Tapping the Potential of Regional Australia


As the Minister for Regional Development, and as Minister for Infrastructure and Local Government, I had a real opportunity to make a difference working with regional communities during the Global Financial Crisis. I didn’t miss the opportunity.
Creating good jobs in regional towns and cities was the key to maintaining economic growth and capitalising on the strengths that our different regions and communities offered across our vast land.
Establishing Regional Development Australia and working closely with Local Government ensured that priorities came from these communities, not to them.
It also gave me the opportunity to visit these communities, develop relationships and learn first hand what made them tick.
I’ve followed the Wide Open Road across this continent from the Cattle and Cane country of the north, to great iron ore mines in the West, the resources heartland of central Queensland and the food producing powerhouses of the Murray Darling Basin.
I’ve talked to farmers on their properties growing everything from mangoes to macadamias, wheat and wool to wine grapes, beef and barley to bananas, sheep to salmon.
I’ve walked factory floors of world-class train manufacturing facilities in Maryborough.
I’ve seen visionary clean energy projects around Hughenden created by companies seizing new opportunities in a changing world.
I’ve marvelled at the enormous scale of our resources sector producing wealth for our regional towns and our nation.
I’ve witnessed the creativity and energy of our tourism operators. They’re always looking for new markets, and they always stay hungry – even now, as they face their biggest tests recovering from the bushfire season and battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Our regions are populated by talented, ambitious Australians who work hard and work smart.
The way they contribute to our economy and our national life is extraordinary.
They endure – even as they fight crippling drought, floods, cyclones and unprecedented bushfire.
They endure – even as they deal with the fallout from fluctuating commodity prices.
Around two thirds of Australia’s export earnings come from regional industries including resources, agriculture, tourism, education and manufacturing. But too often regional communities have seen good jobs, wealth and opportunity flow back into the capital cities.
There so much potential for so much more growth.
There’s potential for growth in our existing industries. And there’s massive potential for growth in underdone areas like clean energy and advanced manufacturing.
Regional Australia needs a government with the vision to back it in.
And Regional Australians need a government with the vision to back you – one that’s ready to invest in their future prosperity, and ready to unlock it.
The Morrison Government falls far short of what regional Australia needs and deserves.
The Morrison Government pays lip service to the potential of our regions.
It’s led by a Prime Minister who in his eighth year in office, has no jobs plan for regional Australia.
He’s always there for the photo-op, but never there for the follow up.
He’s all talk, and no walk.
And the National Party, once the proud party of the farmer, is now nothing more than a shallow enabler for Morrison’s govern-by-marketing method.
No one talks up regional Australia like the Nats. But no-one lets down regional Australia like them, either.
Today, in my 7th Vision statement as the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, I offer a snapshot of how a Labor Government would harness the untapped potential of regional Australia.
It’s about investing in regions to pave a real path for jobs growth, economic activity and diversification.
It’s about investing in infrastructure.
It’s about investing in our nation’s greatest asset – our people, through proper support for regional universities, TAFE colleges, schools and early childhood education.
Above all, it’s about collaboration. Working hand in hand with local government, businesses and communities. Helping individual regions identify, develop and mobilise their competitive advantages.
In the 21st century, the Government should understand that regional Australia is not just a hinterland to the coastal cities.
It’s not a monolith that stands still behind some abstract metropolitan boundary.
It’s a diverse, dynamic set of communities – each with their own character, each with their own challenges.
And it has the potential to drive huge economic growth in the coming decades.
But only if we have a government with a properly thought-out and fully-formed decentralisation and economic development agenda for the regions.
Turbo-charging regional growth has to be at the heart of that agenda.
Serious diversification has to be at the heart of that agenda.
And only a Labor Government will deliver that agenda.
For most of this year, the globe has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and everything it has brought with it.
In this country, the pandemic has tragically claimed hundreds of lives and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Our nation is in the Morrison Recession.
Nearly 30 years of continuous economic growth – the legacy of the reforms of the great Hawke and Keating Labor Governments – have come to an end.
But living through the struggle of coronavirus has taught us some valuable lessons.
We have learned that many Australians can be just as productive working from their homes as they are in large offices in central business districts.
Businesses have glimpsed the potential to reduce their overheads with more remote work.
The pandemic has also opened the eyes of Australians and businesses to the possible benefits of relocating to the regions.
For some, lower overheads makes sense. And for many, there’s the attraction of shorter commuting times, lower property prices and a less frenetic lifestyle.
Coronavirus has accelerated the change of an old mindset, breaking the bonds that tied so many of us to our capital cities.
But this change was already underway. Even before the pandemic, we saw a growing number of jobs going digital or online – not least the increasing opportunities being thrown up by the creative economy and through the NBN.
The pandemic has pointed the way to the possibilities of decentralisation – or better yet, smart regionalisation.
It makes sense for governments to nurture smart regionalisation.
It won’t just happen by moving a couple of government agencies from Australia’s largest inland city – the Bush Capital – into regional communities.
That’s the Barnaby Joyce fantasy model. It failed.
Decentralisation requires genuine investment, serious policy making and determined implementation.
That’s where Labor governments always shine.
In 1946, in charting the recovery from the Second World War, Ben Chifley highlighted decentralisation as a pathway for the ‘balanced economic and defensive development of industry’.
Gough Whitlam and one of my mentors, Tom Uren, knew that investing in our regions would help tackle the entrenched social and economic inequality that existed in our nation at the beginning of the 1970s.
The Hawke and Keating years brought about a revolution in agriculture policy, removing the subsidies and protections in agriculture that had been holding back the sector.
And the previous Rudd and Gillard governments, in which I was proud to serve as the nation’s first Federal Infrastructure Minister, doubled the roads budget and increased investment in rail tenfold, directing two thirds of that investment towards the regions.
We understood that regions can’t grow without supportive infrastructure. The right type of infrastructure.
That’s why we upgraded critical regional roads including the Bruce, Pacific, Hume, Dukes, Princes, Great Northern and Midland highways.
In regional New South Wales, the duplication of the Pacific Highway will cut the travel time from Hexham to the Queensland border by two and a half hours.  As Infrastructure Minister I increased investment in the Pacific Highway from $1.3 billion over 12 years of the Howard Government to $7.6 billion in half that time of the Rudd and Gillard Governments.
Most importantly, in the years since the upgrade commenced, road fatalities have halved.
The upgrade of the Highway included delivery of the long talked about Kempsey Bypass, which boasts the longest bridge in Australia.  This is a project funded, built and opened fifteen months ahead of schedule during my time as Infrastructure Minister.
In contrast, here in Coffs you are still waiting for your bypass.  Indeed, it has now been seven years since Tony Abbott first promised that the Coalition would deliver the project – and still not a hole has been dug.
Another lesson from coronavirus is the folly of the current Government’s rejection of fibre-to-the-premises broadband.
This 21st Century technology is what I turned on here in Coffs Harbour as Communications Minister in 2013.
If we want people to work from home, we need the very best broadband network available.
But the job is only half done.
It’s hard to move into the future when the Government has tied us to the past with copper wire.  Their sentimental attachment to 19th century technology is surely one of the most costly exercises in nostalgia this nation has ever seen.
Too many businesses in regional Australia continue to be held back by broadband which just isn’t fast enough, reliable enough or good enough.
World-class communications technology can literally banish the tyranny of distance as a handbrake on growth in regional and rural areas.
But we’ve got a Government that’s leaving people waiting, and leaving people behind.
I’m not the first person to say we need better transport links between capital cities and regional centres. I know it’s certainly not the first time anyone in this room has heard it – or thought it.
But we just aren’t moving fast enough.
For years now, I’ve advocated the construction of a High Speed Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
Travelling at speeds of more than 300km an hour, High Speed Rail would see people move between capital cities in as little as three hours.
You could go from Sydney to Canberra or Sydney to Newcastle in under one hour.
It would put Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie under 2 hours from Sydney or Brisbane.
High Speed Rail opens up the possibility of people commuting to capital cities while enjoying the lower cost and lifestyle benefits of regional living.
It would encourage businesses to move or establish themselves in regions.
It would also be an economic game changer for communities on its path with proposed stops at the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
Put simply, it would revolutionise interstate travel. It would revolutionise regional economies.
Likewise, the long promised Inland Rail Link – a freight rail link connecting Brisbane and Melbourne – would make it easier for agricultural producers to get their exports on to ships.
The problem is that on the Government’s current plans, the line will stop 38 kilometres from the Port of Brisbane.
That makes no sense. We need to get the route right and realise the full potential of this important project.
Roads. Railways. Communications. These are bridges to regional prosperity.
Swifter movement of goods and services around our nation boosts productivity.
Greater productivity means more jobs. It’s that simple.
At the end of the day, everything we do as legislators needs to come back to people. Their quality of life, their productivity, their prosperity.
Productivity and prosperity depend upon skills and training.
For the past seven years, this Government has cut funding to schools, run down our universities and pulled $3 billion out of the TAFE sector.
You would struggle to find a greater indictment of Scott Morrison than this fact: today there are 140,000 fewer Australians undertaking apprenticeships or traineeships than in 2013.
That includes 1,300 fewer apprenticeships and traineeships right here in the Coffs Harbour region.
A drop of 44 per cent. It’s a disgrace.
This Government has also waged war on universities, particularly regional universities. Recently the University of New England announced plans to cut up to 210 jobs from its workforce of 1,400.
We’ve seen almost 300 jobs lost at Central Queensland University.
This is despite the fact regional universities provide employment opportunities and social and economic benefits, including retaining young people and graduates in the region.
They also undertake research that benefits the entire nation, including here in Coffs Harbour at Southern Cross University which is home to the National Marine Science Centre.
The effect of all this neglect will be magnified in years to come as we emerge from the Morrison Recession sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
A million Australians are already unemployed.
A further 1.5 million Australians are underemployed.
And another 400,000 will join them on dole queues by Christmas as the Government scales back the level of JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
Currently there are 28 Australians in regional areas relying on unemployment payments for every vacancy.
This shows just how much more potential our regions have to offer – people ready and wanting to seize opportunity and work to grow regional economies.
We entered the Morrison recession with a labour market characterised by insecure work.
And the pandemic has demonstrated just how bad a problem this is for the nation. 
Casual, labour hire and gig workers are unable to isolate for fear of losing hours or their job – making the public health crisis worse.
Young workers hit hard by job losses and forced to use their own superannuation to get by.
Secure work provides the lynchpin for a region – because it provides workers with the confidence and strength to put down roots in a community and spend locally.
Yet we know that this government has no plan for secure work.
And it has no plan for training either.
For regional Australia to boom its people need the technical skills and professional knowledge to do the jobs of the future.
We need to rebuild the training system and TAFE must be at its core.
That is why a Labor Government will create Jobs and Skills Australia.
It will protect the jobs of the present and prepare regional Australians for the jobs of the future.
People in the regions often can’t access the services they need.
Take health.
We know that people in regional Australia suffer higher rates of illness – particularly from chronic diseases like asthma, arthritis and diabetes.
And tragically, we also know that life expectancy falls the further you go from our capital cities. On average, people in the regions live several years less, and the life expectancy gap in remote areas is up to 15 years.
That’s not acceptable to me, and it’s not acceptable to Labor. So we need to look closely at its causes.
Partly it’s because it’s harder to access health services in regional Australia. There are about half as many specialists as in cities, for example.
Yet the Government is cutting bulk billing incentives in some regions, and making it harder to recruit doctors in others.
But health outcomes are also shaped by the social and economic factors that help keep people well – or make them sick – in the first place.
Much of the health disadvantage that we see in regions can be traced to lower rates of education, higher rates of unemployment, and lower incomes for those who do have jobs.
Addressing those issues would also help people in the regions to live longer, healthier lives.
But it is not just health care. The regions miss out when it comes to aged care too.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Aged Care Royal Commission Peter Gray QC noted the availability of aged care in regional and remote Australia “…compares poorly to its availability in urban Australia.”
Aged care services are so important in regional, rural and remote areas. Not only because of the need in the regions, but because aged care facilities and services are often at the heart of the community. The residents are part of the community. The incredible staff are part of the community.
But many regional aged care services struggle to be viable, and they struggle to attract staff.
This means there are fewer aged care services for older Australians in the regions.  Fewer residential aged care places, fewer community aged care services, fewer dementia facilities, more hospital visits for people waiting for residential aged care, and more people waiting longer for home care packages.
Indeed in some areas, home care is not even available.
Here on the Mid North Coast, there are more than 2,500 people still waiting for a home care package that has already been approved.
And the coronavirus has not spared regional aged care facilities.
But this Government had no plan for the coronavirus and the aged care sector.
Older people in our regions must be able to access high quality aged care services. As Peter Gray QC told the Royal Commission:
“…equity of access to quality aged care for Australians who live outside the big cities is a matter of simple fairness.”
Older Australians in regional Australia need a Government which recognises this and values them enough to invest in services for them.
One thing I know about regional Australians is that they stick together.
They understand the value of collaboration to advance their common interests.
Governments must engage with industry, businesses, chambers of commerce and local governments to maximise the opportunities for growth across our regions.
When Labor was last in office we created Regional Development Australia to drive this engagement.
Our Government appointed only the chairs and deputy chairs of these committees. Everyone else was recruited from the community.
Critically, we encouraged individual regions to play to their strengths – to identify their competitive advantages.
Collaboration works.
After the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2009 the former Labor Government appointed Lindsay Fox and Bill Kelty to work with the local communities that had been hit the hardest.
In communities like Cairns, Mr Fox and Mr Kelty brought together local mayors, business leaders and community leaders to developed local plans to get people back to work.
The same thing happened here in Coffs Harbour.
Because of this strategy, unemployment in Coffs Harbour dropped.
Clearly the process worked – until it was abandoned by the Abbott Government.
For decades the resources sector has been the backbone of the Australian economy.
In the 21st century, as the world moves to a lower-carbon future, our exports will continue to meet the demands of the rapidly growing nations of our region.
But, as I said before, our nation’s long-term future lies in renewable energy sources.
For example, our vast resources of lithium and other rare earths offer huge potential in a world that will become increasingly focused on the need for batteries to store energy.
In coming decades, we must position our nation to be a major player in the clean energy industries that continue to grow in importance over time.
Indeed, if we get the policies right, we can transform our nation into a renewable energy superpower.
There are also opportunities in bio-energy, where bio-mass generation and waste-to-energy continues to evolve.
Similarly, renewable hydrogen is a future potential export sector.
This week’s report from the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer envisages 17,000 jobs and $26 billion added to annual GDP from a domestic hydrogen industry which has been backed in by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean.
The Morrison Government appears to be blind to such opportunities.
Our Prime Minister has no energy policy.
He is impotent in the face of a rump of conservative hard liners so stridently opposed to action on climate change that they ignore the opportunities it offers their own communities.
They ignore the jobs on offer.
And the community is losing patience.
Consider this: The Nationals, who say they represent farmers, are now at odds with the National Farmers’ Federation, which recently embraced the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
While the Government demonises solar energy, elsewhere the debate is moving on.
When it comes to energy and resources policy, the community and the investment sector is moving beyond this do-nothing Government.
It will take a Labor Government to tackle energy policy in a way that recognises the value of the current resources market while seeking out the massive opportunities in renewables.
The right plans will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in new industries, including in regional Australia whilst also reducing power prices.
We can increase investment in heavy manufacturing in regional Australia. There’s huge potential for it.
But under this Government, the sector is going backwards.
The same people who virtually dared car manufacturers to close their Australian operations have presided over a 14 per cent reduction in regional manufacturing jobs.
We can do much better.
Take rail for example.
Over the next 20 years, Australian states will invest billions of dollars in new trains and new lines for them to run on.
Between Perth’s METRONET, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and major projects in Sydney and Melbourne, we’ll need hundreds of rail carriages in the next few decades.
And we should build them here.
That way, we’ll create jobs in regional Australia while boosting our manufacturing skills base.
Last month, I was shocked to hear NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declare:
“Australia and NSW are not good at building trains, that’s why we have to purchase them.”
Just stunning. And it’s not right.
Try saying that to the 250 workers and 30 apprentices at the Downer EDI factory in Maryborough.
They’ve been building trains there for 150 years. When I visited late last year, the workers told me they were proud of their work and proud of their facility.
One of their current jobs is to retrofit new trains purchased from overseas by the previous Coalition Queensland Government which were not fit for purpose.
Australians are great at building trains.
The Tangara trains built in Newcastle have been the backbone of the Sydney rail network for decades.
With demand for new rolling stock about to skyrocket, we need a national rail plan.
We need to use the power of government purchasing to help revive and grow manufacturing in this nation.
The NSW Premier and her Liberal colleagues in other states are blind to this golden opportunity to create good, secure jobs and broaden our skills base.
Instead they bought trains from Korea and India which don’t fit through some of the Sydney network’s tunnels, ferries from Indonesia and China – some of which apparently don’t fit under Sydney bridges, trams from Spain, and buses from Malaysia, when all of this could have been delivered on time and on budget in regional Australia.
This lack of confidence in the capacity of regional business has brought Australia one step closer to the end of the line for Australian manufacturing. It is the reason why businesses like United Group just down the road from here in Taree, which used to employ hundreds of tradespeople and trained hundreds of apprentices, is mothballed and empty today.
To identify and bolster future manufacturing opportunities, it’s time we invested properly in research and development.
Australia has a culture of innovation and adaptation. We invented Wi-Fi, black box flight recorders, plastic bank notes and cochlear implants. The list goes on.
Governments must back this culture of innovation by investing in research and development. It must play a critical role in identifying efficiencies in traditional sectors like agriculture and manufacturing while developing and cultivating new ones. This is no time to allow our universities, particularly our regional universities to shed staff and research capability.
Supporting R&D is a matter of urgency, but the Morrison Government plans to go the other way and cut the Research and Development Tax Incentive designed to encourage growth.
This at a time when our R&D investment has fallen below 2 per cent of GDP – below countries like South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Denmark and Singapore.
And at a time where universities’ primary revenue stream for its own R&D – overseas students – has stalled.
The Morrison Government wants to increase the tax burden on innovative firms by nearly $2 billion.
Unless we invest in R&D, we will only be able to read the story of our proud manufacturing history when we should be writing the next chapter.
In July last year, I attended a Bush Summit in Dubbo run by the Daily Telegraph to bring attention to challenges facing rural and regional communities.
At that event Scott Morrison announced he would ask his Agriculture Minister to draw up a national plan to enable agriculture, fisheries and forestry to become a $100 billion industry by 2030.
The cameras flashed.
The story ran on television news.
More than a year later, we’ve heard nothing about this national plan.
Not a thing.
Always there for the photo-op. Never there for the follow-up.
At the very time regional communities need support, the Morrison Government is leaving you behind.
Our regions are our key to emerging more strongly from this crisis in better shape than we went into it, with no one held back and no one left behind.
In all their diversity and all their possibility, they are our natural advantage. They are our potential as a society, as an economy, and as a nation.
Just as technology has evolved to the point where it can let us spread out, the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of our mindsets and let us realise we can.
We have a chance to create a nation that is more resilient and self-reliant.
Let’s match it with an abundance of imagination and willpower.
Let’s imagine a better future for regional Australia, a future that embraces progress, innovation, diversification and growth.
An Albanese Labor Government will roll up its sleeves and do just that.