Thank you Sabra.
I’d first like to acknowledge the Wiradjuri people on whose land we are meeting today and to pay my respects to elders past and present.
In Wiradjuri, Wodonga means bulrushes, that are prolific along the banks of the Great Murray, which has sustained this community and its peoples for a millennia.
I’d also like to pay my acknowledgements to Mayor Anna Speedie and my federal colleague, Assistant Minister the Honourable Sussan Ley.
I would also like to take a moment to mention two important men, both of whom aren’t here today: Nationals Leader Michael McCormack, who’s running around the regions doing what he does best, and that’s delivering; but also former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of The Nationals, and local icon resident, Tim Fischer.
Tim, you have a pretty good track record in having political fights and political wins, and we’re all sending you our best wishes from here today and I know you’re watching and thanks for sending me your best wishes yesterday.
As Deputy Leader of a party whose very essence is born in the regions, it’s such an honour to speak at the first National Press Club address to take place in regional Australia, and it’s even more of an honour to have that take place in my own backyard: North East Victoria.
So, thank you, Sabra, President of the National Press Club, for your vision in bringing the club to the regions.
You’re from the country and you know very, very innately how important it is to connect the regions to the city, and this telecast is part of doing just that.
And thank you for all coming out today – those who are from the regions and those who aren’t, welcome to the North East.
Regional Australia is not homogeneous.
It ranges from busy coastal towns driven by sea-change migration, to hinterland areas spreading far and wide, from regional capitals, towns to country outposts, from mining areas exporting globally, to family farms supplying food chains just kilometres away.
Locally, Wodonga and the wider North Eastern Victorian region is an area rich in exports, human capacity, and natural resources and beauty.
From grazing plains, amazing wineries and breweries, historic villages, and the snow-capped mountains of the high country – this is a region where the very best of regional Australia is on display.
I grew up here. I was born in Alex (Alexandra) and raised in Benalla. My family were high-country cattleman up in the hills near Omeo from the 1850s.
Where you are from is very important, and I believe that place is formative in who we are and what we value as adults.
This area is also the birthplace of Blackjack McEwen, just down at Chiltern, down the road a bit.
He was a well-respected, but somewhat frugal, dairy farmer from this region, and we know that agriculture and in particular dairy is synonymous with this region – over 25 per cent of the national milk production is from North East Victoria.
My dad was actually a milkman – not a dairyman, a milkman; there is a difference – when you used to get your milk delivered to your house in Eildon and Benalla in the 1970s.
And as a kid I remember dad coming home from the round each day with bottles of milk – yes, I am that old – and we would fight to rip the top off, the foil off, those bottles of milk so that we could be the first one to pour that beautiful, delicious cream on the top onto our cornflakes.
And any of us that are as old as me or older know how rich and delicious that cream was, because it always rose to the top.
And that’s how I see our regions – they’re the cream of Australia and they deliver the riches of our nation.
Today, I want to discuss how connecting to the regions is in our national interest.
It always has been, and I believe it’ll be more so in the future.
The values of regional Australia – hard work, perseverance, resilience, doggedness, fairness and, yes, friendliness – are also values of The National Party.
These values are underpinned by strong families and communities, and a practical, pragmatic approach to dealing with our challenges.
We all want to live in strong, prosperous, safe, sustainable communities.
As we know, Australia grew on the sheep’s back; both agriculture and mining playing a pivotal role in the development of our country.
Pioneers and migrants working in the gold rush developed our regions and continue to be a key pillar for growth into the future.
However, contrary to the stereotype, regions are not resistant or reactionary to change, and in fact have been at the forefront of the adoption of new technology, sustainable farming practices, and responding to global economic challenges.
Remember, it was McEwen as Trade Minister who forged Australia’s trading links with Asia – a progressive move in post-World War II Australia – laying down the foundations for the historic development of our economic partnership with Japan; the first of its kind across the globe, unlocking billions in agriculture, education, service exports through that agreement going forwards.
A great local example of how regions adapt to change is the successful restructure of the Australian tobacco industry, resulting in innovative, epicurean experience along King Valley – or Prosecco road, as we like to call it – driving not only record tourist dollars as people come to visit the region, but indeed building a thriving, globally recognised export industry.
Look at the changes in tourism alone – 43 cents in every tourists’ dollar are spent in regional Australia.
Regions are resilient and have the appetite and capacity to transform, with globally competitive industries like healthcare, logistics, construction, manufacturing and tourism.
Our regions have done more than their fair share for Australia’s unprecedented economic growth, as noted recently by the chair of the CSIRO, who said: we’ve had over 25 years of uninterrupted growth, and that has been built in the main on the back of the resource export industry.
Agriculture and mining employ over 2 million Australians, predominately in the regions, and make up 70 per cent of our exports.
These regional industries are modern; they’re high tech, efficient, research development investors, with increasingly skilled and trained workforces – they are the best in the world and this is why they can compete against the best in the world year in, year out, as our successful exports show.
This success didn’t just happen; rather it’s a direct result of the entrepreneurial spirit, the drive of the people, infrastructure investment, and government policy to connect regional Australia to enable its products to reach markets across the globe.
This approach is at the very heart of the National Party’s being and existence.
In a country where two cities, because of their size, have dominated the national agenda, it’s hard sometimes for regional voices to be heard.
It’s important to stand up.
They need to be heard to keep the investment, the people, the skills, and the opportunities growing.
Regions are not just necessary to the rest of the economy, as some would argue, but key drivers of the modern Australian economy.
It always has been and I will fight to make sure it always will be.
Of course there are challenges for the regions: natural disasters like drought and floods affect the nation as a whole.
Our communities are facing problems around ICE, access to healthcare, and making sure our kids get a quality education at home.
If Australia is going to face these challenges, both economic and social, then we need to continue to improve our focus on the regions, and that means reconciling the current divide between city and regions both in terms of outlook, aspiration and comparable well-being.
Strong regions mean strong cities and a stronger Australia. Our nation needs sustainable and prosperous regions just as much as it needs thriving cities.
And my vision for regional Australia is one that is connected, modern and dynamic.
The chairman of the CSIRO noted that as our population grows, our cities are becoming increasingly stratified as highly-paid services jobs become concentrated in inner cities and increasing house prices force more people to the periphery, where poor transport options leave them stranded for high-quality jobs.
We need technological investment to spread across the economy and out into regional Australia.
I completely agree. Our regions have a lot to offer.
From 2011 to 2016, 400,000 Australians moved from capital city into the regions.
Well, didn’t they make a right decision?
We actually don’t perceive that as a bad thing, right, a deficit.
Increasingly, most of these people are 30 to 39, young families, or 60 to 69 year olds preparing to spend their retirement in the regions.
This is a positive trend, and it brings a dynamic mix of both skills and experience into our communities.
The perfect example is right here in Wodonga, which has been growing in excess of 10 per cent in the last decade, and that is predominantly from young families choosing to come and live here and work, have rewarding, successful careers, high quality education options for their children, which are incredibly important.
So what’s driving that change?
Partially it is the liveability and lifestyle, but we’re also more connected than ever before.
We’ve got airports, rail, roads, and we do need rewarding, sustainable, ongoing careers being available.
There is an opportunity to increase this through our Government’s decentralisation agenda, which has already located 1300 jobs.
Locating government services into the regions, closer to the people and industries they serve, is important from a policy perspective, but it is only a small part of the solution.
As the Business Council of Australia has identified, four strategic areas are needed to encourage businesses, private investment, the generators of local jobs and wealth into the regions, and create communities where people want to come and live and work.
And they’re making sure we’ve got connecting and enabling infrastructure, where regional cities are strategically located and connected to other parts of our nation and the globe; making sure population growth exists and that we’ve got the skilled workforce we need, where hubs of excellence are, particularly around exporting industries; needing to have access to education at all levels to develop the skills for local growth, and that means having tertiary education providers in local communities like this; and making sure we’ve got an excellent lifestyle.
What a great proposition. Want to use the local example – we can go water skiing all summer half an hour down the road, and an hour down the road, we can go skiing all winter.
That’s liveability that you can only get when you’re out in the regions.
Well, we’re acting on this advice, and for me, it really was a no-brainer.
And that’s why when I look for the Government’s next tranche of investment in the regions, we look for areas and communities just like this, that have that connectivity of infrastructure, that have excellence in exports here, that have ongoing population and really great projections and prospects going forward.
And that’s why I’m extremely pleased to announce a Regional Deal for Albury-Wodonga as a part of our Government’s agenda to back the regions.
This will include an initial investment of over $3 million to undertake strategic planning with the community to form structure and priorities for the deal.
It will be the first cross-border deal and will look at harmonising some of the barriers, in the regulatory sense, faced by these two cities and their citizens and their impact on business growth and job creation.
Preliminary work already undertaken through the Two Cities One Community initiative will provide foundations for both state and federal governments to proceed with the signing of a statement of intent as soon as possible.
Combined, Albury-Wodonga is the 17th largest Australian city, showing strong projections of growth going forward, and it’s anticipated over the next two decades that Albury-Wodonga will have a combined service population in excess of 125,000 people.
I want to see this triple and that’s why we’re wanting to back the growth and development of a community like Albury-Wodonga.
Germany and the United Kingdom have second-tier cities, with millions living and living it up out in the regions.
These are both grown because of their natural advantages and because governments decided to take the strategic investment and back those natural assets of those regional cities for them to be everything they can be.
Just as Bendigo and Ballarat challenged Melbourne back in the 1850s during the gold rush, it’s time for a new generation of regional cities to emerge.
Regionalisation can mitigate the risk of over concentration of people and investment and opportunity all in one place.
Strategic population spread is good for diversity and decision making, for national security, for fairer distribution of wealth, and for better deployment of our resources.
It’s also not too bad for the environment.
In 1911, our capital cities accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the population. Last year, over two-thirds of Australians lived in capital cities.
This has implications for perceptions by media types of who we are and who we are not when we’re not living in capital cities, and for attention by decision makers.
We’ve got to target and select regions and support strategic investment over the long term and that is what we want to do as a Government and I want to do as a National Party Deputy Leader.
It means all levels of government actually working together with the private sector to ensure community priorities are met and existing natural advantages are maximised.
This strategic approach of the regions’ role was recognised by the Prime Minister today in his population announcement.
It’s the first time we’ve had a targeted and considered plan.
A plan that includes state governments as key decision makers.
And over the long term, this plan will manage our population growth, importantly its distribution, to make our cities, our towns and communities even better places to live and work.
Through faster rail links, we’re connecting regions to cities.
This will be transformative for regional cities like Newcastle to support Sydney by addressing congestion.
We’re opening new opportunities to a greater share of international students to study at world leading universities, and yes, they’re not all in capital cities. This plan is supported by our record infrastructure investment, including City and Regional Deals, which will continue to play an important role to support the nation’s growth and respond to the unique needs of communities.
One of the barriers we need to address for growing our regions are the skill shortages that really do exist in so many parts of regional Australia.
We don’t just need people; we need the right people with the right skills in the right place.
To address job vacancies in the regions, we’re dedicating 23,000 visa places to provide better access for local employers to get the skilled workers they need.
Places like Warrnambool in Victoria’s southwest, Mackay in North Queensland – whose job vacancy is in excess of 1500, and it’s got a lot of sunshine in winter – all crying out for more people to fill job vacancies in their local economies.
And that’s why we’re continuing to improve access to skilled workers through adding additional occupations to the skills list, new incentivised regional migration schemes, because experience has shown that local job prospects, shared values, and open communities are absolutely fundamental to ensuring success in migration settlement schemes out in the regions; and we’ve seen that with the Karen in Nhill, in the Mallee, the Yazidis in Wagga, our Sikh community that are going gangbusters up in Coffs Harbour. Good luck, Gurmesh, on Saturday – fourth-generation Australian blueberry farmer running for The Nationals.
But again, I think it does indicate that when we get those setting right, as the Deloitte report pointed out, these are incredibly successful partnerships between migrant communities and local communities and industry, valuing for all.
Regional centres are economically and socially viable and attractive to new migrants, particularly migrants with rural origins.
I was at the Australia Day ceremony here in Wodonga, at a citizenship ceremony, and I met a young mum and her daughter and asked: why did you choose Wodonga? Why did you choose regional Victoria?
And she said: well, where I come from in Bangladesh, I actually am from a country community, a regional centre, and I like having that sense of belonging”.
And I think that is something that we are very good at doing: connecting and belonging in regional communities and towns.
However, there’s plenty more that we can do to make regions attractive and continue to be viable, because our Government is delivering.
We have handed down the most transformative rural health workforce strategy in three decades.
For too long, those of us that have lived out in the regions have found it too hard to access high quality, domestically trained medical work force.
So we’ve been able to deliver on something like that.
Our Government has brought down the Halsey Review into Regional Education.
We’ve made changes to Youth Allowance during the last five years to back country kids getting a fair go when they have to move away to a capital city to get the university education they deserve.
And we’ve also prioritised regional universities.
We’ve already delivered $7 billion to our drought-affected farmers and communities and we stand with them.
Because it’s not just now that they’re need our support: the recovery from this drought will take many, many years and we are committed to standing with them, as the wealth generators of our nation, until they are fully recovered post the rain coming, because we do know the rain will come.
I’ve also established an expert panel to provide strategic advice on how we can further grow the regions.
The opportunities for the regions as part of our plans are immense.
To achieve meaningful impact, we need to move beyond, I believe, the traditional funding program that relies on the whim of political judgement from all sides.
We need catalytic investment over time to overcome challenges and take advantage of new opportunities to support not just the regions’ future, because it’s fundamental for Australia’s future to have strong regions.
And connecting the regions is essential to maintaining and growing our existing competitive advantage as a nation.
It also makes us pretty attractive to live in.
Only last week I was in Burnie where there are job opportunities, particularly on the north-west coast of Tasmania.
But they’re struggling to get families and skilled people to those regions because of a lack of connectivity.
When I was up in Alpha, in central west Queensland over summer, and hearing from different station owners that whoever had Wi-Fi on the staff’s quarters actually got the best staff; it means that much.
I believe we need to remove geography as a determinant of prosperity.
This means investing in the connectivity of resources, of infrastructure, and of people.
Because in the digital world, connectivity brings jobs, it brings wealth, it brings safety, and it brings a sense of community. Just as we built traditional road and rail infrastructure, which opened up the regions, we are now investing in new technologies to keep the regions competitive so they continue to do the heavy lifting for our whole nation.
And I think it’s important to sort of reflect on how far we have come over the past five, six years.
In 2011, it took a weekend to actually download one episode of The Simpsons, if you were lucky.
And I could drive many, many hundreds of kilometres between being able to make a phone call, all on hands-free, of course.
In 2019, though, we live in a world where we’re constantly connecting through our smartphone devices, for both work and leisure.
And in 2025, we’ll be using low orbit satellites and 5G.
5G will take us from a world of connecting people to each other in the internet to a world of ultra-fast mobile speeds and the internet of things on mass scale, of unleashing a mass of opportunities, everything from smart cities and homes, drones and driverless cars, and augmented reality in both entertainment and work.
The enabling infrastructure for our 5G network and readiness is part of building that for the future.
We need to invest to transform the way we deliver services and bring new products to market.
In the provision of infrastructure, there’s always been a bit of a lag between the cities and the regions.
And the pace of technological change has absolutely been relentless.
We’ve got to keep up.
The regions produce the wealth, and we also need the services and infrastructure they deserve to expand and compete.
We know that the regions are early adopters, from the combine harvester, to the internet of things on farms.
And this ongoing technological revolution provides not just our farmers and our miners, but our advanced manufacturers and beyond, the opportunities to grow and invest and to export in ways unthought-of a few years ago.
And if we get this right, the potential, I believe, of the regions, is unlimited.
In January, I had the opportunity to visit Alpha, as I said, where Kristy and Alex Sparrow run Malden Station.
And they’re growing their business because they’re adopting smart technologies.
These technologies, used through Sky Muster, are providing them with innovative and accurate monitoring systems connected to satellite that takes the guess work out of measuring and analysing their water use.
And when Alex and Chrissie are off the station, they can actually monitor that, 24-7, on a mobile phone, to manage their tanks and dams, and the water to their stock.
It’s like Google Home for the farm.
Of course, in a country the size of Australia, connectivity comes with its own unique challenge and connecting every home and business is no small feat.
And that’s why The Nationals ensured that the Government, no matter who is in office, must undertake a health check each three years on regional telecommunication access for regional Australia.
And this ensures that no matter who’s sitting in the Treasury benches, they have to listen to the issues of regional Australians and those working in the regions.
The recent independent Edwards Regional Telecommunications Review, chaired by Sean Edwards, found technological investment needs to be spread right across the economy, particularly out into the regions.
Our Government has considered the committee’s 10 recommendations and today, I’m very proud to announce that our government will be investing an additional $220 million through a stronger regional connectivity package.
This package will see an additional two rounds of the highly successful Mobile Black Spot program.
But importantly, there will be $60 million for a new regional connectivity program.
This is the first of its kind, delivering place-based connectivity solutions and independent digital literacy advice for those out in the regions.
Just like we don’t use telephone exchanges when it comes to connecting our calls any more, we recognise that one size fits all technologies in connecting regional Australia won’t work either.
What’s needed in Alexandra, where I was born, is not what is needed in Alpha, nor in Albany.
From connecting to a new industrial estate to the NBN, this fund will be used to do programs like that; providing solutions to remove congestions from satellite usage, or helping farmers maximise the use of spatial technologies, like Kristy and Alex are doing.
This program is designed to support regional communities adopt and use cutting edge technologies, because the pace of change is just so fast.
We’re taking practical and place-based approach to give people access to technological solutions that are tailored to their needs and businesses.
And it builds already on the transformational commitments delivered under the Mobile Black Spot Program, a program developed in opposition by The National Party, fought for at the Cabinet table, and rolled out by a strong Liberal and Nationals Government over the past five years.
It’s seen 1047 mobile base stations delivered in this country, an additional 1 million square kilometres of the regions connected by our commitment.
I know how much it means.
It is important for emergency services access, it’s incredibly important for education and health service access, but increasingly, it is foundational and fundamental to grow and expand a business in the regions.
And that is what The Nationals deliver in a strong Coalition Government.
Government without leaders and clear values are like rudderless ships: susceptible to unpredictable changes in wind direction and are too easily waylaid by populist demands, short term media cycles – getting worse – and noisy minority groups.
The Nationals are not the party of resistance or reaction, but a party of initiative, whose values of resilience and commitment have kept the regions on the national agenda for over a century.
The Nationals have been at the forefront of the modernisation of regional Australia, delivering the infrastructure, the services, the skills, to ensure our regions continue to provide for this nation.
These remarkable results have been achieved because The Nationals are actually at the Cabinet table, making decisions in a strong Coalition Government.
External protest groups trying to exercise influence by making a lot of noise – usually not much sense – do not achieve.
The growing economic and social diversity of the regions is also reflected in our party room.
Where we were once the party of farmers – and you’d be struggling to find someone who wasn’t – we’re now the party that includes teachers, doctors, accountants, journalists, police officers, and even editors, as our own leader, Michael McCormack.
We remain a pragmatic and common-sense party, true to our core values, but willing to manage the challenges that confront regions in innovative ways.
That does mean change over time where it makes sense, as any natural conservative would do.
Dr Nick Economou from Monash University has recently pointed out too much of Australia’s policy agenda, debate, and media coverage has been set by those he calls living in inner metropolitan cities whose income, their lifestyle, and interests, are very different from those who live in outer suburban areas, and especially to those of us that live in the regions.
Bernard Salt, a lovely demographer that I like to read his rants usually in the weekend papers, would suggest these types live within the parameters of the goat’s cheese curtain.
On one side of the curtain lived the smashed avo eating, man bunned, kombucha swilling urbanites.
Whilst on the side of the curtain, we’ve got the bogans, the battlers, the rest of us, right – particularly the regions.
This goat’s cheese curtain represents as much a cultural and epicurean divide as it does, I believe, a political divide.
But I believe it’s now time to take Australia beyond the divide, because, you know what, I actually like smashed avo.
I have picked up a Chardonnay again after the ’80s, and the soy lattes are – sorry to the dairy farmers – are for me.
I did try kombucha; didn’t like it.
Regional issues are different from those from inner metropolitan areas, but they are no less important.
The regions are not appendages to metropolitan Australia to be handed occasional policy crumbs to keep the yokels quiet.
And I think we’ve proved that if you look over our nation’s history: the economic contribution, the social contribution, the sporting contribution that the regions have delivered to this country over our history has been enormous.
On the political front, The National Party is not an irrelevant rural rump.
We are the tail that wags the dog.
We’re of the regions and we have been for over 100 years.
Our focus is not only on nurturing and supporting our communities, but providing the leadership and vision to meet future challenges.
I want an Australia where it’s a natural choice for people to want to live out in regional Australia.
Where resilient, vibrant, progressive regional centres take the pressure off our crowded capitals.
Where people are connected back to where their food come from. You actually know the guy that farms the goat that makes the cheese.
Where country kids have the same great access to quality education as those in the cities.
Where public servants actually fight each other to take up job opportunities across regional Australia. Where access to healthcare services are as good as they are in the cities.
And where our global leading regional industries continued to be strengthened. Where the regions are dynamic, flexible, and innovative. And where tyranny of distance that has held regional Australia back for so long no longer exists, because regional Australia will be connected.
It’s not just in the regional interest, it’s in the national interest.