October 16, 2019

by Dafyd Martindale

I don’t want to talk our region down but I think it’s time to be honest with ourselves: the South Burnett is in strife. Real strife.

As we reported last year, our region’s population growth ground to a halt in 2014 and has shown no signs of recovery since.

As we also wrote in a separate report this year, our house prices have followed in lockstep, declining by an average 30 per cent or more over the same period.

The result is that we now find ourselves in a situation where almost every town in our region has empty shops peppering their CBDs.

And our 8 per cent unemployment rate – the same level it was back in 2013 – seems intractable.

But if that picture wasn’t already bleak enough, let’s not forget that we are set to be in even greater strife at some point from 2030 onwards (yes, as little as 10 years from now in a worst-case scenario) when the Tarong Power Stations and Meandu Mine shut down.

These inevitable closures will see us lose 600 to 700 high-paying jobs in a heartbeat, along with the estimated 2000 jobs from local companies that provide support services to Tarong and Meandu.

This will blow a hole in our regional economy so wide it will make today’s situation seem like a Golden Age.

But the root cause of all of these problems is fairly simple to see, and it boils down to a four letter word: jobs.

We simply do not have enough jobs to keep our children here when they graduate high school.

Nor do we have enough jobs to encourage new settlers to move to our region and set up home.

If we did, we would see our population grow; our property prices rise; our empty shops fill up again; and we’d neatly sidestep the economic train wreck rapidly barrelling down on us.

Some will say the drought has played a role in our current situation, and I’d be the first to agree it has had a big effect on the amount of money passing from farm gates to shopkeepers’ tills during the past few years.

We’re an agricultural region, and we’re firmly reminded of this every time our farmers have a bad season.

But droughts come and go, and in the past the South Burnett always managed to weather them without sliding down the slippery slope we now appear to be on.

So I won’t blame the temporary absence of rain for our troubles.

Instead, I’ll lay the blame squarely at the feet of our Council and its single-minded focus on roads to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Yes, fixing our region’s roads is important. And I’m glad to see it happen.

But frankly, it’s not our biggest problem in the scheme of things.

If we don’t start seriously addressing our jobs problem – and addressing it soon – it really won’t matter what condition our roads are in.

We’ll be just another failed rural region with most of our working population living on welfare.

But what role can Council play in this?

Well, quite a big one.

For a start, our Council sits on a land bank worth in excess of $50 million from which it could offer land at low (or no) cost to new industries wanting to set up here – an inducement no private sector business could offer.

Our Council also controls the policy levers that could see it offer other inducements – such as rate holidays – to encourage companies to move here.

Again, this is something no private business can do.

In addition, our Council currently sinks $800,000 a year of ratepayers’ money into an Economic Development Department to employ people whose full-time job it is to be going out and chasing down precisely the sorts of businesses we need to attract to the South Burnett.

That’s something no private business can do, either.

Finally, Council can catch the ear of the State and Federal Governments and call on them for assistance as well.

This is yet another thing no private business can do.

Now, you might imagine that finding big, job-generating projects is hard, and I agree it’s no easy task: almost every rural and regional area in Australia wants more jobs, too.

But it is certainly not impossible.

Take our near-neighbour Toowoomba.

In just three months, Toowoomba Regional Council approved three projects that in total have the capacity to produce thousands of full-time jobs.

One is a 70ha greenhouse farm that intends to harvest produce, pack it and ship it to Hong Kong on Wellcamp’s weekly freight flight.

Another is a different, marginally smaller greenhouse project that hopes to produce medicinal marijuana for the Australian and international markets.

And the third is a rural processing centre at Kalbar.

Just one project like any of these would wipe out our unemployment overnight.

And just two projects like this would have us standing on roadsides waving placards begging people to come to come and work in the South Burnett.

If we look north-east, Gympie Regional Council recently approved its third solar farm development for the Woolooga area in the past two years.

Leaving aside any other new industries Gympie may be drawing to its region, each of these solar farms by themselves will create 150-200 jobs for 12 to 18 months during construction, and between five and 15 full-time, permanent jobs once they’re built.

Gympie Council is also now exploring the idea of building an 1800ha industrial park at Kybong which could take as long as 40 years to fill up.

But as it fills, this park will create hundreds – and then thousands – of jobs.

Or how about our neighbours in the Lockyer Valley?

Several months ago they attracted a new jail that will bring 550 full-time jobs to that region – something long suggested but never delivered for the South Burnett.

Looking even further afield, there are now industrial estates all over south-east Queensland which have successful tenants who’ll need to move at some time in the future because creeping suburbia is now nudging at their edges.

Are we door-knocking them to see if they’d like to move to our region? Are we on the phone to the companies that build solar farms and wind farms to tout our wares? Are we aggressively looking for the next generation of agribusinesses to set up shop here and talking to the businesses that supply materials to these types of firms to get leads on who to approach?

So the question we ask – and it’s the same question everyone who shares our concern about this should also be asking – is … if not, why not?

The time to aggressively ramp up our industry-seeking (for which read: job-seeking) activities is not next month, next year or next decade.

It’s right now.

A decade is a breathtakingly short time to find industries that will take the place of Tarong and Meandu, let alone additional ones we need to get our population growing again, our properties rising in value and our empty CBDs filling up.

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