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  • John McDonnell

The evolutionary role of regional hubs

FlowNews24 Canberra correspondent John McDonnell explores the value in governments taking a more favourable approach to growing strategic regional centres within Australia beyond the capital cities.

The great American social theorist, Jane Jacobs, believed that international trade was a dynamic process that essentially occurred between cities. Her thesis was that the more dynamic trading hubs a nation had, the stronger its economy would be. The strength of the United States lay in the fact that it had a large number of dynamic centres that could trade with each other and internationally.

China has emulated the United States by creating a large number of powerful regional trade hubs.

The twin changes of the Covid pandemic and the boom in trade with Asia have now caused Australian governments and trade-oriented organisations to look at the growth of regional hubs in Australia as a mechanism for promoting economic growth.

On Wednesday, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott penned an op-ed for the Camden Advertiser which outlined the importance of regional hubs for economic recovery. She said that both the National Farmers Federation and the Regional Australia Institute have developed roadmaps for the establishment of regional hubs and argued that these should be incorporated into decision making.

Ms Westacott says the federal government's regional deals and the NSW government's special activation precincts are helping make the most of the opportunities. The federal budget invested an extra $250 million for a sixth round of the Building Better Regions Fund, bringing its commitment to regional towns and cities from the fund to more than $1 billion. However, she argues that there should be more coordination through a national approach, rather than a piecemeal approach that responds to proposals from individual councils.

As Ms Westacott says:

“If we continue with a piecemeal approach to regions, often dictated by state boundaries, we dilute our best intentions and effort rather than gaining the traction we need to back in the places across the whole country with the greatest potential to lift our national performance.”

Ms Westacott was talking at the National Press Club where she was launching the ‘Regionalisation Agenda’ with Tony Mahar of the National Farmers’ Federation and Peter Strong from the Council of Small Businesses of Australia.

The NFF Regionalisation Agenda is subtitled, ‘The Time is Now’ and Tony Mahar made the point that:

“COVID-19 has been an absolute disruptive force, the NFF’s Regionalisation Agenda urges government and industry to work together to capitalise on the disruption and ensure the bush can deliver for all Australians: economically, socially and culturally.”

Mr Mahar said regionalisation was not just about regional communities, but a solution to many of the challenges facing urban centres, including chronic congestion and overpopulation.

“Australia stands alone in having almost 65% of its population in big cities, compare that to New Zealand or Canada who only have 30%. This concentration causes major problems.”

The NFF-led Regionalisation Agenda proposes more than a repeat of the tired thinking of relocating city jobs to regional areas.

“It charts a vision for regional Australia where regional economic activity and jobs are designed to thrive in the unique economic and geographical conditions of that region.
“Large regional cities should be places where teachers, nurses, tradies, lawyers and investment bankers live side by side and they should be well equipped to retain their best and brightest with education and job opportunities.
“To make regionalisation happen, we need to throw the same level of resources for place-based development of regional centres as we do for places like Western Sydney.
“We need federal, state and local governments to work hand in glove with industry on well-defined regional priorities.”
“We must challenge our bureaucrats whose decision-making processes always relegate transformational regional infrastructure behind infrastructure for our cities.
“That is why we are calling for a review of the disproportionately high discount rates used to assess infrastructure proposals that disadvantages investment in regional infrastructure, and we need a shovel-ready priority list for regional development investments to be drawn up.”

The NFF-led Regionalisation Agenda is supported by Australia’s leading industry and corporate voices, and Mr Mahar said the NFF believes that agriculture can play a vital role:

“Australia is without a cotton processing facility, despite Australian cotton being some of the most sought after in the world. The same is almost true for our renowned Merino wool.”

The Regional Australia Institute has identified a growing movement of people from urban areas to the regions. It is also obvious that this is causing problems for regional authorities as they deal with planning and infrastructure issues along with proposals for new private sector investment.

These issues will need to be resolved quickly if momentum is not to be lost.


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