President’s column – 26 June 2020

“What’s the drift, tell me what’s a’happening!”

Regional population growth is more than a song line, it’s actually happening.

Demographers, commentators, and economic forecasters are suggesting that arresting the drift to big cities and achieving sustained growth in the regions is not just attainable but perhaps even inevitable. The evidence seems to back them up.

Bureau of Statistics figures indicate that from 2011 to 2016 (when the last Census was held) there was a net inflow of 65,000 people into regional Australia, and more people moving between regions than ever before.

The new arrivals were drawn to the country by a combination of factors: housing affordability, improved transport connectivity, lifestyle advantages, and job or career advancement opportunities.

In a notable shift from the historical practice of young adults fleeing the bush once they have graduated from university, Millennials (those born 1982-99, and sometimes called Gen Y) are among the cohorts now increasingly attracted to living in the regions.

Another large cohort – city-living baby boomers – are headed towards retirement and contemplating sea-change, tree-change or any other excuse to leave the cities for a more relaxed and less expensive regional lifestyle.

Arguably, these trends are not large, especially when viewed in the national context of a highly urbanised population living in rapidly growing cities like Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth.

But they are a beacon of hope to many regional communities which have strived to attract attention, population, and investment for years.

When you consider the ease with which millions recently worked remotely from home during the Covid-19 restrictions, a rural revival looks more possible and potentially probable than it has for decades.

There has been lots of commentary about how people have not just survived working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, but how they have embraced being able spend more time with their families and working on the home in the spare time they have seized back from the hours lost to commuting as they previously did.

Office workers have been as productive during coronavirus as they were before the lockdowns – so much so that firms with a CBD footprint are warming to the idea of letting their employees decide whether they want to continue to work from home or return to the office when current public health measures are relaxed.

So the drift away from CBDs could be supported by both employees and employers – another first.

It remains to be seen if management techniques can evolve to replace old habits such as “if I can’t see you then you can’t be working”.

Notably, the construction, trucking, farming, and mining industries have all coped with disseminated workforces for decades. If these sectors can do it, why not others?

Commonsense suggests that national population growth be spread evenly rather than allowed to amass in one or two places. The demographic and technological changes now evident may be the best way of achieving that given the Federal Government’s lack of enthusiasm for an integrated and coordinated national settlement policy.

Good broadband capability is obviously paramount for any region wanting to sell itself as a remote workplace – affordable housing another.

Good schools, technical and further education colleges also matter – as do good health services, safe roads, and fast and efficient mass transport connections to bigger cities. Many of our regions have all these assets or are in the process of acquiring them.

Incentive programs are another way to luring newcomers, and the state and federal governments have a number of these already in place, providing a foundation for council-led promotional campaigns.

With their wide networks and unparalleled reach into their communities, councils should be chasing businesses, education providers, sporting clubs – and other councils – to work with them to shape initiatives and regional promotion strategies.

We’ve always known the regions have wonderful growth potential. Now is the time to step up and capitalise on demographic change, technological advances, and changing sentiment.

Get the drift?

David O’Loughlin,
National President