Regions and the Recovery

20 August 2020

An address to the Warwick Chamber of Commerce





Thanks for that introduction Julia [Keogh, Vice-President of the Warwick Chamber of Commerce]. I’d like to pay tribute to the work you do as a business owner, but also as President of the Warwick Collective, and co-founder of both the Business Network Warwick and Community Network of Warwick, and as an active member of the Women of Warwick group.

I pay my respects to the Githabul people as the traditional custodians of these lands and to their elders past and present.

To the producers in this room and across the country can I acknowledge the work you are doing keeping our supermarkets stocked and our people fed throughout this crisis.

From the committee, can I thank Kevin Reynolds [Secretary], Jane Pollard [Treasurer] and all the members here, and in doing so acknowledge the dedicated work of the Warwick Chamber since it was formed almost a century ago, in 1922.


The great staff here at the Criterion Hotel would know that this pub is only a little bit older than the Chamber itself.

When the Allman family laid the cornerstone for this building in 1917, Australia was on the cusp of what could be described as our first nationwide domestic disaster; within two years between one-quarter and a third of all Australians would contract the Spanish flu and around 15,000 died. In today’s terms this would translate to around 7.5 million COVID-19 cases and almost 75,000 deaths.

Of course, the Spanish flu followed fast behind the trauma and loss the First World War had inflicted on every community in Australia. The Warwick Amateur Rugby League honour roll pays tribute to the 19 local footballers who served and never saw home again.

This was the hard, sad tale across the country.

The twin disasters of a world war and the Spanish flu, combined with the failed economic policies of the Federal Government, saw unemployment fluctuate between 6 and 11 per cent throughout the 1920s and left the Australian economy dangerously exposed to international economic shocks. This proved disastrous following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression where unemployment peaked at around 30 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world.

Now we face a combination of challenges just as confronting and I want to talk about some of those today.


The last time I was here in Warwick was in November, also at Joel Richters’ invitation. Since then I’m really pleased to see he’s been endorsed as Labor’s candidate for the Southern Downs for the upcoming state election. Joel’s already an outstanding public servant to the people of this community at Darling Downs Health. And more broadly as Board Chair of the local disability and community support organisation Care Goondiwindi, an active member of Inglewood and Texas Landcare, and this Chamber of Commerce.

When I was driving here in November, it was towards the end of the fires which had affected parts of this region, but before the horrific fires engulfed large swathes of south-eastern Australia later that summer. I remember stopping for a pie at Aratula just on the other side of Cunningham’s Gap, the sky dark and the air thick with smoke from the Glen Rock and Main Range fires.

It’s pretty confronting to think of what’s happened since then and the impacts on you and surrounding communities.

Drought. Fires. Pandemic. Now recession.

We’re told time and again that the virus doesn’t discriminate but that doesn’t mean different people in different areas aren’t impacted very differently.

I’m here with Senator Anthony Chisholm and since I took on the role as Shadow Treasurer last July, we’ve organised several road trips and listening tours through regional and rural Queensland. It’s been worth it, despite having to endure his taste in music!

The reason we’ve spent so much time up north and out west, driven thousands of kilometres and visited so many towns and industries is not just to understand what you’ve been through and are going through, which is very important, but to understand what you need and where government fits in, for your community and for primary industries in particular.


My main point today is that if the Australian economy is to recover strongly from this recession then regional Australia, regional Queensland, and regional industries need to be a bigger part of the economic story.

That story needs to say very loudly and very clearly, our rural and regional areas aren’t just great places to visit, though they are, they’re great places to live and they are a foundation of Australia’s prosperity. 

Our regions provide most of our energy, most of our food and fibre, and most of our exports. While most of us live in our capital cities, and a large proportion of our economic capacity is in the capitals, that capacity is built in part on the economic prosperity of our rural and regional areas.

You have so many strengths; clean air, uncongested roads, beautiful attractions, an abundance of resources – but above all, resilient and resourceful people.

In its 2014 Regional Cities case study, the Regional Australia Institute (a Labor initiative) focused on people; the relative confidence, innovation and leadership shown by our rural communities and their leaders. It said that the starting point for stronger and more successful regions is to build upon local human capital.

That’s a pretty dry and official-sounding way of saying the most important thing for the health, strength and future of regional communities is you. Whether you’re from a family that has farmed this land for 100 years or a First Nations Person whose ancestors have cared for country for tens of thousands more – your knowledge, your expertise and your lived experiences are the most valuable resource we have and one that must be a guiding light in the post COVID recovery.

I bet you can reel off a long list of policies that crash-landed in Warwick from Canberra without local knowledge or insight or experience to inform them. I want to change that; Labor wants to change that; our agriculture spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon; our regional services spokesperson Jason Clare; our water spokesperson Terri Butler, our climate spokesman Mark Butler; and our leader Anthony Albanese all want to change that. That’s why our Queensland Labor Senators in Anthony here, Nita Green and Murray Watt, and our friend next door in Blair, Shayne Neumann, spend so much time in regional and rural Queensland.

We know as local leaders you know your regions best. You understand where the strengths and challenges are. You know which opportunities are most realistic and which are most likely to result in success.


Regions like yours have many businesses of all sizes and in different sectors of the economy. Today I want to focus on agriculture.

Every day, the world needs more of what you produce here in the Southern Downs. Global food demand exploded with the rise of the Asian middle class and will increase by 70 per cent in the next 30 years.

Before COVID, global agricultural demand was growing strongly, because of rising per capita incomes as well as population growth. Asia represented the fastest growing export region for the Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. Over the 20 years to 2018-19 exports to Australia’s eight largest markets in Asia increased 86 per cent to $33 billion and was responsible for 60 per cent of the total value of agriculture, fisheries and forestry exports in 2018–19.

Food demand in Asia was projected to double between 2007 and 2050, good news for exporters of high value and high-quality agricultural products like some of our best beef, vegetables, apples, wine grapes and strawberries produced here.

As a whole, the agriculture sector has experienced relatively strong underlying growth,  moderated by several major droughts over the last 20 years.

It was against this background the National Farmers Federation set the lofty target in 2017 of raising farm output from around $60 billion where it currently is to $100 billion by 2030.


Then came COVID-19.

Now we expect lower world prices for many agricultural commodities in 2020–21 and, domestically, a significant shock to household incomes, though overall demand for Australia's agricultural products is expected to remain relatively strong especially compared with other parts of our economy.

But we need to get the policies right, near-term and long-term.

We have seen some very significant missteps with the implementation of JobKeeper, which has excluded temporary visa holders and I know that has had an impact on seasonal farm labour, particularly on the Granite Belt. The Morrison Government promised a National Agriculture Workforce Strategy by July this year but have failed to deliver one. Scott Morrison owes it to Australians to come forward with a comprehensive plan for jobs, including addressing the labour shortage in agriculture this harvest season and finding a way to ensure local workers displaced by the recession are able to access work opportunities in regional areas.

We also need to recognise the Australian economic picture has become much more complex than the last recession of the early 1990s. The growth of knowledge industries, the unwinding of the mining and construction boom, the fall in manufacturing and the growing importance of health and aged services has dramatically changed our national economic composition.

While the current recession has hit our capital cities first and hardest, regional centres certainly aren’t spared, and job losses and firm closures in regional centres are more at risk of becoming permanent.

And that underlies a critical point: if we are to capitalise on the post-COVID agricultural opportunities we can’t afford for communities like yours to be hollowed out and left behind.

A key part of this is maintaining services in our regional areas, including the ABC which played such a crucial role in keeping communities across Australia safe during the bushfires over summer. Fundamentally regional Australia should have no lesser expectation of access to Government services than other Australians.

We need you to be supported now and into the future so when we move into the recovery you are ready to grab the opportunities within your reach. 


The reality is that, even as production is revived, gross value is forecast to increase by only 1 per cent to $61 billion next year because of falling prices. So, if we are to achieve the NFF’s $100 billion farm output goal and maintain our competitive advantage in agriculture we need to look at how we improve agricultural productivity and resilience.

In the past Australian agriculture was able to increase output by expanding the amount of land and water resources utilised by the sector. That’s no longer a viable option; instead, the amount of water and land resources available to agriculture has fallen significantly in recent decades and is predicted to contract further in the future.

If we’re going to seize the global opportunity of growing food demand, we need local expertise and we need national leadership.

When Labor was last in office, we worked with the sector to develop a National Food Plan. It was the first step to a broader re-think about what sustainable profitability looks like in the food and fibre sectors. Unfortunately, the White Paper that followed in 2015 was a missed opportunity to build on that work. That means investors are still working largely without government guidance or strategic support. Sadly, we’ve heard nothing about the new plan the Prime Minister promised at the Dubbo Bush Summit more than a year ago.

Even before COVID – despite the efforts of our growers and producers, there were plenty of warning signs we needed to think about some new directions. 

As the ACCC highlighted last year the Australian agricultural sector was previously a world-beater in productivity growth. For much of the 1980s and 1990s the agricultural sector recorded annual productivity growth rates of just under 2 per cent, making it close to the best performing sector in the entire economy.

Unfortunately, the millennium drought halted productivity growth in the first decade of the 2000s and over the last decade ABARES estimates that agriculture productivity has only averaged around 1 per cent per year. The difference between 1 per cent and 2 per cent annual productivity growth might not seem like much but it would mean a 22-year delay in reaching $100 billion farm output according to the ACCC.

With many of our competitors being low wage countries it is critical that we boost productivity. Some of this lost productivity is of course linked to drought and increased temperatures, but R&D investment has fallen significantly.

Climate change is a big part of the story here as well. This isn’t some inner-city pre-occupation. Communities like this one and growers in particular are already among the most affected. Last year ABARES estimated that climate change had reduced average farm profits by around 22 per cent since the turn of the millennium.

It’s a credit to the adaptation techniques of our agricultural sector that the impact of climate change has not been bigger already.

That’s why the National Farmers Federation has joined the BCA, AiG, every state and territory government, the scientific experts and of course Federal Labor in adopting a target for net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero emissions by 2050 is not only a goal we need to meet to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts but if delivered will lead to more jobs and more income for our agricultural sector.

We need to mitigate risks by ensuring that we continue to proactively work on both adaptation and climate change mitigation strategies.


Making our regional and rural centres more resilient also means investment in energy, communications, water, digital and transport infrastructure.

I know in the Southern Downs water security is an issue, with the Storm King Dam still at critically low levels. That’s why we’re off to Stanthorpe tonight and visiting the sight of the new Emu Swamp Dam site on Friday, and talking with the Granite Belt Water office before heading back towards Esk.

And when we are talking about investment in infrastructure, we need a deeper recognition of the role local government, especially in regional areas, can play as a delivery mechanism in the post COVID recovery. 

When we look at productivity and resilience in agriculture, we also need to be focusing on how we best incorporate digital technologies like the use of GPS and monitoring systems into agriculture.

But of course, in the end, productivity is also about people.

People think of growers and producers as traditionalists, as conservatives. But agriculture has always been an industry that embraces new technology, new methods, new ideas.

If we want our farms to continue to be more productive and more competitive in the years ahead, then it’s the responsibility of government to train and provide an agriculture workforce that has the skills and smarts to design, adopt and implement new technology.

That’s why we need to protect and enhance our regional universities and TAFEs as well, a point made repeatedly to Anthony and I on our road trips including most recently in the mining communities around Emerald.


At the start of my speech I said if the Australian economy is to recover strongly from this recession then regional Australia, regional Queensland, and regional industries need to be a bigger part of the economic story. But we need a plan – for agriculture and for jobs more broadly.

To achieve the NFF’s $100 billion agricultural target we need to make skills and people; research and innovation; transport, water, energy, communications and digital infrastructure; climate change; and local leadership all much higher priorities than they are now.


Thanks for having me here as the Shadow Treasurer today to touch on a few of these important issues.

I want to be part of a government that helps Australia climb out of this recession, to build a recovery that brings growth and opportunity to every corner of this country. And achieving that depends on engaging with regional Queensland, listening and learning.

We want to win the next election with a plan that speaks for Warwick as well as Western Sydney.

And – to finish where I started – putting that plan together depends on genuinely listening to you and your communities. So I’ll leave it there and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.