Government Support to Build Stronger Regional Communities

Thank you for the introduction, Peter and congratulations for the work you are doing at Newcastle Airport.

Airports and transport infrastructure are so vital for a growing regional city like Newcastle both domestically and internationally.

It’s a pleasure to be here celebrating this vibrant and growing region with local business and community leaders.

The Newcastle and Hunter region is important to New South Wales accounting for 28 per cent of regional NSW's total economic output and is the largest regional contributor to the State’s GDP.

Regional cities like Newcastle are critical to the future growth of this nation.

Currently in our 28th year of economic growth — the regions play an important role, contributing more than 30 per cent of our national GDP.

This is significant and regional Australia has always made a significant contributions to our nation’s growth.

The Government is strongly committed to supporting economic growth and resilience throughout regional Australia.

Our population is now more than 25 million — a third live in the regions.

Despite remaining one of the least densely-populated countries on the planet, Australia has become one of the most urbanised.

As our major cities grow, so too does the strain on infrastructure and service

delivery — we continue to support this growth however regional Australia is also part of the solution.

For the first time, we have a targeted and considered population strategy to plan for projected future growth.

Regional centres are recognised as part of this plan to help manage population, and make both our cities and regions even better places to live and work.

Newcastle and the Hunter Region set a great example for regional centres across the country to emulate.

The Hunter is one of Australia’s largest regional economies, with riches of natural resources and the mining sector providing a great foundation.

Mining in the Hunter supports more businesses than any other in NSW.

NSW Minerals Council has found 28 mining companies directly injected $4.3 billion into the Hunter economy in 2017/18.

While the region has transformed over the past decades from heavy industry, mining is still a key contributor and the economy is diversifying. So with the mine, it contributes $226 million and 1,200 jobs in the region.

The thoroughbred industry obviously is world class. You’ve got stunning coastlines and temperate climates to make tourism a drawcard, and I’m glad it’s nighttime because everyone would be looking out the window instead of towards me if you could see the wonderful spot we are here today.

And evolving industries including health and education, the businesses and professional services, and also now defence and defence industry as, Peter, you mentioned in your opening remarks.

So regional Australia has sent a strong message during the Federal Election in May. I was actually talking to Peter about this before. The Prime Minister's so-called ‘Quiet Australians’ bucked the polling trend to stand up for their economic futures. It turns out that the people in regional Australia don’t spend as much time on Twitter as their city cousinsAnd so, the message that regional Australia has sent at the election wasn't one of blind loyalty to the Coalition. It was a message to determine what – you know, as a democratic exercise – it was a message for all sides of politics, and that message is: never, don’t ever take regional Australia for granted. And to repay this faith, we’ll continue to deliver on our plan to help build stronger and more vibrant regional centres. Our strategy includes developing strategies to guarantee essential services –part of my job – decentralising government – also part of my job – and delivering infrastructure their regions need.

Regional Australians deserve the same access to high quality health and education services as those living in capital cities. Not only is the access to services important, but it's also, as in most regional communities, health and education providers are the local employers, along in the smaller towns, along with local government, I might add, are the major employers.

So, Hunter New England Health and the University of Newcastle are two of the largest employers in this region. Actually, Hunter New England Health is one of the largest employers in my town, of Warialda, with the health services there. And Newcastle University and the facility at Tamworth, the medical facility, one of our daughters now is a doctor – a GP – in Tamworth thanks to the education that she received through Newcastle University, largely based in Tamworth. And so, education in a more broader sense, is one of the, I think, defining factors that probably either encourages or hinders people to go to the regions. That desire for parents to make sure that their children have the best possible advantages, and particularly with education, it’s probably one of the strongest instincts. And so, when people will come to a regional area with great prospects of employment, great lifestyle for themselves; if they don’t feel that the education standards of that community are up to scratch for their kids, then they might stay there until high school age, and then more often than not, we lose them.

Less and less kids are going to boarding schools so more often than not entire families are leaving, and we are also finding now more people are leaving their families in a larger centre, and working remotely and going home on weekends.

So a real challenge, a real challenge across the regions to make sure that we have services. And I've got to say, we have great educational- in the regions we have greater educational facilities, but it is an issue that we need to deal with.

Australia has one of the best performing health care systems in the world. However, Australia's living in regional, rural and remote areas face greater health care challenges than the rest of the country. And I guess since I had this job, the mal-distribution of health professionals is probably one of the biggest challenges that we've got to confront.

We don't have a shortage of doctors in this country. We've just got them too many in the wrong post- well the right postcodes but they’re certainly not where they're needed. So we aren't training enough doctors. So the minority, which is same in the capital cities. What we're finding now is that I think last year, the GP Training Stream was about 30 per cent under subscribed. And many of the junior doctors coming out of universities now are basically treading water in larger hospitals, hoping to get a training place in the city, rather than take the step where there are wonderful opportunities in the regions. And so, we have got some policies that, I think in the long term, will make a huge difference. We’ve got the stronger health strategy, which is the most innovative health strategy in decades, there is $550 million attached to that. We've got the national- the generalist pathway, so training doctors- we've got the doctors that are retiring now in the bush had a broader range of skills. They might be- were obstetrics trained GP, baby,emergency trained GP, and for a period of time, the colleges and universities moved away from that generalist method and purely trained on specialist lines. And so, we've now opened up a generalist pathway so that the doctors that are coming out to regional areas will have the confidence of a broader range of skills to be able to service the communities that they have. And so, the other thing we’re looking at- and I hosted a roundtable on Friday in Canberra of all the health providers in the regions, from training colleges, surgeons, pharmacists, Aboriginal health, mental health, nursing; the whole range.

And there's a real desire now for a more collaborative model, actually making the use of all the resources we actually have. You know, we’ve got Hunter New England Health spending an absolute fortune on locums, absolute fortune on locums, and it's a perverse outcome. Why would you go and live in a country town full time when you can go and live there for six months and earn the same money as a locum? And so, by putting in a collaborative model where we're actually supporting our health professionals coming through so that going to a regional area is seen as an actual advantage to your professional development; not as some sort of punishment as a second class ticket because you couldn't get into the course you wanted in a capital city. So I think we're in a bit of a purple patch where we're going to see some real action there.

And so, with education, one of the great success stories over the past decade has been the growth in higher education services throughout the region. So improving access to higher education in regional areas holds multi-factor benefits, and the government recognises this. So education is an area where, as I said, where regional centres could really compete with their inner city counterparts if we can get the confidence of people to actually go there.

Recently, the Government released the Napthine Review into Regional Education Strategy and found- well, I was just speaking about that greatest city/ country divide when it becomes to accessing and participating and attaining tertiary education. The Napthine Review is an important step towards addressing these inequities, and the Government is currently considering these recommendations.

We are committed to improving higher education services in the regions because the evidence shows that if students study in the regions they are more likely to stay in the regions. Murray Darling Medical School, so you'll be able to go to Dubbo, and do your complete training, your degree, your specialty, and stay in that community. And so, we built the Country Universities Centres, which have sprung up. And at Broken Hill at the moment, there's about 160 students enrolled in the Country Universities Centre. Many of the mature aged people who may be finishing off a degree, maybe their children are in high school, they want to enhance their education, and training local people in the local area. Connect it back to other made teaching universities is a model that really seems to me to be taking off. And so the $134 million regional higher education package includes a range of measures designed to ensure the future of our regional universities. And so I applaud the ambitions of University of Newcastle, like many emerging universities around the country, for pursuing their fair share to deliver cutting edge facilities for its students with plans, I understand, for a $250 million multi-campus redevelopment including a new world class health and medical innovation and education campus at Gosford.

The University of Newcastle is proving how valuable a strong local university is to a region. One of the larger employers in town. And so, I'm always impressed by the fact that a university, especially the region based ones, are so committed to decentralisation. It's not a new thing for them, they’ve been doing it for years. And so, I'm really pleased to see that role.

In my role as Assistant Trade Minister, I would spend a lot of time in the ASEAN region and in other places but you would expect that the conversation is about our agricultural produce, about our minerals, our iron ore and coal. That's not what they want from our dealings with Australia. They want our education facilities. They want our expertise. They want our agricultural expertise. They want our mining expertise. And so, going to an expo with South American countries recently, they were here because they understand that Australia, particularly regional Australia, is- are the world leaders in technology and early adoption. And one of my frustrations as a regional member when the perception of regional Australia with regards to technology, regional Australians are early adopters.

They are leading the world. And now we're in a shocking drought in eastern states at the moment, but I can tell you it would be a lot worse state if we were still farming like our fathers and grandfathers or grandmothers, because of the plant breeding, the technology in agricultural machinery, the more understanding of measuring soil moisture, all of those things, drone technology. You can get an app like- a device the size of the phone and hold up against the plant, it will tell you what the content, the makeup, the NPK content of that plant. And so, the same with our mining industries.

And so, regional Australia is leading in that but we've got the challenge for government and corporations just to make sure that we've got the technology to back them up. As soon as the telcos, Telstra, put up a next level of service on their towers, regional Australians invent ways of using up that capacity. Where a rollout of a certain level of technology might have done a decade, now it does three or four years to reach capacity. And so, we’ve got some challenges in that area.

So, decentralisation - we've talked on population that's been quite topical of late. And I got a little annoyed at some of my city colleagues that point to the migrant intake as the reason they’re stuck in traffic jams getting home from Sydney in the afternoon. When in reality, in regional Australia at the moment, we've got a skill shortage.

There are opportunities, there are jobs available for professionals, for trades, for skills, right across. Until the drought started to bite, the unemployment at Dubbo was 2.2 per cent – my electorate, half of New South Wales. And just think of the towns I've got. I've got some pretty tough, little towns. I’m actually third from the bottom of 151 electorates in per capita income. My unemployment rate across my half of New South Wales before the drought was 3.6 per cent. And so if you have the expertise in education, health, mining, trades, any of those things, there are wonderful opportunities in the regions. And we've got- if the capital city people might move, we welcome people from overseas that have those skills. Anyone who’s got the attitude, the skill, the desire to work will be welcomed in our regional community. I actually think regional Australia do a much better job of welcoming new arrivals and having them fit into the community.

And so, we work across a broad range of issues and not one single thing. Decentralisation, the ones that make the headlines, is when you move a government department because, you know, the Member for Melbourne talks about the devastation of the governments wreaking on- sorry, the Member for Canberra wreaking on Canberra by taking a hundred jobs out of Canberra, putting it in a regional area. That was a big news story. And sure, they’re symbolic and they make a difference. I think the APVMA are settling in quite nicely at Armidale. I think in the last three or four years we've moved 1700 public service jobs out to where the customers they serve are. There's a Murray-Darling Basin employee living in Menindee, and how much more effective is it to have someone that's there every day dealing with those issues around the river and what's going on in that area than someone that flies in dressed like me once a month in a plane. That's an absolute complete waste of time. And so, decentralisation of government departments makes sense if it's serving a purpose. But my way of thinking is before we start building factories in regional Australia to attract more people to come there, we need to fill the jobs we've got now. That's the challenge that we have.

And so, that takes me on to infrastructure. It's probably one of the reasons that I actually stepped off a tractor 12 years ago and went to Canberra. I was a local mayor, I could see the need for infrastructure and the role it can play in developing regional Australia. And so, now we've got Roads of Strategic Importance – another $4.5 billion – to upgrade transport corridors right through the country. $140 million, for instance, for the Tenterfield to Newcastle Corridor is just one example of this program taking aim and improving important freight corridors. And I experienced that today. I don't have any work sites so I drive further between Murrurundi and Newcastle. We probably went through about six work sites of that were being upgraded, once again, improving that connectivity back into Newcastle.

So enhancing the nation’s freight connectivity is not strictly about road infrastructure, which is why our government is getting serious with our rail network, and Ishould say after speaking with Peter, we should not underestimate the rate of air freight as well. So we’re looking at a fast passenger rail including connecting Newcastle and Sydney as a strategic business case, which is due for completion by the end of this year.

But when it comes to improving freight resistance, very few projects come close to Inland Rail, and this is my favourite. I mentioned Inland Rail in my first speech to parliament 12 years ago, and at the moment they’re out there laying sleepers and steel now, it’s under construction. And Inland Rail is the most significant infrastructure project underway in the country today, and there's an opportunity for Newcastle. I actually believe the New South Wales Government’s opposition to the Inland Rail was because they saw it as a threat to their facilities, to Newcastle, but probably more importantly, at Botany. But I think Inland Rail is going to be a huge boost to Newcastle. The ability to run full capacity trains to the Port of Newcastle not only will be major savings for exporters in regional Australia, but Pacific National title farmers up near Coonamble, even when the line is finished from near Gilgandra up to Narrabri, by taking a high capacity train from Gilgandra to Narrabri, and then down the Hunter line into Newcastle, is a savings of $10 a tonne straight away. So the potential of bringing produce from southern Queensland.

But trick is not to talk about what we're doing now. For instance, Narrabri has purchased land for an industrial hub. They're negotiating with Santos when that project goes ahead to have a gas connection. A fertiliser company is already doing a feasibility study of manufacturing fertiliser at Narrabri, you know, supplying local farmers but exporting it through the Port of Newcastle down through the Hunter line.

Recycling -  the Prime Minister's announcement recently that we'll be not exporting any plastics by midway through next year, so the opportunity through necessity of recycling plastics using the freight on rail at a cheaper rate, recycling our own plastics and paper in regional Australia, and then redistributing it not only to export ports, but every capital city in Australia, for the first time will be connected by a standard gauge rail line. And so I say to people that if you come back in 50 years’ time and you look at that 1700 kilometres of commerce that’ll be growing from between Melbourne and Brisbane, you won't recognize the place. You know, when rail hit Dallas in Texas, I think there was less than 3000 people there. I think in that Dallas Fort Worth area now there's 8.5 million people. An economy based on freight. And so I think that there's enormous potential. And you could see the ability to adapt, and Newcastle is more than a freight port. And I noticed on the guest list there’s someone from the New South Wales Treasury, so we won't talk about containers at the moment.

But there are great possibilities. But the way Newcastle has adapted from- I can remember my first trip here, when we would go to Sydney before there was any expressways. We made it to the oat factory at Hexham for lunch, and then come through and we'd absolutely as country kids in the back of the Valiant, looking at the steelworks in absolute awe. And the transition from what was such an important part of this economy and the transition to the modern magnificent city that you have at the moment, a city not only based on the terrific attributes of the natural port, but taking advantage of the university, companies coming in here with technology that- the aeronautical technology that's undertaking in conjunction with the RAAF. It’s quite a remarkable transition. I bet if you took some of those steelworkers that were working here in the 70s and explained them what Newcastle in this year would be, they wouldn't believe it.

And so the real challenge I think is trying to keep in government dealing with the problems. At the moment we’re dealing with a shocking drought in my electorate, every square inch of it. But still looking forward- and very frustrated, there’s a Facebook page at the moment slamming Scott Morrison for his announcement $150 million going to the space race in conjunction with NASA. The journalists traveling with him were very mischievous, they made it out that we'd given $150 million to NASA. It wasn't the case at all.

Australia has enormous potential in space. You know, the race to the moon gave us GPS navigation, it gave us dialysis, it gave us hazmat suits, it gave us our computing capability- it increased exponentially. And so I'll be a little bit political here, but those kids that were marching in the street last week about climate change, you know, some of them saying that we have no future, we have no future. We must be encouraging those kids to take up the science, the technology, the engineering, the math courses, so that they've got the skills and the education to deal with the changes that are coming. The changes that we're dealing with. And you know, the human race is incredibly resilient. We've got through enormous issues of the past from, you know, only a generation or two back from the Great War to the depression to the Second World War. Our country has overcome enormous hurdles. Climate change is one that we will deal with, we will adapt, we will get through this. The human race is a race of survivors, and so we should be encouraging our kids to get the education, get the skills, have the belief, have the motivation that their future is going to be much brighter than ours.

It's one of the saddest things to think that we may have some kids in a generation who believe their future is not better than what their parents were. I think regional Australia and regional cities like Newcastle are the answer to the prosperity of this country.

I think the cities are changing. You cannot compete with the cost of housing and build a factory in western Sydney now, but you can here in the Hunter. You can in Moree. You can at Dubbo. And we are all in this together. And so thank you for having me here tonight. This is a real privilege, the job that I have. Not without its challenges, but it’s a very, very exciting position to be in, and a great privilege to be here with you tonight. And I will endeavour to answer any questions that you may have. Thank you.