Western Queensland Alliance of Councils, Richmond, western Queensland

It’s certainly great to be here and protocol is to introduce and acknowledge the local mayor and it’s a great privilege to be in your community. I had an hour or two with Mayor John Wharton yesterday looking at an irrigation scheme and I’m almost inclined to want to sell and move up, I am that enthusiastic about this area. And the presentation of this town is something, it’s spectacular. The pride that this community has in itself is obvious.

So to you, John, and the other mayors that are here and councillors and council officials, I acknowledge you.

I acknowledge my colleague, Assistant Minister Scott Buchholz. Great to be here with Senator Susan McDonald.

There’s nothing like travelling through someone’s backyard with a local and the pride that they have. Yesterday just being in Cloncurry with Susie was truly a great experience. The knowledge, the great family history and her personal affection and connection to this part of the country was very, very evident. So Susie, thank you. I’d go on a road trip with you any old time. I’ll return the favour down my way one day.

Also great to see Senator Malcolm Roberts here.

Glenn Butcher, I haven’t caught up with you, Glenn, but I look forward to hopefully speaking with you before we leave today. I had a good chat with Nikki Boyd last night, Assistant Minister in Queensland for Local Government.

These meetings are incredibly important and it was mentioned that I was a Mayor at Gwydir Shire, and the reason I was Mayor was probably the motivation most people have to enter local government.

I had a bit of a niggle, the state government at the time had amalgamated two and a half councils that didn’t really want to be amalgamated. My property was going to be 100 kilometres from where the Shire headquarters were and for the usual emotions that we thought we were going to miss out, I ended up on council. And as fate would have it, I came home from my very first council meeting as the Mayor.

On that council I had four ex‑mayors and an ex‑president of the New South Wales Shires Association. Some of those councillors had been there for 30 years plus and I was only new. I thought, “How are we going to do this? There’s no great funding stream coming our way”. At our first meeting I said we need to make sure that every time we come out of this meeting we’re talking positively. The community has a burr in their saddle cloth and they need to have a bit of security.

The next thing we did, we had a half day holiday for the council. We brought all the staff in and we said, “Our job is to deal with the public. If anything happens, if we have a stuff up, it will be our fault, the elected representatives, not yours. We’ve got your back”. Because they were under enormous pressure on social media and a whole range of other things.

So bit by bit, we got going and after 12 months of operation, the Smart Investor magazine identified us as the number three region in New South Wales as the place to invest.

So I think it’s important that when we talk about councils we talk about councils as a team. You look around Richmond today and you know that John Wharton didn’t sweep the streets, he didn’t maintain the parks. He didn’t do all that because he has a team to do it.

I tell the school kids when I speak to them before they go on work experience, “There is no job, no job that’s not worth doing”. At Gwydir where I come from, the visitation from tourists and the people staying at the caravan park just skyrocketed over a period of 12 months. It wasn’t because the mayor went to a conference. It wasn’t because we’d spent thousands of dollars on a tourism promotion. It was because Bev Hall that looks after the caravan park had clean toilets and a friendly word when people pulled up.

I said to those school kids, “You would not think that there was any pride in her job when you were cleaning toilets”, but Bev had pride in her job and as a result, the whole community benefitted. I think that point has been coming through in the panel discussions. I’ve really been enjoying that. Because the reason you have local teams to do that job is because at the end of the day and on the weekend the person that’s driving the grader or your accounts manager, I bet they’re also on the board at the golf club, I bet they’re running the lines at the junior football or the netball, the members of the local Rotary Club.

That’s what councils do to communities. They put a structure in the town that is solid, it is people who are well‑respected in the community and we need to keep that there. Because we might be able build roads by bringing a multinational corporation in and putting a road camp up and coming through and blitzing the roads, but it will kill our towns. It will kill our towns. We need to make sure that we maintain those shires.

I mean how good it was to have a mayor that has a road train. You know, to be a mayor in a capital city you have to head a faction of a political party to be a mayor, not own a road train. That’s what makes this group of people so special, is that you come here with a bit of dirt under your fingernails and experience and a passion for your communities. This is where you have those discussions where we sort out our problems. But when you go out, you do not talk about your problems.

In Canberra there’s 151 seats in the house of representatives and if you listen to the speeches, every one of them live in the most busted part of the country.

Whereas what we’re trying to do now is we’re trying to attract people to come and experience what we know, what we love, what we do, and we’re not going to do that by pointing out every damn problem we’ve got. You do that here; you do that in my office in Canberra. You do that, in Brisbane at the Ministers’ offices there. And when you go outside you have a positive message.

When I first got elected to council, we had a lot of black soil roads, you know, fairly productive areas and it’s always a problem. So I went to a roads conference in Newcastle and one of the first presentations was about the walking school bus. I thought this is going to be interesting. So I’d gone down there hoping to find the solutions to the black soil roads in the Gwydir Shire and the walking school bus, great idea, it’s in suburbia, you get a volunteer in a hi vis shirt and they walk around, and the kids all gather around them and they walk them safely to school so they don’t get mugged or run over by a bus or something like that.

It just got too much for me. I said, “Excuse me, but in the Gwydir Shire we invented the walking school bus”. I said, “It’s after 10 millimetres of rain. Mum bogs the station wagon 10 kilometres from home and they have to walk the kids home”. I said, “We’re here to try and solve problems about roads”. I said to my General Manager, “Why in the heck are we here?” He said, “Because if you don’t come, they win”. You know, that’s exactly how it works.

So you guys have turned up and you are here doing the job. But there’s just a few things that I do want to touch on. If there’s been a silver lining in the last 18 months with the worldwide pandemic, and we shouldn’t be flippant about it because it’s taken a lot of lives, even as we speak there’s 700,000 people every day losing their lives across the globe, but what it’s done is shone a spotlight on regional Australia, and the people from the capital cities are looking on us with a bit of envy rather than pity.

I was always concerned in my lifetime where we’ve gone from city people wanting to aspire to have country relations to sending up their second‑hand clothes and tinned food. While you respect that idea and people want to support us, the idea that the rural communities need food parcels from the city is just not correct. We do tough times, we deal with them. But it doesn’t define us.

I think our biggest challenge now is to find the people to take up the challenges. Liz Ritchie mentioned 6,000 jobs across the regions and many of them are out here. We’ve spent too much time talking about picking fruit and not enough time about the need for the professions, the lawyers, the doctors, the tradespeople, the diesel mechanics, the fitters, the horticulturists, all those other jobs that we’ve got going out here. That’s our biggest challenge. What’s exacerbated it is with COVID, our international border’s been closed. I’m a great believer, if we can’t get Australians to come and do this job, well we should welcome people from overseas.

I stayed at this great, new truck stop here in a motel. First time I’ve ever stayed in a motel room at a truck stop. It was fantastic. Beautiful room. I bet hardly any of those people who work there were born in this country, let alone this town. But they’re here they 24/7. You can get services now in Richmond from people who have come to this community, who have invested in this community and are working here.

The young lady that sold my sandwich at Cloncurry, I bet she wasn’t born in this country either. But there they are, lined up doing it. I think when the borders open, if we can’t get people from the cities to come out here well, we should embrace migrants. Because they’ve done it before. The Greeks did a great job 60 or 70 years ago supporting country towns. If other people want to do that then we should embrace them with open arms.

But I just want to talk about a few things in my portfolio. One of the things that was in the Budget, not exactly my portfolio but I know it’s a big deal for many of you, was the Northern Australia Insurance Access Package. Getting insurance into Northern Australia has been a real problem and this $10 billion guarantee from the Government is going to make a difference in insurance companies wanting to step up and hoping that will help with some of the investment decisions that are made.

The message from the Deputy Prime Minister is that the Federal Government’s $110 billion rolling infrastructure program over ten years is what underpins all the other things we’re doing. Assistant Minister Scott Buchholz is right. You need to look as a council, whether it’s sourcing road safety money, black spots funding, or one of the many other programs.  Councils should look at what the intention of that program is and submit an application along the lines of what it’s trying to achieve. If the funding is going to build a safer road and you end up with a better piece of infrastructure, then you’ve actually reached the aim. The Building Better Regions Fund is the same - make sure you understand the intent of the program and submit the application for that.

Our Government’s very successful program is the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure program. We’ve just announced round three of this program which is $1 billion. For councils in this room, it should be the biggest allocation they’ve received so far under this program. Round one funding allocations were based on the roads to recovery formula while the methodology for round two was based on population. Round three allocations will revert to the R2R methodology so there is a good round of money and will continue to provide stimulus and a long‑term benefit to communities.

I was out with Mayor John Wharton this morning here in Richmond looking at the work that the first round of LRCI funding is creating – building roads in the local industrial precinct - which will have a long‑term benefit thanks to extra funding that wouldn’t have been budgeted for but enabled those projects to go ahead.

The 2021-22 Budget is also providing support to councils by pre-paying $1.3 billion in Financial Assistance Grants. That’s not really new news and is considered par for the course.

There’s often  a discussion about the quantum of Financial Assistance Grants - a call for FA grants to be equivalent to 1 per cent of Commonwealth Tax Revenue.  Out of interest, FA grants hasn’t been fixed to taxation receipts since 1986, so this is not some change that’s happened recently. I might add if FA grants were still tied to CTR, the outcome, particularly given the effects of COVID, might not have been favourable. 

But as someone who’s from the regions themselves and who came from a fairly small council, my concern is that under the current formula, just lifting the amount of across the board will mean that larger city councils will get millions of dollars and smaller regional councils will get hundreds of dollars.

There has been a bit of a discussion of late and I’m throwing the challenge to this room for some direction from you. I see myself as your person in Canberra, not Canberra’s person in Richmond as to what your thoughts are on that.

New South Wales country mayors have written to me suggesting a change to the FA grants methodology, the Local Government Minister from Victoria has actually taken his proposal about restructuring FA Grants through the Cabinet process, and he’s had extensive consultations with the sector in Victoria.

Paul Bell from the Queensland Local Government Grants Commission is here and he’s speaking after me so I won’t get into this too much because Paul’s all over how the Grants Commission works. The Grants Commissions in every state has autonomy on how that money is distributed and not every state has exactly the same formula for distributing FA Grants except for the 30 per cent minimum grant based on population, set by Commonwealth.

Victoria’s Minister Shaun Leane has suggested to me to allow each State and Territory grants commissions to have the ability to direct a greater proportion of available FA grant funding to rural councils.  As the population has drifted to the larger areas, the 30 per cent minimum grant rate has become more and more important. This was proven when in the second round of the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure program, Brisbane City Council received $40.6 million based largely on a population methodology.

I’m not a great believer of coming from Canberra with a policy setting to fix a problem. However, if you have a discussion and come up with a proposal, I’m more than happy to facilitate and try and bring that through the Government process.

The other issue is the misconception there has been some sort of a cut. However, Queensland’s allocation has risen year on year from 2016/17 to $504 million which is an increase in that period of 12 per cent or $53.5 million. If you add Roads to Recovery funding and Local Roads and Community Infrastructure funding, amount is more than the equivalent of one per cent of CTR. 

I wear a couple of hats and in the regional health sphere, one of the proposals that came through the Budget that I was pretty proud of is our bulk billing incentive rate, and you’d be all aware of the Monash modified models where MM1 is metropolitan, MM7 is regional and remote. The Government now will pay a higher rebate to GPs who bulk bill in the more regional towns. While it’s not going to make huge differences based on a per visit basis, it’s certainly signalling a message that we recognise that rural health and working in those towns is important and the Government is going to remunerate the people to go and take up that position more.

Another Budget incentive includes doubling the amount of training places for junior doctors in regional Australia. We know that if doctors spend more time training in an area they’re more likely to be more comfortable to move and live there. We’ve just about doubled that rate, on top of what we’re doing with the generalist pathway, where we’re training rural doctors with a broader skill set so that the daunting prospects of dealing with a car accident or a fall at the races will give them the confidence to come and live and work in the regions.

There’s a disease in Canberra called silver bullet‑itis where everyone wants to fix the problem with a knock‑out blow. But the rural health problem has been building for a while and it won’t be fixed with a knock‑out blow. It will be done with a broad range of initiatives. We are training allied health workers as generalists as well so they’ve got a broader skill set to work in country areas.

I think we’ll see the turn around. The challenge we’ve got is that in an attempt to fill in the gaps we’ve actually created a bit of a monster in the fact that locums now get paid very, very high fees to fill in the gaps. So it’s become – almost become a career choice to be a locum. But that doesn’t deliver good health outcomes.

Health is all about relationships. When you’ve got to have those discussions about end of life, about whether someone needs care, about chronic or terminal illness it’s better to have a discussion with someone you’ve built a relationship with. 

So that’s the space we’re working in. We’ve got a way to go. I’m looking forward to catching up with the state Minister to see how we can collaborate a little bit more in that space.

The other program I’d like to mention is the Regional Connectivity Program. We were out this morning with William Harrington from Wi‑Sky, a local company here in partnership with the Federal Government and local government putting in a series of Internet, high-capacity Internet WiFi towers along the highways to provide connectivity.  We funded 1,200 towers through the first round and we’ve got round six, $80 million‑odd sitting there.

While Telstra, Optus, and NBN Co. are still playing a part, a major part of what we’re doing is also funding companies like Wi‑Sky, Field Solutions in Goondiwindi. These smaller companies are providing high-capacity Broadband into regional Australia.

The other challenge we’ve got is a lot of people don’t understand connectivity or understand that a Sky Muster satellite connection provides the ability to make calls and conduct Zoom meetings in your house.

During the COVID lockdown last year, I worked for ten weeks without leaving the house as a Federal Government Minister with all my Zoom meetings, all my phone calls, all my communication and emails going through a satellite connection.

I was at Mount Isa School of the Air yesterday and they said Sky Muster has made a massive change to the delivery of education to remote kids. The Government has also funded a technology hub in partnership with the NFF so if you’re having trouble with your connectivity, you can ring someone for assistance and more often than not they can talk you through the different solutions that’s not based on a financial gain for a telco. If you go into some of the stores in town you will get sold a product from that company which may not be the solution that you’re looking for.

We are showing flexibility in that space, but I’m pleased that we have funded numerous sites across the country, particularly in western Queensland now where they’re going to be getting Internet at the same speeds as the capital cities.

Thank you for having me here today. It’s interesting, I’ve met more people in this room in Canberra than pretty well from any other region in Australia. So you are very proactive.

I appreciate the relationships that I’m building with you and I look forward to my next visit.

Thanks very much.