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High Expectations of the Regional Australia Summit

By Lindsay MacDonald - posted Monday, 15 November 1999

As a participant in the recent Regional Summit, I came away from Canberra with high expectations. That so many delegates were in a similar frame of mind suggests that the Summit was successful. Certainly, low expectations would have been an unacceptable result.

While the major speakers stressed the positive examples of energetic rural communities, there is no doubt that it is profitable agricultural activity which is most likely to result in energy delivering positive outcomes for rural communities.

Many struggling rural communities are dependent on commodities which have been unprofitable for more than a few years. If most of your producers have a positive cash flow, invariably this will flow on to small rural businesses, and generate other activity. Those sorts of communities can then concentrate on the ‘value added’ issues such as improving access to education, including post-school education and training, health, better communications, attracting and keeping young people, and so on.


However, for the many rural communities affected by the low price of commodities, there is the added burden of how to generate new economic activity from scratch, to try to meet the economic shortfall they are experiencing. It is these communities which are poorly resourced to do the job. I don’t know of any which are sitting back and ‘waiting for the cavalry to arrive". Instead, many have put enormous effort into ventures and activities through community groups and individual projects. They are desperately trying to improve skills, diversify into non-farm activity, whilst still trying to address all those quality of life, value adding issues, such as improving access to education (including post-school education and training), health, better communications, attracting and keeping young people, and so on. Communities in this situation are very short on human resources and finance to achieve successful outcomes.

These are the geographic areas where the sense of alienation, referred to by many of the summit’s participants, is greatest.

The message of the summit was not – "you have to save yourselves"- a message which can crush weary communities already trying hard. Rather there was acknowledgement of the issues of concern, a recognition that many rural communities could not "do it alone" and confirmation that any top-down approach imposed by government would not work.

The emphasis was on the need for rural communities to identify their own solutions, and form partnerships with governments and the private sector to improve their situations.

To that end many recommendations were put forward by the twelve working groups. Some of the recommendations involved the ‘big picture’ – taxation and infrastructure issues for example. Others were more localised, such as untimed local call access (which many remote people do not have, even within their own communities).

As Minister Anderson announced his implementation committee at summit’s end, it was clear to delegates that their deliberations may not fade into the ether, to be endlessly recycled at future talkfests. How many of the recommendations will be enacted remains to be seen. But the sense of high expectations will help to drive the political process to try to deliver practical outcomes which may ensure the survival of rural Australia as a whole, and many rural communities individually. Not to at least try would diminish our nation.

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About the Author

Lindsay MacDonald is a partner in a family grazing business at Blackall and Charleville in Queensland. She has been active in local community organisations over many years. She has had a particular interest in communications issues as they affect Rural and Remote Australia. As a member of the Regional Women's Alliance, she is a spokesperson for bush families affected by native title.

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