OPINION

Respond to need and build back better

Confronting crises: Material and financial help will help us respond to the challenges of drought, fire and pandemic.
Confronting crises: Material and financial help will help us respond to the challenges of drought, fire and pandemic.

If there's one thing that regional Australians do well it's getting through challenges.

This year has served up quite a few already, from bushfires and floods through to the creeping impact of COVID-19.

The virus is seeping its way across the country like a very slow but inexorable flood, and one where we don't know the landscape well enough to know where it will reach next.

Responses to each of these challenges are building momentum, with material and financial help being made available.

The Federal Government has announced its economic stimulus package, to help deal with the significant challenges posed by the spread of the coronavirus, which includes help for employers to keep workers on, and help for industries in regions particularly affected by the virus.

This will be welcome in regions affected by other disasters as well.

Amidst the urgency of getting help out, it's been heartening to see rapid improvements to bushfire assistance coming from the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

It is this kind of responsiveness that will make or break the regional impact of the help on offer.

No-one gets the design of this right first time.

Fine tuning is the key to help that actually works.

It is vital for the future of regional Australia that we are able to really tap into this help to see our regions "building back better" in the words of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Building back better means responding to local and regional needs.

The last thing regional Australia needs at the moment is hastily planned capital works that don't advance regional aspirations.

Involving communities in how this help is used is critical.

The results are better when the community has a say.

The last thing regional Australia needs at the moment is hastily planned capital works that don't advance regional aspirations.

A great example is the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre, a new facility to nurture business innovation in the Mallee, based in Mildura and supported by the Victorian Government through its Regional Partnerships program.

This program enables each of the partnership regions to have major influence on the nature of the Government's regional investments.

The program is a bold experiment, giving communities greater say, but also greater responsibility in determining what's funded and where it goes.

The Mallee Regional Innovation Centre grew out of identified and demonstrated community needs, and the community's desire for medium and longer term solutions to business challenges.

It's not a short-term fix, but it's an asset which will grow in influence as entrepreneurs, technologists, scientists and educators work together to refine, commercialise and disseminate innovations across the region.

It's a great example of an asset built while looking to the future, the medium and long term future imagined by the people in the region who are there for the long haul themselves.

What would this regionally-owned approach make of the next wave of help that's coming, the Federal Government's stimulus package, or those being crafted by each of the States?

I think there's a high chance that we'd see more non-infrastructure assets being highlighted - not just roads and bridges, but improvements in underlying services, and in particular their usability.

Connectivity is a big concern for most regions, and with this round of help there's a chance we could move beyond the very real challenge of availability, and stretch into the practical end of useability.

We'd see a step change across regional Australia if remote work was not just made possible through reliable broadband, but supported through employers large and small.

We know that COVID-19 will have an increasing impact on regional Australia in coming months.

If one of the responses was to ramp up the availability of decentralised working across the country, we'd got a long term boost as well as a short-term fix.

That's what building back better looks like to me.

Dr Kim Houghton is Co-CEO Regional Australia Institute.