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Transcript of doorstop interview: Library Gardens, Bendigo, Victoria: 6 December 2016: Regional Australia; NBN; backpacker tax; 457 visas

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SUBJECTS: Regional Australia; NBN; Backpacker tax; 457 visas

CHESTERS: I’m really proud to be here today to welcome Chris Bowen, our Shadow Treasurer, back to Bendigo. We’re about to go in to a roundtable meeting with community leaders, business leaders, being hosted by the City of Greater Bendigo to talk about the challenges that Bendigo faces, but also our strengths. We know by working together our strength is our diversity but there are significant challenges ahead for the Australian budget. I thought it was really important as we get to the end of 2016 that our business leaders and community leaders could talk firsthand, one on one with Chris. So welcome back to Bendigo, Chris Bowen.

BOWEN: Well thank you very much Lisa and thank you for the invitation to be here, it’s great to be back in Bendigo. I’m really looking forward to today’s meetings with Council, with the business community about what is necessary for the Bendigo economy. We saw confirmation this morning reported in The Age of what we already knew - that whilst the headline figures across the country might be good, there are parts of regional Australia in particular that aren’t doing as well. And regional Victoria is included amongst that. And it is incumbent on Canberra, on Members of Parliament, on Treasurers, on alternative Treasurers to be in touch with regional economies and working together on plans to see growth boosted in regional economies. So we will be talking today about smart cities, we’ll be talking today about what can be done for regional tourism, regional agriculture, no doubt. I want to hit the ground running if I’m Treasurer at some time in the next 18 months or 2 years, I want to hit the ground running knowing what is happening in regional economies, not just Sydney and Melbourne but right across Australia, and

particularly here in rural Victoria, regional Victoria. It’s quite clear the Government doesn’t understand regional economies. A Government which would attempt to impose a 32.5% backpacker tax does not understand regional economies. A Government which imposes wine tax reform and then has to back flip does not understand regional Australia. And there’s two spectacular examples of policy gone wrong just in the last week which the Government has had to acknowledge the errors of their ways. Having made those political points, I look forward to spending the rest of the day in an open session with Lisa, listening to the community, taking on board all points of view and letting it inform our policy development. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Are there any points Council have brought up that they would like to talk to you about?

BOWEN: Well Lisa might have more to say - I only just got here. I am aware of the agenda but I haven’t met with the Mayor yet but I look forward to meeting with her.

CHESTERS: A couple of the issues that will be on the agenda today is infrastructure, and making sure there is that pipeline of investment and the City has some ideas. We will also, after our meeting with the City, be going out to the Bendigo Hospital, the new hospital, for our own tour. Chris is actually the first person from the Federal sphere to see the new hospital so looking forward to that visit. Jobs - jobs will continue to come up. What are the right policy settings for industry to ensure we are generating jobs in the region. So it’s a big agenda that we’ve got but it’s a chance, as Chris said, as we come up to the new year, to make sure we’ve got the policy settings right going forward. And we know from our experience with the backpacker tax and the wine equalisation tax that we need to be across the detail so we can help the Government help themselves.

JOURNALIST: Chris, what are you hearing from other regional cities like Bendigo? What do they need do you think?

BOWEN: Well again, every city’s different. So one of the reasons it’s important for me to visit is to not just visit one city and say that rule applies to everybody. I’ve recently been in regional Queensland, for example, where tourism numbers are being affected by the backpacker tax debate, just for example. Backpackers not only work in regional cities - they spend money in regional cities. And where there’s a big focus on tourism and on mining development in regional, central and far-north Queensland for example. There are similarities across regional areas of course where you have similar issues across agriculture, horticulture, tourism; but there will always be differences, so you know it’s really important. I don’t come to Bendigo and say that answers the question to regional Australia, I say that helps me work out what’s happening in Bendigo. I go to Shepparton, I go to Ballarat, and I go to places in other states as well. Lisa’s always very keen to get me out, keen to make sure I’m hearing the message from Bendigo. It’s my second visit in two years, a bit more than a year. So it’s really important, as I said, we prepare for government, prepare for the next election that I’m aware as alternative Treasurer about what the issues are here because economic growth headline rates across the country don’t translate equally as they would.

JOURNALIST: What do you put that down to? Because this is year on year contraction it seems in regional Victoria. Are there big structural problems that need to be fixed or can be turned around quickly do you think?

BOWEN: Well, I don’t think there’s simple solutions, but I also don’t think you put it in the too-hard basket and you don’t write regional Victoria off. You work with communities on plans. And now, whether it’s innovation, which is not just about capital cities. It’s about what could happen in regional cities as well, particularly agriculture innovation, but not exclusively. Whether it is smart-cities, whether it is regionally focused tourism plans; I’m up for the conversation. I want to hear what’s on people’s minds, I want to hear from the Mayor and the business community. It’s been a while since my last visit and I need to hear that message. Haven’t heard it yet but I’ll be hearing it through the course of the day.

CHESTERS: One of the big issues that the city has put on the agenda that I forgot to mention was the NBN. Malcolm Turnbull came to Bendigo and stood here before the 2013 election and said the every house, every business, would be connected by the end of 2016. A few days to go, and we still don’t have NBN rolling out in the city of Bendigo. So that is just one of the reasons that I believe is holding our regional communities and cities back and probably helping to feed that issue that we have around growth, in terms of economic and industry development.

JOURNALIST: And of course small business as well. They’re being held back without that access to NBN; and even our regional farmers. So, are you going to be pushing for us for that?

BOWEN: Absolutely. And Lisa’s right. I mean NBN is an economic development program right across the country. And particularly regional Australia because businesses in regional Australia can compete with anybody; and not just businesses in capital cities. They can compete with businesses in Singapore and China: but they’ve got to have the connectivity. They’ve got to have the opportunity to make their case to their customers and to respond to customer demand; and you can only do that through first-class broadband. And if regional areas don’t have it, which they don’t under the second-rate more expensive and slower NBN which Malcolm Turnbull inflicted on Australia, then businesses won’t be given that opportunity which is particularly important for regional Australia. We’re talking about micro-businesses here. One or two people working from home. Those businesses can grow, and I’ve seen them grow, but they’ve got to put them on a level playing field to allow them to do that so that their goods and services can compete on a level platform.

JOURNALIST: On the NBN, what assurances can you give people that Labor would be able to get that sorted to a level where everybody’s got the internet they need?

BOWEN: Well our track record on the NBN is of course very good and of course we went to the last election with a very detailed policy. Now that will be updated to reflect what will have happened in the intervening period. I look forward to coming back to Bendigo before the next election, and I know Michelle Rowland would be more than happy to come to Bendigo and make further announcements about the details of nbn and how it impacts regional Victoria.

JOURNALIST: What about big ticket items like rail, major roads and airports? I mean we still need to move people and goods and Bendigo needs those sort of big ticket items. Is there room for that in a Labor budget?

BOWEN: Well there’s certainly room for projects which are sensible, which stack up, and which provide economic stimulus as well as passing the cost benefit analysis. Now again, we’ll hear from Council today about those plans and again, there’s a different answer depending on where you go. So in Shepparton for example they’re very keen to talk about the inland rail and the benefits of that for Shepparton. It will be a different story and different projects in Bendigo but I will be hearing the case today no doubt. And Lisa continues to make those cases.

CHESTERS: And one of the things that Labor is very keen to do is we have respect for Infrastructure Australia so working with the State government and Infrastructure Australia to prioritise where next to improve. We know what’s next after Ravenswood Interchange, there are future projects that need to be built but it needs to be a partnership between local, state and federal government through Infrastructure Australia. And that’s what this Federal Liberal Government don’t respect. They’ve gutted Infrastructure Australia, they put forward their pet projects, not what’s priority for our country.

JOURNALIST: On the divide between regions and metro that you spoke about, what can be done about that, particularly in terms of unemployment? Youth unemployment is a big issue in Bendigo.

BOWEN: Well it’s about the things we’ve been talking about. It’s also about ensuring our immigration program is fit for purpose. The 457 visa program plays an important role in our economy but it’s got to be properly targeted to genuine vacancies which can’t be filled. If that’s not happening then the policy has to be tightened as our policy indicates. Now what I’m not suggesting to you is that this fixes all our problems, it’s part of the solution. On top of that you make sure you have properly calibrated and designed infrastructure projects, you’ve got the nbn and you’ve got a government which listens in relation to agriculture, horticulture, wine making, tourism and it’s benefits for regional Australia. And as I said before, without being overly political, we’re not getting that at the moment.