Speech to the Annual General Meeting of the Outback Highway Development Council Incorporated, 8th September 2011.


Yulara Ayers Rock, Northern Territory.

Well thanks very much Patrick and thanks to you all for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you for the next 10 minutes or so. Congratulations for what your group continues to do and please never stop, keep going. The Outback Highway Development Council is very, very important to all of the Shires that you represent and for that reason I am delighted to see that your passion over the last 15 years or so has not diminished. Please never give up.

I see your Association, your Council as being focussed on the Outback Way but of course the Outback Way is an element of regional development in Australia. It is an element of Local Government policy and what you do in your own communities. Its certainly very much an element of indigenous policy and the road can have very significant impacts on the livelihoods and futures of indigenous Australians.

Its also an element of Australias economic policy, in that it can bring wealth to this part of the world and it can achieve real contributions to Australias gross domestic product.

It is certainly an element of mining policy which again is very very important to Australia. And the road, (and the regional development it supports,, the northern Australian remote development that it supports), is very important as well to our beef industry. - well it was until recently when the northern beef industry was almost destroyed by a quite silly decision of an incompetent government.

Its also an element in looking to the future of food security in our country. Unfortunately not enough Australians yet realise that we do have to secure a food future not just for ourselves, our domestic use, but for the world. When you bear in mind that each year, 80 million new mouths come into this world that have to be fed, you understand that food security in the future is increasingly an issue that has to be addressed by government. That is why, of course, China is spending so much effort in not only buying sugar mills and into the sugar industry in Australia; in Africa, the Chinese are investing huge amounts of money in productive agricultural land with a view to future food security for their own country and for places that China has an interest in.

And to that end, while in Opposition we cant do a lot now, but we can plan for the time when one or two seats in the Australian Parliament change hands, and we become the government. And if you believe the opinion polls which have been so consistent for so long, it would seem that the next government you would have to deal with in what you have in mind, in what you are passionate about, and what youre planning and working towards, will be our government. So its important that we as an alternative government have a number of well thought through, well road tested policies. And its my responsibility as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to develop policy for northern and remote Australia,. I also have a role in the Defence Force and Defence Support as the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary, which basically gives me responsibility for defence bases and where they are in Australia and of course that also has significant implications for Northern and Remote Australia.

We want to go to the next election with a plan for northern and remote Australia and hence my keenness always to interact with you and your colleagues and the plans you have for the Outback Highway.

Now I just want to say a few words about the highway but can I just by way of reality check, put to you the scenario in which the nation finds itself at the moment.

In 2007/08 Australia had a budgetary surplus of some $20billion, In the federal budget for 2009/10 we had actually achieved a deficit of some $55billion. So over a space of two or three years weve gone backwards by something like $75billion. A few years ago Australia had money in the bank, money put aside in future funds, in eduction funds to the extent of about $60billion. Currently we have a net debt of $107billion. Now might I remind you that in 1996 when the Howard government took over, we had a debt at the time of some $96billion. It took us about 10 years to pay off that $96billion and bring the budget back into surplus. And I only remind you of these facts by way of background and as I say, as a reality check to the discussions I want to move onto about the Outback Way.

Can I just say first and foremost in relation to the highway that as our record shows we, in the Liberal and National Parties are supportive of the Outback Way. Weve demonstrated that support not just in words but over the years in the provision of money to various Councils to assist in the construction of the Outback Way. We also introduced that program which I know all you Councillors love the Roads to Recovery program, which has been fabulous for council roads right around Australia. I know that as well, many of your Councils have used your Roads to Recovery money to actually construct and maintain state roads that happen to pass through your shires and Im conscious that many of you spend some of your R2R money on parts of the Outback Way.

If governments didnt waste money, there would be plenty of cash around for good infrastructure projects. But you might recall the pink batts program where the government put in all these batts in rooves and then paid two or three billion dollars to remove them before they destroyed by fire, the houses they were installed in. You might remember there was the school hall program where waste and inefficiency in what could have been a good program, took up three or four billion dollars. With the NBN, everybody wants fast broadband, particularly those of us who live in regional Australia. But whether we are going to get a broadband service thats efficient for a cost of $55billion plus and get a broadband service that people can afford, is another question. And what could we have spent on the Outback Way, if Australia hadnt spent the hundreds of millions of dollars it keeps spending on detention facilities. Regardless of your view on the illegal boat people, we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in building detention centres, feeding, clothing, paying telephone bills for and securing thousands of people who have come to our country illegally. And then to make matters worse the live cattle ban not only destroyed a lot of families and businesses across northern Australia but it is going to cost the government money in paying compensation and trying to resurrect some of the damage that has been done. As well Australia will miss out on the return from that industry. So against that sort of background, theres not going to be, one would think, a lot of money around. Had we not had those Government disasters from an incompetent wasteful group of Ministers at Federal level, your road could have been funded for half the cost perhaps of the pink batts fiasco, alone.

So in the Coalition we recognise the value of this road. We have been strong supporters of it over the years and our policy before the last election made specific reference to it. Im of course not in a position to be announcing Coalition policy today, but I can say to you that come the next election, whenever it is, we will have a very good, I think, and very detailed policy to help develop Northern and remote Australia. Can I indicate to you that I know Tony Abbott is very keen, amongst all of the other things weve got to do, amongst all the other issues we have to address in health, education, foreign affairs, defence, to put forward a visionary program for Australia. And can I further say that the future of the north, the future of the north as an element in our food security, the future of the north with our mining activity and the wealth that brings to Australia, is very much to the forefront of his mind.

How do we then take forward the great work that you guys are doing. Now your Development Council is a lobby group and as i say, long may you continue. Because it has been your efforts that has kept this project in front of many of us in Australia and certainly the Coalition.

Now unfortunately I am not a good politician. Im not one of those politicians who will tell you what you want to hear and then as the time goes on, forget about what you have promised. And youve all experienced that over many years. Look no further than the promise of no carbon tax! Youre all mature politicians in your own right, in your own areas and you understand that its easy for me, easy for any politician to tell you what you want to hear. Its much harder to actually deliver that in the reality situation in which Governments find themselves. And so I say to you that we have to work together and I want to work with you and I want you to work with us to achieve the goals we all aspire to in a realistic way, understanding the financial situation in which we, as a nation, find ourselves.

So far most of the work on the Outback Way has been done by Northern Territory Government, a little bit from the Queensland Government, a little bit more the West Australian Government, but your Councils have borne the brunt of it. That cannot continue indefinitely. It is a nation building project. And it really does need to have an Australian Government input.

Its not just the Outback Way that has to be considered - although I have to say youre in front of the pack when it comes to iconic highways across and along the length and breadth of Australia. Can I just mention to you that there are other iconic highways which interact, which work with, which compliment your approach and your petitioning, your lobbying, your passion for the Outback Way. And Ive mentioned to a few of you that there is an increasing push for the Tanami highway which will benefit some of you, it wont benefit Laverton so I can see Patrick frowning there, but there are a number of iconic highways that need to be considered. The Savannah Way right across the top of Australia is another one of those iconic highways. And can I suggest to you that although it is not directly in your focus, that you should really be working with the proponents of those other iconic highways because I think you will find that national governments will be looking at programs for iconic highways and I think for as much help as you can give the others, they can reciprocate that help. You are in the great position to do that because youre far in advance of any other proponents for iconic highways across Australia. But I do leave that message with you.

Your group I see is working out a lobbying strategy this afternoon, and good luck with it. As I say I would hope that whatever strategy evolves is one that recognises that future governments do need to work with you. I suggest to you that in strategies you put forward you do have to have, I repeat for the third time, that reality check. You are all mature administrators, governors in your own righ,t of your own Councils and you understand that you just cant, in the situation we are in federally, just click your fingers and expect billions of dollars to drop out of the sky. If you approach your lobbying with that recognition then I am quite certain that you can achieve results.

We, in the Opposition, have done considerable work on policies for regional, northern and remote Australia and were trying to find innovative ways to achieve the results that everyone wants. But we need to be realistic. There are enormous amounts of money floating around the world looking for an investment destinations a fraction only of which we need to seal the Outback Way from one side of the country to the other - probably to 4 lane standard! There is money in Australian Superannuation Funds which reach into the trillions of dollars. And weve got to somehow try and work out, for example, how Superannuation money can be invested in a way that gets a return for the policy holders who are relying on that Superannuation money for their future. And somehow, and Im not suggesting toll roads mind you, but somehow weve got to work out ways that we can encourage investment into major infrastructure works in Australia that does get a reasonable and commercial returns for those investing but does bring forward the great benefits that all of us in this room know would happen from projects like the Outback Way.

And so, thats the work we keep doing. Can I just appeal to you that if any of you ever have any thought of how governments, State and Federal, particularly Federal from my point of view, how we can assist you in achieving your goal but in a realistic way, then please let me know. I do, through being signed up to your website and to your mailing lists and as one of the group of Friends of the Outback Way in the Federal Parliament, keep an eye on what you do and how you are doing it, but I do urge to think broadly, open the envelope so to speak and see if there are ways that we could bring forward the benefits that I know and you know will follow from the Outback Way.

So, Members of the Council, please, as I say keep up your work. Please keep in touch with me and through me, the Coalition and what we hope will be the next government in Australia, on ways that we can work together to achieve your goal.

Thanks again Patrick for having me and allowing me to say a few words. Again can I perhaps, on behalf of others who may not always articulate their thanks to you directly, thank you for what you continue to do. I know a lot of you have been around for a long time supporting this project. It would be very easy for you to all turn around and say, gee, weve got our own businesses or our own Councils to look after but please keep going. Congratulations, thanks for what youve done and can I assure you, and I think you know that yourselves, that you will achieve your goal somewhere along the line. Its not a question of if; its a question of when.

Good Luck and thanks for having me with you.

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