Amid the months of COVID-19 mire, something positive emerged amongst the murky daily news - at least for Regional Australia. Greg O'Callaghan, journalist for the weekly magazine, Good Weekend, wrote last week: "Despite common misconceptions, the population of regional Australia is rising".
Callaghan quoted the Regional Australia Institute as saying that between 2011 and 2016, the population outside of Australia's capital cities grew by more than 10 per cent and according to the Bureau of Statistics, figures project the population outside the capital cities will grow by 26 per cent between 2007 and 2026.
RAI chief economist, Kim Houghton, told O'Callaghan that "we have a bigger flow out of Sydney than into it", and that, currently, on average 37,000 left Sydney for the regions annually between 2011 and 2016.
Newcastle and Wollongong have been the big winners in this return to regional living although Houghton added that almost one in three young people who had moved to the capital cities eventually moved back to regional areas.
Houghton told Good Weekend: "People are chasing jobs and a better quality of life, some of them low-income people fed up with the high cost of living in the capital cities".
It came as no surprise that about two-thirds of our export earnings come from regional industries such as agriculture, tourism and mining and whatever economic and other issues appear to be swamping our nation at present, and there are plenty of them on the horizon, without including COVID-19. The "City Quitters" heading on the Good Weekend article does not surprise this column which has been banging-on about the advantages of regional living ad-infinitum.
Our national governments, with the exception of Menzies' and Whitlam's (as the column mentioned last week), have been less than enthusiastic or willing to act about large-scale decentralisation.
Yet, these extra figures from the RAI, obtained by FOMM, are stunning - Regional Australia contributes one-third of our national output and is home to 8.8 million Australians while more people live in regional Queensland than any other state. Our regions provide employment for one in three working Australians.
Regional Australia is at the forefront of productivity in more than a third of our industries, including healthcare and logistics. More than two million Australians live in a mid-sized town in regions, they are towns that have between 5000 and 50,000 residents.
In July, DA journalist, Rex Martinich, in his article headed, Look to the bush for recovery (after the pandemic), noted support from Riverina farmers for the National Farmers Federation's "Get Australia Moving" report, which called on the federal parliament and government to make changes to such things as access to migrant workers, simplified industrial relations (and, I would add, a host of other matters that would be immediately resolved by the re-installation of public service departments in regional and remote areas), better communications and regional infrastructure amongst 35 recommendations.
All this is not new, of course, but it cannot happen without one essential resource. Water; yet the response from our parliament remains deafening to the extent that on July 10, four days before the NFF's report, Bloomberg Anywhere published a most critical analysis of our national water crisis: "Australia's water is vanishing; the country's most important river system is nearing collapse."
"The situation in the Murray-Darling has become one of the bitterest subjects in Australian society, pitting family farmers, agribusiness tycoons, community activists, scientists and politicians against one another in a cycle of mutual recrimination. The core of the problem, many say, is the reluctance of major parties to address what's happening to the climate, let alone to have an honest conversation about how citizens should use water as a result. And, if Australia - rich, democratic and with fewer people to supply than some Asian megacities - can't manage this challenge, there might not be much hope for anyone else."
Importantly, as much as the RAI figures are impressive the numbers leaving the metropolises to return to the bush are still relatively small in the national scheme of things.
One of the many issues facing our nation is manufacturing, or rather, the lack of it; again, though, water is an essential resource of manufacturing and so, too, is a workforce. The sorts of national development that we still require as a guide to develop our regions were encapsulated in Bloomberg Anywhere's assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin - "three million people drink from the system every day, and locals like to boast that another 40 million rely on it for food - Australia's population of 25 million plus many more across Asia."
There's a long row to hoe yet.