Last week in Canberra, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) unveiled the first-year progress report of the Regionalisation Ambition 2032. At its core, it highlights if regional Australia is a better place to live, work and invest than it was 12 months ago.
We’ve known for decades about the disparity between city and regional living in this country. It’s often harder to see a doctor and access public transport and education. But despite these challenges, thousands of people are still flocking to live in the regions.
Economic modelling shows Australia’s economy will be $13.8 billion better off with a more balanced population. The agglomeration benefits of creating megacities pale in comparison to the gains in investing in our second and third-tier regional communities.
During the last census period (2016 to 2021) regional Australia saw a surge in net migration from capitals to the country, with 166,000 more people settling in regions than the other way around. This figure is almost triple the previous census.
Millennials (25-39 years) are on the march, with 54,000 leaving our capitals to forge a new life beyond the city limits.
Sydney and Melbourne were the largest net exporters of people to the regions, losing 110,000 and 82,000 respectively.
But the question remains. Is regional Australia a better place to live than it was a year ago – for the 9.6 million who now call it home?
If they’re looking for a house, the answer is no. If they want to recruit staff, the answer is no. These two measures are the clear areas of weakness despite the overall strength we are witnessing. They are the ‘Achille's heel’ in the growth of regional Australia.
Even though the regional vacancy rate has increased slightly from 1% to 1.5% and is higher than in our capital cities (1.1%), building approvals have not kept pace with population growth. In fact, they’ve declined across all states. Regional Western Australia saw the largest drop in average monthly building approvals of 41.4%, followed by regional Victoria, 38.4. Both regional Queensland and New South Wales down 15%.
This can’t continue. The current housing shortfall should serve as a stark warning to decision-makers. We need to learn from our past. We do have the benefit of hindsight now.
For that reason, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has supported the introduction of the Unlocking Regional Housing Bill to Federal Parliament this week, calling for at least 30% of the Housing Australia Future Fund to be directed to regions.
However, more than 11 years of RAI research tells us that the challenges facing regional Australia can’t be dealt with in isolation. The housing crisis can’t be fixed without growing the workforce. But that too is under pressure.
Regional recruitment difficulty remains high, increasing from 64% (July 2022) to 69%. It’s getting harder to find staff. And if you can find them, housing is a problem.
Now, one in one in five metropolitan Australians are looking to make the move. A quick calculation tells you that is 3.5 million people. Are regions ready? Not really.
But regional people are happier than they were a year ago, with the Life Satisfaction and Wellbeing score increasing to 73 (higher than their city counterparts). Education targets have improved slightly, with post-school qualifications increasing to 58.4%, and NAPLAN results better for very remote students.
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) score is up 67.4%, improving connectivity. There are more childcare spots for working parents. More regional students completed Year 12.
While these are only small steps, they are steps in the right direction. Over the next 9 years, the RAI will continue to track and call out the areas in need of attention, as outlined in our Regionalisation Ambitions 2032.
It’s the first framework of its type, a plan to ‘rebalance the nation’ by 2032, aimed at turning the dial on the key challenges regional Australia faces – working with government, industry, corporate Australia and of course regional stakeholders.
While we’ve seen deeper collaboration and co-ordination across all governments, moving forward our leaders must “shift their gaze” beyond the unconscious metro bias.
Whilst the idea of a fourth tier of government has been touted, I don’t believe that is the answer. But we do need to reform our thinking, our focus and our dollars.
We need a vertical action plan for Regional Australia, that is shared, adopted and implemented through every portfolio area of government, at every level, with investment.
Continued place-based policies from our governments is a must – initiatives that recognise regional Australia is not a homogenous place, and what works in Wagga Wagga may not work in Warrnambool or Warwick.
We need better visibility of cross-portfolio action, remembering that it’s fragmentation that has built the status quo we face today.
Addressing the challenges before us and taking advantage of the opportunities will need political courage and bi-partisan support to “shift their gaze” beyond the 3-year election cycle.
The benefits will be felt by all Australians because regions are at the centre of a just transition.