In the famous speech launching his 1969 election campaign, Gough Whitlam laid out the mission of the Australian Labor Party in the clearest possible terms.
Whitlam said Labor was about providing opportunity.
Not just for some.
Opportunity for all.
Whitlam argued that if any Australian was denied opportunity by poverty, education or some other factor, our entire nation was diminished.
The nation is the poorer—a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.
Tonight I want to talk about the extent to which rural and regional Australians are denied full access to opportunity in this country.
We know that generally, health and education standards are lower in the bush than in the cities.
So are wage levels.
Rural and regional areas often feature high levels of unemployment and poverty.
That’s a waste of human talent.
These inequities diminish our nation.
In decades past, some people accepted inferior services and reduced opportunity as the unavoidable cost of living outside the big city.
But that’s changing.
In the 21st Century, technology offers us opportunities to re-imagine rural and regional Australia in ways that enhance equity and promote prosperity.
Tonight I want to lay out what I see as the way forward for the Labor Party in rural and regional Australia.
My starting point is that flawed policy approaches and a lack of vision by the current Government are preventing our nation from exploiting opportunities to super-charge economic growth outside our cities.
We all know that in the wake of the decline of the investment boom in the mining sector, our nation needs to diversify our economic base.
That’s a challenge.
But when it comes to rural and regional Australia, this need to diversify also offers huge opportunities for growth in existing export sectors as well as the development of new industries.
To make the most of those opportunities, we need to get the policy settings right.
For example, we must invest in infrastructure to ensure our railways, roads and ports can support a broadening of the economy.
We also need a first-rate National Broadband Network, not the second-rate copper Fraudband system of Malcolm Turnbull.
We need to fund education and training in rural and regional Australia on the basis of need to ensure today’s children are ready for the jobs of tomorrow.
And most importantly, if we are serious about re-imagining our regions, we need to accept that unchecked climate change is a threat to our economic future as well as our natural environment.
We need to tackle it front on, not pretend it does not exist.
There was a time in this nation when the bush was a stronghold for the Australian Labor Party.
In the forthcoming federal election, and in the years that follow, Labor must seek to reclaim the bush.
That will not be easy.
But my point tonight is that in 2016, Labor’s policies and our willingness to think long-term put us in a great place to take on the Coalition in the bush.
We need to select energetic candidates like our candidate for Riverina, Tim Kurylowicz.
We need to be positive.
We need to show vision.
And we need to demonstrate the practical benefits of Labor’s program for those who live outside capital cities.
I was delighted to be invited to deliver the 10th Eddie Graham Address.
Eddie was a lion of the Riverina – a successful farmer and an astute politician who understood the value of strong local representation and keeping close contact with his electorate.
Born in 1897 and educated locally, as a young man Eddie became a
butcher and a highly successful pig farmer who established the Kinilibah Stud.
After William McKell claimed the Labor leadership in NSW in 1939, he sought to lift Labor’s stocks outside of cities by recruiting rural people with strong links to their local communities.
McKell drafted Eddie, who beat the Country Party incumbent to claim the seat of Wagga Wagga in 1941.
He held it until his death in 1957.
After only one term Eddie was appointed Agriculture Minister – a post he held for a record 14 years.
He pushed hard against vested interests in the cities to establish four regional abattoirs, including one in Wagga Wagga, as well as improved grain storage facilities around the state.
He delivered teaching and technical colleges to his electorate and insisted on better schools.
As his community grew, his advocacy led to the establishment of maternity units to the Wagga Wagga and Junee Hospitals.
It’s clear Eddie was steeped in Labor values – a man whose ambition was to spread opportunity.
He was born at a time when people made their own opportunities, clearing the land for new towns and developing businesses and communities off their own wits.
But by the time he was in politics, he understood that our obligation is to harness prosperity to provide opportunities for future generations.
That heritage of fairness and opportunity informs modern Labor.
We celebrate success.
We encourage enterprise.
We want businesses – big and small – to be successful because they create jobs and produce revenues governments can use to spread opportunity.
Our opponents see prosperity as an end in itself, not as the means by which to spread fairness.
Even when they purport to deliver reform aimed at helping low and middle-income earners, their actions are calibrated for political outcomes, not fairness.
In the recent Budget, the Government extended the threshold for the second highest taxation level from $80,000 to $87,000.
This, we were told, was about tax relief for people who most needed tax relief.
But research from the Australia Institute shows that of the 10 federal electorates to receive the least benefit from the proposed shift, eight are in rural and regional Australia and four are held by the Nationals.
Here in Riverina 91 per cent of wage earners earn less than $80,000.
So they don’t get a tax cut.
Yet when you look at the electorates that gain the most benefit, the top five are Liberal-held city seats and the seat to receive the most benefit is Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth.
It’s followed closely by North Sydney, Warringah, Curtin and Bradfield.
This is not a tax cut. It is a political strategy to shore up seats in cities.
And it came in the same Budget in which the Government gave people earning $1 million a year a $17,000 tax cut.
The Budget contained a tax cut for those with incomes of more than $180,000.
Ninety-four percent of that tax cut goes to the top 1 per cent of income earners.
Those are the priorities of the Liberal Party and the Nationals.
My colleague Andrew Leigh, Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer and a first-class economist, has calculated that between 1980 and 2014, the income share of our top 1 percent of income earners doubled, while that of the top 0.1 percent tripled.
Dr Leigh has also calculated that the richest three people in Australia have more combined wealth than the combined wealth of the poorest one million Australians.
That’s not acceptable.
The Labor Party must keep hammering away at the issue of fairness, all over the country, but particularly in rural and regional Australia.
While the conservatives serve their friends at the top end of town, including the top end of every country town, Labor policies are aimed directly at giving everyone a fair go.
That’s why it is so important that we ensure that children in rural and regional Australia have access to the same quality of education as is available in the cities.
Education is not just a benefit to the individual.
Ensuring that every child has a chance to be his or her best helps our entire community.
Tolerating a situation where isolation is allowed to prevent that is not only unfair to the individual, but also fails to develop all of the human resources available to our nation as a whole.
For all we know, there are children in this country today with the potential to cure cancer or end hunger.
We need to make sure all children have the tools at their disposal to achieve their full potential.
That’s why a Shorten Labor Government would invest an additional $1.8 billion into schools in regional Australia to deliver equity on education.
That’s in addition to the fact that Labor’s existing need-based school funding model has a weighting toward rural and regional schools.
Of the extra two years funding the Coalition refuses to deliver, in breach of its 2013 election promise, half of the extra funding would go to rural and regional schools despite those schools having about a third of all students.
NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK
Fairness also demands broad access to the latest communications technology.
The former Labor Government proposed delivering high-speed broadband via fibre to the home or business premises at no cost to the individual.
In the 21st Century, high-speed broadband should be seen as an essential service, like water or electricity.
It’s a requirement of the technological age, in which connectivity is essential.
If we are smart, we can use the NBN to reduce the relevance of the tyranny of distance.
It offers great potential for rural and regional businesses to bypass traditional distribution systems.
It will also allow small businesses to take advantage of lower rents outside cities and to establish themselves in the regions, creating new jobs and new opportunities for those communities.
It can be the great enabler.
Yet under the Coalition’s Fraudband network, the great communities of regional Australia will not receive fibre to the premises, but fibre to a metal box on a street corner.
Fraudband offers half the Internet speeds that were promised at twice the price.
If we do only half a job, we will hold back development at the very time when we need use every tool at our disposal to reshape our economy.
And of course, rural and regional Australia will miss out on the full range of life-improving opportunities NBN applications in education and health.
The Coalition has mishandled the project.
And when information about its failures leaked, it called the police, even though it seemed to have no concerns about the leakage of its own Budget and important documents from the National Security Committee of the Cabinet about submarines in March.
The NBN leak led to a raid and search of the home of a Labor staffer which started about 11pm and continued until after 5am.
We all know that while Labor proposes to deliver fibre-based broadband, Mr Turnbull is delivering a copper-based system.
But when he talked about sending coppers to the home, no-one knew he meant it literally.
It’s also important that when governments invest in improved communications infrastructure, they invest on the basis of need, not on the basis of the electoral map.
I note that the Coalition recently announced some extra funding to address mobile telephone black spots outside cities.
That’s a good thing.
But it needs to be fairly applied.
Of the 499 mobile towers funded in Round one of the Mobile Black Spot Program, as of May 21, only 21 had actually been activated.
And of those 499, 416 are in Coalition electorates.
Here in Riverina 329 black spots have been reported but only nine have been earmarked for improvement.
In the Victorian Labor-held seat of McEwen, which is one of the most-fire prone areas in the nation, only two towers were proposed under the Mobile Black Spots program, despite 95 Black Spots having been identified across the electorate.
That’s not fair. It betrays a lack of vision.
This lack of vision is also evident in the Coalition’s irresponsible approach to climate change.
You can barely turn on the television or radio these days without reports of rural producers who are experiencing the effects of climate change.
It might be more frequent extreme weather events, shifts in seasonal patterns or the march of pests from Queensland southward with increases in temperature.
Even Barnaby Joyce, a long-time climate change sceptic, has acknowledged there is a problem.
The NSW Farmers Federation acknowledges the threats of climate change, amending its policy last year to call on governments to facilitate a shift away from the use of fossil fuels.
That’s the correct response to the challenge of climate change – adopting measures to actually reduce carbon emissions.
A market-based emissions trading system is the most logical way to do that.
Malcolm Turnbull used to agree.
Indeed, he once said he did not want to be part of any government that did not take climate change seriously.
Now he leads a government that does not take climate change seriously.
He is wedded to Tony Abbott’s approach of paying polluters and picking around the edges of the issue instead of showing leadership.
Mr Turnbull knows that climate change threatens our economy.
He knows it is particular threat to our agricultural industries and that we need those industries to grow to meet the burgeoning demand for food out of China, India and the rest of Asia.
Yet last September, overcome by hubris, Mr Turnbull traded in his convictions for the keys to the Lodge.
One of the keys to an economic resurgence in Australia is the provision of first-rate infrastructure.
On that score, Labor has a great story to tell.
Between 2007 and 2013, Labor 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 1st.
We doubled the roads Budget, finished the duplication of the Hume Highway and significantly boosted investment on the Bruce and Pacific Highways.
We 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.
We provided $300 million to advance the important Inland Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne and invested $600 million on improving parts of the existing rail network earmarked for inclusion in Inland Rail.
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.
They cut investment in the Bruce and Pacific Highways.
And despite promising in 2013 they would “fast-track’’ Inland Rail, their first two budgets did not include one dollar beyond that inherited from the former Labor Government’s 2011 Budget.
So much for fast-tracking.
Inland Rail would be a boon for this region.
By allowing people to get products to market more quickly, it would allow us to expand existing export industries in this part of the world and promote the development of new industries.
In this year’s Budget, announced last month, the Government finally allocated some funds to Inland Rail.
But we still have no starting date.
As John F Kennedy once said:
Things don’t happen. They are made to happen.
It is time to make Inland Rail happen.
The planning has all been done.
This project should be under construction.
HIGH SPEED RAIL
True leadership requires us to imagine a better future and then to take action to create that future.
One of my biggest disappointments during the past three years has been the government’s inaction on a project that I believe has the potential to turbo charge regional development in this nation for decades to come.
I’m referring to a High Speed Rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
This ambitious project would revolutionise interstate travel, allowing people to move between capital cities in as little as three hours.
But more importantly, it would boost the economies of the regional cities along its route, including here in Wagga Wagga.
The former Labor Government conducted a study which found High Speed Rail was feasible.
It would return, for example, more than $2 in public benefit for every dollar invested on the Sydney to Melbourne leg.
The study proposed stations for the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton as well as Wagga Wagga.
Having a High Speed Rail line on your doorstep here in Wagga Wagga would open up unprecedented economic opportunities.
Wagga Wagga would be the key stop between Sydney and Melbourne, meaning all services would stop here.
It’s not just about giving you quicker access to Sydney and Melbourne.
It would mean businesses located here could have quicker access to those markets.
And critically, it would mean people could set up businesses here or move their city-based businesses here to take advantage of lower costs, while still having ready access to city markets.
It would also boost tourism in your region.
Just like the Inland Rail, it’s time to get cracking.
The former Labor Government proposed establishing a High Speed Rail Authority to co-ordinate planning between the governments of Queensland, the ACT, NSW and Victoria.
The authority would also have begun acquiring the corridor to prevent it being built out by urban sprawl.
However, the incoming Coalition government dumped that plan and has refused to facilitate debate on any of my three attempts to advance the idea via a private member’s bill.
If Labor wins the July 2 election, we’ll establish a High Speed Rail Authority.
And we’ll ask it to move toward seeking expressions of interest from the many international railway companies that have the expertise to deliver this project.
A project like High Speed Rail requires us to show vision.
It means thinking beyond the next election and seeing the process of governing as nation building, not just for today, but for the future.
While our opponents see governing as an exercise in protecting vested interests, we understand that it is within our power to make decisions that can directly improve the lives of individuals and communities.
We have a choice to get moving on High Speed Rail and Inland Rail.
If we do, future generations will thank us, just as we thank Ben Chifley for his vision in pursuing the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Vision is important.
In 2016 we in the Labor Party must apply the same vision right across the policy spectrum when it comes to rural and regional Australia.
Like our opponents, we believe our nation needs to broaden its economy.
Our country needs to be more than a quarry and rural and regional Australia will be critical as we seek to expand existing sectors and create new in industries.
But if we are serious about that, we need to think big and demonstrate our vision by advancing practical policies that will make a difference.
We need to do exactly what Gough Whitlam talked about in 1969 – we must provide rural and regional Australia with opportunity.
We need to give it every tool of growth that is at our disposal.
Well-resourced schools and training facilities.
State of the art fibre-to-the-premises NBN, to plug regional Australia into the 21st century with all of its great opportunities.
Mobile telephone access.
We must also act on climate change.
Thanks for having me here tonight.
I always enjoy mixing visiting Labor activists outside our cities, particularly those in electorates held by our political opponents.
It takes courage and commitment to keep taking up the ball against the odds.
You sometimes do it tough.
But your enthusiasm is boundless and your efforts are highly appreciated.
In the past, Labor has not done enough to support your efforts.
But under the leadership of my colleague Joel Fitzgibbon and his Country Caucus process, we are rebuilding and seeking to strengthen Labor’s presence and effectiveness right across the bush.
I know Labor can rely on you to keep taking up the ball.
And I assure you, that for the reasons I have outlined tonight, there is no better time than the present to take on the Coalition in rural and regional Australia.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.