Speech - Consensus not conflict: The best path to stronger regions - Saturday 27, May 2017





As you know, in the Parliament I represent parts of one of Australia’s great regions.  It’s not surprising then, that I’ve always had a deep interest in regional policy and I’ve always been a strong advocate for regional communities.

But over the course of the last four years I’ve more formally been engaged in efforts  to further strengthen Labor’s influence in rural and regional Australia.

Not just to win elections, but to ensure Labor’s capacity to champion the regions and to stand up for regional communities, is a strong as it possibly can be. 

To deliver greater political contestability in the many regional towns which have been held back by Coalition MPs who take them for granted and feel content to sit back while the city-country divide grows wider.

I’m delighted that Country Labor here in South Australia has so enthusiastically joined the campaign to re-energise our efforts.

Labor certainly has a strong legacy in the bush. Our Movement was in part born out of the nation’s shearing sheds and for more than a century has proudly won better pay and conditions for those who have worked our mines, abattoirs and railways to name just a few.

And all the big reforms which positioned our agriculture sector to capitalise on growing Asia demand for high quality and safe product were the work of the Hawke and Keating Governments.  They transformed a heavily protected, subsidised, regulated and inefficient farm sector into one ready to climb to the top of the innovation and value curves.

But after four years of policy inertia - a period more marked by funding cuts than increased investment, more marked by division than collaboration – our regions need a Labor Government.  Indeed the changing global political landscape makes our cause even more urgent.

As Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce track to the right in a contest with One Nation, we need a Labor Government to bring policy back to the sensible centre.   And we need a Labor Government to re-build confidence in our national leadership at a time when public confidence in it is at an all-time low.

To bring people together rather than divide.  To re-build collaboration between people.  So it’s a time for strong leadership – strong leadership nationally, and strong leadership locally.

It’s a time to stand up to those who see political opportunity in this changing political climate.   Those who want to divide our community and direct blame at the already marginalised.

We need a Government determined to unite us and to promote cooperation over conflict.

Those of us gathered tonight consider ourselves vocal champions of those who live outside our capital cities.  But that does not make us anti-capital city.

We consider ourselves a voice for those who work the land but unlike Barnaby Joyce, we don’t see an enemy in those who add value to the farm product of many of our farmers.

We believe in the private sector as the main driver of economic wealth and job creation in this country. But we are certainly not anti-public service. We need to have respect for our public servants rather than demonise them when they provide fearless advice, or worse, treat them as pawns in a political game.

Conflict is Barnaby Joyce’s way.  He sees political opportunity in pitting people against one another; farmers against conservationists.  Farmers against meat and dairy processors. City people against country people.  State against State.  Renewables against fossil fuels.  And he never misses an opportunity to cultivate fear about foreign investment.

This is not leadership, it's political opportunism.  And he does all of these things with the blessing of a Malcolm Turnbull so desperate to hang on to his job, he’s thrown all of his long-held values out the window.

Strong regional economies need strong capital cities. Strong capital cities need strong regional economies. It is pretty simple.

To be competitive on export markets our farmers need an efficient and profitable supply chain.  Our farmers need a healthy environment and the environment relies on good farming methods to be healthy.

The private sector and a stable economy need a strong public sector.

And regional economies desperately need foreign investment.  With a population of a little more than 23 million people, we simply don’t have the domestic savings required to fully fund our aspirations.

We need to over-power the ill-conceived and damaging politics of division. We must start building a new consensus.

The sort of consensus which existed at the beginning of this Century; when economic openness enjoyed almost universal support. When protectionism appeared consigned to the dust-bin of history.

When we were having a more enlightened conversation about the environment and how a healthy, sustainable environment is critical to a strong economy.

So let me sketch a better path. A modern path underpinned by cooperation and collaboration.  One based on science and sound economic principles; evidence-based policy.

There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to building stronger regions.  Every region and regional town is different.  Each has different strengths, each has different challenges.

Some towns were established on a railway line which no longer exists.  Some were on a highway but have since been by-passed.  Some were once home to the employees of a mine or manufacturing plant which moved on long ago. 

These towns face the toughest of challenges.  Often they’ve lost so many residents the local school or hospital is no longer viable.  They’ve lost their only GP and can’t attract a new one.  Many have lost their Post Office and their local bank branch.

Beware the politician who says he or she comes with simple solutions or plans to help these towns, like the Coalition’s decentralisation pork barrel.

Regional communities need more than spin.  They need serious approaches underpinned by sound policy principles.  I believe in six basic rules as a foundation.

First, no region can reach its full potential without a strong national economy and that requires competent economic management at the national level. 

Second, we have to always remember the private sector is the key driver of economic activity and jobs growth.

Third, while the private sector is the key driver of economic growth, it is the role of government to provide the enablers – roads, rail, bridges, ports, telecommunications, and a skilled workforce.

Fourth, government has a role to play in industry development; to provide strategic guidance for investors and to help create market opportunities.

Fifth, government must provide for the protection and management of the natural resources we so heavily rely upon.

The sixth rule is; the best results come when strategic planning comes from the bottom up, not dictated by Canberra.

Let me quickly expand on each of them.

  1. The National Economy

The Turnbull Government has no national economic strategy, other than a plan to cut corporate taxes, at the expense of other important enablers. Of course it also wants to cut penalty rates.

Remember when Malcolm Turnbull used to talk about “innovation”?  We don’t hear that word any more.  The Prime Minister has no productivity agenda, no plans for structural reform, and important institutions like the CSIRO are having their funding cut.

  1. The Private Sector

Again, we all know it’s the private sector which drives economic growth and jobs.  So moving a government agency to a regional town while at the same time cutting public service jobs in regional Centrelink, Medicare, AEC and tax offices is certainly not an economic plan.  Without a broader strategy, decentralisation is just another pork barrelling boondoggle.

  1. The Enablers

Since the 2014 Budget, funding cuts to our schools have hit our rural and regional schools hardest.  Labor’s needs-based Gonski reforms deliberately weighted funding in favour of rural and regional students and they’ll continue be the main loses under Turnbull’s Gonski 2.0.

In vocational education and training we in the bush are not spoilt for choice like our city cousins and public institutions like our regional TAFEs have been starved of resources.

Cuts to our universities and more onerous HECS repayment obligations will make regional student disadvantage even worse.

Just this week the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party recommitted ourselves to fully funding Gonski and in his Budget reply speech, Bill Shorten re-affirmed our plans to re-build TAFE and to insist that 1 in 10 workers on major Commonwealth funded infrastructure projects is an apprentice.

In this 21st Century, the importance of building our human capital cannot be overstated. That is also true for physical capital.

Between 2007 and 2013, our Labor Government more than doubled per capita investment in infrastructure from $132 per head to $225 per head.

When we took office, Australia was 20th on a list of OECD nations in terms of infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP.

When we left office six years later Australian was at the very top of the list.  We doubled the roads Budget, built or rebuilt 4000km of freight rail lines, boosting productivity and knocking six hours off the average freight journey from Brisbane to Melbourne and nine hours off the journey between the nation’s east and west coasts.

Three years later, one figure tells you everything you need to know about infrastructure investment under the Coalition. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that between the September quarter of 2013 – our last term in office – and the September quarter of 2015, public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent.

Of course no where will you see a greater level of failure than in telecommunications where Malcolm Turnbull's second-rate NBN has been a disaster for regional residents and businesses including our farmers.

  1. Industry Policy

The Turnbull Government doesn’t have an industry policy.  That’s the simple truth. It never talks about manufacturing for example.

We’ve seen the consequences of the Government’s failure to develop an energy policy.  And we will increasingly see the consequences of its cuts in science and research. 

The one achievement the Coalition Government can claim is the finalisation of our three free trade agreements. But they haven’t followed through on the necessary enabling protocols.  Look at the results; last year agri-food exports grew by 1.6% while agri-food imports grew a massive 10%.

A Shorten Labor Government will finish the job we began but we won’t claim - as our opponents do - that preferential trade deals represent mission complete.  There is much more to be done to ensure our agriculture sector reaches its full potential.

The key challenge is to ensure our limited natural resources are being allocated to products which secure the highest value return.

  1. Sustainable Natural Resources

There is nothing more disheartening than Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to back in his own beliefs on environmental issues. Australia is a continent of limited water and soil resources.  Protecting them and utilising them in a sustainable way should be a key priority for any government.

But the Turnbull Government remains in denial on climate change and has no plan to ensure our natural resources are utilised in the most sustainable and productive way.  Barnaby Joyce thinks that means building more dams – a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.

Meanwhile, he wants to tear-up the Murray Darling Basin Plan at great expense to South Australia.

The reality is we can improve the productivity of our soils quicker than we can build dams, and we can do it more cheaply.

Water infrastructure projects are important and the last Labor government built plenty of them.  But they were sound economic and environmentally smart projects.

Labor looks at our natural environment not just as a conservation issue but also, as an economic issue and will continue the fight to create sustainable jobs for those living in our regions.

  1. Local Solutions

The best plans for local economies are produced by the locals themselves.  That’s why the former Labor Government created Regional Development Australia and the ability of local leaders to set local priorities.

We also created and funded the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), to ensure local decision making was well-informed, and evidence-based policy was the order of the day.

A recent study by RAI tells us that the quality and strength of local leadership is one of the greatest determinants of local success.  I couldn’t agree more.

Of course that’s what you’ve all been doing today, making sure that people living in South Australia’s great regions have a voice.

I can assure you they’ll always have a voice in me.  And with your help, work, policy contributions, and support, we will maximise the potential of our regional communities.

Together we can further strengthen our regional economies, create employment and wealth and ensure that wealth is fairly shared.  That’s the Labor way.  It’s the Country Labor way.

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