ADDRESS TO REGIONAL AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE “REGIONS RISING”
THURSDAY, 4 APRIL 2019
Thanks very much Liz and Dr Kim Houghton of the Regional Australia Institute.
Uncle Wally, thanks for the warm welcome to country. It’s great to be here on Ngunnawal country and I want to pay my respects to your elders past present and emerging and extend that respect to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people who are with us here today.
To you Mr Chairman, Mal Peters, thanks for all the work you do and through you to all your staff past and present, thanks for the great thought leadership you are providing through the Regional Australia Institute.
It’s a point of pride that Labor in government, as part of the agreement, the Gillard Government, did with the Independents came up with the initial funding for the Regional Australia Institute, which Michael and I agree on, provides great thought leadership for regional Australia.
I don’t want to take any of you for granted. I think the Prime Minister uses the term, the Canberra bubble. I don’t want to assume that we’re sitting in this bubble and that very soon we are going into election mode. I just want to acknowledge that.
I also need to acknowledge that in a few hours’ time my Leader is going to stand up in Parliament and announce some things that a Shorten Labor Government would do if we were lucky enough to form government. The shortest road to demotion for any Shadow Minister or Minister is to pre-empt the announcements that their Leader is about to make.
But I just wanted to say some meaningful things to you. I’ve got about three things that I really do want to say.
The first is around a narrative and I mean this most sincerely. It’s not regions versus cities. It’s not regions versus the world. We’ve got to do this together.
And whether it’s a political contest, or whether it’s a narrative, it helps none of us if we set a political narrative that somehow says the interests of regional Australia are somehow set against the interests of people who live in our large capital cities.
It is simply not true. We are reliant on each other.
Whether it’s the internal trade in food and fibre and other commodities or the external trade that goes through our major ports.
Whether it’s the provision of human services or human potential in our capitals, we are inter-reliant on each other.
We are linked. We are linked through our future prosperity. I do not want us to engage in a debate or a narrative where we seek to set the interests of people in regional Australia against those in the cities.
We’ve got to do this together.
And we see in moments of crisis, whether it is the response to the drought, the response to the flood. There is a willingness amongst Australians to want to pull together.
Everybody’s got a country cousin. Everybody in the country has got someone who is at university in the city or somebody who has moved to the city. We are in this together.
The second thing that builds upon that is about leadership, particularly political leadership.
We have outstanding leaders throughout regional Australia. Leaders in business. Leaders in our universities, in academia, leaders in civil society.
But I do think there are signs, in the community throughout regional Australia, where that leadership is broken. And that the political narrative is broken.
I mentioned the importance of us seeing regions and our cities as one.
It doesn’t help us when we stand in Parliament and have one side of politics or another talk about the lane-lovers and the café latte sippers in our cities as somehow different to the rest of us.
This builds a narrative that is not in our interests.
We cannot say, and cannot talk about a political narrative that is not in our interests.
For those of us who live in regional Australia, we are bound to the land, bound to the products we produce in regional areas and bound to our trading relationships to the rest of the world.
We cannot say to people living in our near regions, whether it’s the Pacific, whether its Asia or the Middle East: we want you to buy our beef. We want you to buy our sheep. We want you to buy our wheat, our wool, our fibre and our coal, our iron ore. But we don’t like you. We don’t trust you. We don’t want you to come to our country, and if you do, we want you to spend a lot of money and leave as soon as possible.
We cannot be saying this. And we cannot be sending a message to the rest of the world, that that is what Australia thinks.
And we cannot kid ourselves that the debates that we have in Parliament, or the things that we say in our media are not heard by the people in other countries that are attempting to have a trading relationship with us.
It is not true and we need leadership to stand up and say, not only is this not true; it is morally and ethically wrong and there is no place for bigotry and racism in our country. Not only is it not right but it is not a reflection of what regional Australia looks like.
So there is a challenge for us. Over the next six weeks, to stand up, particularly in regional Australia and say: this is not us. Not in our name.
The third thing I want to say is about what I believe to be the need for a new deal for regional Australia.
I like Michael [McCormack] a lot. I like his predecessor Fiona [Nash] a lot.
But I have to say, the old consensus where regional Australia sends representatives to Canberra and there is somehow a trade-off where Nationals vote for the Liberals to cut social programs, to vote up Budgets that see massive tax cuts that don’t provide a benefit to regional Australia – to the low and middle income earners of regional Australia – but that do create the fiscal pressure that means social services in regional Australia are cut and the provision of other services in regional Australia are cut. This model is broken.
The challenges that we face in regional Australia are very, very different. Yes we need roads. Yes we need rail links.
But the biggest challenge we face in regional Australia is human capital.
You don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with regional councils over the last three years where they’ve said to me, we don’t have a jobs crisis, we’ve got a skills crisis.
We can’t get the workers to fill the jobs, to attract the businesses and the industries or to keep them there. They are moving out of our town because they can’t get the skills, or they won’t invest in our town because they can’t get the skills.
We have a skills crisis in regional Australia and never before has there been a more important time to be investing in our TAFE system, which has been run down over decades.
We need to rebuild our TAFE system, we need to rebuild our vocational education system.
And it’s not universities versus TAFE. We need both. There is often a pathway between one and the other.
And while I’m on the subject of education, we can’t have a situation where in regional Australia we are not investing in education. There is an alarming gap in regional Australia and the cities between the participation in higher education.
It about a 7.4% gap in regional Australia between the people who leave school and never participate. Whether it’s in TAFE or whether it’s in university, compared to that same cohort in the cities.
If we are going to address the skills gap we need a whole pipeline of investment which is ensuring we have great teachers, in great schools, ensuring our kids can go to vocational education or a university in a region or a city, wherever they choose, we can’t do that unless we see that education is a pipeline that starts from preschool and is a whole of life experience.
So investing in education is absolutely critical for regional Australia.
Healthcare – our Leader is going to have a few things to say about this this evening.
We all know in regional Australia that we can’t have a world class brain surgeon or heart surgeon on the corner of every street in every town in Australia. But that person must be accessible.
The most important investment we need to make in our healthcare in regional Australia is in primary care, which means access to a GP. So Medicare is critical.
There is a 1.7% gap in mortality rates between the rural parts of Australia and the cities.
Incidence of chronic disease – about 54% greater in regional Australia – people living with one of more chronic diseases than people living in the city.
These issues should be the focus of our discussion. Yes roads matter. Yes rail matters but it’s the investment in human potential and ensuring that we are looking at the life opportunities and the life circumstances of people in regional Australia that should be in the forefront of our conversation.
We cannot have a situation where we are trading off dollars for investment in infrastructure against dollars for investment in human services. We need to do both.
Labor has a plan to ensure that we do both.
Labor has a plan to ensure that we are also dealing with the connectivity issues that confront regional Australia.
I’ve spoken to many of you about our need to ensure that the vision of the NBN as a high class, affordable broadband service to all Australians, wherever they are. We have not lost that vision and we will be ensuring that if we are successful in six weeks’ time we are delivering this. That we are delivering the railways and the roads.
But we cannot lose sight of that most critical thing, which is the human capital and human services that matter.
Too often that is lost in the dialogue that we have in regional Australia.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and to share my thoughts on the importance of regional Australia and one Australia.