Potential lies in regional Australia

28 August 2020

This opinion article by Marnie Baker, chair of the Business Council's Regional Development working group and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Managing Director, and Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on Friday 28 August 2020 

If we are to realise our full potential as a nation, we must realise the full potential of our regions.

This means generating hundreds and thousands of jobs doing more than just talking about opportunities.

Now is the time to put the policies in place that will enable the regions to fully play their part in Australia's economic and social recovery from the ravages of COVID-19.

The magnitude of the economic and social fallout from the pandemic demands that we maximise every single opportunity for growth. Our success must be seen in how it improves the quality of people's lives, wherever they live.

We must unleash the potential of our people and places across the whole of the country to get businesses back up and running, ensure people can return to secure work and create new jobs.

The pandemic has starkly exposed the inherent risk of basing 40 per cent of Australia's population in two capital cities.

While at the same time, it has unlocked the realisation that successful careers and big businesses don't have to revolve around metropolitan offices people can work remotely be highly productive and enjoy great lifestyles.

If COVID-19 has shown us anything positive, it's that you don't have to live where you work; you can live where you love. Rapid regionalisation building strength and capacity in the regions, without displacement - can be catalyst to making this happen for more Australians.

By investing in our regions and creating more accessible, attractive and productive places to live, work and visit, we can ensure regional Australia becomes a magnet for business.

However, the "build it and they will come" approach relies on having the policies in place to attract investment, corporate infrastructure, economic activity and people to the regions.

Throughout the pandemic, our regions have enhanced their reputations as safe locations to do business and COVID-19 has accelerated the ability of regional Australia companies to support staff operating remotely.

Onshoring cannot be confined to the cities. Now is the time to convince large companies here and overseas to set up call centres, distribution hubs and other corporate infrastructure in our regions. 

Now is the time to identify the companies that should move to Australia, and the regions to host them. We can put forward an attractive offer to companies by delivering the right infrastructure and skills packages, while reducing regulatory hurdles. And we should build a prospectus of the benefits of regional Australia and promote this to companies around the world.

State governments might pursue other incentives such as fast-tracking planning approvals, packages to encourage people to relocate and even payroll tax relief - but the main game is to market the benefits of regional Australia.

Companies will also need to shift talent to where demand is and ensure their regionally based workforces are job ready. This will require workforce planning, collaboration and a concerted effort from business, educators and government.

Australia has become stuck in a pattern of projects, rather than places. We need to rethink the way we plan and prioritise around key places, identifying those that can make the greatest economic contribution to their regions, their states or territories, and the whole country.

Infrastructure investment can unlock the potential of the regions. It makes it easier to ship products to market more efficiently and it enables people to come together to share resources, create and innovate.

Infrastructure Australia's recent addition of 12 new projects and initiatives to a list of 155 nationally significant infrastructure proposals worth more than $64bn, is a good start.

These include five new road proposals, three for rail, two for freight and public transport projects across NSW, Queensland and Western Australia. However, more will be needed if our regional economies are to keep growing, creating jobs and attracting investment.

The development of a pipeline of public projects in regional areas that will have a positive multiplier effect should be prioritised and brought forward in the next three months. For example, bringing forward the Environmental Impact Statement and assessment of the Hells Gate Dam in Townsville would unlock the surrounding basin area for agricultural production and enable other projects such as the extension to Townsville airport.

Let's also expand the regional deals model to up to 20 locations across Australia, bringing together all levels of government around a clear set of objectives to prioritise long-term infrastructure planning.

Deals are tailored to each region's comparative advantages, assets and challenges and reflect the unique needs of regional Australia. Regional Deals support "a place-based approach" by putting community-identified priorities at the centre. Strategy will help address the gaps, but action is where the rubber will hit the road. Leadership is key and once investment decisions are made, major project approvals should be decided within months, not years.

Our regions, of course, are also home to some of the most spectacular locations in the world.

With travel and border restrictions being relaxed in some states but overseas holidays off the cards, Australians will increasingly look to their own back yard.

Encouraging locals to visit regional getaways will have the added benefit of encouraging visitors back to many areas still struggling to get back on their feet after COVID-19, the summer bushfires, droughts and floods.

As we recover and rebuild, we must ensure our economic, social and opportunity stories focus on enhancing the lives of all Australians, not just those based in and around our capital cities.


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