When regions thrive Australia prospers

18 April 2023

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was first published in The Newcastle Herald on Tuesday 18 April 2023

If we are to succeed in propelling Australia to the global frontier of innovation, ingenuity and prosperity, we must look beyond the opportunities in major capital cities.

Regions such as the Hunter, Illawarra and the Central West are home to vast tracks of untapped potential. They are the backbone of the country and hold the key to strengthening the nation's existing bedrock industries such as agriculture and mining, while diversifying the economy in new and emerging areas.

Australia's future prosperity depends on the ability of our regions to thrive. It's why the Business Council (BCA) developed the Strong Australia Network, to highlight the invaluable role our regions play in the nation's economic story.

The BCA wants to help advance the interests of Australians living outside inner-city areas by showcasing how large and small businesses working together can improve the livelihoods of regional communities.

We don't just want them to be viable, we want to be vibrant.

Over the next few months, Strong Australia will host events in Wollongong, Adelaide and Geelong. Our first event this year is in Newcastle on Tuesday, April 18.

It's a chance for the CEOs of some of Australia's largest employers to listen to locals about their ambitions for the region and the obstacles they face. We have partnered with Sky News to ensure those messages are played back to the decision-makers in Canberra. We believe that no matter where Australians live, they deserve access to the same opportunities to get ahead.

With Australians around the country facing cost of living pressures, Strong Australia is particularly interested in unfiltered feedback from small and medium business owners, suppliers, distributors, employees and customers. These are the people who make our regions tick.

We are also keen to discuss how regional Australia can leverage its strengths to prosper from the big economic shifts underway across the world. These include the rapid uptake of digital technologies that mean people can work from anywhere, advances in advanced manufacturing, access to lucrative global supply chains, and worldwide action to reduce carbon emissions which makes critical minerals more valuable.

To realise these opportunities in regional Australia, coordination is needed through a place-based approach. Regional locations with the greatest potential to contribute to the nation's economy should be identified and targeted for investment. This should focus on building on our strengths and driving new industries and capabilities. Newcastle and the Hunter region, for example, could be a world-class hydrogen and renewable energy hub.

We support genuine partnerships between federal, state, and local governments that identify and build on the underlying advantages that a regional area might possess. With all three levels of government working together, infrastructure, planning, and government services can coordinate to support the success of nationally important industries.

Crucially, the infrastructure pipeline needs to provide certainty and avoid the financial setbacks of chopping and changing plans. Infrastructure projects also need to improve connectivity so centres are connected to major cities, and centres are also connected to nearby towns and each other.

Another area of focus must be to improve the skills in the regions. Why don't we create skills hubs in significant regions that bring universities and vocational institutions like TAFE together to provide the training and skills that local businesses actually need?

When it comes to attracting migrants in the regions, we need to give them a reason to stay by encouraging them to set up businesses and raise their families. We continue to advocate for the introduction of Designated Area Migration Agreements for places of growth. These agreements facilitate greater flexibility in attracting migrants with the skills needed to help a region prosper. Let's also return to four-year visas for all skilled temporary migrants and improve permanent residency paths, to make sure Australia remains the place where skilled migrants want to move.

We suggest introducing incentives around Australia to attract companies to locate or expand into targeted regions based on the NSW Jobs Plus program. In NSW, eligible companies can receive up to four years of payroll tax relief where at least 30 net new jobs have been created. They also receive support with the planning system, enabling infrastructure, subsidised training programs and a concierge service.

At the heart of the Strong Australia Network's mission is the goal of helping create growing and thriving businesses in regions that provide jobs, service customers, bring wealth into an area, and serve as the glue that keeps communities together.

Jennifer Westacott AO is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia



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