Regions are critical to post-COVID recovery

OPPORTUNITY: Many parts of Australia are well placed to benefit from regionalisation after COVID-19. Picture: Shutterstock
OPPORTUNITY: Many parts of Australia are well placed to benefit from regionalisation after COVID-19. Picture: Shutterstock

There's no doubt that the pandemic and the associated business and jurisdictional closures have had a massive impact on Australia, both socially and economically.

Severe at the national scale, the impact has been dramatically different across our country. Some regions have fallen into a very deep hole, while others have barely been affected.

It can be hard to get a grip on just how varied the impact has been. A good litmus is the number of businesses that have registered for JobKeeper.

Nationally, around one third of businesses are using JobKeeper. But this varies enormously across the country. In some of our inland agricultural and mining communities, this rate is less than 10 per cent. While in our hospitality and tourism hot spots, it can be well over 60 per cent.

JobKeeper has been a lifeline for communities like Byron Bay, Apollo Bay and Margaret River, where more than 60 per cent of businesses are tapped into the program.

It's a vital link in keeping incomes flowing through those communities.

Unemployment is another litmus, and it too varies enormously. Regions like Mandurah and Coffs Harbour have seen already high unemployment rates more than double to 15 and 16 per cent in the last six months.

While other regions like Murray in New South Wales and south west Victoria have seen unemployment rates stable or falling.

Regions will certainly play a key role in navigating this recession out.

Job vacancy growth rates are still better in most regions than in capital cities.

And in a handful of regions, advertised vacancy numbers were actually higher in July this year than they were in July last year.

In July 2020, there were nearly 40,000 job vacancies advertised across regional Australia. This was a 30 per cent increase from the 30,892 job vacancies advertised in June 2020.

In July 2020, total vacancies in regional Australia were still 13 per cent below the same month last year, but the gap has been closing steadily. This is a big improvement on last month when regional job advertisements in June 2020 were 28.7 per cent below the level recorded in June 2019 (43,324 job vacancies).

So there is good news around, and signs of employment growth in some regions.

But on the other side of the COVID coin are the places where things are really tough.

Perhaps the most challenging are those in the bushfire affected areas of south east Queensland, south east New South Wales and Kangaroo Island where usual activities have been on hold for the last eight long months.

The other deeply affected places are those regions that have been hotspots for international visitors. In Cairns, for example, where 46 per cent of CBD businesses are relying on JobKeeper.

While the big national, state and territory stimulus measures have undoubtedly played the roles intended, longer term the RAI believes that we need to consider dedicated, place-based medium term assistance.

This should be designed with local community leaders to fit with their needs and capabilities.

This recession will be multi-speed geographically so it is vital that we move from a uniform response to highly tailored, place-based responses in the next phase of recovery.

Our hardest hit regions will lose businesses and residents in frightening numbers if we don't get this support right.

And by recognising both the needs of the hardest hit places, and the potential of the places going well, we can navigate an effective national recovery.

Many of us are seeing how COVID has accelerated change.

So with the right policy settings in government and in corporate Australia, many parts of the country are in fact poised to benefit from what we call regionalisation.

At the RAI, we believe that for the first time in history, we can truly create a national employment market where location is no barrier. COVID triggered an overnight shift in the very construct of work. It has catapulted a fundamental shift in mindsets and long held entrenched views about how we work and where we work from.

And if we support this potential, with the right government and business policies and procedures, then we can continue to strive to reach our goal of improving the overall prosperity of regional Australia - and in turn the nation.

At the RAI, it's our ambition to change the course of history and raise awareness of the opportunities that exist to live, work and invest in regional Australia.

We know that as a nation we need to come together to aid social and economic recovery.

Employers in regional Australia need to fill those almost 40,000 vacancies, and are ready and waiting for jobseekers to make the move.

Dr Kim Houghton is chief economist of the Regional Australia Institute.