Keynote address at the Regional Australia Institute Summit dinner
KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Well, thank you very much for that very kind introduction, Christian. I’m a very proud Traralgon girl, Gippslander at heart. Much to Darren Chester’s dismay, after I got elected in July 2020, there was a Facebook page called “Women in Gippsland” and they did a feature on me and he screenshotted it and sent it to me and he said, “you don’t even live here anymore!” Further to his dismay, after I was announced as a Minister in the new Government, the local radio station ran this whole, you know, every half an hour and the hour, on the news segment, “former Traralgon girl Kristy McBain elected Minister in an Albanese Labor Government.” Tough! Once a Gippslander, always a Gippslander, as they say.
Thank you, guys, so much for having me here today. I really do appreciate it. It is fantastic to be here, and I want to thank Christian for that very kind introduction, Liz and your team at RAI for putting today on. You can see from the amount of people in the room how important regional development is right across our country. And there is, I think – post-COVID we were kind of looking at how we can attract people to the regions and what will keep people there, how are we going to attract more investment, more people to come? And now we’re thinking: how do we house all these people that want to live in regional Australia? For us that have lived there our entire lives, we know how spectacular in a number of ways our regions are, but they do have their challenges and it’s fantastic we’ve got a room full of people who are prepared to think outside the box, think about the solutions that we could utilise in the regions, and really come up with those locally-led solutions, which is near and dear to my heart.
I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of where we are and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. As a Government committed to a referendum on enshrining that First Nations voice in the Constitution, I think it is really important that we do much more than just acknowledge our First Nations people, that we actually start acting in a way that moves us towards full reconciliation in this country.
It’s fabulous to be here today, as I’ve already said. And I know from previous dinners, this speech has, you know, been the highlight of everyone’s night! I promise I won’t go longer than an hour! My new role is not only enjoyable; it is a huge passion of mine. In fact, when the Prime Minister rang me to say this would be my portfolio, I was in David Jones shopping for shoes. I did not tell him that! And I very carefully put my hand over the end of the phone so he couldn’t hear the clutter outside, forgot where I was when he told me what portfolio was and I was like, “awesome!” And then I had numerous people in David Jones looking at me, like, “what is this weirdo doing on the phone?” But I am super passionate about it because our regions really do hold the key, I think, to the potential of this country. Not only is it responsible for a huge number of our gross domestic product, it’s responsible for the majority of our exports. It is the best place to live, the most liveable place.
But we have become probably far too accustomed at being resilient. It’s an overused word and it really grinds my gears. Having been a mayor of a local community who endured nine declared natural disasters in my term – and that was only four years – and my entire electorate Eden–Monaro has endured 36 natural disasters in five years, some communities get really annoyed with those words. We shouldn’t have to be resilient sometimes. Sometimes it is good to feel the pain of what you’re going through and it’s good to acknowledge it. It’s good to speak about it. We shouldn’t have to go without things or make do just because we don’t live in a metropolitan city. So, I really want to make sure that we are here tonight talking about some of the issues that we see day in, day out in our regional communities, but we’re also looking at solutions. And what I used to say to my community was, “yes, this has happened to us, but what are the opportunities for us going forward?”
And I think now as we move into this post‑COVID world, there are a whole range of opportunities out there for regional Australia that we can grab with both hands and wholeheartedly put our backs into making work for our communities. And for me, that is about listening to local communities, to what they’re saying, to their ideas, to their solutions, and actually paying some credence to the lived experience of people in our communities. The one‑size‑fits‑all approach doesn’t work. And as governments, we should encourage that. This top-down idea that here’s a great policy and we can just change it to make it work in your community is not what we should be about. We should be about empowering local communities to bring their ideas to us, to saying, “we can make that work for you”, not the other way around. I think it’s really important that we have those bold, brave conversations not only in these rooms but in every room. Because without these conversations we actually never get to good decision‑making. We need to get down to nuance, and that’s really tough for governments to do. But we do need to do it. And I think we saw in COVID this one‑size‑fits‑all approach really doesn’t work.
My electorate is 42,000 square kilometres and David Littleproud is looking at me like, “oh, wow‑wee”!
But in some of our communities, you know, with a town of 300 people who were an hour from their nearest town and the nearest town was in Victoria not in New South Wales, they were locked down like they were living in Sydney. That doesn’t work. like everyone in the town was like, “Kristy, we don’t go anywhere. We can’t. We can’t cross the border to go to Woolworths. We’ve got to travel an hour and a half into New South Wales to go to my closest Woolworths because I’m not allowed to cross the border to go to Woolworths which is 20 minutes away.” There was a real lack of understanding that yes, I understand that there are lines on a map which signify a whole range of state borders and territory borders, but to communities, it doesn’t really mean much. We have communities of interest that sometimes cross borders, and that’s a good thing. What we should be doing is empowering those communities to work closer together and far too often our laws mean that for whatever reason we make it very difficult for ourselves.
I’ll give you a bit of background about me, but first of all, I want to acknowledge the amazing 2022 Australia Day awardee and local hero Shanna Whan.
Well before I was in this role, I’d been following her on social media because I think what she’s doing with Sober in the Country is so important and I’m so glad that you were recognised in these Australia Day awards. It’s been a real honour to meet you and I totally fangirl‑ed and went, “can I get a picture?” So, I really look forward to hearing you a bit later.
My story starts in 2012. I mean, we could go all the way back to 1982 at Traralgon hospital. I don’t remember much about that day. I didn’t know Christian was living across the road. I should have a chat to my mum and see if she can recall. She probably doesn’t either. My story starts in 2012 and I was on maternity leave. I had a two-and-a-half‑year‑old and a three‑month old and there was a decision made about one of my local playgrounds, and at the time the council consisted of eight men, one woman and they were all over 55. And I was like, “how on Earth are they going to make a decision about the playground when they don’t even use it?” So, I said to my mum all frustrated and hormonal, “Mum” – told her and my mum and dad for many, many years, their saying to me was, “put up or shut up.” Well, that’s it. I’m putting up.
So, the same year we started our plumbing business. So, you know, off I trot to put in my nomination for local council and I ring my husband and I say, “just nominated for local council”, and he goes, “great, we have so much time on our hands”! So, we’ve got a plumbing business, an apprentice, a qualified plumber, we’ve got two kids, I’m on maternity leave, I’m doing the books as you do in the regions, because you wear multiple hats, and I decided I would run for council. And I thought that’s a great idea. When I told the Labor Party how much I spent on my first council election – $550 – they said to me, “you’re kidding me. How did you get elected?” And I was, like, “well, I was the youngest by 30 years, I used social media!”
But I said to my husband, “it’s all right. I won’t get elected. Don’t worry about it.” I did. My first day in the council chamber I walked in with Max in tow. He was about three months, probably four months by this stage, pushing the pram. I said, “this is so great. I’m so excited about this. I can’t do Tuesdays. I can’t get day care.”
“Can we change our meeting day to Wednesdays?” You can imagine. Imagine the looks. There was a former mayor who was about 70 and he said to me, “no, we can’t do that. How will anyone know we meet on a Wednesday?”. “Maybe we should tell them.” Eventually, I got them to vote with me, so we changed our meeting day to a Wednesday, which was fantastic, and it was an interesting first, you know, foray into public life. As the youngest by some years, I would show up to things and people would say, “oh, what are you here for?” “I’m a councillor.” And that didn’t change when I became the mayor in 2016. I showed up to New South Wales – people will know the Country Mayors Association. I showed up to the Country Mayors Association and I was greeted by someone at the door who said, “what are you here for?” I said, “Country Mayors Association.” He said where are you from?” I said, “Bega.” He said, “what do you do there?”
Anyway! Sometimes being the person who sticks out in a room is helpful. So, I became known as “young Kristy”, “opinionated Kristy”. That’s fine.
But I really loved my time in local government because it really is the only level of government that has its hands into every town and village across this nation. For some of our communities, it is the only level of government they’ll ever interact with and some of those interactions will be “bloody council!” but at least they know we’re there. I do a bunch of things in my own community and now in this new role talking to people about how important local councils are. For some people, they don’t realise that councils are much more than roads, rates and rubbish. They are so much more than roads, rates and rubbish. If I could give anyone some examples of things that local councils do that they would not understand. So, when you have bushfires burning all around you, who do you think is out there making sure the generator works to keep water pumping to towns? It was your council staff. During COVID, we had council staff manning roadblocks, blocking off people’s streets. Council staff, I think, do such an amazing amount with so little money and so little recognition, and I really want to make sure that we are taking this level of government seriously going forward.
As I’ve told you, my region went through multiple natural disasters, and if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what they could do for me from another level of government and didn’t deliver what I would ask them to do, I would be bloody rich. And sometimes that’s not for lack of wanting to try. It’s just that there are so many hoops sometimes to jump through and we have to make that easier because we do better when we work together, when we’re actually all growing in the same direction with the same shared goal, because our idea of success at a federal level should be similar to what it is at a state level, similar to what it is at a local government level. We are all there as champions of our community and we need to be working together to make sure that those nuanced ideas and solutions can be actually implemented in our communities.
I definitely know that I come to this role with rose‑coloured glasses and that’s okay. I’m fine with that. Because I think that if we come always doom and gloom and looking at the things that have gone wrong and the things that should have and could have been done better, they actually get done worse. So, sometimes putting out your hopes and dreams and your aspirations actually work in your favour. I never aspired to be a federal politician or even a local councillor before that, but one thing that I do do is be really honest about what I think could be done, should be done and I don’t shy away from those difficult conversations. I didn’t even shy away when somebody tried to hunt down Michael McCormack and I when he opened up the local airport at my local council. Climate protesters were attacking him and I thought to myself: I shouldn’t shy away from this, I should stand here and take it with him. Luckily for us, as the Acting Prime Minister of the day, the security guards stepped in really early!
As regional leaders, we need to be engaged. We need to be engaged early on in the conversations. And that’s the one thing that I want to say loudly and clearly to this room is that I want you to engage with me. My job is to not only be an advocate for Eden–Monaro but be an advocate for the entire regional development landscape, to make sure that I’m working alongside our local councils to get the absolute best out of you and out of what this Government can help you deliver in your communities. Those partnership roles are so important, and I think now more than ever we need to believe that we can do things differently. The Jobs and Skills Summit was held a couple of weeks ago, and I held nine roundtables in the lead‑up to that summit. The stakeholders across those few days were fantastic and there were some consistent themes coming out in the entire time: housing affordability and availability; reliable service delivery, whether that be childcare, healthcare services or digital connectivity; locally trained workforces to support our young people to stay in their regions or to retrain people; and the importance of an attractive cohesive community with infrastructure that attracts and retains people to our regions. Those themes were consistent regardless of where people were from, what level of government, what organisation; they were consistent the entire time.
We need to strengthen our migration system. We have seen skills and job shortages right across our regional communities. We know that we need to work on getting a pipeline of workers from underemployed groups and underrepresented groups across our country. We know that this is not going to be solved by one level of government alone and it’s not going to be solved in one term of government. These are long-term structural issues that we have to turn our mind to, and we all have to lift our gaze above election cycles to actually start to deliver real change to our communities.
One of the reasons that I was so excited to take on the portfolio was because we need to make sure that local government has a voice back at the table in National Cabinet. We need to return the Australian Council of Local Government, which has been missing for many years. The opportunity for our locally elected mayors, councillors, CEOs, to speak directly to the Prime Minister, to Cabinet, to Ministers, to the decision-makers in the room about what is needed in their communities is vitally important. I’m really committed to listening to the voice of our regional communities because unless we’re actually listening, we don’t get the outcomes that we’re all after. Your presence here shows that you’re committed to doing the same thing, and I thank you for it because a lot of us when we show up to these things, we get huge rib for showing up for the “the free dinner” or the “junket couple of days” that you’re going to spend here, but the importance of doing this is that not only do you get to listen to the fantastic panel members, the amazing Shanna Whan, who you’ll hear from shortly, but you get to speak with each other and the things that take place in between the formal things, that networking, should never be underestimated.
Part of the success of the Jobs and Skills Summit, despite what Peter Dutton says, is the networking that took place in between the formalities of the summit. That collaboration took place between industry, Government, unions, employer groups, all of that magic was in between the formalities. And there is so much that happens in the cracks of our daily lives which are the important parts. It’s not just about going to work. It’s about the conversations you have over coffee. It’s the conversations that you have after work or the beer that you have that actually resulted in a really good connection for the next thing you’re going to. So, please continue to do this. Far too often we get accused of “showing up to these things and they don’t result in anything, they’re all big talkfests”. The magic sauce is the bits in between and that’s so important because it’s the bits in between that lead to real action and real change.
So, thank you for all committing your time to this event and to all of the other things you do across regional Australia because for so many of us you know that it is the same people that show up as the P&C volunteers and running the local soccer club and all the other things we do with multiple hats on.
But I also get to do something else really fantastic now. I get to introduce Sam Stevenson. So, Sam is our one of our local musicians who comes from the same town as I do – well, we’re in the same town now. I think you were born in Bombala. Is that right?
SAM STEVENSON: Yeah, I was.
KRISTY MCBAIN: So, Sam is a Bombala boy but lives in Tura Beach with me now. He’s an amazing musician. He does fantastic work. He was the voice of the Black Summer bushfires for so many of us and you might have heard him on the ABC. He supported acts like Amy Shark and Brad Cox and, you know, in true regional spirit, despite COVID, he went and recorded his own album which will be released very shortly. So, I’m going to leave you with Sam Stevenson who is an amazing musician, who lives in the regions, calls them home and does us all very, very proud on any stage he attends. Thanks.