November 18, 2018

On behalf of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, I present the committee's interim report.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

I rise to speak on the interim report of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation.

We have had some changes in the committee in recent months, and, as nominal chair, I would like to thank the author of this report, the member for Groom, Dr John McVeigh, for his work in chairing the committee to date. I have served as his deputy.

I also thank the other committee members and the committee secretariat and support staff for their work. I note that we are looking forward to announcements about replacements for the four government members that have moved on from our committee.

By the nature of the task at hand, the committee has visited many regional and rural areas throughout Australia.

I acknowledge the many individuals and organisations who have made submissions and appeared at hearings during the course of our inquiry so far.

The purpose of this interim report is to provide an update on the work to date and an overview of the work ahead.

At this stage, the committee considers it would be premature to provide recommendations or views on the issues raised.

To date, the committee has received over 187 written submissions and heard from 115 witnesses representing 77 organisations.

More than a quarter of these submissions, 27 per cent, have been from local councils or groupings of councils, with other contributions from individuals, industry bodies, regional development authorities, community groups and non-government organisations.

A third have come from Victoria, a quarter from New South Wales, and 11 per cent each from Queensland and the ACT.

Nearly one in 10 have come from committees belonging to Regional Development Australia, an organisation and network working to identify regional issues, and their contributions are expected to identify themes across the regions.

Between August and November, hearings were held in Canberra; in the New South Wales cities of Orange and Newcastle (neighbouring my electorate of Paterson); in the Victorian cities of Bendigo and Wodonga; in the West Australian cities of Geraldton and Kalgoorlie; in the South Australian city of Murray Bridge; in the Tasmanian cities of Launceston and Burnie; and in Darwin, in the Northern Territory.

The committee has also held private briefings with the department of infrastructure and regional development and the Australian Public Service Commission.

An informal panel was convened to uncover the broad issues related to regional development and decentralisation, and we will likely hold another similar roundtable this year.

The committee intends to hold hearings in the coming months in Townsville, Toowoomba, Armidale and Canberra.

We've requested an extension to the May date for the final report given the quantity of evidence received. The goal will then be to craft recommendations for best-practice approaches to regional development so these can meaningfully inform government policy.

Research by the Regional Australia Institute says the main factors affecting regional communities and economies are: the global economy; technological change; the environment; and, importantly, population.

While governments can't control these things per se, they can provide the right political and policy settings to foster growth.

What we know is that integrated and collaborative approaches from all tiers of government are vital.

The Productivity Commission advises regional growth should be: led by local communities; aligned with regional strengths; supported by targeted investment; and guided by clear objectives and measurable performance indicators.

What is common to best-practice guidelines here and overseas is that regions must focus on their core advantages.

They must have buy-in growth strategies and support from government at all levels.

Regional growth can occur through the decentralisation of Commonwealth agencies and/or through incentivising corporations to decentralise, but it must be done carefully.

It is broadly agreed that technology is key, and that with good policy the benefits can outweigh the costs, but again it must be done with careful consideration.

In closing, I want to say what an honour it was to chair the Newcastle hearing of the committee, neighbouring my own electorate of Paterson in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, and hear from our local councils and organisations.

The Hunter—and I note the member for Hunter and shadow agriculture minister joins us in the chamber today—is the biggest regional economy in Australia. We know about regions because we are one of the most successful regions, with an economic output of nearly $100 billion a year and a population of more than 707,000 people.

We have enjoyed the fruits of the mining boom, but we have also been affected by its downturn, and the loss of big employers such as the hydro aluminium smelter in my home town of Kurri Kurri has had a cost.

As with many rural and regional areas, we have challenges finding work for our young people, with youth unemployment around 10 per cent, but as high as 21 per cent in recent years. While the Hunter has its unique challenges, it also has much in common with other regions we have visited.

I look forward to continuing my work with this committee and commend this report to the House.