Regional Queensland is at a crossroads, but is it too late to turn things around?
The Fair Go For Regional Queensland rally was held in Brisbane recently and was supported by industry leaders, regional businesses and both sides of politics. (Supplied Rockhampton Regional Council)
Are large parts of regional Australia doomed to fail or can years of decline be turned around to create a brighter future?
The debate over decentralisation is not new, but successive governments have failed to act on promises to invest in the regions and boost their economies.
Dr Peter Brain, the executive director at the national Institute of Economic and Industry Research, said central Queensland has felt the pinch of the national economic downturn particularly acutely.
“It is very difficult to transform a community — it’s incremental steps,” Dr Brain said.
“What regions have to avoid is falling into the trap of the vicious cycle of population fall and income fall, which many non-metropolitan areas are in.
“To do that, you’ve got to stabilise your populations and grow it.
“Especially grow the working-age population to give your local employers confidence that in 20 years’ time, if they invest in new plant and machinery and services, there will be an adequately trained workforce for them to maintain their production at reasonably profitable.”
Dr Brain said growing the mining sector would help return Queensland’s economy to where it was four years ago.
“There’s the issue with the coal and the Adani situation, and you can see … why there is so much angst about that particular project,” Dr Brain said.
“When your employment’s falling between two and three per cent per annum, you tend to get angst about your economic prospects.”
A grader doing preliminary work to the section of ground that will be the first to be dug at Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland. (ABC: Amy McCosker)
Are the regions doomed?
Gaven Gilmour has worked as an architect in central Queensland for almost 30 years and has seen many workers move to Brisbane over the years.
He said there was a similar trend happening in China, where a new city of about million people was being built each year.
“It’s happening globally and there’s a term for it — it’s called urbanisation and we’ve been seeing the impact of if here for the past 10 years,” Mr Gilmour said.
“This trend called urbanisation is worldwide and Australia is one of the most urbanised countries on the planet.”
A major bank in Rockhampton’s CBD closed about a decade ago and never was filled by new tenants. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
Mr Gilmour said Australia was very focused on Melbourne and Sydney, and to a lesser extent Brisbane.
“Our own experience locally is we’ve seen jobs get transferred back to Brisbane, particularly the service industry, management and state government departments,” he said.
“And we’ve been seeing it slowly and progressively for 10 years.”
Mayor calls for ‘Fair Go’
Rockhampton Regional Council Mayor Margaret Strelow has launched a campaign called Fair Go for Regional Queensland to petition the Federal and State government to invest and grow jobs in the regions.
According to the Federal Government’s Department of Jobs and Small Business, 13 per cent of new jobs will be created in regional Queensland over the next five years, and three-quarters of the population will live in the state’s south-east corner in 20 years.
Rockhampton Regional Council is leading the Fair Go For Regional Queensland campaign. (Supplied: Rockhampton Regional Council)
“That is an appalling figure,” Cr Strelow said.
“What we need are policy settings and levers to be pulled to make businesses favour the regions.
“The sorts of things we’re talking about are income tax concessions, payroll tax concessions, minimum stands of government, education and health services say within a three-hour drive of any population.”
No need for concern
Regional Australia Institute Chief Executive Dr Kim Houghton said Australians – particularly those in the 20- to 40-year-old age group – were very mobile, more so than in many other countries.
He has downplayed regional concerns.
“I know a lot of regional leaders are concerned because they are losing people in that age group,” Dr Houghton said.
“But there is certainly a lot of movement in and out.”
Between 2011 and 2016 across the country, about 400,000 people moved from a greater capital city to a regional place.
“Now that’s a pretty big flow,” Dr Houghton said.
“Some of those move back and some of those move to other regions, but certainly the regions are not off the agenda at all.”
Dr Houghton pointed out that Sydney had been losing 20,000 people every year for the past five years, Melbourne was stable, and Brisbane was the only major city to be attracting more people.
The paradox is that there is a large number of vacancies in the regional Queensland but they are not able to attract the people to fill those vacancies.
“The challenge for central Queensland is that there are similar patterns of vacancies across the rest of the state,” Dr Houghton said.
“I think, is less about job creation per se and more about demonstrating that perception that Queensland is a great place to live and work, that cultural vibrancy, that progression of career paths, depth of education and skills – they’re the things that will set regional Queensland a part.”