Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation Report

The terms of reference for the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation include and require the committee to inquire into best practices in regional development, considering both Australian and international examples. They also ask us to inquire into decentralisation of Commonwealth entities or functions, such as departments, parts of departments or specific functions within Commonwealth entities. Thirdly, they ask us to look at the sorts of strategies that the Commonwealth can adopt—and presumably other layers government as well—to encourage corporate entities to decentralise their functions to regional Australia. I'd like to make a few initial observations that go to those terms of reference. I'm going to identify what I see as two particular failures that the committee will be looking into.

I should say in relation to the report that its contents are thin and procedural but the subject matter is very, very important. One of the things that we have identified is the confusion of a strategy with a project, and a press release with a plan. And I just want to make it very, very clear, from Labor's perspective, as the shadow minister responsible for regional development and regional services, that we see very clearly that a grant is not a project, that a project is not a strategy and that a strategy is not a plan. Too often, these three things are conflated. Too often, they're all confused for an announcement or a press release, and we need a better approach. We need an approach which builds on the strengths of particular communities and regions, that engages with the thought leaders and participants in commerce and in governance within those regions, and has a long-term strategy not
only for particular regions but also for regional development, one that is not tossed and thrown about between and within electoral cycles.

On Labor's side, we see the government is definitely a part of the solution to the challenges we face in regionalAustralia, but it's not the whole solution. Government does have a role to play, and we have some big levers to pull in human capital development and in ensuring that the infrastructure which will deliver connectivity, particularly broadband infrastructure but also road and rail infrastructure, is invested in. The Commonwealth has an absolutely critical role to play in this regard.

In terms of human capital, we are often debating the role that the Commonwealth plays in investing in school education, in technical and further education, in tertiary education and in the university sector. One level of human capital development that does not get enough attention but is absolutely critical to regional development is investing in leadership and in capacity building in regional communities. We know in those regions that have done this well we get that connection between a project, a strategy and a plan that is organic, that is coming from the regions themselves and is not imposed on them from a state or federal capital. I hope that the inquiry is able to flesh out these ideas and come up with recommendations which are attractive to all sides of politics.

The second issue that I want to focus on in my contribution on this report is the failure of administration. Too often, we have programs which on their face are good, but the administration is bedevilled by incompetence or contradictions at the governmental level. I'd like to cite a few examples. While this inquiry has been underway, we have seen ongoing cuts in Commonwealth Public Service jobs in regional Australia. In Townsville this week alone, the defence department has announced cuts of up to 40 or more jobs in regional areas—40 jobs in Townsville, at the very same time as government representatives from Queensland, New South Wales and other places are ostensibly arguing for the decentralisation of government services. If Townsville was an isolated incident, we would just say, 'Something's gone wrong here that we need to sort out.' But it is not an isolated incident.

In the electorate of Gilmore, I have recently been engaging with Fiona Phillips, Labor's representative at the next election in the seat of Gilmore. She has shed light on propositions to transfer high-quality jobs in the Department of Defence that are currently based in Nowra to Canberra, running in completely the opposite direction to what the government is supposed to be promoting, and that is decentralisation. These are not isolated examples. Australian Public Service figures show the full extent of what some unkind people might describe as hypocrisy in the government's purported campaign for decentralisation.

In the period that I am talking about, in New South Wales alone, since 2014, 760 roles have been cut out of regional New South Wales, a further 180 roles have been cut out of regional Queensland and 320 jobs have been cut out of regional Western Australia. Regional job cuts just keep coming. So the government can have no credibility when it tells Australians that it is on about decentralisation; because it make no sense to move a small number of jobs out of Canberra into the Deputy Prime Minister's electorate in Armidale at the very same time that they are slashing literally hundreds of jobs out of regional Australia. That is what is going on.

Let me give you another example of a program which looks good on the face of it but when you dig down into the administration of that fund you see that it is working against the interests of people in regional Australia. You would have thought that a program which has the title 'National Stronger Regions Fund' and which ostensibly is about addressing disadvantage in regional Australia would have 100 per cent of its focus on providing funds to viable strategies, projects and plans in regional Australia. But we have learnt that, within the $620 million fund, up to 20 per cent of the funds have been siphoned away from viable projects and strategies within regional Australia to some of the wealthiest inner-city seats. Nothing says regional Australia like Kooyong. Nothing says regional Australia like Warringah. Nothing says regional Australia like some of the wealthiest and most metropolitan seats in the country—$3.2 million for the seat of Kooyong; $10 million for the seat of Warringah— when many, many, many fine projects in regional Australia were overlooked. Other disadvantaged regions got nothing. Let's mention the Community Development Fund. This is another program where we have seen rorting— I can't find a more balanced word to use than 'rorting'—of funds.

In the time left I'd like to talk about the Regional Growth Fund. This was announced with great fanfare in the last budget. It's now 270 days since the announcement of the Regional Growth Fund: $272 million to kick-start growth in needy and struggling regions throughout regional Australia. Yet here we are, 270 days after the announcement of that fund and several months since the government promised that the funds would be available to viable projects within regional Australia, and we haven't even got the guidelines.

So we on this side of the House are very, very sceptical indeed when we see the Deputy Prime Minister and the third regional development minister in three months stand up and say, 'We're for regional Australia'. The evidence is the opposite. The evidence shows that there are great announcements, but it all falls down in the administration of this fund. It is either incompetence or distraction or money being siphoned off to fix up Liberal Party mates. 

This is what is happening with the administration of this fund. I hope that the interim report is able to shine a light on a better way, but the evidence before the House today is not very good.