Jan 23, 2019

Opinion – We’re all for boosting regional Australia, but it must start with jobs – The Australian – Wednesday, 23 January 2019

As our population tops 25 million, our nation must promote growth in our regions so they can absorb some of the pressure causing congestion and crowding in our cities.

Decentralisation of population growth is a matter of bipartisan political agreement. The Morrison government says it wants to force migrants to settle in regional areas, rather than Sydney, Melbourne or southeast Queensland.

But there is something missing in the Coalition’s approach: jobs.

The problem is that many regional areas suffer from high unemployment. Forcing migrants to settle in communities where there are no jobs solves nothing.

What is required is a genuine decentralisation program, with regional jobs at its core.

That’s where infrastructure investment comes in.

New rail and road projects not only create jobs in the short term, they also boost productivity, which is the key to unlocking long-term, sustainable jobs growth.

For the past five years the ­Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has cut infrastructure investment and routinely broken its promises about how much it will spend.

The government’s own budget documents show it has failed to deliver almost $5 billion in infrastructure investment that it announced in its first five budgets.

Critically, the smaller states — those with the greatest potential to absorb population growth — have been worst affected. South Australia has been short-changed by $337 million, Western Australia by $556m, Tasmania by $132m and the Northern Territory by $256m.

Even programs specifically designed to boost economic growth in the regions have been drastically underspent.

For example, the Coalition has announced $520m for the Northern Australia Roads Program since 2015 but delivered just $290m.

Unbelievably, the underfunding of regional infrastructure is about to get worse.

Budget forward estimates show overall federal infrastructure grants to states will plummet over each of the next four years from $7bn in 2017-18 to $4.5bn in 2021-22.

But the biggest cuts will affect the smaller states.

South Australia’s federal grants will fall from $800m last year to $136m by 2020-21. Across the same period, grants to the Northern Territory will fall from $222m to $80m. Grants to Western Australia will fall from $1.2bn to just $411m in 2021-22.

None of this helps if our aim is to create jobs in regional Australia. Indeed, the Morrison government’s policy settings work against regional development.

Labor would take a different approach. We understand there is no point asking people to live in areas where they can’t find work. We’ll lift infrastructure investment in the regions, boosting productivity and also improving quality of life for their existing residents.

One project that will make a difference on the east coast is a high-speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

Such a link will revolutionise interstate travel, allowing people to move between capitals in less than three hours.

What is less understood is the project’s potential impact on regional development. It would supercharge development of communities along its route such as the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the NSW central coast, the southern highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

Bringing these communities to within short travelling distance of their nearest capital cities would make them more attractive locations for investment. Business owners could establish operations in such communities, taking advantage of their lower overheads, safe in the knowledge that their staff could quickly access the cities for business and recreation.

Labor also would establish a $1bn northern Australia tourism infrastructure fund to provide fin­ancing and concessional loans for tourism projects. Tourism provides jobs for a million Australians. We can build on that.

Communications infrastructure also is critical for regional development. One of the Coalition government’s worst errors has been scaling back the former Labor government’s National Broadband Network.

Providing 21st-century broadband to businesses in rural and regional areas would be a game-changer. It would banish the tyranny of distance as an impediment to jobs growth by giving businesses access to the full potential of the global market. While much of the damage is done on the NBN, a Labor government would strive to ensure all Australians, regardless of where they live, have a chance to be full participants in the global economy.

Our intention is to work with state governments and regional communities to transform regional Australia.

Most important, that program would be backed by the infrastructure investment required to make it work.


This piece was first published in The Australian today  2017: https://bit.ly/2R6MEjS