National Cabinet – getting the ALGA to the table - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

Australian Local Government Association President, David O’Loughlin, made a very good pitch last month for ALGA involvement in the new National Cabinet arrangements.

He argued that the mechanism ‘had proven useful in tackling Covid-19 head on, and it could expand to take on job creation, population and infrastructure planning, freight productivity, recreation and sport, culture and arts, social cohesion, aged care, childcare and ending domestic violence’. He added that there are many more areas where local government plays a key role, and therefore must be at the table.

While David’s logic is impeccable, the problem with local government getting any traction via National Cabinet – or any other national policy apparatus – is that it’s often seen as hanging off the states, and that its interests can thus be represented by the states. This is clearly nonsense when the global trend is towards the devolution of
policies and programs.  

So how do we break down top-down thinking? One part of the solution, I believe, is for local government to bring better information to the table than the feds and states. Not all the time, but when it counts.

Let me explain. You might have noticed that ‘evidence-based policy’ is the new jargon in federal circles these days. It refers to the idea that policy decisions should be based on, or informed by, rigorously established objective evidence. Sometimes Ministers and officials run this stuff just to get you off their backs i.e. go away and do the research, prepare a business plan, find the evidence.  

So let’s get the regional universities involved! They’re often crying out to be relevant. Get them undertaking the research to provide the real and juicy evidence required by policymakers. The research results could feed directly to local councils and then onto the ALGA. More on this next month.

Corridors and supply chains – fresh ideas from Queensland
A timely policy paper has surfaced in Queensland, and it’s getting some serious consideration across the nation.

The fascinating thing is that it doesn’t come from a lobby group or a government agency – rather its authors are 26 semi- and retired government officials, academics and business people. The essence of the paper is that pandemic crises create huge disruptions and distortions and can trigger enormous change. And preparations are needed by government to develop policies and programs that are not necessarily orthodox.

The paper argues that COVID has revealed how vulnerable we are to the world economy, and to gaps in supply chains, and to closures of trading partners’ borders. The need is for a major diversification and re-engineering of our local economies e.g.

  • on-shoring and support to develop strategic endogenous growth industries
  • strengthening governance arrangements to facilitate greater localisation and
  • shortening industry supply chains and production systems.

The paper also recommends the establishment of trade/transport corridors. The argument is basically that Australia’s economic geography is consumed by the big cities, with the result that there isn’t enough dynamism and interaction within and between our regional cities. An example of a potentially strong corridor is in the New England region where various infrastructure forms – Inland Rail, the NBN, water storage and distribution, media - could be much better integrated, thereby nurturing scale economies and reducing barriers to economic growth.

The document is great food for thought. Google ‘Queensland Policy Forum’ to find the summary and the full report.

Regional newspapers – Naracoorte worth watching
The decision by News Corp to shift 100 mastheads to a digital-only format has sent shivers through many regional communities. The exact number of job losses at News Corp is unclear, but the wider concern is the loss of connectivity with rural communities.

The decision comes after Buzzfeed’s shutting down of its Australian operations and Network 10’s decision to close its website 10Daily.

On the bright side there is Naracoorte, South Australia, where Michael Waite has established a newspaper. He’s spent the last 20 years in the United States working for major companies, then had a tilt at United States Congress in 2016. Anyway, Naracoorte is his hometown, and he had a yearning to go back. It has a population of 8200 so there is a decent population base.

So good on you, Michael. Let’s hope you can establish a business model that works. A colleague here in Canberra wonders if the feds or a state government, or even the local council could wade in with some sort of support for Naracoorte and countless other towns trying to inform and connect their local citizens. I can’t see this happening, but surely the real need is for local businesses and government agencies including councils to take out some serious advertising space i.e. indirect support.  

Import Replacement?
All of a sudden, as a result of COVID, everyone is talking about manufacturing and the need for import replacement programs. I could cry because the Cockatoo Network has been pushing this button for at least fifteen years, with nothing but a whimper of support.

We believe there is substantial scope to revitalise niche areas of the manufacturing industry where the opportunity arises and where competitive advantage exists, or could exist via collaborative effort e.g. development of industry clusters, alliances with overseas partners, exploration of global supply chain possibilities.

Anyway, we are in talks with the feds about this, and we are forwarding examples of such niches e.g. plastic decking, furniture, giftware etc. Indeed last week a Cockatoo member wondered why we import virtually all our wine barrels when we have oak plantations in Tasmania and elsewhere.

If you have ideas about areas with import replacement potential, please contact us and we’ll forward material to relevant government agencies.

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network.
Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559