One issue over which there is bipartisan agreement in Australia is the need to find new drivers of jobs growth in the wake of the decline in mining investment.
Australia can no longer rely on mining to drive growth, so we must invest in innovation to build new industries, while also boosting growth in existing sectors like agriculture.
That’s a huge economic challenge. But if we get the policy settings right, it’s also a magnificent opportunity, particularly for rural and regional Australia.
Getting the policy settings right means investing in the railways, roads and communications technology that businesses need to thrive.
Fibre-based broadband is particularly important. In the 21st century, high-speed broadband can conquer the tyranny of distance, providing new opportunities for economic activity and job creation right across the nation – not just in the capital cities.
In the Turnbull Government’s first two years in office, total public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent. Indeed, Bureau of Statistics data released last month shows the value of work conducted for the public sector has been lower in each of the 12 quarters presided over by the Abbott-Turnbull governments than in any of the 21 quarters under the Rudd-Gillard governments after the first Labor budget in 2008. That’s lower in every single quarter.
The cuts have slowed the progress of important road projects around the country, including the upgrades of the Pacific and Bruce Highways, which are critical for increased productivity as well as road safety.
We also need to achieve progress on the inland rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne, which would expand freight capacity through our nation’s agricultural heartland. Building this project is a no-brainer, which was why the previous Labor Federal Government invested $600 million upgrading existing track that will form part of the line and allocated $300 million to get the project under way.
But despite the Government promising in the 2013 and 2016 election campaigns to fast-track inland rail, not a further sleeper has been laid.
Our nation should also invest in the proposed High Speed Rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra, which would turbo-charge economic development in regional Australia.
High Speed Rail would allow people to move between capitals in as little as three hours. It would slash the journey between Sydney and Canberra to 40 minutes, quicker than it takes to travel from Sydney’s suburbs to its CBD.
Delivering this project would provide new options for companies to base their operations in Canberra, reducing their costs and providing more jobs in the nation’s capital.
But that’s just Canberra. High Speed Rail would be an economic game-changer for all communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wagga Wagga, the Southern Highlands, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
It was this potential that was behind the former Labor Government’s 2013 decision to allocate $50 million to a high-speed rail authority to advance planning and begin to secure the corridor. The incoming Coalition Government scrapped that funding and, nearly four years later, has yet to outline an alternative approach, despite strong support for high-speed rail on its backbench and in the business community.
The regions also need fibre-to-the-premises broadband, not the copper-based “fraudband” at twice the price and offering half the internet speeds that were promised.
We should be using everything technology has to offer to boost growth in rural and regional Australia. In the past four years, Australian internet speeds have tumbled from 30th in the world to 60th. Second-rate broadband is not good enough, particularly for regional Australia.
When governments focus on productivity and capacity building, they can make a real difference to regional economies. For evidence, look no further than Canberra’s Majura Parkway, which was funded in 2011 and opened in April last year. This project has boosted the ACT’s productivity by diverting thousands of trucks around the Canberra CBD, ending the situation where they contributed to traffic congestion by travelling through the centre of town.
Such productivity gains are available all over regional Australia.
When governments take a short-term, hands-off approach to nation building, they miss the opportunity to build the foundations for waves of economic future growth. As John F. Kennedy said: “Things don’t happen, they are made to happen.”
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.
This opinion piece was published in today’s edition of The Canberra Times.