Whitsunday Mayor’s Business and Commerce Forum
It is my pleasure to be invited to speak at this inaugural Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor’s Business and Commerce Forum.
Today, I will touch on the role of regions as part of Australia’s economic future, how regional communities can thrive and ensure success, and the role of business and community organisations in supporting development and growth.
As a Senator for Queensland, and Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, I have the opportunity to travel widely and get a sense of the opportunities and challenges that communities across Queensland are facing.
There are few places that have as much untapped potential as North Queensland.
Having spent some of my formative years up in Innisfail, I have always admired the strength of character and determination of North Queenslanders – working through the challenges presented by this harsh, yet exciting, frontier.
Nowadays, after 25 years of unbroken economic growth, Australia’s economy is undergoing a delicate transition – one which I know has been felt hard in regional Queensland.
However, we are continuing to see the rise of China and the broader Asian region – fuelling long-term demand for our agricultural products, our resources, and even our idyllic white sandy beaches.
These are not products that are found in our capital cities.
As such, it is clear that the driving force in terms of Australia’s future prosperity will be found in regional communities, like the broader Mackay/Isaac/Whitsunday region.
Indeed, the future is very bright, with new free trade agreements signed by the Federal Liberal National Government set to unlock billions of dollars of export potential over the coming decades.
Our agreements with China, Japan and Korea will deliver significant benefits to Queensland, with those countries already accounting for 42% of total Queensland trade – worth over $35 billion.
Tariffs are being completely eliminated or substantially reduced on key local exports such as sugar, mangoes, macadamias, oranges, citrus fruits, tomatoes and other horticultural produce, as well as coal, beef and seafood.
The opportunity to sell into these growing markets is a boon for the $450 million local horticultural sector.
Furthermore, the increase in trade, investment and related people movements from these agreements will boost tourism in places like the Whitsundays.
And, in China, Australian hoteliers, restauranteurs and tour operators will be able to establish wholly-owned tourism business to tap their domestic market.
In addition, there is the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Singapore, which will see billions of dollars of investment in defence capabilities – centred around Townsville and Shoalwater Bay – but flowing through to local workers and businesses in the broader region and providing jobs to buffer against the cyclical mining sector.
In the pipeline is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as are agreements with India, Indonesia and other multilateral groups – offering further opportunities over the medium term.
The mining industry is another powerhouse of our regional economy that has adapted over time and boosted employment opportunities for remote towns and coastal cities alike.
In your own backyard, the $15 billion Adani Carmichael Coal Project, will deliver benefits to Bowen, Mackay and the communities of the Galilee Basin with over 10,000 jobs and new contracts for local businesses.
This in turn is a key contributor to government coffers, pouring billions into state royalties and federal income taxes – flowing back into communities through roads, hospitals and schools – a virtuous economic cycle.
With all the sunshine and natural beauty we have, another important sector that regional communities can leverage is, of course, tourism.
Not only does tourism bring cultural engagement opportunities – whether from Asia or Europe or the Middle East – but it also attracts young people to our regional cities and is a key provider of employment.
The Whitsundays is seeing a surge in tourism, with domestic and international visitors up 22% in the last 12 months to 730,000 visitors, spending $729 million locally – up 27% in the same period.
With competitive improvements to the working holiday maker package – also known as the ‘backpacker tax’ – and the new $10 million tourism campaign, these figures are on a strong path for future growth.
Backpackers will now be able to come to Australia for a lower visa cost and stay for longer – assisting agricultural and tourism businesses alike.
But the future of tourist communities also depends upon us taking care of these attractions – for economic as well as environmental reasons.
As such, local leadership as part of the Reef Rescue and Reef Guardian Programmes is to be commended.
Having looked at the potential for the future of regional communities, we must also consider what actions are needed to ensure regional success.
Firstly, it is important that each town, region and city plays to its own unique advantages.
For the broader Mackay/Isaac/Whitsunday region, we have already discussed the inherent strengths in agriculture, mining and tourism.
Secondly, regional business and community organisations need to be active participants in not just the economy, but the political sphere as well.
Identifying key local opportunities or challenges, building the narrative of what needs to be done to grasp or overcome the situation, and advocating to government and other stakeholders on behalf of your community is critical to achieving outcomes.
Thirdly, while we cannot be an endless piggy bank for every pet project or initiative, government does have a role to play in establishing and supporting the framework for jobs and economic growth – particularly in terms of infrastructure, taxation and regulation.
There has already been great success in this approach across a range of regions and policy areas.
Let me give you an example.
For many decades, leaders across North Queensland appealed to government to invest in new infrastructure and support regional growth.
Well, this Federal Liberal National Government listened and we have handed down the landmark Northern Australia White Paper – the first comprehensive package in our nation’s history that will finally enable communities and businesses in the North to unlock their full potential.
The investments we are making will boost the productivity of our transport networks and make it easier to get product to market.
$5 billion for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, providing concessional finance for infrastructure projects;
$600 million to improve key roads including consideration of upgrades for the Barkly, Flinders, Savannah and Hann Highways as well as the Outback Way;
$100 million for a beef roads fund improve cattle supply chains;
$39.6 million to upgrade airstrips and subsidise air services in remote Australia; and
$5 million in rail freight analyses of the Mount Isa to Tennant Creek railway and an upgrade of the Townsville to Mount Isa line.
In addition, all along the Bruce Highway – from the Haughton River Bridge, to new overtaking lanes between Bowen and Proserpine, as well as the Mackay Ring Road and works on the stretch down to Rockhampton – billions of dollars being invested in upgrades to improve reliability and safety.
And Australia is in the business of building dams once again, to improve drought resistance and boost irrigation opportunities.
$2 billion dollars in concessional loans to fast-track the construction of water infrastructure; and
$20 million to support feasibility studies for 14 Queensland projects including the Urannah Dam, the Burdekin Falls Dam, the Burdekin Haughton Channel and Hell’s Gate.
The Federal Liberal National Government has a plan to cut taxes for small and medium businesses to 27.5% within three years – crucial to supporting employers and promote job creation.
And on the regulation front, we have cut $4.8 billion in red tape since 2013 – the first time in decades that meaningful reform in the reduction of red and green tape has actually occurred.
All of these policy outcomes – which will grow regional economies – have come about through cooperation between communities, local organisations and government.
I must commend my good friends George Christensen, Jason Costigan and Dale Last on fighting so hard for their electorates and this region.
They have been very effective in delivering results.
To Mayor Willcox and the Whitsunday Regional Council, thank you for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon.
This Forum is a great initiative in bringing stakeholders together to think about the issues facing your region.
Given the opportunities that lie ahead of us, I have no doubt that regional communities and their role in Australia will only continue to grow brighter over the years ahead.