Regions Rising Summit 2021

MARK COULTON:

Thanks Liz, great to be here. I'd like to acknowledge you and all the team at the RAI. Also, shout out to Kim Houghton. Kim presented at a forum in Dubbo a couple of weeks ago, and shone the light on a few myths and opened a few eyes in a room full of people who thought they knew everything about regional Australia.

It’s certainly great to be here. I've lived all my life in regional Australia, as a matter of fact I've lived all my life in Warialda, a little town in north west NSW, 1,200 people.

My job gives me the opportunity to travel across the country in the portfolios that I have and quite often I find myself saying to whoever is travelling with me, more often than not my wife Robyn, "you know, we could live here, what a great place". And a couple of weeks ago I spent a week in South Australia and I really hadn't been much in South Australia outside Adelaide and I had a week basically on the Eyre Peninsula with Rowan Ramsey, the local Member there. We met with doctors and local mayors and had a really good look. I’ve heard stories of the Eyre Peninsula, mainly when there was drought or something going on. However, it was beautiful, there was just these magnificent towns, waterfront views, and productive agriculture, the Kadina Medical Centre with half a dozen doctors and I commented, “I could live here”.

What we've seen with COVID is, and quite frankly as a federal MP, I'll take a pandemic over drought any day as far as the impacts on my community is the safest place in the world in 2020 was regional Australia, without a doubt. Now with the vaccine rollout the negative nellies are saying "Oh when's regional Australia going to get their vaccine?" Well in Alpha, the vaccination rollout has begun and in central western Queensland, in Aramac, they've had theirs this week. So regional Australia is being treated the same as the capital cities with the rollout of the vaccine. I think we've just got to keep delivering positive messages.

I'm the Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government and I'll start talking about regional health. We've seen some pretty traumatic stories on our national screens about issues around regional health, but do you think no one has a bad experience in a metropolitan hospital? Do you think people don't have bad experiences and die when they're in a capital city? What those stories don't show and I'll talk about doctor shortages in a minute, we’ve got dedicated medical staff all over the country providing a great service.

I'm going to talk about Warialda a bit, I'm sorry about that but when I go to see my doctors, I'm going to see the former Australian Rural Doctors of the Year. So I'm going to see doctors who are highly qualified, highly respected, highly experienced in my home town but does that make the national news? No. Under their mentorship, there were seven graduates from Warialda doing medicine at one time, and we're talking of a town of 1200 people and so there are good stories. But to say that there's not a problem with the rural health workforce would not be telling the truth. We do have a shortage in that space and up on the hill, we have a condition I call it silver bullet-itis. Everyone has the silver bullet, just do that, we’ll put the provider numbers to the towns, and we’ll make the doctors go out there, we’ll get them out of the cities and we’ll just send them out, they’ll have no choice. Well that’s going to be a real incentive for a young student deciding whether they’re going to do general practice or they’ll take a specialist position in the city. You’ve got to think of the longer term. So what we’re doing is we’re actually setting up a medical school, a college in five locations across the regions to train regional people in regional areas.

Last week I was in Orange and met the first intake of students at Charles Sturt University’s Medical School, 37 students. They had an aim of 80 per cent of those students coming from the regions. Guess what? 100 per cent. 37 places, how many applications do you think there were? Over 700! I spoke to those young people, and a young guy from Walgett, and he’s got red hair and fair skin and I said what’s your long-term aim? He said he wants to be a dermatologist. He said people in Walgett now have to go to Dubbo to get their skin treated, he said “I want to be a dermatologist and work in the bush”. Another young lady I met from Narrabri, she said “you don’t remember me but you gave me an award for basketball at Narrabri High School about five years ago” and she wants to be an obstetrician and work in a regional area. So, good stories, but it’s a long-term game, no doubt that’s a long-term game.

This week with Professor Ruth Stewart and Doctor Sarah Chalmers, the head of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, we announced 400 places for our generalist pathway. A generalist is a GP with a broader skill. Among the reasons doctors don’t want to go to the bush is that they might not have the confidence to handle everything that comes their way. So having a broader skill set, certainly a core part of that is emergency medicine, but you can have a generalist who has skill in anaesthetics, or obstetrics or psychology, paediatrics, a whole range of things, and so giving those trainees a broader set of skills. Because you need someone who is going to handle the primary health issues, the diabetes, and those complaints, influenza, aged care health issues. You also need to have someone who has the confidence to step up when sadly a carload of teenagers hit a tree on Friday night.

Governments in the past have tried to alleviate risk by centralising things and only having specialists based in cities. It’s a much healthier place to have generalist doctors serving your community. Both my parents died in Warialda, my mother died quite young of cancer, my father died after a long and happy life. But in their last weeks and days they were surrounded by their family and friends. All the staff in the hospital knew them; my mother had taught most of them actually, as she was a teacher. The care that they got in Warialda was much better and more appropriate then when my mother was laden with cancer in bed 10 at a metropolitan hospital. We have to get back to giving the people to deliver those services locally. We understand the problem and we are working hard on them.

With communications, sure, it is an issue. But one thing the pandemic did, it made people look at options. People say, “Ah the satellite’s crap, there’s latency, you can’t use it.” Guess what? I worked for ten weeks straight on a sky muster connection. When I went home all my zoom meetings, all my phone calls, all my communications with the outside world go through a satellite connection. And right across Australia we had kids sent home from boarding school, kids sent home from the local public school and sure there was a problem when there was a family of three kids when there was only one computer. But the satellite held up quite well, but some people, they hold up the phone, and if it doesn’t work, it’s the Government’s fault.  We’ve recognised that there’s a problem with that information and so we’ve set up the Regional Tech Hub. If you ring 1300 081 029 you’ll get to talk to Trent. Trent lives at Holbrook.

Trent’s a country boy but he’s a bit of geek which is a perfect combination, he understands what the issues are and he understands how to fix them. When someone rings and Trent says “Where do you live?” he can go through an assessment and find out what the different option are and what you might do. And it’s information that doesn’t have a commercial attachment.

With all due respect to my friends at Telstra, when you go to the Telstra shop, they give a Telstra solution and if they don’t have a Telstra solution, they’re not going to tell you about the other solution that might actually work better for you. Telstra still does the majority of the work in the bush, I’m not bagging them out, but we need to have independent advice.

I asked Trent, when he was in my office earlier in the week, how many people have you been unable to fix or say “I’m sorry you’re in a complete black hole, there’s no solution for your issue?  And he said “hardly anyone, mostly the people who have rung me, we’ve been able to come up with a solution”. So there are lot’s of solutions.

I talked to a fellow I’ve known all my life and he was complaining, he said “I can’t talk to my operator on my tractor”, he said “the service is hopeless, we need another tower”. I went out in my car, and of course I live in my car so I’ve got an aerial on the front, a booster under the seat and I could speak to the cabby but my friend complained about spending a thousand bucks to improve his coverage.  He said “Oh it’s a thousand bucks!” And he’s got a brand new John Deere quad tractor and a Boss Planter, probably about one million and fifty thousand for the whole unit but it was my fault that he had to spend a thousand bucks to put the aerial on it. We have to change that mindset that the days of ringing up your mate at the PMG and offering him a bag of chook feed to come out on Sunday and fix your phone, that’s gone. So we’re doing a lot in that space, we’re doing an alternative voice trial at the moment where we are trialling right across Australia different technology that will deliver services better into those more regional and remote places.

We’re just going through the final assessments of the Regional Connectivity Program where we’re looking at bespoke solutions to areas where independent small tech companies are putting up towers and delivering high-capacity broadband into a regional area and then partnering up with a telecommunications company to deliver voice off those same towers. We’ve just closed round 5A of the blackspots program where we’ve had more scope for internet models in that. We’ve got round 6 of the blackspot program, $80 million that’s funded, but not designed yet because we’re waiting to see what comes through in other programs so we can redesign that program so it’s more relevant at fixing the issues.

Local government is an important partner of the Federal Government and throughout the pandemic, local councils played an integral role in regional communities.

Just as a bit of an aside, after the Deputy Prime Minister spoke here yesterday, there was some media coverage that wasn’t so positive. There were comments about a shortage of accommodation in regional areas.  So thanks to Dr Google, just last night I had a bit of a look. Do you want to move to Orange? Very popular place. Just one real estate agent has 81 properties you can rent today. Maybe Warrnambool in Victoria, there’s 40 on one site. Whyalla, 32. Bunbury in Western Australia, 68 properties. Emerald in Queensland, wonderful location, 78 properties. Devonport in Tasmania, 47 rental properties available today and in Katherine in the Northern Territory there’s 20 properties available. We’ve got to get past the negative nellies. Maybe there’s not the house of your dreams in the place you want to go but there are ways around it. And I think Liz, that coming to the launch of your tool kit, and congratulations for this, but this is a crucial time.

The pandemic has opened the door where people couldn’t go to Bali, they couldn’t go to New Zealand, so they’ve gone to regional Australia. The motels in Goodooga, anyone know where Goodooga is? It’s on the border, north of Brewarrina, a beautiful town, an Aboriginal community. At any one night at Goodooga there’s 80 grey nomads camped at the bore baths.  Now they’re building a shop and they want a cultural centre because they think if these people are going to be there we really need them to learn about who we are and what we do here. But right across Dubbo, in my electorate, I’ve got to book if I want a motel around there well in advance because it’s all happening.

People have realised they can live and work remotely. My daughter’s a great example, she and her husband have kept their jobs in Sydney and moved to Tamworth. They’ve got 25 acres, with a beautiful house and a pool, and chooks and dogs and stuff like that for about half the price of the house that they would have had to buy where they were living, renting in Manly. And by the way, the wireless NBN on her lifestyle block 10 kms out of Tamworth is better than the NBN connection they had at their house in Manly in Sydney. But do you hear that anywhere? No. The real question is how do you convince people who could work in the regions to move there?  I was at a machinery dealer on Friday where they need ten staff from parts people to mechanics. The business at Warren, has eight jobs advertised. One of them is a part time job mowing a lawn around his dealership and he is struggling to find someone to accept the job.  Roger Fletcher in Dubbo will take 150 people on if he can get them to run an extra shift so he can feed our export markets.

We have to stop talking only about picking fruit, that’s an important thing, but you talk to my friend who is a solicitor in Moree, he would take on a solicitor, in Moree, there’s the work for it. There’s 400 vacancies for teachers in NSW alone, it’s the full range of occupations are available but it’s not easy to convert that interest into a job. When I was mayor before I took this job, I would go to Country Week in Sydney and people would come along and they’d oooh and aaah at the cheap houses and they’d oooh and aaah at the businesses that were for sale but it didn’t translate. So the real challenge now is to make it to translate and Liz I think the toolkit is a very, very good way to start. So, gather your local champions, have people that can sell the area.

I’m sorry, apologies, I’m going to talk about Warialda again. Anytime there’s a new bank manager that would come to town, opposite the police station, the police sergeant would go across with a cake, welcome them to town and say “by the way the Blue Light Disco unit needs a treasurer”. What a lot of people don’t understand is living in a country town is different. We don’t need to have our entertainment given to us, we create it. We make our lives by being involved in communities. We might need to buy more band-aids and Mercurochrome for our kids because they’re going to fall off their bikes or break their arm at pony camp or something like that, but they’re going to have a much better upbringing. All over corporate Australia, the leading people are country kids. The myth that your kids are going to suffer for education because you go to the country is rubbish. One of the reasons city employers employ our country kids because they are rounded, they know what’s what, they know how things work.

I was the Mayor of Warialda and Bingara. It was like having twins, you put a slippery dip in Warialda and Bingara complains that they deserve one. Regions have got to work as a co-operative. You can’t mention the words Orange and Dubbo without getting people’s blood pressure up. You know these towns are not threats to each other, they’re collaborative partners. Don’t even mention Parkes and Forbes, but whether they like it or not in 50 years’ time Parkes and Forbes are going to be a twin city, they’re going to join. We need to know our neighbours and co-operate. No doubt mobility, how all this can happen, to get the jobs and the skills needed, actual jobs, not just have people drive through and have a look but actually get them connected to someone who has a job and understands that there’s pathway there. Know your target market, and that’s broad, I think your target market is broad, people who want a lifestyle change but not really move their job, but people who want to start a new life together. Assess local mobility and activate. This is going to be a very useful tool to regional communities and local government and I’m very proud and very pleased to launch it officially as Minister. Thanks very much.

Media Contact:

Mr Coulton – Steph Nicholls 0417 314 920