the prism of statistics. That report called for a rigorous and transparent framework to consider moving more departments to the regions. That's what I'm delivering, and I'm approaching this methodically and strategically.

There are some departments and functions, which are not appropriate to move away from Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. However, there are countless successful examples of government decentralisation, including the New South Wales DPI in Orange and the GRDC to Dubbo, Centrelink and ASIC call-centres in Traralgon, the Transport Accident Commission, and soon the NDIS in Geelong.

Late last year I was in Bathurst, hopped into a taxi, chatting to the fellow driving the taxi. The Central Mapping Authority was decentralised out to Bathurst in 1976. He was still living there and he loved it.

Today I announced that by midyear I will, in consultation with others, create a criteria for government ministers to assess which departments, functions, and entities in their portfolio are suited to decentralisation. All portfolio ministers will be required to report back to Cabinet by August on which of their departments, functions, or entities are suitable.

Departments will need to actively justify, if they don't want to move, why all or part of their operations are unsuitable for decentralisation. The Minister for Finance will, in consultation with others, develop a template for business cases for decentralisation to ensure a consistent approach across government. Relevant ministers will be required to report to Cabinet with those robust business cases for decentralisation by December.

It's important for government to lead by example and invest in rural, regional, and remote Australia, creating long-term careers and breeding confidence in those communities, and we're doing it.

Ladies and gentlemen, rural, regional and remote Australia is great already. It can be even greater, and I look forward to helping build strong and sustainable regional communities that our children and our grandchildren either want to stay in or come back to. Thank you.