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  • John McDonnell

Cyclone Barnaby turns from regions to resources

Barnaby Joyce was sworn in as deputy prime minister early on Tuesday morning and the political landscape for regional Australia changed from that moment.

Mr Joyce assumed all the ministerial roles that had previously been occupied by Michael McCormack. These are the portfolios of infrastructure and regional development.

Michael McCormack was particularly interested in regional development. He pushed the ‘Building Better Regions’ through the expenditure review committee and into the budget. This has changed the face of regional Australia with a myriad of small and medium-sized projects taking place across the country.

He has also pushed through important infrastructure projects such as the inland freight line and the Murray Basin line. These will make an enormous impact on regional agriculture which is pushing to achieve $100 billion worth of exports by 2030.

Barnaby Joyce appeared at question time on Tuesday in his new capacity as minister for infrastructure, local government and regional development. He was asked what his policy was for the promotion of jobs in regional Australia.

Rather than referring to the 67,000 skilled jobs that are currently unfilled in regional Australia and which have been the centre of McCormack’s and the Regional Australia Institute’s ‘Move to More’ campaign, Mr Joyce focussed on the jobs that would be lost if the fossil fuel industry was closed down.

It appeared that his future agenda would concentrate on protecting jobs that were likely to be lost because of climate change policy, rather than the creation of new jobs in regional Australia, which is the preoccupation of Michael McCormack.

This leaves the government between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, the Nationals appear to have abandoned any ideas of proactive regional development in a push to protect the fossil fuel industry and on the other hand Labor is spruiking regional development based on the green industry and regional renewables. This leaves the government’s technology roadmap in no man’s land and regional development hostage to the culture wars of climate change.

This is a significant lost opportunity. To date, the regions have been leading Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery. There has been a noticeable migration of people from the city to the regions in recent times. Councils coming to grips with this influx of people are looking for support from the Commonwealth.

On Tuesday afternoon there were rumours of an impending reshuffle of National ministers and that Mr Joyce might look to change his portfolios. This may not be good news because it seems to be based on the idea that Mr Joyce wants to reward his supporters.

Having Dr David Gillespie take over regional health from Mark Coulton would be a sensible move but moving Darren Chester would undo years of work trying to get a model of care for veterans. Hopefully, Barnaby Joyce will take a broad view of regional development and appoint an appropriate minister.

Michael McCormack was a glimmer of light when it came to regional development. He managed to get the subject elevated into the political agenda and this was beginning to pay dividends with the introduction of such measures as the agricultural visa. There is a risk that a new minister will lead to a loss of momentum as the Nationals go into election mode.


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