Regional Australia Institute Summit, Canberra, Keynote address and Q & A

Host: Ms Liz Ritchie, co-CEO, Regional Australia Institute.

The Honourable Michael McCormack is of course our Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Development, and of course, the Leader of the National Party. He’s asked me not to go through his entire bio but I would say I’m very proud to share history with the Riverina. I know Michael still lives there but I’m also from the Riverina, so it’s lovely to have that in common. And we welcome you here today to launch our report The Future of Regional Jobs. Thank you very much, Michael.


Michael McCormack:

Thank you so much to Liz and thanks to Kim Houghton as well for your stewardship of this great organisation, the Regional Australia Institute. I know from its foundation in 2012, what an important part it’s played thus far, and what's going to be doing into the future. And to Mal Peters, your leadership, what you've done for regional Australia over many, many years cannot be understated, so thank you.

There are a few people in the room who I would also like to single out, and Jack Archer is one of them. I know Jack and I had a number of discussions about how we build regional Australia, how we build resilience, and Jack and Sue before him did a power of good, a power of work. And when we talk of good and in the public good, that was the motto of Charles Sturt, I know we have Andrew Vann and Fiona Nash from Charles Sturt University here today. And I think if we reflect upon that motto that Charles Sturt and the Sturt family had, ‘For the public good’, it really cuts through everything that everybody is here today to represent. And to that end, I'm going to acknowledge my good mate Stephen Jones.

Now we heard from Wal in the Welcome to Country talk about getting rid of the bad threats. Well you will, because Stephen and I will be leaving, going up the hill in a short while to go to Parliament. And more’s the pity Stephen, because we probably would learn a lot more if we stayed here today. We would probably learn a lot more, and of course, I know Stephen’s going to be addressing you in a minute; please listen carefully to his words, because he, like me, shares a passion for regional Australia. Regional Australia should be something which goes beyond the political sort of partisan arguments that we have up on the hill. Of course, yes we'll always argue the toss about certain things but he, like me, wants regional Australia to succeed; and he, like me, knows that when our regions are strong, so too is our nation. Now, all politics is local. In a few short weeks we're going to be having an election, and then of course Stephen and I won't be on the same page.

There are a couple of people who I do need to mention. Rachel Whiting and Richard Allsopp, just put your hands up there, for Regional Development Australia—Riverina. I only mention them because they're from Wagga Wagga, they’re from the Riverina; I need every vote I can get quite frankly, and anybody else from the Riverina or Central West who might be happening to vote for me, you know, well done to you for coming today.

Each and every one of you has come here today for perhaps a different reason but for the same reason, for—as Charles Sturt would have said—for the public good. We want our regions to succeed. We want them to go ahead. It's so critical, and this report, what a fantastic report it is. I've gone through it; I haven’t actually read it line for line, but I will. I certainly will, and I like some of the material and the challenges that it presents, the opportunities that it puts forward. It talks about what is next for regional Australia—and that is, of course, the question that you will be looking at today, that you'll be addressing through the policy hack.

What a great idea that is. I know Di Somerville from my own home town does these policy hacks—she did one last year called 8.8: The 8.8 million Australians who choose not to live in a metropolitan area, who choose not to live in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. Who here actually lives in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane or one of those big capital cities? Yes, I'll bet you like looking at the brake lights in front of you every day as you go to work—and I don't knock you; we need to have Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane succeed. They succeed on the back of regional Australia. Make no mistake, they do. And we want to make sure that everybody who lives in those regions understands the importance. So thank you for coming here today and sharing your wisdom as well.

Of course, from the National Party, we have a great decentralisation agenda. We want to make sure that if the job can be done in the regions, then why should it be done in the capital cities. Fiona Nash certainly led the charge in that regard and we will continue, where practical and where responsible, we will continue to look at the regions—not just for Government jobs, but we want to encourage private businesses. And I know Peter Strong’s here from COSBOA, from that organisation for small businesses. Small business was certainly looked after in the Budget.

I couldn't give this speech without mentioning the Budget. And in that Budget, there were some wonderful things for regional Australia. It really was a Budget for infrastructure, a Budget particularly for regional Australia, and I want to particularly hone in today on the $525 million skills package. This reflects on making sure that everybody has a place in the future, everybody has a job.

I would urge and encourage you to read this report and read it again, because it talks about, as I’ve said, what is next. It also talks about the balance that we need between those people who will not have white collar jobs because they choose not to do so—I think we’ve gone through a path of perhaps careers advisers, and parents too, wanting every Johnny and every Mary to go to university. And university is great. If you have a tertiary degree, good on you, that's fantastic. But I think we've gone through a generation where we perhaps did not acknowledge that if you have a skill or you have a trade certificate or a TAFE diploma, then that's every bit as good as a tertiary degree. I really do think that, I've always thought that, and I think this report acknowledges that.

The jobs of the future in regional Australia are many and varied. Regional Australia is not just riding on the sheep’s back. It may have once upon a time, it certainly doesn't these days. It's so different. We need a highly skilled workforce to take up positions in regional Australia and to make regional Australia the dynamic, robust, and vibrant place that it is now and certainly will be into the future.

That's why with the Budget, with the $525 million skills package, the Liberal and Nationals’ Government is creating 80,000 new apprenticeships in industries with skills shortages. So that's going to make the world of difference for our regions. Yes, there is money for our great universities, and I like to say Charles Sturt University and UNE and every one of the universities, and that would be a number of them represented here this morning, are doing a fantastic job in our country, coastal, remote, rural and regional areas. And for those 1,000 new scholarship places each year, this is an important announcement by Josh Frydenberg in the Budget.

But looking more to that $525 million skills package, we’ll double the incentive payments to employers to $8,000 per placement. With these new apprentices we want bakers, bricklayers—whatever they might be—nurses, carpenters, plumbers receiving an incentive payment to be able to continue to do what they do. Ten new training hubs will be connecting schools and local industries and young people in regional areas with high youth unemployment. We want people to know that regional Australia has the jobs for the future for them. We want them to know that it's more than just agriculture in our regional areas but that by the same token, agriculture has a huge future.

Since being in Government we've made sure that we've brokered Free Trade Agreements with South Korea, China, Japan; the Trans-Pacific Partnership 11 is a $13.3 trillion opportunity for regional Australia, for our nation. I say again, when our regions are strong, so too is our nation. And of course in discussions with Indonesia recently, India as well, we’re looking to broker even more trade arrangements. My colleague Mark Coulton, the Assistant Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment, is doing such a wonderful job in that regard.

Drought —and I appreciate that's going to be a discussion, whether it's in the policy forums or indeed around the coffee urn this morning—the drought is taking its toll. We as Parliamentarians stand side by side with our farmers, with our small businesspeople in the regions. We want to make sure that we help them get through this terrible, terrible drought. And of course the rain won't fall across our regional areas and then it comes down in buckets in northern Queensland. We live in a country of flooding rains and droughts. Our North Queensland friends have lost half a million cattle, lost fences—almost their entire livelihoods in recent times. That's a real struggle for them. But there is a future for them and we want to make sure that we back them all the way. I know you people back them all the way.

I know people like Geoff Pritchard, and I mentioned Geoff, a doctor from Tumut, somebody who is no longer in my electorate—more's the pity, I loved representing Tumut; but Geoff, I know Stephen, he's going to vote for your side of politics. But that's the beauty of regional Australia, that's the beauty of the Regional Australia Institute—it is that we bring people from all walks of life, from all sides of politics, people who just care about the regions, who want to make sure our regions succeed. And Geoff is a wonderful exemplar of a doctor who has lived in Tumut, who has pushed small business, who wants to make sure that his community has a future by standing on council. He's been a former Mayor and somebody who's represented Tumut fiercely for many, many years.

It’s a great town, a town that's going ahead. I’ve always said that Tumut just doesn't have Wynyard Street, it’s got there two or three main streets thanks to Visy, acknowledging the fact that that great cardboard maker and other things besides has a plant in Tumut which provides hundreds upon hundreds of jobs. They're the sorts of jobs that we want in our regional communities. It’s just like the Inland Rail is going to provide hundreds and hundreds of jobs in each and every one of those communities right up and down the line.

I look at the sort of infrastructure that we announced in this week's Budget: $100 billion of infrastructure. And I'll just finish quickly with this little story: Last week I was in a remote Western Australian community—where are all our friends from Western Australia here? Excellent. Thank you for coming right across, that's a big effort, big trip. Put your hands together for our West Australian friends. (Applause). So there I was in Laverton, in outback WA the other day and we were announcing $160 million for more roadworks on the Outback Way. The Outback Way of course is Australia's longest shortcut. It goes from Winton in Queensland right through to Laverton in WA. And we were there at the westernmost point where the bitumen ends for the Outback Way—12 kilometres out of Laverton—and I was there with Patrick Hill the local Shire President, the Aboriginal elder and quite a few businesspeople.

We were looking out at this stretch of the red soil and this fellow who owns a mining business there said to me: You know that 155 kilometres of bitumen that you’re going to lay down, he said, that's really significant. He said I appreciate that that's going to cost $70 million or so for the West Australian section of the investment that you’ve made here today. But he said that investment is so good for regional Australia, it's so good for business. It's going to actually save lives. He said: But I’ll tell you, it takes my trucks 12 hours to get from here to my business, to my mine—12 hours. He said: How many hours do you think that's going to cut, that 155 kilometres of asphalt that you’re laying down? I said I’ve no idea; I said how many hours reduction? He said nine. He said that will take the trip down to three hours because, he said we can only move our trucks about 40 kilometres an hour on the corrugated road, because the corrugated is so bad that it breaks the trailers in half when they carry such heavy mining equipment. He said: So that’s actually going to save frustration. He said: It's going to increase productivity and efficiency, it's going to ultimately save lives because the grey nomads use this road, tourists use this road. He said: This is going to open up this area of remote Western Australia. He said: Thank you so much for the investment.

And that's why we do what we do. We’re investing in roads, we're investing in rail, we're investing in trade opportunities and we're investing in perhaps the most important component of all and that is people.

And when you invest in people—through the $525 million skills package, through the scholarships program, through the tertiary institutions that we've got represented here today—and when we invest in such things that help regional Australia, we only increase the chances of regional Australia. It has a very bright future. It has a bright future because you people are here today and you're going to be talking and discussing and going through all of the great things to only enhance regional Australia. And it also gets enhanced by such things as this great report, The Future of Regional Jobs. There are many, there are varied regional jobs that will take place in the future. Some of the jobs we don't even know yet—they haven't been even thought of or invented yet. But I'm sure when they are and I'm sure when they do, the Regional Australia Institute will be right behind them.

Thank you very much to the Regional Australia Institute bosses, to the people who make this organisation tick. It's a great organisation. I wish it all the very best in the future. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen.


Host:   Now, it’s the time for questions from the floor and I know we don't have a shy audience. We've got people roving around with microphones. Michael has kindly offered several minutes to take a few questions, so we’d love to hear some from the floor. So do I have any starters?

Question: [Indistinct] Michael, I was just reflecting on our use of language because I wonder if we should be saying—we talk about investments in regional Australia—we should be talking about investments in Australia. You make the point that our national successes build off the back, to a large extent, of what regional Australia does. But I think we need to think about regional Australia as a national project, not as special pleading or something that is done incidentally.

Michael McCormack: Yes. I’ll take that as a comment rather than a question, but you’re totally right and I know your organisation for instance (Charles Sturt University) does so much work obviously here for Australia but indeed worldwide and it's actually taken a global focus to what we do here in Australia. And yes, I say again when our regions are strong so too as our nation and you're right, you're totally right in everything that you said.

Question: I mentioned our second research project this year is looking at mid-sized towns, and what that means is the population between 5,000 and 50,000. We're going to be investigating what liveability means to these mid-size towns and how these communities can both attract and retain and build their vibrancy. So I’d just love a comment from you about what role Government can play in assisting the greater liveability of our regional communities?

Michael McCormack: Yes, you’re totally right. Our towns between 5 and 50,000, I always like to think are big enough to get a good cup of coffee and small enough to care. So when people do visit them or indeed when they live in those towns, they know that if something goes wrong, if there's a bad tragedy or an accident or somebody gets very, very ill, there'll be somebody either next door or somebody who's just met them or somebody who knows them who provide a meal for them, who will still do that really country care factor.

But they're also big enough and vibrant enough, thanks I have to say to the rollout of the NBN—and I know that Joe Dennis is sitting here, I might touch in part on the NBN, and Fiona Nash as the former Regional Communications Minister did exactly the same, and I know that NBN are one of our great sponsors.

So connectivity is critical, making sure that our regional communities are connected. I have to say we don't apologise for the fact that when we took over Government, we looked at some of those towns which perhaps were on the fringe of that 5000—towns like Temora and Forbes just in my own patch—which didn't have a lot of connectivity: We actually put them first rather than the big regional capitals which already had a service which was good enough to get them through in the short term. But we really looked at those towns which had little or no connectivity to boost them up too.

It's all well and good for the Tamworths and the Dubbos, and the Waggas and the Albury-Wodongas to survive and thrive and they are always going to thrive. But it’s also those smaller towns, the Narranderas, those towns which may have been vibrant once, but when they’ve had a huge grain elevator board pull out or a large organisation for whatever reason shut down or shed jobs, an organisation as large as Visy, not that Visy’s going to do that, then they really suffered.

So we need to look at not just the big regional capitals but also those smaller towns and we do that through better connectivity. We do that through such things as decentralisation. You only have to look at AgriFutures Australia, which was the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation for such a long time, moved it out of Canberra because they don't grow too much wheat in Barton and Kingston, moved it into Wagga; it’s at Charles Sturt University on site there. And now there are 13 well-paid jobs, it’s increased to about 21, and the people are on the ground talking to the people with whom they interact.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority is now moving into Griffith—30 well-paid jobs with people actually face-to-face with the people with whom they interact. So these are the sorts of things that we can do. We want to make our regions more liveable and I acknowledge the Regional Australia Institute’s push and bid to do just that.

Question: [Indistinct] …you rightly mentioned the opportunities for Inland Rail, for jobs in the regions. I’m just interested in your thoughts around the sustainability of those jobs, that they are a positive impact for the long term, not something that perhaps will cause a regional shock when Inland Rail is constructed and moves along, appreciating that there will be maintenance on the railway. But how do we ensure the transferability and sustainability of those skills for the regions?

Michael McCormack: Thank you for that and you’re right. There are (indistinct) jobs in the construction phase and I know that 14,000 tonnes of Whyalla steel, Liberty steel, South Australian steel, Australian jobs, was dropped off at Parkes just the other day to complete the Narromine to Parkes section of the Inland Rail; and I know the jobs are being created providing ballast and sleepers and all the way along the line. There was a report done, an independent study done just recently through the CSIRO which identified that the $10 per tonne saving on goods from regional Australia to port is now going to be actually a $94 saving at most and a $76 per tonne saving on average. That’s a significant saving for those businesses, those farmers who are going to be able to utilise the Inland Rail.

But right up and down the corridor, there are intermodal hubs being built, there are intermodal hubs being thought of and that will attract businesses such as Southern Oil, which started in Wagga Wagga, just turning sump oil into good oil, used oil into renewed oil at only a little factory—it has now expanded into Gladstone.

That’s in what they call the Riverina Intermodal Freight and Logistics Hub at Bomen, north Wagga Wagga. Now, that business will only grow and this is just one of many that I know will grow at Wagga Wagga. And that's just one place, let alone Parkes, which will become quite frankly—because it's on the east, west, north and south intersection—that's going to become a boom town. The opportunities for Parkes are incredible.

But right through Queensland, right through Victoria—and it's not just for regional Australia either, it's also at either end of Melbourne and Brisbane to get their goods inland—it's such an incredible opportunity. But the skills that that will provide, not just for railway fettlers as might once been thought of with a rail line, but for so many other business opportunities it's going to open up regional Australia, just like better connectivity through NBN, just like anything that opens up inland areas. Decentralisation provides the same incentive and provides the same impetus and momentum.

Host: In the interests of time, we would like to give our thanks to The Hon Michael McCormack.