Thursday, 8 October 2020
Rural and Regional Budget Outcomes
by leave—Our government has stood with regional Australia through its most difficult times. We will stand with them as we face the COVID recession.
Australia's regions have always supported the growth of our nation. This address reflects the Morrison-McCormack government's view that a thriving regional Australia is at the heart of the strong economy we are building. The budget the Treasurer handed down on Tuesday invests heavily in regional Australia.
We are optimistic about regional Australia. We have every reason to be. Our regions are resilient. Country people are strong. The regions have a great future.
Today, in this first annual regional ministerial statement on regional Australia, I will outline the government's plans to grow our regions. These are plans which will create jobs, generate exports and ensure regional Australia continues to be the best place in which to live, work and raise a family—where people continue to experience what it means to be part of a connected and caring community. These are plans which invest in infrastructure, water and services—ensuring regional Australians have as much opportunity as other Australians. The government's plans will help make our regions stronger.
I am very proud of our regions—and what they contribute to our country. Minerals exports are holding firm in the face of COVID's impact on economies worldwide. Likewise our farm industries are underpinning Australia's economy and will continue to do so.
It's not just economic strength—more Australians are seeing regional Australia with new eyes, with tree changers and sea changers looking afresh at our regions. The growing attraction is of people seeing a quality of life second to none—a life with less traffic, a home with big backyards, with reliable, well-paying jobs and affordable living. This is regional Australia. It's why my colleagues and I are so passionate about the towns and regions from which we come. And it's what we seek to build and protect.
This budget recognises a sustainable recovery depends on regional Australia, already home to one in three Australians. From minerals exports to regional manufacturing to highly-sought clean, green Aussie farm produce—we have industries in demand and industries that can and will grow.
Through previous years, our focus has been on responding to a severe and prolonged drought and indeed to flooding in North Queensland. Our response to drought has been comprehensive, committing to initiatives worth more than $10 billion since 2018-19. Just as we are doing with the pandemic, we have invested in practical actions helping farmers, regional businesses and communities through drought now and building resilience for the future.
And some aren't on the other side just yet, which is why the government extended the farm household allowance in June, making it simpler and easier to access and support some 12,000 farm families.
Our $5 billion Future Drought Fund is about preparing for the future. The first suite of programs under this fund have already been announced. Large areas of northern Queensland have suffered terrible drought and devastating flood. Through the Drought and Flood Agency, ably led by Shane Stone, the government has worked closely with affected communities to support response and recovery activities.
Hard on the heels of extreme drought conditions, we responded swiftly to the black summer of bushfires—including by establishing the National Bushfire Recovery Agency which is delivering $2 billion worth of support measures for primary producers, small businesses and communities. I pay tribute to the efforts of Andrew Colvin and his dedicated team. They are providing recovery grants, concessional loans and supporting industries across agriculture and forestry—money in the pocket to ensure food on the table. This is making a real difference where it counts—on the ground.
Drought and fires may have subsided but we now face the challenge of COVID-19. Our response has been about saving lives and livelihoods. Health care is a major concern for regional Australians. We have allocated more funding to the states and territories to ensure the availability of services in small rural and regional hospitals. We have established 82 general practitioner-led respiratory clinics in rural and remote areas to provide testing and assessments.
The swift expansion of telehealth is providing new options for regional patients, with more than eight million services already provided, and we've boosted testing in rural and remote Indigenous communities. The budget invests a further $50.3 million through the Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training Program for infrastructure to deliver new training across health disciplines from nursing to allied health, underpinning services to aged care, disability, rehabilitation, child care and Indigenous health. This will guarantee rural and regional communities will continue to benefit from a skilled health workforce and have improved access to health services and facilities, including essential mental health and suicide prevention measures, long after the pandemic has passed.
Our economic response to the pandemic has been strong. Walk any street in any town in our country and people will tell you how vital JobKeeper has been and the jobs it has saved. They are certainly telling me and telling my colleagues. JobKeeper is a $101 billion lifeline supporting around 3.5 million workers in more than 900,000 businesses—right across Australia. And we've backed small businesses with $32 billion in cash flow boosts to around 800,000 businesses. This is important. Many of these businesses faced and beat drought—and the Prime Minister and I are determined they overcome the challenges of COVID as well. They will. The actions of the 2020-21 budget build on this support with targeted assistance for where the regions need it the most.
Businesses small and large have taken advantage of the historic instant asset write-off provisions boosted in the face of COVID. Now, from Tuesday—budget night 2020—the government has delivered the largest set of investment incentives ever provided by any Australian government. Now, more than 99 per cent of businesses can write off the full value of any eligible asset they purchase for their business. This will be available to businesses with a turnover up to $5 billion, until June 2022. This will mean a family-owned trucking company can upgrade or buy a whole new fleet of trucks and write it off in the year of investment.
From the outset of the COVID-19 crisis and as a result of the restrictions we had to put in place to protect our population, we saw the immediate need for targeted assistance for our regions. This is why we quickly established the $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund to provide timely support when and where it was most critically needed. Through this fund, we have provided significant assistance to a wide range of industries. This year, we've also supported our primary industries through this fund. We committed funding for fisheries, the seafood sector, and agricultural shows and field days, so often run by committed and dedicated volunteers—these events being the fabric of the country communities they've served in many cases since the late 1800s.
Look at the range of activities and actions already underway:
Each are practical actions; each is making a real difference.
Aviation was one of the industries hit so early, hit so hard, by COVID-19 and those impacts are still being felt today. Domestic aviation is vital to the health of regional communities. Extensions to Domestic Aviation Network Support, or DANS, and the Regional Airline Network Support, or RANS, have already backed in the operation of more than 6,700 return air services to more than 120 locations across Australia. Broken Hill, Ceduna, Cunnamulla, Mount Isa, Bathurst, Narrandera and Kangaroo Island are among dozens and dozens of continuing flight destinations, all thanks to RANS and DANS. Some rural and remote communities would have had no access to essential air services without this support. This includes the carriage of face masks, personal protection equipment, respiratory devices and, perhaps most importantly, essential frontline healthcare workers.
The $352 million International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) has already helped get more than 90,000 tonnes of Australian produce to key export markets. By 23 September, this action, IFAM, has committed more than 142,000 tonnes to an export value of $1.87 billion. It is moving freight from nine Australian ports to 66 international locations. The IFAM is flying Tasmanian salmon, Western Australian crays and Victorian lamb out to destinations in Asia and the Middle East.
We are grateful for recent rains—very, very grateful—but ensuring the security, the supply and the quality of our water and, indeed, the quality of our soils is absolutely central to the future of regional Australia and central to new economic growth for all Australians. To build on regional Australia's potential—I say: just add water!
The Australian government has broken new ground in establishing the National Water Grid Authority. The authority is now advised by an expert eight-member National Water Grid Advisory Body of eminent Australians, headed by global senior executive Chris Lynch, providing independent, expert advice on water infrastructure policies, projects and investments to benefit agricultural and primary industries Australia wide.
Now we're more than doubling the investment. A further $2 billion now takes the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund to a total of $3½ billion. The fund will become a 10-year rolling program of priority water infrastructure investments. We've announced a doubling of our capital commitment to Wyangala and Dungowan dams in New South Wales—taking the Commonwealth's investment in those dams to $567 million and matched by the state government. Adding capacity to these dams will deliver more than 650 gigalitres of water. That is the equivalent of 1.2 Sydney Harbours.
Increasing storage means big things for communities—for the Dungowan Dam, it means a reliable source of water for beef, sheep, grain, lucerne and poultry producers. It means flood mitigation. It means long-term water security for the people of Tamworth. The Australian government will continue to work, as we must, with the states to deliver Australia's water infrastructure of the 21st century.
The key to vibrant communities, reducing the costs of getting produce to markets and creating stronger job-creating industries in our regions is infrastructure. The government is further accelerating its already record-setting work to deliver the right infrastructure in the right places, right now. A record $100 billion 10-year plan now becomes $110 billion from this budget, delivering a vast range of new projects. Of this, around $36 billion directly builds regional infrastructure. Australian government funded projects under construction are expected to support more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs across Australia over the life of the projects. This is a jobs and infrastructure and regional budget.
The 2020-21 budget has commitments for numerous land transport and road initiatives to make a difference to regional communities all over Australia, including:
There will be extra work to upgrade and plan Queensland's Bruce Highway, on top of our existing commitment of $10 billion.
The Roads of Strategic Importance initiative, or ROSI, continues its work in ensuring our key freight roads are efficiently connected, while our Roads to Recovery Program supports the construction and maintenance of local roads to improve safety and accessibility.
We've also announced an additional $1 billion to our Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, taking the total commitment to $1.5 billion going directly to local councils. This will stimulate regional economies and support community infrastructure projects.
Of course, one of our biggest infrastructure projects is Inland Rail, which is delivering jobs and investment in regional Australia when we need it most. This Melbourne to Brisbane 1,700 kilometre corridor of commerce, using Australian steel, will become the new artery for trade, trade and more trade and commerce along our eastern seaboard.
I was pleased to announce as part of this budget a commitment of $200 million to round 5 of our Building Better Regions Fund. BBRF delivers regional development. This is not a one-size-fits all approach. It's everything from water recycling facilities to refreshed streetscapes.
BBRF round 4 alone has delivered 163 projects across Australia. These projects make a huge difference for the regions and there's so much more opportunity directly ahead.
In round 5 of BBRF we will include a specific stream for tourism related infrastructure, worth $100 million. This recognises that tourism has been hit hard during COVID-19. This round will complement other actions the government has taken to support regional tourism through the Relief and Recovery Fund as well as the $50 million Regional Tourism Recovery initiative.
This summer Australians will use their holidays to see their own country—it's better than anywhere else in the world.
Our efforts to improve communications have opened regional communities and businesses like never before. We are investing in significant upgrades and improvements to communications with a new $37.1 million package for Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters and an additional $30.3 million for the Regional Connectivity Program.
We're fixing mobile phone black spots with more than 850 base stations already activated, and we're investing $4½ billion in new upgrades to the National Broadband Network. It's a significant investment in Australia's small and medium businesses. NBN will be rolling out 240 business fibre zones across Australia, 85 of which will be located in regional Australia. This initiative will deliver accessible, affordable, ultrafast connectivity to Australian businesses at no upfront cost, creating thousands of jobs in regional Australia and allowing more than 250,000 regional businesses to boost their digital capabilities and support our economic recovery from COVID-19.
The government is making changes to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to make it an even more effective vehicle to encourage investment in the north. These changes will provide more flexibility, increase the risk appetite and widen the scope of projects eligible for funding for this vibrant, happening place—that's the north of Australia. Along with the five-year extension to NAIF operations, these changes will help ensure that northern Australia plays a strong role in Australia's economic recovery.
If COVID-19 has proven anything, it's that you can work remotely from anywhere. We know increasing numbers of Australians are choosing to decentralise, to regionalise. We want more businesses and Public Service agencies to take full advantage of the opportunities we now have by encouraging their employees to work from a regional or remote area.
I invite arms of industry to actively consider moving their entire operations out of the city. You will not regret it! Trust me. This has long been the thinking behind our decentralisation agenda, which can also be considered a regionalisation agenda.
New research and development program initiatives aim to encourage private sector investment in regional Australia. The budget provides $100 million to Regional Recovery Partnerships. These partnerships are about co-ordinating investments with other levels of government to support recovery and growth in 10 specified regions.
We're backing in existing regional plans and we're developing a package of targeted initiatives to develop jobs, to deliver more jobs and to increase economic recovery and economic diversification as well as, of course, recovery—so, so important.
And, more broadly, national cabinet has supported the establishment of a dedicated rural and regional reform committee. Well done, Prime Minister. On our first agenda will be outcomes—real-world actions, not documents or studies, to ensure our significant investments reach the people who need them, and fast.
Our primary industries, including agriculture, have been hit hard in recent years by the impacts of floods, drought, bushfires and now COVID-19 restrictions. The government is committed to supporting our primary industries—always.
Agriculture is capable of great adaptation and innovation, which is why we are working to support the farm sector's goal to become a $100 billion industry by 2030. We grow enough food to feed 75 million people—three times our nation's population. We export 70 per cent of what we raise and grow in Australia. This is why the government continues to focus on establishing export agreements with trading partners.
In 2013, trade agreements and preferential access accounted for 26 per cent of what we export. Today this figure is 70 per cent, and still growing. It's groundbreaking news for producers, for exporters and for our regions. We are permanently lifting the contribution by our regions to the national economic recovery. Trade equals jobs and more trade, equals more jobs.
Beyond our commitments to water security and drought resilience which will contribute to this ambitious goal, we've also announced a number of new measures in this year's budget, including a significant $328.4 million package to support agricultural exporters. This will generate wider benefits for industry of up to $1.2 billion over the next decade, with rural and regional Australia reaping the largest benefits and leading the way.
We've also announced the Murray-Darling Basin Communities Investment Package—worth $269.6 million over four years, and $9.8 million per year after that. This package will achieve a sustainable and certain future for the Murray-Darling Basin, its people, industries and an ever-changing climate and environment. It will bring basin communities back to the centre of the Basin Plan and invest in community resilience and river health.
Our plan for affordable, reliable energy will see us lock in low electricity and gas prices to take pressure off Australian households and businesses. Nowhere is this more important than for our regions. Coal has helped power our nation for generations and boost exports and will go on doing so. Bringing on dispatchable generation capacity will help keep our electricity grid reliable and secure. Opening up new gas fields and reforming gas transport markets will help ensure abundant and affordable gas for manufacturing and power generation.
We've provided funding for the forestry industry through the National Bushfire Recovery Fund and for primary producers through a range of measures—good measures. And we are providing additional funding to support people to relocate in order to take up agricultural work, which will be absolutely essential and critical and vital for our agricultural communities as they start to recover from COVID-19 impacts and with the prospect of a good and bountiful harvest.
We are also supporting our manufacturing industries with $1.5 billion in new funding in the budget for our Modern Manufacturing Strategy. This will grow our manufacturing base in areas such as resources, technology and critical minerals processing, food and beverage manufacturing and defence industry—opening up new opportunities for regional Australia, not to mention the space industry either. Regional Australia can and will play a big part in that.
This jobs and infrastructure and regional budget includes a commitment of $62.8 million for the Local Jobs Program in 25 regions across Australia. The program focuses on reskilling, upskilling and providing employment pathways to help people back into the workforce as the country and the economy recovers.
As well as jobs, we know that regional Australians want the same quality educational opportunities as anyone else. In this budget we've also announced the student support package worth $146.3 million which will improve education outcomes for young Australians, particularly disadvantaged students and regional students. This complements our broader higher education reforms and commitments, including $400 million over four years to increase higher education access and attainment for regional Australians, and support higher education providers in regional Australia to grow their local economies. We want to develop more local leaders in our communities and our budget includes support to do just that.
I'm a proud barracker for the bush. I always have been and I always will be. I've lived my life in the regions. I've raised a family in, the Riverina.
First and last, our regions are about people. People want to be connected—through safe, accessible transport options, and broadband and mobile technology. People want their industries and businesses to be valued, viable, and supported. People want their regions to be friendly, livable and welcoming places for hardworking people of any background.
People want opportunities for training, education and employment—for themselves, for their workers, their employees and their children. Whether you are a veteran or serving member of our defence forces, a police officer, a first responder, a nurse, a manufacturer, a tradesperson or whichever vocation you choose, regional Australia has something to offer you.
Our people want sustainable natural resources to support economic development and jobs. I say of our regions and towns: they are big enough for a good cup of coffee, and they're small enough to care.
Our budget announcements—across infrastructure and transport, digital connectivity, water security, regional partnerships with states, and supporting local jobs and local leaders—are designed to make every part of our country better.
Regional Australia must have—regional Australia will have—the support it needs to recover and grow from this pandemic. The budget does just that.
Our regions have the drive; let's make them thrive.
That's our message today.
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.