Regional Development Australia Fund Mark 2 - The Good Oil by Rob Brown

Major changes have been made to the operation of the $1 billion Regional Development Australia (RDA) Fund. It's now a two stage process – first you need to provide an expression of interest (for round two, it was 1 December) to your local RDA Committee, of which there are 55 around Australia. The RDAC then advises successful EOI applicants about five weeks later so they can proceed to prepare a full submission. Each RDAC is limited to putting three submissions forward to the Department.

As I indicated a few months back, there were some 550 submissions in the first round and a 6 per cent success rate because of no control on what went forward. So this has been fixed. My advice now is to get close to your local RDA Committee, think best practice, harangue the department for decent feedback if you missed out in the first round, make sure you have a strong funding cocktail, and use the Cockatoo Network to develop your angles!

Regions in Transition

This is worth tracking. Simon Crean and his RDA Department are quietly establishing a Regions in Transition Program to cater for regions undergoing significant structural adjustment. Our friends in Tasmania are first cab off the rank. Bill Kelty and Lindsay Fox are heading up a consultative committee to get Tasmania moving into new industries to offset the forestry cutbacks.

The process is quite smart. The feds are offering $120 million (over 15 years!) towards five or so priority sectors identified by the locals. Kelty, Fox et al are helping to identify the sectors which are being fed into a matrix. The other axis comprises functional areas such as skills (responsibility of DEEWR); smallish infrastructure (RDA); research (RDA); and business development support (DIISR). The dollars will then be rolled out according to the activities highlighted by the matrix.

The other regions are Gippsland (due mainly to the carbon policy), Illawarra (due to BlueScope Steel's woes), Murray-Darling Basin (drought and water entitlements) and Far North Queensland (presumably due to the GFC, high aussie dollar and lack of international tourists).

I understand the Department of RDA will be running inter departmental committees (IDCs) in Canberra to lock other departments into the priorities identified in these regions, while the Transition Committees in each of the regions lock in the states and local councils. Sounds neat.

LinFox is a first mover

Lindsay Fox comes across as a bit of larrikin, but he must run his trucking business well. I drive to Sydney regularly and 90 per cent of the trucks are doing 115–120km/hour in any kind of road or weather conditions. Star Express is one of the biggest culprits. The maximum speed for trucks in all state is 100km/hour, but Victoria seems to be the only mainland state that polices this stuff.

Anyway, LinFox trucks invariably keep to the speed limits. Good on ya Lindsay.

IEDC conferences

Last month I wrote about how to mix work and pleasure on your next overseas trip and get the Tax Office to help defray your expenses. You need evidence of course, and also check with your tax adviser!

I said I'd point you to some worthwhile overseas conferences. A really good one is the International Economic Development Council's annual conference, the next of which is being held in Houston Texas from 30 September – 3 October 2012. The IEDC is headquartered in Washington and its membership is mainly the US and Canada, although a few Australian councils and REDO executives attend. The strength of the IEDC for Australians are its marketing, investment attraction and presentational activities.

Texas must be popular because it is also hosting the IEDC Leadership Conference in San Antonio from 29–31 January. This conference is restricted to organizational leaders in economic development organizations and certified economic developers. Go to http://www.iedconline.org.

The Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government – a veritable mouthful

This has got to be the silliest, bureaucratic departmental title on the planet. The women on the switchboard tell me they must use it – I prefer the 'RDA Department'. Surely local government isn't that insecure that it needs a Department with its name on it?

Anyway, the Department of RDA is pretty important now, thanks to the independents. It acts like a central agency because it coordinates a lot of issues across portfolios i.e. ensuring that other departments pay attention to Australia's regions. The Department actually sits legally within the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, which isn't widely recognised. As a result, a lot of the new staff are coming in from PM&C – most of them seem to be generalists without much knowledge about regional issues. But they are invariably city-bred, bright and very well qualified.

I believe councils are duty bound to widen these officials' horizons by finding opportunities to invite them to the regions.

Let me explain. A few years back when we were running investment attraction workshops around Australia. I had some AMP, Macquarie Bank, Commonwealth Bank and federal officials along to explain to regional folk what they look for when funding regional infrastructure.

We stopped at Birchip (between Ballarat and Mildura) for a coffee and sausage roll. One of the team lived on Sydney's north shore. Another was from Canberra, Neither had ever been to the Mallee. We were sitting in the gutter drinking our coffees, looking across at the CWA Hall with crows overhead doing Graham Kennedy impersonations. The newcomers to the Mallee were gobsmacked at the isolation and lack of amenities. I pointed out that Birchip was a famous old town and was home to the Birchip Cropping Group, one of the most progressive agricultural networks in Australia. It didn't cut much ice I'm afraid. Over to you folks!

Manufacturing Taskforce

The Gillard Government's new Manufacturing Taskforce, announced at the Future Jobs Forum in October, is designed to 'map out a shared vision for the future of Australia's manufacturing sector and help strengthen local firms as they adapt to changes in our economy, including the rise of Asia. We want to see the sector move up the value chain…and build the skills and innovation that the sector needs for a new era of manufacturing.'

Nice sentiments. I truly hope the Taskforce does deliver. Councils in manufacturing regions should be making inputs into this process. I can think of 20 councils that should be highlighting the need to build localised capacity to support manufacturing precincts and clusters e.g. (NBN roll-out, business incubators, skills centres, design nodes, investment attraction portals, export infrastructure) smart infrastructure.

Asia's clusters

Speaking of clusters, Professor Brian Roberts has just alerted me to his latest book, which was described by a cluster expert in Hong Kong as a pioneering piece of work on cluster analysis and development. And it is! Go to http://beta.adb.org/publications/competitive-cities-21st-century-cluster-based-local-economic-development. If any councils would like to be part of an overview of Australia's clusters and centres of excellence, please drop me a line. It fits with the Manufacturing Taskforce agenda.

*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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