Regional Australia hardly copping a mention
Considering around 7 million people (nearly 30% of the population) live in Australia’s regional and remote areas, myself included, it’s disappointing to see that they didn’t get much of a mention on budget night.
The Treasurer announced eight Urgent Care Clinics ‘so people in regional communities and growing suburbs can see a GP.’ However, this also means that these clinics will likely be shared with metro Australia. Our research highlights the growing disparity in health outcomes for regional areas, so it is disappointing to see that the significant investment needed was not delivered in this budget.
Minister Catherine King’s underwhelming Regional Ministerial Budget Statement simply repackaged many regionally focussed commitments made previously and also attempted to put a rural spin on commitments that, while they may benefit some regional residents, are not specifically for the regions.
Health was a good example of this. While there were various commitments and reforms on Medicare and healthcare services, specific programs for regional Australia were lacking. The Government acknowledged the need for technology adoption to improve aged care and disability support services in regional and remote areas because of the ‘thin markets’. $44.5 million over 5 years was committed to support Primary Health Networks to ‘commission critical services and trail integrating services across primary health, disability, aged care and veterans services’.
Recent changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, allowing ‘people with stable and chronic diseases to buy 2 months’ worth of medicine instead of just 1’, will be welcomed by regional residents. This will reduce the need for pharmacy visits, particularly benefiting regional people who live significant distances away from pharmacies.
This budget increased the tobacco excise, which will raise an additional $3.3 billion annually. This increase will significantly impact regional people. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data shows smoking rates increase with remoteness, with nearly 20% of people living in remote and very remote areas being daily smokers. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable illness and death in Australia and while increasing taxes may work to reduce rates overtime, it must be paired with additional support services.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 61% of First Nations people live in regional and remote areas with the proportion of total population increasing with remoteness from 1.09% in major cities to 32% in remote and very remote areas. This budget included delivery of 30 dialysis units for First Nation people in regional and remote Australia and $238.5 million is being invested to address inequities in cancer outcomes for First Nations people.
One area of missed opportunity was childcare for regional areas. As previously announced, the childcare subsidy, worth $55.3 billion from 2023-24 to 2026-27 was introduced. While affordability is an important issue, in regional areas access is often the limiting factor, with 61% of outer regional and 85% of remote areas are considered ‘childcare deserts.’ While the Government has committed $72.4 million to ‘support skills and training’ of early childhood education and care workers, there are no specific funds for regional areas. The importance of access to childcare for female workforce participation cannot be understated and more investment for access is required.
Recent natural disasters across the country and the subsequent damage to roads has been raised as a significant challenge for regional areas. Australian Local Government Association estimated last year’s damage bill from floods was $3.8 billion meaning the $250 million in new funding to councils is insufficient to say the least. A parliamentary inquiry into ‘the implications of severe weather events on the nations regional, rural and remote road network’ is highlighting the significant investment required in roads and identifying ‘climate resilient corridors’ for future construction projects.
The additional $310 million Small Business Energy Incentive will enable farm businesses to claim tax incentive for investments in on-farm batteries and electrification. This, however, is accessible to all Small Businesses, not just farming.
Following investment in drought preparedness and the seaweed farming industry in the October budget $27.4 million has been committed to deliver the first National Climate Risk Assessment and Adaption Plan. The Government says this will assist regional communities to better understand and respond to climate risks due to climate change.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is set to be complete in June 2024, meaning the next 12 months will be critical. $148.6 million has been committed over four years to enable the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to undertake the first review of the Basin Plan which will look at the next 10-year phase of water management. Following an ACCC report into water markets in 2021, $32.7 million has been committed over four years to reform the Murry-Darling Basin water markets and increase transparency.
Significant flooding over recent years has prompted the investment of up to $236 million over the next decade to remediate flood warning infrastructure in high priority areas. Reliable and accurate forecasts assist in preparation and allow for improved responses to natural disasters.
Stage 3 Tax Cuts
Another missed opportunity was that the Government did not scrap, or even mention the Stage 3 tax cuts, worth $254 billion. Our research shows that rural and regional communities will get the least from the Stage 3 tax cuts and that it will only widen the economic inequality between city and the bush.
Workforce shortages in regional Australia are being addressed through expansion of the $370.8 million Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme. This scheme is a temporary migration program aimed at addressing unskilled, low skilled, and semi-skilled labour shortages in regional Australia and aims to ‘benefit regional Australia and the broader Pacific family.’
Overseas outbreaks of diseases such as Foot and Mouth and Lumpy Skin Disease have heightened the agriculture industry’s awareness of the risks in biosecurity. The industry has welcomed the announcement of $1 billion being invested over the next four years to address these issues but has been less complementary of the increased levy it will put on producers.
To Wrap Up…
Overall, regional Australia did not receive much of a mention in the budget, largely because there weren’t any earthshattering announcements or commitments for those outside the big smoke. It was a mixed bag, with useful commitments for water and First Nations people, but with the Government missing the mark in areas such as childcare, health, and the stage 3 tax cuts.
Tanya Martin Office Manager
Jake Wishart Senior Media Adviser