THE Coalition government has revealed a new regional ministerial taskforce comprising senior government cabinet ministers - chaired by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull - aimed at boosting long-term, strategic policy development and investments.
The high-level strategic policy development group met for the first time today in Canberra and will comprise five Liberal and three National party cabinet members.
The concept has been championed by Nationals Deputy Leader and Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories and Regional Communications Fiona Nash, gaining momentum following last year’s election.
Senator Nash will be Deputy Chair and said she understood it was the first time such a Regional Ministerial Taskforce had been implemented.
Other Nationals’ members include leader and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester.
Mr Turnbull; Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham; Trade, Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Arthur Sinodinos; Health and Sports Minister Greg Hunt; and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash will represent the Liberals.
It’s understood the taskforce will look to sharpen the cabinet’s focus on ways to better-connect with regional voters and is expected to develop a program steadily, over time.
Senator Nash said today the group would also have the opportunity to co-opt other cabinet ministers as required and when necessary.
“What we’ve done is pulled together a taskforce to look at issues effecting rural, regional and remote Australians across portfolios,” she said.
“It’s not just about regional development – it’s going to take in health, education, transport and infrastructure, employment and jobs and agriculture.
“It will allow us to have a cross-portfolio taskforce that can focus on the best way to continue and expand our investment in the regions, from across government and not just the regional development portfolio.”
Senator Nash disagreed the forum was being set-up with a political purpose to try and reconnect the Coalition with regional voters, saying it was a concept she’d been working on for about 20 years.
“It has been a really positive idea to have a cross-portfolio taskforce work on regional issues – this is a very, very long-held view of mine,” she said.
“I’ve been in the portfolio of regional development working very hard on looking at ways to continue and expand our investment in the regions and I’m delighted to see this taskforce now created.
“And the fact the Prime Minister is going to chair it really does indicate our real focus on rural areas.
“It’s really important that we don’t consider issues in silos and that our thinking goes well beyond the next electoral cycle.
“For me it’s a very, long-term strategic taskforce to look at investing even further in regional Australia.”
Several regional government members welcomed the new Taskforce as a means of solidifying policy delivery and political messaging but also recovering recent losses with voters in regional areas, to independent or minor party candidates.
One source, who asked not to be named, said the Liberals had suffered some “big hits” in electorates around Perth’s fringes at the weekend’s WA election and moving into the south-west – not just from Labor – but other political forces.
“We need to improve our focus on creating regional policies that hit the mark,” the source said.
“There’s no question we need to hold and gain ground in regional areas to win the next election so setting-up a Regional Taskforce can only be a good thing.”
South Australian rural Liberal MP Tony Pasin said instigating a renewed policy focus aimed at voters in rural and regional Australia was a welcome initiate but the proof would be in the pudding.
“A lot will depend on the process and how the Taskforce is constituted and like with all things, what the outcomes ultimately are,” he said.
Another government source said the Taskforce had strong potential but if it was run by city-centric Liberals, “people won’t be happy” because Opposition leader Bill Shorten was “cruising towards the next election”.
“We need a wake-up call to re-engage traditional regional voters who have drifted away,” the source said.
Senator Nash said the Taskforce won’t act as an official cabinet subcommittee but was made up of cabinet ministers who would provide short term and long-term planning across various portfolio areas, towards the government’s vision to grow the regions.
She said it was meeting for the first time today and expected members would meet on a regular basis but more information on its functions would be known afterwards.
“It’s very much about long-term planning and looking at the future of rural and regional communities and how we want them to look over coming years and decades,” she said.
“Everybody on this taskforce has a real commitment to ensuring we get the best outcome that we possibly can, for the regions.
“My vision and the government’s vision for the future of regional communities, is to help build the kind of sustainable rural, regional and remote communities that our children and grandchildren either want to stay in, or come back to.”
Rural Liberals have expressed growing concerns about being under-represented in the current Turnbull cabinet with that presence sliding following the recent resignation of Sussan Ley as Health Minister over a travel-entitlements scandal.
While supportive of the Taskforce concept, some expressed discontent it won’t comprise any genuine rural or regional Liberals; despite its members being regarded as strong policy thinkers and Mr Hunt having a semi-rural electorate on the outskirts of Melbourne.
In the early stages of the Abbott government, Senator Birmingham was also Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, with responsibility for water policy, including the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Nationals gained a seat in regional Victoria at last year’s election off the Liberals.
But the Liberals also lost the rural seat of Mayo to Rebekha Sharkie from the Nick Xenophon Team and the Victorian rural seat of Indi was lost by the Liberals to independent MP Cathy McGowan at the 2013 election, which she retained last year.
Mr Turnbull addressed the start of today’s meeting saying some regions were doing “extremely well” and others were doing it “tough” as the construction phase of the mining boom in particular has wound down.
He said all cabinet members were working together in areas like health, education, industry, innovation, infrastructure and agriculture to develop policies that delivered for the regions and all of Australia.
“Everything we’re doing has got to ensure that every part of Australia benefits from the economic growth and the rising tide,” he said.