Transcript - Senator Chisholm interview on ABC Radio Southern Queensland with David Iliffe and Belinda Sanders

DAVID ILIFFE: Federal Assistant Minister for Education and Regional Development Senator Anthony Chisholm is in Toowoomba today meeting with staff at the University of Southern Queensland as well as Regional Development Australia.

BELINDA SANDERS: He’s with David and I this morning to talk about what the Albanese Government has planned for regional growth. Senator Chisholm, good morning.

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Good morning. Good to be with you.

BELINDA SANDERS: So you’re meeting with the university to start with. Why there? Where do you see the development of the university in regional plans in the future?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Well, I’m also the Assistant Minister for Education so it fits in with my Assistant Minister’s job, but also what I’ve learnt over the more than six years I’ve been in the Senate now is that regional universities really can be the powerhouse of regional economies, and I look forward to the visit today. And I think when you think about the challenges that we face as a nation – and Toowoomba faces as well – around jobs of the future, the skills crisis, having good partnerships between local universities, the local business community, and local governments and making sure that they’re all on the same path means that we’re going to be more likely to be able to tackle those challenges.

DAVID ILIFFE: If you switch then to your other portfolio, which is Regional Development, Senator Chisholm – what are your goals in terms of regional development, in terms of further developing regions like Southern Queensland, like Toowoomba and surrounding areas? What would you like to see happen there?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Obviously the Federal Government have set out some of its priorities. We’ve got an ambitious climate change agenda of 43 per cent emissions reductions by 2030 and then net zero by 2050. We also have ambitions around developing more social housing as well. So, I think from my point of view, it is about seeing what plans these regional economies already have but then working out what the Federal Government can do in its priorities to help turbocharge them and ensure that all the RDA, the local government areas, the state government, are working hand in glove to achieve those bigger challenges and really set up these regional economies for the future. So, it’s quite an ambitious agenda, but one where we want to drive some of those bigger region‑shaping agendas that can really turbocharge the Toowoomba and surrounding economy for generations to come.

BELINDA SANDERS: You talked about social housing. Of course, the housing crisis is well and truly in place here in Southern Queensland and it is connected to the university. For example, overseas students are not anywhere near back to what they were before COVID. How are you helping with that? And when will we see them back to normal levels, taking into account that they don’t necessarily have places to live?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Yeah, no, and it’s a similar theme that I’ve heard across a lot of regional communities when it comes to international students, but also when it comes to the labour shortage that we’ve got as well – is that if we can sort of fix these problems, we’re also struggling for places for people to live if they did want to come and work in this area. So, we took some plans to the election around social housing. So, we’re going through the process of getting those policies implemented. We’ve got some legislation that’s due to go before the Parliament. I expect it to be introduced in the next term.

But I think the most important thing that we can play in the short-term is that national leadership role. So, for instance, the state housing ministers hadn’t met for years. They’ve already met once with federal Minister Julie Collins. They’ve got another meeting before Christmas as well. So, we really think there’s an important role not only in a policy sense and not only in ensuring that there is money to be spent on social and affordable housing. There’s also a national leadership role. We think local government plays an important part of that, so they will be an important voice at that table as we develop those plans, but we understand how important and urgent it is in so many parts of the country, and I’m sure Toowoomba is no different.

BELINDA SANDERS: What about overseas students, attracting them back, because they haven’t come back in the same numbers?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: No, that’s a bigger challenge and that’s one the Federal Government will be dealing with through our national universities accord, which is due to kick off; the process is expected to start in the next couple of weeks.

What we saw during COVID is that obviously international students couldn’t come in. So, there was really, unfortunately, the “Don’t Come” sign was put up due to the border closures. What we’ve seen during that time internationally is that other countries have made inroads into our traditional markets – be that India, be that China – particularly Britain and Canada. So, we identified that we’ve got a lot of work to do to get the international student population back to what it was, but it is a much more competitive environment internationally than what we faced a couple of years ago. So, it is going to take some work to do it. We’re committed to doing that and I know that universities, all of them, are committed to ensuring that they can get the international student numbers back to a level. It might not get back to where it was in all places, but we’re certainly doing what we can to get as many back.

DAVID ILIFFE: Senator Chisholm, one of the key differences between Toowoomba and its similar-sized cities in relation to the capitals around Sydney and Melbourne is that we have no direct rail link, be it fast rail link or any passenger rail link, between a city of 120,000 people in Toowoomba and nothing similar to what they do, say, for Geelong and Bendigo in Victoria or the Blue Mountains and Penrith in Sydney, and yet all we’re hearing from the Federal Government recently is plans to increase high-speed rail links or plan high-speed rail links between the capital cities. Would it be wiser to give Toowoomba and this area a rail link to our capital like our other states before we start looking at beefing up the rail links between the capital cities?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: It’s certainly something that I’ve heard a lot about, David, in the times that I’ve been in Toowoomba, and I know, given the airport that’s being built there as well, that that there would be a good opportunity there. It’s not something that the federal Labor Government has announced any plans on but it’s one that I’m well and truly conscious of, and I’d certainly be happy to talk to any advocates or anyone in the local community that is keen to keep advocating on it because they’d certainly have a sympathetic ear in myself.

DAVID ILIFFE: Senator Chisholm, enjoy your time in our part of the world. We appreciate you taking the time for a chat this morning.

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Thanks for having me on.

DAVID ILIFFE: Senator Anthony Chisholm with us there. He’s visiting Toowoomba for today – meetings with University of Southern Queensland as well as Regional Development Australia in his portfolio as both Education and Regional Development.