Rural ties a link to prosperity
Did you know that all nine rural regions of WA are growing? If you're surprised, then you're probably not alone. As we prepare to celebrate WA Day, I have the impression that many West Australians think it is doom and gloom in our regions.

Did you know that all nine rural regions of WA are growing? If you're surprised, then you're probably not alone. As we prepare to celebrate WA Day, I have the impression that many West Australians think it is doom and gloom in our regions.

I'm pleased to be the bearer of good news. Our regional areas are developing and some parts are growing so strongly, they struggle to keep pace with demand for services and infrastructure.

So if you're surprised, ask yourself these questions. Do you know the regions of our State? Have you visited? Do you know anyone who lives out here?

If you answered no, it tells me two things. First, you're not alone, and second it's the reason the disconnect between Perth and the regions is getting worse. My great fear is one day this lack of understanding is going to hurt WA and we will all be worse off for it.

Let me elaborate on those statistics. Our fastest growing regions, Peel and the Kimberley, grew 4.9 per cent and 4.6 per cent respectively in 2012-13. That's much faster than Perth's population growth of 3.5 per cent. Significantly, no region is declining, though individual communities within regions are evolving differently.

Even better, regional growth picked up last year, so it's not just about the mining investment boom, but ongoing strategic growth drivers.

Not enough people in metropolitan areas seem to understand that our regional areas pretty much earn the first dollar of nearly all commodities that WA exports.

The regions are where each commodity is grown, harvested, mined or extracted.

One of Perth's economic roles is to add value to that first dollar and earn more dollars by creating secondary and tertiary industries, primarily in the service and value-adding sectors.

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So why does it matter if you live in Perth and don't know much about the rest of WA?

It's straightforward. Governments create policy by listening to people and their concerns. When most of the community doesn't understand what happens in the regions, then government policy is not going to be very supportive, no matter how vital we are to the city's economic wellbeing.

Effectively, we will all suffer when we don't understand how our State works.

Regional policy really matters to everyone in WA. When a former Federal minister didn't understand the agricultural supply chain, he made a decision to shut the live export trade without understanding the knock-on impacts. The Australian beef industry is still recovering from that snap decision and it cost our business half a million dollars even though we only supply fodder.

This lack of understanding also leads to endless discussions about why we need Royalties for Regions program.

For me, the imperative is not about creating equity of services and infrastructure, it's about ensuring we build capacity to keep earning that first dollar. I don't expect metropolitan level services but I do want the conditions in which I can grow a globally connected business.

The disconnect between the city and bush is the worst it has ever been. Very few people have relatives in the country any more. People don't have the same opportunity to visit rural areas, so it's harder to understand.

People go to Bali for a holiday, not a farm. The disconnect will keep getting bigger as fewer city kids have significant rural experiences that they can relate to later in life.

It will ultimately cost Perth if we can't explain the link between what happens in the regions and the city. The regions need to reconnect so that we can explain why we need investment, without it sounding like a whinge.

All our regions have recently developed blueprints that are growth and development plans. They give a clear picture of how regional growth is going to occur in the next 20 to 30 years.

The regions want to play a major role in driving the State's economy and the blueprints show how the regions will do that by capitalising on growth in key markets in South-East Asia.

It's estimated that the current surplus food production from Australia can only feed about 40 million people.

So we are not going to be the food bowl for all of China. However, we will fill important niches with the quality of our produce. An example is noodle wheat, which is a clean, green product that we can add value to.

Closer trading links with Asia will make our rural communities more global. My guess is that within a couple of decades a lot of country people are going to speak some level of Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, and will have direct trading relationships with South-East Asian countries.

To successfully earn our first dollar we need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively. Yet digital services in rural areas are a complete joke. It's holding back our businesses and the State.

My satellite internet is so congested we lose access for hours a day, and I only have mobile coverage about 15 per cent of the time as I drive around the regions. I believe the internet speed is better in rural Africa than on satellite NBN.

Now if there is only one thing that people in the city can understand about rural areas, it is how frustrating and unproductive it is to have abysmal communications services. It's a good example of how if we can get the Perth community to understand the problem and how it ultimately affects them, it could help drive investment that benefits us all economically and socially.

It is important this article is not seen as a whinge from the regions, but a call to reconnect.

In most communities, the spirit is high. We don't talk enough about how great it is to live in a regional area. Too often our lives are the portrayed in the media through cliched stories of drought-hit farmers suffering a bad season. I think we've moved beyond that and we need to tell our 21st century story.

So that's my challenge to people in Perth. Get to know us in the regions. We want to work with you, so we can turn that first dollar into wealth for all of our communities and families. Learn what we're about, and be ready to turn our first dollar into a second one.

Sue Middleton is a Wongan Hills farmer and former Australian Rural Woman of the Year

The West Australian

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