The last few years have been tough for parts of regional Australia: the prolonged drought, the worst bushfires in history, the worst floods in memory, the tourism industry smashed and border communities cut in two during COVID-19.
But, even before this, regional Australia got a pretty raw deal from federal government. The metrics tell us so.
Regional Australians have lower life expectancy, lower incomes, poorer health outcomes, poorer education outcomes and less access to child care, aged care and job opportunities than our city cousins. The brutal truth is that none of this has changed in years. The National and Liberal Parties represent most places in regional Australia, and they have been in power for most of the last 30 years, yet still nothing has fundamentally changed.
Why not? I want to give you a sense of some of the guff that’s going on, guff that regional Australians are mighty sick of.
In Parliament we have this thing called the regional Australia committee. When I came to this place I couldn’t wait to join it. I really thought: ‘This is the committee that I need to be on to do something tangible for regional Australia.’
The point of the committee is to hear from witnesses about what they think the regions need; to make official visits all across the country to factories, farms, workplaces, hospitals and all sorts of places; and, ultimately, to make policy recommendations to the government.
In the previous Parliament, the regional Australia committee held public hearings in every state and territory and received a total of 196 good faith submissions. It produced a report that made 13 recommendations to government, including establishing a white paper for regional Australia. I expected when I came here that I’d roll up my sleeves and get right into the results of that white paper. A white paper is supposed to set out a broad policy framework for an issue that is bipartisan and can guide the actions of governments for many, many years.
Without an overarching strategy like a white paper, we have no real direction. What industries does the government see as underpinning the economy of regional Australia in the future? How do we build the population of our regional towns and cities and make the right investments in housing, health, education and transport, so these communities are not overwhelmed? These are the types of questions that a white paper would give answers to.
But the government took no action. Instead, a new committee was set up to review the recommendations of the previous committee. Then, when the second committee finished its report in March 2019, the government refused to release it, because they didn’t want to implement any of those recommendations.
When I was elected to Parliament, just two months after that report was finished, I asked the government, in good faith: ‘Can I see it?’
Not only did they refuse but they actively covered up the report. I had to resort to forcing the government to release it through a Senate order in July 2020, almost 18 months after it was first written. As I suspected, none of the recommendations had been actioned. The big one—to develop a white paper for regional Australia—had been completely disregarded. But the worst part is that the regional Australia committee of this House is now conducting a new, third, pretty much identical inquiry into regional Australia.
So let’s be clear about this. The last Parliament did a review into regional Australia; that report was ignored. The government then called for a review of that review, and that review was ignored. Now they’re conducting a third review. And what do we expect they’ll do with that one? That’ll be three reviews into the exact same thing over five years, with none of the recommendations actually implemented. It’s exasperating!
And if you think I’m frustrated, how do you think regional Australians are feeling? It’s a massive slap in the face to every single person in regional Australia who took the time to write to those inquiries or to front up—often nervously, but filled with hope—to speak to a committee hearing.
Do you know what I hear from people when I travel around my electorate of Indi? They think that politicians just care about grandstanding and talkfests and never-ending politics just for the sake of it. Well, it’s little wonder. And I hate to say that, after spending almost two years in this place, more and more it feels like they’re right. And I hate that. This isn’t true about all politicians, to be sure.
But I really have to ask the question: really, how much do we truly care about regional Australia and how much do our regional MPs really care enough to stand up to the government, to not be silent and to actually call for recommendations to be put in place when they are made?
People tell me they don’t believe that government really understands what life is like in the regions and that decisions are made by people who neither know us nor care about us. And seeing legislation and policy get made up close, I’m fearful that at times they’re really right about that.
An example of this is the prolonged border closure that was inflicted on our communities by the New South Wales government. It’s a most painful and recent example. The New South Wales Premier shut the border, with very little notice, and promised there would be a permit system, but, when we woke up to a closed border, the permit system was a complete shambles. People’s lives were totally torn apart.
Then, over the next few months, as the New South Wales government slowly added postcodes to the list of border communities, it was extremely clear that decisions were being made in Sydney about how our local communities worked without asking us. Frustration and despair—despair—still permeate as a result of those decisions, and businesses are still suffering from border closures.
When the government announced the bushfire recovery fund, it said that small businesses in the Towong and Alpine shires were eligible for those $10,000 bushfire recovery grants, but not small businesses in other severely impacted bushfire communities like Indigo, Wangaratta or Mansfield who’d had a huge impact from these fires.
Again, what stings about this is not just that they got it wrong but that they didn’t ask the people who lived there and were impacted by the fires. It took months of work with local mayors to unpack that and finally get it right. And I’m really pleased that we finally did get it right.
Then we saw the government call a royal commission into the bushfires, talking big about how we could never again let the disaster of last summer happen. But then, when the commission actually delivered its report, the government offered what really looked like a mealy-mouthed response, about ‘noting’ recommendations for an aerial firefighting fleet or supporting ‘in principle’ the recommendation for a single national bushfire warning app, or supporting in principle ‘the objective of’ the recommendation for a national register of firefighting equipment’.
Do you know what all that bureaucratic-speak actually means? Well, I do, and I reckon a lot of regional Australians do too.
‘Noting’ recommendations or supporting them ‘in principle’—well, that actually means no. It means no sovereign aerial firefighting fleet. It means they’re not developing a single national bushfire warning app. It means they’re not creating a national register of firefighting equipment. It means that, after 240 inquiries into natural disasters, this is just another way to happily disregard recommendations when those recommendations get hard. The government doesn’t even have the courage to look bushfire survivors in the eye and tell them straight up: ‘That’s a no’.
We see the Deputy Prime Minister flying into Wangaratta last Friday literally so he could announce that the long-awaited $235 million upgrade to the North East Rail line is complete. Well, hurray!
Except it’s actually not complete and it won’t be complete for another few months. And, even once the infrastructure works are complete, the new trains, which are really the things that are going to make a difference to the reliability and the quality of the service, won’t be operational for months after that. We have to get the signalling right. We have to get the testing right. This is not complete yet.
And there’s still no guarantee from the Deputy Prime Minister that the maintenance of this line will be taken care of—no guarantee at all. We could be standing on that same train line again in a few years time, with the same old problems, because the Deputy Prime Minister will not give a guarantee that it will be maintained at the level that we need.
In Wangaratta, the Deputy Prime Minister told us his cute story once more that you could live like a king or queen in regional Australia, with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a three-car garage and a huge backyard. It sounds incredible—except Wangaratta is a town where house prices have gone up 13 per cent, or $40,000, in a single year.
With the influx of cashed-up people from the cities, there is not much room for locals left trying to buy or rent a home. This means locals are desperately looking for rentals. It means there’s a real problem for our workforce, who cannot find anywhere to rent and live. Okay, sure, it’s a two-way street. This will be good news for anyone who already owns a house. But, for young families or single young people looking for a place of their own, this just means they’re pushed out of the market. If you’d been saving, say, $30,000 for a 10 per cent deposit, then the price of your house has just gone up by that amount. To see the Deputy Prime Minister celebrating this just showed he was completely out of touch, and plenty of people told me so. Where is the housing strategy for rural and regional Australia?
We saw the Minister for Health swooping into Wodonga in the immediate wake of the fires, promising $500,000 to fund two mental health nurses in the Upper Murray region. And yet, over a year later, that promise has turned out to be completely empty. No money has ever come through. I’ve followed up and followed up, as has the chief executive officer of Corryong Health, and we’re still waiting.
In a region where it’s basically impossible to get mental health support, where it is chronically underfunded, to come in chasing the spotlight with an announcement and then exit stage right when it comes to delivering is completely inexcusable.
We see a government that, when our community was torn in two by the border closure, didn’t even pretend to care. In fact, they played politics about the Victorian government. Because the New South Wales state government are a Liberal government and it was them who closed the border, the federal government didn’t say or do a thing. Instead, they bashed Victoria. I wrote to the Prime Minister. I begged him to do something at national cabinet about border closures, but there was silence—silence about the lived reality of border communities.
Those communities are still hurting. They have not forgotten. It’s caused anxiety and huge trauma, and crippled local businesses. Our young people are hurting. Okay, so the government funded some help, the HeadtoHelp service in Wodonga, as a COVID measure, and I was pleased about that.
But again it’s a reaction and it’s a drop in the bucket. That service and all the mental health services in Wodonga are totally oversubscribed. I cannot begin to say how concerning this is, how worrying this is, what a blight this is on our society, that we cannot give people the mental health support that they so desperately need. There is an extreme lack of support for people with eating disorders. If you’re on the border and you have an eating disorder, then you need to go to Melbourne.
There is literally zero sub-acute mental health care for young people anywhere in our region. So where are the federal government? Where is the plan for this for regional Australia? Where’s the rural health strategy that our overworked doctors and nurses and allied health professionals have been calling for? Where is it?
We’re not asking for much. We just want to have a fair go. We want a level playing field, because too often the regions miss out on the absolute basics, and it’s putting our families and our communities under stress.
Just today, I met a woman who told me that she left her rural community for good. Because she had breast cancer and needed treatment and she could not get the treatment she needed in her rural community, she has moved to the city, and she said she won’t be coming back. What a loss. But she did that to save her own life.
We don’t want a government that does everything for us. But we do want a government that takes the reins when they need to. When the going gets tough you need to turn up.
In my submission to the federal Budget coming up in May, I recommended dozens of clear and practical actions that the government could quickly take to do better by our region, positive actions that drive prosperity.
I have talked in this place before about the Australian Local Power Agency and the opportunity for the regions to truly benefit from renewable energy. I have talked in this place before about the tourism opportunities, opportunities like the Winton raceway and its proposed museum and heritage centre for the Holden Museum. We could do this. But a little museum in a country town is not that groovy. It gets ignored. It’s these kinds of things that make a difference to a local community.
We could fund, right now, if the government had the will to do it, community based mental health services in towns like Myrtleford, King Lake, Alexandra, Wodonga. A program like Be Well in the Ranges, which wound up in December due to a lack of funding, should absolutely have been funded. In the grand scheme of the Budget it would cost tuppence.
The government could immediately provide home-care packages for everyone accessing one, and it could do something about the workforce that I know we need to make those home-care packages a reality. It could do more for young people to get them in the workplace. Right now the government’s flagship JobMaker scheme has got just 500 people into jobs across Australia.
How about we put some of that $4 billion into our local regional workforces, train mental health professionals, train aged-care workers, train more tradies and really give a boost to regional Australia?
How about funding the Wodonga TAFE youth foyer, which could provide homes for young people who right now are choosing not to go into tertiary education because their families have been smashed by the disasters of the past 12 months and they can’t afford to leave home? We need to do something about it.
I came here as a regional Australian to do something about it. I call on the government to work with me and other regional MPs. Stand up, be heard, and let’s do something for regional Australia.