Australia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery must be decentralised and driven by innovation, say regional development experts, and governments should look beyond cities to start the process.
The call came from a Rise of the Regions expert panel held as part of CQUniversity’s three-week online learning event – the Festival of Change.
The panel session featured Next Economy chief executive officer Amanda Cahill, CQU Professor of Regional Economic Development John Rolfe, and Smart Precinct North Queensland chief executive officer Matt Steine.
Based in Townsville, Mr Steine said social shifts caused by the pandemic had presented unique opportunities for his region.
“COVID-19 has reduced the advantages of being in a densely populated metro city – and instead, having a dispersed population, coupled with existing information and communications technology like NBN, is going to be really attractive to business,” he said.
“For instance Townsville has one of the highest densities of fibre-to-the-home across Australia, and that fact, plus our incredible lifestyle, means great opportunities for us, if only we can make sure we are adapting quickly enough to take advantage of them.”
Attended by nearly 60 participants from across Australia, the session also heard Professor Rolfe outline required “push factors” for decentralisation.
“For instance, Queensland Health spends millions of dollars every year to fly people to Brisbane from the regions to access specialist health care,” Prof Rolfe said.
“The whole system is set up on centralising specialist services in the capital, and bringing people in – but that just means the regions are overly reliant on the cities.”
Prof Rolfe pointed to the current inland rail project connecting Brisbane and Melbourne as a problem of city-centric thinking.
“That project will mean a lot of agricultural processing is happening in Brisbane, because that’s the end of the line – but it’s faulty planning, because it shuts the regions out of processing.
“The rail head should go to somewhere like Gladstone, so it’s closer to agriculture supply sources, and connected to another port.
“Government shouldn’t just automatically locate everything in the capital city every time.”
Ms Cahill, who recently wrote statewide jobs plan What Queensland Wants, said renewable energy sources could create up to 50,000 new jobs across Queensland, and regional areas were leading the transition.
“This is the time for learning the lessons of Queensland’s LNG expansion – for any energy transition, there’s a huge amount of infrastructure that’s required,” she said.
“But are we going to be investing in building the skills needed regionally, or will we just do the FIFO thing again?”
“Because we know the implications of that are that money doesn’t stay in the region.”
Mr Steine said instead of competing to attract new business and industries, regions must embrace “coopertition” – a combination of competition and cooperation.
“We need a situation where the state and local markets work better together, and I think we could do a lot better planning out a total regional economy, with hubs that reflect the strengths of individual regions,” Mr Steine said.
He suggested Cairns industries could focus on aviation, while Townsville grew defence technology businesses, and Mackay focused on minerals and resources sector support.
CQUniversity’s Festival of Change continues until Thursday, September 17, with all online events open to the public. More HERE