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Inquiry calls for a fair go on infrastructure for Australia's regions

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Big changes to the way the public service operates and a renewed commitment to infrastructure investment are two ways in which to reduce inequality in regional Australia, a long-running parliamentary committee report has found.

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The Senate Economic References Committee report into regional inequality in Australia has urged all levels of government to work harder to reverse what it found to be increasing regional disadvantage.

It said improvements in education, employment, health and connectivity in the regions could only occur if there was a renewed commitment to infrastructure investment.

“For the regions to prosper, and for businesses to feel confident about establishing themselves in the regions or expanding into them, there needs to be people,” the committee stated in its final report.

Major infrastructure investment is needed, but a population base for those businesses to have enough workers and a sustainable population base for them to be profitable is also needed

The inquiry began in the last federal parliament but lapsed at the 2019 election, only to be revived in this term. It received nearly 150 submissions but its original intention of conducting several public hearings in regional areas were thwarted by travel restrictions to deal with the pandemic.

The report acknowledged that this was the latest of many parliamentary inquiries into regional inequality.

It said that given the extensive research on regional Australia “now is the time to take stock of those findings and advance a positive regional development program—a program that builds on what has been learned through the many and varied inquiries and the expertise of those who live in the regions”.

The report said one change that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced on Australia was having large numbers of people working from home rather than a central office.

“This is something that regional institutions have previously suggested as a method to provide more employment for workers based in the regions and to allow public sector employees to continue to work for departments based in the capital cities despite living in the regions,” it said.

“The pandemic has forced an experiment upon us, and it has been found to work. Let us now make it work for regional Australia.”

The majority of the committee said the Morrison Government’s move away from previous economic policy settings to embrace more debt and bigger budget deficits should pave the way for a different approach to supporting the regions.

“Given that infrastructure spending is intended to lead Australia out of the worst recession in 90 years, that money is cheap and there is now an acceptance that government investment is appropriate, it is time to reconsider our approach to Australia’s regions.,” it said.

It said that while the October federal budget pledged more than $550 million over four years to support regional Australia recover from the pandemic and a string of natural disasters, more needed to be invested.

“Accordingly, the committee recommends that the government re-examine its regional infrastructure spending plan from the ground up and make an expanded infrastructure programme the basis for its stimulus plan for Australia’s economic recovery from the pandemic’s impacts,” it said.

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