Transcript - Rural Press Club of Victoria Address

1:03PM

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I know there’s been a lot of said about road safety. We’ve got a $110 billion infrastructure rollout; $110 billion of infrastructure programs at the moment. And I’m proud to say that even though our road toll statistics are still far too high for particularly in our regional areas where the proportion of regional people dying on country roads is too high, it is coming down. Metropolitan road tolls are coming down. The trauma related to that obviously is being reduced. And as we work towards Vision Zero by, well, let’s hope it’s next year if not the year after, but generally the sort of target is 2050, we will make sure that we get better roads. We’ve got better cars. We also need better driver behaviour. But I’m proud to say that we’re spending $2 billion on a Road Safety Package at the moment in conjunction with the one and a half billion we’re spending on the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure.

I know Kim O’Keefe, the Mayor of Greater Shepparton, she would know that there is probably more money washing around in Local Government than there has been in a long time, if ever. And we want to make sure that working in conjunction with councils, which is the heart of and very much the public face of delivery, then that is going to be so important in restoring and recovering from COVID-19. Getting those jobs on the ground, getting those community infrastructure projects built is going to make such a difference.

And of course, with the budget coming up, we’ll revisit what we do as far as regional programs. We revisit what we’re doing as part of the infrastructure package. But it’s more than just making sure that we get the delivery done; it’s also about, as I say, creating those jobs in regional centres and making sure – and importantly it’s not just about the hi-vis on the ground and the excavators pushing dirt around; it’s also about the little sandwich shop down the road which is going to sell the egg and bacon rolls. It’s also about the accommodation place if some of those workers are coming from outside the region. We want local procurement, of course, and I’m proud to say that with the Inland Rail that is creating so much local procurement. And I was pleased that Victoria were the first state to sign up to the intergovernmental agreement for the Inland Rail. It will be a transformational project to get delivery between Melbourne and Brisbane within a 24-hour timeframe.

They started to talk about it in the 1890s; we’re getting on and we’re building it now. And I’ll just give you one little snapshot as an example. The first of 13 sections of the Inland Rail has been completed between Narromine and Parkes. Now, it’s about 100 kilometres or so, $110 million of procurement for 99 local businesses. Now that is significant money. Whether they are a little ballast firm or a rock quarry that expanded by two or three people, it’s still money in their pockets. And certainly last year during COVID it made all the difference between some of those businesses staying open and some of them having to shut forever.

And of course, with JobKeeper and with all the other arrangements that we made sure we put into place last year that kept the economy ticking along nicely. Now I appreciate that we couldn’t have kept JobKeeper going forever. But there are so many jobs in regional Australia at the moment. The Regional Australia Institute actually identifies 55,000 jobs going in regional Australia. As people from regional Australia will tell you, there’s so many jobs in hospitality, law firms, accountancy practices, abattoirs, fruit picking. Of course, we’re 90,000 backpackers short and that is creating difficulties, but we want to encourage as many Melbournians, Sydneysiders to come bush and to see what we have to offer.

Hands up those who actually live in regional Australia. About 50 per cent of the room. You know, as do I, about how good the living is. You know, as do I, that you don’t have to sit in the traffic watching the brake lights for an hour to or from work because you’re seven minutes from anywhere. You’re in a place which is probably big enough in which to get a good cup of coffee but small enough to still care. And that’s what I love about regional Australia. And bear in mind, in March – and this is a significant fact – Victoria was the one state where regional housing values continued to rise at a faster pace than city counterparts. Regional Victorian values rose 2.6 per cent in the month compared with a 2.4 per cent rise across Melbourne.

So real estate is holding up. In fact, it is almost holding up too well to the fact that it is actually difficult to get accommodation, rental properties certainly, anywhere in Australia. But regional Australia, the prices are good. And when real estate prices are reasonably solid, then the market is showing that there is confidence in the economy. Melbourne housing values have been recovering from a 11.1 per cent fall between 2017 and 2019 and a 5.6 per cent fall through the worst of the COVID downturn. Regional Australia is holding up, the economies are holding up. And even though there are lots and lots of jobs there, it is the place to be.

And I appreciate some of you might have different views about the lockdowns and what they meant. And I appreciate that some of my Nationals colleagues were very perturbed at the fact that their farmers were required to wear face masks when they were many hundreds of kilometres from Melbourne just to feed cattle and to do all the sorts of things that farmers normally do and that created great angst and difficulty, even though they hadn’t had a COVID case for many, many months. But the important thing was that people needed to be assured that they were being kept safe. I’m not going to stand here and criticise Premiers or states. We’ve endeavoured as best we could and can through the National Cabinet process to make sure that we kept Australians safe and we will continue to do that.

Now reporting on the February ABS data, the ABS has told us that the exodus from Melbourne increased by a factor of eight compared to the pre-lockdown period. So, many people are choosing a regional destination, not just to holiday at the moment but, indeed, to move and to live and to set up and to give their families, their kids, a better way of life, the sort of life that those of us who come from regional Australia know and know well. And it’s great. And I’ve got to say that people who have made that choice will not regret it.

We will have as part of the budget a regionalisation/decentralisation package, I can assure you of that. And people sometimes say, “Well, what does regionalisation, what does decentralisation mean?” Now, I know that the Regional Australia Institute, which I mentioned before, have a Move to More campaign going at the moment where they’re encouraging people to move to country areas, move to more. And there is more – more to be had, more time to be spent with families and at the moment, with a building boom and with an infrastructure boom in regional Australia, regional Victoria, there’s no better place and no better time in which to do it.

Now Mark Coulton, who is the Regional Services Minister amongst other things, Local Government, as Kim would know, officiated the other day at the RAI’s launch of a liveability tool kit. And this helps to identify population flows, job trends, liveability factors in the regions. The most important thing is that we get the health services right, the education services right because I know, as do you, that if we have the right number of doctors, we have the right number of health specialists and we have the right and good and choice of schools then people from Melbourne, from other metropolitan centres will look to those places as places to which to move.

But the important thing, too, is that I’m really pleased and proud of the fact that we have put in place a rural medical school network across the Murray Darling. It was one of the things that I was focused on when I got into Parliament in 2010 and wanted to make it happen. And when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and said to me, “What would you like so far as a regional win first up,” that’s what I said. Because I identified, as I know Steph would as well, the importance of having doctors in the bush and not just doctors who have moved from the city but also, perhaps more importantly, doctors who may have done their training from start to finish in the bush. And they’re very hard to find because we just don’t have the capacity to have that provision of services from start to finish for the six or seven years it takes to become a specialist GP and particularly doing the unique work that is the case of a specialist general doctor in the regional areas of Australia.

Now, making sure that we had that rural medical school network set up, what we’re doing is we’re building the infrastructure and what we’re doing is we’re getting the young people, particularly young people from regional Australia, and giving them the opportunity to do their training from start to finish. Those schools have been set up in Bendigo, in Dubbo, in Wagga Wagga and elsewhere. And we know that through Charles Sturt University, for instance – a great regional university, another of those regional universities. We know that around about three-quarters of people who do whatever course it might be who do their training in a university situation in a regional area, then stay in that regional area in which to work, following on from that. And there is good money to be made in regional areas. And generally they will come to a regional area, fall in love with the regional area, or fall in love with somebody from the regional area, and decide to stay.

So that is the premise behind the Murray-Darling rural medical school network. And I’m pushing that. We’ve got the first interns at the moment doing the first of their years in a rural setting. And whilst it will take five or six or seven years to see the benefits of that, the other things that Mark Coulton as the Regional Health Minister is putting in place are going to make sure that we have the right number of doctors and the right medical services in the bush, because the first question that a lot of people ask when they’re moving or contemplating a move to a regional area is, “What are the hospitals like? What are the health services like? What are the schools like?” Of course, we work with our state counterparts to make sure that those things happen.

Now, of course, water is a major thing for regional areas. Now, it wasn’t that long ago I established the National Water Grid Authority. It’s been going for 12 months. It’s headed up by Chris Lynch. It’s got people from every geographical area of Australia making sure that we get the right infrastructure in the right places. And I’m working with the states and territories because we can’t build dams or weirs or pipelines without that state help.

I’d like to get a little bit more help from Victoria, but, you know what, we’ll work towards it. I’m very collegiate. I’m very bipartisan and I understand how important it is to have water, because if we’re going to grow agriculture to $100 billion by 2030, we have to add water. We have to make sure that we harvest the water where it falls, store it, have that capacity and make sure that we utilise it when we have the dry times.

And only just this week we announced eight specialist resilience hubs for innovation, for adaptation, for adoption as far as drought resilience is concerned. Now, our capital investment in water has already seen $20 million towards the South West Loddon Rural Water Supply project. That was completed in April 2020 with more than 120,000 hectares of land now connected to the pipeline. That has been a game changer for that rural Victorian area. $20 million towards the Macalister Irrigation District Phase 1B Modernisation Project, $3 million towards the Sunraysia Modernisation Project No 2, and I know how much that has meant for Anne Webster and others. Perhaps not even so much Anne Webster but certainly her farmers in that area who tell me that it is just been a game changer.

With other crucial projects already underway in Victoria, including the Western Irrigation Network project, $48.1 million; East Grampians Water Supply Project, $32 million; and the Mitiamo and District Reticulated Water Supply Project. It’s only $14.5 million but it could and will make such a difference to that area. And I know when I stood there with Damian Drum at that windswept footy oval and made that announcement during the last election campaign the farmers there who’d been waiting for it for up to decades were absolutely delighted.

Now it’s an important issue, I appreciate, and we want to make sure that we build the right water infrastructure in the right places and we want to get on with it right now. That’s why at The Nationals Federal Conference just the other day we announced a new package of smaller projects – up to $20 million – for each state and territory jurisdiction. And I will work with the Victorian Government to make sure that happens. So I’ll be happy to take expressions of interest from anyone. I know Steph and others will be no doubt sort of lobbying for that to happen because we can do little projects of $200,000 or larger projects in the order of millions of dollars. But sometimes it’s not just the big dams, it’s the weirs and pipelines that make such a difference for those communities.

Now while I’m talking water, let’s talk Murray Darling. We need to address the issue, of course, of the degradation of the Barmah Choke. Now it’s not about sending more water downstream, it’s not about a super pipe or major engineering works; it’s about managing existing requirements better. It’s about better optimisation of existing water. It’s about minimising overbank flows or hundreds of gigalitres lost. If we get it right we’ll see more water left upstream of the choke, possibly more water for the consumptive pool.

It’s a difficult issue and there’s never any easy solutions with the comes to water. Everybody will have different views. But rest assured, I know that Keith Pitt, who has been down here several times making sure that he listens, making sure that the voices of Victorian communities are heard both on the production side and also on the environmental side and that we get the right balance. Murray-Darling has never been easy. Most people will tell you, most irrigators will tell you that upstream they either pinch the water and downstream they either waste the water or the other way around. It makes no difference, but every valley has a different view about how water should be managed. But we’ve got the Murray-Darling Basin plan. It’s not perfect, I appreciate. I used to represent Griffith where they burnt the draft of the Murray-Darling Basin plan back in 2010 and their passion has not subsided since.

Of course, we want to make sure that this budget also identifies important things in rural and regional Victoria such as mental health. Now I know that that is a big issue for many rural communities and it has been very much borne out and fleshed out by what we’ve endured over the past 12 to 15 months with COVID. It has been such a trying time on people’s stresses and strains, on their bottom lines. And we want to make sure that as a country and as a nation and as a Government that we put the right measures in place to help those who need it the most. And there’s no shame in saying – in putting your hand up and saying that, “I’ve got a problem and that I need a bit of help.” We want to make sure that as a Federal Government we provide that support ready for those people particularly in rural areas who’ve done it very, very tough.

I have to say that rural areas have also led the way through COVID-19 to make sure that we’ve built agriculture, to make sure that our resources industry is strong and to make sure that we’ve kept those jobs as best we can in place through JobKeeper and through other arrangements that we’ve put in to support our communities.

Now I also do want to talk about the sort of planning that we’re doing for Murray Basin Freight Rail. Now we’ve provided an extra $5 million for the standardisation of the network in addition to the around $200.2 million that we’ve just put on the table to help with the Victorian Government. So the latest contribution is $200 million on top of the 240 that we put down previously. As Anne Webster has said when we announced this rescue package, the Australian Government is listening to the stakeholders and is investing in works to improve the reliability and efficiency of lines for this most important network.

Now I know it’s been a bugbear not just for the journalists who’ve been on our case but certainly for those people in Maryborough or Ararat, Manangatang, Murrayville, Mildura, wherever you might happen to be or look at in that particular area, it has been a real issue and we want to make sure that we’ve got the right rail network to support those wheat farmers, those grain producers and to make sure that we get the system right. It’s been difficult because we haven’t had I suppose the right bipartisanship with our state colleagues, but, rest assured, they now know with the additional money that we’ve put on the table that we are serious.

Now, to do the line as some would like us to have it done, well, that’s going to cost more than a billion dollars. Well, if that’s the case, we will certainly look to that because over the years we’ve had a rolling infrastructure package and program. We’ve made sure that once we get something done we look at either the next phase of that particular project or the next road, whether it’s the Princes Highway, whatever the case might be and we’re making sure that we put the right infrastructure in place.

When I became the infrastructure Minister we had a $50 billion infrastructure pipeline of investment. It’s now $110 billion. It’s for rail, it’s for road, it’s for airports, it’s for seaports, it’s for building that community infrastructure, whether it’s getting a lick of paint to the town hall or the Shepparton Art Museum right through to building Sydney’s second airport, Western Sydney, Western Sydney’s first airport. Building the Inland Rail, building dams, major dams, such as Rookwood. We’re about to turn the first sod of the Rookwood Weir, which is in Michelle Landry’s electorate up near Capricornia up near Rockhampton and Ken O’Dowd’s electorate of Flynn –$176.1 million we’ve put on the table for that and we want to make sure that we’ve got the right infrastructure in place to support our economy. There’s never been a more important time to support the economy than right now.

I do want to thank each and every one of you for having the patience through COVID. It has been a trying time for us all. It’s been a trying time when people have been in lockdown. It’s been a trying time exercising social distancing, wearing face masks, being told that you’ve got to stay indoors for 23 out of 24 hours, enduring endless Zoom meetings. But, as a nation we’ve done remarkably well. We’ve done exceedingly well. We’ve been the envy of the world when it comes to how we’ve addressed COVID.

Yes, while it’s been very sad that 910 people have lost loved ones, the fact remains when you compare us to any other nation, whether it’s a Western democracy or any other nation, we’ve done exceedingly well. And we’ve grown the economy at the same time. Agriculture, resources, we’ve done as best we can in the circumstances provided. Of course, we’ve also tried to promote our aviation industry own though it was hit first and hit hardest through COVID. I know that we’ve got that half price aviation airline ticket measures in place. Some people have questioned why those particular destinations and, well, as we’ve done with every other program, we’ve looked at it, we’ve tweaked it, we’re happy to review it and we will do that. But the destinations chosen were done because they were the destinations normally awash with international travellers. And of course, with no international travel possible at the moment apart from returning travellers coming back home, it’s been very, very difficult for the aviation and tourism industries alike.

Of course we want to make sure that people get that experience to be able to holiday at home. And I know that’s why we’ve put in place a $1.2 billion measure of goods and incentives to get people to holiday, indeed, in a regional area, experience a bit of Australia. And Josh Landis, who’s admittedly from the clubs industry, pulled me up at the airport in Sydney today and he said, “clubs in regional areas are actually booming”. He said, “we’ve never seen so much activity in some of those clubs”. I appreciate that that doesn’t apply to every single club, but the fact that you’ve got people, industry spokespeople such as that, extolling the virtues of not just how good it is and not just how many people are actually experiencing what it’s like to actually visit a region but, indeed, taking advantage of the programs that the federal and, to their credit, State Governments are putting in place. It’s good to hear.

Look, I might leave it at that. I’m happy to take any questions so long as my voice holds out. And I do apologise for the bit of a spill, but it’s better to have a spill at the Rural Press Club than in the party room.

ENDS 1:26PM

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