Thursday, 3 December 2020
Economics References Committee; Report
On behalf of the Economic References Committee, I present the report of the committee, Final report: Inquiry into the indicators of, and impact of, regional inequality in Australia, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
At the outset, I'd just like to put on the record the confidence, professionalism and dedication of the secretariat in preparing the report after assessing a large number of submissions. It's always a pleasure to work with the professional people in the secretariat.
Before I go into the detail of the report, it's incredible that sometimes in this place the debate preceding an item is very cognisant of the item. This is about regional inequality, and there's no greater area of regional inequality than in some areas of Indigenous activity—the lack of educational opportunities and the like. I enjoyed the contribution of previous senators on the matter and I think a central theme of all of it was that there are areas for improvement by state, local and federal governments which would impact on the topic before us.
On 14 February 2018 the Senate referred an inquiry into the indicators of, and impact of, regional inequality in Australia for inquiry and report by the last sitting day of 2019. This date was subsequently extended. One of the unfortunate things due to the pandemic was that we weren't able to travel as frequently or as far as we would have liked to, but we did get a substantial number of visits in.
Our terms of reference were:
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;
f. building human capital;
g. enhancing local workforce skills;
h. employment arrangements;
i. decentralisation policies;
k. manufacturing; and
l. any other related matters.
As at about 15 December 2019 the committee had received a total of 140 submissions to the inquiry—129 during the 45th Parliament and a further 11 during the 46th Parliament—and conducted five public hearings in the following regional areas: Emerald, 29 August 2018; Darwin, 5 November 2018; Townsville, 7 November 2018; Port Augusta, 19 November 2019; and Traralgon, 21 November 2019. As I've said, we always get plenty of submissions, plenty of interesting evidence and plenty of good contributions from regional Australia, because there is a necessity to do this systematically and to continue through, no matter who's in government. It doesn't really matter who's in government. This work needs to continue systematically, and the methodology needs to be agreed. Each stakeholder needs to know their part. And we need to get on with it.
I will give credit to the other side of the chamber, because I think Senator Payne, in the position of Minister of Defence, took onboard our inquiry into the involvement of Defence spend around their regional bases. We identified some areas of concern and, almost in an eye blink, Senator Payne was on to it and incorporated that strategy of direct involvement, engagement and employment around regional defence bases. I suppose the irony of the chamber is that it was Senator Reynolds who claimed the credit for it; I'm sure Senator Payne had a wry grin when that happened.
Anyway, we've been around, and there's a continual theme in this particular area that shouldn't go unreported or unrecognised, which is the lack of education and training opportunities in regional Australia. The view that education and training were neglected and that they are important to the regions was a common one. A number of submissions argued that it was difficult for people living in the regions to have the same level of access to education as those living in major cities. The Regional Universities Network commented:
There is significant inequality in educational attainment between the regional Australia and major cities. Regional Australia is a generation behind in educational attainment compared to major cities, and it may well take a generation or more to address this inequality.
This theme is not coming from just one area; it's coming from right around the country. Uniting Country SA, when asked what could be better in terms of support, made this first point:
Investment in education and training opportunities across our regions. We have a lot of people that have to leave their communities to access that sort of service. Policies and procedures that encourage investment from industry within our service area as well to provide greater career opportunities and greater wealth within the community.
They also said:
We've got TAFE, and they do offer a range of courses, but there are not enough opportunities.
So, once again, if you educate people you need to have a pipeline of opportunity. Without that pipeline of opportunity we're condemning people, in come cases in the Indigenous sector, almost to a lifetime of inequality. If they can't complete high school or if there are no opportunities when they complete high school to go into an apprenticeship or a traineeship then we really have failed those regions.
Take the vibrant city of Whyalla—I'm being a bit parochial here, and I apologise to those people I don't mention in the short time I have today, but any senator will tell you that they always take the opportunity to mention their home state first—Mayor Clare McLaughlin of Whyalla City Council observed:
We are a city with ageing infrastructure—both industry and community assets—with pressure on council's budget to balance financial sustainability against the need to upgrade assets to improve livability.
Continued cost-shifting from other levels of government places significant strain on our ability to ensure financial sustainability in the future whilst managing and upgrading our ageing infrastructure to become a more desirable, livable city. We encourage increased funding allocations to upgrade regional community assets—something that is integral to our vision for the city.
She went on to say:
A lot of our infrastructure is very old. It was built back in the 1970s, when the town was booming. We would definitely appreciate some more funding—
for those sorts of upgrades. This is a continual theme taken up by many communities right around the country: education, infrastructure, opportunity and the like.
In the short time that I have I would like to put on the record that Mr David Ross, director of the Central Land Council, advocated government investment in infrastructure as one of the several recommendations to assist Indigenous people to fill their potential:
The government needs to take urgent action to reverse these trends. I know better than most that this problem is complex. However, I believe that there are clear steps that can be taken now to narrow these gaps. These include…investing in vital basic infrastructure in remote and very remote areas to improve opportunities for Aboriginal-driven development on Aboriginal land and sea, including in roads, water, power, telecommunications and access to essential health and education services.
I think I met Mr Ross in the early 1970s, when we were both truck drivers for John Dring transport in Alice Springs. He knows what he's talking about. He's lived in that area all of his life and he's contributed to that area all his life. I humbly suggest that those who make decisions that will impact on this area listen to his advice, because it's coming from the right place.
We made a couple of recommendations. One was:
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government fundamentally re-examine its regional infrastructure spending plan and make an expanded infrastructure programme the basis for its stimulus plan for Australia’s economic recovery from the impacts of the COVID—19 pandemic.
This recommendation means that the government should use the opportunity the pandemic has created by funding infrastructure properly in regional Australia.
In order to establish to most appropriate response in terms of regional investment, the committee recommends the Commonwealth Government undertake a series of round table consultations with:
I think this is a very timely report as it was tabled just after the debate on the cashless welfare card. I know that the various positions on the cashless welfare card are deeply felt and I think this report points to the way forward. We have to improve the infrastructure, education and training. We have to listen to the Indigenous people who have been in the regions for a long time and explore the opportunities. Even investing in telehealth infrastructure in remote communities would bring about remarkable change. People could be diagnosed over the internet, which would mean that we could remediate problems early and quickly. I commend the report to the Senate and seek leave to continue my remarks later.
I rise to make a very brief contribution to the debate on this report, following the contribution of the chair of the committee, Senator Gallacher. As the deputy chair of the committee, I will add my thanks to the secretariat and all those who made submissions to the inquiry. I also pay tribute to the role played by Senator Gallacher, who drove this inquiry, and all the senators who participated in the inquiry. Obviously, across the chamber many members of this place wish to see rural and regional Australia advance. There are some additional comments from coalition senators noting some of the very important things that this government is doing in the space: things such as investment in infrastructure and job creation. I note the presence in the chamber of the minister, who has been central to driving some of those changes in terms of jobs programs and the like.
One of the frustrations of 2020 has been that the committee's plan had been to get out into the regions much more than we were able to do. In light of events of this year, that is the least important thing that has happened this year, but it was a frustration for many of us who would like to have seen this place take its committee work out into the regions much more. Unfortunately, events of this year haven't allowed that, and we all know why. But this is an important report, because it is a very important policy issue. I certainly commend this report for examination to all those listening to this debate. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.