Opinion article

Addressing the infrastructure gap between our cities and regions

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit has identified a widening gap in services and outcomes outside our major cities. Following her CEDA State of the Nation address, Infrastructure Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO outlines the importance of responding to local needs and challenges.

Much of the current infrastructure debate in Australia is focused on our fast-growing cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. This is understandable, as a growing and urbanising population is one of the decisive trends impacting Australia’s infrastructure in coming years. 

More than 60 per cent of Australia’s population, or just over 14 million people, live in these four cities. Of this, 40 per cent of people now call Sydney and Melbourne home, with these cities on track to each have over 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 and growing demands on social infrastructure, including health, education and green space are all key challenges for Australia’s governments.

However, looking beyond our fast-growing cities, improving the access, quality and cost of infrastructure services for all Australians must also remain a priority. Almost a third of Australians live in our smaller cities and regional centres, which range from areas as large as Adelaide, to towns like Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. In addition, 12 per cent of us, or more than 3.3 million Australians live outside these urban centres. One in 10 of us live in small towns with populations of fewer than 10,000, including more remote and developing areas.

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit

Infrastructure Australia’s role is to ensure accessible, high-quality and affordable infrastructure is available to all Australians, regardless of where they live.

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, released in August, is the start of Infrastructure Australia’s five-year policy cycle, providing an evidence base to set the agenda for future infrastructure investment and reform. The Audit presents 180 infrastructure challenges and opportunities, occurring across sectors and geographies. These are service gaps, or areas for innovation and reform that are key to ensure Australia retains its economic security and famed quality of life.

The Audit has taken a new approach to measuring infrastructure outcomes, focusing on place-based and community-centred outcomes. This approach recognises that there are key differences in infrastructure experiences within our capital cities, our smaller cities and regions, and the most remote areas of Australia.
In most parts of our country, the Audit has found that our infrastructure needs are being met. Almost all Australians have safe, reliable, running water and wastewater services in their homes, and are connected to electricity grids that meet 99.99% of forecast customer demand.

Most Australians have good access to social infrastructure, and our education and health services compare favourably with other countries. But infrastructure delivery can be challenging in regional and remote places with low populations, extreme weather, changing markets and high building costs.

Regional and remote communities risk falling behind

In some parts of the country, the provision of infrastructure services remains below what is acceptable for a highly developed nation that prides itself on a fair go for all. For example, more than 30 per cent of households in remote areas are overcrowded, and many remote communities do not meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation for all.

The most pervasive issue in these areas is connectivity, in both a physical and a digital sense. Access to telecommunications and transport links are key factors influencing business decisions to invest in regional areas. Australia’s mobile footprint only covers one-third of its landmass – and poor mobile reception and unreliable broadband limit people’s capacity to communicate, innovate and embrace data-reliant technologies.

Infrastructure as a driver of growth and employment

Although regional and remote areas face unique obstacles, the Audit finds there are also opportunities ahead. Many of Australia’s regions are already highly productive and prosperous.

Average incomes can often be higher than cities, especially in mining regions, and 77 per cent of regions have experienced positive employment growth over the past five years. Innovative and adaptive infrastructure can unlock opportunities for growth and employment where structural changes have hit hardest, and where the effects of economic change are proving the most stubborn to overcome.

Infrastructure is increasingly recognised for its ability to provide a critical boost to our economy, but it has to respond to local needs and challenges. In releasing the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, we are aiming to start a conversation about the infrastructure investments and reforms that will best serve all our communities – including the many Australians that call our satellite cities, regional centres and remote communities, home.
About the authors

Romilly Madew

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Romilly Madew AO FTSE HonFIEAust was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Engineers Australia in 2022. Prior to joining Engineers Australia, Ms Madew was CEO of Infrastructure Australia overseeing the organisation's critical role in helping governments prioritise projects and reforms that best serve our communities. Ms Madew served as CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) for 13 years. In acknowledgment of her contribution to Australia’s sustainable building movement, Ms Madew was awarded an Order of Australia in 2019. She is currently a Member of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) Infrastructure Forum, Member of Placemaking NSW Advisory Committee, Director of Sydney Olympic Park Authority, Independent Chair of the Currawong State Park Advisory Board (NSW), Federal Government appointee on the Circular Economy Ministerial Advisory Group and G20 EMPOWER – Empowerment and Progression of Women's Economic Representation, Member of the National Women in Transport CEO Advisory Group, Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers Enabling Better Infrastructure Steering Group (UK) and Director of Minerva Network (supporting Australia’s elite sportswomen).