Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Let country people bet on their town’s future

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Looking at Western Australia’s Wheatbelt of 44 shires between 2001 and 2021, the census has tracked the population fall at a steady rate of just under 1 per cent a year across most of the sub 1,500 person shires in the Wheatbelt. For example, Corrigin fell from 1,227 to 1,007, Lake Grace 1,531 to 1,265, Dalwallinu 826 to 687 and Kondinin 965 to 847. 

With farm aggregations in WA sitting at around 3 per cent a year meaning they are doubling in size every 25 years the only way to save these towns and guarantee they can fill their football teams is to attract more regionally-based businesses to help service farm businesses that are growing in size and complexity. 

Building big recreational centres and giving the main street a makeover was how the previous coalition government (2008-17) supported regional areas in Western Australia through their billion dollar a year Royalties for Regions program.

But while it has done wonders for our bigger and growing coastal centres, the census numbers tell us it has failed to reverse the decline in population across the Wheatbelt. 

Mind you, this current state labor government’s focus on pinching the Royalties for Regions trust money to offset the cost of funding essential services such as the cost of police and nurses has been a slight of hand to help support budget repair. 

One wonders how long the Premier/Treasurer for Western Australia can keep banging on about this when he is rolling in massive surpluses. 

But looking forward, maybe the current generation of national MPs can come up with a Royalties for Regions II plan.

If I were them, I would be giving up on the idea of timeless glory via plaques on walls of buildings and instead back the people they represent to invest in their own priority projects.

The one thing that has not been tried is giving shires the funding to find their own way and let the marketplace of ideas and competition do its thing. 

An election commitment to funnel a billion dollars a year across the 111 regional shires in Western Australia which service 557,000 people is already national policy.

But why not take it to the next level and instead of offering up a list of building projects why not simply divi up the one billion dollars and dish it out to communities to spend?  A billion dollars works out at $2,000 a head which means that the average Wheatbelt shire of 1,000 would end up with $2m a year to invest in population building projects.

The program should be guaranteed in legislation to last for eight years, which is two terms of office, and opened up for whatever the community want to invest in. (Maybe not what the former CEO of the Shire of Ravensthorpe would have recommended). 

Kulin could become an events powerhouse, Bruce Rock backing an expansion of their engineering sector, Beverley might add a second runway to be the home of light aircraft training, Kondinin build industrial sheds to lease out to new tradies at a discount, Moora more low cost housing to attract retirees, Katanning family housing to attract Pacific islander workers, Merredin underwrite research to attract scientists, Northam become the ag tech services centre by backing females into mechanical traineeships, Corrigin a truck driver training school, Dalwallinu a farm training and employment agency.

It does not matter who does what, let the market do the work, some will succeed, some fail, others will hang back and copy what works. Whatever they do I have no doubt the locals will generate better outcomes than city-based politicians and bureaucrats working from their ivory towers.


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