Address to National Press Club
Regional Australia Institute CEO, Liz Ritchie
Wednesday 24 May 2023
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. What an honour it is to be here to address the National Press Club.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal & Ngambri people and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
I would like to affirm the Regional Australia Institute’s support for a Voice to Parliament.
I’d also like to acknowledge:
- the National Press Club Board and CEO Maurice Reilly, and media present.
- the RAI Board including Chair, Christian Zahra
- the RAI’s Members
- and finally to my friends and family, especially my parents, Marie and Lloyd Ritchie, who have travelled from Deniliquin, my hometown.
I am privileged to be the CEO of the Regional Australia Institute.
To me, this role is more than a job. It is a calling.
I was born and bred in Deniliquin, NSW in the Riverina.
My connection to "place" is strong and it drives me daily in our important work – Empowering our regions to thrive.
If we are to realise our regional ambitions we will need to see a major mindset shift in this country.
But we must first understand both the current and historical contexts, so we can truly appreciate the opportunity in front us.
It’s a story of shifting our gaze.
It’s a story of rebalancing the nation
I stand before you at a time of great transition!!
It’s a transition with regional Australia on the frontline:
- We are on the frontline of climate change and our energy transition;
- We are on the frontline of the changing face of industry, work and technology;
- and, we’re on the frontline of inconceivable liveability challenges in healthcare, housing and services.
Put these issues together and our regions are facing into Australia’s polycrisis.
Different and disparate shocks interacting so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of its parts.
In Treasurer Chalmers Monthly essay, he reflected on the three big crises we have had over the last 15 years –
- the GFC,
- the pandemic
- and the current economic downturn that is squeezing Australia with high inflation and rising costs of living.
Regional Australia has been on the frontline of each of these crises.
During the GFC, it was the mining boom that helped us lift.
Through the pandemic, when cities closed up, our regions stayed open and grew.
Now, with the global downturn, people continue to take refuge in our regions in search of a more affordable lifestyle.
While every crisis is different – each has exposed our nation’s vulnerabilities, and each time it’s been our regions who have risen to the challenge.
Now Australia is contending with another seismic shift, a societal transformation.
The global pandemic allowed us to reflect on our lives and our society - how we work and where we live.
Demand for regional living is at record highs.
But as a country, we are not prepared.
Most people assume it was the pandemic that caused the rise of the regions - but this is not true.
RAI research revealed a consistent net movement gain from cities to regions between in the decade to 2016.
Today, migration from capital cities to regions remains 17% higher than pre-covid levels.
We know from our Regional Movers Index, powered by Commonwealth Bank data that the greatest movers are still those leaving Sydney and Melbourne
The largest migration to the regions had a clear coastal theme – Sunshine and Gold Coast, Bundaberg and Fraser Coast all in the top 5.
But there is a new trend emerging inland.
Centres like Glen Innes, York, Ballarat and Murray Bridge are growing and evolving.
And towns are changing with great coffee, new co-working spaces, first class sporting facilities and amazing cultural offerings.
But, some things haven’t changed like Saturday footy, country pubs; award winning pies; and most of all – a strong sense of community.
Our latest research continues to show that 1 in 5 Australians, are considering a move to the regions.
They are motivated by spiralling cost of living pressures; growing congestion and a desire for more time, more space and more connection with community.
And it’s millennials, with young families, who see the greatest potential for career opportunities.
A quick calculation of the 1 in 5 tells you that is 3.5 million people …not a small number.
If this happens, we will see 13 million people living in regional Australia.
This would be half the nation, not the third we see today.
The pandemic simply supercharged a dormant desire.
Prior to COVID, we didn’t feel we had permission to pursue the regional dream.
Our workforce mindset prioritised presenteeism over agnostic locations and outcomes.
While we would never have wished a pandemic to turn the tide, there is opportunity in every challenge.
While our Treasurer laments the ailing productivity of our country, regional Australia is primed to answer the call.
Rebalancing population growth towards regional cities will have valuable net gains for the national economy.
Our research shows the greatest potential for productivity uplift exists in our second and third tier cities.
Current population forecasts have Sydney and Melbourne tracking to be mega cities by 2056 – with agglomeration benefits already tapped out.
Even a modest increase in the regional population by 2032, to 11 million people, would deliver a $13.8 billion boost to our GDP.
We can support the growth of our regions whilst addressing the rising costs of metropolitan infrastructure and congestion
We can be a more liveable nation.
So today we meet at a critical juncture.
Capacity constraints are slowing things down, just when we need our economy to rally.
The demand for regional living at pace wasn’t planned for.
As a result, a series of pinch points have been exposed in our human capital, housing, childcare and healthcare, education – our soft infrastructure.
This is why today; I launch the Big Skills Challenge report - a ten-year snapshot of regional job vacancies.
A report that blows up the myth “there are no jobs in our regions.”
In fact, the Report’s headline finding is that job vacancies in regional Australia grew three times faster than metro areas at the end of last year and today they sit at just under 100,000.
Since the onset of COVID, we have seen more than a 100% job vacancy growth.
Unemployment is lower in regional Australia and has been for the last two years, so our capacity is stretched.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the number one job vacancy in regional Australia was Medical Practitioners and Nurses.
In December there were over 6,000 job vacancies. This was half the national total, despite regions having only a third of the population.
NSW North Coast currently needs 400.
Yorke Peninsula and Clare Valley experienced a five-year, 480% increase; and Wimmera and Western topped all the regions for five-year growth at 523%.
Rounding out the top four most in demand occupation groups were Receptionists, Carers and Aides; and Sales Assistants.
These four groups represent nearly 30% of all vacant roles – and if we could fill them it would generate $1.2 billion in economic activity.
Today we have 1,600 Childcare roles vacant. Filling these would see nearly 12,000 people back in the workforce.
This report provides the evidence for a targeted plan, that reskills and fills the jobs of today whilst we plan for tomorrow.
So how do we address this?
Firstly, we must have a National Population Plan in this country.
We must invest in Education and Training whilst focusing on “growing from within”
We must consider targeted incentives to fill chronic shortages in a place based way.
We must continue to promote the regions through the Move to More campaign, and others,
We must focus on Housing and Liveability
We must tailor our migration system to fill roles in our regions.
Here today we welcome Anil and Ruju, who migrated to Australia from Nepal. They firstly made their life in Temora, and now singleton – working in their chosen field of engineer and dentistry. We need more success stories like this.
We talk about feeling the jobs and skills squeeze nationwide, but when we look deeper, like with most issues, regions are at the centre of this crisis. We have a Big Skills Challenge.
Now onto Housing – What a vexing issue this is!!!
We pay more attention to the housing markets in the cities than in the regions.
Despite greater changes in the regional markets.
From 2020 to 2022, the average house price in regional Australia rose 42%.
For every regional place that saw a 20% price rise, somewhere else saw a 60% increase.
This kind of price growth over a short time span brings with it significant change.
Change in the nature of people who can afford these places.
And change that will have generational impacts.
Regional rental markets also tightened earlier and further than metro markets.
Today the majority of vacancy rates are hovering around 1% - this is unacceptable!!
But housing is just one part of what makes a town liveable – and Liveability in our regions is being challenged on many fronts:
3.7 million Australians live in a regional childcare desert
65% of regional kids finish year 12, compared to 75% in the cities.
And for those who finish, they are less likely to gain post-school qualifications.
We have a health system on life support. The further inland you live, the lower your life expectancy, and the higher your chance of preventable hospitalisation.
So, how did we get here?
It’s my view, that the current mental models for economic and decision making are outdated, entrenched and not serving us.
The current state of regional Australia is a result of generations of geographical bias and misunderstanding.
Regional issues have not been prioritized in the minds of those who have the power to change the future.
Nor have regional people consistently sat at the table to be part of active and long-term partnerships.
Decades of mis-matching investment hasn’t served regional Australia well.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s through urbanisation that we saw our population shift, and in turn our thinking changed.
Cities were seen as the epicentre of the future and the Australian psyche shifted – dominated by a metro context.
As regional kids, we were encouraged to leave the country because if you were going to make it in life, you needed to leave. ‘Don’t marry a farmer, my farming father mocked me. Marry an engineer.’
With this new context, stigma grew.
The notion of a division gradually set into our national discourse – a chasm between city and country, a nation divided.
Polarity was forming.
And not delivering choice and balance but instead, inequality.
There can be real power in managing polarity – but only in our ability to hold mutual recognition and respect of one another.
This means regions need to recognise the contribution of cities and cities need to recognise the contribution of regions.
It sounds simply but it isn’t
The metro mindset for decision-making needs to shift.
Not just to benefit the regions but to unlock the potential of the whole country.
So, what do we need to do?
We need to shift our gaze.
Our regions have been sitting in a policy blind spot.
Regional Australia is different, and it requires a different response.
Policy coordination is important but there’s another deeper challenge.
Urban settlements operate at scale – they are thick markets.
Improving services is generally a matter of securing money and people from one agency.
Regional communities have thin markets.
Solutions constrained by the interplay between many different agencies.
This makes them look too hard to fix, and too easy to ignore.
At the RAI, we look at the light and shade of regional Australia.
And we see a huge number of solutions.
For example: The Yorke and Mid North region in South Australia built 102 houses across 11 small communities by brokering partnerships between housing providers, developers, councils and financiers.
Allied health services in regions are being strengthened through the creation of a 'rural generalist pathway' which recognises the breadth of skills and experience that allied professionals offer in rural settings.
And regional communities created the 'regional university centre', that provides local support for tertiary students.
This model is proving so successful it is now being supported by the Commonwealth and some state governments in over 30 locations - improving both enrolments and completions.
If we are willing to shift our gaze to our regions, we will see solutions emerging.
We need to stop dealing with regional issues as a single government department’s problem or budget line item.
Stop thinking this is a local government’s issue to fix by applying for a one-off grant.
Since the inception of the RAI, we have worked with over 40 different state and federal ministers holding office in a portfolio of Regional Development.
Fragmented approaches and silos have all contributed to the challenge we experience today.
Regional Australia needs to be treated as the significant part of our population and economy that it is!
Most importantly, we must understand that it is in our national interest for our regions to thrive.
I hope my message is clear – we need a mindset shift.
We need decision-makers - our Prime Minister, our Treasurer, Ministers, Premiers, Chairs, CEO’s, and community leaders to understand – this needs your commitment.
So where are we today?
After 10 years of research and engagement – it has become clear, we needed to develop a plan for regional Australia’s future.
The plan needed to be long term to allow people to implement long-term thinking.
The plan needed to acknowledge that many of the issues in regional Australia are interlinked.
Today’s jobs crisis is a perfect example. You can’t fill the jobs, if you don’t have the housing, and you can’t get the housing without getting the right skills.
It was a momentous day last year when we launched the Regionalisation Ambition 2032 – a framework to rebalance the nation.
It is a set of 20 targets across five key areas - jobs and skills, population, liveability, productivity and innovation, and sustainability and resilience.
The ambition was co-designed by government, industry and regional people to understand collective effort and action.
By working together, we are blowing up the silo-ed approach that has held regional Australia back.
Preparing our regions for the next chapter, is a collective responsibility not something that government at any level should shoulder alone.
The Federal Government recently announced a Regional Investment Framework, which underpinned a commitment for collaboration.
They know, they cannot do this alone - this is a great first step.
Today’s regional Australia is not a story of ‘build it and they will come’.
‘They’ have already come, a further 1 in 5 want to come and we need them.
All Australians and migrants should have the choice.
We need some urgent action.
I cannot stress enough the need for a National Population Plan.
This plan needs to overlay the jobs and industries of today and tomorrow with geographical locations.
This will enable oversight of both hard and most importantly - soft infrastructure investment.
The future belongs to those that plan for it today.
Prime Minister Albanese – we commend your vision to ensure ‘no-one is left behind and no one is held back’.
We want to work with you and your Government to shift our nation’s gaze and see our regions thrive.
We cannot delay and we cannot squander this once in a generation opportunity.
Australia – it’s time to rebalance the nation.
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