Demographer Bernard Salt.
Demographer Bernard Salt. Mark Cranitch

What's needed for Mackay is bold, aspirational thinking

OPINION: In some ways, Mackay is the luckiest city in the luckiest country. And the reason why I say this is because of the city's geography.

Mackay sits on a pivot between the black coal reserves of the Bowen Basin and the insatiable energy markets of China and beyond.

And yet as recently as a generation ago Mackay probably regarded itself as a sugar town reorientating towards tourism and lifestyle.

Both agribusiness and tourism are still important to the region, but it was the liberalisation of China's economy in the 1980s that changed the trajectory and the destiny of Mackay.

My point is that you can have incredible plans for the future of an Australian city and region, but such plans can be superseded by a single political shift in a country with which we trade.

Australia is now, and will forever remain, a country whose prosperity is largely determined by our relationship with others.

If there is one skill that we Australians need to be good at, it's international diplomacy.

The Mackay Region including Whitsunday (Proserpine) and Isaac (Moranbah) contains almost 180,000 residents, up 28,000 over 13 years.

It was recently projected to add a further 25,000 by 2030.

Read more stories on Our Future Mackay

It could be said that Greater Mackay contains about the same number of people as does urban Townsville.

It could also be said that whatever infrastructure and services Townsville has, Mackay should be looking to acquire.

The numbers aren't strictly comparable since urban Townsville also services a vast region, but I think the principle of benchmarking Mackay with a slightly-bigger city is nevertheless useful.

Could it be that Mackay will be a city and region of 250,000 by the middle of the century? Perhaps China will be joined by India as yet another insatiable market for Australian resources and agribusiness commodities in the 21st century?

In such a world, Mackay shifts in its orientation from Brisbane to direct connection into Chengdu and Chennai.


Mackay has international seaports. Why wouldn't Mackay by 2030 have an international airport?

Is it possible to airfreight fresh produce direct from Mackay into China?

Is it possible to backfill flights with tourist traffic to the Whitsunday Islands?

And if Greater Mackay does have the same broad demographic composition as a tighter Townsville, then surely it is only a matter of time before Mackay ratchets-up its university and technical education institutions.

More training courses; more university education skills; more research and development facilities; more scope for university-spillover start-up businesses flourishing in the region.

It is instructive that the census shows there is an outflow of locals from the Mackay Region after the age of 18 - as indeed there is from most parts of regional Australia - but I think it should be the ambition of any proud and independent region of critical mass to be able to train and retain its own.

I'll even concede that it maybe necessary for local cafes to offer smashed avocado to retain Mackay's millennial cohort.

The future prospects of the greater region will still rise and fall depending on the market for resources and factors shaping tourism and travel.

Baby boomers retiring and travelling and holidaying "up north" are likely to be a source of income for Mackay residents for a generation to come.

But as the city grows and assumes critical mass, and increasingly makes its own connection with global trading cities, the region will lose its dependence upon any one industry.

I think Mackay and its attendant regions of Whitsunday and Isaac are indeed lucky, and in many respects represent a new kind of global Australian community proudly coming out of the regions as opposed to coming out of the capital cities.

I can imagine a time when Mackay connects directly with China and India and a time when local 18-year-olds don't think about drifting off to Brisbane, and who are excited about the local possibilities that lay untapped in the decades ahead.

All it takes is a little imagination, a pinch of self-belief and a bucket-load of bold and aspirational thinking.

Because that's precisely where I think that the lucky country's superbly located Greater Mackay Region can get to by 2030.

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