There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and associated business and jurisdictional closures have had a massive impact on Australia, both socially and economically. While the impact has been severe on a national scale, it has differed dramatically across our country. Some regions have fallen into a very deep hole, while others have experienced limited impact.
The regional experience of COVID-19
It can be hard to get a grip on just how varied the impact of the pandemic has been. A good litmus test is the number of businesses that have registered for JobKeeper. Nationally, around one-third of businesses are using JobKeeper. But 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. This means JobKeeper has been a lifeline for communities like Byron Bay in New South Wales, Apollo Bay in Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia. It is a vital link in keeping incomes flowing in and around those communities.
Unemployment is another litmus test, and it too varies enormously. Regions such as Mandurah in WA and Coffs Harbour in NSW have seen already-high unemployment rates more than double to 15 and 16 per cent in the last six months. Unemployment rates in other regions, like Murray in NSW and Southwest Victoria, have fallen or remained stable.
Regions will undoubtedly play a key role in navigating out of this recession. Job vacancy growth rates are still better in most regions than in capital cities.
In September 2020, there were over 50,000 job vacancies advertised across regional Australia, a new record for the regions. This was an 11 per cent increase from the 45,600 job vacancies advertised in August 2020. In September 2020 total vacancies in regional Australia as a whole were five per cent above the same month last year. There has been steady growth in regional vacancies since the low in April 2020.
But on the other side of the COVID coin are the places where things are really tough. Perhaps the most challenging are tourism-based economies in the bushfire-affected areas of southeast Queensland, southeast NSW, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, where the usual activities have been on hold for ten long months. Other deeply affected places include regions that have been hotspots for international visitors. In Cairns, for example, 46 per cent of CBD businesses were relying on JobKeeper in August.
While the significant national, state and territory stimulus measures have undoubtedly helped, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) believes 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 alarming numbers if we do not get this support right. By recognising both the needs of the hardest-hit places and the potential of those that are faring well, we can guide an effective national recovery.
The experience of dealing with COVID-19 has removed one of the most significant barriers to a substantial population shift in this country. As a nation, we are already extremely mobile, with a propensity to change our address at twice the rate of people in most OECD countries. If location is no longer a barrier to employment, there could be an even greater swing to regions over the next decade, and we believe this should be encouraged.
If we support this potential with the right policy settings in government and business, we can continue to improve the prosperity of regional Australia and in turn, the whole nation. Thanks to recent Federal Budget funding, the RAI is now in position to launch the first ‘National Awarness Campaign’ that will encourage more people to live, work and invest in Regional Australia. This is the first of it’s kind at a national level, so our aspiration can now become a reality.
Understanding the way the population moves around regional Australia is an important first step in identifying the reasons people are attracted to some places instead of others. To craft a national campaign, policy should address how we can further understand and amplify the drivers of this movement towards regional Australia, to extend population settlement even further and supercharge the regions. Regional cities are ready and waiting to use agglomeration to boost productivity – the opportunity to drive recovery is with us now.
COVID-19 has accelerated change across Australia’s economy and society. With the right policy settings in government and corporate Australia, many parts of the country are poised to benefit from regionalisation.