The Government's Policy Agenda for Regional Australia (Mackay)

Thank you very much for having me to speak at the Regional Capitals Australia Conference 2015.

Can I start by recognising the Honourable Julie Collins MP and the Mayors and Councillors that are here? I cannot recognise you all by name but I would like to in particular recognise the Mayor of Mackay, Cr Deirdre Comerford. Thank you for hosting us here in your beautiful town.

I am obviously here representing Minister Truss, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. He sends his apologies for not being able to be here as it is a Parliamentary sitting day.

Before I get to comments from Warren and the Government about our agenda for Regional Australia, I would just like to make some personal reflections on the issue of Regional Capitals. I have only been in the Senate for around 9 months, and on my first day, I went in to the local paper in Rockhampton, where I live, and did an interview with the editor. He of course wanted to know what made me tick and what I thought we needed to do in central and north Queensland.

Perhaps I made a schoolboy error for a new politician but I told the truth. I said that I think we need to create a new state. We have gone 114 years with the same six states and I think it is about time for another one. When Queensland first became a state, it had a population of just 28,000, now it is 4.5 million.  This is a Regional Capitals conference and I think we should get real and say that if we want a regional capital then we need a new, regional state. If we had a new state in New England, or North Queensland, we would automatically get a regional capital. 

We would have a regional Premier go to COAG, and we would get more Senators based in regional Australia. We have all seen how influential the Senate is over the past 9 months, yet fewer than 20 of the 76 Senators that we have are based in regional areas. Here in North Queensland there are just 3 Senators out of 76, so when issues like the Great Barrier Reef come up we don’t have the representation we deserve. 

Indeed, in a recent Senate inquiry on the Great Barrier Reef not one of the voting members of the inquiry actually lived on the Great Barrier Reef. The Labor party’s environment spokesperson in the Senate, is Senator Singh, from Tasmania. On releasing the report she said: 

The legislation giving bilateral approval powers to the States that is currently before the Senate goes further than that — it allows the States to derogate those powers to councils. So we could have the Mackay Council having more power than the Federal Environment Minister in deciding development projects on the Great Barrier Reef. 

Well, I would like to say to the Mackay Regional Council, I think you should have a say over what happens to the natural asset that we all live next to, and yes you should have more of a say than those that live thousands of kilometres from it. In my experience, the people of central and north Queensland want to see a balance between the environment and economic development. These are complex trade-offs but the people that live here are in the best position to judge that. 

The reality is that we won’t get that voice until we have more political representation. Politics is all about the numbers and north Queensland, and regional Australia more generally, does not have the numbers in our system at the present. 

That’s the end of my personal rant and I have raised big issues that can’t be resolved in one government’s term. But we are not a government that is afraid of the big issues. We have announced a Federation white paper where issues such as these can be discussed. The Government has also noted that the Senate has established an inquiry into Regional Capitals and we will be contributing towards that. 

Today I want to concentrate on two elements of the Government’s agenda that are crucial for the development of regional centres and regional capitals. First, the Government recognises that regional capitals often act as service centres for surrounding smaller regions and, most importantly, they act as connectors in the national transport network. It is this connectivity between our cities and our regions that is the key to providing better and more effective access to national and international markets. 

Second, many regional capitals rely on a strong agricultural sector to provide the primary jobs and income that then spur jobs in other industries. The Government’s record $50 billion investment in critical transport infrastructure is pivotal to securing Australia's future prosperity. We have never spent more on roads and rail than we are doing now. I admit that the former government lifted infrastructure spending in its time but this government has built on that even more and we are unashamedly directing our infrastructure spend towards the regions. 

These are salad days for infrastructure spending in regional Australia. 

We are fixing the Bruce Highway with $6.7 billion to make it safer and more reliable, which all Queenslanders will agree, can’t come soon enough. 

$5.6 billion will finally complete the duplication of the Pacific Highway from Sydney to the Queensland border within this decade. 

We have allocated $400 million to upgrade Tasmania's Midland Highway as a key step to growing that economy. 

Victoria will benefit from $263 million to upgrade the Western Highway and $185 million for the Princes Highway. 

We are investing $755 million in the Northlink WA project which will invigorate the key freight route connecting Perth to the north of Western Australia, including the vital transport of equipment and supplies to mining operations in the Pilbara. 

There is $332 million for the Great Northern Highway and $174 million for the North West Coastal Highway also in Western Australia. 

In Queensland, we are committed to investing up to $1.3 billion for the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing and $508 million to upgrade the Warrego Highway. 

There is another $208 million to upgrade infrastructure on the Cape York Peninsula. 

We are investing $2.5 billion to extend Roads to Recovery — a programme that has done so much for the local roads and streets that begin every journey. 297 local governments recently received their share of the latest $117 million instalment. 

All across the nation we are allocating $565 million for the Black Spot programme. The Government recently announced $33 million in funding for 83 Black Spot projects across Queensland which means even safer roads, improved travel times for motorists and more local jobs.

Round One of the Coalition’s $300 million Bridges Renewal Programme is starting to ramp up with work to soon commence on 86 projects, mostly in rural communities. Dilapidated old bridges, some that now cannot carry heavy vehicles, will be replaced or repaired to reconnect the heavy transport network. The Government will be calling for proposals under Round Two in coming months.

Round Four of the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Programme was recently announced committing $84 million for 53 projects to improve road safety and economic productivity across the country. 

The local Mackay region has its share of the pie. The Australian Government has committed $448 million towards the $565 million construction of Stage 1 of the Mackay Ring Road between Stockroute Road and the intersection of the Bruce Highway and Bald Hill Road.  Once constructed, the 11.3 kilometre ring road will provide an alternative route for heavy vehicles travelling between the key resource regions west of Mackay and the major export ports, thereby removing freight traffic from the Mackay city centre and avoiding ten sets of traffic lights.  The contract was recently awarded for the detailed design phase of the project, with construction expected to get underway in 2017.  

Yet, notwithstanding all of these road projects, there is hardly a more pivotal project for the regions and the nation that will connect our most productive regions, boost existing businesses and build new ones than to enable rail to better compete with road on the growing freight task.  The Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail will be transformational for agriculture, resources and other regional industries.  With the $300 million committed in the 2014-15 Budget, and the will of the Nationals to get the project ready for construction, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Inland Rail will create jobs at a time when construction jobs in the mining sector are diminishing. The Inland Rail Implementation Group is being led by John Anderson, the nation’s longest serving transport minister.  The group has conducted an extensive consultation process, including stakeholder forums, regional leadership meetings and industry briefings which have advanced the project’s design specifications.  The group is also considering how the $300 million investment can be used most effectively. 

Earlier this month, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the first round of tenders for engineering design and environmental consultancy services relating to regional New South Wales.  These first tenders will help to develop both the Parkes to Narromine and Narrabri to North Star sections of Inland Rail.  A report from the Implementation Group is expected in mid-2015, detailing the way ahead. 

Unlike former governments, this government has said that it is not the role of the Federal Government to invest in urban public transport projects. As I have outlined, our investment projects are focused on the movement of freight between states, between cities and across regional Australia.  Public transport options are important but they are largely important for the residents of that city and should be largely funded by that city or that state.  The Federal Government should stay focused on truly national issues. National issues such as finally having a 4 lane highway from our second biggest city to our first biggest city, connecting the grain, cotton and coal resources of western Queensland with the markets of Tianjin and Singapore through a proper highway that doesn’t require trucks to stop at 18 sets of traffic lights along James St in Toowoomba and a Bruce Highway that does not regularly flood and cut the state of Queensland in two. 

Building these highways will mean that we can move more cattle, grain, bananas and pineapples more often and more cheaply. That will be crucial to make sure that we take advantage of the free trade agreements that the government has signed with Japan, Korea and China. As well as the others we are now negotiating with Pacific countries, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Our agenda on agriculture has been focused on two key elements in our first 18 months. The first to help farmers and small communities respond to a drought, some are going through their third failed wet season.  I won’t expand on that here however. 

The second, is to boost farm profitability. We are not going to convince future generations of Australians to stay on the farm unless there is a buck in it. Since World War Two, the prices paid for a kilo of meat to farmers has fallen by 60 per cent in real terms. The price paid by consumers for a kilo of meat has risen by 20 per cent in real terms. Farmers have been receiving a smaller and smaller share of the final value of their product. 

One way we can reverse that trend is to create more markets for our farm products. That’s why we were so focused on concluding the three trade deals we have. That’s why we have opened up six new live cattle export markets, and hope to add China soon. That extra competition for beef is helping boost beef prices, which are up by a third since the last election. Lamb and milk prices are up by more than a quarter too. 

For those that are sceptical that agriculture is big enough to support a regional economy boom; just look across the ditch. They are benefiting from a huge boom in milk prices, incomes are rising, their budget is in surplus and they are even playing better than us in the cricket!

To build on our early achievements in the agriculture space, the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper will develop a policy platform to grow agriculture’s contribution to our economy, job creation and national prosperity.  The Green Paper released on 20 October 2014 reflected stakeholder’s views and included a number of policy options that now need to be further considered and prioritised — both for today’s difficult budget setting and for the longer term.  The Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper is set for completion this year. 

Looking north, the development of northern Australia is a key priority for our Government. A growing northern economy benefits us all through investment, infrastructure, jobs, services and emerging industries and export potential.  The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia is well advanced, as is the Energy White Paper. 

The Government understands that to take these opportunities we will need engaged and empowered regional communities.  Councils listen to their constituents and they have close bonds with business and community leaders.  Their service delivery is crucial to making Australian communities safe, attractive and desirable places to live. 

In 2014-15, the Australian Government will provide $2.3 billion to local government under the Financial Assistance Grant programme for councils to spend the funds according to local priorities. The Government sees the 55 Regional Development Australia (RDA) committees as leaders and facilitators of economic growth across their regions, who work closely with local stakeholders, including local government to progress economic development. 

Most states and territories have recently re-energised their committees with new appointments to the Chair and Deputy Chair positions.  However, there are still positions for RDA Committee Chairs, Deputy Chairs and members in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Expressions of Interest close on 7 April 2015, so there is still time to consider how you can engage with the RDA Committee in your region.   Key activities for RDA Committees will be to have 3-5 year plans in place, to provide regular advice to the Government on regional priorities and critical changes in the region and be active in building business cases for investment. 

Before I finish I would like to draw your attention two publications by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development — Minister Truss’ Department — that will be of use to members of Regional Capitals Australia, local governments and RDA Committees as a way of better understanding their regions.  Firstly, Progress in Australian Regions: Yearbook 2014 is the first report to track key progress indicators across Australia’s regions.  The Yearbook provides a benchmark for policy makers and local communities to measure the success of infrastructure programmes and the opportunities these programmes provide in their regions. 

The other publication; The Evolution of Australian Towns report, tells the story of the rise of regional cities over the past 100 years and why the old structure of many small towns has become the complex arrangement of small, medium and large towns and cities of today. 

Thank you again for having me here today.


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