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Putting the regions back into the centre of policy debate

The Australia Workers’ Union, throughout our long 125year history, has worked hard to deliver good jobs to working people right across our continent. We’ve always believed that we need to back policies which ensure companies can survive and thrive – and provide job security for our members.

The majority of our members, right throughout our history have been concentrated in regions, well outside the overcrowded big capital cities.

That’s concentrated our thinking on how we back regional economies to ensure they thrive and allow families in the regions to build healthy communities.

Every generation of AWU activists have had to re-think this tradition. In the 21st century it is my job to revisit this tradition and argue for policy positions which not only buttress existing regional communities – but also look for ways to build new healthy population centres in our regions.

Certainly I want to see progressives across Australia working together to find new ways to revitalise a commitment to decentralisation .

I regularly remind audiences I speak to that our economy, and our environment, would have been a lot better off if Gough Whitlam’s 1970s decentralisation policies had been allowed to grow to fruition. Unfortunately Malcolm Fraser killed off Gough’s far-sighted plans to build Bathurst-Orange and Albury-Wodonga as major new urban centres.

We would not only have gone a long way to avoiding many of the infrastructure problems now facing Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne – but we would have provided families with better standards of living through cheaper housing and most importantly shorter commuting times to their workplaces.

A decentralised Australia would also allow for a calmer national debate about migration and population size.

Much of the current hostility to migration comes from the fact that Australians, facing higher housing costs, long commutes and other cost-of-living pressures, know that more people in their city, their suburb, will simply exacerbate their problems. And quite rightly they want to put out the “House Full” sign.

To solve this we need to build attractive new regional centres well away from the capital cities – centres which provide jobs and security for Australian families.

In recent years the biggest threat to many regional centres where AWU families live – those dependant on our important resource sector – have come from the radical shift by the big mining companies to the use of fly-in, fly-out workers.

In our early history the mine companies were often the driving force behind the creation of regional centres – committed to providing the infrastructure to create viable communities. They understood they had a social obligation to regional Australia.

Today that social obligation seems to have been thrown out, in the drive to increase profits. Now the big mining companies avoid their obligations to regional communities by turning regional resource centres into mere commuter stops – with most workers shipped in for their rosters then flown back home to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

These workers take their sizeable pay cheques with them and the possible economic spin-offs to the regions are lost because communities are not built, schools and health centres not created.

Fly-in, fly-out does not do anything for growing our regions – and is a social and community hazard for all the families who are regularly separated by this ugly work pattern.

It is a painful irony that some regional centres are rapidly depleting in the midst of an amazing new mining boom.

If the mining companies have forgotten their social obligations then I firmly believe we must use the proposed mining tax to build the roads, the rail, the ports, the schools, the hospitals which will create incentives for companies to move from Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth out to healthy vibrant new regional centres.

Progressives should today look at how we can make the desert bloom. Take advantage of our unique environment to create new economic opportunities in a carbon-constrained world.

To do that effectively we need to look at how we create major urban centres in desert environments and ensuring these new centres are sensitive to the environment that they inhabit.

Last August I gave a major speech outlining the AWU’s vision of creating a major new urban centre in Western Australia – aimed at creating a population centre approximately the same size as Townsville or Cairns – but across the other side of the Australian continent.

I argued the mining tax should provide important new financial resources to build the road, rail and ports – as well as other infrastructure needs – which could turn this idea into reality.

This centre should not only service the important Pilbara resource sector but become a centre informed by an R&D program which looks at how we can effectively turn our deserts to our advantage – and help in some small way to provide some of the global solutions to the climate change crisis.

The R&D effort should also look at how do we use the desert to help us build new export-oriented industries, and manufacturing centres, which can create the secure jobs which will attract families to set down roots?

When I talk to my members in regional centres I repeatedly hear from them about the family tragedy that is created when family members must leave to go to capital cities to find jobs and opportunities.

They all ask what can the union do. They all say the kids prefer to stay in the local community, be educated at local schools, find jobs with local employers but the facilities are just not available, the jobs are not available.

Each of those visits confirms my commitment to lobby harder for investment in the regions; to lobby harder for policies which help create new regional enterprises; to lobby harder for policies which help people to create better lives for themselves and their families by moving out of the overcrowded capitals to vibrant regional centres.

We on the progressive side of politics have to make this issue much more central to our policy discussion. We have to find policy solutions which will make it attractive for people move away from the eastern fringe and settle in new economically viable regions far away from our south-eastern corner.

Paul Howes is the National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, one of Australia’s oldest unions.

About Paul Howes

Paul Howes

Paul was elected National Secretary in 2007 and was re-elected in 2009. The AWU now has more than 135,000 members and 250 staff across Australia. Established in 1886, the AWU is the country's oldest and most diverse union, with more than 45 offices across non-metropolitan Australia. Paul was elected Vice President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 2008. He is a member of the National Executive of the Australian Labor Party and represents the Asia-Pacific Region as a member of the Executive Committee of the IndustriALL Global Union. Paul is Deputy Chair of the nation’s largest superannuation fund, AustralianSuper. He is also a director of the National Workforce and Productivity Development Agency, a director of The McKell Institute and a member of a number of Government Boards.

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