Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 February 2018


Regional Australia

7:35 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on an issue very close to my heart. As a senator for Queensland, with duty electorates including Flynn, Maranoa and Wright, I hear a lot about regional inequality on the ground, the negative differences and outcomes experienced by people in the regions—whether it be in western outback towns like Longreach and Roma, industrial hubs like Gladstone in Central Queensland, remote communities in tropical North Queensland, or in-between areas like Rathdownie and Beaudesert, not quite rural but also not traditional suburbia—and their city cousins.

I'm proud to be a regular visitor in the regions and a cosponsor for Labor for the Regions Queensland. This is an organisation which I cosponsor with Jim Madden and Cathy O'Toole, and we have set this organisation up so as to provide a voice for regional Queenslanders within the party in Queensland. In the last six months, I've been to Longreach, Barcaldine, Winton, Boonah, Rockhampton, Emerald, Gladstone, Cairns and other areas. Next week I will be in Rockhampton again, and on 10 March I will be holding a mobile office at Stanthorpe, for those people who might be listening. I look forward to seeing people in Stanthorpe again.

I'm also proud that federal Labor has in Bill Shorten a leader who cares deeply about regional Australia. As elected Labor representatives, we are on the ground listening and developing policies for regional Queenslanders. I've participated in a range of roundtables and listening opportunities with the leader, talking to business groups. We've been talking to employer representatives, to local authorities and to various support groups in these areas.

The issues that have been raised with me most frequently by individuals, families and businesses include things like health and the difficulties and extra costs in accessing top-quality medical services in regional areas; education and the concerns that city kids are achieving more and that higher education is less available; employment issues, like people having to leave their home towns to find jobs; lack of diversity in regional industry; lesser ability for collective bargaining; poorer work and wage conditions; the unfair distribution of government funding—for example, the resources boom benefiting the cities more than the regions; and the vital area of communications.

Labor believes in addressing regional inequality through investing more in health and education; encouraging the trade union movement and legislating fairer work conditions and wages, including the restoration of penalty rates; encouraging workplace participation through funding proper disability support systems and childcare subsidies; and an appropriately funded welfare system that has compassion for those who need a helping hand. It's been impressed on me in my visits to various areas that this type of infrastructure—some might call it soft infrastructure—is so important to building communities and creating the economies in these areas, which is absolutely vital to ensuring that we have equality.

In addition, in our last term of government, Labor began the rollout of a genuine National Broadband Network, recognising this was one way we could level the playing field in the regions. Unfortunately, the Liberal-Nationals have botched that opportunity with the NBN. They're ripping money out of education and health. It's time we held the government to account.

In addition to my responsibilities standing up for Queenslanders, I chair the Senate Economics References Committee. In relation to the role of the committees, I echo the words of my Labor Senate colleague the Hon. Kim Carr, who has said that one of the most important functions the Senate has is the power of exposure. I've formed the view that the extent of inequality in our regions must be exposed. Through this exposure, the government will be forced to act. To that end, today I moved a motion for a Senate inquiry into:

The indicators of, and impact of, regional inequality in Australia, with particular reference to Government policies and programs in the following areas:

(a) fiscal policies at federal, state and local government levels;

(b) improved co-ordination of federal, state and local Government policies;

(c) regional development policies;

(d) infrastructure;

(e) education;

(f) building human capital;

(g) enhancing local workforce skills;

(h) employment arrangements;

(i) decentralisation policies;

(j) innovation;

(k) manufacturing; and

(l) any other related matters.

This is a wide-ranging inquiry. It's comprehensive and will provide an avenue for individuals, businesses and advocacy groups in our regions to share with us their experiences. Labor and I hope the government will work with stakeholders to determine how we can measure the key causes of regional inequality. Once we have that evidence, we can start to develop a way forward to reduce the extent of regional inequality in the future.