Trump, Brexit and now Hanson – the policy approach we need to deal with the regional vote for chaos
First published by The Land.
After a big scare, the Coalition has scraped over the line to form government.
The trend which should keep the Prime Minister awake at night is the big swings in regional seats where the economy is struggling. Liberal seats in Tasmania, regional Queensland and South Australia are where the big moves happened. The Nationals avoided losses by the skin of their teeth.
Similar regional economic issues have delivered Donald Trump in the USA and the exit of Britain from the EU. Australia has Pauline Hanson back.
Many regional people feel excluded from the opportunities in the national economy and are uncertain about the future for their families and communities.
People feel this way for good reason. So far, the knowledge economy is mostly a great story for the big city CBDs and well-educated people. Turnbull’s economic transition narrative hasn’t yet demonstrated impact in the bush. People are worried about hollow growth where the economic numbers look OK nationally, but underneath gaps between the inner city and the bush get wider.
It does not need to be this way. The government can better include regional people in the economy’s transition, but only if the Regional Development Minister carries greater weight and brings greater substance to the next Turnbull Cabinet.
New policies for regional Australia were disappointingly scarce in the campaign. However, the $200 million Regional Jobs and Investment packages have potential, as do more regional City Deals following the election campaign announcement of the first Deal for Townsville.
The details are sketchy, but we do know that these new approaches will target a mix of infrastructure, business support and skills to fix local issues. This is long overdue recognition that it takes a combination of business creating new jobs and local people with the skills to deliver, as well as good roads or rail to drive growth.
While the media releases sound promising, these new Packages and Deals will need some real policy grunt if they are to have an impact.
How will business support and skills be delivered to match the opportunities in different regions? How much additional economic activity are we expecting this investment to create?
Many regional development dollars have been wasted in the past on localised pet projects or simply upgrading existing infrastructure for limited economic impact.
$200m is not much in a regional economy that accounts for 40% of Australia’s $1.62 trillion economy. It must be used well to have any impact.
The old trick of re-announcing the dollars to be invested and making woolly statements about a “boost” for the region is no longer enough. Regional people will be looking for clear evidence that each policy can deliver new jobs and growth for their area.
With this challenge in front of us, it is great to have some continuity in the team for regions post-election. Fiona Nash and Angus Taylor remain the Ministers’ charged with responsibility for regional development and city deals. Both are on the rise and have the capability to deliver substantial policy outcomes that break with the disappointments of the past.
Senator Nash’s budget commitment to develop a substantive regional policy statement in 2017 (we have not had anything like this for decades) and the portfolio’s coverage of regional telecommunications, as well as regional development will be particularly valuable.
The election result reflects the fact that regional people know that recent governments have let them down.
For too long, ‘regional development’ has been code for poor policy and political pork barrelling. Small infrastructure investments and a mess of programs across health, education, telecommunications, industry and indigenous affairs portfolios haven’t delivered good services or jobs and growth for many regional areas.
Hopefully the Turnbull government and its key Ministers take the chance they have to set a better direction for regional communities.
Jack Archer is CEO of the Regional Australia Institute