Thursday, 8 October 2020
Rural and Regional Budget Outcomes
The regions are key to our nation's economy. They are key to our history, our culture and our future. They're key to the recovery from this crisis. The regions are home to about one-third of our population, but they punch above their weight in accounting for almost 40 per cent of our national economic outlook and contributing half of our nation's growth since the global financial crisis. Too often our regional communities are talked about in terms of crisis—droughts, floods and fires—and lack of services, when in fact their story is much more complex and their contribution to our nation has been far more significant. From farming to resources, energy production, manufacturing, tourism and service provision, our regions contribute so much to our nation, often more than they are given credit for. Labor knows and recognises this. It's only a month ago that the Leader of the Opposition delivered his vision statement for regional Australia, talking about the talented, ambitious Australians who work hard and work smart in our regions—in the regional communities who do so much for our country and who have the potential to do so much more.
Over recent years, and most acutely over the last 12 months, those strong communities and proud people have been tested, and I won't pretend that times have been easy. The regions of Australia have borne the brunt of multiple challenges—drought, flood, fire and, of course, pandemic. Alone, each of these challenges would have historical significance and would have been remembered as markers of a period; instead, we have had four over the course of a few months. Through it all, regional Australia has shown its best and stood up to everything that has been demanded of it. Communities have stood by each other through fire, flood and drought. Through COVID, communities came together in new ways. We've met on Zoom. Who knew about that before? New businesses have emerged, and walking outside has become our new meeting room and our way of having coffee meetings together. Now as we recover, regions are poised to lead the way.
The Deputy Prime Minister and I have many political differences and arguments over this dispatch box, but we are on a unity ticket when it comes to the joys of living in regional Australia. I can't understand why anyone would live anywhere else. I know that all the regional members of this House share that view. Regions are joyful places marked by strong communities and by proud people. They are the economic powerhouse of our nation, contributing one-third of our national output and providing employment for one-third of all working Australians. Our regions have been central to economic recovery and the economy of our nation through times of crisis, right throughout our history. Labor has long known this.
In 1942, when the Second World War was still raging, John Curtin looked to the regions as an untapped source of economic growth to drive postwar reconstruction. In the 1970s Gough Whitlam looked to the regions as a source to tackle the entrenched social inequality that marred our nation. Bob Hawke, with huge investment in regions, helped build regional centres such as Geelong, Newcastle, Mackay, Townsville, Bunbury, Launceston and Hobart into wonderful, vibrant places to live, with strong local economies. It was a huge investment in our regions. The last time Australia faced economic crisis, back in the global financial crisis, another Labor government looked to the regions. We focused on sparking regional growth, building connections between regions and towards cities, knowing that doing so would build regional resilience.
Today, as we emerge from these times of crisis, the regions can do it again. However, to drive regional recovery you need to have a regional policy that is coherent and connected, and a plan. This government, despite the statement today by the Deputy Prime Minister and the budget measures we've seen, does not have a coherent regional policy, let alone a plan for the whole of regional Australia. As you've heard, there are a lot of programs, a lot of funding initiatives, but not a central policy to guide them. They've got no clear vision of where the regions are now as a whole, where we want them to be in the future and how they are going to contribute to our national economy.
You cannot get to your destination without a map, but the Morrison government is driving blind when it comes to our regions. The government's own Strategic Regional Growth Expert Panel, chaired by Peter Ryan—someone I very much respect and the former Victorian deputy premier—along with national leaders highlighted exactly this point. In its final report, which the government belatedly released only after a Senate order, the expert panel recommended that the Commonwealth implement a regional development framework. The panel also recommended that the government deliver a white paper on regional Australia as soon as possible and that it should be completed no later than July 2020. It's now October 2020, and we haven't seen that. But we do know that things have moved on somewhat.
Instead, regional policy has continued under Prime Minister Morrison the same way it did under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull and prime ministers past from the Liberal and Nationals parties—the grab bag of funds, largely in the control of the National Party, used as their excuse for pork-barrelling. That's the truth. When it comes to the regions, that is exactly what this budget does—again. And now they've gotten so brazen that they don't even attempt to pretend. Yesterday on ABC Radio Ballarat the Deputy Prime Minister was asked why my home town of Ballarat—a great regional city—had missed out in the budget. His answer was, 'Maybe you need to look at your federal member.' He isn't even bothering to hide it. The only regions he seems to care about are those that elect members of his own party room and of the government. The Deputy Prime Minister is openly saying to residents of regional Australia that he'll only deliver the infrastructure and services they need when they vote for a member of his own party room.
That's not what regional Australia needs. Maybe it's why we don't have a regional plan: because it might involve supporting all of regional Australia, not just some of regional Australia. Instead, as I said, we have a grab bag of funding schemes and endless pork-barrelling. And guess what? It hasn't been working for regional Australia. For regional Australians, outcomes in health, employment and education are generally poorer than they are in metropolitan areas. In the regions we also have greater difficulty accessing services. The Morrison government is doing very little to fix that across all regions. Geographic distance, small markets and economies of scale all contribute of course, but the government needs to provide the services that can make this better.
The Nationals like to talk themselves up as the party of the bush, but their stranglehold on allocating regional funding continues, to the detriment of regional cities and of remote Australia, and that has got to change. The local governments across the country that worked so hard to submit applications to the main regional funding program, the Building Better Regions Fund, describe it as nothing short of a lottery. At least if it were a lottery each region would have an equal chance of winning, but, under the Morrison government, money continues to flow to their favourites and the losers miss out.
Funding under programs like the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, Building Better Regions Fund and the Drought Communities Program have been so highly partisan that it's no wonder that the ANAO is now taking a significant interest. Under round 3 of the Building Better Regions fund, 155 of the 165 projects were all in coalition seats or coalition target seats. Ahead of the last election, four regional Labor seats of Newcastle and the Hunter shared in just over $200,000 through the Community Development Grants Program, with two of them receiving nothing, while the two neighbouring National seats received $20 million each. And who can forget the North Sydney pool? In the shadows of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, this pool scored a $10 million upgrade through the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream, a program designed to remove barriers for women participating in sport in our regions—the proud regional community of North Sydney! So much for the party of the bush. At its current rate, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will take 150 years to spend its $5 billion. It's just been extended again because you couldn't get the money out the door.
That's no way of growing our regions. It serves only to entrench disenchantment. It pits regions against each other and it delivers worse outcomes. No-one talks up regional Australia like the Nats, but no-one lets them down like them either. They pit regions against one another in grants processes that are tilted to favour some over others, while their decentralisation agenda, so overhyped and so well advertised, is nothing but a hoax. We've seen the scandal and the failure of the APVMA move to New England, while, since 2013, the federal government has cut thousands of very good regional public sector jobs—thousands of them. Centrelink, Department of Veterans' Affairs and Medicare offices have been gutted and closed, removing jobs and services from some of the regions that need them the most. In Townsville alone, 91 federal Public Service jobs were lost over the 2018-19 financial year, with at least 352 Public Service jobs gone since 2013. These are important and good jobs in our regions.
While Regional Development Australia continues to exist and provide important partnerships in local communities, they've largely been sidelined and, in some areas, don't even actually have any committees. The government's Strategic Regional Growth Expert Panel recommended that their role be strengthened, but again the Morrison government has failed to listen to their own experts. The government has three pilot regional deals, but in reality has very little underway.
The recently announced Regional Partnerships scheme spreads $100 million thinly over 10 chosen regions, with little clarity about how those regions were chosen and why. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that these 10 regions have been chosen because they're regions whose economies have experienced the brunt of natural events such as bushfires or coronavirus and drought as well. But the Deputy Prime Minister didn't announce any funding for the New South Wales South Coast, the Blue Mountains, the Sunshine Coast or northern New South Wales, equally affected by those very issues. Once again, the regions are left confused, and regions are being left behind. At the same time, five months after the fires came through, only one dollar in every eight earmarked for bushfire recovery has been spent, and even now there are still families waiting for help. It's frankly nothing short of a disgrace.
In the government's budget this week, much was made of the billions of dollars of infrastructure investment and new grant funding rounds. But people in our regions have heard many of these announcements before, with much fanfare. I'll use as an example the Bolivia Hill upgrade of the New England Highway. It was given additional funding. The only problem is: the Leader of the Opposition funded it in 2012! It's under construction now and almost complete, which is a good thing. But of course, it's not an infrastructure policy to delay delivering these programs and then to double how much they actually cost, and then to claim credit for how much money you're now spending because you've actually made it cost more because you've delayed it!
It seems crazy. It's not a stimulus package for a region doing it tough; it's a cost blowout.
Regions know that many of these infrastructure projects that have been announced will never be delivered or, if they are, it will be years down the line and double the cost. You don't have to look far. The average infrastructure underspend of this government each budget has been $1.2 billion. It was $1.7 billion last financial year. And people know from bitter experience and previous disappointments that it takes them a long time to deliver. At the same time, cash strapped councils will again put weeks of work and limited resources into grants applications that have only a vague hope of seeing success.
There is, of course, a much better way. Labor in government created Regional Development Australia, a body to provide strategic input into national programs, help improve the coordination of regional development initiatives, and work closely with local and state governments and other regional organisations. We should be strengthening their relationship with local government as a mechanism of policy delivery across our nation and across all regions. We provided seed funding to the Regional Australia Institute, creating a voice and a policy body for our regions. The Regional Australia Institute has been so important in telling our regional stories and outlining our strengths. This is a government that tried to defund them when it came to office. We created the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, which was the largest ever federal investment in local facilities such as parks and swimming pools, sporting fields, community halls and childcare centres across every region—something the government has now tried to mirror with the ingeniously named Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program. It's nice to be copied.
Two-thirds of our infrastructure budget was directed to projects in rural and regional Australia, delivering major safety and capacity improvements to vitally important roads such as the Bruce Highway, the Pacific Highway, the Hume Highway and the Midland Highway. We prioritised regional Australia in the National Broadband Network rollout, something the government disparaged then downgraded and is now having to rebuild at significant cost. Under the $5 billion Health and Hospitals Fund we began the process of establishing 25 regional cancer centres, bringing world-class treatment right into the regions and saving lives. We announced $475 million in new and upgraded health facilities in regional Australia, funding projects to give greater access to health services for patients living in rural, regional and remote communities. And we planned a referendum to finally recognise local government in our Constitution. At the same time, we more than doubled the roads budget, built and upgraded 7½ thousand kilometres of road, invested in regional aviation, increased local and major road initiatives, fixed black spots, installed rest stops and crossings, and lifted average annual rail spending tenfold. Importantly, it was Labor who began work on inland rail, with a $1 billion investment. These equally shared and properly targeted investments were essential as Australia recovered from our last economic crisis. More of the same will be needed as we recover from this one.
We know from previous economic downturns that regions can take longer to recover, depending on the make-up of their local economy. As we know, this downturn came on the back of multiple crises. Sadly, many will simply never be the same. Regional economies are complex and varied, and each has been hit in different ways. They all deserve respect and to be invested in, in that way. Regions are highly dependent on tourism, and the creative industries have been hit particularly hard. These are the very industries where high levels of casualisation have meant that JobKeeper payments have not been available for many. The government chose to leave many behind, and that is hurting these regions particularly. Those dependent on tourists are of course dependent on aviation. The government has done very little here, frankly, picking favourites in the airline industry and leaving regional and council airports with nothing.
Agriculture- and mining-dependent regional economies have fared a little better, but that has been unevenly spread, depending on the specific nature of the activity undertaken.
For instance, while there has been an increase in domestic demand for food production, the disruption in international freight routes has placed significant pressure on sectors such as seafood, and we welcome the government investment in that area. If you want to see the different impacts writ large, you just have to look at North Queensland. Cairns, which is heavily reliant on tourism, has been hit hard, while Townsville is reporting a much lower impact, due to the nature of its workforce.
These regions would of course be helped by some investment in skills and training, but anything the government announces now comes on the back of seven years of cuts to schools, universities and TAFE. Today, we know there are 1,400 fewer Australians undertaking apprenticeships or traineeships than in 2013. It's an indictment on the government and something that they haven't even been seen to be able to fix in the budget. The government talks a big game, but the outcomes speak for themselves.
There is a huge opportunity for our regions as we emerge from the health and economic crisis of COVID. This year has provided many with the opportunity to work from home. People no longer have to be tied to tall buildings in big cities. People are craving livability and are seeing the regions as a viable alternative. The regions have been real havens for people, with fewer cases, less community spread and strong loyalty in supporting local retail and hospitality. There have been terrific stories of regional innovation, such as Gekko Systems in my own community of Ballarat, who have turned their hand from making mining equipment to making ventilators, businesses in Shepparton manufacturing PPE, and breweries and gin distilleries across the country making hand sanitiser.
Our regions have the potential and are ready to go. The government needs to listen to them, provide the support they need where they need it and allow the regions to drive us out of this crisis. The Morrison government is passing up all of these opportunities, preferring to continue with the approach that prioritised the re-election of National Party members over the welfare of all of regional Australians. There is a better way for our regions. A better approach is possible, but we're not seeing it from this government or this budget.