The Property and Construction sector has rightly been identified by the Queensland Government as one of the four pillars of the economy, alongside Tourism, Agriculture and Resources. The sector consistently contributes approximately 11% of Queensland’s gross state product. After Health and Retail, it is the third largest employer.
Worryingly, of the $42.75 billion allocated to infrastructure over the next four years, only $4.8 billion will be invested in regional Queensland. Historically, on average, less than 12% of infrastructure spending is invested into regional infrastructure development. The question then is: is that distribution equitable and can our budgets be brave enough to significantly shift the historical balance in favour of regional over metropolitan infrastructure and development? The arguments in favour of being brave are compelling.
For their contribution and according to Regional Australia Institute (RAI), regional cities will have added $375 billion to the national economy by 2031. With the Queensland economy in a transitional phase and on a continued downward slide from the resource boom, taking advantage of the opportunities that regional cities provide has never been more important.
Regional cities north of Brisbane are optimistically investing in long rather than short term strategies. Geographic opportunities in the agri-foods and freight logistics sub-sectors offer possibilities that the north is able to yoke through harnessing untapped water supplies and developing agricultural potential in its vast plains. A northern food bowl would help sustain the emerging and ever increasing demographic realities that the likes of China and Singapore face.
The resultant logistic hubs could in parallel, sustain other economic stimulators. Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport for example has had a significant impact on local food and horticultural production for which commercial freight flights have commenced. Further north, Mount Isa Regional Council predicts that the new Mount Isa to Tennant Creek rail link will be the stimulus for an economic corridor that will boost local economies along its route and diversify that particular region’s mining focused economies into other sectors.
Airports could unlock the two-stop long-haul flights to Europe and therefore lure large carriers who currently use Dubai or Hong Kong as a preferred international stopover. How? Qantas, for example, has already commenced direct flights from Perth to London. By making Broome or Mackay the first stopover for a long range ‘Dreamliner’ or similar flight to London, Australia’s regional tourist hubs could be the next mega transit hubs in their own right. Bernard Salt suggests that this will help create new secondary cities equitably spread (geographically) across Australia.
Regional cities are recognising that the knowledge worker can work from anywhere as long as they have access to their tools and technology. Sunshine Coast Council for example plans to link its region directly to global communications systems in Asia, the Pacific and the United States by encouraging the private sector to deliver an international submarine broadband cable connection that would land at Maroochydore. Initial economic modelling indicates that this initiative will generate an additional $700 million to the Sunshine Coast economy every year and $1.1 billion annually to the state’s economy.
The Commonwealth Government’s embracing of the UK’s City Deals, Growth Deals and Smart specialisation concepts is a step in the right direction to managing regional infrastructure growth and investment. City Deals are agreements between the Commonwealth Government, a state or territory government, and local governments to enhance economic activity and liveability. They work by developing collective plans for growth and commitments to action, investment, reforms and governance from the associated stakeholders. Already, the first city deal agreements have been signed this year for Townsville and Launceston.
It is demonstrably evident that regional cities are now starting to think bigger than ever and making their own luck in the process. However it is only with sound equitable funding of infrastructure initiatives with strong leadership that sustainable and long term success can be achieved. Are our leaders brave enough to push for a strong catalytic stimulus to regional infrastructure development and fundamentally shift the balance of growth, population, economic benefit and employment?