Local, Independant and Effective

Productivity Commission studies regional transition

Posted February 15, 2018


Cathy thanks regional and rural communities for their input into the Regional Development and Decentralisation Committee's interim report, and highlights the Productivity Commission's concurrent report into regional economies

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (19:33): Thank you so much for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker. Colleagues, I would like to acknowledge the work of the committee and the secretariat and, in particular, thank Dr McVeigh, the member for Groom, for his leadership and congratulate him on his promotion. I hope we can continue to work together on this really important topic. I'd also like to acknowledge and welcome onto the committee the members for Gippsland, Hinkler and Forrest. I look forward to their contributions.

For those who don't already understand how important the regions are and, consequently, how important this inquiry is, I note that rural Australia is responsible for one-third of total employment in this country and just one-third of our economic output, but about two-thirds of all our exports by value. Regional capitals are home to about one-quarter of all Australians. So tonight we're talking about a really, really significant part of our population.

I've been absolutely delighted to play a role on this committee. I'm glad we've tabled the interim report, and I'm looking forward to the next part of the work, which is the analysis. To date on this committee, we've heard so much that, I have to say, makes me really proud to represent rural and regional Australia. We've heard so much that's positive, useful, creative, innovative and visionary. It's exciting. In fact, it's been wonderful to go and visit our communities and hear the members of those communities who have got skin in the game tell us what they're doing, how much they love their community, how much they're inspired by the work that they do, how they create jobs and how for many of them they're building a nation. As we've travelled around the country, the committee has worked together in a really collegiate fashion. We've shared ideas and we've just had a very stimulating time, I think, working out what to do with the information that we've got.

This report marks the halfway mark. We've collected the data and we've read the submissions. Now we've got to do the analysis. We've got to make sense of what we've heard and make recommendations to the government on what happens next. I'm delighted the committee's working so well. I'm absolutely impressed by the level of excellence of the submissions we've heard.

But tonight I want to bring to the attention of the House that, concurrent with our inquiry, the Productivity Commission has also been undertaking a study of the regions. And I'd like to talk a little bit about some of the things that the Productivity Commission has been studying while we've been doing our report. The Productivity Commission report is entitledTransitioning regional economies. It was tabled in December 2017, and it provides many rich and useful insights to the transition in the regions that has been taking place because of the mining boom.

But there are four particular areas that they highlight that I'd like to talk about tonight. The Productivity Commission talks about the role of local government, the role of local leadership, the importance of capacity in our local communities and the need for rigorous evaluation of how we spend money. Colleagues, we all understand how important local government is, particularly in our regions and rural areas. Local government holds us together. It's the form of government closest to the people. As we were conducting our hearings, we were hearing so often how much affected they are by Commonwealth government decisions. They've really called on the Commonwealth to do a much better job of not only funding local government but also listening to them and understanding their particular issues. I'm delighted to let the House know that today I've tabled a private member's motion calling on the government to pay a lot more attention to how local government is funded.

The second area I'd like to mention tonight that the Productivity Commission talks about is the importance of local leadership. Again, all of us who work in regions know that if you don't have local leaders, you don't have a vibrant community, but we hear the Productivity Commission express how important it is to the dynamics and to the flexibility. Resilient regions are those that have good local leadership, locally engaged people with strong community ownership. I know the Australian rural leadership program does a fantastic job bringing forth leadership. In my own community, we have the Alpine Valleys Community Leadership project. Right across Victoria, each of our catchments has a community leadership program that is really doing a fantastic job teaching, creating opportunities for leadership, creating mentorship and bringing forth the leadership that's in our communities. Sadly, I know other states don't have these programs. Queensland doesn't have a community leadership program; nor does New South Wales. Western Australia did for a bit. South Australia doesn't.

One of the things that the Productivity Commission talks about, which I know is really important, is that we've got to have a national strategic approach to coordinating and bringing forth leaders in our communities; leaders at all levels; leaders who work on local school councils, hospital boards and church groups; leaders who take a role in the hall committee and the sports community. You're not born a leader; you actually have to grow into the role, be mentored and learn how it works. I think we could do a lot of really productive work through a formal leadership program. So good on the Productivity Commission for talking about that.

The third area to briefly mention is capacity. The Productivity Commission indicates that where you've got regions where people have capacity, you're doing well, and they're not only talking about education capacity, though of course that's important. They're talking about the capacity around skilled workforces, where you can get the labour force you need and you can employ the people—the professionals, the tradies and the community service people—you need. That was one of the things that we found as we travelled around the country. Kalgoorlie, for example, has an average age of 31 and its biggest issue is getting access to skilled people to work. Darwin is the same, and up in the Darling Downs I know it's similar. So there's enormous opportunity to grow that's only limited by the capacity and the skilled workforce we've got. We have so much knowledge—we know so much—and now the real challenge for this committee is to do the analysis to bring the inquiry home and come up with some really strong recommendations that the government and opposition can agree to that will enable us as a country to move forward.

Some of the principles that I hope to see in that final report are that we adopt a strategic approach based on regions' strength, that we look at the three levels of government working closely together with communities and business, and that we value-add to the work that those three levels of government are already doing. Launceston is an excellent example of that, where the City Deals are being played out. The idea of regional deals that enable everybody to work together has had a lot of support. And we need to be really, really clear in our understanding that one size doesn't fit all. When the Commonwealth does a project and it's meant to be for the whole of Australia, we've got to be strong with our voice in saying: 'Have you done a regional impact statement? Do you really understand what the consequences are going to be for the regions of this particular task?' Two areas that are dear to my heart where this hasn't happened are the government changes to child care, with the enormous negative impact that's had on women's ability and families' ability to work, and the changes to higher education. I'm pleading with the minister for higher education to do some really productive work on a regional higher education framework that enables us to grow our universities, not detract from them.

I want to talk about an experience I had a number of years ago when I was chairing the Regional Women's Advisory Council. That council provided policy advice to the government on rural and regional issues. We had the enormous pleasure of working to John Anderson, who was the relevant minister, and John Howard, who was the Prime Minister. The council commissioned a report to look at what made for success in regional Australia. One of the two important principles out of that study was that it's not actually what government does that has the final impact on success; it's how it does it. When government works with community, we get success. I've been so pleased to hear the Prime Minister use that exact phrase when he's been talking about Closing the Gap—'We won't do things to our Indigenous people; we'll do things with our Indigenous people.' It has to be exactly the same with regional Australia. We need to work together in partnership.

In closing, I say to the parliament and to my colleagues here tonight: we've got a lot of work to do. I think we're really keen to get on with it and do the analysis, and, hopefully, this report will sit in the annals of this parliament as one fantastic piece of work that really did make a difference to the future of the country.

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