The Good Oil by Rod Brown NFF shows the way on regional development

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) says Regional Australia has a one in 100 year opportunity to set the agenda for a prosperous future for the bush. Its pitch is laid out in a Regionalisation Agenda paper launched last month. Just google it.

The thrust of the paper is that COVID-19 has been an absolute disruptive force, and government and industry should work together to capitalise on this.

The paper firstly calls for a better integration of federal, state and local government priorities, and the elevation of the regionalisation agenda to a National Cabinet issue, with local government being given a seat at the table. This is old ground and won’t get much traction I’m afraid in the current political climate.

Interestingly the NFF then recommends the establishment of 20 place-based regional development precincts. Now this is very interesting because the precinct concept might help to market cities, generate more critical mass in the regions, and provide a focal point for program integration as above.

However, the feds would see it as picking winners. And why 20 precincts? My rough sums suggest 25-26 regional cities could theoretically develop as precincts, but if it was a bottom-up process who cares how may precincts evolved. Perhaps a mosaic of Tier 1 cities (state capitals), Tier 2 (example of Queensland - Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Mackay, Toowoomba, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast). The next level down is Tier 3 (Gladstone, Proserpine, Bundaberg, Maryborough, Gympie etc.). Then Tier 4 (Gordonvale, Cooktown, Ayr, Chinchilla, Longreach etc.). It’s the latter two that could really fit this scenario – show them some attention and integrate program delivery.

There is a precedent – NSW has a ‘special activation precincts program’. It’s very good.    

Transformative infrastructure
The other interesting recommendation is for transformative projects to anchor community and industry investment. In this context, the NFF calls for a review of the seven percent cost-benefit analysis discount rates used by Infrastructure Australia. The argument is that they are too low, thus consigning viable projects to the rubbish bin.
Indeed, a week after the Regionalisation Agenda was released, the federal Infrastructure Minister released its 2021 Infrastructure Priority List, and the NFF noted that regional Australia is once again the poor cousin.

NFF President, Fiona Simson, said, “Unfortunately, if this is what the Government means when it says it’s committed to regional Australia than it smacks of rhetoric rather real action”.

She has a point. There is no federal regional policy document. Surely the National Party should have prepared one by now. Congratulations to the NFF for filling the void.

Labor also bereft
And Labor has nothing in its regional policy cupboard to brag about.
It’s convening a Special Platform Conference later this month, and the only references to regional development in its draft policy document are tired old generalities about taking a ‘strategic approach to decentralisation to draw population and economic activity to regional centres…supported by investment in transport and services and the sensible relocation of Australian Government functions and jobs…working with local governments, regional businesses and community leaders to identify and deliver meaningful regional development programs…regions will receive the major infrastructure project funding they need to grow regional industries’ etc. etc.

The KISS principle
A former professor at the University of Canberra is doing a lot of consultancy work these days for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He was lamenting over lunch that consultancy studies now have to be in short sentences and no more than two sentences in a paragraph. Apparently this is because English is a second or third language for most of the audience. I told him that if all academics followed this practice they’d keep their students awake!
Which brought back memories of an embarrassing moment.
Back in the 1960s, Barry Jones was a national celebrity as he showed off his wide knowledge on the TV quiz show ‘Pick a Box’. Twenty years later he became Minister for Science in the Hawke Government.

Anyway, I’d been promoted into the Senior Executive Service and Barry Jones was one of the ministers I was reporting to. Keen to make an impression and aware of his brilliance, I sent a long and pretentious briefing paper to him. A few weeks later the paper came back with the annotation ‘don’t forget the KISS principle!’
I scratched my chin. Then a colleague explained that it stands for ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ In those days, if a Minister wrote on a brief, it would come back to the department via the Secretary, then the Dep Secs, the FAS’s and then poor me. Ouch.

Long-winded, pretentious writing is indeed silly. This also applies to YOUR missives to Ministers and the like.

In brief
The news that Minister Dutton has entered the grant decision-making process is unfortunate. Politicians should have no rights to intervene once the assessment process is concluded. A federal ICAC can ensure that these practices are illegal.

Ballarat has a new marketing pitch – ‘old, gold, cold’. Brilliant.
If you’re taking your car to Kangaroo Island, the ferry costs close to $400. And it’s reportedly $37 to step onto Seal Bay beach to watch seals. And $7.90 for a coffee. Wake up you golden geese, the nation wants to visit you!

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