Fiona Nash addresses the Rural Press Club
Good morning to you all. As a proud rural Australian, it's great to be here in a Press Club dedicated to rural, regional and remote Australia.
I've been Regional Development Minister for nine months now and my key goal is to partner with regional communities to help build the kinds of strong and sustainable communities our children and grandchildren want to either stay in or come back to.
I'll talk about investment playing a role in helping to build those kinds of communities later, but first I want to talk about something we can all do to help attract people to live in a regional community, either for the first time or returning to live after living elsewhere—and it doesn't cost a cent.
We can be conscious of the language we use about regional Australia. Every person gets to choose the language they use. Language is vital in framing, in setting up conversation and in dictating the tone the conversation takes from there. The language used by leaders, everyday Australians and the media impacts the way people think about regional Australia.
We need to change that language, that conversation and that mindset, including when we talk about investment in Australia's regions.
I'm a farmer from Young in central NSW. I'm married with two boys, aged almost 24 and 22, and with my husband we run fat lambs and grow crops. I'm sick to death of hearing about the negatives of rural life. Much of the time regional Australia is the focus of city conversation or a story in major media, it's for negative reasons—fires, floods and pestilence. The floods in NSW are a recent example. Other than events like this, rural, regional and remote Australia rarely rates a mention in major metropolitan newspapers or TV, or in the conversations sparked by those reports. Often even the proactively sought stories highlight the “poor victims in the bush” and fail to highlight the huge positives of living in rural, regional or remote Australia. An analysis of stories about regional Victoria which ran on the front pages of Victoria's two biggest metropolitan papers shows in the past six months 80 per cent were negative, 15 per cent neutral and just 5 per cent were positive. These stories were about individual domestic violence issues, murder, exploitation, drug use and natural disaster, to name a few. I don't say the stories weren't accurate or newsworthy, I say that there's very little reporting of the great stories in the regions to provide balance.
I'm not pointing the finger at any one person or organisation, or the media alone. All of us have a part to play here. We can choose to be positive or negative. Every one of us can choose the words we use in the conversations we have, and the prism through which we choose to view things.
We can't have the 16 million Australians who live in capital cities getting their information on rural, regional and remote Australia from uninformed conversation, negative reporting and from watching Farmer Wants a Wife.
Why would anyone want to move to regional Australia if all they ever hear about it is bad news? Why would any young person want to study for a career in a rural industry if all the discussion of those industries is negative? There are amazing things happening in rural, regional and remote Australia.
In Cooma in southern NSW, a bright young woman runs a business called Birds Nest, which sells clothing via the internet all over the world.
Father-and-son Stuart and Cedar Anderson from the NSW Northern Rivers crowdfunded their idea for a beehive that makes honey available on tap. Six months later the Anderson's company, BeeInventive, was receiving $30,000 worth of orders a day with orders from 130 countries around the world.
Ashley and Tom Robinson crop 1600 hectares at Halbury in SA's mid-north. They installed two soil moisture probes with weather stations in early 2012 connected to a solar powered Data Transfer Unit with data uploaded to an offsite server every hour via the 3G mobile network. The data is accessed via smartphone; the couple checks how much plant-available water is in the soil and make precision fertiliser decisions based on that.
In rural Australia, we've got irrigation systems controlled from the lounge room. We've got tractors you need a degree in rocket science to drive. Soon we'll have 3d printers which can print you a replacement part for that tractor.
Yet much of our nation receives a skewed picture of country life without perspective, background or knowledge. The conversations they have about rural, regional and remote Australia are often born from, and framed by, a negative mindset, negative conversation and negative news. In turn, those messages are delivered to leaders and decision makers including politicians. The weight of those voices influencing decision makers are uninformed on rural issues and this can deliver bad outcomes.
One such example is the live export ban of five years ago. Reporting of animal cruelty beamed into city households produced a massive, though largely uninformed, outcry, translated by city politicians into a ban which decimated countless farming families in the Top End. The story of the cruelty was told to a public did not understand the crucial role live export plays in the Top End economy. Nor did the public initially understand Australia's presence in the live export market is undeniably good for animal welfare, or that the live export market helps keep pressure on the supermarkets to pay reasonable prices to farmers. I do not say the report on Four Corners was inaccurate. I say a wholesale lack of reporting of positive news from country areas by many major media organisations over a period of years sowed the ground for a story like that to be interpreted without any context by an uneducated public and the result was a knee-jerk, poorly informed and disastrous policy response. One which many affected are still recovering from to this day.
On the flipside, broad and accurate discussion and coverage could produce the reverse—a public educated on rural life and the fact the regions allow cities to exist. It could foster informed debate and good policy.
Our regions allow our cities to exist. City lives and comforts are made possible by the regions.
Denying the existence of challenges in the regions would be silly, but adding to that same discussion some of the great things about country life brings balance to the discussion. Rural, regional and remote Australia is a great place to live! People who've never lived in the country really can't understand how amazing our sense of community is in the country. We've clean air and short travel times to work. We've access to mountains, rivers and beaches, fresh local produce and big blue skies. In the country, you can go fishing after work and see your friends for dinner on weeknights.
The Australian economy is largely driven by its regions. Logic dictates we should invest in Australia's regions because Australia's regions power Australia's economy. Strong regions mean a strong nation.
What would Queensland do without Mackay—a region of 171,000 residents with a Gross Regional Product of $22 billion. Mackay is a powerhouse of Queensland's economy and has the highest Gross Regional Product per capita in Queensland—$133,143.
Regional Australia is responsible for 67 per cent of our exports.
Regional Australia accounts for 45 per cent of domestic tourism, most production of food, and all production of the gas and electricity which powers city households. Regional Australia supplies the milk which city people put on their breakfast, the cheese which goes on their toast, the toast itself, the meat and vegetables most people eat for dinner and the fruit and cream they have for dessert, as well as most materials for the house they're eating it in.
I say it again: our regions allow our cities to exist. Our cities can't function without healthy regions supplying their water, food, electricity and gas.
If Australia's regional economies don't perform, the Australian economy dives.
I'd liken investment in regional Australia to making sure your car's alternator is in good condition—it's essential. You could refuse to maintain the alternator to save money in the short term, but eventually the alternator will stop charging your car battery and your car won't start. Investing in the regions is a no-brainer, essential to keep cities running.
Cities receive huge government investment which is never labelled a “handout”. For example, public transport makes huge losses and requires massive amounts of government investment to run.
Victorian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics analysis found total Melbourne urban public transport operating costs in 2013–14 were almost $2 billion, with ticket fees recovering just 28 per cent of that.
BITRE also found the total operating cost of Sydney urban public transport is more than $4 billion a year with about 25 per cent of total net costs recovered through ticket sales.
Melbourne and Sydney would grind to a halt within an hour if governments stopped investing in public transport.
Yet the dominant conversation whenever we talk about Melbourne or Sydney is not that those cities rely on subsidy to function and survive. We don't talk about constant “bailouts” for the poor city folk. I can't recall a single conversation where anyone has ever told me the cities can't stand on their own two feet and exist without subsidy.
There is a huge double standard and completely different mindset in the way people view Government investment in the city and the country.
Investment in city areas—public transport, aquatic centres, theatres, attractions, new freeways—are not labelled “handouts”. Yet often when similar projects—usually far less expensive projects—are approved outside the tram lines, they're branded a “handout” or “pork barrelling”.
This language and mindset must change and I'm determined to help lead that change. We need to view investment in the regions for what it is—a no brainer. A smart economic investment to keep the nation functioning, to keep the lights on.
Considered investment in regional Australia could help fix the overcrowding of capital cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney. Both these cities take on around 100,000 extra people per year through immigration alone, and infrastructure cannot be built quickly enough to keep up with this growth. This results in clogged roads, huge amounts of time spent getting to work or grocery shopping or taking kids to sport, more pollution and reduced quality of life. I'm sure everyone here has a horror story about travel time on the Monash Freeway or the day a lane was closed on the Westgate bridge. Building new roads or rail in capital cities costs multiples more than it does in the country because the city project involves buying and bulldozing houses, which costs a motza. A new road in the country is often built in a paddock, or on crown or council land and costs a fraction of a new city freeway.
Work by the Department of Planning and Regional Development in Victoria revealed housing 50,000 new people in Sydney cost government $4 billion in infrastructure, whilst to house those same people in regional NSW cost just $1 billion. This means for every 50,000 people who choose to live in the country, governments save roughly $3 billion in infrastructure costs.
We should invest in our regions and make them so good that city people are dying to get there. This requires investment by government in partnership with rural communities. Investment gives rural communities confidence to invest in their future. And being great doesn't mean being big. It means being a community of choice.
As I travel the country every week, it's the communities who show initiative, who aim to shape their own future, and who have strong local leadership which do best. For example, the Hunter Valley produced a plan identifying the strategic growth areas which would create sustainable jobs in the region long into the future, and began to invest in those economic advantages.
The successful rural leaders I meet are generally pretty unselfish, community-minded and pragmatic—values many of us associate with country people. Such leaders tend to be more interested in outcomes than ideology.
When we build better regions, the services improve and so do the employment opportunities, which makes them more attractive to live in again. I like the idea of the hub and spoke model in the regions—large regional centres forming the “hub” with spokes out to the rural and remote areas. The idea is that people can live and work outside the regional centre and still work there if they choose. The hub and spoke model works in rural health, my former Ministry—many doctors and specialists work the bulk of their days in a regional centre, then work one day each per fortnight across a few smaller towns.
Investment in regions can only be done in partnership with those regions. Government can't fix everything on its own, and neither can the community. Imposing Canberra priorities on a region doesn't work. And when Government invests in partnership with a region into priorities identified by that region, it breeds confidence. Confidence is key in regional communities. It means local businesses know their town has a future and become more willing to invest and create jobs. It means some temporary residents may be more willing to put down roots, enrolling their kids in the local school. It means those sick of the city rat race may look at the great lifestyle available outside the city limits.
Building Better Regions Fund
In every government Ministry I've come into (and I've had five), I've assessed policies and made changes to improve outcomes and better use incorporate local knowledge.
As Rural Health Minister, I redirected $50 million in GP subsidies to doctors in small country towns rather than GPs in huge regional cities such as Townsville, which has 174,000 residents.
I ordered an independent review into organ donation in Australia and drove important reform following that, including the ability for donors to register online.
I helped drive the creation of the National Ice Taskforce and the historic $300 million investment in drug and alcohol. Ice is an issue in many regional communities. The 31 local Primary Health Networks each invest their share of the money into what they think will work best locally.
During the 2016 election campaign, I announced the creation of a pathway for Rural Generalists, which recognises country health professionals who have far broader skills than the average GP. I also announced a Rural Health Commissioner to help identify these skills, reward them appropriately and create a pathway for those wishing to become a Rural Generalist. The Rural Health Commissioner will also be a strong advocate for rural health causes.
I also announced $200 million worth of local jobs and investment packages, with local community planning committees choosing the strategic growth priorities they'd like to see government and local business join together to invest in.
As Regional Communications Minister, I recently convinced NBN Co to make changes around Sky Muster installations and customer assistance. I've also made changes to the Mobile Black Spots Programme as we push mobile coverage further and further out from the cities.
As Regional Development Minister, I assessed our flagship grants programme and I've made some changes there too.
Today I release the guidelines for the new Building Better Regions Fund, worth $297 million. The total amount invested will be decided by the quality of applications—we don't pre-empt the results of the round. From today, applicants can access the guidelines and begin preparing their applications, which can be submitted from January 18.
Here are the major changes and additions:
First: projects in major capital cities will not be eligible under the Building Better Regions guidelines. This is a regional programme and will deliver for regional communities. This is a no-brainer. I make no apologies for cutting the cities out. They're big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves. Indeed The Weekly Times newspaper and other rural media including the ABC highlighted back in 2014 the fact capital city projects were being approved under the former fund.
Second; small, medium and large projects will no longer compete against each other for funding. They'll be ranked against projects of their own size. This is a fairer way of running the programme and means small community projects are not up against huge projects from major councils with applications written by professional grants writers.
Third; during the assessment process, remote and very remote areas will receive a loading on their project's overall score. This is to make sure the little guy is not forgotten and to recognise the fact many remote councils have less ability to raise funds than major regional centre councils.
Fourth; I announce a brand new source of funding for community projects in rural, regional and remote Australia—a Community Investments Stream as part of the Building Better Regions Fund. This is a significant change and is made in recognition that an infrastructure fund can only address infrastructure issues.
Regional Australia is not just made of bricks and mortar or new lanes on a major road. It's made of far more than that—things like leadership, community, culture and a skilled workforce. The way to grow rural, regional and remote Australia is not just through building roads and buildings, although those things are important—we also need to build communities and their networks.
We need to build intellectual capacity in the regions, the skills, the jobs, and also the arts, attractions and things to do. We need to grow brains in the bush and we need to attract the brains back to the bush—all those smart young people who may have moved to the city. We need to give these people good reasons to come home.
The Community Investments Stream will fund those things communities know will contribute to building their community, outside of bricks and mortar or a new lane on a road. It might be expanding their local festival, attracting a theatre production or major sporting event to the region to bring more visitors to the town, or it might be leadership or business training for young locals. This is not a one size fits all approach and local communities know best, so I'm willing to listen to their ideas.
Fifth; matching funding requirements will be adjusted.
Remote and very remote areas will not need to produce matching funding at a 1:1 ratio. I think it's fair the government fund up to 75 per cent of their project costs.
Further, for the first time, there will be the opportunity for applicants to apply for an exemption to the rule requiring matching funding if there are exceptional circumstances. I do not anticipate approving many such exemptions—approvals for exemptions will be very rare—but having seen some communities doing it exceptionally tough, I've decided in some cases to remove the barrier that finding co-funding can create. Applicants will get to make only one application in each round, so if you apply for the exemption and fail, there's no opportunity to reapply that round having “found” some matching funding.
Sixth; rather than having communities plead disadvantage and to win funding, under Building Better Regions, the disadvantage criteria will be replaced with a community benefit criteria. This allows applicants to show how their project will make their region a more attractive place to live, or improve community connections for example, rather than being encouraged to list as many local ills as possible.
I'm proud of all of these changes. This is deeply considered policy which I hope will make a difference.
Given our cities can't exist without healthy regions, it would be crazy not to invest in regional Australia. Investment in the regions is essential, and also pays massive dividends for our nation.
I'm not giving anyone a hand out. What I'm giving is a kick start towards sustainability.