Last night, we saw hefty levels of spending declared for regional Australia in glossy budget brochures: $15 billion over 10 years for rail and road projects, a quarter of a billion dollars dropped into the coffers of the Building Better Regions Fund, $130 million into the regional connectivity fund for NBN and mobile black spots, and $630 million to improve access to aged care in the regions—with no detail about how that will actually happen.
The Treasurer might be denying it, but the government have the next election firmly in sight with this budget.
On face value, these announcements sound great. I’ve been calling for this level of investment in regional aged care, infrastructure and telecommunications since I was elected.
The pent-up demand in my electorate of Indi is massive. It’s crucial that we don’t leave the regions behind as the economy starts to lift. We must have reliable connectivity. We must have great transport. We must have equitable health care.
But if we spend big we have to spend smart. And I’m not convinced that the way the government is doling out cash gives us the best bang for our buck. I’m not convinced that there is any semblance of a plan or any measures or targets for success.
First up, we’ve got no strategy for regional Australia whatsoever. I sit on the Regional Australia Committee, as do many of my colleagues who’ll be speaking on this motion in this chamber. That committee has been calling on this government to write a white paper for the regions for over half a decade now. In that time, not one federal government minister has lifted a pen to initiate one.
A white paper would consult deeply. It would look objectively at opportunities for growth and prosperity in the regions and identify game-changing, long-term investments. Right now, all we seem to get are ministerial pet projects and slush funds that scattergun funding with no clear rhyme nor reason. Without a strategy, we’re simply riding blind. We have no targets for what success looks like.
Second, we’ve got no integrity commission. I was gobsmacked to see zero dollars and zero staff given to the government’s promised integrity commission last night. This government has all but abandoned its election commitment on integrity, at a time when billions of dollars in public funds are going out the door. This is simply unacceptable, and people in regional Australia find it simply unacceptable too.
In the lead-up to the last election, the Building Better Regions Fund awarded 94 per cent of grants to coalition seats or marginal seats targeted by the coalition, and the Auditor-General is preparing to conduct a performance audit of the Building Better Regions Fund this year. I’ll be watching that very closely, and I’ll be watching this new $250 million very closely too before the next election.
Third, we have no way of tracking announcements and making sure they turn into real results on the ground. More than 85 per cent of the $700 million promised for regional aged care last night won’t hit the ground until after the next election.
Families whose loved ones are affected by aged-care shortages in towns of my electorate—towns like Bright, Euroa and Alexandra—don’t care about big announcements. What they care about is delivery on the ground, more residential aged-care beds in their own towns, not having to drive hours down the road. They care about knowing that their loved ones will have skilled nurses and carers by their side.
That’s why I introduced the budget honesty bill last sitting. That bill would make sure everyday people could track announcements and see if the government gloss was turning into real results for their communities and towns.
Indi knows what undelivered election promises look like. Right before the last election, this government committed $64 million to a hero project outside Wodonga: the McKoy Street overpass. A year on, with no plans developed and no shovels in the ground, the government announced another $104 million in the October budget. Wodonga waited another six months only to learn on Monday that the government needs until 2022 before it even gets started. Announcements mean nothing unless they deliver.
Later this week I’ll launch a budget survey asking my constituents what they think of the budget and I’ll be meeting with the Prime Minister and ministers to raise the concerns of the people of Indi. The glossies are nice, but our regions deserve and rightfully expect real results.