Fiona Simson’s 2020s vision: Let’s double the population outside capital cities | Fiona Simson | Opinion
How should we stare down the challenges of a new decade? Where will we find hope and solutions? In this series, we ask prominent Australians to write about one thing they think could improve the nation in the 2020s
Ask suburban families, couples, singles, workers, retirees – the lot – and I’m confident that many would admit that they regularly romanticise about a tree or sea change. The yearning to leave behind the traffic jams, the almost un-affordable rents and mortgages and the sheer pace of city living is real.
What’s not to like about a slower and simpler life where community is king and hours are won back to spend with family and doing things you enjoy?
As a lifetime resident (save a couple of years away for study) of regional Australia, I can attest to just how good country living is. I can also attest to its challenges.
Unfortunately for many the dream of leaving the city’s bounds behind is diminished after learning of these challenges. Due diligence quickly uncovers the often-appalling lack of health services, internet and mobile phone connectivity that is nowhere near on par with urban networks; almost non-existent public transport options; and just the glaring evidence that our regions are plainly not seen as a priority in the eyes of decision makers.
For many, on the basis of available services and infrastructure, a move would mean a drop in living standards – even when compared with the under-pressure hospitals, schools and transport networks of our major cities.
Even factoring in the growth in areas of south-east Queensland and Newcastle and other cities such as Hobart, Canberra and Darwin, it’s accurate to say we need to spread out.
But it’s a chicken and egg situation. People won’t relocate to the bush if there aren’t the jobs and infrastructure in place, and the investment needed to create jobs and to build infrastructure won’t happen if there aren’t the people to support it.
What we need is a goal. A target from which we, led by government, can work back from and plan for. How about a goal to double the population of regional Australia by 2030?
Since the 1970s, governments have recognised the conundrum of concentrated populations in mainly east coast-hugging capital cities and a steady exit of folk from our regional villages, towns and cities.
And despite good intentions, no government has found the solution or had the courage to make the investment needed. And, to be fair, government can’t do it alone. Industry and community have a significant role to play also.
One thing is certain in 2020. No longer can we entertain platitudes and have half-hearted attempts at “decentralisation”. Now is the time to turn words into action. The future of Australia in the next decade rests with us reversing this trend. “Regionalisation” must be our catchcry.
If we are to double the population outside the capital cities by 2030, as a nation we need to focus on the inland, the north and the west.
Regionalisation must become the new mantra encouraging big business, education, IT and other services to move or establish in regional areas.
It requires no less than a combined effort from all three tiers of government and industry, one that focuses on and includes investment, incentives and innovation.
In these days of low interest rates, there’s arguably never been a better time to invest.
There’s no escaping that the investment required is considerable. There must be big spending on roads, transport links and digital connectivity. Without highspeed, reliable internet most businesses will never see the case to leave the city’s bounds.
And we need to be strategic about where we invest. The National Farmers’ Federation supports a strategic regional hubs approach, akin to the successful City Deals program, where regions are identified for their natural advantages and which investment is based on. For example, when it comes to agriculture, regions should be earmarked for investment based on growing environments and pathways to market for produce.
The concept would allow us as a nation to be bold and pinpoint hubs for focussed agricultural production, infrastructure pathways to connect them and the businesses and services needed to support the development.
The growth of these industries, regions or zones would be supported by a hub and spoke model, which will see small towns, villages and whole geographical regions thrive, rather than just regional cities.
The Business Council of Australia also supports an expansion of the City Deals approach to regional Australia and sees the huge opportunity for its big business members to increase their footprint in regional Australia.
It may also be prudent to provide fiscal incentives. One idea is to apply a decreased tax rate to individual and companies living and operating a certain distance away from capital cities.
Doubling regional Australia’s population within the next decade is a bold goal.
One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of Australians who would consider a move to the bush – if the conditions were right. It’s our responsibility as a nation to commit to getting the conditions right. It won’t be easy, but the end result would most certainly change this country for the better.