APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2013-2014, APPROPRIATION (PARLIAMENTARY DEPARTMENTS) BILL (NO. 1) 2013-2014
May 29, 2013
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:44): As tempting as it is today to reflect on the budget crisis, I am not going to talk much about the mess that the Labor Party is leaving our nation in. I am going to focus on the strengths and opportunities which are waiting to be developed by any government which shares my passion for the future of regional Australia. The importance of regional Australia to the future of our nation has never been properly grasped by either the Rudd or the Gillard governments. I have argued many times that to truly understand the hopes and aspirations of regional people, you need to live amongst us. It has been an insult to us that not a single cabinet minister actually lives in regional Australia. This has led to some appalling misjudgements and decisions which have devastated regional communities, like the ill-conceived ban on live exports. It has also led to the ridiculous situation where the minister for regional Australia once claimed that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a Perth airport link road was a regional project because regional people drive on the road! But all of that is in the past. What we need to do today and in the next few months is look to the future and ensure that regional Australia resumes its rightful place, front and centre of every decision that is made by the federal government, whether it be a coalition government or a Labor government.
To start that process we need to have strong voices in the cabinet of the federal government—where the big decisions are made. We need regional voices. We need authentic, regional people prepared to fight for a fair go for regional Australians—for our farmers, for our small-business people, for our children, for our teenagers, for our families, for the elderly and for the Indigenous community. That is one thing the coalition, if elected in the September election, can offer regional Australia on day one,: we can offer regional Australia talented, experienced, senior ministers in cabinet who share our passion for the future of communities outside the capital cities.
I am a hopeless optimist and I recognise that we have a budgetary mess to clean up—but I believe the coalition is up to the job. And I sincerely believe that regional Australia’s best days lie ahead of us. We already make an enormous contribution to the wealth and prosperity of our nation. But with a better government—helping and not hindering our performance—we can do even more. We need a concerted effort by the federal government to reinvest in the future of regional Australia. We need the federal government to work in partnership with all other levels of government, to work in partnership with our business and community leaders, and to reinvest in the future of regional Australia. We all have some ideas about how this might happen, but we need more than a just a collection of ideas, plans and concepts that individual MPs or others from across the nation might bring to the negotiating table. I believe that regional Australia needs its own white paper. For the sake of clarity, Deputy Speaker, I must stress that this is not a formal policy position of the coalition. It is an issue that I have raised before within the coalition, within the national party room and within the joint party room, and it is something I have talked about before in the media. I believe we need to have a regional white paper to do something that can make a real difference to the lives of regional Australians.
The development of a regional Australia white paper would allow for a more holistic approach to government policies on regional development and would provide us with a blueprint for the future. It could be used to highlight the current barriers to regional growth, and to highlight the opportunities for regional Australia to play an even bigger role in our nation’s future prosperity. Such a white paper would certainly assist regional MPs, whether they be Labor, Liberal-Nationals or Independents, in arguing the case for government investment in our communities. It would be an objective assessment of our strengths and our weaknesses, and of the opportunities and the threats facing regional Australia. It would provide us with a comprehensive road map for the future. Remarkably, in Australia’s history there has not been a white paper specifically on the regions. We have never seen a regional white paper. It is time we developed our own blueprint for the future.
We have had the white paper on the Asian century—which depends very heavily on regional Australia making an enormous contribution, but it never actually makes it clear how we are going to overcome some of the challenges facing regional Australia in order to fully integrate it with the Asian century white paper. We need to ask questions—and answer the questions—about how we are going to meet the skills and infrastructure challenges of the future. What can the federal government do to help our regional towns achieve their full potential? Are we ever going to get serious about relieving congestion in our major cities by driving growth in our regional communities through strategic infrastructure upgrades and delivering better services in our towns and our provincial centres? Will we ever drop the one-size-fits-all approach and give regional towns the flexibility to deliver service models that actually work in their own communities? It is about time we trusted the people on the ground in our regional centres to make the right decisions for their community. They are the local experts. We need to invest in the leadership capacity of regional Australia to help young people achieve their full potential and make a long-term contribution to the regional communities where they were born, where they have grown up and where they want to have their future—not be forced to travel away and maybe never return, even though they would prefer to live and work outside our major capitals.
There is a great news story to be told about regional Australia. Too often the stories we see in the media are about floods, about droughts, about fires, about population loss and other grim news. We need to get better at selling the story about the extraordinary opportunities which exist throughout regional Australia, the lifestyle advantages we can offer and the career paths which exist for many young people—way beyond the experience they could ever hope to achieve in a metropolitan environment.
In an era when we have a constant debate about the work-life balance, where we have time-poor parents in the big cities trying to juggle jobs, trying to do the double drop-off to child care, trying to excel in their chosen career and also be the wonder parents of the year, battling to get to work on congested roads and visiting parks where they dare not walk alone after dark, we have a very positive story to tell about regional Australia. That story is about the quality of life, and it is about the work-life balance that we can offer. It is also about the natural beauty of our extraordinary environment. It is about the access, in many cases, to world-class health services and education services in larger regional centres, which I think would surprise many people in metropolitan environments. We can boast of lower levels of crime. We can also boast of the housing affordability benefits of our regional communities.
One of the great things about regional life is of course reconnecting with the community, having a sense that you belong to something bigger than yourself and you are an important part of life through volunteering and other activities. It is about selling the story about the professional opportunities which are often dismissed by city dwellers who have not realised what is available to them in a non-metropolitan environment. There is such an incredible amount of diversity, responsibility and opportunities for rapid promotion in our regional centres that it is sometimes staggering for me to believe that we have a skill shortage in many professions in regional Australia.
As regional Australians, we need to get better at selling that message. We need to explain to industry and commerce throughout Australia that we are open for business and we are welcoming to newcomers from all walks of life. We have a job ahead of us in that regard. But governments also need to lift their game in that respect, and I think it starts with a regional Australia white paper. We need to build the case for further strategic investment in critical infrastructure and the key services to drive growth in our regional areas.
This week I met with the Regional Cities Victoria organisation, and we talked about a report which is titled Implications of population growth on infrastructure and resources in regional cities. It makes pretty much the same case that I am making here today. Investing in infrastructure in regional areas to help support population growth and take the pressure off our metropolitan areas makes sense at every level: at a social level, economically and environmentally. I know I do not need to tell you, Deputy Speaker Cheeseman. You live in a regional provincial centre, and you understand the benefits that come from the significant growth we have already experienced in regions like Geelong. That trend is expected to continue into the future. But, with the right level of investment from governments at all levels and with the right policy framework, I believe that regional areas can play an even bigger role in our nation’s future.
We need the bold nation-building initiatives like the Melbourne and Brisbane inland rail. It has been talked about for decades, but we are still waiting for the productivity and the safety improvements it can deliver to our nation. Our regional road network is falling apart, and the local councils throughout Australia are struggling to keep up with the basic maintenance costs, let alone having the capacity to invest in new infrastructure. The NBN bypasses many rural areas, while basic community services in regional Australia vary significantly in quality from state to state and can be a limitation when it comes to attracting skilled professionals. We still have some of the really simple things like mobile phone black spots, and we do not have a policy from the current government to help improve that situation.
I believe that a regional Australia white paper could turbocharge the COAG process. It would provide greater focus and would build on the existing 684-word communique which stands as the collaborative approach at the moment amongst the states and the Commonwealth. We need to take a whole-of-government approach and help provide the business case for that strategic investment I talked about and the public spending on new facilities and services while also examining the opportunities for leveraging off private sector investment.
When I talk about infrastructure investment, of course I am not just talking about roads, bridges, ports and rail—the really heavy infrastructure that we know is required to drive economic growth. There needs to be a greater appreciation in this place about the soft infrastructure: the swimming pools, the walking trails, the cycle paths, the boat ramps and other recreational facilities that contribute significantly to the quality of life and form part of that complete package of life in rural and regional Australia and also part of the attraction for our tourism sector.
Governments are already pouring an enormous amount of public money into facilities in our capital cities—the stadiums, the art galleries, the major events—but can we honestly say that a proportionate amount of public spending is also being delivered to our regional communities? At the moment, many of our major capital cities are hopelessly congested. I would argue that adding a few more lanes on freeways will not solve the problem, while many of our regional centres could actually double in size with little if any impact on the quality of life for many of the residents. Today we are experiencing the productivity losses of people sitting in traffic. We have well-paid employees in traffic jams when they could be contributing to our economy or, perhaps more importantly, relaxing with their own families. I think it is a major concern, and I believe regional Australia is part of the solution.
We must stop looking at regional Australia as if it is a problem and start realising that regional Australia is part of the solution. If our nation is going to prosper and achieve its full potential in the 21st century, there needs to be renewed focus on regional Australia. Various governments have toyed with the idea of decentralisation and I note again that Geelong has experienced the benefit of the TAC relocation from Melbourne. We need to get serious about relocating public service organisations which have no need to be anchored to these city locations. A regional Australia white paper could help make that case as well. It could help us out with our thinking in this area. It may well recommend which departments, or which discrete functions within a department, should be moved out.
As I said, the TAC has been moved to Geelong; ASIC has been established in Traralgon and it has worked. It has worked very well, and it would be interesting to do a cost-benefit analysis of that as part of a regional Australia white paper to assess what other departments may well benefit from a move to a regional location. I think that a regional Australia white paper could also look at incentives for private enterprise to expand into regional areas. I acknowledge, and I think it is very well accepted within regional development circles, that most of our growth in regional communities will come from existing businesses investing more into their operations— perhaps in partnership, leveraging with government investment; but there may be opportunities to assist other firms to relocate as our cities become too congested and their productivity is jeopardised in the metropolitan environment.
A regional Australia white paper could also help to build the case for decent policies to help regional students achieve their full potential by improving the system of student income support. I note the presence of the member for Grey who has been a tireless advocate on behalf of regional students in his electorate, in ensuring we have a decent system of youth allowance in our nation. We are going to need champions like the member for Grey who is prepared to continue to advocate on behalf of the students in his electorate. I know he has spoken before, and I have continued to speak, about the need for a tertiary access allowance which I believe will provide regional students with a genuine opportunity to achieve their full potential by relieving some of the cost burden which exists for country students travelling away to attend university. I am going to continue to advocate for a tertiary access allowance in the lead-up to this year’s election and certainly after the election, regardless of which party wins government. I believe we need to fight for a better deal for regional students and their families. Most importantly, when we send our kids away for university or further vocational training, we need to have a better system of bringing them back. We need to make sure that after they have graduated—once they have those skills or have travelled the world, perhaps—they want to come back and help bring those skills back to our regional centres in the future.
The time is right for change in regional Australia. I acknowledge that regional Australia does face some enormous challenges but we are also blessed with enormous opportunities. We have resources which are the envy of the world, but I would still argue that the greatest asset we have of all is our people. In my maiden speech I talked about the remarkable community spirit, resilience and determination of the people of Gippsland. Over the past five years I have had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout other parts of regional Australia and nothing I have seen in that five years has changed my mind. The resilience and determination I talked about then still exists and is a common bond that seems to link all of our regional communities. This is not something that is unique to Gippsland—it is unique to our regional communities across Australia. We should be very proud, as regional Australians, that throughout our nation’s relatively short history we have contributed such an enormous amount to the economic, cultural and social life of the nation.
Many of us in regional Australia are true environmentalists. We are the great environmentalists, the custodians of our land and water reserves. It is regional Australians who join Landcare. It is regional Australians who roll up their sleeves and do the practical environmental work while the inner-city greenies lecture us, pontificate and pretend to care about the environment. It is our people in regional Australia who are the true environmentalists of this nation, not the inner-city Greens.
Regional Australia desperately needs a federal government that will work with us. We need a government that recognises the value of rural and regional communities and is prepared to invest in the future of those communities. We need a government that will trust us. It is an important point: we need a government that will trust us to develop local solutions to local problems rather than tie us down with more red tape and the bureaucratic madness that stifles development and destroys innovation.
We are on the cusp of a great century in regional Australia. All we need is a federal government that will give us a fair go.