How investment in Australia’s regional areas can provide a brighter future for us all.

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Regional Australia offers numerous benefits as a place to live; natural beauty and a strong sense of community coupled with affordable housing proving drawcards to keep locals around and attract ‘treechangers’ alike.   But the challenge for many of our regional communities comes in the form of employment.

We know that long-term and intergenerational unemployment have long been key challenges in some of our regional areas, but with recent increases in government investment, the fortunes of some of our communities may be about to change.

In the recent budget, an additional $24.5 billion was pledged to regional infrastructure and transport projects as well as significant funding for healthcare training schools in these areas.  Coupled with projects already announced such as the Parkes Inland Rail, which is set to commence later this year, we can expect to see a jump in job vacancies in many NSW Regional Areas.

Benefits can be long-term

It’s sometimes argued that these projects bring a short-term win to a community, but don’t benefit them in the long term.  It’s true that these projects provide a great short-term boost to the local economy, by way of both local employment opportunities and bringing in workers from other areas who live in the community and spend money at local businesses.  But if our governments can invest wisely in the right infrastructure projects, the long-term benefits are there too.

Commercial vacancies in our regional areas are quite high, but in areas with low property costs and an abundant workforce, this often doesn’t make sense.  The missing piece for many of our regional centres is the infrastructure, the roads and transport links that would enable businesses to move products (and people!) to and from metropolitan centres quickly and cost-effectively.

Projects such as the upgrade of Dubbo City Regional Airport have the potential to make an area more attractive to a range of markets; tourism and commercial industry chief among them. 

Transport projects work.

Over the last decade, amid ongoing debate and daydreaming about high-speed rail in NSW, regional Victoria has successfully invested $4.5 billion in medium speed rail upgrades to cut times between Melbourne and regional centres.  As a result of these upgrades, the time between Ballarat and Melbourne has been reduced from two hours to just 65 minutes and there has been a significant uplift in the number of passengers travelling on the line.

Reducing the travel time between a regional area and a metropolitan centre by almost half offers so many opportunities. It encourages people who work in cities to consider living in our regions, and stops the attrition of our rural communities, as locals no longer have to move to the city for work.

As the population grows, new services are required – more infrastructure projects bring more jobs and encourage businesses, large and small, to set up shop in the area - and the cycle is changed to a positive one.

We need to prepare our communities for new opportunities

Of course, infrastructure is only one part of the solution for our regional communities, albeit a big one. Investment in regional areas needs to sit hand-in-hand with the support services that ensure a community can take full advantage of the opportunities on offer. This includes things like education and training opportunities to build the skills required for the jobs being created and encouraging and growing entrepreneurial pursuits and small businesses to service a growing population.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), for example, is currently rolling out across the country, expanding the job opportunities in our healthcare sector, particularly in Disability Care and Aged Care.  Aged Care offers significant economic opportunities for our regional areas, where a greater proportion of Australia’s ageing population are based.   Yet the number of people employed in the industry is in rapid decline; with the Australian Nursing and Midwife Foundation (ANMF) reporting a 13% decline in the number of nursing staff employed full time in aged care between 2003 – 2016, during which time the number of Australians needing high care increased by 40%.

There has been discussion in the media recently of encouraging more skilled migrants to settle in our rural areas, and this will certainly help, but providing locals with access to training and upskilling opportunities has a role to play too.

Along with supporting traditional industries, new industries such as clean energy and in particular, solar farming, can play a role in reversing the decline in our regions.  I’ve talked before about the abundance of open space and sunshine in the NSW Central West and we need to take a look at how we can reskill and develop regional workers to take advantage of these emerging industries.

We can all benefit

If we can prepare our regional communities to make the most of the opportunities that infrastructure investments present, we all stand to benefit.  Creating job opportunities will reduce welfare, housing and healthcare costs typically associated with long-term unemployment -  the savings over the term of a person’s unemployment can be significant.

We also stand to gain significantly by increasing access to our regional areas, which can reduce congestion in major cities and open up new affordable housing markets.

We’re off to a really positive start, and if successive governments can keep the momentum, we have an opportunity to reverse population decline and give regional Australia a sustainable future.