Nationals too dry

The Good Oil by Rod Brown*

The defection of National Party Senator Julian McGauran, and the tacit okay by the Liberal powerbrokers to his defection, suggests that the Nationals are not being taken seriously – hardnuts like McEwan, Anthony and Nixon would never have allowed it to happen.

A colleague of mine recently observed, over a few wines, that the Nationals have become captive to the Treasury philosophy, and have lost their point of differentiation with the Liberals. He reckons that as soon as a National MP becomes a Minister or a Parliamentary Secretary, the departmental heads get to work on them about the need for careful economic management, frugality, microeconomic reform and so forth. They become Mister Nice Guys, lacking the mongrel to push for their rural constituency.

There could be something in this – it might explain the slowness of the Pacific and Hume Highway upgrades, why the nation waits for the almighty private sector to build water pipelines, and why we watch the value being stripped out of regional Australia due to the market power of Woolworths and Coles. However, things are not always what they seem. Watch this space.

Off shoring of US research capability?

A very interesting article by Leonard Lynn and Hal Salzman has surfaced on engineering research centres in the US. They argue that American policymakers need a new approach to supporting innovation because many suggested reforms, such as increasing US public spending on basic research, fail to recognise key structural shifts in the global economy.

They contend that the US can no longer strive to be No. 1 in all research areas – instead it must assume a more collaborative stance that seeks opportunities for mutual technological gain and development.

As technology skills and knowledge become diffused around the world, US researchers need new skills that allow them to collaborate across borders. They recommend that training in collaboration and communication become a central part of all science and engineering training, with more open scientific exchange and R&D nodes across borders as well as immigration policies that allow greater circulation of researchers and scientific talent.

I contacted Lynn and Salzman to express thanks for their enlightening views, and to ask whether there was any political support in the US. The answer was ‘not yet’ but they are working on it.

I put it to them (and later to an Australian Government official) that there may be a window for Bush and Howard to come up with a ‘lighthouse project’ to get US and Australian companies and researchers to undertake more joint R&D here in areas where we have competitive advantage – medical science, tropical health, mining research etc.

Anyway, I got a positive response from the Yanks and a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ response here in Canberra. Perhaps I should’ve floated it with the CSIRO – it needs something to spark them up. See www.kauffman.org/ pdf/collaborative_advantage_ 12_05.pdf

Attracting new investment at local level

A good deal of our work is scoping up projects, preparing business plans, making submissions to government, advising local Councils and keeping abreast of the economic development literature.

Accordingly, I believe we have a reasonably good overview of how Councils can attract investment.

It’s best to think of three steps.

1. Developing the product
This step involves the mapping of industry capability and infrastructure, and identifying investments that fit the regional profile. There should be a clear consensus within Council of what are the community’s real competitive advantages, and it should also have a portfolio of preferred industries and activities.

Around 70 per cent of Councils would get a pass mark on this. The City of Playford (SA) and Albury- Wodonga have done world class work in this field.

2. Selling the product
This is the step where the majority of Councils are most active. However, there is a wide spectrum of performance – some is embarrassingly bad.

The best performers in my experience are Brisbane, Gold Coast, Geelong and Cairns. I rate them highly because of their full commitment, and they don’t hand pass it to the private sector or State or Federal officials. Sure, these are big Councils with the resources. But Cowra and Young in New South Wales are examples of smaller Councils stepping up to the crease.

The types of activities that a high performing Council undertakes are:

  • participation in outwards investment missions (structured to ensure they are not junkets)
  • arranging inwards investment missions and community familiarisation trips
  • running a professional and constantly updated website
  • offering packages of dollar value incentives
  • making face to face contact – and not relying on videos and CD-ROMs
  • being absolutely interested and proactive, such as fast tracking measures, phoning back within the hour!
  • getting well known faces to help market the region.

3. Connecting the players
The problem in bringing investments forward is to get people to share information and connect the right people. Simple as that.

Some people are anally retentive, or think a telephone is office furniture. I see countless examples of lost opportunities, especially in regional areas. The Victorian Government has concentrated on having very good regional managers to address this problem.

There is no shortage of investment capital, but it will not flow to the most deserving locations if there is information failure. These and other issues are covered at our ‘Making Canberra Work For You’ 2006 national workshop series. Contact us if you are interested in participating.

Death knell for single desk marketing arrangements

The corruption allegations surrounding AWB wheat sales to Iraq sounds the death knell for the monopoly position not just of the AWB, but for similar arrangements for other crops. Once trotted out as the vehicle for growers to leverage their purchasing power in international markets, the desk arrangements will come under intense pressure from the thought police here in Canberra.

Surely they will recommend that the wheat trade will be thrown open to competition, with ongoing monitoring by the ACCC. The huge salaries being earned by executives of these boards must also come under scrutiny.

Sea change

Interesting to see the sea change agenda building up some momentum. The latest report calls for Federal funding towards infrastructure to cope with the population growth. Hefty taxes on international visitors have also been mooted. Ho hum.

* Rod Brown’s Canberra based consultancy group, Australian Project Developments Pty Ltd, specialises in industry/ regional development and government liaison. For further information telephone (02) 6231 7261 or email apd@orac.net.au