Transcript - Address to the Regional Australia Institute

12:12PM

MICHAEL McCORMACK

You could be in Carnarvon, in Ceduna, in Charters Towers, even in Cootamundra, birthplace of Sir Donald Bradman – if there’s one thing COVID has taught us, we can contribute without having to sit around a boardroom table in Sydney or the Melbourne CBD. Indeed, we can be anywhere in Australia, we don’t have to be in a capital city. 

We can be in one of those far flung corners and we can Zoom in, I imagine people on this call, on this telepresence, are doing just that, from all points of the nation today…

… and so Regional Australia Institute directors and staff including the fabulous CEO Liz Ritchie. Ladies and gentlemen.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to meet “virtually” with you today.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the various lands from which we meet today, including Ngunnawal country in Canberra, and pay tribute to elders past, present and emerging.

Regional Australia is vital to the fabric of Australian life and a key driver of national economic outcomes. It is also home to more and more Australians, looking for a better and a safer life.

Regional Australia holds the key to Australia’s economic recovery, post-COVID.

We have the industries, the services and certainly the people to drive economic innovation, to open up new markets and to take fullest advantage of regional Australia’s “clean green” reputation world-wide and the regions remain largely COVID-free.

We have every reason to be optimistic about the future for regional Australia. Every reason!

And I look forward to sharing more good news, making a major address to Parliament next Thursday on the Budget outcomes for regional Australia.

But right now, the Regional Australia Institute, the great organisation that it is has found 45,600 vacancies for jobs – good jobs, good-paying jobs – in the regions, with employers hiring right now.

Good jobs dovetail with fast-developing infrastructure, stronger transport and communication links and competitive living costs - including your mortgage - to present Australia’s regions as the best place you can choose.

Having always lived in regional Australia and now as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Regional Development, Transport and Infrastructure and Nationals’ Leader having the privilege of working for regional Australia –  and it is a great privilege – it’s easy to see why we can all be so passionate about the future for our regions.

Indeed, why would you live anywhere else?

Real estate professionals are reporting strong regional interest during COVID-19. While affordability is a key consideration, there is much that Governments can also do to encourage – as the popular ABC show has dubbed it – an Escape from the City.

Here’s what a real estate agent in the Riverina, Greg Howick of Fitzpatricks Real Estate in Wagga says:

“Since COVID came in we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in real estate investment from a commercial point of view. People see bricks and mortar as a pretty sound investment”.

And we know farm prices held up and were strong in most parts despite the drought, through the drought they held up.

This is regional confidence … confidence echoing across Australia.

If what we have now is good – we can make it even better and we’ll do it together.

There are policy options which, taken together, will drive the growth of our regions, making them an even better place in which to live, work, raise and family – and to visit.

This is central to the framing of the 2020-21 Budget.

We’re dealing with major circumstances which are not of our own making –  COVID-19 risk, flooding, bushfires, prolonged drought. But as regional Australians we are used to playing with the hand we’re dealt and making the most of our circumstances.

Through enormous challenges we continue to see quintessential Aussie values – resilience, adaptation, innovation.

That’s how regional Australians work. We meet our challenges head-on. We confront them.

That’s how the Australia we know and love today was built by our forebears. It’s how we will continue to honour their legacy, their toughness, their never-give-up attitude – their optimism in the face of incredible adversity.

Regional tourism is among sectors hardest hit by COVID. Be it snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, visiting Uluru or even a bike ride in Derby in Tasmania – regional tourism is built on the backs of family businesses. Helping these businesses and their communities back onto their feet is vital.

Likewise, farming and mining communities continue to progress despite the COVID downturn – but we must get products out to market at a time of aviation downturn – and here again, the Government is working hand in glove with regional communities to beat the COVID pandemic.

There are silver linings. The pandemic has shown working from home on a mass scale is not only possible but for many it’s preferable, highly efficient and indeed, highly productive.

A recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey tells us one third of Australians now expect to spend less time at their usual workplace than they did prior to the pandemic risk arising.

In a post-COVID world – especially when we do land a vaccine – we can expect demand for regional industry and services to not only recover but indeed to build over time.

Already Australia’s regions are second to none in offering quality lifestyles, good and well paid jobs, free of big city congestion. Why would I want to look at the brake lights in front of me for an hour and a half every day. The regions offer quality services such as education and health – and offering big cost savings on city living, not least the competitive, quality real estate.

Escapees from the big cities fall in love with what they experience when they make the regions their new home.

From the coast to the outback, from apartments to acreages, investment in regional housing is not just good for quality of life – it’s great economics, too.

Chair of Evocities, Kevin Mack, has been a great mate of mine for many years and he is also the Mayor of Albury City. Ten years, he told me, of data of the 3,700 families that relocated to one of the seven Evocities have between them delivered $37 million of economic boost to those regions. Consider that.

Mortgage costs are often the big chunk of household budgets – another reason why a sea or tree change makes so much sense. Housing product suppliers are saying the regions are where the action is, especially with HomeBuilder program incentives.

Direct feedback from regional Australians is informing the Government’s plan.

People on the ground have some clear messages:

They want to be connected, through safe roads, rail and aviation and through broadband and mobile technology.

They want family and small businesses to be valued and supported.

They want regions to be friendly and enjoyable spaces for families.

They also want development opportunities for people and skills, through training, through education and employment.

And they want strong local leaders, to give voice to regional communities and their wants and needs and interests.

In essence, our Government’s regional Australia policy today has three key components: We’re helping regions in transition. We’re also doubling down on opportunities for growing regions; and we’re nation-building in our regions – so important.

To make sure our regions are great places to work and live, we are continuing to invest in new infrastructure, digital connectivity, business innovation, leadership and sustainable natural resources including water security.

I make no secret of my view: Water and quality soils are a key to the future of the regions.

With adequate supplies of quality water, regional Australia’s future – industry, communities – our future is boundless, absolutely limitless.

Recently I announced appointments to a National Water Grid Advisory Body. The eight-member Body is providing independent, expert advice on specific water infrastructure policies, projects and investments to the Government to deliver the National Water Grid.

The National Water Grid will help secure reliable supplies of water for rural and regional Australia now and way into the future.

That announcement is just one part of how this Government is building water infrastructure for the 21st Century, but for the here and now to increase our water security, build resilience in our regions, deliver jobs and grow our critical agriculture sector.

Now through the drought and in spite of the drought, would you believe, agriculture grew from $60 billion by another billion dollars despite everything that was brought against it and what we want to do is make it, by 2030, $100 billion sector and we’ll do it. We’ll do it with water security.

In just a year, the National Water Grid Authority has completed more than 50 feasibility studies into water projects.

Just last week I announced a doubling of our capital commitment to Wyangala and Dungowan Dams in NSW.  This additional funding takes the Federal Government’s investment in just these two dams to $567 million, which is matched by the State Government.

Adding capacity to these dams will deliver more than 650 gigalitres of water which is the equivalent of 1.2 Sydney Harbours’ worth of water.

Look at what this means around Dungowan Dam: Increased storage from 6.3 gigalitres to 22.5 gigalitres; highly reliable supply to beef, sheep, grain, lucerne and poultry producers – and perhaps most importantly securing long-term water for people of Tamworth.

We will continue to work closely with our state and territory government partners, informed by a strong scientific evidence base, to identify, plan and invest in water infrastructure projects across the country.

I reiterate: The Australian Government understands how central water security is to the future of our regions and I will have a lot more to say next week about this.

Regions need to be connected across Australia, with decent and safe roads, rail and telecommunications.

There’s a huge investment under way in this space. For example, the $9.3 billion Inland Rail corridor of steel will deliver new efficiencies, new savings – up to $94 a tonne less cost - as regional communities deliver product to market, they find new customers and grow their businesses.

We’re fixing mobile phone black spots – fixing them apace.

Telstra has reported more than 44,000 emergency calls using towers funded through the mobile black spot program since it began – that’s 44,000 emergency calls through company alone.

The Government is investing in better regional digital connectivity. This empowers businesses to connect to new customers, create more jobs and enjoy a stronger financial bottom line and that is what it is all about, they get a better financial bottom line, they hire more people, they open more markets.

New upgrades to the National Broadband Network will substantially improve connectivity in regional, remote and rural Australia.

Our $4.5 billion network investment plan will give up to 75 per cent of fixed line premises across regional and metropolitan Australia access to ultra-fast broadband by 2023. It’s not far away.

And more than 700,000 businesses in 240 Business Fibre Zones will be eligible to access speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, significantly uplifting the digital capability of small- and medium-sized businesses.

I know how important this is, I used to run a business from home, a small business and we were able to do great thing but imagine having better connectivity and how much better these businesses. This includes 85 Business Fibre Zones located in regional areas, which will see wholesale pricing slashed by up to 67 per cent.

Today, Regional Communications Minister Mark Coulton and I are pleased to announce the Government will invest an additional $30 million in the Regional Connectivity Program to support the delivery of reliable, affordable and innovative digital services and technologies in regional Australia.

The Regional Connectivity Program’s objective is as clear as it is simple: to maximise economic and social opportunities across regional, rural and remote Australia and its communities through improved connectivity.

This increased funding, which will take the Government’s total investment in the program to more than $83 million, reflects the strong interest from regional businesses and communities in the productivity gains and social benefits which increased connectivity will generate for our regions.

Already the program has attracted a plethora of suggested projects, as its website shows.

As Jane Cay, founder of Cooma’s Birdsnest clothing company has shown business can be done from anywhere. She is operating out of Cooma, she’s employing lots and lots of Australians who but for Jane would not be in this sort of industry, would probably not be living in Cooma. It is people like here who are leading our communities and we want more of them.

Communities want more reliable phone services, better emergency communications; they want guaranteed connections; they need internet reliability and we’re giving it to them. These services are particularly important as regional communities rebuild after the ravages of drought, bushfires and COVID-19.

It has been very difficult and I say thank you again to those regional communities. Our regional communities have largely remained COVID-free and it is because our regional Australians have done the right thing, they have looked after one another, they have looked after each other. They care. They understand how important it is to listen to the advice of the medical and health experts.

The Government understands. We love the regions. We live in the regions. I do and so many of my colleagues do too. More than this, the Government is working right alongside our regional communities to deliver better connectivity and with it a higher quality of life.

Connectivity delivers fantastic dividends. Take Telehealth - Our investment in digital connectivity supports the delivery of vital health services.

It doesn’t replace a doctor but it ensures reliable medical services in some cases where there were very little.

Telehealth is crucial for rural health professionals to be able to deliver health services in the bush given the ability to increase access for many patients who would otherwise face long and expensive travel – and over the past six months, Telehealth has been a critical component of the Government’s pandemic response to support Australians and frontline health workforce.

Family and small businesses are the backbone of regional economies.

We know once a small business shuts, often it doesn’t sadly come back. So it’s vital we have as many small businesses as possible stay open – not just to keep existing jobs but create new ones. Paying less tax and that is what we are about too.

Most recently the Government has complemented jobs-oriented investments through JobKeeper, JobSeeker and JobTrainer with small business focused actions including the most significant reforms to Australia’s insolvency framework in three decades.

We’re seeing extraordinary innovation among small regional businesses through the COVID-19 crisis. This is a great sign of the strength, the resilience and the ability for regions to adapt.

Access to essential services is a key to the liveability of or regions.

The Government is committed to delivery of high quality education, health and aged care across Australia’s seven million square kilometres of land mass.

We will and we must continue making regions a friendly and enjoyable space for current and arriving families. Many of those arriving families know how good the regions are, by improving amenities such as playgrounds and improved safety on local roads and that is what we are doing.

The latest round of grants through the Building Better Regions Fund invests in a huge array of projects. Look at what has already been delivered through it – from motorhome rest stops to public swimming pools, from improved sports facilities to a refreshed streetscape and I know how important they are whether it is Gundagai or Forbes or Cowra or Parkes, improvements in those streetscapes are crucial as they attract people and then they go and tell everyone that they have to visit, improvements are underway across the breadth of this huge nation.

Now we’re taking another step forward, we’re investing in resilience and opportunity in communities focused on growth and development.

The Government is working to support regional Australia to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and recent natural disasters, building resilience to future economic shocks and supporting long term economic growth.

In great news for the regions, this will now include $200 million for Round Five of the Building Better Regions Fund to support investment in community infrastructure and capacity building projects in regional areas.

This Building Better Regions funding includes $100 million for tourism-related infrastructure projects.

BBRF means local jobs, BBRF means local procurement, BBRF means local upgrades and BBRF means local wins to communities across the country.

Sunday’s announcement of another BBRF round will take it past the $1 billion mark – with every valuable dollar investing in the future for regional Australia and Australians.

Again, we’re making it clear to regional Australians: The Government has your backs.  We are alongside you every step of the way, as together we work our way out of the COVID-induced downturn.

COVID-19 has shown regional Australians are resilient and innovative but, just like anywhere else, investing in people and skills can help regional communities to not only to survive but as I always say, to thrive.

Regional Australians want opportunities to acquire new skills. This includes business skills, for example learning how to sell products online.

The Government also remains committed to its regional decentralisation work with both the public and private sectors and Andrew Gee is doing a lot of work in that regard.

There’s a lot of talent in the regions - let’s back it to develop the right skills and training to make the most of new opportunities.

The recovery in the regions will – as I say – be the key to Australia’s economic recovery. The regions will lead the way out from the COVID-19 downturn.

Today I’m pleased to announce the Australian Government is committing $100 million over two years to fund Regional Recovery Partnerships to coordinate investments with other levels of government to support recovery and growth in 10 priority investment regions:

  • The Snowy Mountains
  • Hunter and Newcastle
  • the Parkes region
  • Cairns and Tropical North Queensland
  • Gladstone
  • Mackay-Isaac-Whitsunday Regions. I was talking to George Christensen about the needs and wants of his region
  • all of Tasmania
  • the Gippsland Region so well served by Darren Chester
  • Kangaroo Island and I know how important this is for the recovery effort there
  • and Western Australia’s South West Region and Nola Marino who is the Assistant Minister for Regional Development and she knows how important this is.

The data available has informed the identification of these locations. They have been selected because they are regions whose economies have experienced the brunt of natural events such as bushfires, or COVID-19, drought as well, or because they create an opportunity to work closely with other levels of government to make sure those regions are well-placed to contribute to national resilience and growth.

These partnerships will back in existing regional plans by developing a package of targeted initiatives with contributions from all levels of government to deliver jobs, economic recovery and economic diversification.

At the Daily Telegraph’s Bush Summit last month, in Cooma – the heart of the Snowy Valleys regions – regional representatives flocked in numbers to spruik their plans for the bush. They were there in numbers.

Yes – we were there to talk about our vision for the region, but more importantly, we were there to listen.

After the Summit, at a café in Adaminaby, right next to the iconic Big Trout, I heard first-hand about the support small businesses in the Snowy needed to recover. Again, it was feedback from regional Australians and that drives the policy of this Government.

Regional Australians live and work across a huge land mass in the Northern Territory. The Government recognises this in so many ways, with carefully targeted support. The Barkly Regional Deal at Tennant Creek aims to improve the productivity and liveability of the region by stimulating economic growth, and by improving child safety and other social outcomes, so, so important.

Just a few days ago I announced Lasseter and Alice Springs are eligible to receive assistance from our $50 million Regional Tourism Recovery initiative, a new investment to help businesses in regions heavily reliant on international tourism.

And this week’s national extension of aviation support will maintain 15 vital flight routes in the Northern Territory and I know Senator Sam McMahon is right behind that initiative. It is putting planes in communities that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t even see a plane but flor that assistance. But for that assistance they would not have received that vital medical equipment, crucial PPE or indeed, frontline medical personnel – what heroes they are.

The Northern Territory has a bright future and we are backing it all the way.

Our regions teem with local strong leaders wanting the best for their local community. They give our regions a much-needed voice.

It’s essential we continue to identify, to develop and to work with leaders, using skilled networks such as Regional Development Australia Committees.

This includes young regional Australians. Government policy must and will aim to encourage young Australians to gain their education, live and work at home in the regions. We want them to stay in the regions, invest in the regions, raise a family in the regions; we want young Australians to know they thrive in the regions.

As Nationals Leader and as a senior Minister in the Australian Government, I want you to know that young people are recognised for their talent, their energy, their enthusiasm.

They are our future. Young Australians have every capacity and deserve encouragement to rise as leaders of their communities, now and into the future.

Local leaders know their regions better than anyone. They play a valuable role in providing information to Government about the impact of COVID-19 and the recovery plan to come out of it.

I’m pleased to announce today, to support current and emerging regional leaders to further develop their leadership skills, the Australian Government will also fund a new $5.7 million Building Resilient Regional Leaders Initiative to support strong local voices who can help sustain regional Australia’s recovery and resilience.

This initiative will help build the capacity and capability of local leaders by funding training that is designed for specific local community needs in up to 10 pilot regions.

It will target emerging and current regional leaders, including members of local governments, volunteers and members of local community organisations and industries. Further information about this initiative will be made available very, very soon.

This will prove a vital initiative over its three years from 2020-21. It will support current and emerging regional leaders to further develop their leadership skills, with a focus on recovery and resilience.

We want to build capacity and capability and we’ll do it.

This new measure today is a concrete example of how the Government is directly responding to the views of regional Australians. We hear the call to support strong local voices and we’re answering it.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have every reason to be optimistic over the future for our regions.

With you and alongside you, your Government is squarely focused on delivering what regional Australians want, need and deserve.

I commend next Tuesday’s Budget to you as a further tool to help build our great Aussie regions into something even better.

The opportunity is there. The opportunity is ours. The opportunity is right now.

I stress to you –  the Morrison-McCormack Government understands the regions will be key to Australia’s economic recovery and new growth.

I’m excited by our regions, you can probably tell that, excited by their prospects, excited about what we are all – together – doing to overcome the challenges of today and build a better tomorrow.

To any Australians toying with the idea of escaping from the city, I say: regional Australians have a warm welcome for you and it’s a move you will never regret.

Come to the regions: Big enough to get a great cup of coffee; small enough to care.

Be assured the regions offer a lifestyle second to none. And be assured the Government ‘gets it’ and continues to work together with the regions, not only for ourselves but for the sake of our children – and their children.

Thanks Liz, thanks everybody for listening.

ENDS 12:46PM

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