New federal government rewrites regional development script

…the Albanese Government has repackaged regional development under new programs aligning with its priorities of clean energy, decarbonisation, and new industries.

In shaping our national economy and society, Federal budgets reflect the political realities of competing state, regional and sectional interests.*

It’s always about numbers – voters – and when it comes to voters, regional Australia is simply outnumbered by the capital cities two to one.

A Treasurer’s vision to build “a stronger, more resilient and more modern economy” must first be sold in the suburbs, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. 

Look no further for evidence than the $1 billion in road and rail funding previously committed to Queensland by the former government now sprinkled across the southern states.

Dumping a couple of dam projects brokered in the Net Zero deal between Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce is unlikely to cause much angst outside north Queensland.

Rather conventionally, the Albanese Government has repackaged regional development under new programs aligning with its priorities of clean energy, decarbonisation, and new industries.

These programs are “Growing Regions,” “Regional Precincts and Partnerships,” and “Powering the Regions.”

Sustained lobbying by astute regional leaders ensured that iconic projects like the Outback Way upgrade from Winton through to Laverton would at last transcend politics, as did rural health and skilled immigration.

This shows the importance of proactive regional initiative in securing a fair share of funds from federally-funded infrastructure and service programs.

Nothing can be more compelling today than ensuring the proposed massive investment in new housing extends beyond the cities.

Other opportunities include the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund (NRF) to accelerate and diversify Australia’s sovereign manufacturing capacity.

This is so urgent, given our dangerous dependence on foreign suppliers for everything from fuel and fertilizer to pharmaceuticals, materials, and advanced technology.

Savvy regional developers should be looking at their own strategic propositions for some of the $3 billion set aside for regional NRF projects.

Two things are crucial though in making this possible and both demand immediate Federal Government action.

The first is affordably priced energy by making gas easily available to Australian industry and consumers over the decarbonisation transition.

The second is expanding our economy by boosting productivity. 

By the end of the decade potentially Australia could be spending upwards of 5% of its GDP on just two items – disability insurance and national security.

But without becoming a whole lot smarter and transforming the current miserable annual 1.2% growth in productivity, as a nation we will not be able to afford the better future so many want.   

*This article first appeared as “Budget priority should expand productivity” in View from the Paddock, Queensland Country Life 3 November 2022, page 23.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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