It’s fair to say the impact of COVID-19 has introduced sweeping societal changes across the world. One of these impacts seen in Australia is the impact COVID-19 has had on cities (particularly in the most-stricken areas such as Melbourne), which has seen a net migration of people moving and settling in the regions.
The fifth in APPEA’s virtual series in association with The Australian newspaper, Regional Economies: Making the Rebound Real, was a roundtable dedicated to probing deeper in the debate surrounding Australia’s regional renaissance, examining the underlying challenges and opportunities faced by regional economies during an unprecedented era.
The roundtable, held on 2 June, saw four leaders from a diverse set of industries come together to discuss the importance of rural and regional Australia to the recovering economy and the temporary or lasting impacts that these changes could bring to them.
APPEA Chief Executive Andrew McConville joined Romilly Madew, Chief Executive, Infrastructure Australia; Margy Osmond, Chief Executive, Tourism and Transport Forum; and Tim Reardon, Chief Economist, Housing Industry Association, to discuss this and other important topics.
Mr McConville delivered an introduction on the importance of regional Australia, which represents about a third of the national economy and 9.5 million citizens.
“If we don’t get it right in regional Australia we’re not going to go anywhere, because regional Australia is the engine that drives the broader economy,” Mr McConville said.
Mr McConville also stated that when it came to the oil and gas industry specifically, it was already contributing to the regional renaissance, with many of the industry’s well-paid employees represented in regional areas, a fact that encouraged services, built capacity in the regions, and emphasised the importance of local suppliers. He also expressed the importance of getting more young people interested in joining the industry and addressing the skills gap as the industry continued to evolve.
Mr Reardon explained what he referred to as a “really quite significant” trend in Australia with ramifications for the housing industry where the country was experiencing the largest net movement from cities to the regions since 2001; he estimated that around 85% of those who had made the shift would remain in the region.
This trend also extended to young professionals and graduates who would otherwise have traditionally moved to Melbourne or Sydney in search of career opportunities. He added that when Sydney and Melbourne start to normalise and some of those people move to the cities, there would still be an aggregate shift because of this migration.
“Every year for the past 150 years, talented young kids finishing school have moved to Sydney and Melbourne for employment opportunities; that didn’t happen last year, it didn’t happen this year, and it probably won’t happen next year as well,” he said.
Ms Madew stated that movement to the regions was also increasing due to technological factors and societal changes related to working culture. Enabling infrastructure in the regions – such as high-speed internet – to support this digitalisation would be critical to continued growth, as well as spending on health and education services.
“There’s definitely been a movement into the regions because [people] know they that they can work in these great jobs wherever they are, and if they need to fly in, they can do that,” Ms Madew said.
Ms Osmond added that the regions were becomingly an increasingly attractive option, but ongoing skills shortages – extending back before the start of COVID-19 – would need to be addressed in order to meet demand for regional growth. She suggested that revisions to the visa system could help to secure the number of skilled workers necessary to support the change.
“We were concerned two to three years ago that there were not enough people to supply those projects with the skills needed to ensure they were delivered on time and to budget,” she said.
“It could mean that we miss opportunities, where with the right kind of skills on the ground, those regions could diversify into a whole lot of new industries.”
The cohort also touched on issues of decentralisation, immigration, and infrastructure, with Mr McConville wrapping up by expressing the importance of “responsible, mature conversations” between different industries.