As Regional Development Minister during Labor’s first term, I had the pleasure of meeting individuals and communities across the nation. But there’s a particular day in early 2010 that sticks in my mind. I’d spent the one before it in Coffs Harbour opening an adventure playground, then in Gladstone announcing funding for the airport before flying to Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria to open an airstrip. After a tropical breakfast the next day, we drove to Normanton for a meeting with the Mayor. Next stop was Charleville to open its renovated Town Hall. Then to Mildura to open a refurbished swimming pool at nearby Merbein. I finished the exhausting but rewarding day at Ballarat for a community cabinet meeting. If ever I needed reminding how vast this country was, that day was it.
It is one of the most important jobs in Government, so it was with a sense of privilege and enthusiasm that I accepted the Prime Minister’s invitation to once again grab the reins of regional development and local government. Having established the Regional Development Australia network as well as the Australian Council of Local Government, it is a great opportunity to work closely again with these important regional bodies. Both portfolios complement the infrastructure and transport responsibilities.
There is no better proof of Labor’s concern for the regions than the roll out of the National Broadband Network which bridges the divide between regional and metropolitan Australia like nothing else. Wherever you live, you will have rapid access to the digital superhighway connecting you to services and business opportunities anywhere in the world.
It will also be equally affordable. It won’t matter if you are in Mt Gambier or Fitzroy, Mt Isa or Paddington, everyone will pay the same price for super-speed fibre optic broadband. Three-quarters of the roll-out so far has been in regional Australia. Under our priority program, we have targeted five links, the longest being from Darwin to Toowoomba via Katherine, Tennant Creek, Longreach, Emerald and Roma. In fact, 100 regional towns and cities in six States and Territories have so far been connected under this program, benefitting almost half a million Australians. Not only is the NBN good for business, it also opens up a new world of e-health and educational opportunities, in doing so helping to overcome historian Geoffrey Blainey’s famous dictum, ‘the tyranny of distance’.
Regional Australia has been the biggest beneficiary of our $36 billion Nation Building Program. We’ve paid special attention to that great workhorse of the 19th and early 20th century: rail, recognising its unique capacity to meet the needs of the 21st century. There are enormous environmental, safety and efficiency benefits in transferring freight off roads and onto rail which is why we have increased investment ten-fold. This includes rebuilding more than one-third of the nation’s rail freight network, making it now feasible for companies such as Australia Post and Woolworths to return freight to rail. The long-held dream of many for an Inland Rail Line linking Melbourne to Brisbane via Parkes is also a step closer with $300 million announced last year for planning and environmental assessments, land acquisition and community consultation.
We’ve also doubled spending on regional highways and country roads. The benefits of this investment are hard to over-estimate. For example, I was in Kempsey earlier this month opening the latest section of the Pacific Highway. This fully-federally funded 14.5 kilometres of highway (which includes the longest bridge in Australia) will remove at least 2,000 trucks each day from Kempsey streets. Shortly, work will begin on the next stage of the highway duplication, the 27 kilometres that straddles Clybucca, the scene in 1989 of the worst bus crash in Australian history. We’ve also overseen the building of a vast chain of additional rest stops for our nation’s truck drivers and have fixed several hundred dangerous black spots, both programs saving lives by making our nation’s roads safer for everyone.
Through Labor’s Economic Stimulus Package that kept Australia from recession during the Global Financial Crisis, towns across the country have received historic assistance to renovate schools, libraries, community halls, sports fields and parklands. Our record investment in regional hospitals has also ensured that regional Australians receive better care closer to home.
Regional Australia is the cornerstone of our national prosperity. It is the generator of almost three-quarter of our export earnings and this will only grow in response to galloping demand from our Asian neighbours for our produce and resources. Building on this growth is key to our future. The Australian Labor Party began its life with a meeting of like-minded people in the shade of a tree at Barcaldine in Western Queensland more than 120 years ago. We have never forgotten our roots in regional Australia.