Call for more of the population to live in the country

LEADERS: Mayor Leon Stephens, second from left, chats with Clare McLaughlin, Brett Benbow and Regional Australia Institute's Dr Kim Houghton.
LEADERS: Mayor Leon Stephens, second from left, chats with Clare McLaughlin, Brett Benbow and Regional Australia Institute's Dr Kim Houghton.

Representatives from the Port Pirie, Whyalla and Port Augusta councils are pressing for changes to federal government policy with the cities strongly represented at a national summit hosted by the Regional Australia Institute in Canberra.

More than 250 delegates took part in the first Regions Rising summit which included presentations from Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, Regions and Decentralisation Minister Bridget McKenzie, Opposition regional development spokesman Stephen Jones and Opposition infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese.

The forum was backed by industry experts and academics including Peter Strong from the Council of Small Business; Kate Carnell, the Small Business Ombudsman; economist Dr Nicholas Gruen; John Salerian, from the Productivity Commission; Gabrielle Chan, journalist and author or Rusted Off; Dr Denis Napthine, chairman of the Expert Panel on Rural Education and Mark Diamond, from the National Rural Health Alliance.

Discussion covered a range of issues facing the country including lack of skilled workforce in both the private sector and public service roles such as health and medical professionals; disparity in higher education rates; disconnection between central policy-makers and regional communities and the need for a more tailored approach to improving liveability and amenity of regional centres.

Spencer Gulf Cities chairman and Port Pirie Mayor Leon Stephens said the summit had shown the myths that are perpetuated in the capital cities, including that there are "no jobs in the country".

"As Opposition regional development spokesman Stephen Jones pointed out, regional Australia doesn't have a jobs crisis, we actually have a skills crisis," he said.

Mr Stephens said one of the most exciting initiatives coming out of the summit's workshop sessions was the idea of a national population target of having half of residents living outside capital cities.

"It would force governments to be pro-active about growing our regions and to have the conversation about what this would look like, which areas are defined as regional and, importantly, how to achieve this target," he said.

"As the Regions Minister, said - why should it be that 80 percent of the population lives in the biggest four capital cities? A regional population target would reframe every policy and government decision."

Port Augusta Mayor Brett Benbow and Whyalla Mayor Clare McLaughlin said the forum had highlighted that the Upper Spencer Gulf was already tackling some of these issues.

"We are on the cusp of an amazing economic and social transition for our region, but we are not over the line yet and we cannot do it alone," Ms McLaughlin said.

"It will take a strong partnership across all levels of government and a strong voice for our region in the next parliament."

The summit came after the release of the Spencer Gulf Cities federal election strategy.