Not all small towns will boom: summit

·2-min read

The people of Baradine, a small farming town in northwest NSW, are always cheery.

It's an observation former Labor minister Craig Emerson has heard about his home town, which captures the outlook of its 783 residents.

"They know they're not going to become a big town with 20 or 30,000 people," Dr Emerson told the Regional Australia Institute national summit in Canberra on Wednesday.

An economist who held the finance, skills and trade portfolios under the Rudd-Gillard governments, Dr Emerson said regional areas should build on their existing advantages, not grow for the sake of it.

"The small country town I come from will not be a big, booming regional centre," he said.

"When we talk about regional Australia, we shouldn't over-engineer it.

"Country towns and regions have a natural or acquired comparative advantage or they don't."

The summit has drawn leaders in economics, health, education and local government to discuss how 1.5 million more people can live prosperously in the regions by the end of 2032.

Dr Emerson said people looking to move to the country often made choices based on the availability of quality healthcare and education.

"If you have the social infrastructure, you're starting to get things moving," he said.

"The Commonwealth or states can't just say 'let's get a pin and we'll stick a hospital here and there and everywhere'."

Accelerating citizenship for migrants who move to regional Australia could support growth, Dr Emerson said.

Griffith, in the NSW Riverina, and Warrnambool, in regional Victoria, are examples of communities that have embraced migrants.

"They needed workers in the abattoirs in Warrnambool, so they reached out to the Sudanese community," Dr Emerson said.

"It's a great success story because they had the advantage in beef.

"It is a matter of looking for the advantage and then capitalising on it instead of just trying to create a policy."

Commonwealth Bank chief equities economist Craig James said it was an interesting time for regional Australia, with record low unemployment rates, record high job vacancies and a predicted agricultural boom.

"Regional Australia has real momentum. Job markets are tight, housing markets remain in good shape," he said.

"We need more migrants and more incentives to move to the regions."