The move to remote working in the wake of the pandemic has made the benefits of life in regional Australia substantially more appealing to urban dwellers and may well stimulate an economic regional renaissance.
Many inner-city dwellers once cringed at the thought of living in the regions. Give up their urban amenities and career prospects for a quiet life in the country? The shift held little appeal. But when COVID-19 lockdowns took the shine off city living, parts of regional Australia experienced record population growth. Remote working broadened the horizons of many people and the prospects of a regional lifestyle have never looked brighter. And while the population drift has highlighted significant challenges for many local economies, it has also presented an unprecedented opportunity — what not-for-profit think tank Regional Australia Institute (RAI) describes as a “rebalancing of the nation”.
Founded in 2011 with federal government seed money, the non-partisan RAI is dedicated to building robust regional economies. Much of its focus includes research and modelling to assess how the quality of life in the regions can be improved.
Its 10-year National Regionalisation Framework sets out critical targets and actions for government and industry to strengthen regional Australia around five key themes — population, jobs and skills, liveability, productivity and innovation, sustainability and resilience.
“What we are attempting to do here is rather ambitious,” says RAI CEO Liz Ritchie. “Yes, government absolutely has a critical role to play, but if we are serious about the regionalisation of the nation, where opportunities and potential of regional Australia are realised, we need to bring industry to the table and to have community, government and industry standing shoulder to shoulder. Our objective is to essentially create a movement, which you could liken to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
Transforming the regions
Australia’s regional areas were once viewed as the “poor cousins” of the city centres. That’s the recollection of RAI chair Christian Zahra AM FAICD, who grew up in eastern Victoria’s Latrobe Valley region. “I’ve been involved in regional development in one way or another for about 30 years and would say there’s been a profound change in the way people in cities think about regions,” says Zahra, who is also principal of specialist policy and strategy consulting firm Impact Partners Australia, and a former federal member for the Victorian seat of McMillan.
“They once viewed them as a group of people who had to be looked after in some ways, because they were a bit hopeless. That’s a generalisation, but also representative of what a lot of people, including government and business, thought.”
Zahra says the RAI board is accountable to the people of regional Australia. He describes them as the organisation’s “owners, in many ways”. However, its funding comes from research partnerships with federal and state governments, regional consultancy projects, memberships, philanthropic funding and its national Regions Rising event series.
“The RAI board is about leading the organisation on behalf of the people of regional Australia,” says Zahra. “We’ve always had a strong awareness that the people of regional Australia are the people that we are responsible to, and we’ve felt that great sense of accountability to make sure that in everything we do, we’re pursuing objectives that are going to make a real difference on the ground for the people who live and work in regional Australia.”
Ritchie says RAI is calling for investment, better planning and more place-based, targeted solutions to ensure that regional communities can thrive into the future. She says this will also support the “profound shift” occurring across the country. “The pandemic essentially fast-tracked a sentiment lying beneath the surface,” she says. “More and more, people are looking to live where they love, not to live where they have to work. Ultimately, the core of our vision of rebalancing the nation is about creating more opportunity, more equity and more prosperity — so there is genuinely that level playing field.”
Making the move
Life in the regions presents attractive opportunities for Australia’s urbanites — a lower cost of living, more affordable housing and a connection with the natural environment and local community. “In our research, city dwellers have told us their desire to move was about the need for more time and more space, more access to amenity, to reduce their debt and to be removed from congestion,” says Ritchie. “People’s lives are changing and they’re demanding a different way of living and working.”
RAI research shows about one in five residents of the country’s major capitals are considering a move to the regions. While more than two-thirds of those considering a move may do so in the next 12 months, many are already there. The increasing use of a range of technology-enabled remote working apps and associated software is making it easier for employers to monitor employee safety, their movements and productivity. The use of geolocational support and alert-based systems allows employers to better facilitate efficient and safe remote working.
Data from the Regional Movers Index — a partnership between the Commonwealth Bank and the RAI that tracks trends in people moving to Australia’s regions — shows quarterly migration from capital cities to regional areas over the past two years is averaging 15 per cent higher than in the two years before COVID-19. In fact, Sydney and Melbourne both lost more residents to the regions in 2020 than they gained from 2011–16.
Centres like Lake Macquarie in the NSW Hunter region are capitalising on the trend, launching campaigns to lure Sydneysiders. Its “Work from where you’d rather live” campaign features advertising to drive people to the local council’s “Let’s Lake Mac” online hub, which features stories about the people and local businesses that shape the region, as well as advice from former city dwellers who have chosen Lake Macquarie as their new home.
The efforts are paying off, with the Regional Movers Index putting Lake Macquarie among the top five popular local government areas for regional migration in 2021, along with the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Greater Geelong and Wollongong.
Port Augusta in South Australia is also attracting record population growth, topping the Regional Movers Index list of towns with the strongest annual percentage growth in migration from capital cities last year.
Claire Wiseman MAICD, a resident of Port Augusta and CEO of Regional Development Australia Far North (RDA Far North), notes infrastructure investment is a key factor influencing population change in Port Augusta.
“We’ve attracted a lot of investment with renewable projects, just because of the local conditions,” she says. “There’s a significant amount of construction going on to the point that if all of the projects in the investment pipeline come off, we’re looking at an 18 per cent population increase in our region over the next three years. That’s incredibly significant, but we need to bear in mind that it is a short- or medium-term increase — and perhaps more of a population boost in the sense that a lot of the renewables projects are very heavy in their construction workforce.”
RDA Far North recently launched its “Live Work Play” campaign, which aims to attract new residents to Port Augusta to help fill the significant skills gap across the region. “We’re seeing a boom in the region, but we really need more workers,” says Wiseman. “We recently did a survey of local businesses to get an understanding of workforce shortages. For the 78 businesses that responded, there were 183 job vacancies — and the mix was amazing in that you had machinery operators, trades, vets, health professionals, retail workers, physios, dentists, hospitality workers. The shortage is right across the board.”
Challenges in the spotlight
In December 2021, there were more than 70,000 job vacancies across regional Australia, an increase of 36 per cent since December 2020. Ritchie says the figure is now at 84,000 and growing. During the past decade, the number of skilled trades and professional vacancies in the regions has grown faster than those for lower-skilled occupations. And, while newcomers may be working from the regions, they are not necessarily working in them.
The skills shortage is just one of the challenges facing regional Australia. There is a need for greater investment in housing, infrastructure, social services, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. While the healthcare sector is under pressure across the country, growing regional centres face significant strain.
Christine Holland FAICD is a resident of Warragul, 100km south-east of Melbourne, and chair of the West Gippsland Healthcare Group, which includes the West Gippsland Hospital in the town. According to Holland, a 23.5ha site for a new hospital was earmarked and secured more than 15 years ago, but that delays in government approval and funding have left the site vacant.
“The site for the hospital is sitting there,” she says. “I’ve sent an email to the [health] minister to ask him to come and look at the hospital, or at least have a conversation with me about it. I’ve managed to secure a Microsoft Teams meeting but, under director duties, we need to let him know if we have a major problem. And we do have a major problem — our facility here is no longer fit for purpose.”
Holland adds that through its Department of Health, the state government has set a self- sufficiency expectation that 80 per cent of the population should have access to the health service within its own community. “We’re only catering to 52 per cent of the population at the moment,” she says. “A significant number of people have to seek healthcare 60km away. Some may not think that’s too far, but if you’re about to have a baby, it’s quite a distance to travel.”
However, Ritchie notes that no-one could have foreseen that growth was going to happen so quickly. “Prior to our Regional Movers Index, we were reliant on ABS data, which only in recent years started to delve into the regional population movement,” she says. “They were doing it on a quarterly basis — a lot can happen in a quarter.”
Solving regional challenges has traditionally taken a top-down, government-led approach, but the success of RAI’s regionalisation framework requires a broad commitment to improving regional prosperity. “Under each of the framework’s five pillars we’re seeking to create a set of targets and actions,” says Ritchie. “We want our partners, including industry, government at all levels and people on the ground in our regional communities, to say, ‘What are we doing that aligns to this and how can we pledge to make a difference?’”
RAI’s Regional Australia Council, for instance, brings together Australian businesses committed to elevating regional Australia. Corporate members include Elders, Australia Post and KPMG, which have each pledged to prioritise the regions. NBN’s commitment includes more than $2b in network investments over the next three years to improve connection and speeds for those living and working in regional areas of Australia. In partnership with the RAI, its “Innovate with NBN” grants program also offers technology-led businesses based in regional Australia the chance to share in $95,000 in funding to support the development of their innovative ideas.
Ritchie explains that data will be collated each year to track progress and the RAI will report back to stakeholders. “The outcome is we’re shining a light on the opportunities that have emerged, but also where there are opportunities to improve,” she says. “It’s about using the data to shift the dial and ensure we can close any gaps and create that kind of level playing field that will ultimately rebalance the nation.”
Getting the balance right requires much work, but RAI research points to great potential for regional Australia to optimise its growth. And, despite the challenges that regional growth presents to services such as health, regional residents like Holland welcome the population boost. “The more people that move to the regions, the more new ideas they bring with them,” she says. “There are opportunities for niche retail, services and tourism to cater for a changing population — and also huge opportunities for industries in the regions. When our new hospital is announced — and it has to be ‘when’, it can’t be ‘if’ — things like biotech and biomedical would thrive in this clean, green part of the country.”
Zahra sees an increasing appetite for regions to lead their own development. “In the past, there’s been a very strong feeling in regions that things have been done to us, rather than us having an involvement in what happens,” he says. “People in the regions understand there are changes taking place that impact local economies. Regional leaders want to be a part of that discussion and part of developing the solution. The evidence from regional development practice around the world shows the best solutions — meaning the ones that are most impactful and most effective — are those jointly developed with local people.
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