Transcript - Radio interview - 88.9 FM Tamworth with Matt MacCarthy

MATT MACCARTHY [HOST]: You might have heard us chatting to our Federal Member, Barnaby Joyce this morning, who had a couple of questions for this lady. She is the Federal Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories and the Member for Eden-Monaro as well. The Honourable Kristy McBain joins us. How are you, Kristy?

KRISTY MCBAIN [MINISTER]: Good morning. Good to be with you.

MACCARTHY: Absolutely. You too. We spoke to you a couple of months ago. Thank you, first, for staying in touch – we appreciate the fact the Government reaches out to us and keeps us up to date. Particularly, as you know, we’ve got a couple of Nationals candidates and representatives in our area. Everybody’s quick to bash the Labor Government at the moment for the lack of regional money coming to our area, particularly with water, with rail and also with roads. You’re here to tell us that we are actually receiving some money and where that money is going.

MCBAIN: It’s really important that we continue to work with local councils across the country. They control 75 per cent of our road network, and I don’t think that there’s a regional community that I’ve spoken to that hasn’t talked about the impact on their roads from a number of natural disasters, whether it’s fires or floods, drought or significant storm events. We’re increasing Roads to Recovery funding from $500 million a year to $1 billion a year over the next few years in recognition of the amazing work councils do.


MCBAIN: We drive on local roads every day for school, for sport, to get to work. We want to help councils deliver better roads for communities right across the country. This is a significant increase and we want to make sure that that money is passed on to communities through better roads.

MACCARTHY: Is this going straight to roads, Kristy, or is this going to projects and study and all of these other things? Are we actually going to see this on our bitumen?

MCBAIN: It is all road funding. Roads to Recovery is delivered out to councils every year via a formula which takes into account the length of their road network. We’re doubling that over the next few years, in recognition of how much work needs to be done in our communities across the country.

MACCARTHY: Talk to us about black spot funding.

MCBAIN: We’re also increasing black spot funding from $110 million a year to $150 million a year. It’s really important that we continue to work with local councils around some of those roads that are prolific black spot roads. Local communities know these best, which is why we’re delivering the funding directly to councils. We want elected councillors and councils to have the say on what their priority is. That’s us recognising that locals know what they need best, which is why we’re working with local councils.

We’re also merging the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program and the Bridges Renewable Program into a new Safer Roads and Infrastructure Program. The funding will increase on that program as well, from $150 million a year to $200 million a year. We’ve listened to local communities. I’ve met with over 250 councils across the country in the first 18 months of having this position, and have listened to their advocacy. We are now delivering so that they can make a difference on local roads right across the country.

MACCARTHY: $500 million to a $1 billion sounds like a lot, Kristy, until you start to divide it into how many communities that’s going to help. Do you have any numbers for our region and how much of that money we’re actually going to put into our cement mixers?

MCBAIN: It’s obviously going to be a significant increase. It will double the allocation effectively the councils receive between now and the next few years. At the moment, the Roads to Recovery program is investing $15.9 million across 67 projects in the Tamworth Regional Council area over the current funding period, which ends June 2024. It’s a significant amount of money, which will be increasing so that councils right across the country can put more dollars into keeping people safe on our roads.

MACCARTHY: I know Tanya Plibersek, when they came here for the summit, mentioned that one of the silliest decisions that hurt economically was the decision about our dam. What’s the answer for water security – water storage and security in our region? Kristy, obviously if dams aren’t happening, we’re not getting that development, people have spoken about underwater tanks, they’ve spoken about facilities. Obviously, you’re around, you’re talking to these small communities at the moment. If it’s not the dam, what is it?

MCBAIN: There are a range of projects constantly coming across our desks. You’ve had Minister Plibersek speaking directly with the community and industry around what we can do around water security, especially moving forward as we move into this El Nino period. There is obviously some work going on in this space, and Minister Plibersek is best placed to talk about what work she’s putting in place.

MACCARTHY: I also want to just talk to you just quickly about telecommunications. And I’ll have a question from Federal Member, Barnaby Joyce just about the towers shortly. Obviously, we had a big hit with Optus going down. The CEO has resigned there. Whether it’s a software issue, whether it’s a hacking issue, obviously we need to get to the bottom of this. But they’re talking cashless society, our government really pushing towards this. As far as development, things like that are concerning, we really need to be keeping an eye on this cashless society. Where’s your stance on the whole cashless society thing at the moment, seeing breakdowns literally right across the country when it comes to three hours without those services?

MCBAIN: We want to see small businesses able to trade in whatever circumstances arise, but cash is still king. It’s still a legal tender of the country, and I know from many small businesses across our region when we pay in cash it means they don’t pay fees to the bank. A lot of local small businesses like that. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that there's as many options available to small businesses as possible to be able to access payment, whether that's transfers, whether that's electronic banking – however it is. The main message is go and shop local.

MACCARTHY: The Optus outage last week, Kristy, would have obviously put the magnifying glass over a lot of these services, such as telecommunications towers, particularly the mobile phone towers. What did you come up with in the last couple of weeks? Obviously, we can’t stop hacking. We can’t stop deep software issues. But were there any holes or any weaknesses that you’ve actually seen where you need to take some focus on telecommunication towers, particularly in our region, and this was a question from Member, Barnaby Joyce today, our Federal Member, saying apparently there’s a few that have gone up in your electorate, were his words, but not too many in his. What’s your story on that?

MCBAIN: The Black Summer Bushfire Royal Commission made several recommendations to deal with mobile phone black spots in communities and along major transport corridors where you are at risk of multiple natural disasters. Unfortunately, I live in an electorate that has had 36 declared natural disasters in the last five years, which culminated obviously in the Black Summer bushfires where we lost over a thousand homes and unfortunately lost community members.

I absolutely went to the last election with a commitment to get more mobile telephone towers up in my electorate for that very reason. It’s all part of our Government’s $1.1 billion Better Connectivity Plan for rural and regional Australia. Connectivity is no longer a nice to have in 2023, it’s an absolute necessity. We absolutely should be investing more money in it, which is what our Government is doing. We’ve got the largest investment in telecommunications since the establishment of the NBN. Under our Government, more people can access unlimited data via Sky Muster Plus. More people are getting a better service on fixed wireless and more people are getting a rollout of fibre to the premises.

I am not sure why Barnaby is upset about that, because right across our regions we need people to have additional access to telecommunications and internet connectivity. It’s the way of the future and we are absolutely going to continue down this path. We’ve had a $30 million commitment to on-farm connectivity, because so much of our farm production is now done via satellite. We know our machinery is now being run by satellite. It’s really important that we’re actually connecting and getting more people access to connectivity.

MACCARTHY: Speaking of connections, Kristy, transmission lines in our area in particular. This compulsory acquisition situation, EnergyCo is looking at affecting over 200 property owners in our region. Where do you see the future for this, and particularly with compulsory acquisition?

MCBAIN: A lot of these transmission companies need to make sure that they’re getting community engagement right, and it hasn’t been right for a number of years. There’s been significant steps by this Government to work with local communities through the Australian Energy Commissioner Andrew Dyer, who’s currently heading up a review into what community consultation needs to look like when we’re dealing with renewable energy projects when we’re dealing with the rollout of additional transmission lines. It hasn’t been right for a number of years. In my electorate, we have got the Snowy 2.0 rolling out, and the previous Government didn’t have a plan to actually plug that in. It’s not going to happen on schedule any longer, but the community consultation that has been undertaken with members of my community has been shameful. They received letters a week after they’d finished fighting fires on their properties in 2020. It’s really important that there is appropriate consultation with community members and that we are looking at the path of least resistance. That is making sure we’re comparing apples with apples. At the moment, the value of public land is different to private land and we need to make sure that we’re taking into account all of the options when we are looking at rolling out additional transmission lines, not just the easy options.

MACCARTHY: Live messages coming through at the moment, Kristy, from our former deputy Mayor Mark Rodda and also former candidate for the state Member position. “If Barnaby didn’t utilise his vote to privatise Telstra we wouldn’t have these connectivity issues.” So worth mentioning as well.

MCBAIN: I was going to say, it’s one of these things that is brought up frequently. I was in Parliament not long ago talking to members of communities who are lobbying for the Outback Way, so an inland highway between Queensland and WA. The same issue is brought up about connectivity and I gave the same response. When we’ve got a privatised company, there’s no longer a requirement for them to make sure that all of us have a good universal service. It’s really important that we have access to these companies, but sometimes privatisation is not the answer.

MACCARTHY: I’ll talk to you on the subject of power lines – I appreciate you’ve got to go very shortly – not just power lines but power stations. We’ve been told by our local Member in particular we need to get the balance right. This Government is looking like they’re trying to close down these power stations a little bit quickly for the want of most people. What’s the future as far as this, and how do we get the balance right, Kristy?

MCBAIN: It’s really important to get the balance right. We want to see more renewables into the system, but also more storage options for those renewable projects to come online as well. The Government’s not closing down some of our traditional coal and gas fields. They’re all owned by private companies who are making their own decisions about whether they are going to continue to invest in those sites or not. It’s really important that when a site is being decommissioned that it’s done properly and it’s done with the community. In the Latrobe Valley in Victoria we’ve seen coal stations close there with less than a few months’ notice. This creates significant concern and havoc in a community that is reliant on those types of industry. It’s really important that in any of these processes that they’re done properly, and they’re done with the community in mind. That they’re done with the proper transition process in place, to not leave communities in the lurch.

MACCARTHY: Let’s talk rail for a second, Kristy. Obviously, Barnaby came out this morning saying, “When you’re speaking to Kristy ask her about the lack of support or the stop in funding for the Inland Rail network.” Any future to assist and help build up that rail network, or is the Labor Government just decided to stop it for now?

MCBAIN: What’s Barnaby doing? Isn’t he meant to be on his honeymoon?

MACCARTHY: No, that was last week. He’s back. He’s back and he’s full of form. He’s into China too, just quietly, this morning. 

MCBAIN: Inland Rail is obviously going to be a great project. Unfortunately, when it was committed to in 2017 and 2018 it was estimated that it would cost $9.3 billion and that it would be operational in the mid-2020s. The project has now blown out to $31 billion and it won’t be operational in the mid-2020s. It’s a good idea, which has just been poorly managed by the former Government, and Barnaby has a role to play in that. We absolutely want to see this project take place. We’ve had a short, sharp review into it. We will deliver an operational Inland Rail system and make sure that it’s done appropriately, with a statement of expectations to the Australian Rail Track Corporation to deal with this in a proper manner.

We need to make sure that it is delivered properly, transparently and with the community aware of exactly what’s going on. Unfortunately, when we came to Government there was cost blowout, up to nearly $31 billion, which we’ve got to find. If there’s a lesson in how to do nation-building projects, we’re not going to take them from the last Government.

MACCARTHY: And it is easy for a former Government to blame the current government when particularly there’s been a lot of momentum, as you’ve said, a lot of expenditure leading up to that. So there’s two sides of the coin. One question I have for you before you go, yesterday political analysts saying that Albo could be a one-term Prime Minister. You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to – I don’t want to ambush you – but what are your thoughts?

MCBAIN: We don’t take any heed of what the polls say during a term of Government. The most important thing is every three years there’s an election and the community can pass judgement. In the first 18 months of this government, though, we have delivered electricity rebates which the former Government voted against. We’ve delivered cheaper child care which the former Government voted against. We’ve delivered extended paid parental leave, which the former Government voted against. We’ve delivered cheaper medicines, which the former Government voted against. We’ve delivered a tripling of the bulk-billing incentive.

It’s really important that people understand that there’s a whole process of work that’s already been undertaken which helped people with their hip pockets costs, whilst not adding pressure to inflation across the country. Australia is not the only country that’s dealing with this inflation issue. Every country in the world is grappling with what’s going on. We’ve had some significant investments in housing, because we know it’s one of the issues that continues to plague regional communities in attracting people to jobs and to live in our regions. We’ve got to start tackling the housing issue, which the former Government absolutely vacated the field on.

MACCARTHY: Let’s touch on that for 30 seconds. There’s been talk of perpetual land titles, so perpetual leasing, basically the land owned by the government, that’s just gone begging over the last hundred years, can be used to help with affordable housing. Any plans with this? I know the Member for Tamworth, Kevin Anderson in our region spoke about this. They did a little bit of work out around the Parkes area, and I can be stand corrected on that. Any – what can we do to sort of ease this burden from a development perspective?

MCBAIN: It’s really important that we work with state and territory governments, with local councils and with developers on how we can best deliver more housing across the country. The $500 million Housing Support Program, which we’ve seen announced following National Cabinet in August actually helps regional communities deliver some of the enabling infrastructure that sometimes stops development in our regions. It’s seen as being too expensive and adds onto the price of a parcel of land or a new home. It’s really important that we are taking up some of the advocacy calls that we’ve seen from different jurisdictions. It’s really important we keep working on it, and we’ve seen some significant announcements in the last couple of weeks alone, in both Victoria and New South Wales on new housing developments. We'll have to continue to work with those jurisdictions to make sure we deliver more.

MACCARTHY: Federal Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, really appreciate your time, Honourable Kristy McBain. And thank you, can I say, for having the balls to answer a question straight. I know that’s a rare thing for a politician.

MCBAIN: No worries at all.

MACCARTHY: Good on you. There we go.