I’m always pleased to be in Dubbo. Once when I was on my way here, a Labor supporter gave me a friendly warning I wouldn’t be finding a whole lot in the way of votes. It was said in a well-meaning way, but what I always want to do is remind people that the Australian Labor Party began under a tree a long way from any big city. And Labor is at our best when we are true to our roots. We are here for all Australians.
In which spirit, I’d like to thank Ben English and The Daily Telegraph for setting up this forum. Bringing people together is such an important step, because it is only together that we can rise to meet the challenges facing us.
I also commend the Tele for the work they’ve put into the Adopt a Farmer campaign, which has raised more than $300,000 for Rural Aid. That is a real example of what Australians do best – coming together to help each other. It is mateship at its most meaningful. And, I would argue, at its most necessary.
We are in the middle of a national emergency: the worst drought in living memory, with more than 97 cent of this state alone officially in one of the three drought categories. The only positive is that it’s an improvement on the figure from March, when it was 99.5 per cent. Think about that number for a moment.
It won’t be news to anyone here that agriculture has taken a hit. Communities have been hit. Small businesses in country towns have been hit. People are hurting badly.
Some people are on their knees, overwhelmed by everything life is hurling at them. The future can feel like it doesn’t offer so much as a moment of respite, let alone a solution. It is no surprise mental health in the bush is taking a pounding. Ultimately, the consequences of drought are deeply personal, sometimes with terrible consequences.
We’ve been here many times before, of course, but the comfort we draw from the idea that drought is just part and parcel of Australian life is a thin one.
Each time the rains disappear, the green fades to brown and the dusty ground begins to crack, there’s a tendency to fall back on Dorothea Mackellar’s famous reminder this is a land “of droughts and flooding rains”. But the old cycles are shifting and our country is becoming a land of worsening drought – there is no poetry in that.
And yet as I look around here, I see resilience and I see spirit.
It is all around us: whether you’re the proud descendant of a pioneer or you’ve moved from a big city in search of a better life. Whether you’re growing food, digging minerals, teaching, treating the sick, running a business – everyone who works to make their community just that: a community.
And these are communities that hold Australia together – the backbone of the country. Without you, quite frankly, we are stuffed.
But to say these are hard times is a huge understatement. We all offer up our hopes that rain will fall. But as vital as hope is, it’s never enough on its own.
Something has to be done – but for that to happen, something has to change. People are tired of the conflict that passes for politics these days. They have conflict fatigue. They are tired of being ignored. They want solutions to their challenges, not just arguments.
One challenge is climate change. Anyone looking for a true understanding of that should look for it here. Farmers see the effects of climate change every day.
You aren’t shouting about it in the media, you are quietly recognising what is happening and getting on with the job of dealing with it. You see it because this is your home, this is your workplace and your livelihood. You certainly don’t need lectures from visitors who’ve just popped in for a few minutes.
During the election campaign, a convoy of well meaning protestors travelled up into the heart of Queensland and talked with – or, more accurately, talked at – everyone they met and let them how what they were doing was wrong. It went about as well as expected, which is the most polite way I could put it.
What happens when we don’t listen? What happens when outsiders march in and decide what’s best for the locals? What happens is that there’s a good chance they’ll muck it up.
Take the Inland Rail, for example. It’s a great idea. It’s ambitious and it’s overdue. But its planning has been done without appropriate regard to farmers themselves. Who’s going to be thrilled about winding up with their house on one side of the tracks, and their shed on the other? Who’s going to jump for joy about a train that’s going to get their produce almost but not quite all the way to port?
During the recent Federal Election campaign I held a joint media conference with the NSW Farmers Association to commit to a public and transparent enquiry into the route selection process and the financing. This should occur because the project is too important to get wrong.
One of the main ingredients in the divide between the cities and bush is the tyranny of distance which can put regions at a comparative disadvantage. Labor is dedicated to overcoming it with infrastructure, whether it’s electronic or concrete and bitumen.
A world-class, high-speed internet done properly – Australia really should be able to manage that much – would banish the tyranny of distance as an impediment to regional economic development. It would give everyone a chance to participate in the global economy. It would improve access to medical services. This will make a real difference to the prospects of rural and regional Australians.
Labor is also dedicated to improving old roads and creating new ones, building bypasses and bridges – all the ingredients for making driving in the country faster but safer.
Then there’s High Speed Rail, which would be a game-changer for communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga and Shepparton. The greatest resource of any region is its people; high-speed rail would improve their chances of keeping them, as well as making it more attractive for people to move to the regions. The same goes for all the companies that could relocate, improving the bottom line for themselves and the towns they move to.
It would resolve one of the great paradoxes of Australia: we have plenty of space, but we crowd into a handful of big cities. With our population now past the 25 million mark, this no longer makes sense. Decentralisation requires strategic decision making, not just hoping it will occur organically.
Solving transport and internet issues would also eliminate the educational divide. In 2016, 85.7 per cent of young adults in major cities had completed Year 12, compared with 67.7 per cent in inner regional areas and 63.8 per cent in outer regional areas. In 2017, 25-34 year-olds in big cities were more than twice as likely to have a tertiary degree than those in the country.
When the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW investigated the resulting economic gap, it reported: “If the human capital gap between urban and non-urban Australia was closed, Australia’s GDP could be increased by 3.3 per cent, or $56 billion.” And the report’s authors concede that estimate is conservative.
Solving all this adds up to a process of smart decentralisation. I don’t mean shoving a few public servants out of Canberra. I mean an intelligent, thought-out process with foresight and planning. That would lead to healthier, more vibrant communities less vulnerable to the effects of drought.
Growth that creates jobs in the regions has to be a central component of national economic, social and environmental policy. Growth that puts in jobs in the regions; there’s not much point asking people to move to where there’s no work.
Approaching it this way will strengthen the economy in a way that ensures the economy works for the people.
One of the key ingredients in Labor’s approach is my mate Joel Fitzgibbon, our courageous, tenacious shadow agriculture minister. As I’ve said before, when it comes to defending the interests of rural and regional communities under siege, Joel is like a dog with a bone.
Like me and the rest of my team, Joel understands that at its heart, all of this is ultimately about a deeply Australian desire: a fair go. That’s what our farmers need now, a fair go. Immediate assistance, but a commitment from all sides of politics and indeed civil society to work on addressing the medium and long term challenges.
I’m up for it. I know you are too.
Thanks for having me here.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.