ADDRESS TO THE ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT (OECD)
“REGIONS, NATIONAL OBJECTIVES AND GLOBAL CHALLENGES”
31 March 2009
The Hon Anthony Albanese MP
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport,
Regional Development and Local Government,
Leader of the House,
Federal Member for Grayndler
We gather today as our nations face unprecedented economic and environmental challenges.
The deepening global economic recession is affecting all of our nations.
Internationally, the International Monetary Fund has forecast that global growth could be below zero this year.
The OECD has predicted unemployment will rise, with another 8 million people expected to be out of work over the next two years.
And as we all work to unfreeze global financial markets, climate change is warming our planet rapidly.
The old ways of doing business have hurt our economy and damaged our natural environment.
The English author Samuel Johnson once said the future is purchased by the present.
The decisions we make today will dictate the world in which we live tomorrow.
That’s why today’s meeting is important in the lead up to the G20 London Summit, which I will attend with our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer, Wayne Swan.
Today, we focus on the challenges facing our regions.
I appreciate the opportunity to give you an overview of the plans that the Australian Government is implementing to address the short-term challenges while securing our future prosperity sustainably.
We are taking decisive action to support jobs and boost economic development in Australia’s vast regional areas.
Our major cities are separated by hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres, and often harsh and inhospitable terrain.
It can take some of my parliamentary colleagues more than a day to travel by plane from their electorates to the nation’s Parliament.
To put it into perspective, the 27 member states of the European Union cover 4.2 million square kilometres and are home to 493 million people.
Australia’s 21 million residents are spread across 7.7 million square kilometres.
And as an island continent, our products and exports must travel great distances by land and sea.
More than most countries, Australia relies on its infrastructure to connect communities across our vast land mass. It supports our exports, delivering minerals, oil, gas, grain and livestock from our regions to international markets.
It was with these conditions in mind that the Labor Government made infrastructure a top priority when we came to office in November 2007.
The Government’s nation building agenda is targeted at initiatives that will increase our nation’s productivity and improve our way of life.
By this I don’t just mean building better roads and railways, important though they are.
It means recognising the role that investment in infrastructure can play on avoiding dangerous climate change and ensuring we emerge from the downturn stronger and more sustainable.
It means having a reliable supply of energy and water, affordable housing and world-class telecommunications including broadband for a population spread across a vast continent.
And it means working in close partnership with regional communities and local governments – Australia’s third tier of government – to deliver practical solutions to the challenges they face.
Soon after we came to government, we established an independent advisory council called Infrastructure Australia. Importantly, half of its members are from the private sector.
It was charged with the job of conducting an audit of nationally significant infrastructure to identify gaps and under-investment. In December last year, Infrastructure Australia provided the Government with its first audit and has this week presented a pipeline of potential projects to the government.
In anticipation of that priority list, the Government has established the Building Australia Fund, with $12.6 billion already set aside to invest in nation-building projects.
I expect this will include regional projects that are critical links in the supply chain.
Increased infrastructure investment has been at the heart of the Australian Government’s response to the global recession.
In recent months, we have set aside billions of dollars for road, rail and community infrastructure projects right across the country.
In February this year, the Government announced a $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan to invest in infrastructure and support jobs.
As a result, rural and regional communities will see substantial investment in their roads, railways and social and community facilities.
The plan will also improve the energy efficiency of houses by providing free ceiling insulation for 2.7 million homes.
It includes upgrades to every one of the 9,540 schools in Australia, delivers one-off payments to farmers and other individuals and provides tax relief for small business wanting to invest in new plant and equipment.
We are also investing $26.4 billion on the nation’s transport networks and we have accelerated work by up to 12 months on 46 key road projects.
For those familiar with Australia’s geography, these projects are in important regional centres such as Townsville, Geelong, Ballina and Bunbury.
This builds on significant funding already announced for infrastructure in last year’s national budget.
We will also invest $3.2 billion in Australia’s freight rail networks. Most of this investment is directed into regional areas. And it has started delivering results already.
Initial investment in manufacturing railway tracks has ensured sufficient work to employ 235 Australians in four regionally-based factories.
Our investment in infrastructure ranges from large-scale nation-building infrastructure to smaller local projects.
We are investing $800 million over 18 months in a Community Infrastructure Program – to fund projects in local communities.
We have already approved around 3,600 individual projects, such as town halls, local libraries, sports grounds, and community centres.
The vast majority of these projects are in Australia’s regional areas – communities with as few as 50 residents and regional towns that are home to more than 100,000 people.
These projects all differ in size and scope, but they have in common a few key elements.
They were determined by the local community.
They encourage economic development and jobs.
They improve the quality of life in local communities.
And they help build capacity in regional communities.
Infrastructure, of course, is more than roads, railways and buildings – important as they are.
The Australian Government is also committed to investing in modern infrastructure to underpin Australia’s future prosperity.
A good example of this is the roll-out of a national broadband network.
For too long Australia has suffered from an inadequate broadband coverage that is slower than most EU member countries. It inhibits our ability to compete on the world stage.
Providing world-class, high-speed broadband for all Australians will encourage innovation and increase productivity, particularly in regional Australia.
Regional Australia does not enjoy the same level of access to high speed broad band services that urban areas do.
It hinders regional businesses in particular, who need fast and reliable internet access to remain competitive with their city-based and international counterparts.
The Australian Government’s National Broadband Network will go a long way to reducing the gap between urban and regional Australia.
Our approach is consistent with the OECD’s “Investing for Growth: Building Innovative Regions Policy Report” in that it seeks to promote the comparative advantage that particular regions have.
We understand that effective infrastructure delivers an economic stimulus to our regions and our cities during difficult times.
It will underpin economic recovery.
And it is fundamental to our very way of life.
Our infrastructure reform agenda is symptomatic of our determination to provide national leadership on critical issues facing Australia.
That’s why we are pushing ahead with an emissions trading scheme to reduce carbon pollution, and grow the green jobs of the future.
Why we are working with the states to increase water flowing into our major rivers, particularly the Murray Darling Basin, the food bowl of Australia, which covers more than a million square kilometres.
And that’s why our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd will be at the G20 meeting in the United Kingdom later this week to help forge an international response to the global financial crisis.
Ever since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was established in 1961, it is has stood for helping its member countries achieve economic growth, reduce unemployment and raise living standards.
These three issues should be at the forefront of our discussions today.
If there were ever a time for international cooperation to overcome these obstacles, the time is now.
We must embrace the cooperative spirit of the OECD, and strengthen our resolve to deal with these formidable challenges.
The challenge is ours, but I am confident that by working together, our nations will prevail.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.