INDEPENDENTS Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are gone from federal politics, but an organisation formed as a condition of their handing power to the minority Gillard Labor government is proving itself to be a worthy legacy.
The Regional Australia Institute began in late 2011 with an $8.5-million federal grant and has since picked up state and territory funding to continue its research and to advocate on behalf of regional Australia.
Its latest release, this week's Regional Population Growth - Are We Ready? The economics of alternative Australian settlement patterns, is described as the culmination of a series of reports on regional population trends.
The Hunter has some of the fastest-growing areas of regional NSW, but as the new report makes clear, regional growth rates across the nation lag far behind the expansion rates of our capital cities.
Based on university research, the report says that if present trends continue, Sydney and Melbourne will approach "global megacity status" by mid-century, while regional areas will experience "only modest levels of growth".
The figures it produces for the Hunter show this trend only too clearly.
On a "business as usual" scenario, Sydney is expected to grow from 4.7 million people in 2016 to 9.2 million in 2056. That's a virtual doubling of the population in 40 years.
Under the same circumstances, Greater Newcastle - including Lake Macquarie and stretching west to Branxton - will go from about 575,000 to 850,000, an increase of just 275,000 at half the growth rate of Sydney.
The report then models what would happen if four rates of change took place. Under the most regionally favourable of these, Greater Newcastle would more than triple its population to almost 1.9 million in 2056, with most of the extra growth coming from Sydney's outer suburbs.
Noting that workers in regional areas earn about as much as their outer-suburban counterparts but with cheaper housing and a shorter commute, the report says planners and politicians have paid too little attention to the potential benefits of a "more widely distributed" population pattern.
Historically, decentralisation has had limited success in Australia, but unless we can encourage greater growth in the regions, the future could be even more of a case of "Sydney and the bush" than it is today.
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