Inland Growth Summit Keynote

Thanks, Fiona (Nash).

Thank you Fiona and I acknowledge your role today but also your previous role- I’m basically sitting, doing the same job that you are doing and carrying on and actually having the pleasure of completing some of the programs that you actually instigated. So, that's good.

But I'd also like to acknowledge - I just can’t see him. Where’s John Walkom? Oh, right at the back. Look, this week, John- and you’ve probably covered that before I got here. Apologies. I’ve just flown in on the QantasLink. John’s, this week, announced his resignation from the RDA, and John’s connection with the RDA right from the beginning has been important. Not only has he led the Orana region, but he's been involved at the national level as the chair of the chairs of all the RDAs and has done a mighty job of representing regional Australia at a national level.

As Fiona said, I was elected in 2007 – next week is 12 years since I made my first speech to Parliament. To convince the town of Dubbo that you were their local champion takes a bit of doing but connections with people like John Walkom, who I think started his first business with his brother Kevin when he was 16 and has had a constant connection to this town and this region, is really important for people like me because as I look around – and I'll talk a little bit about this region in a minute. But one of the reasons why this region is doing so well is largely because of the people in this room that are here today, taking part in days like this, not at home, running their own businesses where they probably would be more profitable for them. So, John, your contribution is exceptional. Good luck on what comes next.

Regional Australia is the area that does the heavy lifting. I was on the plane this morning with Josh Frydenberg and the reason he doesn't have as much hair as he used to is that balancing the books of this country is hard. At the moment, the Commonwealth is spending money on the immediate issues that we're dealing: with the immediate issues of the drought, the immediate issues of the fire. But we really haven't seen the full impact of the drought as it flows through. And as with agriculture and mining from regional Australia carrying a large burden of the income producing of this country, it is a challenge that we are facing as a country to keep those books balanced so we do have available cash to help out in case of emergency, but that loss of income is really starting to flow through into the national budget.

But having said that, if you look at the region we’re in here, the Orana region, unemployment at the moment is 3.3 per cent, 3.3 per cent, probably at the end of the third year of drought and in some areas in the Orana region, more than that. The New South Wales unemployment rate is 4.4 per cent, and nationally, unemployment is 5.1 percent. One of the issues that we have is actually filling the roles and the jobs. Not only are they here now, but when the drought does break – and I'll talk about that in a minute – we’re going to have an enormous desire and need for people with skills as plant operators, mechanics, agronomists and a whole range of other skills that are going to be required; not to mention the people we're going to need in the mining sector, the service sector, the health sector. We have a discrepancy in those areas at the now.

You're here because you understand, and you value regional Australia. And I've got a long title, but decentralisation probably summarises what my job is to do. And The Canberra Times keeps writing articles about how the policies of the government is going to destroy Canberra. They’re down to their last dozen cranes in the CBD of Canberra at the moment, putting up apartment blocks and office blocks at a rapid rate of knots. I'm very fond of these people, but the local representatives of Canberra, whatever stripes they wear, if you listen to them in Parliament, Canberra is always in a tale of woe of being disadvantaged. And I can't exactly see how moving a member of the MDBA, an employee of the MDBA, to live in Menindee rather than flying on a plane every month, is damaging for Canberra. But I can tell you, it certainly helps the processes of the folks at Menindee as they work through those difficult issues that we have out there at the moment with water; having someone from the Basin Authority living in the town; having the Infrastructure Department have an office in Moree, with the employees of the Federal Government dealing with issues of the Inland Rail as we move into the construction phase. Same thing here in Dubbo. It's important that we have government representatives serving the people that they need to be serving. Some of the highlights- you know, the APVMA going to Armidale was great excitement and ultimately, I think it's working very well - reports- I think there’s about 170 employees and a lot of people have moved to Armidale to take up that role in conjunction with the university out there. But we're talking not hundreds of jobs needed to move to the country, we're talking thousands. And so, we need to look at the full spectrum of jobs.

Part of my regional services portfolio is regional health. At the moment, we're working on some employment models that will encourage people to come and establish a career in medicine or allied health or nursing or any of the associated fields, understanding that it's actually a career benefit to come and move to an area like this rather than the second prize. And part of the reason is that, particularly with health, at the time, when the training all happens in the city and it takes a long time. When I was the Shire mayor at Gwydir, I joked one day – my sarcasm was wasted – but someone asked me how many engineers we had, and I said: well, 5700. I said it takes ten years to train a doctor, five years to train an accountant, but everyone’s born with an innate knowledge how to build a road – I was being a bit smart, but it just went straight over. But it does take a long time to train a doctor, so other life choices- life issues come along the way. If you are doing all your training in the city, you find your lifelong partner, they might be established there. You decide to have children, and you're looking at facilities for schools and things like that. It’s difficult- so you know, one of the things that started under Fiona’s tenure in this job was to establish medical schools. So, we're actually training local people in the regions so that they're already established, and so when the medical school here in Dubbo starts in 2021, they will be recruiting local people who may already have started a career. You know, people - not only paramedics and nurses, but maybe people who are schoolteachers or lawyers or accountants that decide that they want to go down a path of medicine. They'll be out to do that and not uproot their families and move out.

We’re also looking at an employment model where maternity leave is covered, so that, you know, if you're going to go to be the doctor of a small western town and you want to have a baby, you don't have to forego income for six months, because basically you're working as a contractor under Medicare. So, there are other models that we are looking at to encourage people through, but we've got to do it positively. We've been doing for years the big stick approach, putting overseas trained doctors as part of their obligations to go and move to the bush, and that sort of works in the short term, but basically a lot of them are looking down the road and looking at their watch, and when their obligation finishes, scoot straight back to Sydney which was their ultimate aim. We've got to turn that around.

Part of that is telecommunications, another hat I wear, and we're just about to announce another funding around five of the black spot programs, which will take the black spot towers - phone towers up to probably about thirteen or fourteen hundred. They’ve been funded - I think we’ve constructed a bit over a thousand. But we're going to have to change that. We've also got our Digital Connectivity Program, because the telcos, despite how much subsidy from governments are in, have got to  - are nearly at a point where they’ve dug their toes and said: we don’t care how much money you give us, but there’s not enough customers there for us. We are needing to look at other innovative models to deliver communications and to these areas, because a lot of these farms, businesses out there, quite remote but they have massive turnovers and employ lots of people. We’ve got a Digital Connectivity Program, $58 million. We've got a discussion paper out, so that we're looking at innovative models of communication so that we can fill in those gaps. And I had a telecommunications company come and see me yesterday in Canberra, where they've got the hardware now that has the ability to actually have three different phone companies on the one piece of infrastructure; rather than having a tower with three lots of infrastructure, you can have the technology to have one there now, and we're looking at third level companies that will come in and build that and different models, as well as improving what the satellite will do.

And a lot of people come to me: oh, we haven't got any phone [indistinct]- I said, no, you've got a satellite above you, your mobile phone- well, at least it’ll work at the house. When I go home, all my phone calls, all my emails, my iPad, everything comes through the NBN satellite, not through the Telstra tower that's on the other side of town. But we’re also setting up a tech hub. It’s just an information centre so that people can go and talk to someone in plain English, not a, you know, a kid that knows everything Apple do on your iPhone but not a clue how the signal gets to the phone, a hub where people can go and get straight forward, black and white advice so that they can actually overcome some of these issues that they have.

With decentralisation, it’s a broader thing. It's everything we need to do- and I'll finish on what I think the biggest problem we actually have at the moment in a minute. Another thing we’re actually doing is, you know, if people from cities won't move to areas like this, why not have people from overseas that have the appropriate skills? You know, Dubbo has a lively migrant community here who are very active in the community. The kids are all at school, and they’re here for the long haul, they’ve set down their roots. I think there's 48 different nationalities in Moree, 67 in Dubbo. We're not seen as a multicultural area, but we are. So, if a machinery firm wants to get a diesel mechanic from Lithuania that wants to come and move to a country town and establish it there, well I think we should encourage that. And so, the DAMA that the RDA have been working very hard on, I think is going to be a great tool to make that happen. It’s going to be vital to recruit in the short term, so that the mines are - you know, very, very positive gold reserves have been discovered in the past six months within 100 kilometres of where we're sitting here on different sides of town that are going to offer up enormous possibilities for employment.

The lithium and cobalt mine out at Fifield, another opportunity as well as all of the other occupations we need. So, we've got a big pipeline of projects, not to mention the infrastructure ones, the obvious ones – the Inland Rail, the work on the Newell Highway - those things that will obviously have a huge spike of employment now, but in the long term, obviously permanent jobs. I think there's about 800 people now working between Narromine and Parkes. I was speaking to a contract harvester from Willow Tree who's had no harvest, but he's got a couple of handy trucks. Well, he's got those trucks now working on the Inland Rail between Parkes and Narromine. In the second half of this year they'll be starting Narrabri to North Star, and there’s quite a way to go with consultation and the EIS process, but ultimately the 300 kilometres between Narromine and Narrabri, which will be an initial boost for employment, but obviously long term, the businesses that will come from that, is exciting, there’s already a fertiliser plant looking at Narrabri. Other businesses are seriously looking at places like Narromine and Moree, Gilgandra, everyone - you know, local councils have been very proactive to take up those opportunities.

A lot of discussions today are about water. I get a bit frustrated sometimes because if you look at the discussion, you’d think nothing had happened. I represent from the Lower Darling to the upper Macintyre, where it joins on the Queensland border, so don't expect too much consultation across my electorate of different points of view. But there has been a massive reduction in the amount of water that's been taken out of the system for irrigation and put back in for the environment. But if you listen to some of the commentary, you would think there was none. Head Pressures now are increasing on a lot of those bores out in the west, because of the work that was done under the GABSI program, and a lot of those farmers, you know, ultimately the drought overtook them, but they were much more viable for much longer because they had those water systems out in every paddock and they could put water where they wanted it, not relying on the inefficiency of the bore drains that would ultimately have gone dry.

Out here, I think one of the greatest schemes I've seen is the modernisation of the Macquarie - the three systems in the Macquarie, where it was an enormous job for the farmers then to come to a point where they shrunk the scheme, some became more involved in irrigation, and others took a stock in domestic supply that were on the outer edges of that scheme. Well, those that took that stock in domestic supply had water all the way through this drought. They wouldn't have under the old scheme. We got one extra crop because of the water savings by lining the channels, and in the last crop, the year before last, we had record yields in the Macquarie under Senator [indistinct] part of that modernisation process, and so, you know, there is a lot of work that has already gone on in that space, but I find it very frustrating. If someone said to me: water is not rocket science, well-

a body that was beyond reproach is commissioned by the Government to look at the impacts of aquifers, or water, or something. But there's always someone on the Internet that can find a clipboard quoting a Professor that wrote a paper in 1957 that disproves everything else that you want to hear. So, we're in a very difficult situation now with water. We know now it's a finite resource. For the first time in a long time, it's impacting on our urban communities. And we've got a big task ahead of us to do that. We've announced some work for the water grid and that will be a vehicle of which we can look at some of these projects. Some, I think will be viable, some won't be. But already, we've identified there's already projects that are going to happen is that, you know, raising the dam to increase the security in the Lachlan, some work up in the Peel River, Tamworth, further up in the border river is the Mole River, Nowra’s dam is going to be to be looked at. But there's a lot of other proposals that need to be looked at, but they need to have the veracity of an independent organization to make sure they work. Because just because you hold a map up, that doesn't mean the water from the Ord River is going to end up in Dubbo. There's a few other obstacles in the middle. We've also got to work out who's going to pay for all of this. You can move water a long way to sustain the human population. But if you're going to move water a long way for agriculture, the economics have got to work out. But the water grid authority I think will do that, and there's a lot of other projects. So, I'll mention the work on the Newell Highway. The Inland Rail, obviously, which will have a lot of benefits in the long term. There's another discussion too we’re having now, you know, without getting into the to the whys and wherefores of climate change.

But the idea that this country has done nothing with regards to reducing our emissions - my electorate has got more energy generated by solar than anywhere else in Australia. I don't mind raising it, but with Nyngan, Broken Hill, Nevertire, Moree, ones here around Dubbo. We’ve got a wind farm out in Broken Hill. But more importantly, I think about 50 per cent of the houses in Dubbo here have got their own electricity generation on the roof. But more importantly, the agriculture sector has adapted to using less energy. We are growing more kilograms of protein or fibre now per litre of diesel or mega-litre of water than before. This idea of adapting to climate change like it's a new thing that, we've been doing that out here now, for decades. And we need to recognize as this country that we are doing that stuff. Someone explained to me the other day that a lot of the city folk see regional Australia as their carbon offset; as long as they're doing things out here, they don't have to worry about it. You know the seat of a Warringah, where the main topic of the election campaign was climate change. I can't find a solar panel. I can't even find a Prius. I got a job to find a car less than a Range Rover in there, but everyone feels pretty good about themselves as long as the folks who are here are having land locked up for an offset or water has been taken away so they can feel good about it. When the whole of the country wants to do what we're doing out here, then they'll take it a bit more seriously by me.

But I just want to finish I think the biggest problem we have. For the last three years, any time anyone in Australia, and in some cases the world, has turned on their TV, they've seen tales of woe. They've seen pictures of dead fish, they've seen vast denuded landscapes of drought, sadly the last five or six months of massive bushfires. And so, if we are going to grow this region, we've got to change the narrative. You people are all here because you live here. I've lived in a little town of a thousand people all my life and I don't intend to live anywhere else because I love it. And the people that live there do. But we've got a big problem with perception of the people that we need here. You know there was a discussion in the media in Dubbo before Christmas and the word “zero day” and “Dubbo” were used in the same sentence. Guess what? The motels are getting cancellations. The zoo started getting cancellations. People not only wanting to come and visit for a weekend, let alone wanting to relocate their families and move here forever. So yeah, we are going through difficult times with the drought, with the fires, the impacts of climate change all of that. But that's not what defines us. The human nature is resilient. There's great opportunities here. And I've been talking to my colleagues whether we do a promotion campaign I intended to try and get the local government involved somehow to turn the narrative around. That we are not an area that needs your secondhand clothes sent to us. We are an area where you can come and grow your family, make a living, have a life that's worth living, and help grow the region. So, I think to me, as Minister for Decentralisation, that's the biggest challenge we have. We've got to stop- you know, for every tale of woe we see on the drought, there's another couple of farmers sitting back there who have come up with a plan that are managing their way through it. But human nature is they are not inclined to want to put themselves forward as look what I’m doing, aren’t I clever?  They generally keep their head down. And sadly, we get tales that - you know, I had a very famous shock jock in this town last year and he said that farmers are going out the back paddock in large numbers and not coming back. So, I rang the police commander, and I said what's the story on suicide please in your area? He said: sadly, the average per month is 3.7 people in his command; that's the long-term average. Last year, was 3.8. So just a slight increase. So, you know, this drought is hard. People are doing it tough. But that doesn’t give people the right to say stuff that's not true. Suicide - another part of my jobs is mental health. Suicide is impacting everyone. You don't have to be a farmer worried about the drought to be the only ones impacted. And so, we've just got to stop that narrative. Talk about the positives. It doesn't mean that we've still got to deal with the issues we're facing. But in long term, I'm very confident of the region, the future of the region. And I look around I see people who are the same.

Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure to be here.

 

QUESTION:

Hi Mark. Reg Kidd from Orange. Thanks very much for that. I couldn't agree with you more about how we had to change the narrative. It’s soul destroying, the narrative coming out of certain places. I find annoying to have people tell me I've got to declare a climate emergency and do all sorts of things, and I've got a science background and a masters in it but I've got no idea what's going on. We've been told by someone that’s retired what they know, and I should be. But I think the most important thing is for our people in something that you said in this space, and it's to do with farming and it’s got to do with water and it’s got to do with regional development, is that we do provide a place for them to want to live, and to bring up the things and grow. And I agree, just slightly, and I’m looking around some of my colleagues here. Yeah, the last six months, you know comments like Zero Day and all this type thing. I mean, I’m from Orange. We've got a population of 43,000 and it's growing substantially. But back from when it was said in the papers about that, and my daughter who lives here in Dubbo, a thriving regional centre also. And I think on the- can I just say on the suicide, don’t put all the suicides in Australia down to farmers. There are young people on drugs, on ice and a whole range of things committing suicide. But all the suicides at the moment have given as farmers, and they're not. So, thanks very much for that. Just on my question to you: how will the government federally, turn that narrative around?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah look, I don't know. Because there's been- I've done about four or five interviews over the Christmas period about the fires, and the regions, and water, and things like that. But if you don't fit into the narrative of the day, it doesn't get around. And so, I think it's harder than it used to be Reg. I think local newspapers now don't have the coverage. And sadly, social media, a lot of people get the information from there, and it's not vetted. But I intend to the pursue this and try and turn that around. I know when I was mayor, we went to country week, I don’t know whether you were in local government then, we had lots of people who would turn up all excited when you show them that there was a job, a house that they could afford, what the school would look like, but it didn't transition into actually many people making the move. So, I think that- but we've got to do it. It’s the perceptions that is the biggest problem we have at the moment, not the reality.

QUESTION:

Thanks. Wasn't going to say anything, but Mark after your address, I think the first thing is, I think we can change the narrative but the best way we got to do to change the narrative is it’s got to change here. And what said there earlier it's about us, as a collective taking that narrative and making it a voice. You've only going to get on to just listen to the shock jocks, and you listen to the morning shows. And I've got to a point now where I don't worry about it, because all they're talking about is whether it be the drought and the dead sheep or a dead cow, in the middle of a vacant paddock beside a dry dam. All we see, hear about Port Macquarie’s got a massive fire along the north coast. I went up there at Christmas time and I expected Port Macquarie to be burnt to the ground. I got up there and yes, they’ve had a bushfire. That has had an impact on the community but it's certainly not as bad as what would have been suggested by the media outlets as the drought out here and we know the impact that it’s had on tourist attractions and tourists coming out here because they think we've got no water.

I think it's the collective of this room where we need to go out and change that. It's pretty hard for the government to change that narrative because, as you say, it gets lost in the news stories of the day.

But my question, Mark, is more on the way we're going to change that other than what I've spoken about is we're going to change by creating economic growth because with our economic growth comes jobs and with jobs come people right? And the best way to do that - and part of the reason why I suggested some time ago was to put this around water because while it's topical because of the drought and that was something I said that we needed to do because it needed to be topical otherwise it gets lost.

But I see that's where governments really need to put their efforts and their resources and create infrastructure so that we can have a constant supply of water into our rural communities and I know irrigation is only about 27 - 20 per cent of production. But the thing is, more constant the supply is, the better the production. And you know, we got a $380 billion out of the region and the government wants to grow production by 40 per cent by 2030; that's about another $150 billion it would add. So, you know, we're up to $530 billion from the region. That's significant. And that sort of thing will – well that will change the narrative; it just won't change overnight it’ll change it over a period of time.

MARK COULTON:

Look, John, I think if there's a silver lining in the crisis that we're in at the moment, is that it's enabling us to do things that we couldn't have done before. One of the reasons why it's been a long time since that any of these large dams built in this country is because of public opposition. And one thing that this drought has done is realise - make people realise that water is a finite resource. We are going to have to do better at managing it and a lot of those - you know, the noisy opponents to wanting to do anything to alter our landscape really are going to get put back in their box.

But I think we do have to be timely with this because you know, just how quickly things change. Up in the top end of my electorate, the Horton Valley, I don’t know if anyone’s aware that's a beautiful bit of country, absolutely being parched. The trees are dead, you know big box trees, ironbark trees, whole hillsides are dead. I came through there last week; the rivers flowing, the creeks are over the road, tractors are putting urea on oat country. And everything comes back to life very quickly. And if that continues, maybe people will forget about, you know, the crisis that we’ve been through. So we really do have to move quite quickly and do things while people have got that fresh in their mind.

Media Contact:

Mr Coulton – Steph Nicholls 0417 314 920