As Australia battles to deal with its centralised population and the congestion caused by having over 40 per cent of its population living in its two biggest cities, the realisation is stark; we have to take a different approach to growing our regions if we want to achieve a different outcome.
For many decades now, Melbourne and Sydney have dominated Australia’s population. As these cities and our other capitals have grown and prospered, the demand for further infrastructure investment continues to grow. These endless demands from our capital cities for more lanes on the freeways, more trains running more often, bigger hospitals, universities and airports etc. puts the nation into a continuous need for more resources.
Once these infrastructure projects are completed, these capital cities continue to thrive and become more liveable, and then more and more people make the decision to live in these capitals and the congestion cycle starts all over again.
Until we have a fundamental shift in spending priorities away from our congested capital cities and share the infrastructure spending with regional Australia, we cannot expect the current imbalance to correct itself.
As a result of this cycle, more and more Australians are growing tired of congestion in our capital cities, despairing at the inability to enter the housing market and generally struggling to get ahead while living in these growing suburban based cities.
The regions of Australia have never been in a better position to take advantage of an Australian population that is looking away from our capital cities, looking to the regions for a better all-round life.
Regional Australia is ready to welcome these people with open arms. To live five to ten minutes from work, to own your own home, to have space for children to grow and play, these are the benefits our regions have over our capitals. We just need a greater share of the funding pie invested in regional Australia.
While the quantum of spending in regional Australia is a critical factor, it is also important that our funding be more targeted. The Committee continually heard that the most important issues are around making our regional cities, towns and communities more connected. Connectivity can be described as having better roads, better rail services, mobile phone coverage and access to quality broadband internet. Especially important is that those living in regional Australia have access to a reasonable base level of services such as health and education.
The final piece of the puzzle that influences people’s decision to live in the regions is that of amenity. The amenity of a city, town or community can be in the visual aesthetics, the buildings, the parks, theatres, the access to shops, recreational facilities etc. While amenity is a broad and wide reaching category, if we fail to invest in amenity, we will also fail to entice people to live in regional Australia.
The Government’s decentralisation agenda was warmly welcomed by every regional city that the Committee visited. At every regional hearing, witnesses espoused the advantages of relocating government agencies or parts thereof from capital cities out to regional cities where their performance and outcomes would improve due to either a natural geographical advantage or advantages gained from creating a cluster and critical mass of like agencies or businesses.
While it is undeniably the preference of government to move government agencies to regions where there will be a natural advantage, the Committee saw a number of successful examples of relocated government agencies where there was no natural advantage to speak of, other than the benefit of having well paid government employees living and working in regional towns and cities.
In these instances, I believe that there should never be any disadvantage to the efficiency of a government agency when a potential relocation is being considered.
We also heard evidence that even when the positives associated with moving an agency far outweigh the perceived negatives, there will always be an element of ‘push-back’ from public servants who would much prefer to stay in their current location.
Australia now has nearly 50 years of history of various forms of decentralisation. We have many examples of successful relocations of both government agencies and private companies – too many to name. There is a very strong sense within regional Australia that all governments can and should be more aggressive with its decentralisation of government agencies wherever it is appropriate.
It must also be noted that while government agencies being relocated from capital cities out to regional cities become the face of decentralisation policy it is, however, the private sector that has the ability to dwarf the benefits that will be delivered from relocating government sector positions.
Private sector decentralisation is often dependent on the decisions of government that set the environment for private sector movements.
It is also abundantly evident that we need to categorise our investment in regional Australia into four discernible categories. First, there is what we would all acknowledge as investments that maintain the status quo; these projects are necessary as they assist in enabling regional towns and cities to provide that universal base level of service and amenity.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is catalytic investment. These investments attract further investments and they help create and build on a critical mass in a particular sector. These catalytic investments which lure other businesses into a co-location should be given greater priority within government decision making.
Third, is investment in capacity building of our rural communities particularly education and training and leadership development.
And finally, there is investment in human capital. This includes the employment of people to design and deliver services in rural communities. It is this investment that provides the greatest opportunity for government decentralisation policy.
The role of identifying the catalytic type investments is one that would be well served by our Regional Development Australia Committees into the future.
There is so much work yet to be done in this space. Regional development and decentralisation will play an ever increasing role in growing the national economy and creating a more even spread of Australia’s population.
The Committee strongly agrees that the Australian Parliament create a Joint Standing Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation to continue this work into the future.
The Committee would like to thank everyone who participated in this inquiry, in particular, the members of our informal expert panel:
•Mr Jack Archer;
•Professor Andrew Beer;
•Professor John Cole;
•Ms Anne Dunn;
•Professor Robyn Eversole;
•Professor Fiona Haslam-McKenzie; and
•Professor Tony Sorensen
all of whom made an outstanding contribution not just as witnesses to our public hearings but also through submissions and other written contributions.
I would like to thank members of the Committee, especially the former Chairs,
the Hon Dr John McVeigh MP and the Hon Darren Chester MP, and Deputy Chair,
Ms Meryl Swanson MP, for her professionalism and bipartisan approach. I would also like to thank members of the secretariat: Ms Fran Denny; Ms Lynley Ducker; Dr Andrew Gaczol; Mr Danton Leary and Ms Kelly Burt.