We need a vision and leadership for regional Australia

We need a vision and leadership for regional Australia Main Image

By Kristy McBain

24 November 2021

I'm standing here with a feeling of deja vu. Last year, I spoke to parliament about how my communities were looking forward to the summer that was just gone. They were looking forward to people coming back into our towns for businesses to get the kickstart they needed. Instead, what we saw was a COVID outbreak in Sydney that forced the Victorian border to close, which meant thousands fled my communities and lined up for hours at the border to get home. Last summer did not bring the benefits that we expected.

Almost one year on, I stand here again filled with optimism for another summer and the lifeline that a boost to the tourism season will bring to my communities. Over the past couple of weeks I've travelled and met with people in the Snowy valleys, Cooma, Jindabyne, Nimmitabel, Bywong, Bungendore and Merimbula. I've travelled hundreds of kilometres meeting with constituents to see how they're feeling as we once again try to move towards recovery following this pandemic. Our coastal communities and those inland in Cooma and Tumut are vastly different, yet when I visited these regions they all raised the same issues: telecommunications, tourism, roads and housing.

These issues are always front-of-mind in my communities, but locals are more concerned now more than ever because issues that were once bubbling away under the surface are now front and centre. The pandemic has shifted the way people want to live and work. Remote work has become a reality and people are seeing the benefits of living, working and raising their children in regional areas. And I don't blame them. I grew up in a regional area. Although I came to Canberra to go to university and begin my career, I was quick to return to the coast and the regional community I love. But, with this shift to our regional towns, we are seeing the demand for homes to buy, rent or build go through the roof. This does create opportunity but it is also creating a housing crisis for the vulnerable members of our community. Demand is outstripping supply and, unfortunately, locals are being priced out of the market and out of their homes.

What we are seeing now in our regional communities are the effects of a lack of planning, a lack of foresight and a lack of preparation in regional development. It is time or this to change. It is time for an all-of-government approach to regionalisation. We need a federal government that will stand up and play a leadership role in the development of our regions and will work alongside our local and state governments. Our regional communities already know what's required to ensure they are prepared for the future. They just need the backing of all levels of government to make it happen.

Last week I attended a community meeting in Bywong, and I met with the Nimmitabel Chamber of Commerce. Both of these communities raised concerns about local roads but, in particular, major highways that surround them. Time and again I'm asked whether there is federal funding available to fix or improve Eden-Monaro highways. And every time, I provide the same answer: yes, there is funding available, but ongoing funding is only provided if the road is identified as a road of strategic importance. This government has identified a number of roads across the country which they deem to be of great importance to our nation. Unfortunately, key transport routes for timber, livestock and produce and the increasingly busy tourist drives and highways across Eden-Monaro are not included on that list.

Only one road in the entire Eden-Monaro electorate—an electorate that is the size of Switzerland and covers more than 40,000 square kilometres—is considered a road of strategic importance. That means that only one road in this region receives regular federal funding, and that is the Barton Highway. When people ask me why the Barton Highway is the only road to receive regular funding and why the Monaro Highway, the Kings Highway, the Snowy Mountains Highway or the Princes Highway are not on the list, I can't answer. There is no visibility as to why some roads have been chosen and others haven't. This is a point of frustration in my communities.

As we start to move on from this pandemic, tourism providers, local chambers, individuals and businesses are all planning and preparing for what is next. They want a long-term plan, not just one to get through summer. They are being creative and coming up with some fantastic and innovative ways to encourage more people to leave the cities and to spend time in regional areas year round. But many fear the state of roads and the safety concerns around these are a deterrent to people who would otherwise love to visit. We have huge stretches of highway in my region that are major transport routes that don't have any overtaking lanes.

The fact is that the state of regional roads is endemic of a broader problem and a lack of vision that we are seeing from this government. Our regional areas need a plan. They need a plan for proper investment in infrastructure. They need leadership at national level so that they can plan at community level. They need a government with vision. And, after eight long years, it's clear that that is something that this government doesn't have.