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Why population shouldn’t be a dirty word 

Cost of living, transition, housing crisis, net zero and interest rates. It seems these are the issues that continue to again circulate through the news cycle in 2024. But if we’re going to get serious about future-proofing this nation, there is one issue that needs elevation - POPULATION.

For the Federal Government to meet its current aspirations, I’m not sure how population isn’t at the centre of policy-making. It’s not a “dirty word” and we need to put it at the top of the agenda…

Nine point seven eight. At first glance that string of numbers may seem insignificant, however it’s anything but.  That figure, 9.78 million to be precise, represents the estimated resident population of regional Australia as of June 2023.  Thirty years ago, in June of 1994, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defined the ‘Balance of Australia’ aka, the regions, as having a population of 6.55 million. At the turn of the century in the year 2000, regional Australia had reached 6.91 million. The growth rate for the preceding five-year period was a mere 0.9%. 

According to the latest estimates from the ABS, since 2018, the regional population has grown 6.18%. That’s a staggering turnaround. Regional Australia now makes up nearly 37% of the nation’s population. It’s also encouraging to see the growth within regional Australia has been across the spectrum of communities: Connected Lifestyle Regions (proximate to major metro areas) have surged in popularity, with a more than 9% increase in population over the last five years, in Regional Cities it’s more than 7%. Industry and Service Hubs (communities of between 15,000 – 50,000 people) have seen a more than 4% population increase, whilst in our most isolated communities, our Heartland Regions, the population has grown by more than 2%. There is no denying, the regions are in the midst of a renaissance.  

What makes me excited though about that 9.78 million figure is the opportunities it represents. It means 9.78 million lives are intrinsically linked to our regional communities. Many of those millions have made a choice to live where they do. They relish the space regional living provides, find contentment in the connection they have with their community, and are fulfilled by the opportunities a life outside of the big smoke can bring. 

It’s now time to ensure those 9.78 million people – and the further 3.5 million living in cities, who have reported a desire to move regionally – are afforded an equitable future, on par or even better, than what is experienced in metropolitan Australia. 

It is why, back in 2022, the RAI helped to spearhead the development of the Regionalisation Ambition, our 10-year, 20-goal framework to better plan for and invest in the growth of regional Australia. At the heart of that framework is another number, 11 million. 

The fact regional Australia has reached 9.78 million in the second year of this decadal plan serves as motivation to continue working at the Ambition, to persist at finding solutions to the big, wicked issues that are limiting the regions’ ability to thrive – like reducing the recruitment difficulty in the regions, improving housing availability, and strengthening access to cultural, community and recreational experiences. This is not just about getting people to the regions, it’s about improving the quality of life, the prosperity, the future, of almost 40% of the nation’s residents. 

Whilst we know that it will take a coalition of willing players to come together to turn the dials on our measures to ‘rebalance the nation’, there is no denying that the Federal Government has a significant role to play.  In her recent speech at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) Infrastructure conference, Minister Catherine King said infrastructure was central to the productivity agenda of the nation. We know the regions have long held a key role in national productivity – but for that to continue, particularly as we move towards net zero, the regions will need further and increased investment in infrastructure, for you cannot be productive if you don’t the physical framework there to support you.

In a little over a fortnight, Treasurer Jim Chalmers will hand down the 2024-25 budget. In the days after, people will scour news stories wanting to know ‘What’s in it for me?’, but at the RAI, we’re desperate to know ‘What’s in it for the regions?’ 

The RAI remains steadfast in its call for a holistic National Population Plan, to enable analysis of high-growth scenarios (like the 6.18% increase in regional population over the last five years) and the implications for planning, industry growth, jobs and skills, infrastructure and service provision. 

In last year’s Jobs and Skills Australia Annual Report, a Regional Jobs and Skills Roadmap was identified as a priority. At its core, that roadmap will ensure the right people, with the right qualifications, are in the right places, at the right time. A plan to ensure every part works together symbiotically, a machine of sorts to drive the nation’s economy forward over the coming decades. The Institute eagerly awaits further updates on this Roadmap, for it has the power to greatly influence policy and funding for regional Australia.

Late last month, it was pleasing to see the Federal Government announce the 10 new Regional University Study Hubs in locations including East Gippsland, King Island, the Pilbara, Chinchilla, Victor Harbour, and East Arnhem land.  The Hubs, which are part of the Government’s response to the Universities Accord Interim Report and are supported by the National Alliance for Regionalisation, will help to achieve several of the Ambition’s key targets, including boosting regional post-school qualification completion rates.  

The recently unveiled ‘Future Made in Australia Act’, also has the capacity to deeply impact the regions, through its proposed commitment to help deliver manufacturing and clean energy projects across the country. We know the regions will play a key role in Australia’s journey to net zero – hosting key energy developments and housing the workers needed to build and operate them. The RAI’s recent research into net zero has identified that regional leaders stand ready to embrace the changes decarbonising the economy will bring, but they’re seeking more information from decision-makers about how this transformation will play out; and details about how their community’s unique circumstances will be incorporated into policies and programs. These specifics are important, and we wait for them with eager anticipation.

Regional Australia is at the forefront of so much change at the moment, socially and economically. The regions are our nation’s new frontier and it’s vital we keep those 9.78 million people who live there top of mind. Population matters to them, and it should matter to you too – because it will be an important, imperative part of our nation’s story both now and into the future.

Liz Ritchie, RAI CEO. 

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