Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:09): And what a rant it was! I congratulate the member for Fisher for his motion. He knows, and all members on this side of the House know, that the biggest issue in our regional communities is jobs—long-term, sustainable jobs. This government has a proud track record there; in the last 12 months, more than 400,000 jobs were created around Australia and 100,000 of those were in our regional communities. These are long-term sustainable jobs that we want to see growing in our regional areas.
The member for Fisher also understands that, when it comes to providing jobs in regional areas, making sure that we have the supporting infrastructure and the service delivery in place is critical for people’s ongoing enjoyment of our regional communities. The decentralisation agenda being pursued by this government should not be seen somehow as a punishment of public servants but, much rather, should be seen as a huge opportunity.
So I’d say in making those opening comments that the issue of connectivity is the one that perhaps is critical to the future growth of our regional areas. I wish we had a better word than ‘connectivity’; it sounds like a very bureaucratic term. But when we’re talking about connectivity, we’re simply talking about the capacity to connect regional areas to each other, to our capital cities and to the world. If we’re going to maximise advantage from things like the free trade agreements that have been negotiated, we need to make sure our regional communities are well connected. So, we’re talking about investment in better road, rail, airport and seaport infrastructure, but also connectivity in terms of better telecommunications links.
I’m pleased to say that over the last several years there’s been significant investment in better road and rail infrastructure around regional Australia. Also, with the rollout of the Mobile Black Spot Program and the rollout of the NBN, we’re seen better connectivity in terms of telecommunications links. Having said that, I acknowledge that there is still more work to be done. In fact, that’s why we all come to this place: we come to this place to champion the cause of our own communities. The member for Fisher is, I’d have to say, an outstanding champion for his region. There’s hardly a member I can recall who came to my ministerial office more regularly than the member for Fisher when he was seeking money for his region. Perhaps the member for Hinkler was on an equal footing with him in demanding resources for regional Queensland. But that’s their job; they’re there to be champions for their communities, and when I was the minister they made sure that I was aware of any shortfalls in their areas.
In relation to decentralisation more generally, it’s not just about decentralisation of public servants. I think there are huge opportunities for us to work with the corporate sector to highlight the opportunities for them to relocate their operations outside the capital cities. Some of the economic drivers for that—particularly in South-East Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne—will be the increased land value in those urban areas, which will make it attractive for active reuse of a current site to help fund the move to a regional location where we have a workforce available and where we have good infrastructure in place.
One of the advantages that regional communities offer is a more stable workforce. People in regional areas tend to move less. They tend to want to be in those communities. They appreciate the lifestyle that’s on offer, whether that be in the member for Hinkler’s electorate, the member for Fisher’s electorate or my own electorate of Gippsland. There are people who choose those electorates for a very good reason: it’s where their families are and they want a long-term future for them. So I think there’s a real opportunity for the federal, state and local governments to be working more cooperatively to sell the message to corporate Australia about the opportunity to relocate their operations—or at least part of their operations—to a regional setting.
We have seen it in my electorate with the Patties Foods success story in Bairnsdale. Patties Foods, a small family owned company, purchased Simplot—famous for the Four’N Twenty brand—and moved the whole operation out of Melbourne to Bairnsdale. That was a remarkable achievement for a company that started in the order of 50 years ago with a mum-and-dad operation and a small bakery in Lakes Entrance. It now employs 550 people in regional Victoria. So, in making those comments, I pay due credit to the Rijs family and the work they’ve done in helping to generate an enormous amount of wealth and economic activity in the Gippsland region.
But the challenge for us, as members in this place who are supporters of regional areas, is to make sure we’re doing our bit. Sure, we can come here and lobby ministers for additional funding to support infrastructure and services, but I think the challenge for us is to be relentlessly optimistic and positive about the future of our regional areas. If we can sell the message of opportunity in regional areas—and help promote the opportunities for people to grow up in a regional community, perhaps learn new skills, and then return to that area—I think we would be doing a great service to our regions.
I’m one who believes that regional Australia is a great place to live, it’s a great place to work, it’s a great place to visit and it’s a great place to raise a family. They’re the active choices that we made as a couple. In closing, I think the member for Fisher is on the right track, and I’ll support him in all his efforts to make sure that we’re supporting decentralisation of jobs throughout our nation.