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On net zero and rural health, an open letter to rural and regional MPs

Moving to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is a chance to boost rural health by ‘renewing’ not just the way we produce energy and reduce emissions, but by creating an inclusive economy that supports future growth, greater self-reliance and a fair go for rural Australians.

That’s according to Mark Burdack, CEO of Rural and Remote Medical Services in NSW, who suggests an eight-point strategy for healthier rural economies and communities in the open letter to rural and regional MPs below.


Mark Burdack writes:

The triple whammy of climate change, COVID and changing trade relations with China is forcing a rethink about where we live, how we live and the critical role of health and wellbeing in economic and community resilience.

Mark Burdack

COVID and recent trade disputes have reminded us how reliant we are economically on the commodity sectors to maintain jobs and growth across the nation, as we also saw with the global financial crisis from 2007 and the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000.

As the world seeks an agreement to move to net zero by 2050, Australia cannot allow itself to be left behind or we risk punitive imposts on our economy and a world less climatically hospitable to commodity production, trade and human health.

We need to be an active party to the rapid shift to net zero, arguably pursuing a target even more ambitious than the current goal of 2050.

Rural Australia is once again being called upon to do the heavy economic lifting to ensure the success and prosperity of Australia into the future.

But rural Australia is facing an epidemic of chronic disease, suicide and avoidable deaths due to poor access to local health services and workforce.

We cannot reasonably ask rural Australians to do more without seriously addressing health inequality and the lack of access to local health services in our communities.

During COVID rural communities lacked the local staff to test and vaccinate local people, and the capacity to provide safe care in emergencies in their own towns.

Integrated strategic approaches

A short-term transition package for traditional industries will not be enough. We need a long term integrated approach to strategic adjustment that addresses the key challenges facing rural communities as part of a package of reforms.

This is where a more integrated approach to addressing the joint challenges of climate change, COVID and China could help to build rural economic capacity, stimulate new jobs development and provide a more sustainable base for health care into the future.

Australia’s economy has become increasingly vulnerable because of the concentration of population in a handful of cities, and the shift off-shore of our manufacturing base and value-adding industries to low-cost economies that do not have the same standards of environmental regulation.

Successive governments have encouraged Australians to live in more densely populated areas, piling more and more people into high-cost, high-rise developments in our cities which make disease transmission quicker and easier.

In 2021 we were also given a stark reminder of how vulnerable our supply chains have become.

COVID shut down transport and distribution networks around the world, the grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal halted a passage responsible for 12 percent of global trade, the cyber-attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the US disrupted fuel supplies, Brexit disrupted essential supplies to the UK and China’s defence measures have elevated the risk of supply instability across Asia.

Rural Australians must do their fair-share of the heavy lifting to achieve the global goal of net zero by 2050, but 2021 has shown that climate change is not the only risk to our economic future.

Population redistribution

We also need to transform our economy and rethink the spatial distribution of our population to reduce our economic vulnerability and ensure secure and sustainable supply-chains by making more things in Australia with our abundant raw materials.

This is an opportunity to address the climate crisis, build a more inclusive economy for all Australians and reduce Australia’s increasing economic vulnerability.

With the advent of fast broadband and faster transport networks, the rationale for urbanisation is declining. COVID has shown us how we can sustain and possibly improve productivity through investment in home-based work in the regions and give people greater opportunity to choose where they live.

COVID, climate change and China have highlighted the need to bring back local value-adding manufacturing capacity to ensure a sovereign capacity to supply essential goods, realise greater gains on our raw materials and create new opportunities to grow employment in rural towns.

This is a unique opportunity to address economic capacity and unemployment in rural towns, which are major social determinants of health, and to stabilise and grow rural populations to ensure sustainable rural health care services into the future.

The achievement of the global goal of net zero by 2050 is a chance for Australia to ‘renew’ not just the way we produce energy and reduce emissions, but to create an inclusive economy that supports future growth, greater self-reliance and a fair-go for rural Australians.

Invest

We need is long-term structural adjustment, not a short-term transition, that benefits all Australians and provides economic opportunity in rural Australia. We need to invest in:

1. A population strategy that places decentralisation, equity and regional economic development at the centre of future population growth.

We need to reduce the risks that arise from corralling the bulk of our population in major cities. This must support investment in population relocation incentives, industrial rules that make work-from-home a right where appropriate, and further strengthening the link between immigration and rural economic development. This should include an acceleration of the decentralisation of public jobs to the regions. Why is it that almost every rural health agency, and publicly funded rural health body, is located in major cities?  Relocating these organisations to rural areas will stimulate economic activity and employment and improve decision making around rural health.

2. A rural economic and employment activation strategy for every region.

This would identify competitive strengths and support the development of new rural value-adding opportunities in food manufacturing, aquaculture, minerals processing, pharmaceuticals, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and renewable timber products.

3. A rural R&D strategy.

This would ensure we invest in research on productivity, sustainability, resilience and environmental improvement, and the development of new value-added industry, in rural areas. Eighty percent of the billions we commit to rural R&D every year is expended in major cities. Bringing rural research to rural areas will make research more responsive to rural needs and create jobs and economic spin-off opportunities.

4. A rural energy strategy to leverage Australia’s abundant solar, wind and geothermal resources and hydrogen production capacity to support new industry growth in rural areas.

Energy is one of the major factors that industry looks at in deciding where to locate their factories and operations. Prioritising renewable energy is critical to reducing emissions, and prioritising local energy availability in rural locations will help to draw new business and jobs to the bush.

5. Local education delivering the skills that local industry needs.

When making business decisions about where to locate operations, industry looks for the availability of skills. A rural skills strategy aligned to the rural activation and growth strategy will require an investment in expanding industry-aligned education provision in rural areas.  We will not improve educational outcomes and attainment in rural towns, and therefore community health, if there are no local jobs for rural kids.  Creating jobs will make towns more vibrant, helping to attract teachers and giving kids something for which to aim.

6. A rural health strategy to guarantee rural primary healthcare centres in every rural town.

An integrated model of rural primary health care delivery by qualified NGOs in rural communities to support community health improvement, and attract population growth and business investment.  No young family is going to take up a job in a rural town unless they can be sure that there is a 24/7 health care service to deal with health and emergency needs.  Any strategy must prioritise strong and sustainable local primary health care services.

7. A rural passenger transport strategy.

A Federally funded electrified very fast passenger transport backbone mirroring existing inland freight rail line corridors would open up inland rural areas and provide a system that the States could use to connect major cities making access to work independent of where you live and giving all Australians a real choice about where to live.

8. A rural broadband equalisation strategy.

This would connect all rural businesses and homes to a fibre node to enable businesses to thrive, education to be delivered and services to be provided both to and from rural areas to other parts of the country.

Health benefits

You might ask how the above would add up to better rural health given only one of the measures addresses health directly.

But we know that addressing the social determinants of health such as unemployment and poverty has a bigger and more lasting impact on health than intervening when disease occurs.

Investing in sensible and sustainable long-term rural growth, aligned to areas of competitive advantage, will grow economic opportunity, educational attainment and do more to improve health outcomes than medical centres alone.

It will further strengthen, and diversify commodity industries on which Australia has always relied for its economic success.

The transition to an environmentally neutral emissions economy will mean the loss of jobs in traditional industries that sustain some rural communities.

Our net zero strategy needs to focus not just ameliorating the impact of action to address climate change on traditional industries but building back rural Australia better and stronger.


See our archive of stories about rural and remote health.

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