Local, Independant and Effective

Cathy McGowan presses government for a plan for rural and regional Australia

Posted October 21, 2016


Ms McGOWAN: It is lovely to have you here. In speaking in support of the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2016-2017, I would like to pay particular attention to the impacts on rural and regional Australia. In opening my comments, I would also like to welcome to the parliament and to this chamber two wonderful women from my electorate, Francine and Polly. Thanks for coming. Thanks for your work. I really appreciate your contribution to my office as volunteers, but particularly the work you do in your own communities to make them a safe place. So thank you for being here.

Tonight I want to put a challenge to the government. I want to put a challenge to the Prime Minister. During the campaign, he was very proud and very loud in telling the people of Australia that the Liberal and National Parties have a plan for jobs and growth. I am really pleased to hear it. But there is a bit of the plan that really confuses me. When I worked through all the publicity—and I read the detail really closely—I said, 'But where's the plan for rural and regional Australia in the plan for jobs and growth?' I got further into it. In my electorate of Indi during the campaign, there was a National Party candidate standing. I went to his material to see what he was standing for. What was the National Party saying about jobs and growth in rural and regional Australia?

It almost made me cry with frustration. There was nothing there about rural and regional Australia. There was nothing there. I could not find the term mentioned once. There was no regional development plan and no sense of what the vision was for rural and regional Australia.

The National Party had a statement, 'Our Plan for a Strong New Economy.' I went onto the web page and had a really good look. Again, there was not a single mention of rural and regional Australia in their subsections about jobs and families. It was not that they were talking about the city either. It was this nondescript sense of all of Australia being the same. There was some sense that, by just using the words, things would work. All of us know that that is not the case for rural and regional Australia.

There was one thing on the National Party web page that I looked at that was called 'Supporting Australia's Farmers and Exporters.' I had a closer look and thought, 'Maybe this is where I will find out about regional development.' But no, it was not there. It was about agriculture, which I have to say I was really pleased to see. But there was no sense at all that agriculture exists within a context of community, a context of small business and a context of education and all the services we need. It just was not there. Similarly with small business, I went on there and thought, 'What is the government going to do about small business in rural and regional Australia?' Zilch, nada, nothing.

In my role tonight, as a member for rural and regional Australia, I want to really speak up for us. I want to talk about the role of the budget as one of the key policy documents for this government to pay attention to rural and regional Australia. As taxpayers in rural and regional Australia, we want to see our dollars coming back to us—not just as trickle-down or by the way. We want to see services come to our community that address our needs, that are specifically designed for the group of people who live in the country, because we all know, as you do, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, that it is different to the city. What I want to say tonight is that, sadly, when I see the budget papers, I see no vision for rural and regional Australia. I think there is an assumption that one size will fit everything. There is an assumption that trickle-down might work. There is maybe even an assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats. If we know anything about rural and regional Australia, we know it just does not happen.

What I wanted to say tonight was that it is not that the government do not know how to do it. If we look closely at some of the government's other programs, we can see that they do know how to plan and they do know how to do sectoral planning. One of the really good examples of this is the northern Australian plan. It shows clearly that the government, when they put their mind to it, can actually do whole-of-region, integrated, strategic, long-term sustainable development. I love reading the northern Australian plan, but every time I see it, I think, 'But what about the rest of us? What about north-east Victoria? What about southern New South Wales? What about a strategic approach to how our community is going to reach its potential?'

The second example I see when I read the government's papers about its ability to plan—and I just love this example—is the work it has done on developing its national defence plan. I looked at that document and I thought, 'Ah, here the plan is.' I just love listening to the Prime Minister speak about it. The Prime Minister said, 'We want to use defence industries to grow innovation, to grow creativity, to grow jobs, to grow our exports, and we will wrap it all together around a 20-year, multimillion-dollar defence plan.' I think, 'Great, but why can't we take that logic and that thinking to rural and regional Australia? Why can't we take that thinking to agriculture and all the surrounding bits of agribusiness? Why can't we have our budget papers do that sort of thinking for us?' That is the major point that I want to make tonight. I want to really set on the agenda that, over the next three years, I am going to be working with the government about putting rural and regional Australia at the front. I am going to be saying to the government, 'Let's talk about infrastructure. Let's talk about how the money is invested in rural and regional Australia to do what we need to do.'

I am going to talk about the National Stronger Regions Fund. That is where the main money is spent at the moment. I looked at the national regional funding program, and it is good with what it does, but clearly there is not nearly enough money there. The actual applications far outweigh the government's ability to fund it, so you get caught in this terrible competitive tension—of politics, of demand, of a good submission—that is not based on need and is not based on a strategic approach to advance the national economy. I know the minister is going to be looking at that program to come up with something different, but I am saying that you cannot have a plan for spending if you have not got a national vision. It is not much good saying, 'We'll give this money for this and give this money for that,' if it does not fit into a whole. I think that whole budget process lacks vision. It lacks clarity about what we are trying to achieve.

When I am talking about this I go and look at the budget papers and I say, 'Where could we get some better input into this?' My research has shown me that there is a process in the cabinet submission process, which reads:

A Cabinet Submission that has a positive or negative impact on Australia's regions must include a Regional Australia Impact Statement (RAIS). The role of the RAIS is to provide a complete and accurate assessment of the effects (positive or negative) that a policy proposal will have on regional Australia. The RAIS helps to ensure that regional impacts are made visible to Cabinet Ministers, to inform their decision making.

Where the regional impacts of the policy proposal are significant, they should be analysed in the body of the Cabinet Submission and summarised in the RAIS, including references to the relevant sections of the Cabinet Submission.

The idea is there, but I think it fails in its implementation. To follow this through a little bit, a question was asked of the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, in Senate estimates in 2015. He was asked if a cabinet impact statement had been prepared by a certain program—in this case it was the Australia Council. He said, 'No, that is not the way the budget process works.' This suggests to me that regional impact statements may be a part of cabinet process but they are not part of budget process. That is a problem. Cabinet may be thinking about rural and regional Australia, but when we come to do the budget it is not there.

What is the answer to this? What hope have we got to get the budget process thinking about those of us who live in the regions—those who live in rural areas and those who live in more isolated areas? It seems to me that one of the things we could do is call on the government to have these budget impact statements made public twice a year—with the budget and also with the mid-year economic report. In 2014 I introduced into parliament a private member's bill calling on the government to do this. It was the Charter of Budget Honesty Amendment (Regional Australia Statements) Bill. I think I am going to have to reintroduce it in this session of parliament because, clearly, in all of the words of the Prime Minister, in all the words of the minister and in all the words of the whole election campaign, there was no sense at all that anybody in the government actually gets that rural and regional Australia is different from the cities. We have to design our policy and our funding processes to meet the needs.

But it is not enough just to do the design and to do the funding. I know that you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, that government can put a whole lot of money into something and it makes absolutely no difference at all. What we have to do is say, 'Here's the intended outcomes that we want.' Then we have to measure the outcomes and go, 'Yes, here's the planning, here's the budget, here's the delivery mechanism, here's the outcomes we want and here, really importantly, is the review mechanism,' so we can go back and say, 'Yes, that money worked. We've solved that problem, but next time we've got to do XYZ.' I just do not see that process when government makes its budget submissions, so of course we do not get the outcome we want, because it is not designed into the process that we are looking for.

In bringing my comments to a close tonight, I put a challenge up there, not only to the public service that advises the government—from PM&C to the ag department, the Department of Regional Development and the Minister for Infrastructure—but to the whole of the parliament. We should be saying, 'Here's the outcome we want.' We should not just be saying, 'Here's money to be spent.' And we need to match the outcome we want against our vision of what we are trying to achieve for the nation.

In bringing my comments to a close, I want to put on record my enormous disappointment in the National Stronger Regions Fund program and its failure to fund major infrastructure in my electorate. I wonder how and where the money is going to come from without a commitment by the government to actually fund infrastructure in regional Australia. Wodonga council's Baranduda Fields sporting complex is a great initiative, it is a great idea and it really needs to be funded. The Mount Buller-Mount Stirling water storage project is, again, really important infrastructure that really needs to be funded. The tourism links project that links Mount Buller Resort, Mansfield and the Alpine National Park is really important infrastructure that must be funded. The Wangaratta council's Wangaratta aquatics plan is to fund an aquatics centre in Wangaratta that creates a regional centre of excellence around swimming for all north-east Victoria. It is obviously needed and is well supported. It cannot be done by the local council—we just do not have the money—but how can it be done nationally? How can we get the funding in the system to build the infrastructure we need? I can only see it happening by government making a commitment to actually do for rural and regional Australia what needs to be done.

In setting up an agenda for my work in the next three years, I call on the government to actually stand up for rural and regional Australia, particularly for the Nationals to do something about regional policy. How can they have a web page that does not talk about regional Australia? How can they have a web page that does not talk about regional education? How can they have a web page that does not talk about regional health? How can they have a web page that actually does not talk about how it all comes together? It is so lacking. To my Nationals colleagues in particular: have courage, have a vision, develop some policies, have some deliverables and then work on some outcomes.

My hope is that in 50 year's time from having this discussion, we can look back and see that we actually have a balanced development agenda in Australia, that we have ended this huge investment in the infrastructure of the cities. And that we have said as a nation, 'We have got a lot of country so we need to have some decentralisation; some large regional hubs; we need to have really good transport linking them; we need really good internet connecting us up; we need really good health facilities, education facilities, quality first-class facilities and they happen to be in the country.'

I am hoping that my speech tonight is the beginning of that sense of turning around the idea that all Australia is is an urban fringe and that the jobs and growth plan is for the urbanites; we need it for the whole country. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight, and I look forward to coming into this place often and developing these ideas further.

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