Opening Address: RDA National Forum 2015



19 August 2015


Thank you Brad [Howarth, Forum Facilitator] for the introduction.

I acknowledge the Chairs, Deputy Chairs and Executive Officers of Regional Development Australia Committees.

Also our guest speakers: The Hon Rob Kerin, Executive Chair, Regional Development South Australia, Mayor Troy Pickard, President, Australian Local Government Association, Mr Rob Jones, Executive Director, Regional Programs and Recovery, Regional Development Victoria, and Ms Kate Charters, Convenor, Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia (SEGRA)

And guests and observers here from ALGA, The Regional Australia Institute, and State and Australian Government Departments.

It is a pleasure to officially open the 2015 Regional Development Australia National Forum.

I extend a warm Canberra welcome. Just about all of you have travelled some distance -- indeed some of you have travelled great distances to be here.

A number of you are experiencing your first national Forum—a special welcome to you, but for you all it is the first gathering of RDAs since the new government's reforms.

I had hoped these reforms would have been complete by today—but I understand at least one state is still waiting on approval of committee members from state cabinet.

Each RDA Committee is represented. This is significant because with all the variations in size, population density and economic advantage and disadvantage that make up our regions, each has a voice at this gathering.

I hope the Programme for the next two days will be of interest. I thank the small group of RDA Committee Chairs who worked with us to develop the programme.

The Forum provides the mechanism for you to examine different ways of delivering economic development; hear from others who have been successful in promoting their region and build opportunities to link across the three levels of government.

This morning I want to talk a little about the government's vision for RDAs and what we expect of you in the future.

The RDAs are very much a part of the government's infrastructure, and our view about how we need to connect with local communities, and how we exchange information and advice that is relevant and local.

I want to particularly acknowledge and thank all of you for the role that you've played as members of RDA committees. You engage every day with the reality of living in the community and helping it grow.

And so we very much appreciate the fact that you give your time as community leaders to make the RDAs work, and to make them relevant to the decision-making processes of the government.

All Australians want our nation to prosper and this depends on ensuring that Australia's regions can grow towards achieving their full potential. And as we know, this growth does not happen passively. It's not created by people who wait around hoping for it to happen. Nor is it created by the armchair critics who find fault with everything and every initiative, or who erect barriers to progress.

It requires a substantial and constant regional and local effort. It also requires being open to new ideas and taking new approaches when needed. Success is made up of a multitude of endeavours by many, some big people, but mostly small individual efforts.

So the RDA committees have an essential role in shaping the future of their regions and engaging talented and committed people in this effort. The committees have earned their place at the heart of regional development.

The new Australian Government has introduced some improved arrangements to strengthen the RDA committee, and helped them forge better links between the Australian Government and regional communities, and also to ensure that government programs meet local needs.

We want the committees to have a much clearer mission, to drive regional economic growth, support projects that invigorate their communities, and build on the comparative advantage of their regions.

As a government, our focus is to create the most conducive environment possible to grow the nation's wealth.

We have put in place a five-pillar plan to build on our diverse economy focusing on agriculture, manufacturing, smart technology, education and mining.

We have made an historic $57 billion investment in transport infrastructure including road, rail and port networks to ensure greater connectivity between our regions, our cities and the world.

We want to make sure all regions have a voice to government in respect of planning, development and infrastructure.

To this end, I am pleased to announce that I have appointed

Dr Jen Cleary, as the Chair of the newly formed RDA Chairs Reference Group, which will provide a consolidated voice from the national RDA Committee network to the Australian Government.

A Year of Change

This year has been a year of change and adjustment for

RDA Committees. The process to get the new RDA structures in place has taken longer than I would have wished.

As many of you will know from my correspondence with you over the past year, regarding arrangements for RDA Committees that my preferred approach was a common model across the nation. I had hoped for a format where Federal, State or Territory and Local Governments were all contributing partners to the RDA Committee initiative.

I am disappointed that a common model across Australia was not achievable but I hope it can be one day. However, where States have indicated they intend to develop or maintain their own regional consultative arrangements or have their own structures which they do not wish to change, we will continue to support RDA Committees as best we can.

Arrangements to strengthen RDA Committees such as streamlining appointments, reducing administrative burdens and simplifying governance have been introduced wherever we can to enable RDA Committees to focus on economic development.

The RDA Committees role now more strongly aligns with our vision for growing and developing vibrant Australian regions.

We want RDA Committees to have a clear vision of what is required of them to drive economic growth.

We also want RDA Committees to be sure of their role in identifying and supporting projects that invigorate their communities and to be proactive in seeking partnerships.

I want to emphasise that I am open to your ideas for your regions, as well as on how to achieve the best relationship between the Government and the RDA Committees.

As part of the change process, we have looked at ways to facilitate greater dialogue with the Australian Government and more engagement opportunities between state and territory counterparts.

Firstly, I will meet regularly with the Reference Group of Committee Chairs -- one from each state and territory -- a couple of times a year.

These meetings will be high-level discussions along the lines of infrastructure investment in the regions, the changing economic picture in regions and any changes to policy that could benefit regions.

The first such meeting takes place tomorrow at the conclusion of the Forum. Information coming from or contributing to our discussions will need to flow to and from RDA Committee members.

Secondly, there will be an annual national Forum. As with this year's agenda, to get the most out of the meeting, RDA Committees will shape the design and lead discussions.

I will also continue to take the opportunity to engage with RDA Committees on an individual or state basis as I am able during the year.

National Stronger Regions Fund

There is possibly no better way for RDA Committees to deliver for their regions than proactively assisting proponents with funding applications.

The National Stronger Regions Fund has the capacity to invigorate regions, and RDA Committees have a key role in its success.

Essentially, the Fund makes $1 billion of funding available over five years for investments that will make regions stronger, and therefore reduce disadvantage into the future.

Pure and simple -- this programme is about identifying and addressing disadvantage.

We want to be a partner in delivering the infrastructure that communities in Australia's regions need, but too often have lacked.

Earlier this year we announced the first 51 projects, with government contributions of $212 million to be funded under Round One. The Government's contribution is capped at 50 per cent of the project cost.

The National Stronger Regions Fund supports projects that were nominated by local community groups, with grants ranging from $20,000 to $10 million.

We need your help to work closely with local governments and community organisations to ensure applications are of the highest quality and therefore have the most possibility of succeeding.

Many organisations suffer from a simple lack of resources of skills to prepare high-quality applications. Often the areas that need this program the most are least able to prepare a good application. Indeed, if the area is rich and with substantial resources, it's highly unlikely that it's even eligible for the program.

This is a program about economic issues, not social issues. It's a program about addressing disadvantage. The changes that have been made in the assessment system for the second round will further emphasise that priority.

We will first assess whether an area has disadvantage; and in fact if there isn't an identified disadvantage then the application is simply ineligible, because the program is about addressing disadvantage. And then the second pillar of the assessment is does the project that's being proposed actually address the identified disadvantage?

Now, people sometimes ask, well, what is disadvantage? And, of course, there is scope for a broad definition of disadvantage. But clearly if the area has above-average unemployment, if you have low socio-economic index, if you have large proportions of disadvantaged people, or there is a pocket of disadvantage in an area that's otherwise well-resourced. This is a program about trying to address disadvantage.

I am keen for RDAs to help to make the most of the resources the Australian Government has allocated for this role, including the $18,000 additional payment made to each RDA to help promote the national stronger regions fund, and to assist smaller organisations that may not have the expertise to complete the complex grant application.

This is a key reason for the changes- of the role of the RDA in the application process that have been made to this program, compared with some others in the past.

We want you to help ensure that the best projects have quality applications, even if the applicant is short on the skills to complete the preferred applications, and to develop a kind of professional approach to applications that some of those larger councils, larger organisations are able to deliver, match the professional applicants that are very good at filling out the forms, and therefore very good at getting government grants.

I think there is another area where the RDAs can be helpful. Those organisations that need help the most, in many instances, may not be very good at managing the project.

While I do not suggest that the RDAs step in and take over the role that's rightly filled by the applicant, you may be able to help them to deliver the project in a professional way, especially when there are limited skills and you're trying to build a talent base for the future.

If you're living in a depressed community, sometimes, the best people in that community have moved to other places. There's a lack of leadership there and it's difficult to correct that. But a program that's about addressing disadvantage has to recognise the fact that often needy communities don't have the skills of leadership and, therefore, I am hopeful that RDAs, which include a variety of people who can help, will share their skills with those who need them.

In all frankness there were too many applications under round one that were either ineligible or fell below par in their quality. And some good projects were undersold.

And so we have, at a departmental level, gone back to some of those applicants and make it clear to them that their projects may well be able to be converted into a successful application in another round. And I'd like certainly RDAs to be active also in that process to try and identify what went wrong and fix it in the future.

So as far as the program is concerned, just a couple of other things that I've mentioned. The Department has contacted RDAs and other stakeholders to help improve the operation of the fund. The review has found there's a very strong case for applicants to contact RDAs for assistance in preparing their applications. And so we've emphasised in the round two application forms the benefits of encouraging contact with the RDA in preparation in the application.

But I'd also encourage you to seek out applicants and offer their support. Some successful applicants may have, as I've already mentioned, require some assistance to actually implement their project and again I'd encourage you to engage with applicants and help them as best you can in that regard.

Round Two closed at the end of last month. I hope many more RDA Committees were involved in this round, and that your involvement will be reflected in the high calibre of projects and applications.

The most I can tell you right now is we received 514 applications and that successful applications will be announced in December 2015.

This Forum provides an excellent opportunity for you to meet with ministers and parliamentary secretaries to discuss opportunities for input into policies and programs, which may impact on region.

As with any joint effort, one of our most vital tasks is to maintain effective communication. And I want to emphasise that I'm always open to your views about how we can best the relationship between the RDAs and Australian Government program.

RDA Committees can play a similar role with the new Bridges Renewal Programme.

Round Two of this programme is exclusively for local government, and applications close at the end of this month.

As with National Stronger Regions, the first round of applications was disappointing. There were a large number of applications, but also a large number coming from local governments that were ineligible or very poorly presented.

I hope many of you were involved in assisting local governments to identify and quantify economic benefits in their applications in this round.

I also encourage you to watch out for Round Five of the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Programme which will open later this year.

This programme aims to increase productivity of heavy vehicles by enhancing the capacity of existing roads and improving connections to freight networks.

As with the other programmes, your application writing and assessment skills could make a big difference.

Northern Australia

If there is a region where we will see a particularly strong surge in demand for RDA Committee services it is northern Australia.

Developing the north is clearly essential for the nation's future prosperity and security.

It has the advantage of being close to fast-growing Asian markets where demand for Australian goods is reaching unprecedented levels.

As you know, last month the Government released the Northern Australia White Paper: Our North, Our Future.

The White Paper is a blueprint for developing the north up to 2035.

It sets out initial investment measures of $1.2 billion on top of which there is $5 billion for a new Northern Australia infrastructure financing facility, which adds to the nearly $5 billion committed to transport infrastructure to the north.

With so much going on, it will engage people who live and do business in the north, including the RDA Committees within that region.

The Northern RDA Alliance -- made up of eight RDA Committees from Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland -- pooled their talent and ideas and put in a submission to the White Paper to undertake cross-regional projects that will drive northern Australian development.

The ideas of the Alliance were very helpful for the Government in considering the White Paper and will lead to better economic development outcomes for these regions as the investments in Northern Australia are rolled out-.

Well done Northern RDA Alliance -- you have shown great initiative and you have demonstrated the benefits of working in partnership towards a common goal.

There are also synergies, not just for northern Australia but right across the nation contained in the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper and the recent trifecta of trade agreements with Japan, Korea and now China.

I encourage you to become familiar with these opportunities as they roll out.

I recently wrote to all Commonwealth Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries to encourage them to consider using the RDAs to promote and deliver their portfolio programs and services.

Just before I finish I want to mention two new publications available on the Department's website.

The Progress in Australian Regions—State of Regional Australia 2015 and State of Australia Cities 2014–15 give a detailed picture of population, employment, economic and transport trends in regional and urban areas and will provide useful input for your regional plans.


To sum up, like every Australian, I want our nation to prosper.

National prosperity is about economic growth, jobs, infrastructure and improvements in our standard of living with more opportunities for all.

The Australian Government has its vision for building vibrant and strong Australian regions.

You as representatives of our 55 RDA Committees play a key role in achieving that vision.

I look forward to seeing you again at the 2016 Regional Development Australia National Forum and meeting many of you throughout the year.

Thank you. I would be pleased to take any questions.