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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9251

Senator MACKAY (12:30 PM) —I present the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee entitled Jobs for the regions: A report on the inquiry into regional employment and unemployment , together with submissions and Hansard record of proceedings.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator MACKAY —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator MACKAY —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The tabling today of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee's report into employment and unemployment in regional Australia represents a major study into Australia's regional economies and the employment prospects for regional Australians. This inquiry was first referred to the committee on 4 December 1997. Progress was interrupted by the 1998 election and the committee's involvement in the inquiry into a new tax system held earlier this year. As the inquiry has extended over two parliaments, there have been changes to the committee membership over that time.

The committee received 224 submissions and conducted 22 public hearings in regional Australia, covering all states. We visited many regional areas as diverse as Broken Hill, Burnie and Whyalla and many more between April and December 1998. Its deliberations provide a useful snapshot of the zeitgeist of regional Australia in the aftermath of two federal budgets—1996 and 1997—that saw widespread cutbacks on regional programs.

The report, titled Jobs for the regions, highlights the importance of regional communities and the need for the Commonwealth to take a leading role in policies designed to develop regional economies. This consultation revealed the seriousness of the problems in regional Australia. It also highlighted the need for government to listen to regional Australians.

The anger expressed by regional Victorians is not something new, nor is it limited simply to Victoria. Regional Australians have valid concerns and fears, and they have sent a very clear message to this government. Governments around the country—particularly the federal government—have been ignoring these concerns and fears for far too long. Governments have known about these problems and have simply chosen to ignore them.

This report, the first major Senate report on regional Australia handed down since the Victorian election on 18 September 1999, lays down an important framework for action. It is imperative that the government acts on the findings and recommendations of the report. As I mentioned, extensive consultations were undertaken throughout regional Australia. The findings of this report provide a good insight into the impact of cuts to service provision and the rationalisation of Commonwealth government programs. The findings also highlight the need for a more consistent and integrated strategy to tackling regional development issues.

I would like to draw briefly on some of the main findings of the report. This did not involve the imposition of regional structures from the outside, like past Commonwealth and state government programs. Many of the witnesses who spoke to the committee called for greater coordination between state and Commonwealth programs, with a common sense of purpose. Commonality of purpose would go a long way to providing policy stability and funding continuity, not to mention increasing the coordination between levels of government in addressing regional development issues. In developing coordination, the Commonwealth clearly has a leading role to play.

At the same time as improving coordination and providing policy stability, there needs to be a government program dedicated to maximising the economic potential of regions. A strong commitment to assisting and developing regional economies must be made. There must also be acknowledgment that, for some regions, improvement or regeneration will be limited. Regions and regional centres with potential should be supported by financial and industry policies designed to maximise this potential. This does not mean the Commonwealth imposes a top down approach; rather, that it works to foster partnerships based on the idea of common purpose.

The committee found that, in order for regions to maximise their economic potential, there needs to be greater government commitment to regional infrastructure. Despite the rhetoric of private sector operators taking on the task of providing infrastructure, most regions of Australia are crying out for adequate infrastructure in any number of areas, including transport links within and between regions; telecommunications; business support and development; and social infrastructure, such as education, training, health and child care. Without adequate infrastructure as the basis of a regional economy, it will be difficult to attract investment and maximise economic potential. Government must work to improve investment in regional infrastructure.

The committee also found that cuts to many services in regional Australia, particularly labour market programs, had disproportionately affected regional Australia. The cuts between 1995-96 and 1997-98 amounted to approximately $1 billion, during a period in which many regional economies have undergone unprecedented crises.

The government's Job Network has a number of inherent problems, based on the belief in the omnipresent power of the market. The committee heard evidence from many areas in regional communities that Job Network is simply unable to meet employment needs in regional Australia. This is the result of the one size fits all approach to policy taken by the government and the impact of successive and extensive budget cuts. As one submission noted:

While it might be argued that spending cuts were necessary, it cannot be convincingly argued that the unfettered market is all that is needed to tackle problems of disproportionately high levels of unemployment and low or negative economic growth in many regions.

The government must address the specific needs of employment seekers in regional Australia. As the committee's findings show, there is an important leadership role for the Commonwealth, particularly in providing regional Australians with the necessary capacity to develop their economies. Regional communities have a right to determine their own future, and capacity building in regional communities is critical. At the same time as developing capacity, the Commonwealth also has a role in providing relevant incentives to assist in the development of regional economies. It is all well and good to develop the vision and goals of regional communities but, unless you are prepared to provide assistance and incentive to achieve that vision, the whole process is wellnigh useless.

Many rural and regional Australians who participated in this inquiry believed the Commonwealth government was the body best placed to play a leading role in regional development, in terms of both building capacity and providing regional economies with the assistance and incentive to achieve that vision. This government cannot stand by and idly watch the creation of, as Minister Anderson put it, `two nations'. Minister Anderson flagged his own fears of this urban regional split earlier this year when he talked about the development of two nations, yet the Jobs for the Region report would indicate that the government has done little to address these concerns.

The onus is on the government to take up the challenge of creating jobs for the regions. The mood of the nation is exemplified in this observation made by the Labor and Democrat senators:

Opposition and Australian Democrat senators on the Committee—

and Senator Stott Despoja will elaborate—

also wish to state at the outset their view that the Commonwealth Government must take increased responsibility both for regional development and for past policies which have contributed to regional decline. Many submissions to the Committee expressed disappointment at Commonwealth actions, such as the withdrawal of Commonwealth agencies from communities, and blamed these actions for initiating decline in those communities. The Committee's report contains reference to overseas experience in redressing rural and regional decline, and these experiences provide a useful guide for the Commonwealth to take action to review policies which have contributed to decline, and develop policies and initiatives to promote rural and regional development. Many rural and regional Australians who participated in this inquiry believed the Commonwealth was the body best placed to play a leading role in regional development. It is the view of the Committee that to do less would be to break faith with the many rural and regional Australians who participated in this inquiry for the purpose of conveying their desire for action to the body they believe to be best placed to take such action: the Commonwealth Government.

In conclusion, on behalf of the members of the committee I proffer our wholehearted thanks to the secretariat, the membership of which has changed over the length of the inquiry, for their hard work and delightful company during what was a very onerous trek throughout many areas of regional Australia. I would like to thank them for their patience and effort in the preparation of this report, which was not as smooth as all of us would have wanted, but suffice to say we got there in the end.

I also want to mention in my concluding comments one thing which was very interesting, certainly to me. As we travelled to many areas of regional Australia, the comment was made that regional Australians very rarely see Senate inquiries out in regional and rural Australia. They were very pleased that the Senate was taking an interest in regional and rural Australia to the extent that senators were prepared to travel long distances, often in very small planes, as Senator Tierney would recall, to visit rural and regional Australia. I think that says something about the process of Senate inquiries and something about the idea of bringing government closer to the people of rural and regional Australia. It is something I would urge other Senate inquiries to take very seriously. I again congratulate the secretariat for their work and thank other senators for their participation and input.