Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates from the Australian Government

Foreword

Australia’s regions – despite all that’s been thrown at them, are not only still standing, but are on the cusp of a great future.

With the right policy settings and under the right conditions, country, coastal, rural regional and remote Australia can only forge ahead.

Our vast regions, home to one in three Australians who choose to live outside the capital cities, have proven relatively safe and secure through the COVID-19 global pandemic. Case rates have been extremely low or non-existent in regional Australia through the crisis. Our agriculture and resources sectors have continued to not just survive but indeed thrive, as so many other sectors faltered due to the virus. Our mining sector, which produces 8.5 per cent of our domestic product, grew by 12.6 per cent over the 12 months to June 2020. Similarly, agricultural output increased by $1 billion to a $61 billion industry in the year, in spite of everything which befell farming, including the devastating drought.

The 2019-20 year has been one of the most difficult ever experienced by Australians. Our country has been hit by a sequence of major challenges which, in combination, have severely affected all of us, and perhaps especially some of our regions. This has not been a year of business as usual.

Starting with widespread drought conditions building up over an extended period, affecting agricultural production and our associated communities and businesses, many regions of the country then also experienced a bushfire season of an unprecedented intensity. The wide-ranging bushfires shattered communities and destroyed infrastructure in several states and territories. Elsewhere, there were devastating floods. And, from early 2020, the whole Australian community has been living through, and living with, the COVID-19 pandemic. We have had to manage both the health impacts and the consequential economic effects as extraordinary economic and social constraints have had to be imposed.

Meeting these challenges has required strong responses and many new interventions from Australian governments at every level. At the same time, as Australians would expect, the normal range of ongoing Government support for our Australian way of life in such key areas as education, health, social services and infrastructure provision have been continued.

The public is to be commended for the way it has, by and large, done what has been asked by the health experts. This is why our medical and economic outcomes have been among the very best in the world. If COVID has proven one thing, it is that with the proper connectivity you can work from anywhere, just as well as being in a Melbourne or Sydney CBD office high rise.

This 2020-21 Regional Ministerial Budget Statement details the more than 350 major new packages and individual measures which the Australian Government is delivering to respond to the challenges of drought, bushfires and floods and COVID-19 from late 2019 onwards, and the measures in Budget 2020-21 which are designed to strengthen regional communities and assist them to recover and grow their economies.

Working through the expanded National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency in the Prime Minister’s Portfolio and through the Agriculture Portfolio, the Government has committed more than $10 billion since 2018-19 to measures to assist farmers, regional businesses and communities experiencing drought, and to the implementation of a National Drought Agreement and the Drought Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan. In July 2020, the Government announced the $5 billion Future Drought Fund, to provide secure and continuous funding for drought resilience initiatives and help Australian farms and farming communities to prepare for the impacts of drought. To assist with recovery efforts the Government has established a local Regional Recovery Officer network, recruited from and based in regional communities across Australia, to work closely with communities in planning and natural disaster preparedness. In addition, also in July 2020, the Government provided a further $2 billion in loan funding to the Regional Investment Corporation, doubling the availability of farm and small business loan funds to a total of $4 billion for the 2020-21 financial year.

Complementing and collaborating with the drought and flood agency, a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency was set up on 6 January 2020 to lead and co-ordinate a national response to the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, including the administration of a new National Bushfire Recovery Fund to assist recovery efforts across the country. The Fund was provided with an initial $2 billion for its work to help primary producers, small businesses and communities with projects for the protection and recovery of the environment, native wildlife and community infrastructure such as tourism facilities. In May 2020, the Government announced further measures for bushfire recovery including placing recovery support officers in bushfire-affected communities to provide day-to-day advice on available support measures.

Further information about these agencies and specific initiatives which are being implemented under drought, flood and bushfire response packages right across Australian Government agencies is available in the chapters for the Prime Minister and Cabinet Portfolio, the Agriculture, Water and the Environment Portfolio, the Health Portfolio, the Treasury Portfolio and the Social Services Portfolio.

From early 2020, as Australia began to experience cases of COVID-19, it became clear that there needed to be restrictions applied to normal working and living conditions to control the spread of the virus. As a response to the economic impacts of social distancing and other risk mitigation measures which have had to be applied to prevent or limit the spread of the virus, the Australian Government has been implementing unprecedented measures to support individuals and businesses and to keep the fundamental structure and capacity of the economy operating. These include the economic support payments provided through the JobKeeper and the JobSeeker programs to all eligible Australians wherever they live and work.

In addition, commencing in March 2020, the Government has provided targeted support for regional communities and regional industries under the $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund administered by my Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

This Fund provides support for a range of initiatives for regions, communities and industry sectors which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 including regional aviation, regional arts and culture, fisheries, agricultural exports, forestry and major tourism sites. More details about the Relief and Recovery Fund and other COVID-19 responses which will assist regional and remote Australians, such as the $250 million COVID-19 Creative Economy JobMaker package, can be found in the Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications Portfolio chapter of this Statement.   

The Australian Government’s health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic also include funding to health services targeted at regional and remote communities. As the demographic profile of regional areas includes a larger proportion of older Australians, and of vulnerable Indigenous Australians, support for primary health services, hospitals and ageing and aged care and mental health has been significantly boosted.

Amongst many additional measures in the Health Portfolio responding to COVID-19, additional block funding has been allocated to states and territories to ensure the availability of services to rural and regional communities in small, rural and regional hospitals and a nation-wide network of 150 General Practitioner-led Respiratory Clinics — including 83 in rural and remote areas — has been established since March 2020 to provide dedicated testing and assessment services to people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms. Assistance is being provided to remote communities for community preparedness in case of exposure to COVID-19 and a special point of care testing program for 86 rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria is being established.

Further, and in addition to measures responding to the unprecedented challenges of 2019-20, the Government is increasing funding to many other initiatives of economic benefit for regional communities.

In the Agriculture, Water and Environment Portfolio, the Government is providing $234 million for a package of measures to achieve a sustainable and certain future for the Murray-Darling Basin, its people, industries and environment. We are investing in our Commonwealth National Parks, injecting $233.3 million over three years from 2020-21 to allow upgrades to critical tourism infrastructure. We are also committing $11.6 million from 2020-21 to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to assist the Authority to continue its work of managing the Reef environment while also assisting local businesses which have been significantly affected by the loss of tourism revenue due to the COVID- 19 travel restrictions. Further, the Government has announced a National Waste Policy Action Plan with $35 million to support particularly regional and remote communities to have access to waste management and processing facilities and assist in phasing out problematic waste materials.

Within the Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Portfolio, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility ― a major initiative under the Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia ― is a $5 billion lending facility to provide finance to infrastructure projects in Northern Australia. The Government has announced it will extend the period in which the Facility can make investment decisions by five years from 30 June 2021 to 30 June 2026.

Within my own Portfolio, large investments are continuing to be made in planned major infrastructure projects directly benefiting regional communities and to existing programs for those communities. The Government is providing new major investments in transport infrastructure which bring the Government’s investment in transport infrastructure to a record $110 billion over 10 years. Funding for transport infrastructure is being targeted at priority shovel-ready projects and these are complemented by $1.5 billion to fund local priority projects through the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program.

These investments will support employment and business opportunities in regional Australia, helping our regions to recover from the pandemic and providing lasting benefits through safer roads and community facilities.

The Regional Airlines Network Assistance Program under the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund has been particularly critical in maintaining our aviation links around regional Australia, complementing the International Freight Assistance Mechanism, also under the Fund, which has been central to keeping exports flowing from Australia’s regions to market.

We are also investing in significant upgrades and improvements to communications infrastructure through the National Broadband Network, through a new $37.1 million Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters package and an additional $30.3 million to the Regional Connectivity Program.

For water infrastructure, the Government will develop a rolling 10-year investment schedule and provide an additional $2 billion in grant funding for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund.

Under our Local Government Financial Assistance Grant program, 50 per cent of the 2020-21 payments was brought forward into the 2019-20 year, providing a cash injection of more than $1.3 billion to give councils vital support to assist with the combined impacts of drought, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government is also further supporting regional communities to implement their own local projects under our regional assistance programs. The Government is providing an additional $200 million for the fifth round of the Building Better Regions Fund, of which $100 million will be targeting regional tourism projects, and $22.7 million for the sixth round of the Stronger Communities Programme.

My Portfolio is also leading the Government’s decentralisation agenda, which has been focused on moving Australian public service agencies and staff closer to the communities they serve, as a first step. As at June 2020, there were 150,474 staff across all agencies employed under the Public Service Act 1999, of which 22,294 were in locations outside Australia’s capital cities. While not employed under the Public Service Act 1999, many other important government agencies, such as Australia Post and Medicare, also have offices and staff located in regional areas. The decentralisation agenda aims to encourage the relocation of both private and public sector entities to regional Australia, offering regional communities new opportunities for employment and growth.

The Honourable Michael McCormack MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development