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Published: 01 June 2022

Regional communities and food producers within the Murray–Darling Basin could reap significant rewards in the post-Covid world, a leading demographer told a national water conference today.

In his keynote address at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s River reflections conference in Mildura, co-founder and director of The Demographics Group Simon Kuestenmacher said regional towns close to capital cities were seeing strong population growth that could position them well as future economic powerhouses.

“An uptick in migration will help the city centres of regional hubs, with millennial families the biggest growth segment,” Mr Kuestenmacher said.

“The general trend in the Basin is for more rural and remote populations to decline while some of the bigger regional centres will continue to attract more people who are relocating both from big cities and smaller towns.”

Mr Kuestenmacher pointed to the stressors that Basin communities share which could act as barriers to the potential growth.

Across the board, house prices rose sharply. Just in the past 12 months house prices increased as below:

  • Albury-Wodonga +33%
  • Orange +30%
  • Wagga Wagga +24%
  • Dubbo +23%
  • Mildura +14%
  • Bendigo +10%
  • Toowoomba +9%

(Data from realestate.com.au)

He said high house prices make the skills shortage even more difficult to tackle.

"How can Basin businesses looking to fill low-income jobs attract workers when there is no affordable housing available?" Mr Kuestenmacher asked.

He cautioned that the skills shortage and housing shortage go hand in hand and could hinder economic expansion.

"There are some challenges on how you can attract the right workers to your region," Mr Kuestenmacher said.

"Housing affordability will need to be tackled on the supply side of things.

"It's crucial that local governments make enough land available for future housing developments. This needs to happen in a fast and unbureaucratic manner.

"State governments need to put sufficient funds aside for regional infrastructure upgrades.

"Private sector property developers are tasked with adding housing stock fast and at scale in regional growth hubs. This is of course difficult to achieve with the current skill shortage.

"Our workforce is transforming, with more highly paid knowledge workers and more low-paid workers, there are fewer middle-class and middle-income workers.”

In good news for the agricultural sector, Mr Kuestenmacher said he expected global food prices would continue to increase.

"Good money can be made here for farmers and food producers, however the cost of imports is steeply increasing.

"As the cost of doing business is only going up, businesses shouldn’t just try to tighten the belt and hope for costs to go down.

"The goal is to invest in quality assets and materials which will allow businesses to lengthen the replacement and renovation cycles.” 

Mr Kuestenmacher said another interesting demographic trend was that many regional centres were missing young people in their 20s and 30s.

"Young people leave regional towns to get educated in the big cities of Australia and only return to their hometowns when they have school-aged children and want to replicate their own childhood for their kids,” he said.

"The pandemic and the option for many workers to work remotely allows young families to act like retirees in the housing market.

"What I mean by this is that they can choose their place of residence based on lifestyle factors rather than vicinity to the inner-city employment hubs.

"Basin communities want to actively woo millennial families. Be loud and proud about your region, explain to potential new residents what life will look like.

"Work together as a whole community to ensure new housing supply comes online. Speak as one voice to state government to attract infrastructure spending into your region.”

The River reflections annual water conference is taking place in Mildura, Victoria on Wednesday, 1 June and Thursday, 2 June 2022.

River reflections provides the space and time for the diverse communities and industries of the Murray–Darling Basin to come together. It is an opportunity to share innovations in water management, knowledge and lessons learned while celebrating achievements.

Speaker background

Simon Kuestenmacher

Keynote speaker

Director and Co-Founder, The Demographics Group, Melbourne, Victoria

Simon holds degrees in geography from leading universities in Berlin and Melbourne and worked for several years as a business consultant with KPMG Australia. In 2017 Simon, with Bernard Salt, co-founded The Demographics Group. The group provides specialist advice on demographic, consumer and social trends for business.

Simon has presented to numerous corporate and industry audiences across Australia and overseas on demographic trends, consumer insights and cultural change in Australia. His presentations and quirky observations are enjoyed by groups from the financial services, property, government, education, technology, retail and professional services industries, among others.

Simon is also a columnist for The Australian and The New Daily newspapers; a media commentator on demographic and data matters.

In his spare time Simon runs what is by now the world’s largest Twitter account dedicated to maps and data. He has amassed 300,000 global followers, reaches over 25 million people every month and ranks as one of the world’s Top 10 influencers in data visualisation. If you’re not already following Simon on Twitter, he can be found @SimonGerman600.

Simon Kuestenmacher, leading demographer speaking at River Reflections 2022

Simon Kuestenmacher, leading demographer speaking at River Reflections 2022.

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