Regions And The Recovery

10 November 2021

Address to Advance Cairns Regional Priorities Breakfast













Thanks for that introduction and to Advance Cairns for the opportunity to join you all for breakfast here in one of the most beautiful parts of this country.

I acknowledge the Gimuy-walubarra yidi people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and acknowledge the elders and customs of all First Nations people.

Paul (Sparshott, CEO Advance Cairns) can I say how much I’m looking forward to working with you in your new role as CEO; and Nick (Trompf), it’s great to see you moving into the role of a dedicated Chair. Congratulations to you both.

I know I speak for Elida (Faith), our candidate for Leichhardt who is here today, and Senator Nita Green who is still in home quarantine, when I say federal Labor looks forward to continuing what has been a really productive relationship with Advance Cairns – the fruits of which will be obvious to all of you with the announcement we are making today.

I know that state minister and local member Craig Crawford and representatives from Cairns Regional Council and the Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils are all here today too – it’s great to see you as well.

We all see this group as an important force-multiplier for Far North Queensland, working alongside the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Tropical North Queensland, the state government, the local council and the industries represented in this room today.

So it’s the perfect forum for two points I want to make today: one broadly, about regional Queensland; the second about what we can specifically do together, here in Cairns.

The Economies of Regional Queensland

The broader point is that if we want the national economy to recover strongly then the economies of regional Queensland need to be a bigger part of the story.

Having spent so much time in the regions with our Senators – Anthony, Nita and Murray – with Anthony Albanese, and now with great candidates like Elida – speaking with workers and businesses in every corner of our state – I’m more convinced of this now than ever.

In 55 visits to 29 different cities and towns this parliamentary term, I’ve seen for myself not just the contribution the regions are making already but the big opportunities ahead.

For Emerald Coaches in Western Queensland, who are planning and building a hydrogen bus fleet.

For our young miners training at the world-class Mining Centre of Excellence in Mackay.

For Dino who runs the Rizzato & Sons apple orchard near Stanthorpe.

For Gladstone, which thanks to the partnership between the Palaszczuk Government and Fortescue Future Industries will double the world's green hydrogen production capacity and bring thousands of jobs to Queensland’s energy industry in the coming years.

For Downer-EDI in Maryborough, which is building 65 new trains to expand the capacity of the SEQ rail network ahead of the 2032 Olympics.

And for the North-West where I was at the gas fired Diamantina Power Station near Mt Isa yesterday, which will soon be supported by a 44-Megawatt solar farm that will reduce both the average cost of electricity in that region, as well as emissions.

The Tropical Far North Economy

The regional cities and towns and industries of Queensland have done, and are doing, so much of the heavy lifting, and they offer up so much in terms of future prosperity as well.

But the harsh effects of the recession and its aftermath have been felt disproportionately by some regions and some industries.

Manufacturing, mining, health care and social services, and professional and scientific services have seen employment growth since the early COVID-19 lockdowns and some parts of agriculture have done well since the beginning of the pandemic.

Some regions are recovering stronger than others.

But if you’re exposed to international traffic, and you rely heavily on tourism or international higher education, not just directly but to support other local small businesses, you’ve had a much harder time.

Obviously, this is not a revelation to you.

You don’t need reminding that Far North Queensland has been one of the hardest hit regional economies during the pandemic.

You know that here in Cairns, arrivals dropped by almost 64 per cent, and international visitors went from almost 55,000 in 2019 to just 460 in 2020.

At the same time Cairns’ Gross Regional Product contracted by 7.7 per cent in the June 2020 quarter and unemployment hit 9.4 per cent in May 2020.

Even now, employment is still down almost 8 per cent in Cairns and the local participation rate is 7.5 percentage points lower than it was in February 2020.

I see the Advance Cairns report talks about how the Cairns labour force has shrunk by almost five per cent.

In a weak labour market many of you are now dealing with skills and labour shortages as well – a double whammy.

I’ve heard this time and again.

Of those 55 regional Queensland visits I mentioned earlier, this is my seventh to Cairns.

More times here than to another other regional town or city in Australia.

Back and forth, to stand with Nita and call for more JobKeeper support for local employers.

To talk with Ken (Chapman) from Skyrail, Mark (Olsen) from Tourism Tropical North Queensland and individual operators like Sonjha (Forbes) from Entrada – who’d lost two thirds of her staff, and to consult with Advance Cairns and other groups.

To understand the pressures here, the fears of a great community being hollowed out, but also to hear about the opportunities and how we might work together to grab them.

I know you don’t just want patch-ups and catch-ups you need leadership, ambition and vision.

We don’t just want this town and your region to limp through the worst of the pandemic, we want you to stride out of it.

We don’t want this part of the country to be a basket case, we want it to be a powerhouse.

Not triaged, but super-charged.

We want Cairns and the Tropical Far North to be a much, much bigger part of a broader story of economic success and prosperity and optimism coming out of this pandemic.

This means rebuilding local manufacturing through Labor’s National Reconstruction Fund, to create new jobs, diversify the economy and focus on the regions.

It means proper action on climate change and stable energy policy to protect our environment, reduce emissions and bring down the costs of energy to support industry.

It means utilising the NAIF to its full potential.

It means more social housing, a big issue here in Cairns, through a Housing Australia Future Fund for 30,000 social and affordable homes across the country.

It means bridging the skills gap which has been exacerbated by COVID-19 by establishing Jobs and Skills Australia to match the training we provide with the skills gaps of industry and by requiring that one job in ten on major Federal projects be filled with an Australian apprentice.

Skills and the Local Labor Market

But there’s more we can do when it comes to training.

And this brings me to my second main point today – and it’s a commitment to help meet the skills challenges here in Cairns and the surrounding areas.

COVID-19 has eroded the human capital in this local economy.

This point has been well made to me and the Federal Labor team by Nick and so many others – it’s something that Nita and Elida understand very well.

If we let the skills and expertise of the region erode, then you won’t be able to grab the economic opportunities that present themselves into the recovery and beyond.

Central Queensland University has identified significant skills gaps in the Cairns region, across the allied health professions as well as engineering, IT and business areas.

Earlier this year over a quarter of all the jobs being advertised in Cairns were for degree qualified workers, with many going unfilled for months.

We cannot allow regional centres like Cairns to miss out on those opportunities because we did not take the time to anticipate the challenges and embrace the possibilities.

That’s one of the key reasons we fought to keep JobKeeper going for the parts of the economy which still needed support.

Unfortunately, the Federal Government rebuffed and ignored our calls. 

As a result, many employees lost their connection with their employer, leaving many businesses now searching for workers.

It is clear that we will need to address local skills shortages.

And that this region cannot rely disproportionately on its natural beauty.

Tourism is and will remain a core pillar of the local economy, but we need to broaden the economic base to recover with confidence and in a sustainable way.

I know this is a key theme of your priorities list which we are launching today.

It highlights significant opportunities for investment in health, education, agriculture, defence, water security, tourism and transport infrastructure which will help the traditional industries of Cairns and Far North Queensland to recover but also foster and promote new industries.

A New CQU Campus for Cairns

You also call for new investments in higher education, including a new campus for Central Queensland University here in the Cairns CBD.

That’s why I am pleased to be able to announce today that an Albanese Labor Government will invest $50 million to help CQU construct a new campus in the heart of Cairns.

The new campus opposite the Convention Centre will create almost 780 jobs over the long-term, directly and indirectly, and contribute $500 million to the local economy over 10 years.

It will double CQU’s student enrolments from just over 2,100 in 2020 to over 4,000 in 2030.

The project is shovel ready and would provide an immediate boost to this economy.

And the location of the new campus will complement existing infrastructure and effectively create a knowledge precinct in the Cairns CBD.

The new campus will provide improved opportunities for training and higher education which will address the significant skills gaps identified in the region around allied and mental health, engineering, and technology.

Addressing this skills gap will be critical for the diversification of the regional economy and to ensure Cairns and Far North Queensland has the capacity to grab the opportunities available in the post COVID economy. 

Until now, CQU’s Cairns campuses have been developed without any government support.

Labor under Anthony Albanese’s leadership and with our regional development spokesperson Catherine King, our Northern Australia spokesperson, Murray Watt and Education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek – all of whom have been strong supporters of this project – are ready to change that.

We are ready to step up and work with you to rebuild and expand Cairns’ skills and knowledge base.

And we are ready to work with you on your other priorities as well.


We want this region to be a bigger part of the economic conversation, not just a big part of the political conversation as an election nears.

We don’t know when it will be, maybe March or May, but we do know what it will be about –whether our economy and society can be better after COVID than it was before.

This requires an ambitious plan shaped by an honest appraisal of our challenges and willingness to address them.

Advance Cairns and many of the organisations here today are part of that.

Now you need a national government that understands the different challenges and opportunities in regional Queensland and believes in you enough to invest in you.

Elida, Nita, Anthony and I are ready to work with you and for you, and I hope I’ve given you today a firmer sense of the why and the how.

Thank you.