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Shifting our Gaze – Inaugural report of Regionalisation Ambition 2032: A Framework to Rebalance the Nation 

13 September 2023

We all know the only certainty in life is change. Change is inevitable but transformation is a conscious choice. Transformation requires choice. As we hear often, we live in a time of great transition, but transition is only a step towards transformation. In the last few years, we have witnessed and observed changes in this nation that I only ever dreamt were possible. Changes in how regional Australia sees itself, changes in where and why we work, and changes in the type of future we know is possible for us as a nation.  These changes were not all inevitable, these changes required different choices, conscious choices.
Good morning and welcome to our Regions Rising National Summit – Shifting our Gaze.  
I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the Traditional Owners of the Land on which we meet, and I proudly reaffirm our position to support the Voice. 
On this very stage last year, we launched an Australian-first. The Regionalisation Ambition 2032, a decadal bold plan to “Rebalance the Nation”. It’s holistic, it’s bi-partisan, it’s unique and it’s inclusive. But what we are most proud of is its deep acknowledgement that this level of complex co-ordination can only genuinely seek to be solved through a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking views ‘problems’ as part of a wider, dynamic system. It is the process of understanding how things influence one another as part of a whole.  
The challenges we seek to solve in this Ambition have clearly been held in the domain of the big, wicked problem basket because they defy a simple explanation.  So, does this mean that we should accept the status quo? Does this mean we bury our heads and hope, one day someone else will solve this? No, and no. It means ladies and gentlemen it’s our time, and it’s our opportunity to solve it together. As Russell Ackoff, a famous organisational theorist said, “A systems problem is never simply about the sum of the parts, it’s about the product of its interactions”. 

Over the next two days we will explore these interactions and we will reflect on the outstanding champions who contribute to a more productive and prosperous future in regional Australia.   

In 2019, at the first Regions Rising National Summit our regional communities asked for this: more people to move to our regions to fill our jobs and communities; a better and brighter narrative for our regions; and a single and shared vision for the future.

It’s amazing what can happen when you create the right interactions. Firstly, people are moving in record numbers. Secondly, the deficit lens that held regions back is fading into the shadows. Thirdly, today marks the first progress report on our shared vision to Rebalance the Nation. 

Just last week the RAI launched the Big Movers 2023, and we shared that the net gain to our regions in 2016 -2021 saw almost 170,000 more people choose regions over our cities, this was triple the previous Census period. We also saw a net gain of 57,000 millennials compared to a net loss of 37,000 in the previous Census, and a doubling of overseas born movers to over 43,000.  These are profound changes to our communities because Australians are truly voting with their feet. This is a choice they are making, not one that is put upon them. And it’s their stories that reveal their why. The opportunity for rekindled connections with partners, family or the finding of new love! The realisation of career, business and study dreams. Improved health and new perspectives that time and space create. For many, the release from crippling mortgage stress and the anxiety that ensues. The forging of a long sort-after community connections at the school gate, local sporting club or charity. The rediscovery of the natural environment – sheer beauty. 
We are witnessing a major societal transition. I cannot stress enough that our citizens believe in a better future for themselves and their families. And more, and more they believe that future in is in regions, 3.5 million to be precise.  This means that we are at tipping point to get this once in a generation transformation right, but we must think big, we must think long term, we must Shift our Gaze from the bright lights of capitals to a nation that is more diverse and dispersed.  

Just two short weeks ago, Treasurer Chalmers released Intergenerational Report. It painted the picture of what our future will look like in this country, 40 years down the track. It told us as a country we’d be older, our economy would be bigger, but productivity would slow, and migration will ease. Addressing the challenges before us and taking advantage of the opportunities in the decades to come will require leaders to Shift their Gaze beyond the here and now, and beyond the 3-year election cycle. The Intergenerational Report also confirmed that regions were firmly at the centre of this picture! However, there are some significant hurdles we will have to overcome.  We can intervene in these projected futures and we can reimagine a different country. This is why we’ve all created the Regionalisation Ambition, it’s our north star. 

We can be a nation that has a more balanced existence with a higher level of wellbeing, better outcomes in education and skills that can make us more competitive. We’ve got a huge opportunity for improved and expanded productivity, nearly $14 billion in fact, and ultimately a more equitable future. We can do this but only if we do it together if we understand the power our collective action and the product of our interactions. 

So, far from a ‘set and forget’ plan, the Ambition is dynamic, it’s evolving to meet the needs facing our regions. 
By reporting on these targets around housing, childcare, education, healthcare, productivity, innovation and recruitment, we are shining a light on critical factors of a communities social fabric. 
Since launching the Ambition, I am pleased to say, there has been positive policy progress in many of the areas fundamental to regional Australians, whether it be the Regional Investment Framework, the nation’s first Wellbeing Framework, the recent release Intergenerational Report, the National Reconstruction Fund, the establishment of the Net Zero Authority to support the energy transition, the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia, progress of the National Skills Agreement, and the National Housing Accord.
While we welcome this action, a number of these initiatives still leave us wondering what these policy settings will mean for our regions. Where is the thinking and planning for our regional context? What will be regions share of the funding? How can we engage in this process? 

We absolutely know that co-ordination is underway but the opportunity to align portfolios, investment and individuals ambitions is a very tough ask. Urban primacy is not merely a myth but a fact and the only way to address it is to prioritise regions in every plan, strategy or accord. To think about regional policy through a vertical line that transcends federal, state and local government, that conceptually holds regions in the minds of decisions makers. 

The current state of regional Australia is a result of generations of geographical bias and misunderstanding. Regional issues have not been prioritized in the minds of those who have the power to change the future. Nor have regional people consistently sat at the table to be part of active and long-term partnership. So we hope that today’s progress report will be the opportunity to celebrate the meaningful work and continue to unite the nation’s leaders to Shift their Gaze. Providing evidence that will enable new thinking, to reframe and reform.
So today, I am honored to present the first Regionalisation Ambition Progress Report. I’m so pleased to tell you that in just one short year the dial on many measures has moved forward. Whilst modest it’s still movement. It’s an opportunity to reflect on progress. However there are several measures lagging in areas that continue to dominate the national conversation. In particular, the measures of recruitment difficulty and housing availability. So, let’s take a walk through our pillars and share this work. 

Population sits at the centre of this Ambition, with a target of 11 million people living prosperously in region by 2032. Our population has shifted to 9.6 million and we know it’s growing. We also know from our Regional Movers Index that we are still 16% above pre-pandemic movement to the regions. 
The Ambition also aims to double the number of migrants moving to regions to 40%. On this target, numbers have increased, but only slightly, by less than 1%. It is important to note that the Government did significantly increase the regional visa intake within the Skilled Stream from 9,000 places in to approx. 34,000, this was significant. 
We want to bring down recruitment difficulty for employers to below 40%. Over the past 12 months, unfortunately this measure continued to rise. At the end of last year, job vacancy figures hit record levels, with many regions finding themselves competing for the same talent.  At the end of 2022, jobs ads grew three times faster in regions than in our capital cities. Without intervention, this gap will continue to widen.  

While we know many metro Australians have their eyes on roles in the regions, with professional jobs the most in-demand of all sectors, the share of skilled workers in regions remained unchanged at around 73% over the last 12 months. 
When we launched the Ambition last year, only 69% of regional kids completed Year 12, this compared to 79% of all metro students. Pleasingly this measure has increased for country students, now sitting at 71.4%.  
To Rebalance the Nation we want regional Australia to be equipped with the services, amenity and lifestyle to sustain regionalisation.  This pillar focuses on wellbeing, digital inclusion, housing, health care, childcare, education and cultural amenities and community. 
The Digital Inclusion Index improved, which measures access, affordability and ability, mobile phones and internet, but we are still lower than metro Australia. Finding a home to rent in our regions is still too difficult. Critically building approvals are down and not keeping pace with population growth, we must learn from the past here. While overall childcare services increased by 5% , the number of family daycare facilities dropped. NAPLAN figures improved for our remote students, with the gap between city and country narrowing.  Arts, cultural, community and recreational opportunities also lifted during the last 12 months.  This speaks to one of our greatest strengths, building a greater connection to community for millions of regional Australia. 
Productivity and Innovation. When we launched the Ambition last year, population scenario modelling commissioned by the RAI revealed a potential $13.8 billion uptick to national output, when regional Australia grew to 11 million. So how did we fare on this pillar? Over the last 12 months, the regional contribution to our national output lifted slightly. Our participation rate increased to almost 65%, with more regional Australians in the workforce than ever before. We saw a small increase in the regional share of new business entries and a slight increase in the share of trademarks registered, both of which are key markets of innovation.  
Finally, Sustainability and Resilience. Communities, jobs, and livelihoods will be permanently impacted as we transition to net zero, particularly the regional communities with large fossil fuel industries and energy intensive regions. In 2021, over half of the employment in renewable electricity generation was based in regional Australia, growing by more than 60% since 2016.  However, accessing data to measure the year-on- year outcome for regional Australia’s capacity for disaster resilience has been a challenge.  
In summary, we are so pleased to report on the positive progress and to acknowledge the good work being done by the whole eco-system. But we are all aware that are still playing catch up. 
Just one year down the track, I must thank government, industry and regional communities and all of our members and partners.  It’s the coalition of the willing who will ultimately step forward to embrace the opportunities available to our regions. Modelling an active partnership to continue to design, develop and collaborate. 
Whilst government cannot do this work alone there are three meaningful steps and opportunities that need a laser a focus. Firstly, a National Population Plan. We know it’s underway but we know it will need expanding. A National Population Plan would ask the right questions of how, and where, we grow, and what’s needed to facilitate this. It would provide a clear plan for Australia’s future, and the role of each region. It will acknowledge the growth. 

Secondly, housing. We need to ensure housing approvals are keeping pace with population growth. We have the benefit of hindsight here and we have the data, there are no excuses. We need appropriate allocation and funding towards regions with at least a minimum 30% allocation in the National Housing Future Fund directed to regional housing and enabling infrastructure. This will also send a clear signal to industry and communities for planning and investment. 

Thirdly, we also need to urgently address the recruitment difficulty in our regions focus on filling and skilling the more than 90,000 jobs available in our regions. To do this we really only have three options: 

  1. We continue to attract city dwellers through education and awareness campaigns like Move to Move and others. 
  2. We grow within and build capacity in our under employed cohorts or underutilised skills in place.
  3. Or we increase our international or secondary migration to the regions which we require a far more tailored strategy for migration that deals with our diversity. Metro migration policy simply doesn’t work in the regions. 

All three need a laser focus and support. But we must remember that governments cannot do this alone, we need industry to play their part and most importantly we need regional communities to do what they do best.
So in closing, if we are willing to Shift our Gaze to the regions, you will see over the next two days an eco-system that is innovative and creative beyond measure, who are solving challenges locally, who are energised and educated and who know intimately their land and place.  
We understand this Ambition to Rebalance the Nation is filled with complexity. Remember it’s a big, wicked challenge, otherwise it would have been solved. So we require a whole of system approach. But remembering Russell’s wise words: A systems problem is never simply about the sum of the parts, it’s about the product of its interactions. So, let’s embrace the complexity, let’s walk together, collective power, collective strength, collective influence, and meaningful interactions. 

This is deeply personal work, it’s personal for me and for all of you in this room.  It’s our north star and it aligns the RAI’s purpose for being, to empower our regions to thrive. But real change takes time, it takes determination, it takes course correcting, it takes being open to the process, the high and lows. You all know this well.  

Ladies and Gentlemen, we can change the future of regional Australia, and the nation as a whole, and let me add that we can because it’s our time. It’s time to Rebalance the Nation!