Tremendous opportunity amid challenges for regional Australia

The fight to protect our country and economy against coronavirus rightly continues to take centre stage, but for Australians the year we have left behind us - and the year ahead - present significant long-term opportunities for growth.

This is particularly true for regional Australia which has played a leading role throughout the tests of 2020.

The largely regional-based industries of agriculture and mining and resources have underpinned the economy, while many other businesses and workers discovered it was possible - and desirable - to work effectively away from the offices in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.

The Regional Australia Institute's latest data shows there are 54,000 vacancies in the regions, so there are employment prospects for those seeking work.

The focus of the Nationals in government is to continue to create jobs for regional Australia and to their futures in areas such as water infrastructure, road and rail. And we are doing that by investing in the regions.

The October budget was the best ever budget for regional Australia. It delivered an increase of $10 billion to our infrastructure rolling 10-year pipeline, with a third of that now $110 billion record spend dedicated to our regions. Water is our nation's lifeblood which is why the federal government is also building on our existing investment in water infrastructure projects.

The 2020-21 budget committed an additional $2 billion in funding for projects through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund.

This more than doubles the fund and provides a total commitment of $3.5 billion to deliver increased water security, build resilience in our regions, deliver jobs and grow our critical farm sector.

The National Water Grid Advisory Body was also established in 2020.

Last year was also a year of delivery on the ground - including completion of north-east Tasmania's $57.3 million Scottsdale Irrigation Scheme, the Coolanie Water Scheme and the McLaren Vale Scheme in South Australia, along with construction under way on Gippsland's Macalister Irrigation District modernisation project phase two and Victoria's $116 million Western Irrigation Network project.

In Queensland, the $352.2 million Rookwood Weir is moving ahead and the Big Rocks Weir business case for North Queensland has been released, while NSW has a doubling of our Wyangala Dam commitment to $325 million and our Dungowan Dam commitment to $242 million.

Although air travel is heavily impacted by the pandemic, the government continues to support the sector, which continues to play a critical role maintaining essential supplies and widely used passenger links across our continent through our regional and domestic network support programs.

The Regional Airlines Funding Assistance program has kept planes in the air, and thus jobs on the ground.

Our support of international cargo flights enabled the export of more than 220,000 tonnes of in-demand Aussie products with an export value of more than $3 billion in the seven months to early December.

Round one alone of the $100 million regional airports program funded $41.2 million of critical safety works across 61 projects Australia-wide.

This year will see delivery of the government's five-year plan for aviation - taking further strides in the effort to build a competitive, energetic and safe aviation sector.

Maritime safety has been enhanced through a national system for domestic commercial vessel safety, funded through a $76 million injection with an extra $11 million providing further financial relief for maritime businesses.

Roads and road safety are pivotal elements of the all-time record $110 billion infrastructure rollout over a decade.

Fatalities on the Pacific Highway have already been cut in half with travel time between Hesham and the Queensland border slashed by 2.5 hours - taking Australians home sooner and safer.

Other highlights of 2020 included Sydney's long-awaited $867 million NorthConnex, completion of the Mackay Ring Road and upgrade of the M1 into Brisbane.

Rolling investment under roads of strategic importance, black spots, the three tranches of the road safety program and record funding to councils are all delivering on our road safety pledge.

Across our great regions, our investments - from COVID-related assistance to boosting the instant asset write-off for small and medium businesses, through to huge demand under the Building Better Regions Fund - we are positioning regional Australia for new growth in 2021.

Originally published in The Canberra Times on 1 February 2021.