Opportunities to empower local communities

The Good Oil by Rod Brown*

Simon Crean, the Minister for the newly created portfolio, Regional Australia, aims to empower local communities to drive their own regional development investments. And he wants future Governments and Australians to change the way they look at the nation, and to think “regional”.

Crean is on record as saying he doesn’t want the usual top down approach.

He wants to entrench a formal structure in Australian politics where communities tell the Government what needs to be done, and how money should be spent. He says his role in Cabinet is to question every decision made in terms of the bush, and that his challenge is to better unleash regional Australia’s potential and to ensure that regions have a real voice in how the promised
$10 billion for regional Australia is actually spent.

Crean says his approach will be to end the pork barrelling, and genuinely empower communities to have a more effective voice in relation to their strategies to the issues that are important to them. He also wants to entrench regionalism as a voice for determining the way in which resources are allocated by all levels of Government and entrench it in a way that ‘cannot be unpicked’.

These are indeed noble aims, and it is incumbent on us to ensure he delivers. So local councils should be proactive by beginning to organise themselves to put proposals to the Gillard Government.

Outlined below is the state of play with its core promises, and some opportunities that councils might pursue in this regard.

Regional Infrastructure Fund

The $6 billion Regional Infrastructure Fund is NOT yet certain. It’s not scheduled to commence until 2012–13, and is dependent on the Resources Super Profits Tax being introduced – this tax is not a fait accompli because of the Coalition’s opposition to it in a knife edge political atmosphere. It should also be noted that the Fund is pitched to promoting development and jobs in mining communities in Queensland and Western Australia, although political pressure is expected to widen the coverage to other states.

Significantly for regional councils, an amount of $573 million is being set aside within the $6 billion for local projects as identified by Regional Development Australia Committees. This program hasn’t got a name yet, but it aims to unlock new growth opportunities in regional Australia.

Priority Regional Infrastructure Program

Of the remaining $4 billion, there is $800 million for a Priority Regional Infrastructure Program. This is reasonably certain because it is not dependent on the resource tax. It will fund projects identified by local communities in regional areas, and it will most likely be modelled on the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program (RLCIP).

Councils therefore need to be smart and committed, because the RLCIP was a very competitive program, and the success rate for submissions was around 30 per cent at best.

Health and Hospitals Fund

This involves a new round of the Health and Hospitals Fund (HHF), exclusively for Regional Australia ($1.8 billion). This presumably includes commitments already made in respect to the Hobart and Port Macquarie, and other hospitals.

The objectives of the HHF are to invest in major health infrastructure programs that will make significant progress towards achieving the Commonwealth’s health reform targets, and to make strategic investments in the health system that will underpin major improvements in efficiency, access or outcomes of health care.

Education Investment Fund

And the last big ticket play is a new round of the Education Investment Fund (EIF), quarantined to regional Australia (up to $500 million).

The EIF funds significant infrastructure in higher education institutions, research institutions and vocational education and training providers, to basically do smart things in knowledge generation and teaching, and enhance Australia’s innovation capacity.

The balance

The balance of the $10 billion promise is taken up with the oddly conceived Building Better Regional Cities program ($200 million to fund affordable housing to help attract workers to the select regional cities), a Critical Skills Investment Fund ($66 million for regional businesses and workers), reward payments to the most improved schools in regional Australia ($125 million), facilitation payments as part of a local school autonomy effort, plus a smattering of smaller programs.

Opportunities for councils

Councils in the bush can obviously benefit from the Priority Regional Infrastructure Program, although the bush has not yet been defined. We wait to see if this includes the infrastructure hungry growth corridors on the outskirts of the major cities. However councils should start now to scope projects prior to the preparation of submissions.

There are two reasons. First, best practice elements need to be woven in and this process requires research and bedding down. Secondly, the support of council and State Governments (and the private sector in some cases) will be required, and this can be tricky and very time consuming.

It should also be noted that the bulk of the Federal funding will be provided on a competitive basis, although multi council submissions involving collaboration should be favoured.

Councils should also think about how they can align regional stakeholders, align policy programs, and aggregate revenue streams. For example:

  • The National Broadband Network is going to be a can of worms, so councils will be well regarded if they facilitate projects that reinforce the NBN’s
    viability.
  • The urban/regional infrastructure interface is a continuing challenge. The Feds appreciate groups of councils engaging in this process.
  • Indigenous jobs and affordable housing are intractable problems. Is it feasible for your Council to get more involved?
  • Environmental management has a further lease of life, courtesy of the Greens. Can regional councils somehow facilitate more Indigenous employment in this field?
  • Multiculturalism and immigration issues play out at the local level. How can local projects employ new immigrants?
  • Youth training and job readiness are hot topics, and they relate to all of the above policy issues.

The Cockatoo Network is currently advancing a range of multifaceted projects. They include education centres, Community Lifestyle Centres, a film studio for the bush, stormwater systems that reduce carbon footprints, international collaboration in sustainable tropical industries, infrastructure that attracts private sector investment, and Indigenous mentoring.

If these activities interest you, please contact us, because councils can provide the necessary commitment and local leadership.

Workshops

Now more than ever, councils should be brainstorming their options and developing strategies to maximise your positions with the Federal Government. This is what we do. Please contact us for more details.

*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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