This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was first published in The Canberra Times on Wednesday 26 May 2021.
As we continue recovering from the pandemic, now is the time to look to regional Australia and the role it has to offer in shaping a more dynamic, fairer, innovative and stronger nation.
Over the years, inroads have been made to unlock the potential of regional places that are large enough to get a good cup of coffee, and small enough to care.
The National Farmers’ Federation and the Regional Australia Institute have produced important roadmaps that go to revitalising the regions and ensuring they can contribute more to our national economic story.
After all, they are home to many of our existing strengths in resources and agriculture with the potential to be at the forefront of new and emerging industries.
The federal government’s regional deals and the NSW government’s special activation precincts are helping make the most of these opportunities. The federal budget invested an extra $250 million for a sixth round of the Building Better Regions Fund bringing its commitment to regional towns and cities from the fund to more than $1 billion.
While there’s no doubt good work is being done, we do need to stand back and ask whether more national coordination and a more substantial national effort is needed.
If we continue with a piecemeal approach to regions, often dictated by state boundaries, we dilute our best intentions and effort rather than gaining the traction we need to back in the places across the whole country with the greatest potential to lift our national performance.
Our regions are incredibly attractive propositions for families, governments and corporate Australia but are we making the most of what they have to offer?
First, we need to get our economic settings right – not just across the regions – but for the whole country. Our over-reliance on unnecessary regulation, our inflexible workplace relations system and uncompetitive tax rates holds back investment in Australia.
If we can’t turn around our dismal business investment rates, currently at a 28-year low as a share of the economy, and make the nation more attractive to investment, how do we get that capital to flow into the regions?
Regional Australia also needs its own dedicated focus with a set of new priorities.
It’s why we have put forward an eight-point plan to unlock our regions which starts by rethinking the way we plan and prioritise around key places that have the potential for growth.
- Focus should be given to areas that have nearby gateway infrastructure such as an airport or major transport routes. These are the arteries that enable growth.
- Places that are already home to one or two existing successful industries or have the capacity to attract more investment give us the foundations to build on. They serve as magnets for companies, capital, ideas and people.
- Strategically important locations such as Darwin and Cairns give us strong levers.
- Let’s also consider places that are close to major power grids which power industry.
- A key ingredient is locations with an existing university and TAFE that can work together to provide the skills and training that workers need throughout their lives. This will ensure people can keep pace with changes in the workplace and be ready to seize new opportunities.
- To care for the needs of growing places, it is important there is access to quality health services to support an expanding population.
- Locations need to have the capacity to increase the supply of housing and industrial land. State governments need to work with local governments to fast track the pipeline of suitable land.
- And finally, places of growth potential must have an appetite for more people to take pressure and congestion off the major cities and in doing so create economic activity in their region.
It’s not our job to provide a short-list, that’s the task of governments. Working with communities, it can be narrowed down to ten to 15 places to be prioritised for growth.
We can then put together 30-year rolling infrastructure plans to ensure federal, state and local spending – combined with private investment - is targeted and synchronized for the greatest effect.
Combined with digital infrastructure and connectivity and skills hubs, this will transform our places of potential into growth centres and deliver new jobs, industries and opportunities at a far bigger scale.
Once it’s safe to reopen international borders, we should begin a conversation about encouraging migrants to settle in regional growth areas by fast-tracking permanent residency.
As a nation, we cannot spend 12 months arguing about which places should be chosen. As I travel around the regions as part of the Business Council’s Strong Australia network, it’s obvious that they pick themselves.
Our strategy is not about giving growth opportunities to some places at the expense of others. If we prioritise and invest in the hubs – helping them with the ingredients and support they need to prosper – then we’ll also help the spokes around them to thrive.
We need to concentrate our efforts nationally and adopt a long-term approach, otherwise we’ll leave the job half done and disappointingly let down people in our regions.
If we have stronger regions, we'll build a stronger Australia.
Jennifer Westacott AO is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia