Sir Earle Page Memorial Address
09 April 2015
Page Research Centre, Sydney
Parliamentary colleagues, my fellow Nationals, ladies and gentlemen.
It's a great pleasure to be with you tonight for the Sir Earle Page Memorial Address—the signature event on the Page Research Centre's calendar.
Sir Earle was the father of our Party and arguably longest serving leader. He was a doctor and a farmer who recognised how important it was for regional Australia to have a strong and united voice in the parliaments of our nation.
And that was in an era when more people lived in the country than the capital cities and everyone understood that our national wealth was delivered by the bush.
As recently as the late 1950s, wool made up over half of our nation's exports—more dominant than iron ore or coal today, which, it has to be said, also comes from the regions.
Since then there has been great demographic changes in our country. Most Australians now live in the city and have had no experience with country life. Most do not even have grandparents or other relatives living in the country.
They rely on capital city media to cast the image of what is rural and regional Australia.
The Nationals are the political party of regional Australia and many political experts (also mainly from the city) have long prophesised our doom.
Earle Page endured it, too.
He co-founded the Country Party in 1920 and was elected leader in 1921. He served in that role until 1939 and had stints as Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Treasurer and held various ministries until 1956 when he retired to the backbench at the age of 76.
In 1922 the Melbourne Argus newspaper infamously predicted the imminent demise of the Country Party. It must have been with a wry smile that Earle Page saw The Argus close its doors in 1957, while the Country Party kept rolling on.
The Nationals had outlived The Argus. We have outlived many such predictions. We are still here and in stronger numbers than in decades past. And we will need to be here for a long time to ensure that regional Australia gets its fair share.
A little over 18 months ago, The Nationals had the privilege of forming government with our Liberal colleagues in one of—if not the—most difficult economic times in our nation's history.
It has fallen to us to fix Labor's mess—they squander their inheritance and we have to earn it back…yet again. It seems to be the modern norm in Canberra.
When Australia went to the polls in September 2013 it was both pleasing and significant to note that The Nationals secured our biggest and best election result in 30 years—with 21 Nationals MPs and Senators taking their places in Parliament as members of the Coalition Government.
And that followed record-breaking success in state elections in WA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
During the federal election campaign I travelled more than 40,000 kilometres talking to people in more than 60 regional communities and towns about the things that matter to them—communities usually not on the itineraries of Prime Ministers or leaders of the opposition.
What shone through is that every-day Australians who live outside the capital cities recognise the importance of a united voice for the regions.
We were pleased to win back two seats held by Independents.
It is important to the regions…but also so very important to the ongoing, sustainable prosperity and welfare of the nation as a whole.
While The Nationals have never lacked for robust representation in or out of government, the regular emergence of peripheral parties—which sometimes shine bright for a while but always fade away—and the preparedness of some regional people to countenance them erodes that voice.
The current malaise in Canberra should serve as a salient reminder to all of us that a protest vote is a wasted—and often a destructive—vote.
Today, the Senate is a dog's breakfast of random and, often, irrational priorities that not only mean nothing to the man and woman on the street, but—far worse—set back the reform and economic recovery Australia desperately needs.
It's particularly frustrating for The Nationals. What we want to achieve for regional Australia is thwarted by a Parliament in gridlock. It means we have to do better at unifying the non-Labor vote and strengthening the power of regional Australia in the political process—so that regional Australia does not miss out.
A fair go for the regions is not a new issue.
Over 100 years ago (in 1908), well before his political career, Earle Page declared that the “Sydney Octopus” was depriving rural Australia of its dues.
A decade ago, John Anderson spoke of ‘two Australias’ and lamented the growing divide between city and country.
Both he and Sir Earle sought to address this disadvantage and to improve the lot of regional Australians. They demanded and delivered better services and infrastructure in regional communities.
The Howard-Anderson Government took the radical step to stop the rot by banning any reduction in government services or staffing in regional Australia.
We acted to reverse the drift by setting up government-funded transaction centres in small country towns that had lost their local bank or service agencies. We established call centres in regional towns and founded the AusLink road and rail programme and instituted Roads To Recovery to deal with the crisis of deteriorating local road networks.
The Howard-Anderson government also introduced the Exceptional Circumstances Drought Assistance Scheme, which saved so many farmers during the worst drought in a century, and provided huge assistance packages for the sugar and dairy industries following deregulation.
These initiatives were important Nationals achievements, but many were wound-back by our successors in government—but they have not stopped the drift.
Indeed, when we build new and improved roads to country communities, we provide vital links with the world—but we are also building a highway out of town.
When we extend the NBN to county communities—as we are today—we make it easier to shop out of town. We make it easier to do business with a city accountant or solicitor or education provider.
I grew up near a small town and I can remember how pleased we were when the rocky gravel road to our regional centre was sealed. But a little while later the local bank closed, then the machinery dealership, the grocery shop, the saleyards…It was just so much easier to go to the big town.
So the drift continues. Local village to the nearby town…the town to the regional city…the regional city to the larger provincial centre…the provincial centre to the state capital…from the smaller state capitals to Melbourne and Sydney.
There will never be another Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie, Mount Isa or Moranbah. The rise of FIFO worker arrangements means that while the wealth is produced in our regions, the workforce does not live there and the wealth is flying back to the cities.
When the mine is worked out, the host community is left with nothing but memories.
Over recent years, several states have sought to share mineral royalties with the regions and it has made a difference—especially in Western Australia where the Nationals' Royalties to the Regions Programme has transformed services and facilities in country communities.
But in spite of the success of these revenue sharing initiatives, the drift continues.
Sydney and Melbourne dominate our nation and its economy more than any time in our history. Most of the nation's top 100 companies are headquartered in Sydney or Melbourne.
We were told there was no interest rate cut this week because of over-heated house prices in Sydney and Melbourne. There are plenty of under-heated house prices in the rest of Australia.
Our commerce, our medical services, our stadiums, our big events, our governments, our policy commentators and lobbyists are in the cities.
And what they do is reported by media concentrated in the capital cities and which reports country stories from an urban perspective.
It grates sometimes.
On the morning after the recent central Queensland cyclone (Marcia), the Melbourne-based ABC News reporter could not pronounce four of the towns mentioned in the story. The major media networks no longer have rural reporters—the job is done by the environment reporter and the bias screams out.
It is unacceptable that rural Australians have a shorter life expectancy than city residents, that country Australians only have one-third as much chance of having a University degree as city people.
In spite of everything, regional Australia still underpins our nation's growth and prosperity. If you had any doubt look at what is happening to state and federal budgets with the deterioration of commodity prices.
But, equally, we know we must invest in the things that make our country strong, things that will drive economic growth.
And that is where regional Australia should, and must, come into its own.
It's a fact that around two-thirds of Australia's export earnings still come from regional industries. That includes agriculture, mining, tourism and manufacturing.
Australia's regions are integral to our nation's economic future—not just the symbolism, values and sense of identity of a bygone era.
The Nationals know and understand that, and we recognise the awesome responsibility that is entrusted to us to stand up for regional Australia and ensure they receive a fair share.
Our task must also be to improve the quality of life and opportunities for regional Australians—and we are determined to make a difference.
Upon our election, Australia faced a $47 billion budget deficit for the 2013–14 financial year alone and $123 billion of accumulating deficits to 2016–17.
We faced damaging budget deficits as far as the eye can see and $1 billion a month interest on Labor's debt.
People pay their taxes for the roads, the hospitals, the schools they expect.
Well, Labor's legacy means the first $1 billion of tax the government collects every month goes to paying the interest bill…$12 billion a year represents a lot of lost infrastructure, healthcare and education investments.
Regardless of your political persuasion, people in their very bones know that Australia could not sustain government spending that took the federal government from having money in the bank in 2007 to gross debt of $667 billion in just 15 years.
Even the most ardent critics of some of our specific Budget measures concede that Labor's deficit track is unsustainable.
But, as Nationals, we know—I think better than most—expenditure reductions alone are never the answer.
Getting the Budget right is also about building the capacity of our economy and playing to our strengths.
As our nation prospers the Budget bottom line also magically improves.
Farm production, worth around $33 billion a year in exports alone, could more than double by 2050 as the ‘dining boom’ to feed the ever-expanding Asian middle-class market continues to build momentum.
Much has been said about the Asian Century and its potential for Australia…and our government is gearing the Australian economy to realise those goals and bank the prosperity.
This seismic demographic shift is reflected in an increasing demand for high-end primary produce, including beef and dairy, and Australian producers are already taking advantage of this growing market.
In my maiden speech in Federal Parliament 25 years ago, I spoke of the future opportunities which would arise in Asia.
It was a controversial prediction at the time, but I pointed out that Australia was uniquely placed to be a supplier of food and fibre to the fastest growing sector of the globe—we would have a freight advantage and could not hide behind distance from markets as an excuse anymore.
The ‘lucky country’ would have one more chance to be lucky.
Those predictions are now coming true beyond my expectations.
Come 2050, our Asia-Pacific region will account for almost half the world's economic output. More than half of the world's population—growing in affluence—will be on our northern doorstep.
These facts scream out opportunity!
Our government has negotiated Free Trade Agreements with Japan, South Korea and China.
These agreements have delivered a range of markets way above our capacity to supply.
They provide us with an unprecedented choice between the best markets in the world.
That means better deals for our exports.
Despite the boom-bust cycle, resources will continue to deliver for Australia well into the 22nd Century and beyond.
Energy self-sufficiency and the potential for major export contracts with the development of gas reserves, uranium, oil and coal, are all probabilities that capitalise on our natural advantages.
And it should not be lost on anyone that many of these opportunities for national growth are in our regions.
We also need to encourage value adding industries, services and smart manufacturing to cater for these new market opportunities.
The regions once again will deliver for Australia and give our nation the opportunity for a new round of prosperity—and we need to invest now to deliver this reward.
These are investments that will pay dividends for decades to come. They will make our lives better and our businesses more efficient and competitive in an increasingly global market.
Infrastructure and the Regions
Investing in better infrastructure creates the impetus for growth and improves the efficiency of our industry and commerce—in both city and country.
Under Labor, the longest and largest mining boom in Australian history was largely squandered. The best terms of trade in 140 years came and went without making the difference they should have.
Today, despite the unprecedented economic challenges we face, the Coalition is investing in upgraded roads and highways, railways, new and expanded airports, seaports, better water infrastructure and vast new communication networks that people can actually use.
We have instigated the biggest road and rail construction programme in our nation's history.
While much is being said about our major infrastructure projects in the cities, as the Leader of The Nationals, I am especially proud of regional Australia's share of that investment.
In addition to the $9.3 billion in Financial Assistance Grants to councils across Australia, we are investing a further $2.1 billion in local roads and streets under the Roads To Recovery Programme. This coming 2015–16 financial year includes an extra $350 million injection to double funding for the year.
We are also providing $500 million—including up to an extra $200 million—to fix dangerous and accident-prone Black Spot sections of local roads and streets.
The first round of our new $300 million for our new Bridges Renewal programme to help repair and replace local bridges has been announced.
Our $50 billion-plus Infrastructure Investment Programme is already breaking new ground on major projects across the country—literally in every state. This infrastructure is pivotal to getting our nation moving efficiently and competitively and much of it is being spent in the regions.
Across this vast continent, safe and efficient transport networks are of critical importance in building a strong economy and in keeping communities connected and the supply chain moving to and from our major import/export hubs.
Our $50 billion infrastructure plan uses innovative private sector investments, asset recycling, as well as government funds to lever at least $125 billion of infrastructure development.
By now, you will know our headline city investments well:
- $3 billion for Melbourne's East-West Link—stages 1 and 2, and another $200 million to the $250 million upgrade of the Tullamarine Freeway,
- $1.5 billion to get Sydney's WestConnex underway and another $405 million for the NorthConnex project,
The completion of the new M5 section of West Connex in Sydney has been brought forward by up to 18 months by a federal government concessional loan of up to $2 billion.
- $1 billion to upgrade the Gateway Motorway North in Brisbane,
- $686 million to finish the Gateway WA Project in Perth and $615 million for the Swan Valley Bypass, and
- $500 million for the upgrade of South Road in Adelaide.
But our transport package, importantly, includes record amounts for regional roads, recognising that connecting our regional towns and cities to their capitals and getting our farm and mining exports to markets in the most efficient way possible, especially in this the Asian Century, is a priority for this government.
This investment includes:
- $6.7 billion to upgrade the Bruce Highway to make it safer and better protect it against regular and costly flooding;
- $5.64 billion to finally finish the duplication of the Pacific Highway within this decade;
- Up to $1.3 billion to build the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing as the first major road PPP project in regional Australia;
- $508 million to upgrade the Warrego Highway;
- $400 million to continue the Midland Highway upgrade in Tasmania;
- There's also $335 million for the Great Northern Highway and $174 million for the North West Coastal Highway in WA; and
- $263 million for Victoria's Western Highway and $185 million for the state's Princes Highway.
We have committed $300 million to get the iconic Melbourne-to-Brisbane Inland Rail project back on track after six years of neglect. We are finalising plans, engineering designs and environmental assessments and surveyors are in the field.
It is our premier rail project.
It is part of our holistic infrastructure effort combining all transport modes, recognising the reality that, nationally, our freight task will double over the next 20 years, but that it will treble along the eastern seaboard.
The Inland Rail will join Brisbane through Toowoomba, southern Queensland, regional NSW and rural Victoria, and on into Melbourne.
That means less congestion on our highways, but also on the local roads that service our metropolitan and regional ports.
In addition to the Inland Rail project, we continue to upgrade our nation's rail system.
We are delivering a $75 million investment in the next stage of the Port Botany Rail Line Upgrade in Sydney and we are working with the private sector to deliver the much-needed Moorebank Intermodal Terminal.
In Melbourne we are committing $38 million to the Melbourne Metropolitan Intermodal Terminal system.
And, in Brisbane, we are partnering with the Queensland Government to plan a new 24/7 rail freight link to the Port of Brisbane—the country's fastest growing container port.
This line would not only feed the Port but also link to the Inland Railway connecting the mines and agricultural regions of South East Queensland and Northern NSW to international markets.
But each is an important investment in regional industries being able to get their products to the new markets we are facilitating in Asia and an increasingly hungry global marketplace efficiently and competitively.
Western Sydney Airport
Of course, the big news is that after decades of dithering, the new Coalition Government locked-in an airport for Western Sydney at Badgerys Creek.
Airports are unique job creators—creating more long-term jobs than during the construction phase. Western Sydney Airport means 4,000 new jobs in construction and as many as 60,000 more once the airport is operational.
By 2060, an airport at Badgerys Creek has the potential to drive an increase in GDP of almost $24 billion.
It will complement—not replace—Kingsford-Smith Airport, which will continue to be a critical part of Australia's transport infrastructure.
This is why we are committing to a 10-year package of $3.6 billion to undertake a major roads funding programme in partnership with the NSW Government, which will transform Western Sydney.
Each of these initiatives across rail, sea and airport development have a direct link back to the regions for more efficient freight movement and better access for service industry connection, such as tourism.
My goals and objectives in public life are to help deliver benefits, especially for those who live in regional communities.
As Nationals, we know the importance of investments in the regions and the importance of funding them responsibly.
We have delivered hundreds of local projects left in limbo by Labor through our $300 million Community Development Program.
An important distinction is we did it without a mining tax.
Our new $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund will see the first round of funding flow to communities shortly—investing in priority projects across Australia's regions and local communities.
Organisations, including councils and community groups, will receive grants between $20,000 and $10 million for community infrastructure.
Of course, the abolition of the carbon tax is saving local families hundreds of dollars, local businesses tens of thousands of dollars and local communities millions of dollars each year.
The abolition of the mining tax is restoring confidence and is laying the ground work for new investment in the regions.
Our first Budget was a tough Budget. We are not hiding from that. We did not create the economic problems besetting our country, but we were elected to fix them.
Fundamental to that repair job is backing-in Australia's regional businesses and communities for growth.
That's where the real growth opportunities for this country…in this century…truly lie.
If Earle Page were here today, he'd see the same tentacles he encountered 100 years ago…but he would marvel at the opportunities ahead of us.
That's the future we must seize for regional Australia, if Australia as a whole is to prosper.
Our focus on productivity and other economic benefits of infrastructure investment reflects the need to lift Australia's productivity above the sluggish rate of 1.1 per cent achieved over the past decade—compared with 2.1 per cent in the 1990s.
The Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank made the common-sense observation that infrastructure investments alone will not solve national productivity problems. But he added this investment can certainly make a major contribution to a broader solution.
Those investments must be strategic, targeting Australia's growth areas and linking Australia with the world in the most cost-effective way possible—importantly, that means our regions must be front and centre.
There is an argument—probably not worth having—that the regions of this country would still exist without the cities, but our cities cannot survive without healthy, thriving regions.
But without doubt, when the regions are strong, so is our nation.
It has been an honour to present the 2015 Sir Earle Page Memorial Address.