Wednesday, 23 February 2011 12:46

Don’t just rebuild, chart a true vision for Australia

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Regional Australia is central to the nation-building opportunities ahead for the country.

Genuine regional development must be a Government priority in 2011 and beyond – not just to rebuild what we’ve lost – but to make it better and spur genuine opportunities for future growth.

At the same time, we can finally tackle Australia’s population explosion that has our major capital cities perpetually squeezed, while the regions cry out for people, services, infrastructure, businesses and employees.

That’s the commitment needed from the Prime Minister, who has the scope to chart a true vision for Australia.

Our priority right now is naturally with those communities across the country counting the costs of the recent floods. Their immediate needs are paramount.

However, looking ahead, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Debate over the long-term sustainability of Australia’s population has had scant attention since the 2010 Federal Election.

The Government’s Inter-Generational Report projecting an Australian population of 36 million by 2050 is as valid today as when it was released on February 1, 2010. Nothing has changed!

Mounting congestion in Australian cities will only compound unless governments, at all levels, recognise and act on regional development and the role it must play in relieving this stress.

Government reviews and studies of long-term ponderings on population have a place, but gabfests are no substitute for political decision-making and action. The obvious solution has been neglected for too long – build and develop regional Australia.

Mountains of studies have identified massive job vacancies in regional Australia, but people in our crowded cities are understandably reluctant to grasp the opportunities because relocating to regional areas means putting up with sub-par services.

The NFF has proposed a series of solutions – including tax breaks, domestic relocation, immigration and infrastructure – that are now more pertinent than ever.

Regional development must not be seen through the limitations of current regional population. But with the population potential, developing new commercial hubs and alleviating our choking cities.

Genuine tax incentives – and the commercial opportunities they drive – are essential to major businesses setting up substantial and long-standing operations in regional areas. With businesses come more jobs, prosperity, and growing communities.

Governments can’t make people move to regional areas, but by creating the case for businesses to start-up or relocate operations off the back of innovative and worthwhile tax advantages, people will follow the employment opportunities.

It’s an investment long overdue, but it’s also a solution to Australia’s unsustainable coastal city-centric population headache. Our major cities already suffocating from under the weight of a national population of only 22 million people.

Previously we calculated that over 100,000 jobs – 80,000 for skilled labour and 22,000 entry-level positions – need to be filled in agriculture for farms to return to full production.

Once flood-recovery is fully underway, work needed in regional Australia will see those numbers grow exponentially.

As part of a major shake-up in population strategy, the NFF is calling on government to commit to:

Domestic relocation – the bulk of unemployed Australians are in capital cities. Therefore, policies must attract them to regional areas via a combination of carrot and stick approaches.

Infrastructure – both soft and hard upgrades (not mere replacement of what flood waters stripped away) are vital. These will give people confidence in essential services for themselves and their families.

Tying migrants to regional locations – that is, requiring new migrants to live and work in regional areas.

457 visa rethink – the Rudd Government axed the regional concessions for migrants temporarily working in Australia. This move must be reversed.

Australians will not be encouraged to move to regional Australia if there is a view that governments are acting in a way that is counter-productive to regional growth.

That is why, for example, it is critical that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan must be considered in light of social, economic and environmental impacts.

It is why, with regional Australia’s infrastructure having languished in disrepair for decades, our basic obligation is to make flood-affected areas accessible once more. Then we can undertake a national audit of transport and freight infrastructure needs – now and into the future – to map out and drive greater efficiencies, growth and prosperity.

Jock Laurie is president of the National Farmers Federation.

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