Regional Australia may be in the news for all the wrong seasonal reasons, but don’t forget it’s also enjoying surging investment and lifestyle interest says regional development champion, Fiona Nash.
Regional community leaders are being urged to get on the front foot to highlight the positive face of non-metropolitan Australia, including the rising “going home” phenomenon which has droves of country-born city professionals returning to the bush with their families to enjoy its employment, education and lifestyle attributes.
The former senator, turned special adviser to Charles Sturt University, said while there was no denying the devastating hurt caused by drought in rural Australia “it’s far from the only thing happening in the regions”.
Ms Nash, former federal Nationals deputy leader and regional development and communications minister in 2016 and 2017, noted regional Australia made a massively positive contribution to nation’s economy, and social fabric.
It generated at least two thirds of Australia’s export income, including about $49 billion in agricultural exports, and was the base for 45 per cent of domestic tourism business.
The farm sector supply chain alone generated 1.6m jobs.
We must make sure there's an understanding of the very positive aspects of rural life.
“Rural, regional and remote Australia clothes the cities, feeds the cities and powers the cities,” Mrs Nash told the federal conference of the Isolated Children’s Parents Association.
“Every morning when city people wake up they should thank regional Australia for their way of life.”
Rural and regional Australia was also the small business engine room of the nation.
Emphasising the bush was no business backwater, Mrs Nash pointed to several recent enterprise successes.
In just over a decade the online fashion house, Birdsnest, based in NSW’s Snowy Mountains, had become something of a retail sector star, last year judged by Business Review Weekly as Australia’s fourth best workplace employing more than 100 staff.
Proprietor, and farmer’s wife, Jane Cay, recently placed first in the top 50 people in Australian e-commerce by the Internet Retailing news website.
Farm services company, Delta Agribusiness, led by Gerard Hines, had grown from two stores and 15 staff to a footprint in 28 NSW and southern Queensland locations in 12 years.
State Rural Woman of the Year and western NSW civil engineer, Jillian Kilby, runs an infrastructure consultancy providing services across the state and in the USA.
Meanwhile, the bullish agribusiness marketplace, improved connectivity and technology, cheaper housing, and the strong sense of community enjoyed by rural dwellers, were key factors making regional living increasingly attractive.
Mrs Nash said a generation ago most rural school leavers were moving to city jobs and careers, but today the “going home” phenomenon was driving young families back to many regional communities and farms.
However, urban perceptions of regional Australia were not always nearly so upbeat.
Negative news dominates in city
A 2017 federal government print media study recently found 80pc of stories on regional topics in Melbourne’s two mainstream publications were negative, with just 5pc positive, while stories in Sydney mastheads were 75pc negative and 25pc positive.
“This is absolutely one of the challenges,” Mrs Nash said.
“If we want people to stay in the regions, or move to these areas, we must make sure there is an understanding of the very positive aspects of rural life.
“Positive stories need to be told by the leadership within rural communities.
“I’m not saying everything is perfectly okay – of course there are challenges – but too often we seem to hear a disproportionate amount about drought, or bushfires, drugs, or other issues which detract from what’s really being achieved.”
Strong regions bred strong nations, and confidence bred strong regions, particularly when education was a solid contributor to that confidence.
Despite the challenges of distance and higher costs, remote families recognised education was an absolute priority.
Rural graduates stay regional
CSU, Australia’s largest regional university, played a key role in providing that education, recognising its regionally trained graduates were far more likely to move to, or return to, regional communities to work.
Almost 80pc of CSU students who originated from country backgrounds ended up in the regional workforce.
If we train our students in the regions, they’re far more likely to go on to work in rural, regional and remote areas
The university, with six main campuses from Port Macquarie to Albury-Wodonga, also cultivated courses in areas such as agriculture, business management, veterinary science and engineering which deliberately responded to specific regional workforce needs.
Its engineering degree involves extensive practical components aligned to local government and rural infrastructure needs, with just 18 months of on-campus studies.
CSU and Western Sydney University have also formed the Murray Darling Health Network partnership to train medical students specifically for rural Australia.
“We know if we train our students in the regions, they’re far more likely to go on to work in rural, regional and remote areas, and address the workforce issues which are so important for building strong regions for our future.”
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