Independent think tank the Grattan Institute says regional Victorian towns need to keep current residents before trying to attract new ones, if they are going to survive in an increasingly city-centric economy.
A report from economic consultants SGS has found regional Victoria contributes less per hour of labour to the nation’s economy than any other part of the country.
The report said a trending decline in manufacturing had hit regional Victoria the hardest, set against growth in the financial services sector experienced in Melbourne and other capital cities.
But Grattan Institute fellow Brendan Coates said claims that regional Victoria was the “laggard” of the nation could be misconstrued.
“Regions tend to be poorer than the cities [but] income growth in the regions hasn’t lagged behind the cities at all,” Mr Coates said.
“They’ve generally grown at about the same rate on average … but what’s happening is their losing population.
“The big problem is because there’s not employment opportunities, there’s no jobs, [and] people leave in search of those opportunities in the cities.
“But those that tend to stay, on average are doing okay.”
Opportunities for growth
Grattan Institute fellow Brendan Coates believes employment opportunities are the biggest issue for regional cities.
Mr Coates said with an increasingly ageing population in regional Victoria, boosting health services was vital to keeping people in those towns.
“One of the main drivers of employment in regional areas is the provision of healthcare for those that do choose to stay, particularly healthcare and aged care,” he said.
Mr Coates said regional towns needed to play to their strengths by bolstering their visitor and tourism economy.
But he said regional cities — with the exception of satellite cities such as Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo — were always going to struggle because they were too far from Melbourne.
“Those areas are really going to struggle to attract lots of people … no matter how much money you throw at the problem, because they’re too far away from the major cities where most of the employment and economic growth actually is.”
Mr Coates said migration was another way regional towns could increase their labour pool.
A 2016 Deloitte Access study found the resettling of 160 Karen refugees from Myanmar in the Wimmera town of Nhill saved the town’s main business and added more than $40m and 70 jobs to the local economy.
But Mr Coates said he was wary of attracting large numbers of people to regional areas without first having the employment opportunities to cater for them.
Old hospital holding Swan Hill back
Like many other regional towns, Swan Hill has an ageing population, and is struggling to retain residents and attract new ones as it battles a skills shortage.
Mayor Les McPhee is lobbying both sides of the State Government to build a new hospital for the town.
He said the Murray River regional city’s current hospital was no longer up to scratch and acted as a deterrent to the town’s success.
“Health is a big cornerstone in the liveability of any regional town … and that’s why we’re pushing for it,” he said.
“If we have decent hospitals, decent facilities, we’re going to get people to come and want to live in Swan Hill.”
Swan Hill is rallying for a new hospital in a bid to make it more attractive to residents. (ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Simon Galletta)
What is the Government doing to help?
Victorian Regional Development Minister Jaala Pulford has disagreed with the report’s findings, saying under a Labor Government employment in regional areas had increased.
“To suggest there are no jobs in regional Victoria is just not true,” Ms Pulford said.
And while the Minister would not be drawn on the future of the Swan Hill hospital, she said the Government had spent nearly double on infrastructure and services than the previous government.
She also said the Wimmera town of Sea Lake had benefitted from State Government investment aimed at bringing more Chinese tourists to the town.
Mallee MP says greater spending is needed
But federal Member for Mallee, the Nationals’ Andrew Broad, said Labor could not see past the satellite cities.
“Over the past 20 years we’ve had 16 years of a Labor Government and they cannot see past Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong,” he said.
Mr Broad criticised the Government’s spending on healthcare outside of the satellite cities, throwing his support behind Swan Hill’s campaign for a new hospital.
“Swan Hill absolutely needs a new hospital,” he said.
“We haven’t seen the investment in the health service that we should have.”
Nationals Member for Mallee Andrew Broad believes the Labor State Government has been too focused on major regional cities such as Bendigo and Ballarat. (AAP: Daniel Munoz)
Mr Broad said greater spending on education would help solve the region’s skills gap, as well as work to retain residents.
“If you compare Bendigo, which has a population of 100,000 and La Trobe University there has 8,000 students, as opposed to Mildura, which has a population of 55,000 and 500 students, you could easily argue that La Trobe University here should be 2,000 students,” he said.
Mr Broad agreed with the Grattan Institute’s calls for greater infrastructure spending in regional towns.
“When someone thinks about where are they going to live, they look at health services, they look at education opportunities, they look at ‘Can I catch adequate public transport that’s affordable?’ and what is that sense of community?” he said.
“You build the infrastructure and the people will come.”