Keynote Address: SEGRA 2014 Connecting Matters

Speech

WTS024/2014

08 October 2014

DoubleTree by Hilton, Alice Springs

Thank you for the warm welcome Shane (Love, Member for Moore, WA).

Good afternoon everyone.

Alice Springs is the cultural heart of central Australia and before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet—the Central Arrernte People—and thank them for their welcome to country.

I would also like to acknowledge

  • Adam Giles, NT Chief Minister
  • Damien Ryan, Mayor of Alice Springs
  • Warren Mundine, CEO NyunnggaBlack and Chairman, Indigenous Advisory Council
  • Dr Ken Johnson AM, from Desert Knowledge
  • and members of the Korean delegation who will be addressing you on Friday.

Like most of the delegates here today, Shane, you have made a long journey to take part in SEGRA's 2014 Conference. Coming all the way from your home town of Badgingarra in the WA Wheatbelt, your attendance here is representative of the truly national flavour of SEGRA.

This year's Conference theme, Connecting Matters, is particularly apt in that it recognises the fundamental importance of sharing knowledge.

I was born in the country and have always lived in the country, and as you and I know regional Australia is our life-blood. I can assure you that the Coalition Government is committed to helping Australia's regions pursue and seize economic development opportunities.

The Government's vision is seeking to drive real competitive advantages and productivity improvements through public and private investment.

Regional Development Australia

I know that for many of you here today one of the hot topics in terms of Government policy centres around the future for the RDA committee network (Regional Development Australia).

Last year I announced that I was considering the arrangements for the RDA Committee network and how their current structure aligns with the Government's vision for regional Australia.

RDA Review

As part of this review process I have consulted with state and territory Ministers, many RDA Committees and other stakeholders on their views for the future.

It will not surprise you that the review of the current regional engagement model identified that many Regional Development Australia (RDA) Committees are highly valued in their regions and were thought to be providing valuable advice to business and communities on economic development opportunities.

To be fair in some places the RDAs were not so highly regarded. In three States and the Territories there has been a strong level of participation with the respective State Government (including funding partnerships) while other States have displayed little interest in the RDAs.

I have taken time to consider the structure based on the views of all stakeholders. I have spoken with state and territory ministers responsible for regional development, my Parliamentary colleagues, many RDA Committee members, as well as representatives of the community in the hope that it might be possible to develop a model where all three tiers of government worked togther to sponsor a well resources national network of regional development organisations working to grow stronger regions across the nation.

From these discussions it is clear that the Government continues to have an important role to play in supporting the economic development of all regions.

But the prospect of all States agreeing to participate in a common RDA network anytime soon seems remote. I hope the goal will be achieved one day. But we have work to do now and we must get on with it.

The Government has therefore decided to retain the existing 55 RDA Committees, but Committees will be expected to focus more strongly on regional economic development and facilitating local projects that aim to make a difference for their local communities.

The network will ensure that all regions—be they rural or urban—have a voice directly with the federal government in respect to their community infrastructure needs and getting economic development projects delivered. We will continue to co-operate with those States and local Governments that want to work with us—so for most RDAs their arrangements and structures will not be greatly changed.

The new arrangements honour our election commitment to maintain and enhance a locally based regional development consultative network to provide an avenue of communication between the Government and local communities.

Improving productivity and unlocking economic growth in regional areas is a priority for the Government and I will work with the RDA Committees to ensure that each regional committee is focussed on driving economic growth and making the most of the potential capability of their region.

RDA regional plans are now well established and development priorities are unlikely to change substantially over the next three to five years.

RDA Committees will be funded to:

  • maintain and keep current a three to five-year regional plan that focuses on economic development of their region taking into account Commonwealth, state, territory and local government plans.
  • Committees will advise on those priority activities that will drive regional economic development and take advantage of comparative advantages, based on consultation and engagement with community leaders.
  • They will also assist local community stakeholders to develop project proposals and will help shepherd them to appropriate public and/or private funding sources—including the $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund which I will discuss shortly.
  • Committees will be charged with providing advice to the Government on critical issues affecting each region.
  • They will also be a mechanism to increase awareness of Australian Government programmes in their communities.

There will be some changes made to streamline the RDA Committee appointment processes, reduce administrative burden and simplify governance arrangements.

This will enable Committees to focus on their critical regional development work with local communities rather than be burdened with red tape.

The complex and often drawn out nature of the appointments process is a significant source of frustration for RDA Committees and a big cost to government.

The current appointment process will be simplified with the Chair and Deputy Chair appointments being made by the government, jointly with state and territories where they are funding partners.

RDA Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs will make the appointments to fill Committee vacancies themselves.

Membership of Committees will be expected to reflect a range of skills and regional stakeholders including strong engagement with local government, business and industry, as well as being regionally inclusive.

My Department will engage directly with their state and territory counterparts and with RDA Committees to work though the details of the administrative changes.

The importance of engagement with local government will be reinforced and tripartite arrangements such as those that exist in South Australia with the Local Government Association will be encouraged, as will relationships with Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

As budgets will be limited, especially where there is no complimentary state funding, I will be happy for RDAs to co-locate with the like-minded organisations—so long as they maintain their separate identity, branding, committees and federal focus.

Next Steps

I have written to my state and territory counterparts seeking their agreement to the preferred approach of a tripartite model with state and local government as contributing partners in the RDA Committee initiative.

As I have indicated several states and territories have already indicated that they intend to develop or maintain their own regional consultative arrangements and in those instances the Government will continue to support the RDA Committees as independent incorporated associations within the current funding allocation.

A further review into the RDA network will be undertaken in two years to assess the effectiveness of the arrangements, especially in light of the current federalism discussions.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that I am grateful for the many thoughts and contributions provided by regional organisations and communities to assist in our consideration of the refined RDA Committee network approach.

Some have proposed boundary changes, new roles and functions for RDAs and I am prepared to consider such options once the new network has settled in or in the context of the next review.

I look forward to continuing to work together to achieve improved economic outcomes for regional and rural Australia.

National Stronger Regions Fund

I would like to turn now to my recent announcement that Round One of the National Stronger Regions Fund is open to receive applications.

We are getting on with delivering priority economic infrastructure projects throughout Australia and the Stronger Regions Fund will invest $1 billion over five years to support investment in priority economic and infrastructure projects from freight and transport projects to convention centres and major multi-purpose sports and community facilities, etc.

These investments will have a focus on strengthening economies in Australia's regions by improving their productivity, economic opportunity, employment, and workforce skills, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

The Fund will enhance the economic growth, activity and output of our regions and sustain these gains into the future, by providing between $20,000 and $10 million for up to 50 per cent of the cost of projects.

The Fund will invest in important infrastructure projects nominated by local communities, ensuring Australia's regions are investing in their own future.

As well as providing direct investment in major projects that deliver economic and social benefits, the Fund will have flow on benefits of improving the capacity of organisations to deliver projects.

To best deliver critical infrastructure, the Fund will encourage the formation of strong partnerships that engage project proponents with the private sector, and local, state and territory governments.

Projects seeking funding will be assessed by a panel of three ministers in consultation with Cabinet's National Infrastructure Committee, which has both a strong interest and commitment to harnessing the potential of Australia's regions.

I encourage you to identify priority projects within your regions which you feel would meet the criteria for funding. It will be a key role of the new RDA network to help identify good local projects and assist where they can in the preparation of applications and then in the delivery of projects—especially where applicants may lack the skills to effectively deliver a project themselves.

The Guidelines detailing the type of project proposals sought, how to lodge an application, how assessments will be conducted, critical programme dates and lodgement of Round One applications are available on my Department's web site. Applications for the first round close on 28 November and announcements of successful projects will begin in the second quarter of next year.

This new Fund of course is coupled with other initiatives being delivered by the Coalition in Government for regional Australia.

We are delivering almost 300 small grants for community projects across Australia as part of our $314 million Community Development Grants program, which was designed to ensure the timely delivery of the Government's election commitments and to deliver the legacy of the leftover, uncompleted projects from the last Government.

But we have much more planned for regional Australia:

  • The $100 million Mobile Phone Blackspot Program will extend mobile phone coverage and competition in regional Australia. The programme will improve coverage along major transport routes, in small communities and in locations prone to experiencing natural disasters, as well as addressing unique mobile coverage problems.
  • $320 million in drought relief measures has been committed including $280 million in drought concessional loans, $10 million for pest management in drought affected areas, and $10.7 million in social and mental health support.
  • $100 million extra has been allocated for applied agricultural research and development
  • $52.5 million over three years will be provided for a minimum of 175 grants for existing health general health practices in rural and regional settings to provide additional space for supervision, teaching and training of medical students and general practice registrars.
  • Expansion of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University will provide $42.0 million over four years with flow on infrastructure, health and financial benefits to far North Queensland.

Of particular interest to you, is our Government's $50 billion commitment to infrastructure spending in this country and lifting our nation's productivity.

This is the largest commitment to road and rail infrastructure in Australia's history.

You have heard of big projects in our capital cities, but many hundreds of projects that will be funded, and I want to emphasise today that regional Australia is a major beneficiary—and just some of the projects are:

Our $6.7 billion to fix the Bruce Highway and make it safer and more reliable is the biggest single commitment of the entire program—more than 60 major projects.

$5.6 billion to finally complete the duplication of the Pacific Highway within this decade.

$2.1 billion to extend Roads to Recovery—the popular local roads and streets programme and abiding achievement of John Anderson.

Up to $1.3 billion for the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing—arguably our nation's biggest ever infrastructure project in regional Australia.

$508 million to upgrade the Warrego Highway.

$308 million for the Great Northern Highway and $174 million for the North West Coastal Highway in WA.

$263.4 million for the Western Highway and $185.5 million for the Princes Highway in Victoria.

And that is just some of the highlights.

There is $565 million to fix Black Spots on roads.

We have funded a new $300 million Bridges Renewal Programme, which I am pleased to say has generated strong interest already as my Department is now assessing the first round of applications.

$300 million to start construction of the iconic Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail line.

And the list goes on, but I hope you will agree that across Government we have been working hard to ensure that regional Australia receives due focus and we now starting to deliver real initiatives and resources on the ground.

Northern Australia

Another important priority for the Coalition Government, and very apt given our setting here in Alice, is unlocking the potential of Northern Australia.

Northern Australia is already a big contributor to the national economy, with 55 per cent of our exports shipped through our northern ports and an agricultural sector worth over $5 billion.

There is no question that we need to make the most of the North's strengths right across the Top End.

We need to create an environment that encourages strategic public and private planning and investment.

I am proud that our Government has honoured our pre-election commitment to build on the Coalition's 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia.

We took the first step in June with the release of the Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia.

Northern Australia boasts a rich and diverse culture, unique landscapes and iconic tourist destinations vast natural resources and modern, vibrant cities like Townsville, Cairns and Darwin and regional centres like Alice and Karratha.

The Green Paper has also given businesses, individuals and communities a voice and an opportunity to help shape Government policy and the long-term future of this unique part of the world. Submissions closed in August and are under careful consideration.

Along with seeking private views, we have established an expert Northern Australia Advisory Group representing the diverse communities of the north, business, industry and Indigenous interests.

The Advisory Group is chaired by Shane Stone, former NT Chief Minister and will report to the Prime Minister, myself, the Premiers of Queensland and Western Australia and the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. They will meet again on Friday.

While not jumping the gun, I can say that the Government is focused on issues like developing agricultural industries—building an energy export industry worth $150 billion; and growing the tourist economy to two million international tourists a year.

We are also identifying options to accelerate investment in water infrastructure, as well as completing an audit of infrastructure investment priorities, both nationally as well as for Northern Australia.

Further growth and investment will, of course, have direct benefits across Northern Australia, but that prosperity will flow to all Australians.

Before I close today I would also like to say a few more things about federalism and our three-tiered system of government.

Last month the Prime Minister released of the first issues paper in the development of the Reform of the Federation White Paper.

Australia's Federation has great strengths but duplication and overlap between different levels of government results in waste and inefficiency.

The Federation has stood strong for 114 years, but Australia today is a very different nation, facing new challenges.

We need to reduce and, if possible, end duplication and make interacting with government simpler. Nine separate jurisdictions leads to confusion and inconsistent and costly regulation.

We need to clarify roles and responsibilities for States and Territories so that they are, as far as possible, sovereign in their own sphere.

The Commonwealth will inevitably continue to take a leadership role on issues of genuine national and strategic importance, but there should be less Commonwealth intervention in areas where States have primary responsibility. Each tier of government should have greater responsibility to raise the money they need to fund services they provide without having to rely on the generosity of other governments.

The Terms of Reference have been developed in collaboration with States and Territories, as agreed by the Council of Australian Governments, and the White Paper will be a standing item on the COAG agenda.

The Federation White Paper will be coordinated with the White Paper on the Reform of Australia's Tax System.

Issues papers covering health, education, housing and homelessness, and federal financial relations will be released shortly with the White Paper to be completed by the end of 2015. I encourage you to have your say.

Conclusion

For those in the crowd who may not be aware, Alice Springs Airport is now home to Australia's first aircraft storage facility.

It is an exciting step for aviation in Australia and is the first Asia-Pacific based alternative to the Mojave Desert in California and Arizona's 840-hectare Pinal Airpark for airlines with aircraft based or operating throughout our region.

Australian-based company Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage and Northern Territory Airports management are to be congratulated on the development which will be able to accommodate up to 250 to 300 aircraft.

The latest arrivals are, I understand, a Qantas 767 and four Airbus single-aisle planes from Tigerair Singapore.

Not only has this facility created jobs during construction but will continue to generate local jobs in terms of aircraft maintenance and the like, but I think I can safely say that it will be yet another popular tourist destination for visitors to the Red Centre.

Thank you.