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Population policy for regional and rural Queensland
Authors: Hurriyet Babacan, Allan Dale & Jennifer McHugh (JCU/The Cairns Institute)
Published: February, 2020
Population concerns have been on the national agenda since the settlement of Australia. Australia's national development has had a distinctive pattern of settlement across the continent landscape, presenting a range of social, economic, infrastructure, and environmental challenges for the nation. Population growth has differential impacts for metropolitan and regional/rural, and for inland and coastal areas. Population change been a core issue for the major cities in Australia: access to affordable housing, suitable employment, infrastructure, and services; managing growth and congestion within environmental constraints; and the political management of popular anxieties around urban diversity and consolidation (McQuirk & Argent 2011). For regional/rural areas, population issues have included outmigration of youth, declining population of inlands and fast coastal growth, demographic change including ageing profiles, environmental and economic challenges, workforce and skills shortages, service and business viability linked with population size and growth management. Population change and dynamics is seen as presenting both challenges and opportunities for the nation, differing across regions and locations.
Population change occurs through two mechanisms. The first is the natural rate of population which is influenced by fertility rates, mortality and longevity. Australia and Queensland have a declining fertility rate and an ageing population. Immigration is a major lever to influence population change. Australia has a strong immigration and humanitarian programs, with temporary and permanent migration. However, the attraction of migrants to regional areas has posed unique push pull challenges.
Queensland does not have an explicit population policy. There are a wide range of current policies in place that are relevant to population considerations. The main thrust of current Queensland Government policies relates to economic and jobs growth. The question facing policy makers is whether a kind of 'muddling through' approach to policy (Rothmayr & Saint-Martin 2011), aimed mainly at adapting to population trends in relation to other policy portfolios is an adequate approach. The formulation and implementation of a population policy will involve the different arms of government across different portfolios, linkages across jurisdictions and engagement with key sectors of the community.
Consultations conducted across a wide range of stakeholders in Queensland identified a range of issues relating to population including population decline, unplanned population growth, infrastructure challenges, workforce shortages, attracting migration, environmental concerns, housing, youth outmigration, ageing populations, service viability, liveability and a range of social concerns. There was an overwhelming support to have population policy for Queensland. The benefits of a population policy were seen as guiding economic and regional development, planned growth, infrastructure provision, protection of the environment and sustainability and appropriate service delivery. An additional benefit of a population policy is that it can articulate a long term vision of development. A population policy for Queensland will enable improved approaches to growth management in both metropolitan and regional areas that mitigate negative impacts of growth.
In light of the consideration of complex factors that inform a population policy and its implications for regional Queensland a number of recommendations are made:
Recommendation 1: That the Queensland Government consider the development of a placed- based State population strategy which sets a long term vision for Queensland. The policy should consider:
- Identified priority corridors (or regions) of population attraction and growth across the State
- Linkages of population with infrastructure, economic and service investments, aligning State Investment Plans with priority population locations
- Population attraction strategies into the priority areas
- Migrant attraction and settlement
- Mitigation of environmental impacts
Workforce considerations are critical to the future prosperity of Queensland. Future workforce trends, disruption and skills and labour shortages are an important part of a population policy. Addressing regional workforce and skills shortages entails a complex interplay of macro-economic trends, social and demographic change and local/regional influencing factors. It involves focused effort in identifying and addressing shortfalls for workers for a particular occupation and ensuring adequate supply of workers who are qualified, available and willing to work. Appropriate knowledge of industry needs at the granular level is critical. Joined up regional strategies for attracting and retaining people in the regions is needed.
Recommendation 2: Queensland Government develop a jobs and workforce strategy linked to an identified population strategy for metropolitan and regional areas, aligning jobs growth with population growth.
This would entail detailed knowledge of regional industry and workforce needs and integrated development of policy and strategy based on needs of each region. Strategies for retention of young people in the regional workforce, education and training options in the regions, school-work connectivity, understanding transitioning economies and disruptions to work, and understanding the nature of workforce and skills shortages are important considerations under this recommendation.
The long -term benefits of migration to the regions is acknowledged. There are significant benefits if skilled immigrants can be attracted to the regions and have the systems that are responsive to the economic and social conditions supported by improved policy processes (Productivity Commission 2016:41). In the context of regional labour markets, the concept of ‘matching’ the available supply of migrants and the workforce skill needs of regional Australia has long been recognised as a key element of effective population and labour market policy (LGAQ 2019). However, there is currently no systematic way for migrant workers to link up with rural employers, nor is there a systematic policy or integrated support mechanism to facilitate secondary migration away from metropolitan cities (RAI 2018:2). Queensland currently receives less share of permanent migration in the skilled migration category. Recognising new forms of temporary mobility and factors influencing contemporary forms of internal and international migration is essential to formulate effective policies for sustainable development (RAI 2015:9).
Recommendation 3: Queensland Government consider the development of a Regional Migration Settlement Plan with locally led migration strategies.
This Plan would need to be cognisant of economic, social and environmental potential of these areas to absorb any increase in population (Aust Gov 2017). It would also need to provide appropriate resources to support the development of ‘welcoming cities’ to enable appropriate settlement. It has been found that locally-led migration strategies have demonstrated their capacity to effectively overcome the barriers which are currently constraining the movement and settlement of migrants (RAI 2018).
Regions are dynamic and diverse with their unique patterns of development and change. In Australia, all three spheres of government are involved in rural/regional policy making. The system of governance influencing the policy landscape is ‘congested’ with a range of local, State and Australian government departments but also regional bodies, peak bodies and other relevant advocacy groups. The policy making takes place in a contested terrain of ideas, interests and power, woven in an intricate web of government, regional, industry and stakeholder relationships. While government agencies engage with population issues in the individual departments, no one agency has the wide scope of activity or brief to engage with totality of population matters or have oversight of how the population issues permeate across programs of all agencies. The need for more strategic, coordinated and less fragmented policy design and intervention are critical to the development a population strategy (Smith 2016, Pate el al 2016).
Recommendation 4 The Queensland Government develop an integrated policy architecture and appropriate institutional and governance arrangements to enable multi-dimensional and cross sectoral coordination in relation to cross-cutting issues in population policy.
This coordination should consider interface and integration of population policies with other policy areas including education, economic, health, environment and multicultural affairs. Place-based approaches to regional population policy development and implementation are fundamental. The best practice in rural/regional policy espouses a number of principles including strategic and coordinated policies with coherence, building on a region’s strengths and assets, recognising the diversity of regional aspirations, building capabilities of leaders, managers and institutions, encouraging connectivity, cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary, place based and devolved authority and resources (Eversole 2017, Productivity Commission 2017, OECD 2016, Smith 2016).