Regional business came to Canberra today with a message that top-down government policy development is failing our local regional communities.
Economist Nicholas Gruen noted that for regional Australia to prosper, politicians must start following through on announcements and stop chasing publicity with hollow gestures.
"All politicians are locked into more and more announceables. What you need is trackables," Mr Gruen, chief executive of Lateral Economics, said.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack and Labor's Regional Communications and Regional Services spokesman Stephen Jones opened the Regional Australia Institute's Regions Rising summit at Old Parliament House this morning, followed by a series of panel discussions.
"The enemy is centralised decision-making," said Council of Small Business Organisations chief executive Peter Strong.
"You'll hear it said in Canberra that you can make a decision and it will impact regional Australia in this way," Mr Strong said.
"But they don't understand how the world works out there, they understand a chequebook in head office.
"When employment contracts are given out to services it may impact Dubbo in a good way, and Geelong in a bad way. It may make Warwick look good, but may make Albany look worse."
READ THE REPORT: The Future of Regional Jobs
Mr Strong said Australia used to be the world leader in local economic development and empowering local communities to come up with better solutions.
"We did that by talking to local communities, and if they weren't interested we didn't go there. We gave capacity for business people to say what they thought could happen in the community."
Australian Meat Industry Council Patrick Hutchinson told the summit of stakeholder groups and regional institutions his industry was misunderstood and overlooked by decision makers, despite the fact all of its jobs are located in the regions.
"Abattoirs are the largest trade exposed industry in Australia, and the second biggest manufacturer, but it's in regional Australia and we forget about it," said Mr Hutchinson.
He said meat processing could drive population growth in regional towns, but targeted five-year visas are needed to secure migrant workers.
AMIC research shows that abattoirs are operating at two-thirds of their workforce capacity in towns such as Dubbo, NSW, Warrnambool, Victoria and Albany, WA - which all averaged a 3.5 per cent unemployment, under the low national average at about 5.5pc last year.
RAI co-chief executive Dr Kim Houghton said impending industry automation would vary across regions, but 'high-tech', 'high-touch', and 'high-care' roles will be at the forefront.
"We know there are more than 40,000 jobs to fill across regional Australia right now and that figure is set to grow as the workforce landscape changes," he said.
"Regional Australia needs different skills, the types of jobs will change and the role of education will be more critical than ever before,"
Mr McCormack said his Coalition government is delivering regional growth through relocating public sector jobs to regional towns, investing in tertiary and trade apprenticeship scholarships, as well as funding infrastructure to stimulate construction jobs and industry growth.
The federal budget this week committed $552 million for regional trade apprenticeships, and 100 university scholarships, $100m for regional airports, and $100 billion for regional roads - on top of last year's $10 billion commitment to the inland rail Melbourne to Brisbane freight link.
Mr McCormack praised RAI's regional jobs report, released today at the summit, which argued for new policies to address the shift in workforce demands (link).
"What a fantastic report it is. I've gone through it, I haven't read every line, but I will," Mr McCormack said.
Mr Jones issued a challenge to both sides of politics heading into the imminent federal election campaign to abandon the rhetoric demonising migrants, which is "morally and ethically wrong", and replace it with a vision that's in the interests of export-dependent regional economies.
"We cannot say to people living in our near regions ,whether it's the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East: 'We want you to buy our beef, our sheep, wheat wool fibre coal iron ore but we don't trust you," he said.
"We don't want to you to our country, or if you do we want you to spend a lot of money and leave as soon as possible.
"We cannot kid ourselves that the debates we have in parliament, and things we say in the media, aren't heard in the countries with which we are trying to have trading relationships."
Warming up for the campaign trail, Mr Jones took a swipe at his political opponent.
"Regional Australia sends representatives to Canberra and there is, somehow, a trade off when the Nationals vote with the Liberals to cut social programs and vote up budgets that deliver massive tax cuts, don't provide a benefit to low and middle income earners and
"This model is broken. Yes we need road and rail, but the biggest challenge we face is in human capital.
"We don't have a jobs crisis, we have a skills crisis. We can't get the workers to fill the jobs to attract bus and industry or to keep them there.
"It's never been more important to invest in our TAFE system that has been run down over decades."