Governments at all levels need to work together with local communities to develop a sustainable economic base for regional populations and deliver quality services, a Nous Group forum has heard.
The Canberra event, on the topic “What does the future hold for regional Australia?”, brought together Principals from Nous and visiting experts to discuss ways to revitalise regional communities. The August 6 panel at the National Museum of Australia was the third in the Beyond 2020 event series, which is marking Nous’ 20th anniversary with discussions on shaping Australia’s future.
Tanya Smith, a Nous Principal from Melbourne and the moderator for the event, set the scene by explaining that regions were impacted by the triple threats of technological disruptions, demographic shifts and climate change.
Social researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley said that an ageing population meant heath was a high priority in regional communities, and major pieces of infrastructure could have a transformative impact.
“I was in Albury Wodonga, they have a cancer centre that opened in 2016. It was incredible how just one piece of the health puzzle had alleviated pressure in that area around a whole lot of other things,” she said. “Something like that can lift a regional area in a way that a really good local public school can. And if the job mix is alright, everyone feels like this is a place where I can live.”
For senior Commonwealth bureaucrat Dr Rachel Bacon, the three major needs in regional communities were connectivity (both physical and digital), amenities (such as hospitals and schools), and skills. Dr Bacon, a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, said the Australian Government was making significant investments in regional areas, but there was more work to be done in joining up across different portfolios initiatives.
“We are hearing clearly from people that they want different levels of government to join up,” she said. “They don’t want a government giving grant programs over here, and a different level of government doing something different over there. They want governments to join themselves up and they want portfolios across government to join up.”
Nous Group Principal Simon Smith, a former departmental secretary in New South Wales, said that funding frameworks should be developed that make it possible for different levels of government and their portfolios to come together with local communities to shape priorities.
“There are some innovative deals emerging, where departments come together to work as one mind with the locals. A government might observe, we are going to send this much money, let’s see what the locals value most highly and change what we fund on that basis. What seems to hold these deals back are silo thinking and budget rules. Overcoming these barriers with new frameworks holds real potential to show regional communities that city-based governments are working for them too.”
Townsville Mayor Cr Jenny Hill pointed out that about 1 million Australians lived north of the Tropic of Capricorn, which represented more than a third of the country’s land mass. With Townsville’s unemployment spiking to 13 percent recently (and Indigenous and youth unemployment both nearly double that), her strategy was to bring new industry to the city.
“How do we change our economy and create something that will build real jobs?” she asked. “We know that we’ve got to transition people into the new economy. Governments talk about it and no one believes them, so we’re not talking about it, we’re just doing it.”
She explained that Australia’s first lithium ion battery plant running on renewable energy was being built in Townsville.
“You’ve got to take a risk,” she said. “We as a local government have taken a risk. And on the back of that there are four or five other industries that now want to come into that same area. Everyone says to me you can’t have advanced manufacturing in Australia any more. I reckon that’s a crock. It’s about how we look at what we can do in the rest of Australia (outside capital cities).”
Dr Prins Ralston, who grew up in remote Northern Territory and is now the leader of Nous’ Queensland office, said it was essential to give Indigenous and other remote communities a sense of control over what services were delivered and how.
“A big issue for those communities is they feel disempowered,” he said. He noted some recent work he had done with Nous in Napranum, southwest of Weipa in regional Queensland, supporting the community of about 1,000 people take greater ownership of services.
“Every service you could imagine got hosed into that community, then the hose was turned off at a regular interval. This is a pattern for those communities that has happened since the 1970s. These communities are now getting empowered and saying, ‘We’ll actually identify what we need’. They’re taking the power.”
Wrapping up the event, Tanya Smith said the discussion had made clear the diversity of challenges different regions faced. “It is clear we need to ensure there is some coordination among governments and an opportunity to leverage the capacity and leadership available locally to carve out a prosperous future for some places that are doing it tough.”
You can hear the full discussion soon on the NousCast podcast.