Wednesday, 8 April 2020
As Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I stand to associate our party with the comments from Senator Cormann, particularly his references to the indiscriminate nature of this virus with regard to its victims—and regional Australia is not immune. It's a crisis that, as Senator Wong so eloquently stated, is something that we will get through together, as one. We have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in our past as a nation and, when we come together, we can do great things. As we look across the federation, I think it's been really heartening to see how Australians have really embraced, at very much a community and organisational level, the leadership, through the work of the national cabinet, of our premiers and our Prime Minister and have adopted very tough measures around socially isolating et cetera. We're learning new ways of connecting, and, hopefully, some of them will stay with us once we get through this.
Out in regional Australia, we are socially isolating. We're doing the right thing. We're also producing a lot of fresh food. This unprecedented government response from the national cabinet in the face of this unique health challenge is so significant. I think the legislation we've been called to parliament to pass today will help us stem some of the more devastating impacts on our economy and our workforce going forward.
Regional Australians know about resilience and compassion in adversity. I would also like to associate the Nationals with Senator Wong's commentary around the community response and the need to connect at a personal level. I thought hers were very apt words. Our nation, when you look around the globe, has actually chosen quite a unique approach to deal with this crisis. I think we need to be proud of our premiers and our Prime Minister and of the way we're all working across all party lines to find a solution that's right for us.
To our families living in the bush: we have your back and we're making sure that any response that our government puts forward recognises the challenges for rural and regional communities and our industries. On the issue of telecommunication concerns, we welcomed the NBN Sky Muster program's support and the increase in data, as rural and regional Australians, businesses and families struggling to educate children at home need that additional data. We have a health package that recognises the unique aspects of health provision out in regional and rural areas. There are specific measures for remote community preparedness in our Indigenous communities. There has been the establishment of respiratory health clinics. We've seen one open in Mildura this week and one up in Emerald, and there will be more rolled out in regional communities over the coming weeks. There has been an increase to telehealth services. It has been a real boon for regional Australians to be able to stay on their property or in their community and still access specialist health services. We've also put forward specific measures for rural aged-care services. We've also invested money to support remote communities, to minimise the impact and to have specific evacuation strategies available to them, because we know that if this virus gets into some of our more remote Indigenous communities it will have a devastating impact.
We're also focused on supporting Australia's regional airline network, because many of our regional communities rely on air services for urgent and essential transport, medical supplies and personnel. We've been really focused on keeping Australia's supply chain open so our food producers can get our crops harvested and to market, wherever that happens to be. That has been critical in keeping our shelves stocked at supermarkets. Our farmers, across every state and territory, have been very committed to ensuring we will not run out of food in this country—so please don't panic buy! They're working very, very hard.
We've got a $110 million export initiative to help our agricultural and fishery sectors get that produce on planes and into key overseas markets, because that means securing regional jobs and making the recovery quicker once we're through this. It also means keeping the trucks on the road. When I was driving up from Wodonga yesterday, there was barely a car in sight, but there were trucks on both sides. Ferrying essential medical supplies, food et cetera has been really, really key. Keeping the roadside service stations, the roadhouses and the truck driver lounges open so that our truckies can get the rest, food and personal care that they need whilst doing this very, very critical task of keeping those supply chains open has been something that governments have been very, very focused on.
Nationals senators have been fierce advocates, on behalf of our growers, of extending the working holiday-maker visas—the seasonal and Pacific islander visa classes—because agriculture needs these workers on farms to ensure that we can have a fresh, domestic food supply in our supermarkets. Whether it's Senator McMahon, for our melon growers in the NT, Senators Canavan and McDonald, for the mango growers in Queensland, or Senator Davey and me, for the apple and pear growers in the southern area, we can't underestimate what that particular measure by the government means to so many of our primary producers.
We've brought forward measures to keep regional media strong so that we can be kept informed out in regional and rural Australia. Small businesses are the cornerstone of our communities, so we've cut red tape. We're also bringing forward these supplements that offer an extra boost for rural businesses, and I think the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which will keep employees and businesses connected through this crisis, is an absolute milestone achievement. I congratulate everyone, from Porter to McManus, for getting this done.
As the Senate team, we're at home, wherever we are out in the regions, working to support our communities, not just through drought and bushfire response and recovery, which is ongoing, but also by making sure our communities can access this much-needed government support—from the trophy shop operator in Central Queensland to the work that's being done, particularly by Senators McMahon and McDonald, to make sure supermarkets, which won't let you bulk-buy anything, revise those measures for people who live out on stations, where a round trip to the supermarket could be upwards of 800 kilometres. That has been essential work and a commonsense approach in a time of crisis.
I want to inform the Senate of a good news story that's happening out there in the regions. Senator McMahon informed me of Gary Frost, who runs the Dunmarra roadhouse on the Stuart Highway, halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs. People can't dine in, so he has a plane and he actually drops pizza and beer out to stations at no additional delivery charge. So there you go! Thank you very much, Gary. It's typical of the can-do attitude and commitment of communities right across Australia in a time of crisis.