In this election year, more than anything, what Australians are looking for most is certainty.

They want security of employment, a chance to build wealth and every opportunity for their children.

It’s a statistical fact that securing all those things can be more difficult for those of us who live outside our capital cities.

Unless government is content with the idea of an even greater share of our population living in the capitals, it needs to have clear and coherent strategies to retain — if not grow — regional populations.

Every town exists for a reason: a key point on a railway line, on the highway before the bypass was built, where miners entered the dark underground or where gold was won.

Others were selected by our early explorers for their rich endowment of water, productive soils, forests or seafood. Some are simply a natural inland extension of another; others found wealth in food manufacturing.

Sadly, many of these townships have lost their main source of economic activity: the coal mine has run its course, the timber mill closed, the manufacturing plant no longer is competitive, the railway long ago became a relic, or climatic conditions have made farming harder.

These towns too often have fallen into dynamic decline. That is, with the demise of the primary local employer, those who can go elsewhere seeking work do so, leaving those who have retired or who hold limited skills behind. This has too often been the story of rural Australia.

Of course, it’s not the only story — many rural and regional communities are thriving on new opportunities and innovations driven by the private sector and strong local leadership.

This last point is an important one — work by Regional Institute Australia has identified the quality of local leadership as a key difference between regions that have done well and those that continue to underperform. But the regional communities can’t do it all on their own.

They need the help of government: infrastructure and assistance getting projects that will drive future economic activity off the ground.

Most aren’t asking for handouts, just a recognition that sometimes an early leg-up is necessary to secure success which, in turn, saves government money in unemployment benefits and delivers government tax revenue.

Former Labor governments have recognised this with a dedicated regional development minister, the establishment of Regional Development Australia and a dedicated think-tank in the form of Regional Institute Australia.

Further, it made sure infrastructure projects were funded on merit and on the recommendations of Infrastructure Australia.

Let’s hope 2016 is the year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demonstrates a capacity to gaze beyond our capital cities and an ability to focus on our regions by recognising there is a role for government in driving greater success in our regions.

And while Mr Turnbull contemplates a replacement for his former Minister for Cities, why not a minister for rural towns?

This article was first published in Weekly Times on Wednesday, 6 January 2016.

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