***CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY***
Thank you for the invitation to deliver the seventeenth JK McDougall Lecture.
It is an honour to join the long list of distinguished speakers who have delivered this lecture in honour of the Ararat branch’s first President and Secretary John Keith McDougall.
JK McDougall of course was very much a product of the proud Labor tradition of the times. He grew up on the land, was educated through church run schools and in the ministry before cutting his teeth politically in local government and going on to federal politics. Continuing to write prolifically throughout his life McDougall has invariably been described as either a Labor propagandist or Labor activist. I suspect he was both. Fiercely criticising what he saw as the stagnation and apologists within the party while at other times rallying those to the Labor cause through poetry and prose. Born in Learmonth and spending all of his life in this district, including a stint on local council, McDougall wrote of the social and economic inequalities faced by those in our regions. He was a fierce advocate of the role of Federal Governments delivering policies specifically for country regions. It’s largely because of him that post, telecommunications and other services came to the electorate of Wannon during his time as federal member.
With my new role as Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, tonight I will focus my contribution on our regions and regional policy. We are moving to shape the framework that will tie together our policies for the next election, our focus on Australia’s diverse regions will become increasingly important.
One of the best places to start is with our own history of regional reforms, an area covered comprehensively in the excellent University of Wollongong 2009 paper by Andrew Kelly et al, titled “Regional development and local government: three generations of federal intervention”, on which I will draw heavily.
It’s is fair to say that the involvement of the federal government in regional development has been incredibly patchy with initiatives and reforms being introduced only for the next government to make changes or withdraw them.
The first real intervention by a federal government into regional policy came under Curtin and Chifley and was part of the imperatives of both reconstruction after the war and the substantial focus of the Labor Party on developing our national prosperity. The nation was divided into 100 regions each with its own regional development committee (RDC). Membership of the RDCs was drawn from local councils and regional state public servants.
Kelly writes that according to the Commonwealth Department of Post War Reconstruction the focus of RDCs was on the “preparation of resource inventories and regional plans directed towards the full development of the regions resources in order to maintain the maximum population”. In a refrain that will sound all too familiar to those involved in local government, Kelly identifies that “whilst some plans reached completion, implementation received insufficient attention”.
As has been often the case with these reforms, the RDCs were relatively short-lived with the Menzies government scrapping them in favour of returning all regional development policy to the States. While the McMahon Government did establish the National Urban and Regional Development Authority, direct federal government involvement in regional policy received little attention until the return of Labor Government with the election of Whitlam in 1972.
Whitlam had an overwhelming commitment to local government, seeing it as the level of government closest to people and best placed to deliver services that could deliver equity of access to public services, particularly for poorer communities. Prior to the election, Kelly writes that Whitlam promised to “make local government a genuine partner in the federal system”.
Under the stewardship of his Minister Tom Uren his Government set out to do this through establishing Federal Assistance Grants to local government and new compulsory regional structures created. First regional assemblies and later Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs) were utilised as conduits for funds to local councils. Uren, like Whitlam, saw the power of local government as being central to the Labor cause of tacking social and economic inequality. The ROCs were entirely made up of local councils and were across both regional and urban areas. Whitlam used this model across government, including with citizen-controlled social welfare councils.
It is difficult to measure the success of each policy. On the one hand, the system of Federal Assistance Grants fundamentally changed and expanded the role of local government. This untied funding was critical in enabling councils to play a much more strategic and central role in regional economic development. It is a system that remains today. On the other hand, the centrally imposed structure was criticised as weaker than government supporting initiatives that emerge directly from the local level.
Continuing the Liberal tradition, Fraser abolished ROCs and Whitlam and Uren’s regional programs. While formally abolished, some ROCs live on in a voluntary capacity, while others have been auspiced by states keen to maintain formal access to regional perspectives.
Unsurprising, the next major entry into regional policy came with the next Labor Government under Hawke and his Minister for Housing and Regional Development Brian Howe. The Hawke Government’s regional policy sat within a broader agenda of urban and regional renewal aimed at tackling spatial disadvantage, a particular passion of Howe’s. It was an ambitious agenda which saw the allocation of over $800 million in the 1991/92 budget and included significant transport, housing employment and education infrastructure projects agreed with State and Territory Governments. Regional centres such as Geelong, Newcastle, Mackay, Townsville, Bunbury, Launceston and Hobart all saw significant large scale investment and much of the economic prosperity of these regional centres today can be traced back to this program and the Labor Government which instituted them.
This regional focus was continued through Keating’s multifaceted Working Nation Agenda – a policy which saw the federal government as enabler of regions to pursue their own economic strengths and drive their own economic development. To drive this policy Regional Economic Development Organisations were established with boundaries and membership determined at the local level, rather than being imposed more centrally. In the training space – an area of central importance to regional communities – Area Consultative Committees (ACCs) were established to help local communities seize on employment and training opportunities. Local government was heavily involved in both.
Once again, when the Coalition returned to Government under Howard came, the Regional Development Program did not survive. While some RDOs remained, most disappeared or were replaced by the voluntary ROCs, themselves a legacy of the Whitlam Government. The ACCs remained, though their focus shifted to funding a variety of projects across government portfolio areas.
In contrast to his predecessors, Howard was much more politically driven in how he approached regional policy. He was not a reformer – he focused on gaining and retaining of specific groups of voters and used the largess of the mining boom to do so. His regional funding was driven by his electoral interests, focusing on specific services or designed to address very specific grievances.
One such example is the very popular Roads to Recovery program which provided a substantial injection of funding to local government to upgrade declining regional roads – an issue that councils have long struggled with financially. Roads to Recovery was not only clever politics but provided much needed funds to regional communities and remains today as one of the fundamental planks in both major parties regional and infrastructure policies.
Once again, the election of the Rudd Labor Government saw a more strategic approach introduced under the stewardship of Simon Crean and Anthony Albanese. Labor’s policies under Rudd and Gillard saw Regional Development Australia established with a strong focus on both economic and social development of regions as well as Regional Development Australia Committees established across the country and charged with prioritising funding for infrastructure projects and working with local government and industry to develop regional plans. Importantly, while the structure was centrally developed, the RDA Committees were born out of a significant commitment to localism. Under Labor, local government again came to the fore of policy making with the Australian Council of Local Government being established. Throughout Labor’s term we delivered increased funding for local and community infrastructure directed through local councils and commenced work on the constitutional recognition of local government.
When the GFC occurred early in Labor’s term we focused significantly on jobs in Regional Australia. Infrastructure spending was heavily directed to regions and programs such as the Building the Education Revolution saw capital investment in regional, rural and remote schools – in some instances for the first time. In order to work directly with employers and job seekers to generate employment opportunities in their local communities Local Employment Coordinators were deployed in regions of disadvantage.
This isn’t to say that regional policy in this period was perfect. It did suffer from a lack of coordination, with many programs across employment, training and regional development not linked up effectively.
As fits the patterns, the coming of the Coalition brought a decline in regional policy.
Today there is no coherent regional policy that sets out a vision and pathway to growing and developing all of regional Australia. Regional policy under this third term government has gone back to the Howard era with a disparate set of programs, meaning that local and state governments are largely ignored except in a few areas of political interest to the Coalition. Many councils describe the main regional funding program – the Building Better Regions Fund – as nothing short of a lottery. While RDAs continue to exist and provide important partnerships in local communities they have largely been sidelined and in some areas do not even have Committees. The recent review into their role and operation was largely ignored.
The National Party’s stranglehold on allocating regional funding continues, to the significant detriment of provincial and regional cities and to remote Australia. Funding under programs such as the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages and the Drought Communities Program appears highly politicised.
The Government’s decentralisation agenda is a cruel hoax. We’ve seen the scandal of the APVMA move to New England. All the while since 2013 the federal government has cut thousands of regional public sector jobs. In Townsville alone 91 federal public service jobs were lost last financial year, with 352 gone since 2013.
The Government’s three ‘pilot’ regional deals do show promise as a bottom-up, long-term collaboration between the three tiers of government. But in reality only the Barkly Deal in the Northern Territory is underway and no further funding has been allocated for regional deals. For those regional bodies or councils who may wish to pursue a deal no process exists for how they might go about doing so.
Meanwhile, the compounded impact of the Morrison Government freeze on Federal Assistance Grants has left local governments in a strained financial position, which given its fiscal implications will be very difficult for any incoming government to address.
What all of this tells us is that throughout its history, regional development policy has been plagued by:
• Ongoing suspicion by the states that federal funding to regional structures was a way to bypass the states – a revisit of some of the fiercest disputes of Federation.
• Scepticism among many local councils who can be fearful that it represents an attempt at amalgamation and loss of local identity.
• A lack of engagement with local government, which in part in the early days reflected the lack of strategic capacity within local government – but for which there is no excuse today.
• The short term nature of our political cycles which has seen many good policies fall foul of an incoming government’s disinterest or in fact distrust of the structures and programs set up by its predecessors.
• Blatant pork barrelling, particularly by the National Party, who generally in government have control of the regional portfolios and seem to see regional funding as their own personal re-election fund, which undermines public trust in the federal government’s involvement in regional policy.
• A lack of clarity of purpose of regional policy and lack of coherence between it and other policies impacting on regional Australia.
• The imposition of structures and funding models by the Federal Government rather than bottom-up policies reflecting the unique nature of each regional community and the economy it relies on.
As a result of these issues there are no lasting regional structures across Australia. But, looking forward it also tells us is that there is enormous unlocked potential in our regions and that our regions play a critical role in that most progressive and fundamental of Labor causes – achieving fairness and improving living standards across the nation.
With the review now complete and its recommendations being implemented, we have begun the process of articulating the framework that will take us to the next election. Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has been giving a series of vision statements that lay out that framework.
As we continue refining our regional development policies, we must be mindful of key lessons learned:
• The central role of local government is to grow jobs, grow wealth in communities and to deliver services that can tackle disadvantage.
• We need to think of our regions differently – as the election results show they are not all the same. Most social researchers segment regional Australia on the basis of geography, social economic status, transport links, economic drivers and the like. We have to as well. Different regional areas are different, and they need differing levels of assistance. Remoteness and small population and the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will always need a particular focus.
• We must link up and utilise the capacity of Commonwealth spending whether it be in infrastructure and transport, housing, health, and industry policy in a way that promotes regional and local jobs. Training cannot simply be left to market forces; Government must play a key role.
There is a huge tradition of regional and local government policy reform and knowledge within Labor, from Curtin and Chifley, Whitlam with Uren, Hawke/Keating with Howe, Rudd/Gillard with Crean and Albanese. My job, and that of my colleague Jason Clare in Regional Services, is to build on that knowledge.
We must translate that knowledge into policies that aim to leave people across the nation in no doubt that it is Labor who stands with regional Australia when it comes to their jobs, to their livelihoods and the economic and social prosperity of themselves, their families, their community and our nation. That message and that platform will be integral in electing the next Labor Government.