There are two inconvenient truths being largely overlooked as our nation discusses the link between climate change and natural disasters.
The first is that regional Australians will wear the bulk of the destruction and suffering linked to our changing climate.
The second, and perhaps more painful truth to realise as the impact of climate change worsens, is that metropolitan Australia’s perpetual neglect of our regions is eroding the security we once enjoyed as a resilient and prosperous nation.
Over the past year in my role living and travelling in regional Australia I have witnessed first-hand the suffering of individuals and communities grappling with unprecedented bushfires, catastrophic flooding,broken temperature records, compounding drought and the ongoing collapse of our continent’s largest river system.
It is clear to me that the greatest challenges facing Australia this coming decade will need to be fought and won here in regional Australia. Climate change. Drought. Bushfires and land management. Community resilience in the face of natural disaster. Water security, food security and biosecurity. Habitat depletion and species extinctions. Renewable energy generation. Our defence capabilities, border security and the inevitable emergence of climate refugees.
Like it or not, Australia’s rise or fall over coming years will be played out in the regions, by the regions. The main problem is this: Regional Australia lacks both the quantum and dispersion of infrastructure, resources and specialised workforces required to meet these challenges, and metropolitan Australia appears comfortable with this vulnerability. The politely passive attitude of our city cousins towards our regions, combined with regional Australians’ frustrating propensity to be the ultimate “Quiet Australians”, is our recipe for self-harm.
We accept an inferior spot on the ladder
As regional Australians we generate our fair share of national prosperity, yet we seem to expect very little from our country in return. With an attitude of resigned indifference, regional Australians appear to simply accept an inferior position on our nation’s economic, cultural and social ladder.
Since Federation we’ve allowed our geography to validate our inequity, but this horse-and-buggy-era mentality sustains a perceived irrelevance of the regions that is dangerously incompatible with the climate war now on our doorstep.
If properly armed, regional Australia is fully capable of meeting our sovereign climate challenges, but only following a major mindset shift from both city and country dwellers alike. Regional Australia is as remarkable as it is underestimated; we are a vibrant multicultural success story, a showcase of commercial diversity, a driver of innovation, and an unrelenting economic powerhouse fuelling our nation’s coffers.
So why is it that as regional Australians we accept — indeed expect — poorer health outcomes, lower life expectancies, inferior roads and infrastructure, reduced services, slower internet, public transport rations, fewer opportunities and, as we in the education sector are acutely aware, much lower levels of education attainment?
How did we all decide to quietly indulge the metropolitan prejudices that infect our centralised bureaucracies, our parliaments, and our media, manifesting as mediocre dividends for our regional communities?
And why are we so accepting of the meagre rates of post-school training and education being undertaken by regional youth?
Yawning education gap
Of all the ways regional Australia is being held back in this fight, the “education attainment gap” is perhaps the most crippling of all, leaving the entire nation vulnerable and lacking the specialised workforces needed to meet the climate battle on the front line.
Consider Brisbane city, where higher education and training levels are at near saturation point; 73 per cent of school leavers go on to attend any one of the 10 local university campuses or countless training providers. Essentially, Brisbane’s workforce is awash with highly skilled graduates spoilt by education opportunities, benefitting the city immeasurably.
Now consider Bundaberg, a large regional centre just a few hours’ drive north. Here, just 47 per cent of school leavers progress to university or undertake vocational training, and of the modest numbers of students who do progress to university, the majority leave home for city institutions, often never to return.
This gaping discrepancy between Brisbane and Bundaberg has nothing to do with the aptitude of city kids over country kids, and everything to do with opportunity. Or missed opportunity, to be more precise.
Imagine the national impact on our economy, let alone on our sovereign security and resilience, if Bundaberg and every other regional centre like it reached skilling saturation on par with our capital cities.
If we disappeared, the GDP would too
Ordinarily, this is where the predictable arguments of “economies of scale in service delivery” put regional Australia back into its box. But far from being the stereotypical dead weight of the nation, the regions have always paid their way — and often much more. Regional Australia, for instance, accounts for two-thirds of national export wealth and about a third of Australia’s gross domestic product.
If regional Australia vanished overnight, our national economy would shrink to the size it was around the turn of the millennium, and we would disappear from the list of the world’s largest economies.
Here in Central Queensland, the median wage in the regional centres of Rockhampton, Mackay, Emerald and Gladstone exceed those of CBD Sydney and Melbourne.
In my hometown of Rockhampton, commuting to and from our workplaces robs just 2.5 per cent from our workday, which pales against the unmitigated productivity theft perpetrated by capital city congestion.
Compared to the capital cities we carry far less of the crippling national household debt load, given the affordability of our homes, therefore enabling us to be greater discretionary consumers.
And contrary to the perception of many, we’re not all farmers and miners. The largest industry in my town is health care and social assistance, and our single largest employer is a university.
Of course, different regions have different strengths, but collectively we’ve been pulling our weight, paying our taxes, lightening the national load, and shaping the economy this whole time. This makes the benign neglect we experience from our capital cities all the more baffling.
The need for a national, war-like pivot to arming the regions with the resources and workforces required to meet our looming climate challenges is patently obvious to me.
My hope is that out of the horror of the recent bushfires will emerge a national conversation on positioning Australia for the new climate “normal”. My fear, however, is that a business-as-usual attitude towards regional Australia will prevail.