Oakeshott proud of kickstart he has given country battlers
IN HIS now famous 17-minute speech to announce his support for Labor to form government in September 2010, independent MP Rob Oakeshott hinted at what was to come for regional Australia during the 43rd Parliament.
Emerging from 17 hectic days of intense political negotiations, Mr Oakeshott said the agreement he and fellow independent Tony Windsor had struck with Julia Gillard would "turbo-charge" regional Australia.
Making no less than six references to regional Australia, the speech was a transparent display of his priorities.
"We are asking for equity. Equity has not been delivered to regional Australia for too long and that is now about to change," he said.
While numerous efforts have been made since Federation to create an even playing field for regional Australia against the voter-heavy capital cities, the combination of a minority government, formed with the support of two country-based independent MPs, put the issue front and centre. So what have the past two years actually delivered for people living outside the nation's cities?
As part of the agreement to form government, the independents had numerous demands of the Prime Minister.
Among the demands were reforms to the way the Parliament would function, the creation of 55 committees to help guide regional investment around the nation, and a promise of $9 billion for remote, rural and regional areas.
It was an achievement of which Mr Oakeshott was particularly proud - one unlikely to have been delivered without the unusual circumstance of the current Parliament.
"But it's there now, and we have developed a whole new framework to ensure the issues people in regional areas are worried about are taken into account," he said.
"Those changes, and the $9 billion we were able to secure - those are things regional Australia simply would not have otherwise."
Mr Oakeshott said the Regional Development Australia committees, which are closely linked to local councils, were crucial to the "new approach" to regional development.
"Since Federation, we've really had a top-down approach to regional development," he said.
"But these committees now mean locals are making the decisions about what are the most important projects for their region.
"As long as the projects have financial backing, the government really just comes on board to top it up, and I think that's really helped to empower a lot of regional communities."
Another initiative was the creation of an $8 million Regional Australia Institute - a new body dedicated to solving research and data problems anywhere in the country except for the major cities.
The institute has already compiled a list of 80,000 existing regional research papers, helping to find the gaps in research and data about the regions to better target future efforts.
Mr Oakeshott said other crucial measures in the agreement included dedicated regional funding for health, education and transport infrastructure, as well as regional jobs expos.
"I think what I'm most proud of is that we were able to secure investment in regional hospitals and education," he said.
"We got a $1.8 billion round of health infrastructure funding last year just for regional projects, as well as $41 million for other primary care services."
The agreement also led to more than $800 million being put aside in the 2010-11 Budget for regional workers in the skills investment fund, regional schools, universities and TAFEs.
Largely unseen, possibly the biggest changes coming from the deal were major structural changes in the government itself, including the creation of the Cabinet-level Minister for Regional Australia (previous ministers had the title of regional development) and a co-ordinating department.
"Some people don't know these changes have been made, some don't want to see it," Mr Oakeshott said.
"A lot of it is pretty boring stuff - it's internal public service, and those sorts of changes are nowhere as newsworthy as 'stop the boats'."
But he did not see the agreement entirely through rose-coloured glasses.
Mr Oakeshott said in recent months, there had been a big fall in "ticked boxes and a big rise in crossed boxes".
Among the promises drawn up in the agreement, several have not yet been delivered.
These included commitments to deliver major reforms to political party funding by the end of this year and a range of initiatives aimed at improving the level of debate in the Parliament.
"I'm told by (Special Minister of State) Gary Gray that the Leader's Debate Commission we proposed should be up and running in the first quarter of next year," Mr Oakeshott said.
"But all the reforms to stop donation splitting, and make political donations more timely and transparent don't seem to have gone anywhere yet."
Ahead of the final parliamentary sitting week for the year, the government is unlikely to move on political funding reform by the promised deadline -especially as such changes were not in the interest of either major party.
On issues closer to his heart, Mr Oakeshott said he was also disappointed with the lack of action on GST reform and the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
"Everyone seems to have gone timid on the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australia," he said.
"And I think it is well past high time that we removed certain racist parts of the Constitution, and replaced them with a genuine recognition of who they are the part they play in our country."
A committee has been established to investigate a referendum on recognition of the nation's indigenous people in the Constitution, but the committee has not taken any action yet.
And while much has been delivered for the regions out of the historic agreement, Mr Oakeshott said both major parties would now face a "legacy question" about the renewed focus on regional issues.
He said both Labor and Liberal would have to consider whether after the next election, they would continue to give regional Australians a voice in national affairs, or whether the progress made in the past two years would simply be dissolved.
That, of course, remains to be seen.
Mr Windsor's office did not reply to repeated requests for an interview for this story.
THE AGREEMENT DELIVERED
- $1.8 billion for health and hospitals
- $2.1 billion for regional development
- $500 million for TAFEs
- $41 million for general practises and primary care
- $66 million for regional businesses and workers
- $8 million to establish the Regional Australia Institute
- Creation of a Cabinet-level Minister for Regional Australia