Interview with Adam Stephen – ABC Far North Queensland Drive – Wednesday, 9 September 2020


SUBJECTS: Anthony Albanese’s vision statement on regional jobs

ADAM STEPHEN, HOST: Jason Clare is the Opposition Spokesman for Regional Services. He’s with us this afternoon on ABC Radio across regional Queensland. Jason, thanks for joining us.

JASON CLARE: G’day Adam, how are you going?

STEPHEN: I’m alright. So what is this principle of smart regionalisation, and how might it apply to Queensland?

CLARE: Well, the point Albo was making today was that if you want regions to flourish, you got to do more than just move a couple of public servants out of Canberra. You’ve actually got to provide the roads, the rail links, the port infrastructure, the services in the hospitals, the GPs, the schools, the universities, the whole box and dice if you’re going to attract more people to come and live and work in the regions, and at its essence, you know, that’s what Albo was talking about today.

STEPHEN: Most Australians live in cities, and they choose to do that for a variety of reasons. But there are often better paying jobs in the cities, more jobs in the cities and better services in the cities. So it’s a romantic notion to think that regional Australia could be a place where we could see some kind of migration from the city to the bush and that might help fuel economic development, but how do we actually achieve that?

CLARE: Well look, you make a good point Adam, and I think half the jobs that have been created in Australia in the last 10 years have been within just two kilometres of the centre of Sydney CBD and Melbourne CBD. But something that we’re all dealing with at the moment is COVID and how it’s transforming our own lives at the moment. For a lot of employers, their workers are working at home, and they’re realising that “Hey, the same job can be done and that person doesn’t need to be sitting at the desk next to me”. So there is an opportunity, I think, and, I’ve heard this in hearings that the Regional Australia Committee’s been having in Canberra, that more bosses will be happy for their employees to work remotely into the future. That means for people who do want to live in the regions, there’s an opportunity to do that.

STEPHEN: If there was so few jobs in regional Australia in June compared to the people that were unemployed, does it kind of kill the argument that regional Australia can be some kind of great untapped resource to help rebuild the economy?

CLARE: Well, it already is, you know. It’s two thirds of what we export in dollar terms comes out of the regions. But you’re right, you said it in your introduction, the regions are suffering more in this recession than the big cities. There’s only four people unemployed in Canberra for every job ad in the paper, but there’s 30 in regional Queensland, so that means that there’s something wrong there that needs to be fixed.

We all remember the GFC a decade ago – Cairns, Townsville were two places that got absolutely smashed by the GFC. But people like Bill Kelty and Lindsay Fox were brought together by the then Labor Government. I was part of that group as well. We sat down with the local community, came up with local employment plans, ran job expos, put local employment coordinators in place there and it helped to bring the unemployment rate down. We could do that again. We could help to create more local jobs by doing that.

One of the other things that Albo talked about today was manufacturing. Now Cairns has got a great marine maintenance industry. Just down the road you’ll see other examples of mining maintenance at work. Go all the way down close to Brisbane to Maryborough, you can see trains being built. We can build more trains in Australia in the regions rather than making them in South Korea or India, like a lot of state governments tend to do. That’s just one example of how we can make more things here in Australia. And another thing COVID taught us is you can’t rely on masks or ventilators to come from overseas. You’ve got to have the capacity to do that here. And the regions could be great places to do that.

STEPHEN: At this time yesterday, Jason Clare, I was speaking with someone involved in the manufacturing sector. They provide conveying equipment, conveyor belts and the like for mines further west of Mackay. But he said it’s a great idea that you know, that we need to bring more manufacturing onshore but the reality is that customers are going to have to be willing to pay more for products in Australia because we just can’t compete with other parts of the world in terms of cost. The labour cost are so much cheaper than ours that we just really struggle to compete on the international stage. Is it a bit of a false promise to suggest that we can, you know, get a new golden age of manufacturing in Australia? Is that unrealistic when we have to actually compete against other countries?

CLARE: Well you compete on price, but you can also compete on quality. And if the Australian product is better, people are going to buy it. And particularly when it’s taxpayer dollars, when governments are buying trains, if they’re building them in Australia, then it’s not just the price of the contract for how many trains you build and how much they cost, but all of that money that you pay the workers and pay the company to build the trains gets spent in the local economy. So rather than a couple of billion dollars going overseas and being spent there in shops over there to build those trains, if it’s all happening here in Australia, then that makes the Australian economy stronger. So from a government point of view, it just makes a lot of sense.

STEPHEN: We are having to spend a lot of money, we have already just trying to keep this economic downturn at bay. But at some point, the piper will have to be paid. How much debt are you comfortable with Australia racking up if we’re to go on a big spending spree to use government spending to fuel jobs and build the manufacturing sector? How much debt would you be comfortable with us racking up before we actually have to start thinking about paying it back?

CLARE: You’re right. You know, we were told we were going to be in surplus. Now, there’s massive debt and deficit. But let me give you one example of something that wouldn’t add to government debt or deficit that could be done right now. You’ve got the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, that $5 billion fund that’s designed to help to build the north. It’s all off budget so it doesn’t add to debt or deficit. It was announced five years ago, but still less than 5% of its been spent. Only one project, north of Brisbane has been approved and funded out at Townsville Airport. Now if the Government got their act together and started investing that money in projects in the north, it would create jobs, create wealth, help to get some of the people we’re talking about today who are unemployed back to work. And it wouldn’t add to debt or deficit at all.

STEPHEN: Do you feel, or do you sense that we will see some kind of migration? It’s happening in the States already. There’s been all these photos shared online of U-haul trucks at the front of New York apartments, people deciding they don’t want to live in big cities. The pandemic’s really driven that point home. Maybe that’s the case in international countries, but do you feel like that might happen in Australia as well with people that have been locked down in Melbourne, for instance, for a long time? Is there a sense that we might see some kind of migration and we should try and funnel that into areas where people would be best suited?

CLARE: I think that’s definitely the case. You know, not everybody’s going to want to move out of cities. It depends on where your family is, where your friends are, the type of job you do. I guess the point I’m making is that more jobs will be able to be done remotely than ever before. I know there’s people in Melbourne busting their guts to get up to Cairns to have a holiday as soon as they can. I’m in New South Wales and I’ve got family in Queensland, can’t wait until I can see them again. We’ve got to get through this crisis. But this crisis is accelerating lots of big changes. I was talking to someone from a bank the other day who said that the decline in the amount of cash we use has been fast tracked by this. We’re all using cards to a greater extent and less cash. Woolies need less cash for their cash registers than ever before. And the same’s true in the way people work. More people work from home either all the time or part of the time. So that creates an opportunity for places that want to attract people from the cities to come and live there. But you’ve got to have the healthcare services, you’ve got to have the broadband, you’ve got to have the local university or the local TAFE courses if you’re going to attract people to come and stay and raise their family.

STEPHEN: Jason Clare, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon.

CLARE: No worries, thanks Adam.