Tuesday, 30 June 2020

COVID-19 has delivered the silver lining of kick-starting a revolution in how we view the feasibility of growing regional Australia.

Rolling out the Morrison Government’s Covid-19 tracking app meant Telstra had to hit the fast forward button on allowing text messages to be delivered via wi-fi even if there is no phone reception.

This is a major breakthrough for regional and remote communities and means people can more effectively run their properties and businesses, not to mention stay in touch with loved ones.

People in the Outback don’t require an advantage, they only require a level playing field, and this is one step towards levelling that playing field.

Communications connectivity opens the door to further enhancements for business, telehealth, education and agriculture.
The other major consequence of coronavirus has been the realisation that many businesses operated quite effectively with their staff working remotely.

Meetings were conducted online, instructions were emailed or phoned in, and people had to learn how to use web-based drive applications to share large files.

Stocks in the online meeting platform, Zoom, have nearly trebled in value from six months ago and are now worth more than many oil companies.

While the power of the internet – and its potential power – has been known for decades, society has still persisted with the archaic notion that businesses have physical offices and that staff have to travel each day to those offices.

If the head office of a major company is in Brisbane, then it follows that all its staff must be based in Brisbane and they must all cram onto trains and buses, or clog up the roads with their cars twice each weekday.

When I first moved from Outback Queensland to Brisbane for university, I spent many nights wishing I could be back in my beloved Cloncurry – in the Big Sky Country – watching the stars on a crystal clear night as cattle casually grazed.

Sitting in city traffic jams just confirmed to me that people in the regions really don’t have it too bad.

The only rush hour in most small towns is when the local show, rodeo or races are on.

But like so many other regional kids, I had to move away in the hope of getting a degree and then a good-paying job.

Often, this move is a rite of passage for country kids where they get to experience the “big smoke” and obtain a broader worldview.

But getting them to move back to their home regions is always the issue.

This “urban drift” as it is known, has resulted in rapid population decline in smaller regional towns – and smaller populations mean fewer businesses and fewer jobs, so even more people have to move away.

Regional Australia is where we build the nation’s wealth, it’s where you build your own prosperity and a family. But when we level the playing field for education and medicine, we allow families to stay and build a life.

This is good for our families, and it’s good for the regions, but most importantly it adds to the depth, capability and capacity of Australia as a nation.

Given that we know Western Queensland is not supplied STEM teachers it will be interesting to see if Education Queensland can be flexible enough to take up the idea of having – for example – a physics class where the students of smaller schools can be dotted all over the state but still have access to those specialist classes.

If you’re a kid in Winton and you’ve been inspired by the nearby Dark Sky Sanctuary but you don’t have access to the subjects required to learn astronomy, you’re denied the same opportunity as kids in the cities.

Helping kids like these is not giving the regions an advantage, it’s simply giving the regions a fair go.
I want to applaud Councillor Andrew Martin, Mayor of Tambo-Blackall in Western Queensland, for the work he has done to access the capability of internet technology for remote areas.

For an investment of about $1 million of Federal money, people in that remote area are achieving amazing download speeds.

My hometown of Cloncurry is now investigating this technology which is a massive gamechanger for remote communities that doesn’t cost too much.

By far the biggest asset the regions possess is its friendly and caring people.

The liveability of regional areas has always been a drawcard, but urban drift and old-world thinking continues to mean there are more removalist trucks heading south-east than are heading north and west.

Why do we need people to be in an office?

Convenience is one reason – having everyone in one place makes supervision and collaboration easier.

Socialising is another. One of the main gripes from people working from home is that they have missed interacting with colleagues.

Other people have well-established routines such as stopping in at their favourite coffee shop on the way to the office, or grabbing milk and bread on the way home.

These are all worthy considerations, but if people were willing to work remotely, there now appears to be no hard requirement for them to live in the area their office is.

This opens up huge potential for people to move to or stay in the regions while working for big-city companies.

People really can have the best of both worlds.

Another factor that discourages people wanting to move to the regions is access to specialist healthcare, but another silver lining of the virus crisis is that telehealth via phones and the internet was thrust to the fore and is now poised to be very much mainstream.

Not only are GPs and specialists able to consult remotely via video calls, the Royal Flying Doctor Service has professionals providing telehealth consultations to rural patients and healthcare workers 24-hours a day by phone, radio and video conferencing.

Key to this seismic shift in regional liveability is fast, reliable and cheap telecommunications – something the Morrison Government is committed to facilitating.

We are also ramping up funding to train more rural generalists who are GPs with specialist qualifications.

This means they can deal with day-to-day conditions as well as paediatrics, obstetrics, anaesthetics and critical care at people’s homes, online and in their surgeries.

The private sector is also pitching in with amazing innovations that will only enhance the medical options open to people in regional and remote areas.

I recently toured the WearOptimo facility in Brisbane where I learned about a virus and disease early detection device, using pain-free sensors attached to the skin that access biomarkers and biosignals, making disease monitoring more precise and efficient.

WearOptimo is developing technology that can even detect which COVID-19 patients are most likely to develop a severe form of the virus and subsequently need a ventilator and intensive care treatment.

The patch-like sensors measure fluids as a marker of disease generally, and as a further example, can be used in the detection of real-time heart attacks and hydration levels.

Imagine if you live in Charters Towers and simply apply a patch that transmits data to specialists in Brisbane who could accurately diagnose your condition and advise treatments?

Previously, people in the Cape and in the Outback would have to fly at great expense, inconvenience and discomfort to bigger cities for this sort of procedure.

Regional Australians have always battled the tyranny of distance, but technology will overcome this.

In fact, it must overcome this so we can reinvigorate our country towns and encourage more people to embrace the amazing lifestyle available in the sparsely populated North and West.