Lessons of the past show us regions will be crucial to recovery

Governments must not overlook the role regional Australia can play in recovering from coronavirus, writes Jim Chalmers

Aug 21, 2020, updated Aug 24, 2020
Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese say natural disasters will become constant, cumulative. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese say natural disasters will become constant, cumulative. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

When the Allman family laid the cornerstone for Warwick’s Criterion Hotel in 1917, Australia was on the cusp of what could be described as our first nationwide domestic disaster. Not long after, the Spanish flu pandemic would strike a nation still processing the trauma and loss of the First World War.

These twin disasters combined with the Federal Government’s failed economic agenda throughout the 1920s left our economy dangerously ill-equipped to weather the Great Depression, which saw unemployment peak at around 30 per cent, among the highest in the world.

Over 100 years since that Warwick cornerstone was set, Australia faces a combination of challenges just as confronting: the effects of drought, fires, pandemic, and now a deep recession.

We’ve been told that the virus doesn’t discriminate – but that doesn’t mean the pandemic isn’t affecting different people in different parts of our country very differently.

The current recession has hit our big population centres hard, but regional centres haven’t been spared, and job losses and firm closures in regional centres are more at risk of becoming permanent.

This underlies a critical point: if we are to capitalise on the post-COVID opportunities in key industries like agriculture we can’t afford for regional communities to be hollowed out, left out and left behind.

In these challenging times, it’s vital that Australia’s leaders take the time to understand what different parts of our country have been through, are going through, what they need to move forward, and where government fits in.

It’s true in our cities, but it’s perhaps even more so in our regional communities, which are the bedrock of our primary industries.

That’s why Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm and I have devoted a large chunk of the past month to consulting with key industries and listening to local people in Roma, Emerald, Biloela, Bundaberg, and Hervey Bay and why we’re spending time in Toowoomba and Stanthorpe this week and addressing the Warwick Chamber of Commerce at the Criterion Hotel.

All these conversations convince me of one thing in particular: if the Australian economy is to recover strongly from this recession then regional Australia, regional Queensland, and regional industries need to be a bigger part of our economic story.

Our regions provide most of our energy, most of our food and fibre, and most of our exports. They have so many strengths: clean air; uncongested roads; beautiful attractions; an abundance of resources – and resilient people.

Before the virus outbreak, global agricultural demand was growing strongly because of rising per capita incomes and population growth in Asia. Food demand was projected to double between 2007 and 2050; good news for exporters of high value and high-quality agricultural products.

Then came COVID-19.

Now we expect lower world prices for many agricultural commodities in 2020–21 and, domestically, a significant shock to household incomes.

But overall demand for Australia’s agricultural products is expected to remain relatively strong especially compared with other parts of our economy.

To capitalise, we need to get the policies right, near-term and long-term.

We need to support these communities now so that they are ready in the recovery to grab the opportunities which will be within reach, including in key industries like agriculture.

When Labor was last in office, we worked across the industry to develop a National Food Plan. It was the first step to a broader re-think about what sustainable profitability looks like in the food and fibre sectors.

Unfortunately, missed opportunities since then have meant that investors are still working largely without government guidance or strategic support.

It’s a vacuum that should have been long-filled by now, with more than a year gone since the Prime Minister promised the Dubbo Bush Summit a plan for the regions which we still haven’t seen.

To achieve the National Farmers’ Federation’s $100 billion agricultural target by 2030 we need to do more in priority areas like: skills and people; research and innovation; transport, water, energy and digital infrastructure; climate change; and relying on local leadership for guidance.

Getting Australia out of this recession and building a recovery that brings growth and opportunity to every corner of this country depends on engaging with regional Australia.

It will require a comprehensive plan for jobs, for agriculture, and it should begin by genuinely listening to our rural and regional Australians like Labor is endeavouring to do.

* Jim Chalmers is Federal Labor’s Treasury Spokesman

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