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Faces of the Regional Australia Institute - Amanda Barwick

Informed by both research and ongoing conversations with the community, the Regional Australia Institute develops policy solutions and advocates for change to build a stronger economy and better quality of life in regional Australia – for the benefit of all Australians.

This cannot be done without a dedicated and enthusiastic team and through the ‘Faces of the RAI’ series, we want to introduce you to the people undertaking this work. They all share a strong commitment to regional Australia and many are regional residents themselves.

Amanda Barwick

Director of Corporate Affairs

Location: Warialda, NSW

When did you start at the RAI and what is your role responsible for? 
I was very privileged to be offered a job in late 2017 as the first Editor-in-Chief of the Regional Australia Institute (RAI). Back then, my role was to raise the profile of the Institute. I am now the Director of Corporate Affairs. 

Why did you take on the job? 

I distinctly remember the day I received a phone call to see if I was interested in coming to work at the RAI. Looking back now, I was a little rude with my response, as I had three growing boys, was running two regional businesses and working for the Murray Darling Basin Authority in Canberra.  

Driving between meetings and trying to get back home to meet the school bus, I recall abruptly saying “Thank you very much, but my dance card is full – appreciate the call.” Just two seconds away from hanging up the phone, the voice on the other end said, “Can you just give me 30 seconds to tell you what we do?”
What he said next, literally stopped me in my tracks. I still remember, to this day, the exact spot on the Gwydir Highway where I pulled my car over to listen.  

Having been a regional journalist for many years, my job had been to tell the story of regional Australia. However, despite the issue of the day I was covering - whether it be housing, childcare, education or workforce - I could never find the information I needed to tell the full story, with the data I was looking for. I may have been able to find information about regional NSW, or at best the north-west NSW, but when I wanted to write about Warialda, Tamworth, Armidale, Wagga or Gunnedah, the information wasn’t there at that granular level. And if it was, it wasn’t timely. 

To me, back then, the RAI was such a unique organisation – as it is today. One that had purpose that aligned with my own values. One that I knew I wanted to work for. I didn’t want to just tell the story of regional Australia, but I also wanted to make a difference in its future story. Because the issues I wrote about, were also the issues that impacted me on a personal level. So of course, I was thrilled to be offered a role. 

Where do you live? 
I am very lucky to live on a farm, outside one of the most incredible towns in regional Australia – Warialda. We are about seven hours drive from Sydney. With a population of just over 1200 people, and nestled between Inverell and Moree, some might think we are in the middle of nowhere. But the middle of nowhere to some, is my everything.  

It’s a place where the local doctor, Dr Coote, calls me after hours for a phone consult, because we are both too busy in the day to catch each other. It’s a place where Ms Cole, the local school teacher tracks down a professional athletics coach in Brisbane to train (virtually) our 10 year old in the lead up to the National Athletics Championship – to make sure he’s got the best chance to “give it a red hot go”.

Warialda is the place where the whole community turns out to fight a bushfire threatening our property, and if they aren’t fighting it, they’re delivering truckloads of food to keep the volunteers going. Where I live, I can always rely on neighbours like Kennie, who pulls up to help me fix a blown tire when I am stranded on the side of the road. 

In my town, the local shopkeeper opens the doors after hours to give me the Christmas present I forgot to pick up – at 6pm on Christmas Eve! And he does it with a smile and a laugh. If the local IGA supermarket doesn’t stock what I am after, then they do their best to make sure it’s on the shelves next time I come to town. 
It’s a place where our kids walk safely from school to the local pool to swim laps in the afternoon, or to attend Little Athletics, footy training, or running club (our newest sporting opportunity organised by the local Principal).  

Where I live, I need (and have) fast-speed, reliable internet to do my job, as well as running our other two businesses on a farm in “someone else’s middle of nowhere”. It may be a long way from the capital cities, but where I live, I often wonder why the bright city lights are so appealing for some? Something tells me though the secret is out about my life in the country and Warialda’s population is starting to climb! 

What does your typical day look like?
Well, I’m not sure there is a “typical day” in the life of RAI given the deep and breath of issues we work on. And as a working mum of three boys, with a busy farmer as a husband, things can change by the minute. 

It does always start with a good strong coffee when I get out of bed and look out the window at my incredible view of rolling hills and Angus cattle (Mosquito Creek Angus of course!). My commute to work is brief to say the least. A few quick steps from my kitchen and I am in the world of RAI at my home office. 
Most days my first point of call is to look at the news of the day to see what else is happening in the world – looking through the “regional lens”. Then a quick chat with our RAI CEO, the ever-inspiring Liz Ritchie. Second stop is a quick check in with the incredible communication team at RAI to plan the events of the day, with Alex (affectionately called AC) in Perth, Melinda in Wagga, Belinda also in Wagga (there is something special about that town!), Alexandra near Singleton and Kimberly at HQ in Canberra.  

From there, it can differ greatly. We may be planning our next Regions Rising event, in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, or up north in Queensland where we bring together an incredible line up of people, all heavily invested in the future of regions. Or we may be helping the RAI research team prepare our next body of work, checking in with government, testing it with key stakeholders and preparing for the media launch to help spread the word. 

Whether it is working with partners such as the Commonwealth Bank on our next Regional Movers Index, that tells the story of where people are moving each quarter or finessing the Job Vacancy Index focussed on the growth of regional jobs, at the centre of all our work are the 9.4 million people who call regions home. 

I often say that if I’m not making a difference to those people when I sit at my desk every day, then I need to reassess what I’m doing. 

How does working for an organisation focused on regional Australia make you feel? 
For a large portion of my working life, I pretended I didn’t live in regional Australia. Yes, a weird thing to admit given where I work. But that wasn’t because I didn’t love where I lived. I married a farmer. Jobs in TV journalism were a bit few and far between out here. So, I had to find another line of work to focus on – one I was passionate about. 

Over the course of building a career in PR, I always got a sense that my counterparts in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne felt I ‘hadn’t really made it” because I lived in the bush (remember this is pre-COVID!) As a country kid, I had always been told you had to head to the city if you wanted to reach the pinnacle of your career. That is where the action was!  

How things have changed. More than 3.5 million people living in our metro centres are now looking beyond the city lights. They want the space I have; the connection I have with my community and now have the work opportunities they could only have dreamt of pre-pandemic.
But we still have a long way to go to see equality in regions. While I am always quick promote the benefits of regional living, I am also acutely aware of the challenges we are facing. The light and shade of regional Australia. While our local public school is second to none in many ways, our kids are behind in NAPLAN. Childcare is a major issue for working parents in our town, and transport options are limited. But what I have learned over my six years with RAI, is that finding the solutions to our challenges can’t just rest with government alone. What I have witnessed is that some of the best solutions to our issues often come from regional communities themselves, with the right support.  

Working for an organisation, with a mission to empower regions to thrive, is exactly where I am supposed to be right now. And the advice I give my children, Harry, Max, and Hugo is different to that of parents before me. A career in regional Australia is fulfilling. While we still have a long way to go to change the mindset in some sectors, my hope is that when they enter the workforce, they can have a choice of where they want to live and career advancement isn’t restricted by your postcode.   

Where do you see regional Australia in 10 years? 
Great question! I wish I had a crystal ball because I know we are entering a very exciting space. However, reflecting on recent work we’ve been undertaking at the RAI on our social media strategy, I was reminded of some key elements. If growing your audience “organically” is a marathon, then hitting the switch on “promoted” socials is a sprint. And I couldn’t help but draw the analogy between our social media growth and the story of regional Australia.  

For decades, towns like Warialda have been growing organically – our population, our health services, our education facilities, and infrastructure in a way. But now the light has been shone on regional Australia - it’s been “promoted” like never before - we now have many more followers. We need to sprint. Towns like Warialda need the services that are required for our growing population. We need new ideas and solutions to our housing situation. We need a workforce that can meet the demand of employers. 

So, in 10 years, my hope is that the stakeholders involved in building regional Australia are well and truly on the pathway to equity. One where all Australians truly have a choice of where they want to live. 

Where is your favourite place in regional Australia? 
Well, it’s obvious I love Warialda. It’s where I am raising my family, but I am also very fond of Toowoomba, QLD – it’s my second home for now, where I attended high school and now my boys are doing the same.  

It’s a very hard question to ask someone who has the privilege of working at the RAI. You see, one of my favourite parts of the job is speaking to the vast array of people across regional Australia and learning more about where they live – with more than 2000 towns and cities to choose from. 

Late last year, after visiting Chinchilla and Dalby, I called my husband to tell him how I thought we should move north one day. Then, when we holiday on the Sunshine Coast, that becomes my favourite place to be. I can see so much opportunity and a fantastic quality of life in many regional Victorian towns, such as Ballarat and Bendigo. South Australia also has such appeal. On a recent trip to Tasmania, I left dreaming of a life in Ross or Oatlands!  
So, I can’t really pick which would be my favourite place because regional Australia isn’t homogenous. Each town has a different story to tell, but all are full of regional people having a great crack at life and building communities you can only find in the country. But for now, Warialda might just be in front. 

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