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Where is regional Australia in our Asian Century future?

A stocktake of research conducted into regional development in Australia shows that we are failing to do sufficient research on opportunities for sustainable growth and prosperity in regional Australia…

Mining is a major regional activity - yet as we ready ourselves for the Asian century, very little research has been undertaken on other growth opportunities in these areas.

A stocktake of research conducted into regional development in Australia shows that we are failing to do sufficient research on opportunities for sustainable growth and prosperity in regional Australia.

Anyone even remotely engaged in the public discussion of regional issues will know that we often get bogged down in the challenges faced by areas outside of our major cities. It is surprising then to learn this pre-occupation with regional problems in the media also extends deeply into the research that we do in Australia.

As one of its first initiatives, the Regional Australia Institute has conducted a comprehensive stocktake of research on regional development since 2000 which was launched last week in Wagga Wagga. The online database of regional research and data we compiled and the associated analysis of this work shows at best 10% of the research undertaken since 2000 is focused on opportunities for growth and development. There is also comparatively little work done to understand the inherent future potential of regions.

This research profile is in stark contrast to the projections for the future of the economy outlined in the recent Asian Century White Paper and the fact that it has been mining (an almost exclusively regional industry) that has driven our national economy in recent years. It also ignores the strong international evidence from the OECD that demonstrates the role that a diversity of regions have played in the growth story of the developed world for the last 15 years.

Importantly, this approach does not reflect policy makers and regional leaders interest and thirst for knowledge about potential and future opportunities which was expressed to us during consultation for the project.

So how do we fix this?

Firstly, we need to rebalance the diverse research already underway on regional issues to ensure we are recognising and exploring the upsides of change.

The stocktake suggested some high level priorities for structuring new research on regional opportunity:

  • The resource sector and regional areas - what are the best ways for policy-makers to help extend and maximise the benefits (and minimise costs and disruption) for localised and sustainable community advantage?

  • The Asian Century and Australia’s regional areas - what does regional Australia need to do to position itself to be benefit from the expansion of the Asian economic size and increasing demand?

  • The major transformative opportunities for regional Australia - what are the lessons and ideas that the current generation of policy-makers need to understand and consider to help enhance confidence to plan future major transformative initiatives?

  • The National Broadband Network and regional Australia - What are the specific ways of best leveraging off the NBN to maximise its economic and social value in regional Australia?

  • Enhancing the productivity of regional areas - what are the specific opportunities for regional Australia to pursue productivity-enhancing initiatives? Does the answer lie in “soft” or “hard” investments?

  • Learning from Australia’s history of achieved potential - what is the recent history of realised potential in regional Australia? What tools will best assist policymakers to replicate these successes in their own localities?

At the RAI we are thinking about work in each of these areas and how we can better define and understand ‘regional potential’ so that regions and governments can explore these issues in planning and policy making. We would encourage others establishing their research plans to also consider how their work can contribute to these priorities.

The key driver of change however will be the attitude and perspective we choose to adopt when thinking about regional Australia.

In looking to the future we can be confident that there will droughts, fires and floods; that exposure of regions to the vagaries of international markets will continue to drive rapid economic change; that our populations will age; and that our natural environments will remain at risk of decline and destruction.

But there will also be massive opportunities for regional Australia in the Asian Century – in resources, in agriculture and in services. These will be driven by the innate strength and innovation of regional businesses and communities. Associated with this will be new investment, new residents, new businesses and a better quality of life for people prepared to have a go in regional areas.

We certainly need to understand the challenges we face and how to respond to them, but we also need research that helps us to recognise and grasp these opportunities. We are by no means doing enough work on this at the moment.

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. mitchell w. eddy


    As long as agriculture and manufacturing continue to decline in Australia, our regional areas will also. Contemporary resource extraction, as Stephen Bunker has shown, does not tend to benefit regions in the long term and cannot be properly be counted as a sustainable growth opportunity. As such, any assessment of possible futures for regional Australia needs to be focussed around constructing a more favourable framework for Australian productive enterprises.

    1. Jack Archer

      General Manager - Research and Policy at Regional Australia Institute

      In reply to mitchell w. eddy

      Thanks Mitchell - this is a key area of discussion for many regions.

      The Asian Century white paper has some interesting predictions for the future of agriculture.

      Decline is also subject to different interpretations depending on how you want to measure it. Measures like total employment and share of GDP have generally been in long term decline for both but there are other ways of looking at the contribution of agriculture and manufacturing to regions over time. We need to think clearly about what the future potential for these industries is from where we are now and how that supports diverse and adaptive regional economies.

      Re you point about extraction industries and regions. This is one issue where we don't know as much as we should about costs and benefits and how to make sure regions get the best deal from resources industries.

  2. Paul Burton

    Professor of Urban Management and Planning at Griffith University

    A minor point, but it would be useful to introduce a bit more clarity in the use of the term 'regional' to refer primarily to rural or non-metropolitan parts of Australia. The OECD for example typically treats regions as sub-national entities, while the EU developed its NUTS system to describe a hierarchy of administrative units. The benefit of these systems is that particular regions can then be described according to whichever characteristics we are interested in: growth, productivity, poverty, rurality, urbanisation and so on.
    At present there is sometimes unnecessary confusion over the focus of regional policy and planning: is it concerned with promoting the viability and sustainability of smaller towns and cities beyond the major metropolitan areas; is it about agriculture and related industries in rural areas; or is it about the coordination of planning across functional urban areas that may occasionally straddle State boundaries?

    1. Jack Archer

      General Manager - Research and Policy at Regional Australia Institute

      In reply to Paul Burton

      Thanks Paul. This is an important consideration in regional issues and I agree often a source of confusion.

      RAI as an organisation is focused specifically on policy that impacts on non-metropolitan Australia. Our vision is enabling all regions to reach their potential.

      We are currently working on initiatives to more precisely understand particular regions competitive advantage and potential for future growth and prosperity. This will support a more sophisticated conversation about goals for different places around Australia.

      There is in Australia a conflict between how regions are defined via different administrative regions, statistical regions and functional regions.

      In response, our aim is to produce work that can be adapted to both administrative and functional boundaries and also where possible clarify where different definitions of regions create confusion or other issues and how this could be rectified.

  3. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

    logged in via Facebook

    Of Asian origin, I feel warm when reading articles and attending seminars & conference presentations on the potential benefits of current fast pace Asian development on the Australian economy.
    However, as a new Australian, I am concerned about the directions that Australia will take to capture those benefits in many years ahead.
    Surely, Australia is in uncharted territories politically, economically, technologically when heading toward Asia. A faux-pas can create many detriments for Australia's…

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  4. wilma western

    logged in via email

    The general topics outlined seem fair enough. However "regional Australia" is a most varied beast. As a retired farmer from South Gippsland , one of Australia's most fertile and rainfall-reliable regions ( or sub-regions?) I'm just staggered by the contrasts between our little neck of the woods and places like the Pilbara or Kimberley. Our area produces a goodly share of Victoria's biggest export - processed dairy products ,mostly powdered milk, sold to Indonesia,Japan etc.; also beef and chilled…

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