November 18, 2018

I rise to speak on the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation's report into ways to increase the growth and prosperity of rural and regional Australia.

The chair of our committee, the member for Murray, has just spoken about our findings. I would like to thank him for his remarks and for the level of cooperation and support he has extended throughout the committee's tenure.

As the deputy chair of the committee, I would also like to note the substantial contributions made by the previous chairs, namely the member for Groom, Dr McVeigh, who joins us in the chamber, and also Darren Chester, the member for Gippsland, who was also a chair of the committee for a short time. We have had a very productive
time on this committee.

I would also like to thank the members of the secretariat, including: secretaries Julia Agostino and Lynley Ducker, inquiry secretary Fran Denny, senior research officer Andrew Gaczol, research officer Danton Leary, and administration officer Kelly Burt. Thank you so much. None of this would have been possible without your good work.

Mention must also be made of the many individuals and organisations that provided essential information for this report and attended or made submissions to our hearings around the country—particularly our expert panel, whom the chair has already individually thanked. I would like to reinforce that thanks.

I also make mention of the member for Indi, who has in particular applied her knowledge of rural and regional Australia and committed many hours to this. I would like to personally thank her for her assistance and cooperation in working through what were at times very complex issues across a very important part of our country.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts, your experience, your expertise and your passion for the fortunes and wellbeing of the people of regional Australia. I really share that passion about regional Australia. It is in many cases the untapped gem. My electorate of Paterson is one such gem. It spans wine producers, traditional industries,
beef and dairy farmers, emerging high tech, the coalfields, booming regional and coastal areas, vegetable farmers, the Williamtown RAAF base and the glorious blue-water destinations of Port Stephens.

The committee's draft report, Regions at the ready: investing in Australia's future, acknowledges that our nation's economic prosperity is underwritten by investment in regional and rural communities such as my own. This is hardly surprising, considering around a third of Australia's workforce is employed outside of metropolitan
areas. These people and industries really do ply some serious heft—they account for around 40 per cent of Australia's national economic output.

How can we further capitalise on the marvellous opportunities presented by our fantastic regions? It is a complex issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all for the regions. There are almost as many solutions as there are regions. But the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation's report has found that decentralisation, in and of itself, isn't enough. For example, it isn't good enough to lift up a government department or other public agency and drop it into a regional community hundreds of kilometres away for short-term political gain. We need to really grasp the nettle on this. We've got to stop politicising our regional areas
for short-term political benefit.

To this end, the committee sought feedback from far and wide, throughout the country, over the past year, and it has drawn on this information to set out the basis of a solid Commonwealth decentralisation policy. 

Within it, there are some vital learnings. These include the fact that decentralised agencies or functions need to be a good fit for the location. This could mean a natural geographic advantage, existing complementary businesses or industries or a skilled workforce. Any decentralisation should be a catalyst for broader social and economic change. It should give rise to clustering opportunities—that is, attract relevant industries and businesses, encourage an expansion of services and facilitate education and training opportunities.

One of the biggest items of decentralisation is efficiently and appropriately equipping agencies that are already in regional and rural areas.

The draft report also highlights the fact that we face two major challenges as we work to encourage more people to embrace a life in regional Australia. One is purely a matter of perception. The second could be a matter of trend. With reference to the first challenge, our committee identified the fact that many hold a perception that our regions are somehow second-rate—not those who live in the regions but perhaps those in other, more metropolitan areas.

I'm the first to dispute that perception. I'm a product of a rural and regional environment. I know firsthand what sort of wonderful people and opportunities lie in our regions, and I know that our regions themselves, such as my electorate of Paterson, are often sustainable, vibrant and enjoyable places to live and
work and raise a family.

An erroneous perception that life in regional Australia is a second-rate existence really often fails scrutiny. Our metropolitan areas are often congested and many are experiencing the stress of rapid population growth and housing affordability. Those stressors, combined with the high cost-of-living expenses, make it harder for people achieve the quality of they want.

The second challenge the committee identified is that there is an established trend of people moving to the capital cities, to the metropolitan areas. That trend is on; it is happening. Rooted somewhere in the psyche of many Australians, I think there's a deep-seated message that lends them to believe that they could even perish if they
lived more than half an hour from the coast.

Maybe it's because our home is girt by sea. Maybe it's because we are a proud island nation. Maybe it's our collective pride in our beautiful coastline. Regardless, there are many of us, though, who might not clap eyes on the ocean more than once every six months, despite our relative proximity to it. So, we've got that challenge to understand. We've got to understand that trend of people moving to the capital cities and wanting to stay close to the coastal band. How do we tackle that challenge and encourage people to look beyond the big cities and the beach? 

For regions to thrive, they need to attract and retain people. And, yes, much of regional and rural Australia lies more than half an hour from the big city or the beach.
Our committee identified four ways in which we can support this outcome, and they all boil down to investment: investment in infrastructure, such as roads, education, training, information technology, connectivity and regional facilities; investment that drives development and growth, such as in an airport, hospital, university or
government department; investment in capacity building—that is, providing leadership development, education and training opportunities for people in rural communities; and, finally, investment in human capital—employing good people to deliver the services that our communities need. 

However, decentralisation and investment across our three tiers of government are not enough on their own. We must encourage private entities to invest in regional and rural areas and we must collaborate and work collectively with our communities. Some Australians might baulk at the idea of moving to a regional or rural area, due to
the perceptions. We must actively promote the value of and the advantages of living and working in regional Australia, and we must ensure universal access to reasonable services.

These points lie within the 12 principles that the select committee believes should form the basis of all regional development policy.

We must also acknowledge that it is most important that the decentralisation of any Commonwealth or corporate entities meets the requirement of efficiency. We can't shift operations somewhere where the locale and the location hinder the function. In addition, we must acknowledge and embrace the fact that we live in a fast-evolving
world. The ramifications of these changes, and the pace with which the changes occur, must be considered when we conceptualise, formulate and implement regional development policy.

For this reason, the committee sees a need for the establishment of a Joint Standing Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation. This issue demands an ongoing committee that exits to constantly examine and assess the issues that face rural and regional Australians. The committee asks that the same committee that is tasked with examining the issues also oversees the broader Commonwealth decentralisation program.

I would like to reiterate the committee's call for a consolidated government policy on regional Australia, through a regional white-paper process.

In closing, I would like to make special mention of my electorate of Paterson and thank those people who submitted to the inquiry. I thank those who attended the Hunter hearing. I was most honoured to chair that hearing and I was very pleased that representatives from the airport at Newcastle, Maitland Business Chamber, Kurri Kurri District Business Chamber, the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Research Foundation all gave some fantastic ideas and evidence.

Thank you so much for your commitment to helping our community thrive and, more broadly, thank you to the committee and those who served on it with me, as
deputy. It was a terrific experience and I do hope that we can move forward and really help our regions that are so ready to prosper.