Dinner Speech at SEGRA 2015: Leading and growing sustainable regions

Speech

WTS024/2015

21 October 2015

Rydges Mount Panorama, Bathurst

Thank you John [The Hon John Cobb MP] for that kind introduction.

Thank you also for the dinner invitation.

Before I go further, I would like to give a particularly warm welcome to our friends from Korea.

And can I acknowledge:

  • The Hon John Cobb MP, Federal Member for Calare
  • Professor Andrew Vann
  • Members of the SEGRA National Steering Committee
  • Ladies and gentlemen

It's good to back in the birthplace of regional Australia.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being part of Bathurst's Bicentenary celebrations.

The diversity of events and amount of community engagement were a great credit to the many people involved.

Building Sustainable Regions

It's also good to be back at SEGRA. I have been a regular over SEGRA's 19-year history.

Apart from being one of the most important regional conferences on the annual calendar, I have been continually impressed with the wide-ranging dialogue and the ‘can-do’ attitude that comes through in the presentations.

This year's agenda contains some regional issues that aren't so often addressed—such as skills shortages, regional migration and local industrial performance.

Of course, water and the Murray Darling Basin is a central issue as it should be.

In thinking about this year's theme—Leading and growing sustainable regions—SEGRA's goals and the Coalition Government's goals are the same.

We are both intent on creating an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable Australian regions.

While there are some recent portfolio changes, such as moving water policy and resources to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and moving the Office of Northern Australia from my department to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, the Coalition Government is still working to the same plan.

That plan is to ensure regional Australia gets its fair share of government investment, and that future policy directions appropriately advance regional people, businesses and communities.

Historically—until 2007—responsibility for water policy has been aligned with the agriculture portfolio. I certainly had carriage of it for six years when I was Agriculture Minister.

We developed, Australia's principal water policy agreement and enduring blueprint for water reform, the National Water initiative was in 2004.

The Living Murray reform was agreed which invested $700 million to recover 500 GL of water for the environment.

The Wimmera Mallee pipeline project was developed while I had the Agriculture and Water portfolios. This $450 million investment provided more reliable water for farmers and returned 75,000 ml to the environment.

The Coalition recognise the importance of combining water and agriculture to have a strategic approach to managing our most precious resource.

The move back to Agriculture is, in part, to provide assurance to our regional communities that we are committed to deliver on the social and economic as part of the triple bottom line in delivering this approach.

Like the recent legislation to provide a cap on buybacks this will provide certainty to farmers and local communities on the Commonwealth's water recovery strategy in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It will minimise the negative social effects of reducing the water available for production and provide certainty for farmers about the direction and recovery mechanisms that will be used to implement the Basin Plan.

The focus on investments in water use efficiency irrigation infrastructure will assist farmers to improve productivity and deliver flow on benefits to rural and regional communities.

This is crucial given that farm gate returns increasingly rely on farmers becoming more productive with less water.

Regional Development Australia

At last year's SEGRA I spoke of my intention to revise the arrangements for the RDA Committee network to more closely align it with the Government's vision for driving economic growth in regional Australia and to ensure the Committees have a clear understanding of what is required of them.

This work has mostly been done.

Firstly, the 55 RDA Committees across the country have been renewed. Only a few appointments remain in the final stages of completion.

We also looked at ways to facilitate greater dialogue with the Government, such as more face-to-face meetings with me, as well as more engagement opportunities between state and territory counterparts.

I have had my first meeting with the RDA Reference Group, addressing amongst other things, regional development issues and trends, and what RDA Committees are doing to enhance the quality and effectiveness of projects.

Key outcomes were exploring how to make better use of the RDA website and ways to share data and case studies that highlight RDA successes and achievements.

Dr Jen Cleary, in addition to her role on the SEGRA National Steering Committee is the Chair of the RDA Reference Group.

I hope many of you here were able to attend her presentation on localism and leadership in regional Australia. She has great experience to draw on and I value her leadership to the RDA Reference Group.

National Stronger Regions Fund

As I said at the RDA Forum there is possibly no better way for RDA Committees to deliver for their regions than through the National Stronger Regions Fund.

For those of you not familiar with it, this programme is designed to fund investment-ready projects that support economic growth and sustainability in regions, particularly those regions experiencing disadvantage.

It is no secret that many applications in this first round were unsuccessful because they didn't identify disadvantage in the first instance, they didn't address this disadvantage or they greatly undersold the project's benefits.

This is where RDAs play such an important role.

They are involved in developing regional plans.

They know which investments will have the most impact on growth and address disadvantage.

They are ideally placed to make strategic connections for applicants, including identifying relevant funding opportunities.

They have strong links to local government, with whom we have a strong partnership.

And they are well connected in the business community.

A survey commissioned by my department indicates that all but one of the 51 successful proponents from Round One sought advice from their RDA.

For Round Two, my Department received 514 applications. Around 90 per cent of these applicants said they had consulted their RDA.

The number of Round two applications deemed ineligible has been halved.

This is good evidence that RDAs are having a positive impact.

Announcements for successful Round Two projects are expected towards the end the year.

Another initiative—the Stronger Communities Programme—is available through local Members of Parliament to support sustainable communities.

The objective of this programme is to fund small capital projects that will deliver social benefits.

MPs and their consultative committees have been engaging with their local communities to identify projects to be funded and a number have already been submitted.

The first round of the $100 million Mobile Black Spot programme has delivered 499 new and upgraded mobile base stations across regional and remote Australia.  The next round is underway.

The rollout of fast broadband in rural and regional Australia has passed a number of milestones, in addition to the focus shifting to regional areas.

Fixed wireless coverage has expanded to cover more than 290,000 premises out of a planned 590,000, and the first of two satellites was successfully launched earlier this month.

This has resulted in positive feedback on the speeds of fixed wireless from people in previously underserved areas.

The second satellite is expected to be launched early next year, with even greater regional benefits.

Regional Infrastructure

In addition to the initiatives and programmes I have just outlined sustainable regional communities rely on a safe, secure, effective and efficient transport system to drive their economic activities.

Transport systems are the backbone of the economy. They get people to work; goods to market; connect industries; and they connect people.

Tony Abbott deserves then crown of Infrastructure Prime Minister and we have lost no momentum. Right now, there are over 1,000 land transport projects under construction around the country.

These projects are creating safer roads; reducing congestion and travel times; creating new jobs; and increasing productivity.

Last month I announced the delivery plan for the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail.

This delivery plan outlines a 10-year construction timeframe to complete the 1,700km project—including some 600km of new track.

It also puts the cost at around $10 billion but estimates it will generate economic benefits of around $22.5 billion.

The Inland Rail is essential infrastructure for the nation. It is a safe, sustainable solution that will create jobs, make our exports more competitive and is a ticket to the economic growth the nation badly needs.

As with any project of this magnitude, it is important that the Government gives full consideration to how best to implement and fund it.

I have referred the business case to Infrastructure Australia, and delivery of this major project will be considered in the context of the 2016 Federal Budget.

Now to some key regional road projects.

We are well on the way through our ten year plan to improve the safety and efficiency of the Bruce Highway.

This week, tenders were called to extend to four lanes north of Gympie, and six lanes south of Cairns.

And we are on track to upgrade the Pacific Highway to a four-lane divided road between Hexham and the Queensland border by the end of the decade. To date, 397 kilometres, or 60 per cent of the final highway length has been upgraded to four-lane divided road and the main contract let for the final 155km stretch of the upgrade.

The Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, the largest commitment to a single road project in regional Australia's history, is expected to be completed in late 2018. This project also represents Australia's first use of road tolling to fund a freight-heavy road outside a major capital city.

We have strengthened several programmes to help deal with some of the last mile issues that are so critical to being able to get produce to market.

This includes delivering a record $3.2 billion to the Roads to Recovery programme.

In 2015–16 local governments will receive a $1 billion cash injection to improve their local roads, and a further $1.155 billion the next financial year.

Not only have we increased funding by $1.45 billion, we have made Roads to Recovery permanent by removing the sunset clause in the legislation.

The all-important Black Spot Programme will benefit from an extra $200 million bringing total funding to $500 million over the five years to 2019.

We have also broadened the eligibility criteria for the next two years to help local communities to compete for this additional funding.

And we have guaranteed that at least 50 per cent of funding provided over the next two years will be dedicated to fixing roads in regional Australia.

As you know, bridges connect communities and industries, and drive economic growth—that's why we have committed $300 million in the new Bridges Renewal Programme.

I approved $114 million to fund 73 projects in the first round, and my department received 270 proposals for Round Two which is exclusively for local councils.

Similar to the National Stronger Regions Fund, we are doing everything we can to ensure applications are successful.

The application form has been simplified and councils are receiving more guidance in the application process, as well as better feedback.

An additional $200 million is available for projects under the expanded Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Programme including rest stops, decoupling bays and heavy vehicle pavement upgrades.

I expect Round Five will open later this year and I encourage councils to apply.

There are many more initiatives I could list, but I think you'll agree that regional Australia is receiving its due focus and that real progress and greater resources are available.

Northern Australia

If there's a region that will benefit from investment and resources it is northern Australia.

The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia is an investment in the whole nation.

Northern Australia already accounts for 11.7 per cent of Australia's GDP and is responsible for over two thirds of our minerals and fuel exports.

By 2040, Deloitte forecasts it may account for almost 42 per cent of the national economy.

I want to stress that the White Paper is far more than a vision. It is a 20 year road map to achieve that vision.

It is putting in place the right policies, at the right time, backed with an initial investment of $1.2 billion. This is in addition to the $5 billion loan facility previously announced for northern Australian infrastructure projects.

More than fifty measures and initiatives will be delivered across all levels of government in what is a far-reaching and comprehensive approach covering water, infrastructure, employment, governance, business and trade investment.

My department is responsible for investment in infrastructure through targeted programmes that will reduce the costs of doing business in the north and improve opportunities for success.

Our programmes include the $600 million Northern Australia Roads Package. Roads identified by jurisdictions as priorities, such as those connecting communities or regional towns to ports and airports will be considered for funding.

The $100 million Northern Australia Beef Roads Fund is aimed at reducing the costs of transporting cattle in the north.

The Government will work with the three northern jurisdictions, as well as industry experts to target upgrades that can improve the efficiency and productivity of the northern cattle supply chain, and allow more efficient use of existing infrastructure.

We have also made a $5 million commitment to undertake freight rail feasibility studies starting with the proposed Mt Isa to Tennant Creek rail line.

Road infrastructure in the Cape York region will be upgraded under the $208.4 million Cape York Package, providing Indigenous Australians and other residents with better access to health, education and other community services.

And the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will look to partner with the private sector and northern jurisdictions to provide concessional loans for new airports, ports, roads, rail, energy, water and communication infrastructure. We have already had a number of proposals and expressions of interest.

There is a natural fit between our emphasis on developing Northern Australia and the priority we have placed on international trade liberalisation.

If John and I had not skipped out of Parliament tonight, we would be debating ChaFTA in the House of Representatives.

In just one year Australia has signed Free Trade Agreements with three countries—China, Japan and the Republic of Korea—and Minister Robb very recently announced the conclusion of the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.

These Agreements are hugely significant to us and to all our partners, and produce very substantial benefits for importers, exporters, consumers and investors on both sides.

They have involved some difficult adjustments for Australia, especially in manufacturing, but they are absolutely in our national interest.

The Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper complements our work in the north and to liberalise trade.

The Government spent months listening to the challenges farmers are facing and where improvements can be quickly made to deliver success.

We are investing $4 billion in our farmers targeting five key areas which include a fairer go for farm businesses, building the infrastructure of the 21st century, strengthening our approach to drought and risk management, making the farming sector smarter and accessing premium markets.

Conclusion

Let me wrap up by saying there are enormous demands on the horizon for our national infrastructure in the 21st century.

And that these demands will put the spotlight on regional Australia, meaning there is both an exciting future and many challenges ahead.

The Coalition Government understands its leadership role—that is to put in place the integrated policies and programmes that will create sustainable regions for that future.

Leadership also requires the capacity to listen.

SEGRA has a strong voice. The Government is listening.

Thank you.