Ecotourism Opportunities to be tapped

The Good Oil by Rod Brown*

In recent months, I’ve been featuring regions with potential to build on particular competitive advantages. Let’s now dwell on Canberra, while also drawing lessons for other regions.

Like few cities in Australia, Canberra is both a beneficiary and a victim of perception. One version comprises marble, monuments and museums in the shadow of Parliament House, combined with great restaurants, clean air and a good lifestyle. The other version of Canberra is of too many politicians and public servants who are out of touch with the rest of Australia.

The truth is that very few politicians actually come from Canberra – you bred them! And the bureaucrats are only doing their job – even the Treasury and Defence officials I play golf with are very entertaining. But it’s certainly true that visitors to Canberra rage about the lack of road signage and the roads that meander nowhere. And the unkempt lawns, courtesy of crippling water rates, are also not a good look. And our night life and shopping doesn’t come close to that of Melbourne or Sydney. And we have freezing winters.

Three competitive advantages

But Canberra has some significant competitive advantages. First, it has a real sense of community. I suspect it’s linked to our modest population of 330,000 (including Queanbeyan). Since Canberra is a big country town, we get behind our local teams (Raiders, Brumbies, Canberra Capitals) as well as teams close by, such as the Sydney Swans. And our largely immigrant population (from Australia’s regions and overseas) also means the Canberra community is relatively open, tolerant and egalitarian. Contrary to popular perception, Canberra is not replete with ivory towers.

Another area of competitive advantage for Canberra is its history, education and arts and culture. This derives from the War Memorial, the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum, the New and Old Parliament Houses, the ANU, the diplomatic corps, the legacy of historian Manning Clark, and a phalanx of current and retired bureaucrats, teachers and academics.

However, Canberra’s third area of competitive advantage is hardly recognised. It relates to its ecotourism potential, including its potential to leverage its history, education and arts and culture.

Murrumbidgee ecoheritage tourism

An example of this hidden potential is the Murrumbidgee River Valley, where Canberra sits with the hamlets of Hall and Tharwa at the northern and southern ends.

In between there is potentially first rate tourism and education product viz, Mount Stromlo Observatory, Stromlo Forest, Cotter Reserve, the new Arboretum, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, Namadji Park, Namadji Visitor Centre, Outward Bound, Birrigai Lodge, Lanyon Homestead, Lambrigg Homestead (where Farrer conducted his wheat trials) and a part completed walking trail.

The problem is that the 2003 bushfire ravaged the area, Tharwa Bridge was closed for some years and the Murrumbidgee River has been a trickle. Recovery is now under way on all three fronts, but collaborative action is required to pull it all together.

To explain, I reckon every kid in Australia should have the opportunity to visit Canberra to round out their knowledge of our system of governance, our history and culture, and the futility of war.

But travelling and accommodation expenses mean that school visits to Canberra are mostly a fleeting experience. My best practice proposal is a week’s stay in purpose built lodges within the Murrumbidgee Corridor, enjoying outdoor adventure and education, indoor education, personal development and mentoring.

They would get occasional briefings from politicians, AIS athletes and community leaders, all vetted to ensure they are interesting and uplifting.

I ran the idea past a couple of agencies, using kids at Wilcannia School as an example. The folk involved with the National Capital Educational Tourism Project said a transport subsidy of $30 per head would apply. Whacko!

Another agency said it wouldn’t work because a week is too long in the context of school curricula, and the State education departments wouldn’t want to support anything in Canberra.

A third agency suggested there was merit in the idea, and to keep chipping away.

Well, I’d like to prove my cardigan wearing critics wrong. I figure we lobby for a two to three year trial program, to develop packages bringing groups of, say, 30 kids to Canberra from towns in certain regions, with subsidised packages to help the motivated teacher in regional Australia to get the show on the road.

And why the subsidy you ask? Well it’s about nurturing Australia’s youth, and it mustn’t be the preserve for the wealthy. There is a bona fide argument for financial support from the three levels of government.

Some possibilities:

  • Wilcannia and Walgett are priority towns in New South Wales under the Fed’s remote service delivery program; most of the kids are Indigenous
  • at risk children in Northern Adelaide and the Latrobe Valley
  • migrant children from western Sydney.

Not just for Canberra

While Canberra might be the initial focus, other regions also have potential to build more ecocultural capacity for week long packages. And there is a window for private sector investment in lodge accommodation.

We are pulling together a consortium of councils and service providers to finance a business plan, prior to lobbying for a trial program. If your Council is interested, please contact us.

Lifetime care for the disabled

Parliamentary Secretary Bill Shorten is talking up the idea of national lifetime care and support system for the disabled, and he is awaiting the Productivity Commission (PC) inquiry on the whole field, due in July.

My reading of the terms of reference is that the PC will be taking a pretty clinical look at things, and ‘compassionate’ issues like lifetime care won’t get much of a run. This will be a shame because life is tough for the disabled, not to mention their carers.

The better prospect might be the National Disability Strategy being released in the next few months. In this context, Local Government has first hand experience with the disabled, and hence the opportunity to leverage initiatives if they see fit.

To my mind, if Bill Shorten is talking about lifetime care, then certain councils might pursue what he actually means, and take things from there. It presumably means physical and mental health, education and training, work, leisure, aged care and so forth.

It was therefore interesting to note that in April in Madrid, European Union (EU) tourism ministers agreed to facilitate ‘the access to holidays to groups with impaired mobility or those who are socially and/or economically disadvantaged’.This is a most honourable and intelligent move.

Can we progress in the EU’s slipstream, because tourism and leisure surely fits within a lifetime support system in Australia. As previously mentioned, Victor Harbor is strong in aged care, and has the appropriate infrastructure to carve out a niche in tourism for the disabled.

I guess anywhere close to the major cities, where lengthy travel isn’t involved, is another requirement. The hosting of a disability conference might be the trigger? Contact us to chew the fat.

Lobbying the Federal Government

The lesson for local councils is that if they want to engage the Federal Government, then the Mayor needs to be writing to the Minister, and the issue needs to be big and bold, and aligned to where the Feds want to head.

Apart from the very senior officials, most are now basically program administrators. Terry Moran, head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has been exhorting Federal officials to be creative and take risks. Lots of chortling from the troops.

*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 apdcockatoo@iprimus.com.au or phone (02) 6231 7261.

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