Transcript - radio interview - ABC Western Plains (Dubbo), Breakfast with Jess McGuire

JESS MCGUIRE (HOST): We are joined this morning on ABC Western Plains by the Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, Kristy McBain. Good morning, Minister.

KRISTY MCBAIN (MINISTER): Good morning. How are you?

MCGUIRE: I'm very well, thank you. Thanks so much for joining us.

MCBAIN: My pleasure. What a beautiful morning it is too.

MCGUIRE: This is about the time to enjoy it. And later this afternoon go inside is my hot tip. Now Minister, for those that maybe find those kinds of lengthy titles a little bit overwhelming. In practical terms, what does Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories of Australia do? Because it sounds like it's encompassing a lot.

MCBAIN: It's a very lengthy title. There are 546 Local Government Areas across the country, so I am working in collaboration with those local governments on some of their big issues. For many of them at this point in time, this includes financial sustainability, roads and bridge maintenance in particular, and preparing communities against natural disasters. Regional Development is very encompassing. We look at economic development across the regions. We have 53 Regional Development Australia bodies across Australia, all working in collaboration with the private sector and with local government on some of the big challenges that they're seeing. They are reporting back to government on how they can influence the economic development of certain areas. With territories, we obviously have two self-governing territories on the mainland in the Northern Territory and the ACT. The ACT also encompasses the Jervis Bay Territory, and we also have three external territories. Norfolk Island, Cocos Island, and Christmas Island. So they all fall under my responsibility.

MCGUIRE: And Minister, Norfolk Island falls under my responsibility because we are the breakfast show for Norfolk Island.

MCBAIN: Good morning to the Norfolk community.

MCGUIRE: It's been one year since the partnership began between the Queensland Government and the Federal Government to provide all the state services to the Island. Looking back twelve months in, how has that played out and what's ahead on the agenda for Norfolk Island?

MCBAIN: The state services agreement with Queensland was met with a bit of trepidation, especially around the education system, because the experience with New South Wales hadn't gone as smoothly as everyone had hoped or anticipated. I was on the Island in November with Minister Grace Grace, who's the Education Minister of Queensland, and there was so much good feedback on a whole range of services that Queensland is providing, especially in the education system. They've already spent significant amounts of money upgrading parts of the school, including making sure that they had the best connectivity that could be afforded to the Island. The response I've had so far from people is that that partnership is working well, and I think it works well because Queensland really gets decentralisation and they already have to deliver services to a range of remote locations, including remote islands. I think our partnership is going well, and we want to see that develop further.

MCGUIRE: Fantastic. Now, you mentioned connectivity. The Federal Government just announced that a million more homes and businesses across the country, including 65,000 in regional Australia are going to be able to soon upgrade to what you've described as world-class, full fibre broadband connection. And some of the towns that are going to be enjoying these upgrades include Coonabarabran, Dubbo, Gilgandra and Gulgong. When exactly are the upgrades going to be happening, though?

MCBAIN: Across the regions it's 660,000 homes that will get that upgrade, which is fantastic.

MCGUIRE:  Did I take off a 100,000?

MCBAIN: You took off a fair bit, you only gave me 10 per cent.

MCGUIRE: That was a test and you've actually passed it.

MCBAIN: It’s early in the morning, so I appreciate the mental arithmetic you made me do there. Across regional Australia, we know that connectivity is such a huge issue. It's one of the reasons we went to the election with such a big commitment. Coming from regional Australia myself, I've got a three-hour trip to Canberra every time I go to Parliament. About an hour and 45 minutes of that I get service. The rest of the time, I'm in dead spots. A whole range of our businesses cannot grow or people will not invest in a region if they don't have good connectivity. That means both internet and mobile phone. We’ve made a significant investment, $2.4 billion into the NBN, so that we can provide that fibre to the premise across a whole range of regional towns. We know how important it is and we saw in the pandemic how important it was, not only if you're working from home, but if you are learning from home. We want to make sure that we are prioritising that across the regions. NBN will be dealing with the time frames on that rollout, but we will definitely keep the community up to date with that because it's such an important bit of work that we're doing.

MCGUIRE: So, it's not around the corner, it's a little bit down the track?

MCBAIN: There's a bunch of planning that needs to go into place first, but we will be working on that as a high priority. There's also $656 million that we're putting into mobile phone connectivity, as many people now rely on phones, and connectivity in our major transport corridors have been left out sometimes. We sometimes see mobile phone service in our towns, but sometimes we leave off our transport corridors, which, for a country that largely has to drive everywhere, it's incredibly important. This is especially important after the number of natural disasters where people were driving, fleeing their communities for a variety of reasons, but couldn't get up to date information on what was happening around them. It's incredibly important we prioritise those transport corridors.

MCGUIRE: I know we mentioned four of the suburbs that are in our broadcast area that will be getting those upgrades when they happen. I'm assuming it's a priority for the other regions as well, because I know that we've heard from ABC Western Plain listeners in places like Lightning Ridge in particular, who feel extremely frustrated with the unreliability of their NBN connections. And it has really huge ramifications on their businesses as well, because many of their phone lines are run through the NBN.

MCBAIN: It’s not just the fibre to the premises that we are upgrading. We're also upgrading the fixed wireless network and the satellite network. One of the things that we saw in the previous term of government was when there was a deadline coming for people to be connected to their fixed wireless, if they weren't going to meet that deadline, they just pushed people onto satellite. We know that that just clogs up the satellite service and makes everyone's experience much worse. We're working on all three facets of NBN connection, so fibre to the premise, fixed wireless and satellite.

MCGUIRE: We're talking with Kristy Mcbain, Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories of Australia. You speak with local governments all across the country. I'm sure you're hearing a lot about their concerns at the moment. One of the things that's been a concern for people about councils is the rise in council rates. Some of the property owners in New South Wales are facing rate hikes of more than 100 per cent. It's kind of another way that housing is becoming unaffordable for people in the regions. Is there a plan to tackle this?

MCBAIN: It's incredibly difficult for any business, any organisation. It's even more difficult in New South Wales and Victoria, where you've got a state government that caps how much a council can raise their rates by. In years gone by, New South Wales told councils they could only raise their rates by 0.7 per cent, at a time where we know that inflation is running at an all-time high, construction projects are obviously quite high at this point in time, and the demand on council services is growing. For anyone who says that councils aren't involved in a range of things that aren't just roads, rates and rubbish, I'd say have a really good look, because councils are there for disaster response and recovery. They're providing our childcare services in a lot of our communities. They're providing NDIS because they're the last resort.

MCGUIRE: You've got a rich history working in council as well and local government.

MCBAIN: I spent nearly eight years as a mayor and councillor, and our regional councils do it particularly tough because they've got big areas to cover and relatively small rate bases. The Federal Government continues to support local councils. We’re providing $2.9 billion in Financial Assistance Grants to councils across the country and $500 million in roads to recovery. We've increased the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program by $250 million, bringing that Program to a total of $3.25 billion. Every year we provide a Bridges Renewal Program of $85 million and a Heavy Vehicle and Productivity Program of $65 million. All of this funding is untied funding, which means councils get to spend it on their own local priorities, which is hugely important. Where we're seeing some of the big issues come is obviously tied grant funding, and the state governments really need to have a look at how they can best assist councils and move away from that tide grant funding.

MCGUIRE: And finally, while I've got you here. The Regional First Home Buyer Guarantee, it launched in October of 2022. It was recently announced that it's already assisted about 1,800 people in regional Australia to buy their first home. Doesn't feel like a great time to buy a home, to be honest, when we're looking at interest rates and inflation and a lot of the economic issues. But can you tell me quickly, just a little bit about how the program works and how people can get involved?

MCBAIN: It’s been a real success. Under the Regional First Home Buyers Scheme, 1,800 families have now taken up that support, which is fantastic. There'll be 10,000 places offered every year, and we are looking forward to more people taking that up. The government will guarantee a percentage of your deposit, which makes it easier for people to get into their first home. It is really interesting that you talk about it being a difficult time to get into home ownership. I chatted about this with a taxi driver here, and you always get good information from taxi drivers.

MCGUIRE: We may as well just put them straight on the radio, give them a walkie talkie that connects straight in.

MCBAIN: Absolutely. One of your taxi drivers told me last night that rates have previously been at 18 per cent, and he thinks everything is going to be okay and it's a good time to buy a house.

MCGUIRE: Oh, Minister, I'm sorry, I bought it up then.

MCBAIN: I think everyone has an interest in politics. When I talk to people about my job, some people’s eyes roll into the back of their head and I totally understand that, but every decision we make at a local, a state and at a federal level, impacts people's lives. It's incredibly important we're having conversations, however in depth they are, so I always appreciate getting in a car with a taxi driver and asking their opinion on a whole range of things. The interest rate issue is going to hit people very differently and we've all got to be cognisant that the cost of living has significantly gone up. We need to make sure that we are putting in place measured policies to help people deal with that issue.

MCGUIRE: I've been speaking today with Kristy McBain, Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories of Australia. Thanks so much for joining us this morning and giving us so much of your time.