Thanks very much Peter and to the Mayor of the host Shire Kerry Hayes and to all other Mayors, Councillors, Council officers, my parliamentary colleges both State and Federal and perhaps most importantly, the sponsors. Thanks so much for having me with you at this conference and congratulations to Kerry and your team on this wonderful conference and its wonderful organisation.
We meet in this very vibrant city of Emerald, which is really a shining light on how an agricultural town can be so progressive, growing, successful, and how important Local Government is and has been to leadership in this community.
You are also very lucky that this city, as others have been mentioning, is a result in modern times, of the Fairbairn Dam. I’m always happy to say that it was a coalition Minister for National Development, then David Fairbairn after whom the dam was named. I’m very pleased that the Burdekin dam just further north (and these really are the two dams that happened in Queensland in the last 30 or 40 years), was initiated by the Fraser Government.
As well in this area, you are very lucky Kerry that you have great support from Local Members in Ken O’Dowd, who is much loved by everybody and really followed in Canberra. And of course Lachlan Miller does a great job at the State level, helped by Anne Leahy who is across the border. I also note there are a number of Senators here. Senator Canavan will be here later on this afternoon and Senator James McGrath who is the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister (and those of you who have Better Buildings applications in should have a talk to James because he has a little bit of influence around those). But I also notice here Fraser Anning who originally hails from Richmond so well at home in this gathering Fraser, and Chris Ketter who spends a lot of time in Central Queensland as well. I couldn’t help but notice in your list of apologies, that just about every politician in Australia is being listed as having made an apology. And although they are not here Kerry, I think that goes to show they all take the time to recognise your conference, your area and that should all go well for the future.
But back to the Central Western Local Government Association. I’ve heard from Councillor Hayes how Emerald comes to qualify as ‘Western’. I make no comment on that but it all makes sense to me.
As one who spent 11 years on the Burdekin Shire Council as a councillor, and 3 years in John McVeigh’s Portfolio as the Federal Local Government Minister some years ago, and having attended more local government conferences than has been good for my liver, I do really understand local government and acknowledge that it is the sphere of Government closest to the people.
And after almost 40 years in public life, I know how essential to every facet of community life, local government is.
But today I want to speak about my passion for Northern and Remote Australia, and the part Local Government has played in the development of The North.
After the launch of the Northern Australia Development Whitepaper, billions of dollars have flowed into communities across the North. And of course, Local Government continues to be an essential partner in the Turnbull Government’s commitment to developing Northern Australia.
The budget announcement of our grants funds for roads and bridges, of the $200 million extension of the Building Better Regions Fund, and particularly the $1.5 billion dollar Northern component of the new Roads of Strategic Importance program, demonstrates the government’s commitment to the regions, and will allow Local Governments particularly to continue the push for their pet projects – projects that will help to develop not only their shires, but also develop Northern Australia as a whole.
Sometimes advocacy and hard work takes time, but where Local Government has the will, there is always a way. It doesn’t happen overnight, but passion and perseverance will prevail.
The Outback Highway is a classic example. Almost 20 years ago at an ALGA conference in Canberra I was approached by a group of local Councils from Winton, Boulia, Alice Springs, Laverton amongst others, who said to me at the time they only wanted $800 million out of the next budget to build this road across the centre of Australia and they wanted to do it next year. And it was to be an iconic road from Winton to Laverton – or as I call it from Cairns and Townsville and Rockhampton to Perth across the centre. The proponents wanted the money in that year’s budget and as I say, wanted to build it in just one year. I said to them at the time, that’s not going to happen but you should persevere. Budget by budget it would happen. And I am delighted to see 20 budgets on that it is almost there.
I have driven the outback way from Cairns to Perth. It’s a wonderful trip and if any of you get the opportunity you should take it.
But there is another lesson I want to share with you arising from the story of the Outback Way – and it’s a cautionary lesson to all local government Councillors.
I have been a guest at the Gala dinner at the ALGA conference I spoke about as Local Government Minister, and as these dinners go that was fine. But when as you know these dinners draw to a close, and the alcohol gets harder to get, there is always a group of players, often strangers from all over Australia who gravitate towards the bar, and when that finishes, they gravitate to someone’s hotel room for another dozen or so for the road.
Well that night I ended up in someone’s hotel room with a group who were obviously from the Country because they were lovely peopling and they enjoyed a yarn and a drink.
Anyhow this group included Patrick Hill - then and still the Mayor of Laverton in Western Australia. At about 3am they said that they had to get to bed, as the next day they had an appointment with some no doubt toffy-nosed Local Government Minister about funding the Outback Highway. At 3am and after many beers, they were very expressive about Canberra Ministers and their lack of understanding and empathy with the bush and in fact, generally vocal about how they viewed politicians across the board.
So duly at 10am the next morning, the bedraggled bunch turned up in the Ministerial wing only to find that one of their anonymous, drinking partners in the early hours of the morning, was none other than the toffy-nosed Minister, about whom they had spoken so unflatteringly and to whom now they had to plead their case. So for those of you who go to ALGA conferences and end up in drinking groups of unknown people, always be careful. As it turned out in this case, it did work.
On that day, I remember many cups of strong black coffee later, we started the process which is still going on, with the announcement of the $160 million dollar for a further contribution to the Outback Way in the budget last week.
The other thing I want to focus on today is the desperate need to attract people to north Australia and to the west and to particularly the more remote parts where the wealth in agriculture and mining exists, where we have all the resources, but very few people.
I have long thought about how can we get people there, how can we compensate people who live in the west and north, and whenever I think about that my thoughts always turn back to the words of a famous wartime politician who said this;
“.., it is considered that some measure of relief should be granted not only to employees but also to all other taxpayers who live in the remote parts of the Commonwealth.”
Those words were uttered by Ben Chifley, on the 19th of April 1945, when he introduced amendments to the Tax Act which initiated the Zones Tax Rebate scheme.
Ben Chifley went on further to say:
“In prescribing the areas of the respective zones, the factors taken into consideration in determining “climatic conditions, isolation and high cost of living” were rainfall, latitude, distance from centres of population, density of population, predominant industries, rail and road service, and cost of food and groceries.”
Ladies and gentlemen, in the early iteration of the Northern Australian Whitepaper, I had included a proposal for a serious review of the Zone Tax scheme. As you know those of you who are impacted, the current allowance is approximately $338 dollars in Zone A, $57 dollars in Zone B and ‘Special Zones’ that are particularly remote, receive $1173.
Had these rebates been indexed with CPI since their inception, as they were originally $40 and $80, they today would have been worth between $5000 and $25,000 respectively. Now if that had happened, that would be a real measure to attract people to the west and the north to develop the resources we know are there.
The Northern Australia Green Paper – which pre-dated the Northern Australia Whitepaper by one year - had a box about Zone Tax which committed to a serious review, but ominously had these words included as well:
“..Federal taxation cannot discriminate between states (or within states) and preference cannot be given to one state (or part of a state) over another…”
However, when the draft White Paper left my influence to be tarted up by the powers that be for release, reference to the Zone Tax Rebate was deleted. It became too difficult, and some become worried about the constitutional implications of the proposal. The 1981 Cox Inquiry into the Zone Tax Allowance had, after all, found that the government
“…could have no assurance that the provision was constitutionally sound.”
And I might say when I introduced the bill to the Senate to establish Roads to Recovery program; I faced doubt and opposition from the public service and my colleges for the same reason: that it was unconstitutional.
But we worked our way through that to establish what I know is clearly now one of the most popular and essential programs for local governments across Australia. And I also might add, one that has never been constitutionally challenged.
I want to point out when Ben Chifley thought about this in 1945 he said this about the constitutionality:
“That point has been examined, and I have been assured that the proposal is constitutionally sound.”
And if I can emphasise two things about the zone tax rebate. First, that Chifley recognised as I know most of you do, that there is an additional cost of living obviously faced by those living in remote areas. in those areas they are further away from service’s and amenities that some of our cousins along the coast and in our Capital Cities take for granted.
And the second thing is that some 70 years later, since this scheme first started, the constitutionality of the Zone Tax Rebate Scheme has never been tested in the Courts of the land for offence against the constitution.
The proper revision and indexation of the Zone Tax Rebate, or some other form of incentive in Northern and Remote Australia, would encourage many Australians to move to the remote parts of our country to where we know the wealth is in agriculture and mining is waiting to be extracted, where what we need most is the people there to do it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve known many of you and I know you share my thoughts on this. For me this is still unfinished business. As many of you know, I’ve been in the Parliament for a long time and I have had several unsuccessful attempts to get a zone tax review on the agenda, but I am determined to re-double my efforts because simply, it is the right and fair thing to do.
We have to ensure, that whilst many rightly talk about two Australia’s, we have to make sure that those of us who live in places remote from the capital cities and often from the coast, where the cost of food and fuel and health is much more for us than it is for our cousins, that needs addressing.
Governments say they look after remote and regional Australia, by giving them very substantial help in grants under the programs the Turnbull Government has championed – things like Building Better Regions, Roads of Strategic Importance, Beef Roads, the Bridges Renewal Programs, Stronger Communities and the Mobile Blackspot programs.
And that is all true; our Government is very, very generous with grants to Regional Australia.
But that’s all about roads, bridges, infrastructure and phones.
I want to encourage people to the North and West, and if you want to do that you need to compensate them for what we acknowledge, is the higher cost of living, the absence of hospitals, the distances to specialists, theatres, major sporting events, schools, goods and services and beaches.
These are the things that most Australians take for granted, but for which Australians in remote areas, must pay a hefty premium for.
It is only fair that Australians, no matter where they live, should be entitled to the same services – whether they live up this way in one of your local Shires, or in the Capital Cities. They should all have the same ability to access the same services.
I know I can count on the support of the Western Queensland Local Government Association in trying to get the Zone Tax Allowance back on the agenda, to bring a fair go back to all Australians.
Can I conclude by saying good luck to you all for the rest of the conference. In me you have a friend and if there is any way I can ever help any of your councils, or the people you represent, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Again thanks for having me here again today.