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We need to shift our gaze.

31 May 2023


There are days in your life where you know things will never be the same – your world shifts – and for me last Wednesday was one of them.

I had the enormous privilege of shining the spotlight on regional Australia, as I addressed the National Press Club of Australia and a live audience around the country. This opportunity to speak on the enormous potential of our regions was one I didn’t take lightly and was certainly not one to be squandered.

At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) empowering regions to thrive is our purpose. It’s our reason for being. It is at the centre of everything we do. But our purpose is now in the national interest to pursue.

As a nation, we are truly at a turning point in history. One where regions can step out of the shadows and into the light. Where we see equal opportunity, not disparity, and our towns and cities are equipped to meet the productivity challenges facing this country.

As I reminded Treasurer Chalmers last week, rebalancing our population growth towards regional cities will have net gains for the national economy. Our research shows the greatest potential for productivity uplift exists in our second and third tier cities – such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Tamworth, Wagga Wagga, Rockhampton and Toowoomba. 

The solution to Australia’s ailing productivity is well beyond the bright city lights of Sydney and Melbourne. Agglomeration benefits there have reached the limit. 

Even a modest increase in the regional population over the next decade, to 11 million would deliver a $13.8 billion boost to our GDP. The potential of regions can’t be ignored any longer, nor should it be.

In Treasurer Chalmers’ monthly essay, he reflected on the three big crises we have faced over the last 15 years – the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), COVID-19 and now the economic downturn that is squeezing Australia, with high inflation and the rising cost of living.

Regional Australia has been and is at the frontline of each. During the GFC, it was the mining boom that helped us lift. Through the pandemic, cities closed their doors and regions continued to grow. Now, our population trajectory is being turned on its head, as people look for a more affordable lifestyle outside the city limits. 

While each crisis has its own characteristics, each has exposed our nation’s vulnerabilities, and each time it has been our regions that have risen to the challenge. 

We often hear the saying - “build it and they will come”. But they are already here in regional Australia, and we haven’t planned for this growth. We are now contending with another seismic shift – a societal transformation. 

In my speech last week, I referred to Australia’s polycrisis, which by definition is the simultaneous occurrence of several catastrophic events. A cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part. 

As a country, climate change is demanding we deliver a more sustainable energy industry.  As a country, we are witnessing the evolving nature of how we work. Liveability factors such as healthcare and housing require urgent action. Put these things together, and regions are on the frontline of this polycrisis.   

Our latest research tells us that one-in-five Australians living in our capital cities are considering a life in the country. And it’s millennials with young families who see the greatest potential in career opportunities. A quick calculation of that one-in-five could equate to 3.5 million people moving to the regions. 

But we haven’t prepared for growth. 

Before COVID, workforce mindset prioritised presenteeism over agnostic location and outcomes. But the latent desire of our country’s workforce is now bubbling to the surface and a series of pinch points have been exposed in our human capital, housing, childcare, education, health care – our soft infrastructure. 

So how did we get here? Our current mental models for economic and decision making are outdated, entrenched and not servicing us well. Regional issues haven’t been prioritised in the minds of those who have the power to change our path.  Decades of mismatching investment has hampered the engine room of this country to fire on all cylinders. 

Now, like never before, the metro mindset for decision-making needs to shift. We must stop dealing with regional issues as single government department’s problem – an issue fixed by a one-off grant. 

We have not prepared for the growth of our regions and our current and future population is demanding it. A National Population Plan is required, involving all actors. It’s a plan that invests in education and training in regions. It’s a plan that delivers place-based solutions to the chronic workforce shortage. It’s a plan that promotes regions as a place to live, work and invest. It focusses on housing and liveability aspects, as well as tailoring our migration system to fill roles in our regions.

We commend the vision of our Prime Minister to ensure ‘no-one is left behind and no-one is held back”. But now is the time to shift our nation’s gaze. Now is the time to ensure regions are not left behind any longer. 

This task should not sit on the shoulders of one government and one government alone. It requires collective action at all levels of government, industry and the community.

We cannot delay this once in a generation opportunity. The future belongs to those who plan for it today.

Australia – it’s time to rebalance the nation.

Liz Ritchie
CEO, Regional Australia Institute.