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
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.
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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