Keynote Speech to Regional Development Australia, Orana

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MARK COULTON:

Thanks, Brad, and congratulations, it’s certainly been a good year to head an RDA – in the middle of a pandemic.

John, well done and congratulations. I’ll endorse your words – the relationship we’ve had has been a very direct, close one where we can actually discuss issues and come up with solutions and as someone who sometimes felt like I dropped out of Mars here 14 years ago into an area that I’m not familiar and someone whose as close to Dubbo royalty as you could get – the Walkom Brothers – I really appreciate the knowledge that you’ve been able to help me out with. So well done.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for having me here today. I want to start by saying that I’ve always had an incredible belief in regional Australia. It was my belief in regional Australia that made me turn my life upside down in 2007, stop what was going to be my life-long ambition to be involved in primary industry as a grain and beef cattle farmer, and throw my hat into the ring to be a Member of the Australian Parliament. Over the years I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the way regional Australia tends to be portrayed. I believe in a single generation we’ve gone from where city folks hope their daughters might marry someone from the bush to sending their second-hand clothes and tinned food out.

We’ve had some tough times. We’ve had a long drought; that’s had severe impact on our entire region. We had incredibly devastating fires over the years that I’ve been a member. In our region, the fire at Coonabarabran and the one at Dunedoo caused enormous devastation and in many cases, some of those families didn’t quite survive as, the devastation was so great.

If you want an indication of how resilient our area is, and the rural community is, you should have been with me in the past couple of weeks as I’ve been driving around my half of New South Wales. Main streets that were empty and languishing six months ago are now places where you have trouble finding a park. The activity just – it’s like a fog in the desert; it just sits there and when the rain comes up it comes and comes to life.

At the start of the year we had the fires and then we went straight into coronavirus and initially it was a very, very concerning time because a lot of our community would have been incredibly vulnerable to coronavirus because of lack of intensive care, distance we’d have to go for treatment, and a whole range of things. But the success story for the coronavirus pandemic is that there’s been no safer place in the world to be than in regional Australia. The few infections that we had in our area have been handled very, very well and largely escaped major impact. Obviously, hospitality, transport, the air services have had an impact, but largely life has gone on.

What we’re finding now is that regional Australia is now the place that people want to be. The meetings that are coming through my office now are about, “How can we get the school we need?” “I need motor mechanics in my business,” “I need medical professionals to work in my town or my hospital,” “We need,   people with professions,” “I need plant operators who know what they’re doing,” and unemployment, even with the pandemic, where we sit now would be the lowest anywhere in Australia.

One of the battles we have is talking about the potential and the positive when the national dialogue, if you like, is still very city-focused. Capital cities have really copped a pasting. In my role as Regional Communications, Regional Health and Local Government Minister, it’s put me in a position where we can adjust policy settings to make sure that regional Australia can meet its absolute potential.

In communications, we’ve had the Mobile Black Spot Program where we funded about 1,200 towers over the first four and a half years, but we’ve got to a point now where the telcos have indicated that this model, even with the government subsidy, is not doing the job. They’d be quite happy, many of them, to just build on the networks they’ve got. But there’s still 100,000 Australians who don’t have adequate mobile coverage, so we are adapting. Just last week, we announced Round 5A, which will focus on transport routes, it will focus on the hardening up disaster-prone areas, but what I’m excited about is it’s going to fund innovative models where we can see partnerships with telecommunications companies, with local councils, with local communities, where we can look at different ways of delivering not only voice services but high-speed broadband.

What we’ve seen in the pandemic is that you can work in regional Australia. The satellite service, cops a caning but I worked for 10 weeks in Warialda on a satellite service – all my phone calls, all my Zoom meetings, all my emails, everything that would be required to be a Minister in the Australian Government came through the NBN Sky Muster satellite service.

It’s not the same as if you’ve got a direct connection in the middle of town, but it is a service that enables businesses that we’ve seen flourish. Buy from the Bush, the great success story of the drought, and the innovative business people in our part of the world that led it, absolutely turned a negative into a positive. Communications is so important. The NBN, 99 per cent rolled out but now what we’re seeing in places like Dubbo is the opportunity to have a service equivalent to metropolitan Australia at the same price. We had a forum the other morning, Matt Wright from the chamber of commerce, and there was a lot of interest in businesses now being able to have that higher level of connection.

We’ve got a Regional Connectivity Program with $83 million in it where we are looking at innovative methods of delivering communications. There are things coming over the horizon – probably not worth talking about it now because they are over the horizon – but satellites, stationary balloons, there’s lots of ways we can deliver telecommunications in the bush that we will be investigating.

With Rural Health, understanding that the more we train people in regional areas the more likely they are to stay and practice in regional areas. That’s why we’ve got the Murray Darling Medical Schools Network. Next year we’ll have students enrolling in a full degree at Orange, the year after that here in Dubbo and Wagga. So, you can live in Dubbo or surrounding areas and you can do your full degree and your specialty and not leave your family.

One of the issues with training the rural workforce is that it takes a long time, and other issues get in the way of your training. Gone are the days where the GP comes to the town as a young graduate, puts their shingle up and stays for 40 years. That’s just not happening. When that person retires it takes two or three junior people to come through.

We also recognise that you need a broader range of skills. So we’re funding the Rural Generalist Pathway – GPs with a broader range of skills, GPs with obstetric skills, GPs with mental health skills, GPs with emergency skills, so the next generation of medical professionals have the broad skillset they need to service country communities.

We’re also setting up some trials where we’re funding innovative models of collaborative care. In this region a great example is the four Ts – Trangie, Tullamore, Tottenham and Trundle – where we’re forming a network of not only GPs but allied health workers and nurses to service those communities where we’re providing an employment model where people will see it’s actually to their career advantage to come and work in an area where they are supported by a more senior team.

So, there is a lot happening. That’s not to say there isn’t a problem with workforce shortages, we’re dealing with those as well, but we’ve also got long-term strategies and policies in place to meet long-term goals.

There’s been a bit of a campaign that telehealth has been seen as a negative, which is far from the truth. Telehealth will never replace having the need for people to service communities. But telehealth is a remarkable asset. New South Wales Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, and I announced a Telestroke trial a couple of weeks ago, which means if you present at Dubbo Hospital with a stroke your scans are instantly connected to the leading stroke experts in Australia. So, you can get that advice that may save your life but also may save your from long-term effects because of the immediate response.

We’ve got some challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided challenges. We were filling in gaps in our workforce and our skills by bringing people from overseas. Dubbo and our surrounding regions have a very vibrant and strong multicultural community. But that pipeline has been interrupted so we need to do more to make sure that everyone in our own areas can reach full potential. That’s why we’ve funded the apprenticeship program to subsidise businesses and local councils to employ local apprentices so local people can get a start and in their local area. It doesn’t matter that they might not stay with that particular employee long-term because those skills will stay within the community.

The Government believes we cannot tax our country back into prosperity. What we’re doing is tax reform, tax cuts, people keep more of the money. The asset write off, the now-unlimited Instant Asset Write off, which is an enormous boost right across the region with small equipment, farm machinery, utilities, a whole range of people spending to enhance the productivity of their business but knowing that there’ll be a tax incentive.

One of the things that I am personally very proud of is changing the criteria around grain storage and hay storage as part of our strategy. So, there is no upper limit on what you can claim off tax in one year for developing a grain complex. So right across my electorate, anyone that’s building silos, grain sheds, concreters, earth moving contractors, sparkies, have absolutely been flat bickie for the past six months getting ready for the harvest that we’re now pulling off. As I drive around there are mountains of wheat not only at the depots but in paddocks right across. So, people are getting higher yields and over the year that will flow through.

So, we do have a challenge. That is for us to reach our full potential. We have got to attract people to come here who understand that we’re not busted, we’re not dangerous, and we don’t have a climate that’s terrible. We have got to stop talking down our regions.

As I look around, I can see people who have a great belief in what we’re doing. I’ve been working with Jenny for 13 years on the opal centre. I see Ross Earl is up the back there who put his heart and soul into growing progress around Bourke. I look around and see there’s people here that believe in this community. But we’ve got to do more.

We’ve got to transition that pleasant experience that people are having now by visiting the region because they can’t travel overseas. We’ve got to transition that into something more permanent and worthwhile. I think that’s the challenge that we have.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have that same belief in the future that I have. Thank you for being here. Congratulations to the RDA, Megan, Brad, and your board. You play a vital role not only as a driver and a catalyst for things to happen in the region; you’re a valuable connection back to the government. Federal governments aren’t very good at connecting to local communities. That’s why we go to local councils, that’s why we have RDAs. That’s why we need to be more flexible in the delivery of government programs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the community today. So well done for today. Congratulations to the RDA and thank you for having me.

Media contact:

Mr Coulton – Steph Nicholls 0417 314 920