Address to the Hunter Business Chamber

It’s great to be here. And just before I start on the real reason we’re here – communications - I’m looking out at the ships in port and I’m staying here on the harbour side and watching the tugs bringing the ships in and out. Newcastle is the gateway to north-western New South Wales to the rest of the world. And coincidentally, this morning, when I leave here I’ll be making an announcement down at the port where today we’re announcing, the Federal Government, $44.7 million to build 35‑kilometres of missing link from the top coal mine at Narrabri, the Narrabri Underground Coal Mine at a little place called Turrawan, the 35 kilometres that will connect it to the Inland Rail.

What that means for Newcastle is that we’ll be able to bring heavier axle weights, longer trains through the Newcastle-Hunter network to the Port of Newcastle.

And so at the moment we’ve just had the biggest grain harvest in the history of this state.

To go across my electorate, not only is every depot full of grain but every property has a mountain of grain covered up by canvas. So the task of delivering that to our markets is huge, and with the Inland Rail connected now, which it will be to the Newcastle-Hunter line, the Port of Newcastle is going to be very, very crucial not only for traditionally where we’ve been bringing grain from places like Moree and Narrabri, but the possibility of bringing grain from further south, those large grain-growing areas around Coonamble, Baradine, and even southern Queensland, if the market is right for a certain deal to bring grain this way.

Ultimately with Narrabri gas field and the inland port that’s being built there, the possibility of producing fertiliser at Narrabri and exporting that through Newcastle to the rest of the world, the possibilities are endless.

I’ve had two days. Yesterday I had my regional health hat on – I was at the University (of Newcastle) meeting with other organisations talking about Indigenous health and education of Indigenous students.

A few gems of my job, I got to meet a young bloke, educated at Dubbo High School; comes from a little place called Goodooga, which is a little village right up on the Queensland border. He has just finished his second year of medicine. A young Aboriginal fellow who will ultimately, when qualified, go back and serve the region from which he came. So a great story.

But today we’re talking about the NBN.

And as someone who is on a rural property out at a little place called Warialda and whose electorate is half of New South Wales that basically goes from my house to South Australia, the middle of the region Goondiwindi to just north of West Wyalong, you know, places like Dubbo, Narrabri, Moree, Broken Hill, Condoblin, Lake Cargelligo and everywhere in between is my electorate. So communications is incredibly important to me.

And when COVID hit, I narrowly escaped an infection from a corona-infected colleague. I had to isolate and work at home on an NBN satellite connection. The satellite connections were actually copping a bollicksing when they were rolled out and there was a fair resistance at picking them up.

But they’ve been the real stars, as country kids have come home from boarding school and been educated at home and businesses, We’ve got Buy from the Bush now where there’s a lot of farm-based businesses selling product to all over the world.

And in my electorate the biggest – the busiest business in my little country town is the post office sending product out and product in. And so telecommunications is also important at that level.

But I worked from home for 10 weeks on a satellite connection. When I was home, all my phone calls through Wi-Fi call go through the satellite, Zoom, the whole lot.

But today we’re talking about certainly the business enterprise side of the NBN. And Chris, I won’t get into the technology, because that would really show me up for being a complete fool in that space. But what I do know, the pandemic – forgive me if I say this – but there was a silver lining in this pandemic. And one of the silver linings is that you don’t have to live or work in the middle of the capital city to be connected to your customers, to be connected to the rest of the world.

I’ve been here for a couple of days and I was already familiar with Newcastle – two of my kids came to university here. But if you take Newcastle as a place where you want to live and do your business from, you’ve got the beach lifestyle, you’ve got the valley lifestyle, you’ve gone the inner lifestyle. And I was out at Toronto last night at a function, now you can live by the lake, but you can be connected to the rest of the world if you have your business here particularly.

You’re able to buy enterprise-grade internet at the same price as CBD areas is a huge win. Pricing variation has been a huge issue for regional centres because the capital cities have had the advantage up until now. So Chris will talk more about that.

But when the five enterprise zones were rolled out in the Hunter 20,000 businesses will have high capacity internet connection at the same time as their competitors should they be in the CBD of Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane. So that’s why we’re here. You know, communication, the coronavirus has brought things on much quicker. It’s been a catalyst for a lot of things.

In health, for instance, telehealth, which was going to be a 10-year program to roll out telehealth, was done in a number of days.

At the moment we have more than 35 million telehealth consultations since that was rolled out early in the year. Connecting people in a safe way – frail people, elderly people – using either the phone network or internet to connect to health is a huge step forward and it’s here to stay, as a lot of other things that were developed quickly.

So thank you for coming along this morning. It’s great for me to be here.

I’m looking forward to being at the port and having the announcement this morning.

But it’s great to talk to you folks.

I have spoken to not quite the same group but it was a dinner at Fort Scratchley when I was assistant trade minister a year or so ago. 

I am absolutely thrilled to be connecting to the business community here knowing that Newcastle is really one of the growth centres in the country, a place with huge potential.

The transition that’s happened here from steel into what you have now has been truly miraculous.

So great to be here. Chris will certainly be able to answer any of your technical questions and talk about exactly what’s what.

Enjoy your morning, and thanks again for having me.