Address to the Regions Rising National Summit

KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Thank you, Christian, for that very kind introduction, and to the Regional Australia Institute for having me here tonight. I was here last year and gave a speech which kind of rambled on for a while, so my apologies – I’m going to be much more coherent in my speech tonight – I swear.

I thank Aunty Violet for that beautiful welcome to country. I kind of feel like Aunty Violet are doing a double act at the moment. I think we were both at AgriFutures last night. There are multiple events that happen around Eden-Monaro, and Aunty Violet is always there to share her kindness and her wisdom with us. Thank you very much for your welcome.

I also want to thank Eddie for emceeing tonight. I actually spotted you across the room and went to wave at you like I knew who you were. I don’t. But I feel like I know you, so thank you for your work on TV. I wake up most mornings checking breakfast TV, as I’m sure most of you do, and it’s always a pleasure to see your smiling face on TV, so thank you.

I want to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. This is a really critical time in our nation’s history – we’re moving towards the referendum, the first one this century. There are a cohort of people who have never voted in a referendum before. It’s so important that there are factual discussions that are happening around this referendum, about why there is a referendum, what that means for the country and then to discuss the substance of that referendum.

We all have a responsibility in this debate to make sure that it is factual, to make sure it is respectful and to make sure that we are coming to this with an open heart and an open mind. I recently attended the Bush Summit in Wodonga. Great place. It was a moment where policy-makers, where industry, where small business, health, leaders from across the community came together to discuss the defining decade ahead – how we make the most of what we see in regional Australia and how we can make it better. That summit recognised the importance of bringing diverse leaders together. It recognised that people with unique backgrounds and unique life experiences can help inform better policy and decision-making. It recognised that together we can drive quality of outcomes.

And the concept of placing people at the heart of decision-making is exactly what the Voice to Parliament is. It’s exactly what you’re doing here. It is about bringing your lived experience to the table. It’s about understanding that together we can have a better understanding and a better way of doing things. I know more than anyone else across the country, regional people get it. Because we are constantly fighting for a fair go. We’re constantly seeking to change the status quo. We fight for better outcomes for our people. We fight for better service delivery. We fight to make sure we’ve got good infrastructure in our places. This is what the referendum is about.

It’s about making sure that we change the status quo. Because I’m not okay with – and I’m sure people across the country that are not okay with – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People having a life expectancy eight years less than the rest of Australia. I am not okay with the fact that it’s more likely for an Aboriginal to die during childbirth than it is for the rest of the country. I’m not okay with a lower standard of educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, and I’m sure a lot of people aren’t.

When we listen to people, when we ask what will work in their communities we get better outcomes. That’s the simple message of the Voice. On October 14 the simple question is: should we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in our constitution through a Voice to Parliament? That is the question. It is no more; it is no less than that. I ask you as we move towards this referendum, have the factual conversations, inform yourselves and go into that ballot box and think about whether we could be doing better as a nation when it comes to First Nations People.

I’ve lived in regional Australia all my life, as Christian has just said – in Traralgon, in Merimbula, I moved to Canberra for a while then I moved back to Merimbula. I did so because I absolutely love the way of life. I want my kids to grow up the way that I grew up. I want to be able to strike up a conversation with anyone. People wave at you in the street, they ask how you’re going even when they don’t know you. People look after your kids when you’re running late – which happens frequently for me. Our sporting clubs and our service clubs become our extended family.

Earlier today you heard from colleague Minister Catherine King, and she spoke about the government’s approach to supporting strong and sustainable regions through the Regional Investment Framework. Minister King and I are incredibly proud what this framework represents. It’s ground up. It’s inclusive. It’s a coordinated approach to seizing the abundant opportunities across our vibrant and diverse regions.

It provides us a way to prioritise investment in people, in the places we live in and the services that our communities need and the industries that underpin our local economies. A demonstration of how the government is working with the regions to ensure we make the most of what they have to offer in the years ahead.

We acknowledge that there are challenges. Absolutely there are challenges, which is why I know what you’re doing here is having useful discussions on how we can address those challenges across our economy. We know we need more skilled workers. We know that we need more childcare places. We know that we need more housing for those workers and those kids as well. We know most significantly that better digital connections are an absolute necessity right now.

Housing availability and affordability need to be addressed and we need to address skill shortages across the country. Digital connectivity is a key enabler of unlocking economic potential and linking regions with the national and global economy. It also underpins accessibility and equity of services and it keeps people and communities connected and it keeps us safe.

I know exactly what that challenge is. I have a three-hour drive between Canberra and Merimbula. I have guaranteed service for one hour and 45 minutes of that. Thirty kilometres out of the ACT there is no mobile phone service. I know I’m not that far from the capital city, so I know exactly the challenges that we have in more rural and remote parts of the country.

Addressing the lack of connectivity is crucial if we are to bridge the divide between our regional centres and our metro communities. So, what are we doing about it? We are absolutely committed to improving mobile coverage for underserved regional and remote communities. We are boosting multi-carrier mobile coverage on regional roads. We’re improving on-farm connectivity and we’re increasing the resilience of communication services and public safety communication facilities.

The $30 million On-farm Connectivity Program is extending connectivity to properties of primary producers, supporting opportunities for digital technology to drive regional prosperity. We know right now that so many of the machines we’re using actually need connectivity to work.

We’ve also committed $50 million to the Telecommunications Disaster Resilience Innovation Program to accelerate the development and deployment of new and innovative solutions to address communication issues during natural disasters, which addresses recommendations made in the Black Summer Royal Commission.

As Christian said, as the Mayor of Bega during the 2019–2020 Black Summer bushfires I know only too well how crucial communications are during a natural disaster. It is no good having access to apps on your phone if you don’t have any connectivity. It won’t tell you much if you have no backup in your telecommunications towers. We need to address this because these are high-risk and high-stress situations.

We know that Australians are finding it harder to buy a house, and the rental market is very difficult to navigate. How good is it that now the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund will pass parliament. Because every regional community I’ve been to usually is talking about two critical factors – telecommunications is one and housing is the other. It’s so fantastic that we have now passed the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund, and we are committed to an ambitious housing reform agenda to boost the supply of housing.

National Cabinet had agreed to an ambitious national target of 1.2 million homes over five years from 1 July 2024. This also includes most critically for our regions, a $500 million housing support program open to state, local – state governments and local councils to do the enabling infrastructure which so often holds back housing supply and development in our regions. We’ve seen more than 6,000 people access the regional first home buyers guarantee and now having access to home ownership.

There is always more work to do in the skills sector, and I am very happy that we have our fee-free TAFE places much earlier than anticipated. The take-up of those fee-free places right across our region has been incredibly strong. This is in addition to the expanded Australia apprenticeships priority list and greater financial support to help those apprentices with cost of living pressures working in our regions.

We’ve got a Jobs and Skills Council which has been established to provide industry with a stronger, more strategic voice in ensuring Australia VET sector delivers better outcomes for learners and employers. Jobs and Skills Australia has an important role in providing regional skills needs analysis to support evidence-based workforce solutions, to provide advice on issues relating to skills and training and workforce needs in rural and remote Australia.

The Regional University Study Hub Program is now looking at taking an innovative approach to improve assess to tertiary education for regional and remote students. The study hubs we’ve announced – an additional 20 – build on the regional study hubs that the previous government developed – 34 across the country. All of us can agree that when we have access to better education and better support for people, we will see less people leaving our regions. It’s incredibly important that we continue to work on those regional study hubs across the country.

There has been an additional 20,000 Commonwealth-supported university places that we have funded. We’ve asked universities to apply for additional commonwealth-supported places for rural training medical fields. We know we have a doctor shortage across this country, and it is evident more than ever in our regions. The additional places and the additional capital funding that we’re putting into this is designed to attract more doctors to train and to practice in regional and rural Australia.

The government will provide $114.2 million over four years to deliver a permanent increase of 80 new medical places a year from 2024, and we are also delivering $82 million to invest in rural medical school infrastructure. We want to increase the supply of rural-trained doctors entering the workforce, helping families in rural and regional communities get better access to professional health care and medical services.

We know that migration plays a role in this as well. A couple of weeks ago Minister Giles met with the RDA network and they were able to hear directly from the Minister for Immigration about the work that is currently underway to reform the migration system to attract highly skilled migrant workers and provide more regulated pathways for migrant workers filling genuine skilled and workforce shortages.

It’s always a pleasure to be in a room where you have a committed group of people all with the aim of trying to improve the liveability and the service delivery across the regions. I have the great honour and great opportunity to speak with so many people about the things that they are most passionate about, the things that they want to see changed in their communities and the things that they know that they can deliver with just a little hand up.

Please continue to engage with government – with the government of the day, with the Opposition, with the crossbench – because it is incredibly important that you have the ear of policy-makers and decision-makers. It is not a nice to-do thing to listen to people; it is our job and it is a necessity that we continue to listen.

We love meeting with people, so continue to tread the halls, knock on the doors and never take no for an answer. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of your night.