Regional Australia at crossroads

WITH a lack of data about regional Australia and a disconnect between high-minded academic research and the reality of policy development, the head of the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) wants it to change.

Launched in February, the institute was part of the deal that saw Prime Minister Julia Gillard secure minority government nearly two years ago.

Institute chairman and Inverell Mayor in northern New South Wales, Mal Peters, has taken up the cause with gusto.
Mr Peters said the institute aimed to improve government policies so they better served regional Australia.

"We've already had a number of forums and had people from the federal and state government, researchers in regional development areas and industry give their feedback on what needs to be done.

"We are now looking at the potential for new growth and prosperity in the regions, but a lot of the basic information we need is not readily available.

"So it's no good knowing about what could be done if we can't translate that and develop better strategies for the regions," he said.

Mr Peters said that one of the main problems regional Australia faced was the "diffusion" of government programs and organisations.

"Right now, what we've got is regional natural resource management groups, the Regional Development Australia committees, and all these different groups.

"What ends up happening as time evolves is that governments become more confused and you have all these groups engaged in a defence of their patch of turf."

He said this confusion was eroding regional people's confidence in the government to address problems that affected them.

"Obviously we have a priority issue, and our first objective is to gather the factual information and create a useful database of research on rural and regional issues."

The institute has seven major issues it wants to tackle - from land conflicts to the social dislocation caused by fly-in fly-out mining and how regional Australia responds to natural disasters.

"We need to do the work to understand what the motivators are for people moving in and out of regional areas are - and that issue needs some good thinking.

"Then we can look at the big issues, such as land use conflicts where you have tensions between the two industries that are mainstays of regional Australia, and how to find solutions," he said.

Infrastructure development or lack thereof, was also a major issue on the institute's agenda.

"There's a huge number of examples across regional Australia where we've got infrastructure literally falling to pieces and that is a major inhibitor to regional development.

"We've now got many leading minds on regional development, but we need to make that link better understood; that without the infrastructure, the development can be slowed and in some cases withdrawn," he said.

Mr Peters said the biggest problem from his perspective was a lack of "high quality policy development".

"What tends to happen is you have great information and research being done, but that isn't necessarily recognised at the local level, or by the policy-makers.

"While we've got some big challenges, there's some huge opportunities in regional Australia, outside the major cities, and we want to tap into those opportunities.

"It's a bloody exciting space and we've got some really enthusiastic people on board, so I'm very enthusiastic about the future for regional Australia."

Mr Peters will speak at the annual conference of the Australian National University's National Institute of Rural and Regional Australia in Narrabri on Wednesday.

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