By Amma Buckley
Senior Research Fellow
Humanities Research and Graduate Studies
Curtin University, Perth, Australia.
Western Australia is the largest state in Australia covering the entire western third of the continent. It is the fourth most populous state representing 11 per cent of the Australian population. Ninety-two per cent of its 2.5 million citizens reside in the south-west corner leaving the rest of this vast state sparsely populated. Due to this population disparity, regional and remote communities in WA have experienced decades of comparative service limitations and poor infrastructure development. WA’s economy is largely driven by resources extraction and processing of minerals and petroleum, followed by agricultural commodities and a range of more marginal industries, e.g. tourism and aquaculture. Despite attempts to diversify, WA retains a largely mono-economy centred on mining resources, thereby positioning the state as highly susceptible to boom-bust mining cycles. Since 2014, WA has experienced a mining related economic downturn or bust cycle, impacting largely on the employment and housing sectors and limiting population growth.
As the majority of mining projects are located in regional and remote WA, the late 2000s – at the height of mining resource boom cycle – saw increasing calls to redirect government spending from the major population centres (mostly the Greater Perth Metropolitan area) to rural and remote communities, particularly those hosting mining and associated construction/service industries and workforces. What ensured was policy formulation of the Royalties for Regions (RfR) scheme, which enshrined in legislation a 25 per cent reinvestment of mining royalty payments to regional communities. Since 2009, RfR has become the cornerstone of regional policy and development in the state with funding provided to over 3600 projects and programs to facilitate economic, business and social development. The scheme has significantly benefitted regional WA through infrastructure renewal and service support, potentially allowing for the introduction of new industries and population increases in regional areas. It remains the only policy of its type in the Australian context. However, from the outset, the scheme has remained both controversial and highly scrutinised, particularly given its AUS$1 billion-a year regional spend.
In March 2017, the sitting Coalition government, engineers of the RfR policy, suffered electoral defeat. The newly elected government (Australian Labor Party) had as one of its electoral promises a review of the RfR scheme and commenced revising and reprioritising scheme funding post its election success. This has created considerable discontent in regional WA, particularly where RfR funded infrastructure projects were promised or in the pipeline. While the emphasis of the scheme has changed, there is no indication that it will be abolished under the new government. However its focus has now moved away from regional towns towards supporting the development and growth of particularly industries, e.g. tourism, agriculture, aquaculture and viticulture as a means of boosting regional employment and future economic diversity. The incumbent government has identified an initial focus on the agricultural sector and improving water quality and access as reprioritised RfR targets. Currently it remains too early to predict the direction of regional development and policy in WA under the new government.