There is strong recognition of the contributions by Regional Development Australia (RDA) Committees to their regions since the programme commenced in 2008. The over 600 volunteers that have contributed to the programme annually over the past nine years are to be congratulated for their community service and should be encouraged to continue to support their communities. There is also acknowledgement of the earlier work of the Australian Government’s Area Consultative Committees in fostering economic development.
The review found broad support for Australian Government involvement in regional development and I note that the Australian Government will set a future direction for the Commonwealth's work in regional Australia by releasing a regional development policy in 2017. I have been listening to stakeholders across the country and have heard that people, in the true regions of Australia, feel forgotten by governments. This is despite record Commonwealth investment—particularly in regional infrastructure, transport and communications. Government investments are not resonating with regional Australians; therefore, a different approach must be taken.
The Government, through partnerships with state, territory and local governments, must focus initiatives on strengthening the pillars of growth to reboot the economies of our true regions, enabling the private sector to harness opportunity. Some of the foundation is there—the Building Better Regions Fund to support regional infrastructure and community building projects, the Mobile Black Spot program to improve mobile phone coverage and competition in regional Australia, the Regional Jobs and Investment Package to help regions to diversify their economies, stimulate long-term economic growth and deliver sustainable employment and Australia’s Free Trade Agreements which provide opportunity to build our trading relationships— but the Australian Government must also ensure that it supports regions to engage in their futures, listens and responds to diverse circumstances and provides resources to ensure that it meets the needs of regional Australians.
Through my previous work in the review of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and the Department of Finance, I am aware that the Australian Government is seeking to reduce the size of government by improving efficiency, effectiveness and by eliminating waste and duplication. There is potential to achieve this through governments’ working in synergy rather than isolation on regional development matters without significant negative impact on regions.
In performing the review, I was asked to examine the effectiveness of the RDA programme (‘the programme’) in delivering the Australian Government’s regional agenda and make recommendations regarding its future scope, structure and delivery model, in light of developments in the Australian Government’s regional agenda. I have researched, considered and will report on three themes: RDA programme framework; the governance and administration of the programme; and alignment with the Australian Government policy objectives now and into the future.
Australia’s regions are unique and very diverse. As these regions have undergone significant change, both economically and socially, they will be required to continue to adapt to change into the future. The Australian Government’s involvement in regional development began when tight controls over trade, vast distances between population centres, high unit costs for service delivery and limited connectivity both protected regional economies and constrained their ability to access wider markets. Globalisation, advances in technology—particularly transport and communications technology, and productivity gains have resulted in the need for regions to remain relevant and competitive by harnessing their comparative advantages, both nationally and internationally.
Even though the Australian Government is faced with diminished control over traditional trade protections due to globalisation, a concerted effort to strengthen the pillars of economic growth in regional Australia; Human capital—particularly education and skills; information and communications technology; business competitiveness; access to markets; collaborative partnerships; and service delivery; will drive long-term regional development. It will also ensure that regions experience the right environment and have the resources to harness the opportunities from Free Trade Agreements to expand their economies.
The diversity of Australia’s regions requires an approach that recognises their unique circumstances and tailors initiatives to strengthen these pillars. Most of the policy and programs that will deliver this have a national and or state reach which is not specific to regional Australia. Therefore, collaborative arrangements amongst and between all tiers of government and the private sector are essential in guaranteeing that government services such as health, aged care, education and communications meet the needs of regional Australians and support regional economies.
Approaches to regional development have evolved over time and will continue to do so. This means that any approach to regional development must be subject to a robust monitoring and evaluation mechanism that provides an evidence base to ensure that the best possible outcomes are achieved in partnership with regional Australians.
Today, Australian businesses are finding more ways to export their products, professional services and expertise. Australians must understand that our markets and opportunities are more extensive than believed. Access to global markets and our proximity to the Asian vertical increases competitiveness in the region but also provides the Australian economy and its businesses with expansive opportunities that must be embraced. Opportunities such as those that result from the increase of regional access to international air freight routes to Asia or through access to the latest technologies powered by fast and reliable broadband are vital in helping Australian businesses remain competitive in the global economy. The Australian Government must ensure that its programs, particularly its regional programs, deliver initiatives that are right for today but also prepare regional Australia for the future. By reducing the fragmentation of its regional policy interventions and delivering a coordinated suite of initiatives that strengthen regional economies, the Australian Government can begin to rebuild regional Australia. A commitment must be made to regional development initiatives that grow local economies, promote economic opportunity and build capacity. It is only through direct action that the Australian Government can build the economies of regional Australia.
To support these objectives, I strongly suggest that the Australian Government:
· continue to play a role in regional development, in concert with state and local governments creating partnerships, to achieve regional development outcomes together, rather than through a unilateral approach;
· ensure that any participation, new initiatives or re-shaping of existing approaches in regional development have clear direction and add value, rather than duplicating the work of other levels of government;
· deliver a suite of regional development initiatives that operate in the day to day, but are also responsive to, and able to be bolstered in, times of crisis ensuring regions are not left behind;
· ensure that the boundaries of its regional programs work in harmony with the states and territories and where possible reflect the unique ways that communities already interact with people, businesses and organisations;
· note that areas within the built up urban areas of the major capital cities are particularly well catered for by large city councils, national and local growth alliances and other metropolitan development bodies;
· maintain elements of the programme, particularly the focus of improving the capacity of regions to engage in regional development activities, but not at the exclusion of other existing, effective regional development bodies in the regions;
· refocus the programme from funding entities to funding activities which invest in human capital, promote regional leadership and collaboration, adopt digital technology and support regions to take existing regional plans forward, enabling regions to realise global economic opportunity;
· prioritise provision of funding for regional development activities on a co-funding basis, where project applicants co-invest, or ‘partner’, with the government by providing either a cash or inkind contribution to ensure project viability and the leveraging of additional funds;
· seek the strategic advice of regional business experts who are globally connected, across areas as diverse as advanced manufacturing, agriculture and innovation and technology, on a wide range of regional economic development matters;
· develops a framework to inform decentralisation policy decisions to ensure that they are sustainable over the long-term, integrate well within the established expertise and comparative advantages of a region; and
· commit to a heightened focus on the strengthening of regional economies by promoting economic investment opportunities in regional Australia to the national and international market, to attract investment and build confidence.
In light of current fiscal constraints some recommendations will require the repurposing of existing RDA programme funding and resources. I have not focussed on identifying savings, though some recommendations, if not fully implemented, might lead to savings in the short or long term. On this basis, I recommend:
Recommendation 1: The Australian Government cease Regional Development Australia programme operations on 30 June 2017;
Recommendation 2: The Regional Development Australia Chairs Reference Group be dissolved immediately;
Recommendation 3a: The Minister for Regional Development appoint a new Australian Regional Business Advisory Board consisting of business experts who are globally connected, across areas as diverse as advanced manufacturing, agriculture and innovation and technology to consult with on regional economic development matters; and Recommendation 3b: The Board as a priority establish an independent taskforce chaired by a board member to review and assess the appropriateness and the major impact of a policy of decentralisation of non-policy functions of the Commonwealth and the states from the major metropolitan centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra;
Recommendation 4: The Australian Government focus its efforts in regional development matters on the true regions of Australia, that is those outside of the built up urban areas of the major capital cities;
Recommendation 5: The Australian Government strengthen its partnerships with the states, territories and local government to formalise tailored tripartite arrangements for regional development through Memorandums of Understanding within each jurisdiction;
Recommendation 6: The Australian Government engage a network of Directors of Regional Development to enhance community collaboration and linkages to deliver on established regional visions. Directors of Regional Development would: • foster collaborations between a diverse number of participants; • encourage and support entrepreneurship; • promote and disseminate information on government policy initiatives; and • support community stakeholders to develop project proposals to access funding.
Recommendation 7: The Australian Government in consultation with the states and territories, embed its network of Directors of Regional Development in established state based regional development bodies aligned to the functional economic zones of jurisdictions;
Recommendation 8: The Australian Government establish a Regional Collaboration Fund, drawing as a minimum on established funding within the current RDA programme, to enable investment in human capital, regional leadership and collaboration, and fund regional development activities. Proposals would be agreed by the Regional Business Advisory Board and support activities which encourage: • investment in human capital particularly regional leadership; • adoption of technology to harness economic opportunity and support entrepreneurship; and • implementation of international best practice approaches to regional development.
Recommendation 9: The Australian Government appoint a Regional Investment Commissioner located within Austrade for a period of two years to promote the economic opportunities in regional Australia; and
Recommendation 10: The Australian Government (through the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and Austrade) in partnership with the states and territories develop a two year regional campaign to develop a prospectus for investment in regions.
If these recommendations are implemented with the surety of bipartisan support from all levels of government, they will result in more effective outcomes for regional Australians and their communities. In closing, it is apparent that over the last decade all jurisdictions have made great progress and shown commitment to the development and strengthening of approaches to better support regional development. Even so, there is considerably more work to be done to ensure that regional Australians enjoy the same benefits as all Australians—access to economic opportunities; access to government services; and connected and cohesive communities.