This man had a vision of building a second Australian inland city between Sydney and Melbourne with a population of at least 300,000 people by the year 2000.
As we now know, the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s decentralisation policy was literally a field of dreams.
Large tracts of land were acquired for cheap housing, a bureaucracy set up, and a push to “decentralise” began in earnest.
But then it faltered. With insufficient local or national support by 1995 the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation was wound up and its remaining assets sold.
Whitlam built the field, but they didn’t come.
Or at least not in the way he envisaged.
Today, our twin cities have grown into vibrant, busy and important regional centres, straddling the Murray with all the perennial complexities and frustrations of living under two state jurisdictions.
But the joint population of Albury and Wodonga has more than doubled from that time, and is very close to breaking the 100,000 barrier.
And Wodonga, once thought of as the lesser of the two, has come of age in a way many of us couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago.
This story is familiar to you all.
Perhaps not so familiar is the story of another tall, but blonde-headed and handsome man of that time who had developed his own decentralisation policy – but one that was centred in pragmatism and practicalities.
Country Party Leader Doug Anthony’s policy was controlled by three separate departments that were under the responsibility of one political party.
Anthony had selected seven areas for accelerated development over 25 years at least one in each mainland state. They were: Gladstone, Coffs Harbour, Bathurst, Albury, Yallourn, Murray Bridge and Albany.
Anthony’s roadmap was different to Whitlam’s. As he said at the time:
“If you are going to be really effective, if there is going to be substantial decentralisation, it has got to be on the regional growth concept. In other words, an area has to be designated and government direction and resources have to put into it to make it work. I believe we have to use this approach in addition to the existing decentralisation measures.”
My point is you need both vision and practicality to actually achieve results in this vexed but enormously important policy space.
And because it is long-term policy, some sensible bipartisanship, can go a long way too.
Attempts at population shifting and development have been part of the dreaming and the scheming at a Federal Government level throughout the last century from the migration programs in the 1920s, to the regional development schemes of the 1930s, and the post-World War II reconstruction of the 1940s.
But the period from 1967-1973, of Anthony and Whitlam, marked the beginning of serious policy thinking about decentralisation in Australia.
When I took this on this portfolio in June this year I insisted that my title be the Minister for Regionalisation.
Not Minister for Decentralisation. Not Minister for the Regions.
Why this distinction?
Decentralisation evokes, at least in the Australian context, the idea of simply transferring public servants and government services to different often well-deserving parts of the country. Important, and something we should do, but it is not sufficiently strategic through a whole of government approach.
Regionalisation, by contrast, is action orientated.
It is about putting the regions front and centre, not through one single policy, but an integrated network of policies and initiatives across governments that addresses population, infrastructure, connectivity and liveability – just to name a few.
It is about providing current and future Australians with greater choice in where they live, learn, where they raise their families, or build their careers and businesses.
A choice beyond the (increasingly unaffordable and congested) city limits of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth or Brisbane.
It is also about backing in existing regional businesses, entrepreneurs and industry to develop and grow, while encouraging others to invest and set up shop in a regional city or town, by removing barriers to innovation and growth and unlocking new opportunities.
Because these are the generators of local jobs and wealth into the regions, that create communities where people want to come and live and work.
The greater goal of regionalisation is to be a better, stronger nation with regional cities that are underpinned by innovative industries, built on the competitive advantage of each region, that are supported by a skilled and stable workforce, and that are great places to live.
For the past 18 months or more, regional Australia has faced a range of challenges – from bushfires to floods, from COVID-19 to global supply chain squeezes and trade wars.
But yet again our regions have proven their resilience, their appetite and capacity to transform and respond.
That is because our regions are built around industries that are modern, globally competitive; they’re high-tech, efficient, research development investors, with highly skilled and trained workforces. We all know that and sometimes I think those in the cities don’t know that they are the types of industries and businesses that are the heart of our towns and capitals.
We believe there is a bright future for agriculture, mining, manufacturing and tourism. We want to back these industries.
Our challenge to reduce our emissions towards 2050, also presents us with a unique opportunity because regionalisation is a positive step towards lower emissions as it addresses the congestion burden our capitals currently carry.
The success of the regions that we are currently experiencing, accelerated under COVID19, didn’t just happen – it took hard work and on-the-ground leadership. It is a direct result of the entrepreneurial spirit; the drive of the local people, infrastructure investment at a Federal and State level and government policy to connect regional Australia to enable its products to reach markets across the globe
Those in the knowledge and creative economies – like those that work at companies such as Telstra, Deloitte, and Atlassian – are now able to take their jobs with them to new places, where there is good internet bandwidth and a decent mobile signal. Improved digital connectivity in the regions has opened up new towns and cities for these workers.
If Australia is going to face these challenges, both economic and social, then we need to continue to improve our focus on the regions, and that means reconciling the current divide between city and regions both in terms of outlook, aspiration and comparitive well-being.
Regionalisation will be central to this.
Let me be clear – this government backs regional Australia.
Based on current and previous investments in the regions it is likely there will $100 billion going into the regions in the decade to 2030 across various areas of government (excluding health and social security). This is based on advice from my Department.
As Minister for Regionalisation I am seeking to make sure that investment is targeted, coordinated and strategic in its approach – that we ensure every single taxpayer dollar spent delivers maximal benefit to the regions.
Because this is not just in the regional interest; it is in the national interest.
My horizon is bigger than Whitlam’s and broader than Anthony’s.
Much bigger and much broader.
I envision a future Australia that has many regional cities with populations of 100,000 to 300,000 and more.
Inland cities and coastal cities. Across our continent.
In an ideal world, I would like 50 per cent of future population growth to occur in the regions.
We can’t dictate that as a government but if we are serious about reducing emissions that is what we should be doing.
Take California as just one example.
After the 1906 earthquake California’s state capital was moved from San Francisco to Sacramento. And after embracing decentralisation, that state alone has 75 cities with populations of more than 100,000 people.
Now before I explain which cities this policy might constitute in an Australian context, it is important to pause and note that not all regional centres will take up the invitation to grow.
But many with strong local leadership and ambition will.
Whitlam’s dream failed in large part because the local community were not taken on the journey because of a disconnect between bureaucracy and the people.
Our policy, and hopefully it will be bipartisan, will not be one implemented by government decree or imposed on communities.
Many towns and smaller regional cities are fiercely protective of their lifestyles, their uniqueness, their identities and their size.
As song writer Don Walker so beautifully captured in one of Australia’s favourite songs about a country town:
“There’s no change, there’s no pace
Everything within it’s place.”
Like so many of you I too grew up in a country town. I am a proud graduate of Benalla East Primary.
And there are few things more comforting than the quiet familiarity of an Australian country town or the predictability of a sleepy seaside village.
Though for teenagers and young people this may have a different view.
On the other hand, it is being increasingly recognised, that as Australia’s population grows over the coming years, and it will, we cannot and should not continue to concentrate growth only in our capital cities, in particular Sydney and Melbourne.
The effects of rapid growth in our capitals are already being felt – reflected in rising congestion, bottlenecked infrastructure, skyrocketing house prices and longer commutes (predominately by car) to work and to access essential services – leading to a myriad of environmental, economic and health costs.
Regionalisation offers an alternative path that can relieve the congestion burden of population growth from our capitals while offering better settlement outcomes for all Australians both in our regions and our cities.
Furthermore, regionalisation has the potential to help us reduce emissions, with people living in smaller regional cities likely to have shorter commuting times, more efficient trips and more opportunities to walk or cycle. Environmentally, this is a better outcome for Australia.
But other places want much more and they see a future with much more.
They want to combine lifestyle and environment with opportunity and prosperity.
Cities that have civic leadership, that have ambition; that have business men and business women who want to invest and build bright futures for their children and children’s children.
We are already seeing it in places such as Dubbo, where Gerry Harvey is backing local developers to build Dubbo’s first multi-residential development – No 1 Church Street – to address demand for housing and to provide for a changing demographic.
In September we saw Mars Wrigley back manufacturing with a $30 million investment in its Ballarat Factory. It is also pushing to attract more young STEM graduates – this is a good thing!
In Bendigo, a partnership between Latrobe University and Bendigo Manufacturing Group and City of Greater Bendigo with a $2 million commitment from the Commonwealth has seen the establishment of a regional advance manufacturing and innovation hub. I think we can harness the can do attitude of a regional university with the can do attitude of our local businesses and leverage that to a global outcome.
In Karratha the local government there has stepped up to provide a new mixed-use medium density development to address housing needs and provide space for new and existing businesses. Why? Because they want to grow, be attractive and be liveable and not be stereotyped as just a dusty mining province. In Tumut, we see another great country family, the Pratt family through Visy investing in sustainable forestry, rather than denigrating what is the ultimate renewable resource – Australian forestry industry should be celebrated from every corner of this country. It is managed using globally best practice and best science and can contribute to the net zero task as we store carbon.
As such I have tasked my department to identify a group of regional cities that meet a defined set of criteria based on research that could be future cities of rapid growth:
- Estimated to be more than 25,000 and less than 250,000 people
- At least 90 minutes from a capital city
- Situated in every state and territory in Australia except the ACT.
But we know population alone is not the only determining factor to future growth and prosperity. Australia’s geostrategic interests also have to be taken into account – such a manufacturing capabilities, proximity to critical raw materials and key infrastructure.
This will be supported by analysis of 14 factors that indicate which regional centres are performing well, and, with additional investment and coordinated use of policy levers and effort across the Commonwealth, can become significant economic centres.
These factors include: digital connectivity and consumerism, migration from capital cities to regional cities, economic self-sufficiency and diversity of the local economy, skills shortage and inequitable job distribution, housing affordability and availability, shift to work from home, transport congestion, population – scale and growth, human capital/skills/retraining; health infrastructure; drinking water supplies; infrastructure investment; future industry potential; liveability.
As a Government we want to invest in regional centres that are already well-primed for growth that capitalises on the prosperity of regional Australia, supporting private sector investment, and creating jobs and economic opportunity that is crucial for both regional and national recovery from COVID-19.
We want to back those regional cities with pro-active, coordinated and integrated approaches to regional investment that is designed to unlock opportunities critical to securing the nation’s economic prosperity.
If you are ready, if you have ideas, if you know what you need to get there, I want to back you.
What are the drivers of people who will move to a regional city?
There are many, but I’m going to name five.
The first three are jobs, jobs and jobs. The focus of any serious bid to grow a regional centre has to be about good, well-paid careers for young people and young families.
The next one is affordability – an affordable house and cost of living.
And the final one is liveability with all that entails.
On this last point, there is something that can be done now by any civic leader thinking about the decades ahead.
We need to keep in mind why people move to regional cities and towns in this organic shift that has occurred because of COVID. We’ve got a net exodus out of capital cities in excess of 54,000 people when for decades every conversation was about the brain drain out of the regions, now, and yes it’s causing pressures around housing affordability but it’s exciting to have people moving to the regions. I think it is about community and the natural environment.
We who live in and of the land, for us it is our identity and our livelihood. We were conservationists long before the environment was weaponised for ideology.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if there is one thing that could be done immediately to improve the future liveability of a future regional city, it is the provision for nature.
We need to preserve and protect that which we yearn for.
If people choose to live away from the large cities they do so in part because they will be closer to the natural environment.
Great cities – whether it be New York, Manchester or Montreal – have planned green space for their citizens to enjoy.
Regional cities, with an eye on future decades, could be doing the groundwork now to support and preserve the spaces that already make them attractive and liveable – like nearby nature reserves, river walks, gardens.
Spaces where people can commune with the natural environment for generations to come.
For our part, as the Nationals, our core vision is to build and fight for the future of regional Australia. At the 1996 election the National Party Shadow Minister took to that election a desire to complete the duplication of the Pacific Highway between Sydney and Brisbane over a twenty year period. Over the past two decades since that completion values in places like Taree and all along the mid coast have doubled. The Nationals have always fought to secure critical infrastructure such as the Pacific and Hume Highways. And we are doing this again with the Inland Rail. All the aspiration and dreaming will not get us very far unless there is someone prepared to fight the fight now to secure our future. That is our pledge as a political party.
My political hero without a doubt is former US President Teddy Roosevelt, a fellow hunter, and the man who is perhaps more singularly responsible for preserving America’s national parks than any other person.
Roosevelt had many things to say about nature, and I will leave you with just one quote.
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
Now is the time to seize this unique moment and support our regions to reach their fullest potential while preserving what makes them unique.