Aug 27, 2020






Yesterday, I had a look back at the speech I delivered at The Daily Telegraph’s Bush Summit in Dubbo in July last year.


That day I talked about the resilience and spirit I saw in the faces of the people of rural and regional Australia. I talked about their courage, given that 97 per cent of NSW was suffering from drought.


Little did we know back then exactly how sternly that resilience and spirit would be tested in 2020. Today more than three quarters of NSW is still drought declared.


In summer, bushfires ravaged large parts of the nation, tragically taking 33 lives, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and devastating our precious fauna and flora.


Then came the health and economic disaster of the coronavirus.


Yet despite all this, when I visit rural and regional areas, I see that same resilience and spirit … partially obscured by surgical masks, it prevails.


Every person on earth has been touched by the coronavirus. More than 800,000 people have died, including more than 500 Australians.


Hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs.


Yet somehow, the human and economic costs in this country, as huge as they have been, have not been as great as those in many other nations.


This is because Australians have worked together. We’ve all dug deep to help those affected by drought.


During the bushfires, volunteer bushfire fighters spent weeks or even months away from their day jobs and their homes to help fight the terror and destruction raining down on regional families. Australians have obeyed the strict rules that have allowed our nation to manage coronavirus much better than most other nations.


We’ve gone shopping for our vulnerable neighbours, we’ve made sure the homeless had a roof over their heads.


And our frontline heroes — doctors and nurses, cleaners, delivery drivers and supermarket workers — have been magnificent.


During this time of national crisis, the contribution of rural and regional Australians has been extraordinary.


With urban economies hard hit, our farmers and miners have kept the national economy ticking over.


As Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe recently told the House of Representatives economics committee:

“The resource sector has been largely unaffected and sections of the agricultural sector are doing well. In fact, one of the concerns in the agricultural sector right now are in fact labour shortages, especially with closure of the borders.’’


However, Dr Lowe also noted the challenges faced in regional areas like north Queensland, which is heavily reliant on tourism.


The economic impacts of coronavirus — the stories of success and adversity — remind us of the importance of the bush to our national economy as well as the need to exploit its incredible potential for future prosperity.


Emerging middle classes in the nations of our region, particularly China and India, offer huge opportunities for exports of food, fibre and wines. And the industrial demands of these nations will continue to provide opportunities for our resources industry.


But if we get the policies right, we can secure far greater benefits for our regions.


Serious action on climate change, which is backed by every serious organisation in the nation other than the Morrison government, will also open up great opportunities in the renewable energy sector.


With the right policies, we can turn our nation into a renewable energy superpower, boosting exports while creating jobs in Australia and driving economic growth across our entire economy.


Life after coronavirus also demands a recognition that the rural and regional economies are not only about agriculture and resources — these economies are diverse and with the right policies can become even broader.


One of the big lessons of COVID is that Australians can work from home. Remote work reduces business overheads, boosts efficiency and improves people’s quality of life. But governments can do more to help.


Coronavirus has taught us how important it is to have world-class communication networks and highlighted the folly of the current government’s rejection of fibre-to-the premises broadband.


With the right telecommunications infrastructure, more people can work remotely. And more businesses based in cities could consider the option of moving to regional cities to take advantage of lower overheads.


We must also work harder to improve road and rail links between cities and our regions.


Infrastructure projects create jobs and economic activity during construction. If they are the right projects, they also boost productivity and lead to further job creation.


Rural and regional Australians need a government prepared to back their economic development, a government that doesn’t just make grand announcements, but actually delivers.


Last year at The Daily Telegraph Bush Summit in Dubbo, Scott Morrison declared: “I’m announcing that Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie will draw together a national plan to enable agriculture, fisheries and forestry to become a $100bn industry by 2030.’’


A year on, Mr Morrison has not delivered this plan. He has not even mentioned it.


Anthony Albanese is leader of the Australian Labor Party


This opinion piece was first published on The Daily Telegraph on Thursday, 27 August 2020