In June 2016 voters in the regions of northern England stunned political commentators by their overwhelming support of the Brexit referendum. Many now call these regions 'the places left behind'.
Then in November of that year, American voters from the old industrial regions of the mid-west ended their historical loyalty to the Democrats and elected Republican Donald Trump as president. Political commentators were again stunned. Those outside thriving coastal cities, those most threatened by globalisation and the disruptions of the 21st century economy rallied in support of Trump's deceptive promise to make their places great again.
Ever since these two momentous elections, Australian commentators have searched high and low for the Australian equivalent of regions left behind, and their uneducated deplorables, as Hilary Clinton called Trump supporters, those ready to sign on to an agenda of envy and bigotry. Yet the Australian search has been rather fruitless.
In our recent federal election voting in non-metropolitan regions pretty much matched historical patterns with unusual shifts explainable by local candidates and exceptional issues. So what is different in Australia? The answer is, of course, a bloody lot.
In contrast with the north of England and the mid-west of the USA, Australian regions continue to grow wealth and jobs, and thereby face the challenges of globalisation and 21st century disruption with a degree of confidence. That's not to say that all is hunky dory in regional Australia, but let's come back to that.
The last Australian-wide recession was in the early 1990s. The nation is now in a third decade of continuous growth. And unlike regions in the UK and the USA, Australian regions have shared in national economic growth.
Jobs numbers are revealing. For the nation as a whole, the number of people in work between 1991 and 2019 rose by nearly 5.4 million, an increase of over 70 per cent. In the capital cities, jobs growth over these 30 or so years has been most spectacular in Brisbane and Perth, each with over 100 per cent growth, and then in Melbourne with 85 per cent growth. These are amazing jobs outcomes, the envy of advanced nations worldwide.
That Sydney's 1991 to 2019 jobs growth of 68 per cent looks meagre by comparison demonstrates how successful the Australian economy has been over this long period.
But in the rest of each state, jobs growth has also been significant. In NSW regions outside of Sydney, jobs growth from 1991 to 2019 has been 57 per cent; for regional Victoria 45 per cent; for regional Queensland a stunning 91 per cent; and for regional Western Australia a handsome 52 per cent. Even regional South Australia, with 22 per cent growth, and regional Tasmania, up by 20 per cent, are on the positive side of the ledger.
READ MORE: Tourists are looking for the experience
Four factors account for ongoing growth in Australian regions. The international competitiveness of broadacre-corporate farming and the mining industry are factors one and two. The third is under-recognised: the evolution of the regional cities as providers of high quality services to non-metropolitan Australia. The fourth factor is the rising skills base of our regions.
Unlike in the regions left behind in the UK and the USA, qualifications across the non-metropolitan workforce in Australia are improving. According to the federal government's Progress in Australian Regions Year Book, the proportion of the non-metropolitan workforce with a post-school qualification or holding a skilled job is competitive with the suburban workforce of the major cities; and, importantly, is growing.
Moreover, the rising level of skills in the cities within Australia's regions is suggestive of the successful pathway of coastal cities worldwide, and certainly nothing like what you see in the regions left behind in the UK or the USA.
In Geelong, for example, 67 per cent of workers hold further education qualifications or work in skilled occupations. In Newcastle-Maitland this total is 64 per cent. In Cairns it is 63 per cent. The equivalent ratio for each of outer south-west Sydney and north-west Melbourne is only 60 per cent. In other words, our regional cities seem better placed for the 21st century economy than many of our outer metropolitan suburbs.
But there is a caveat to this good news, as there always is. Thirty years of strong labour force growth and upskilling in Australian regions doesn't mean the non-metropolitan economy is robust or sustainable. Strong growth in corporate agriculture and export-oriented mining has occurred at the expense of the community fabric and economies of the smaller towns that underpinned Australian regional life for so long. A growing group of unskilled adults is neither learning or earning. Environmental damage is widespread, and increasingly irreversible. And, to the nation's great shame, there is continued rejection of the prior-ownership by Indigenous peoples of the land we now call regional Australia.
So a final comment. Good economic news must not disguise the need for a newly invigorated approach to regional policy in Australia. We are fortunate that we haven't replicated the disastrous regional outcomes of nations overseas. Our non-metropolitan places are not the homes of deplorables. Regional Australia is a delightful collage of diversity and thriving local economies.
Regional policy needs to build on this pleasantness, not take it for granted and place it at risk.
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University. Twitter @philliponeill