NATIONALS Deputy Leader and Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash has outlined further plans to bolster the potential for decentralising government agencies and also pushing commercial businesses out into country centres.
In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra today, Senator Nash also revealed a new mental health initiative that’s a direct result of the recently convened Regional Ministerial Taskforce chaired by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
And the new Taskforce, of which she is Deputy Chair, will also be playing a key role in strengthening the Coalition’s bold decentralisation plans.
That policy push has ignited a vicious debate over the merits of relocating the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale, in the New England electorate of Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
But other farm related agencies like the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Rural Industries RDC have already moved in full or partly out of Canberra, into regional areas, while other agencies like the Murray Darling Basin Authority are also following that lead and have been slated for further relocation plans.
Senator Nash said regional people deserved the benefits of government departments and the careers and flow-on benefits they bring just as much as city people do - noting Australia’s departments are far more centralised than those in the US and UK.
She said she would now be responsible for creating a template for government ministers to assess which departments are suitable for decentralisation by mid-year.
Senator Nash said government departments would need to either indicate that they’re suitable to move to the regions - or justify why all or part of their operation was unsuitable.
She said all portfolio ministers would need to report back to federal cabinet by August on which of their departments are suitable to be moved out into regional Australia and relevant ministers must also report to cabinet with “robust business cases” for decentralisation by December.
“Moving government departments to the regions puts more money in our towns, more customers in our shops, more students in our schools and more volunteers in our local fire brigade,” she said.
“It also creates more career opportunities for our children to enable them to stay in the communities they grew up in.
“Those careers will help lure some of our young guns back to the bush as well as some city people to our regions, relieving the burden on our bursting capital cities.
“It’s important for government to lead by example and invest in rural, regional and remote Australia, creating long term careers and confidence in those communities - and we’re doing it.”
Senator Nash also revealed potential plans around corporate decentralisation, saying it had been a “huge success” as demonstrated by Mars in Albury-Wodonga and the Macquarie Bank setting-up offices in Orange and Albury Wodonga.
In meetings with national business leaders last week, she said a suggestion had been made that a database listing the strengths and natural advantages of Australia’s regions, as they related to business, would be helpful.
That database would include local workforce skills and intellectual capacity, local infrastructure including transport links, natural advantages like climate for a wine region or access to reliable irrigation water, and established local industries and businesses which an arriving business could work with or service, she said.
Senator Nash said businesses interested in establishing in regional Australia could look up which part of the nation was best suited for them and save costs because rents, rates and setup costs were far cheaper in the country.
“Corporate decentralisation is a long-term project and I intend to work hard on it,” she said.
Senator Nash also revealed plans for a $9 million budget initiative that will aim to boost rural psychological services and is set to be rolled-out later this year.
She said it was the first initiative resulting from the announcement of the Regional Ministerial Taskforce, which met for the first time last month in Canberra.
From November 1, people in rural and regional Australia can claim a Medicare rebate for online video-conferencing consultations with psychologists and other health professionals who might be thousands of kilometres away.
“No longer will they have the inconvenience, time and expense of having to travel to larger regional centres or major cities for sessions with their psychologist,” Senator Nash said.
“Health professionals will be able to connect sooner and more regularly with patients in need of psychological services.”
She said the new initiative would cost $9m over four years from 2017–18 to 2020–21.
Other members of the Regional Ministerial Taskforce include; Nationals leader and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce; Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester; Resources and Northern Australia Minister Matt Canavan; Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham; Trade, Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Arthur Sinodinos; Health and Sports Minister Greg Hunt; and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.
The Taskforce also has the opportunity to co-opt other cabinet ministers as required and when necessary.
“It will allow us to have a cross-portfolio taskforce that can focus on the best way to continue and expand our investment in the regions, from across government and not just the regional development portfolio,” Senator Nash said last month.
“It’s really important that we don’t consider issues in silos and that our thinking goes well beyond the next electoral cycle.
“For me it’s a very, long-term strategic taskforce to look at investing even further in regional Australia.”