Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation
Posted on Tuesday, 5 September, 2017
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (17:46): Spoken like a true member for Canberra! Let me say to the member for Canberra: it's not all about Canberra. There are other people in this nation—I represent quite a sizable slice of them—that actually don't see Canberra as the answer to everything. Every now and then they actually even tell me it might be the cause of half of our problems. In effect, it is not all about Canberra, and this is not an attack on Canberra, as the member well knows. It is not an attack on Canberra; it is making sure that we've got efficient use of our resources in Australia and trying to look after all Australians by trying to make sure that all of our communities thrive.
I often say that Australian agriculture is still the most important industry for rural and regional Australia. It is without a doubt. Each year Australian farmers continue to grow more food and more fibre in a more environmentally friendly fashion and with better quality. All of those things. It's good for the farmer, it's good for the state and it's good for the nation. But they do it with fewer people. Every year we do it with fewer people. Along with the member for Indi, I sat on a committee in the last parliament where we looked at technological changes and advances in agriculture. Very exciting things are happening. Agriculture is an exciting and good place to be in Australia at the at the moment. But we do know that all of these advances almost always mean we don't need the same size of workforce as we needed last week, last year, 10 years ago or 50 years ago. That's why the community I come from is now around 60 per cent of the size it was in 1980. We've gone from around 1,850 residents to just over a thousand. It isn't that we produce less and it isn't that we're not important to Australia. Our farmers are more efficient than ever. We grow more, but we grow it with fewer people.
The reason for this inquiry is to try and find out in what way we can revitalise regional Australia. We need to explore every opportunity, and if that means shifting parts of or whole government departments to rural and regional areas, I say bring it on! Bring it on, because we really do need to find the answer. We need stewards for inland Australia. We don't want towns that are gutted out, where the doors are swinging in the wind. We want vibrant communities. We need to invest some energy and intellect into finding a way forward for these communities. I'm quite pleased with this issues paper. I think the main thing with an issues paper is that it provides enough scope for the committee to actually draw together the people in Australia who we need to consult in order to come up with the best possible answers.
Firstly, we're looking for examples of best practice around Australia. That's an obvious thing to do, but one thing you can be sure of when we're looking for best practice is that there is no silver bullet. There's not one best practice that's going to fit all of Australia. These will be things that are almost idiosyncratic to particular communities. From my collective experience of living in rural and regional Australia, those new industries, those new employers and the expansions that do happen are normally driven by local enthusiasm and expertise. That is normally the thing that really kicks these things along. If we're talking about the tourism industry, for instance, it is local tourism operators—people that have skin in the game and really want to promote their product—who make it happen. In many ways, perhaps the best practice is seeing what we can do to assist them. We don't want to reinvent the wheel; we want to use the expertise and skills that we have in place already. That's what we will do while we're looking at best practice.
I'll tell you a story about my home community. I think this is quite interesting; it's about how we need to be challenged by ideas sometimes. Kimba is a dryland farming community. We're on the northern edge of wheat belt on the Eyre Peninsula. My family's been farming there for close on 90 years, as have many other families in the district. We largely grow wheat, barley and peas for bulk export, so we're not in that differentiated market and we're a long way from the livestock industries that could consume our grain. Freight's the killer, so it goes out to sea and to another nation. We've always looked at the possibility of growing export hay as an opportunity, but it's too far away from us, because freight kills us on export hay and the cost of freight is the particular issue.
We had a family move into the community, and they had a lot of expertise in hay. They started producing hay. They bought first-class hay-making equipment and drop-deck semitrailers, and they knew how to produce hay for the export market. They then managed to engineer a $25 premium per tonne for that particular line of hay, because it was grown in a drier, tougher environment. That was moving very well, and then along came the newest range of hay balers: superhigh-density hay balers. With that advent, the family were able to fully load their semitrailers, for the first time. Once again, that is what made the freight competitive. So they decided to offer this service to the rest of the community. Now my friend Peter is offering agronomic services to the rest of the community and contracting hay. They built a 10,000-tonne hay shed, and last year I think they took nearly 20,000 tonne. They supply agronomic service, markets and expertise and they supply the equipment. They have produced a new industry in a community where none existed before. That's best practice. That's entrepreneurialism and it's local community leading. That's what I hope to find in this inquiry—more examples like that.
The devolution of government services into rural areas—obviously that's one of the things we've been looking at—was one of the things that the member for Canberra was speaking about, and she was scathing about the Deputy Prime Minister and the movement of the APVMA to Armidale. But, in fact, why not? That is the question we need to ask ourselves about every government department: not why but why not? Why cannot this service be delivered in another place just as well and possibly even better? In fact, in a lot of rural Australia, the overheads are much lower. Certainly the real estate is at a lower price. I think that's the way we should address that particular issue: why not? Let's find that out.
The final area that this issues paper outlines that we should be looking at is corporate decentralisation. Now, of course, this is where we try to convince those that invest somewhere else already that there is an equal or better opportunity in the country. Gee, there is on so many fronts. There must be things that we can produce in the country at lower cost, simply because we are facing lower overheads. There are the issues we are facing at the moment around electricity and energy. All those costs are Australia-wide. Certainly there's a hotspot in South Australia, but we've heard plenty about that before. But there is no difference between the city and the country.
We have skilled workforces and we have towns where real estate is relatively cheap. If you think a home in Sydney at $1.4 million is too much, why not investigate a home in Parkes for $350,000? It is probably the same type of home. It is probably cheaper than that. And I can repeat those kinds of figures in my own community, comparing Adelaide, for instance, to Wudinna or wherever it might be. There are certainly really good opportunities, and there are great living opportunities for Australians. We often say that, if we can only get people into the country in the first place, they will realise what a great life we lead. Those that do come there often stay much, much longer than they had first intended.
Living in rural and regional Australia is a great privilege, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan—one that I know you know about, having come from that mighty metropolis of Port Augusta in my electorate. It is something of which I'm immensely proud. In fact, I can even say—and I have spoken about this before, but I love the opportunity of regional and rural Australia being productive—that the electorate of Grey produced five sitting members of the last parliament, the 44th Parliament. I had a photo of us all out the front, including you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It shows that there is no great disadvantage in living in the country. I think the opposite. There is an advantage. So we need to promote that, tell people it is a great place to live and find out what it is we need to do to grow more jobs, and that comes back to this inquiry. That's what I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Hogan ): I thank the member for Grey—and a wonderful electorate you represent!