BRAIDWOOD FM WITH ROD MCLURE
FRIDAY, 9 DECEMBER, 2022
SUBJECTS: Local government funding, Telecommunications black spot program, Energy prices, Robodebt royal commission, Factors impacting regional areas
ROD MCLURE, HOST: As we have been doing regularly on Braidwood FM, our local member and Minister for Communities and Regions, Kristy McBain is on the line. Kristy, can you hear me?
KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Good afternoon – no, it’s good morning.
ROD MCLURE: I fooled you, didn’t I?
KRISTY MCBAIN: You sure did. I think it’s getting to that time of the year. We were just saying, you know, the overload of trying to organise Christmas lunch and Christmas shopping can be a bit hard at times.
ROD MCLURE: It certainly can. There’s no doubt about that. Well, it’s our last interview for the year, I expect. And you must be very, very proud of how Labor has gone in its first six months. What do you regard as your key achievements, first of all as a Minister and then as our Member for Eden-Monaro?
KRISTY MCBAIN: I think it has been a very, very busy six months. There has been a whole stack of work going on and the legislative change that has occurred in that six months alone has been quite significant. I think one of the biggest things, though, and what a lot of people spoke to me about on election day and in the lead-up to the election was around making sure that we did have a National Anti-Corruption Commission put in place, and that legislation passing in the last week of Parliament I think was a real milestone for the Government but also for the Australian public who were so focused in the election on integrity and how that was going to be applied to federal politicians, to departmental staff, to people working within that federal sector. And I think that will be a real moment of history, you know. It is the first time there’s been a federal National Anti-Corruption Commission, and I think that was well past its due date.
ROD MCLURE: I suspect it might be focusing some people’s attention, too.
KRISTY MCBAIN: Look, I really hope it does focus people’s attention on what their sole responsibility is. And, you know, we take really seriously our job to represent our constituents. And, you know, I wouldn’t want that called into question at any time. When you’re representing people in Eden-Monaro it’s an honour and a privilege to serve in Parliament, and people should view it that way.
ROD MCLURE: Well, it’s good to have a good Local Member there I can assure you. And is it the one thing, both as Local Member and as Minister?
KRISTY MCBAIN: I think, you know, as I said, a lot of people spoke to me about it in the election. So, I think that having that legislated really delivers on what the electorate was saying, which was super important. There was a bunch of other legislative change which a lot of people spoke to me about, including I think we’ve now dealt with 36 recommendations of the Aged Care Royal Commission in six months.
ROD MCLURE: Yes.
KRISTY MCBAIN: The previous Government managed to deal with nine in 15 months. So, we’ve been heavily focused on aged care and what that means. And I’ve been having regular conversations with Minister Anika Wells about regional and rural aged care, because I think the model needs to be improved or changed for our regions definitely. I think that there are a lot of people that spoke about making sure that we were serious in taking action on climate change and seeing that 43 per cent emissions reduction target now enshrined as part of our framework I think is really important. That’s been fantastic.
Cheaper childcare and cheaper medicines, you know, were one of the big issues across the place. I think Eden-Monaro has one of the – had one of the largest increases in childcare fees across the country with about a 14.1 per cent increase in Tumbarumba alone from one financial year to the next. And we know it’s a big chunk of family budgets. So great to see that passed.
And from the 1st of January next year for the first time in its more than 70-year inception we are seeing the biggest decrease in medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, so medicines going from $42.50 down to $30. And I know that will make a huge difference to people right across this electorate but especially across regional Australia.
I think one of the biggest things I’ve done as Minister, I’ve met with now over 170 councils across the country. I’ve met with every Regional Development Australia Board and I’m really heavily focused on making sure that we have meaningful regional development policy going forward, and that we’re actually working together in a more joined-up approach to deliver on those place-based solutions that people are telling us about.
So there’s three levels of government working closely together, pulling in private enterprise where we need toc, and making sure that we are making it easier to live in the regions, to work in the regions and to invest in our regions.
ROD MCLURE: That brings me to the next question – and you knew I was going to ask you this, I think – council rates are still a hot topic in Braidwood, and I suspect they are elsewhere, too. You know, it’s interesting that you talked about pulling State, Local, Federal together. If rates go up, rents will go up. That will really hurt people. Has there been any brilliant ideas as to how we can move forward from rate rises that might be very, very difficult for people?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Yeah, look, it’s extremely difficult now across the country for a number of local council areas who have been impacted by natural disaster but also are subject to state rate capping. And I think this year in New South Wales it was 1.7 per cent and it’s been as low as 0.7 per cent. And, you know, when we look at our own household bills, we know things are escalating at a much quicker rate than that. You know, the local construction cost index shows us that the cost of materials and contractors has risen by more than 7 per cent. We know insurance is rising and electricity is rising. So, you know, there are some definite financial constraints on councils that they are having to deal with.
I think of the six Local Government areas that are within the Eden-Monaro electorate, three of them are going for special rate variations and one had gone for that special rate variation last year; and it looks like the other two will have to go down that path at some point in the near future. I think that there really is a need to have a look at financial sustainability for local councils. And to that end, a couple of weeks ago I held the first Local Government Ministers meeting with the states and territories and one of our key themes was financial sustainability. So we are coming together again in March following the New South Wales State Election. There’s been some ideas put on the table from different jurisdictions, and we are going to sort of work out how that would best apply across the country, and work together to make sure that we are assisting councils, I guess, especially around those grants, grant programs.
And what councils are usually telling me is that they need more untied grant funds to implement community priorities, and we’ll look at how we can support them. But the Federal Government every year provides financial assistance grants to Australia’s 546 councils. In the 2022-23 budget there’s $2.9 billion going out to councils. On top of that we have our $500 million in Roads to Recovery funding. We’ve invested $750 million in the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Fund which is an increase on the previous Government’s commitment by an extra $250 million. And we are also providing a number of bridge programs and heavy vehicle programs which assist local councils.
But we will always look to where we can bring people together and work in a more coordinated fashion. I think that’s one thing the sector is asking for is, you know, to have a seat at the table to be able to put some input into the big things happening, which is why the local government sector through their peak body, the Australian Local Government Association, now has a seat back at national cabinet; and we are bringing back the Australian Council of Local Governments, which was instituted originally by the now Prime Minister back when he was in a similar role to this in 2008. So, bringing those councils to Canberra to speak directly with the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers over the big pressing issues impacting the sector.
ROD MCLURE: I think that’s terrific, actually. Because I was going to ask you about tied and untied grants, and you’ve answered that already. And, look, it’s really good. It’s obvious that thought is being given to it. And the fact that there are channels for communication, that’s just so important.
Well, how are we getting along with fixing the black spots?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Well, we definitely have some work underway. I’m really proud that our Government is prioritising work in the telecommunications sector. We’ve got one of the biggest investments in the NBN since its inception – $2.4 billion going to roll out more fibre to premises across the country. In Eden‑Monaro I think that’s an additional 17,000 homes and small businesses who will have access to that. We’ve also put investment into the fixed wireless network to connect more of our homes to fixed wireless and hopefully free up the satellite network for people who really do truly need that satellite connection.
We’ve got $646 million going into our Mobile Phone Black Spots Program, and there are a number of commitments that I made during the election to dealing with black spots. And it was really around giving that credence to the lived experience of people especially during the Black Summer Bushfires who, you know, really struggled to get reception even on our main transport corridors.
So there’s a million dollars of funding along the Kings Highway, along the Monaro Highway and along the Snowy Mountains Highway, and then $3.5 million along the Princes Highway from Ulladulla down to Eden. So really focusing on those major transport corridors. And then we’ve got some particular commitments for towns across Eden-Monaro who have particular issues. So we’re really heavily focused on it, and we’ll continue to work with local communities to deal with those big black spot concerns.
ROD MCLURE: That sounds very, very promising. And certainly during the fires there were big problems, as we both know. So that’s tremendous, Kristy.
Now, a couple of curlier questions: I know there’s a meeting today on the cost of energy. And companies are making huge profits at the moment, quite big windfalls, from mines that in one form or another, taxpayers help to get going. Isn’t it about time that these people, these multinational companies in particular, who’ve threatened, ‘Oh, no more exploration or development if you do this.’ isn’t it about time they were reined in a little bit?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Well, we’ve had the Energy Minister Chris Bowen working really closely with his state and territory counterparts. And they met yesterday and there’s already been a lot of media on the capacity-building across the country and firming our transition to renewables by long-term battery storage. National cabinet obviously is meeting today virtually because of the Prime Minister being in isolation. And we’re all aware that energy remains a big concern. And whilst we won’t pre-empt any decisions of National Cabinet, we know that energy will be on that agenda. And I have no doubt that there will be more work – sorry, more announcements to come in regards to energy.
But this comes after, you know, a decade of the previous Government where we saw 4 gigawatts of dispatchable energy leave the sector and only 1 gigawatt replacing it. What the sector is after is certainty. And I think now they have that with our 43 per cent target by 2030 and investing money into transmission because we all know our power bills also consist of a maintenance component. So if we can help our communities by dealing with that transition – transmission maintenance, but also making sure that we can get more renewables into the grid then we will see power bills coming down.
ROD MCLURE: Yes, and, of course, it’s affecting industry as well. And that affects jobs.
KRISTY MCBAIN: That’s right. And at a time where we’ve just been through the COVID pandemic and we saw how incredibly hard it was to get things into Australia because we are at the end of the supply chain, it is more important now than ever to focus on how we get our energy mix right, so that we can see more manufacturing happening onshore again. It is a huge part of our Government’s plan to make more things in Australia, to be able to use our own Government procurement powers to make sure that we are supporting local jobs in local industries.
ROD MCLURE: OK. You may or may not be able to give an answer on this: Robodebt didn’t affect me at a personal level, but I worked as a volunteer with someone that it did. And he stood to lose $80 out of his JobSeeker income, and it would have been devastating if that had have happened. Now, fortunately it worked out differently. For a number of people, it’s been reported it didn’t – they actually ended their lives.
I know there’s a Royal Commission and we already know that public servants advised that the process was illegal as early as 2014. Do you think that the people who were the architects of this will ever really face the consequences of the damage that was done? And is an apology enough?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Well, we are seeing the Royal Commission into Robodebt take place now. And it was an election commitment of our Government to get to that bottom of when the Government, previous Government, knew that this was an illegal method of dealing with some of those overpayments. And I think the most important thing for us to establish is who knew what and when but, most importantly, put in place steps to ensure that this never happens again.
We have seen some tragic outcomes of Robodebt already, and we are hearing more and more of those stories in the Royal Commission. We’ve now been told that the previous Liberal Government’s own lawyers warned them two years prior to Robodebt’s implementation that it may have been unlawful. And it looks like it was still proceeded with. So, we need to make sure that we’re establishing what mistakes were made so that that won’t happen again. This Royal Commission isn’t about, you know, finding the person responsible and hauling them in front of the criminal justice system; it is about ensuring that good governments going forward have learnt those lessons, learnt those mistakes and never repeat them.
ROD MCLURE: Yeah, I think the word "never" there is really, really important. Okay. Lighter stuff now. Column 5 recently had a tale re a child watching his mum shell peas. Now he was very used to frozen peas and he suddenly said, “Hey, Dad, look at where Mum’s getting the peas from!” Now, do our city cousins really comprehend the problems of regional and rural Australia?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Look, there are a lot of people that don’t live in the regions who probably have very limited understanding of some of the things that we deal with on a regular basis. You know, speaking to a metropolitan Member of Parliament who told me that he had a real wait to see a GP and it took him two weeks and I said, “That’s nothing.” So, look, it really dawned on me having a conversation with a group of kids once and there was a local family and they had cousins down from the city and one of the kids said to me, “I really love coming here because I can actually see the stars,” and it really then dawned on me that, you know, we live a completely different existence to some of our metropolitan counterparts and our neighbours and family and friends from different parts of the country.
We have obviously significant concerns at the moment especially with all this wet weather with a number of crops being destroyed, a number of people who haven’t had their crops destroyed but can’t get on to harvest because everything is so wet, and machinery just ends up bogged. And we are seeing the consequence of that when we’re all at the supermarket. I think that there’s probably going to be much more attention put on the importance of our regional economies over time. You know, when you look at it, you know, our GDP is made up of about three-quarters from our regions in things that we grow, we make, you know, we take out of our ground.
So we definitely have the best part of it in terms of where we live and the lifestyle we have, but we are obviously very vulnerable to natural disasters, to supply chain shocks, to housing shortages, to less telecommunications, to worse health and education outcomes; and it’s a big part of my focus is to make sure that we are prioritising the growth and development of our regions going forward. It’s one of the reasons we have put in place a Schooling Capital Infrastructure Fund so that we can help our schools move with the times and get updated to the 21st century. It’s one of the reasons we have prioritised an incentive program to get more rural doctors out into the regions. You know, it’s one of the reasons we’ve put in place those 20,000 additional Commonwealth-supported places focusing on universities that are in our regions already and dealing with – collaborating with states and territories on those fee‑free TAFE places because we know some of those shortages exist solely in our regional areas.
We’ve all got businesses who we know are crying out for staff, but even when they find staff they need to find them a house. And it’s a big reason why this Labor Government has taken a lead role in dealing with the housing crisis because we know that there’s a coordination role for us to play with the states and territories but also with local governments and housing providers to start dealing with the shortfalls we’re seeing across the country.
So, yeah, we’re heavily focused on a whole range of issues that impact across the country and, most importantly, in our regions. And if we can get it right, hopefully we’ll start to see the change in some of those big factors in our regional areas.
ROD MCLURE: OK. 2023 is a new year. It’s hard to believe, but it is, and it’s close. What will be your main priority, number one, as Minister and as local member?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Priority number one every year for me as the local member is to make sure that I am out talking to communities. It’s the part of my job I love the most. I try to do as many visits and, you know, mobile offices and coffee catch-ups where people are rather than waiting for people to come to me. Always really keen on hearing from people and not only hearing from them but delivering for them. So that’s always priority number one as local member.
Priority number one in my Ministerial role for 2023 will be delivering, as I said, the Australian Council of Local Governments back, which will be around June. So that will be a big project. We’re also looking at how our Regional Development Australia Network can help deliver priorities for the government but also implementing some of those place-based solutions that we are seeing in local communities. So reframing how those RDA networks work with local communities is a key for me.
ROD MCLURE: OK. Well, as I commented last time we spoke, you beyond any question are a very, very hard-working local member and Minister. Have you got Christmas for your young family sorted and perhaps a well-earned holiday in sight?
KRISTY MCBAIN: (Laughs) Like a lot of people, I am looking forward to holidaying at home. So we won’t be in the car going anywhere; we’ll be enjoying the magnificent beauty that is Eden-Monaro for the summer period. And I have managed to get most things organised for Christmas. A couple of little things left to do, but apart from that I am looking forward to the 25th and seeing what Santa has delivered for everyone in my family.
ROD MCLURE: Well, on behalf of Braidwood FM, have a lovely, peaceful and happy Christmas. And we’ll look forward to speaking to you again in the new year, Kristy.
KRISTY MCBAIN: Thank you. And Merry Christmas to everyone across Braidwood and the regions. Always lovely chatting to you, Rod, and I look forward to seeing you again in 2023.
ROD MCLURE: Okay. Take care, Kristy.