Romilly Madew looks at the challenges and opportunities shaping our nation  

Infrastructure Australia is taking a forward-looking view at challenges and opportunities shaping our nation through a national infrastructure audit, including a focus on regional, rural and remote Australia, Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive, Romilly Madew, said at CEDA’s State of the Nation conference.

“Much of the current infrastructure debate in Australia is focused on our growing cities – Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. That is understandable as our growing and urbanising population is the decisive trend influencing Australia's infrastructure in the coming years,” Ms Madew said.
“More than 60 per cent of Australia's population is in those four fast-growing cities. Of this, 40 per cent is specifically in Sydney and Melbourne, with these cities on track to each have more than six million residents by 2031.
“The pace of growth and change in our fast-growing cities has put many legacy networks under strain, rising road congestion, crowding on public transport, growing demands of social infrastructure, including health, education and open space, are all key challenges for Australia's governments.
“However, looking beyond our fast-growing cities, we must also improve the access, quality and cost of infrastructure services for all Australians. Accessibility, quality and cost of infrastructure services varies depending on where people live.
“Sixty per cent of Australians live in our fast-growing cities and another 29 per cent in smaller cities and regional centres. More than 3.3 million Australians or 12 per cent live outside of these urban centres. One in 10 Australians live in small towns with a population of fewer than 10,000 people.

“All Australians share a common need for high-quality infrastructure that is both accessible and affordable, but beyond these high-level outcomes infrastructure must meet local needs. We know better functioning cities and towns could boost GDP by $29 billion over the long-term.
“Infrastructure quality is high in our urban centres, including our small cities and regional centres.
“Almost all Australians have safe reliable drinking water and wastewater services to their homes, they are connected to our electricity grids that meet 99.99 per cent of forecast customer demand, there is near nationwide access to broadband internet, and we have an extensive transport network. Education, health and other social services compare favourably with international benchmarks, but location has defined levels in Australia since early European settlement.
“The tyranny of distance has always made infrastructure delivery more challenging in regional and remote areas. The right infrastructure can unlock growth, but delivery in some parts of Australia is hindered by low population, extreme weather, changing markets and high building costs.
“Infrastructure is more expensive to provide per unit of consumption in low population density areas, but communities and businesses in these areas are also more reliant on infrastructure for their productivity and well-being.
“Despite this, service provision in some areas remains below what is accessible and acceptable for a highly developed nation that prides itself on a fair go for all. Connectivity, both physical and digital, is perhaps the most critical issue for remote communities and people in rural areas. Access to quality and cost of transport and telecommunication links can influence whether a new business gets off the ground, or investment is made in a small town. Regional and remote communities are often restricted by inadequate and unreliable transport networks.
“Research by the Joint Select Committee on northern Australia found that industries and communities in northern Australia are heavily reliant on the road network and few alternative metro routes are accessible in times of disruption.
“In the Northern Territory they have just five major sealed roads outside of Darwin. The great northern highway is the only sealed road linking the Northern Territory with centres in Western Australia and in northern Queensland, which has a more extensive highway system. The Kimberley region does not have any railway lines at all for example and these examples underscore the physical barrier that prevents people from building competitive businesses.
“At the same time, Australia's mobile footprint only covers one third of its landmass. Poor mobile reception and unreliable broadband limit our capacity to communicate, innovate and embrace data reliant technologies.
“We know digital inclusion is lowest among the communities that need it most. Take the remote Aboriginal community of our Kirin, located 300 kilometres north of Alice Springs. Interestingly this community has a host of budding hip-hop stars and YouTube sensations who are using the Internet to showcase their talents around the world.
“In fact the most recent Australian Digital Inclusion index has found that this community uses the internet more than the national average to shop online, access news and government services and to connect and communicate. However the communities digital access is much lower than the Australian average because mobile connectivity is unreliable, very few people have fixed broadband connections and the higher absolute cost of a gigabyte of data and smaller data allowances on mobile network, compared with fixed broadband, means that affordability is very poor.
“I've seen firsthand how the challenges faced in regional communities are amplified in northern Australia. Nowhere is our landscape of droughts and flooding rains more evident than in northern Australia, which faces the greatest exposure to extreme weather and climate impacts remoteness. 
“Work is now underway to engage with local communities to understand the impacts and the improvements to local infrastructure that's needed, but it is
clear we must consider infrastructure investments both strategically and holistically to maximise these benefits while government's have committed considerable funding to reinforce their critical infrastructure of rural and remote Australia.
“The Australian Government has invested more than $20 billion on regional programs and this does not include the national broadband network or inland rail. The Productivity Commission has noted that ad hoc financial assistance to regions does little to facilitate transition or long-term development.
“Other programs have delivered mixed results over a decade. The Western Australian Government's royalties for regions program directed more than $6.9 billion of royalties from states mining and onshore petroleum activities into three and a half thousand odd infrastructure and community projects. However, an independent review failed to find any significant or consistent economic or social progress in the state's regions.
“We must also get better at understanding local needs, especially when development occurs on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands or impacts those communities.
“The diversity of needs among region and regions and communities, the distinct cultures, languages, traditions and values of first Australians eliminates any possibility of a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation funding and policy place-based thinking does involve upfront time and cost, but this initial outlay typically secures higher success rates and more positive long-term outcomes for the community.
“So, in closing, Infrastructure Australia's role is to ensure accessible, high-quality and affordable infrastructure is available for all Australians regardless of where they live.
“While a lot of the discussion and debate has focused on the infrastructure investment required to keep our cities moving in the metropolitan century, we must not overlook the 12 per cent of Australians who live outside our urban areas.
“We're in the period of a three month consultation which will inform the development of the 2021 Australian infrastructure plan, a blueprint for infrastructure reform that will underpin our ongoing policy and research work. I welcome your insights and feedback on the audit, while we develop a clear and positive infrastructure agenda for all Australians.”