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Liz Ritchie’s Speech at NFF National Press Club Event

February 23 2021

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of this land, the Ngunnawal People – past, present and future.

I’d like to further acknowledge the National Press Club of Australia – including President Laura Tingle and CEO Maurice O’Reily.

Members of Parliament and all Distinguished Guests; I’d like to congratulate and thank the NFF – President, Fiona Simson, and CEO, Tony Maher – for their focus on the Regionalisation Agenda. I also want to acknowledge the other partners here today who are jointly rethinking our regional future.

Today I’m going to share our vision for regionalisation but before I do this, I wanted to share a brief personal story.

Last week I was asked to cast my mind back some 20 years and to think about where I was and what expectations I had for myself. Twenty years ago, I had returned to my home town of Deniliquin, which is in southern NSW. Having completed my degree in PR, I was thrilled to become the very first festival director for the now world-famous Deni Ute Muster. For those not familiar with this festival, it’s a quintessential icon and today our small town is considered the Ute capital of World, proudly showcasing the Ute on a Pole.

But importantly, what I learnt in that year, 20 years ago, has stayed with me forever and it is why I stand before you today.

Back then, I had no expectation that I would be leading Australia’s only think-tank dedicated to regional issues and that I would stand before our National Press Club to share my vision for our nation.

As a proud farmer’s daughter, I had ridden the wave of economic shocks and I knew first-hand the toils of farmers and communities alike. So when Deniliquin was faced with one of worst droughts in history, the community rallied to ask a simple question – how can we put Deniliquin on the map?

Well my home town is now forever etched on maps around the world and it came down to three key elements:

  1. a big vision
  2. a bold idea, and
  3. an innumerable number of beating hearts

I share this story because the same 20-year question was reversed – “from where I stand today what is my expectation or ambition for the future?”

My response – regionalisation.

Regionalisation is not simply a policy framework or strategy.

Regionalisation is a vision for our future – a future that is more balanced, more equitable, more sustainable and more prosperous.

Just as the pandemic was a one-in-100-year event – if we enact regionalisation it will also be the onset of a one-in-100-year transformation for our nation.

In the early 1900s, the population balance in our country was almost an identical reversal of today, with two thirds living in Regional Australia and one third in our capitals. By the mid-50s it was almost 50/50 and today it stands as two thirds in the cities and one third in Regional Australia.

When we talk about reimagining our future, we do not wish to repeat history. We wish to make history by embracing the regional renaissance that has emerged from the COVID crisis.

A crisis of this magnitude requires critical thinking and all of us here today must explore the post-pandemic approaches to regional development, to planning, to place-making and to the sustainable economic development of our towns and cities. We need to help reshape the policy debate and ensure we have the evidence, the data, the insights and the new narrative to meet this challenge.

For 10 years, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has been striving to ensure that regions take their rightful place in the Australian story and Regionalisation is at the core of our work.

The success and sustainability of Regional Australia is critical to Australia’s future; currently home to 9.45 million people, responsible for around 40% of the nation’s economic output and employing one third of Australia’s workforce.

Regional Australia has demonstrated its strength and resilience against both internal and external shocks. It was central to Australia’s stability during the global financial crisis, and job figures show that it is leading Australia in a post-pandemic recovery.

In January 2021, job vacancy figures reached a record 54,000 and most regions have more vacancies than a year ago. Overall, Regional Australia has an astonishing 30% more vacancies than in January 2020.

I don’t need to reinforce what a challenging year it was. Yet, it has also unearthed exceptional opportunities for our regions. The pandemic has ushered in a new way of thinking about how and where we work, what we want from life and how we might reshape our lifestyles.

We are seeing a shift in our traditionally metro-centric thinking toward a new appreciation for the lifestyle and opportunities that living in Regional Australia can bring.

Yesterday we launched our new research which confirms that one in five city dwellers want to make the move and almost half wish to move in the next 12 months. So what are the drivers?

The research found that people want to genuinely reduce their stress and anxiety, they’re sick of the hustle and bustle of traffic and they want to reduce their cost of living.

But what our research also highlighted is that the appeal of Regional Australia is a stronger motivation to move than any dissatisfaction with city life. Regional Australia offers city dwellers a desirable alternative to improve their lifestyle, their well-being and to shape their best life.

This creates an historic opportunity to rebalance our nation.

Even with international borders closed, if our nation’s current settlement patterns are not addressed, we will create a nation of mega-cities with under-resourced regions. We need to create an intervention which will ensure a more balanced society, where population, productivity and participation are more evenly spread throughout the nation.

Our 2020 report, The Big Movers confirmed thatwe are already an extremely mobile nation, with a propensity to change our address at twice the rate of people in most OECD countries. Importantly, it also busted the myth that people were leaving the regions in droves, with more than 65,000 choosing regions over our capitals – and this was not a new trend.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the July-Sept 2020 quarter experienced the largest quarterly net loss for capitals since records began in 2001, with over 11,000 more people heading to the regions.

Next month, at our Summit in Canberra, the RAI is unveiling the first National Awareness Campaign that will encourage city dwellers to “rethink regional”. The campaign will help drive a societal shift as it aims to achieve four key regionalisation outcomes:

Firstly, to raise the profile of Regional Australia and change the narrative. The story of Regional Australia needs to show that our towns and regional cities represent places that are closely linked to global markets, where there is innovation and entrepreneurship, healthy families and communities and diverse and exciting careers.

Secondly, to educate city dwellers about the opportunities that exist to live, work and invest in Regional Australia. Regional areas are, increasingly, a more attractive lifestyle option, so the campaign will provide information about what’s available in Regional Australia.

Thirdly, to empower regions through flexibility and place-based programs to enhance the liveability of our regional towns and cities.

At our National Summit in March, the RAI will launch our Liveability Toolkit. It’s designed to help regional leaders develop a tailored action plan to improve their town’s liveability.

Lastly, the Campaign aims to encourage and assist corporate leaders to build and enhance regionalisation strategies to improve social and economic outcomes for the nation as a whole.

In 2020, the RAI launched the Regional Australia Council 2031 (RAC2031), a group comprising some of Australia’s most influential corporations, to establish a collective corporate voice to prioritise Regional Australia. 

The RAC2031 members are examining ways to support regions through employment policies, decentralisation, regional hubs, procurement, supply chains and other mechanisms which will help create real change for our nation.

Today marks an important day in our vision for regionalisation. Shaping the building blocks for Australia’s economic and social future is a shared responsibility. Government, industry and the community all have a vital role to play.

Again, I’d like to applaud the work of the NFF and all the partners involved here today because together we all share:

  • a big vision,
  • many bold ideas, and
  • innumerable beating hearts to get the job done.

Together, we can change our nation, for the benefit of all Australians.

Thank you.