‘Sleeping giant’: Big issue facing Aussies

·3-min read
Regional Australia Institute chief executive Liz Ritchie says poor planning has contributed to Australia’s housing crisis. Picture: Bill Conroy
Regional Australia Institute chief executive Liz Ritchie says poor planning has contributed to Australia’s housing crisis. Picture: Bill Conroy

The housing crisis in regional and rural Australia was a “sleeping giant” caused by a long-term failure to adequately plan for population growth, an expert says.

Regional Australia Institute chief executive Liz Ritchie has urged policymakers to come up with a national population plan and warned that Australia wasn’t prepared for the record-high demand for country living it’s already experiencing.

The think tank’s proposal would involve a fresh, long-term strategy for infrastructure investment to ensure the country can properly accommodate a growing number of residents, with a better focus on regional planning to cater for both migrants and treechangers.

“Right now we know that we have never had a correct population projection. And that’s not a criticism,” Ms Ritchie told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

“It’s hard to do, but we can learn from the past and recognise that we need to project a lot higher than we have been because we’ve got one-in-five city dwellers that don’t want to live in the city anymore.”

Regional Australia Institute chief executive Liz Ritchie says Australia hasn’t properly planned for population growth.
Regional Australia Institute chief executive Liz Ritchie says Australia hasn’t properly planned for population growth.

Ms Ritchie said Australia was already “caught in a pinch point” by not having planned for the growth it had experienced and warned issues such as housing affordability and rental availability would only get worse without forward planning.

“If you looked at the housing, which we have at the RAI, it was a sleeping giant. It was going to happen at some point, but we were caught short,” she said.

“And we must learn from this experience.

“Today’s regional Australia is not a story of ‘build it and they will come’. They’ve already come, one-in-five want to come and we need them. All Australians and migrants should have the choice.”

Ms Ritchie warned that regional Australia faced a number of problems, including a wide disparity in healthcare services, as she noted the further inland one lived, the lower their average life expectancy.

She laid the blame on policy decisions she said had been shaped by decades of regional bias and mismatching investment by governments focused on the cities.

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Ms Ritchie has backed a proposal for a regional housing infrastructure fund. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

Describing the housing shortage as a particularly “vexing issue”, Ms Ritchie backed independent MP Helen Haines’ push to have the federal government set up a regional housing infrastructure fund.

Ms Ritchie warned that the Albanese government’s existing housing policies weren’t targeted enough, saying she’d like to know how many homes would be built in the regions with the returns from the slated Housing Australia Future Fund.

The $10bn investment vehicle is Labor’s centrepiece housing policy, but the government is yet to reach a compromise on the fund in its negotiations with the Greens, whose support it needs to pass the relevant legislation through parliament.

Ms Ritchie said the pandemic had given Australian decision-makers an opportunity to stop and realise they hadn’t been planning for the future or celebrating regional Australia.

“Prior to Covid-19, we didn’t feel we had permission to pursue the regional dream,” she said.