Poor fellow my country

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke was asked by Andrew Denton on the ABC’s ‘Enough Rope’ what advice he had for approaching life.

Hawke replied, “First of all is education, because education doesn’t finish at secondary school. Education is a lifelong thing, so keep learning, keep learning, keep learning.

“Secondly, helping others to develop their potential is just about the most satisfying thing that you can do. This is both the right and the good thing to do. Also it will make your own life more satisfying.”

It confirmed my respect for Bob Hawke. Indeed, I’d heard stories of him rolling up his sleeves when he was the PM, spending hours helping Pacific Island folks to nut out development strategies, while his minders looked on.

I’d watched Hawke over the years making similar efforts to connect the dots and to build organisational capacity.

Regional Australia needs exactly the same treatment.

Let’s first acknowledge the pervasive effect of the drought on regional incomes.

To its credit, the Federal Government’s GFC stimulus has saved many families’ sanity, and the infrastructure spending (roads, water, schools) has begun addressing the backlog. However, it’s necessarily top down and patchy, and doesn’t build the organisational capacity of regions.

Being kept on a drip feed due to top down program delivery doesn’t inspire a region to think ahead to shape its own destiny.

This is particularly regrettable given the lack of any concerted national effort to strengthen the regions.

If you think I’m being unfair, please explain why the Feds have gone AWOL on regional investment attraction and why funding for agricultural science is at its lowest point in 30 years.

So it was buoying last week when I picked up a book, Community Capacity Building, edited by Noya, Clarence and Craig (OECD, 2009).

It clearly explains what community capacity building (CCB) is and the importance of local leadership, increased local engagement, and local control over policy development, programs and program delivery. It also provides examples of empowering communities, of which Bob Hawke would be proud.

The OECD stresses that CCB does not happen by chance and that government must be prepared to cede power and to create the political space for communities to take greater control of their own empowerment.

This is strong language for a quasi government organisation!

We must give our regions some political space to take control – it means not having to rely on whether a Canberra bureaucrat can tick all the boxes on a funding submission, and not having to wait years to get critical infrastructure in place.

In some respects the regions have themselves to blame. They have entered a soporific state.

The Regional Development Australia apparatus is blithely accepted, despite it having neither clout nor money. Councils resign themselves to being the poor cousin. Small town mayors watch as their marginal economies dwindle further, feeding youth boredom and petty crime.

Except for Noel Pearson, no one gets angry because it might jeopardise their next handout. No one complains that the Federal Opposition has no semblance of a rural or regional policy.

My recommendation to councils is that YOU start to empower yourselves. Roll up your sleeves, build local leadership and get more assertive on wealth creating initiatives.

And read the OECD report – roughly $50 at www.oecd.org

Community Cabinet

The Community Cabinet meetings are an intriguing exercise.

Last month I witnessed 20 Cabinet Ministers file into the Norwood HS assembly hall. After the usual pleasantries, Prime Minister Rudd made a plea to the 300 attendees to keep the questions brief and then took 10 minutes to answer the first question!

But gee, you must admire his work ethic, grasp of detail and ability to string thoughts together. Howard was good at this too.

Interestingly, Rudd gave Health Minister Roxon and Water Minister Wong huge wraps, and they did perform well in fielding questions. Jenny Macklin was similarly sharp.

However, the main value is the 100 meetings held immediately afterwards, for example, when each Minister meets with small groups for ten minutes each.

My take home message is that Rudd takes these meetings seriously. And the big issues remain the environment, Indigenous affairs, health and education.

What’s your potential winner?

Every region and town can be good at something. The challenge is for the three spheres of government to work with the private sector to build local economic and social capacity. As espoused above, this is the policy debate!

Indeed, Tony O’Malley from Outlook Management, South Australia, who is an active member of our Cockatoo Network, observes that ‘the Treasurer is now discussing an international mercantilist policy designed to further concentrate the financial services sector in Sydney’.

Tony and I agreed that if it’s good enough for the Commonwealth Treasurer to start picking winners, then we should do likewise on behalf of the regions.

We have offshore partners actually looking to build international supply chains into Australia and want some contacts.

If you want to engage international interest in a particular economic activity, let’s hear it. I know of some rippers in Cowra, Baulkham Hills, Atherton and Victor Harbor. We will engage on your behalf.

In brief

  • Climate Change post Copenhagen – new program for announcement in May Budget.
  • ‘Productivity’ – the new buzzword in the Federal sphere.
  • Food labelling – mounting food imports and lack of consumer information will eventually trigger an inquiry.
  • National water network – not a pipe dream. Watch this space: check out the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline.

*Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction, clusters and accessing Federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network. He can be contacted at apd@orac.net.au or phone (02) 6231 7261. Go to our blog at www.investmentinnovation.wordpress.com for 550+ articles on issues relevant to Local Government.