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Shadow Minister discusses regional development policy.

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Federal Labor Shadow Minister for Regional Development 20 July 2006


E & OE - PROOF ONLY _______________________________________________________________________________

Subjects: Regional Development Policy ______________________________________________________________________________

COXHEAD: The Shadow Minister for Regional Development, Simon Crean, has outlined Labor’s approach to meet the development issues facing Australia’s regions. Speaking at the Australian Financial Review’s Developing Australia’s Regions conference in Sydney, Simon Crean has outlined the critical need to restore a Commonwealth commitment to regional development. Simon, people in the bush are doing it tough with increased petrol costs, and also with increased

interest rates, and the fact that life is so much tougher we obviously have to have a plan for the future to make sure that our kids have a future in regional and rural areas. I’d like to welcome Simon Crean to the program. Now Simon, good afternoon.

CREAN: Good afternoon Gary.

COXHEAD: Thankyou, I’d like you to outline your vision for rural and regional Australia please.

CREAN: Well, essentially as you said in the opening, it is to restore a Commonwealth commitment. This has been a commitment that has been seriously lacking. It is true we have had the Regional Partnerships Program, but we have spoken about this before on your program, this has been a rorted initiative in many parts, the Gunnedah ethanol plant, a million dollars spent and has not produced a litre of ethanol. Now, I’m not arguing we scrap the program, but I am saying we get focus and accountability back into it so that we do not waste the scarce resources that are available for the regions. I have also advocated a number of other things as well, Gary, and I want to empower the regions more effectively, I want to give them a much more effective say, a “bottoms- up” approach rather than a “top-down” approach. I do not think that Canberra knows what is best for New England or regional New South Wales, or anywhere else, I think that the local leadership does, and we’ve got to tap into it more effectively. But if we are to tap that leadership we have got to give them confidence that they will be resourced. And one way to do this is to require each of the mainstream portfolios to break down what they spend in each region so that we can get a sense of where the money is being spent regionally, spatially if you like, not in this perjured “one Tuesday in May” circumstance, when no one can really interpret what is in the Budget, we’d see what is really being spent in the regions, so we’d get better accountability for it. The other thing I’d like to see Gary, is the circumstance in which, take training, or take education, or take health, if the

regions have got a plan, an initiative whereby they can deliver services better, why shouldn’t they be able to compete for funds within the mainstream portfolios of health, and education and training, and get their innovative creative solutions adopted. Now I want to see that sort of flexibility brought into the mainstream portfolios. If we do all of these things I think we are sending a signal of commitment to the regions, we’re saying we want to empower you and we’re saying we’re prepared to resource you to give effect to that empowerment.

COXHEAD: Simon, I think I’m correct in saying that when Labor was in government you were responsible for setting up the regional programs originally.

CREAN: Yes, through the Area Consultative Committees. I did it through Working Nation. I took the view that we were far better off devolving responsibility to the regions. “You tell us,” I said to the regions, “what your employment and skill needs are, and we will give you the resources to

more effectively match your labour demand needs with the supply of the appropriate labour.” That worked very effectively. In the last six months of that program, by tapping into local leadership, we were responsible for placing something like 300,000 jobs all around Australia. So, it shows that it can work Gary, that’s my point. We lost office, that’s why the program did not continue, but if it worked so effectively because we did the simple things, we went out to the regions, we empowered them, we consulted them, we asked them what they needed, we had to be satisfied that the initiatives stacked up, but if they did, we would resource them. If it can work for those employment and training needs, why not the other portfolios? That is what I want to try to implement, and that is what I put forward yesterday.

COXHEAD: You mentioned what I think are two very important parts of any program to stimulate the regional areas, the skills base and employment prospects. And obviously, every region has different needs and requirements and as you say, they do need to be looked at on an individual basis.

CREAN: They do, Gary. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is not just the lesson for Australia, dispersed and remote in some parts as we are, it is the lesson of every country in the world that has had to face up to regional development. We’ve got to get away from these prescriptive models where the sense is that Canberra will tell you what to do, we’ve got to get

much more down to a devolved approach. I have seen this work. I am a passionate believer in it, we’ve got to convince many people about this approach, but you don’t need to convince the regions. You go out and talk to them, they are just wanting the opportunity to have a more effective input into what the needs of their regions are and to be able to get an effective response to help them implement the strategy that they come up with.

COXHEAD: Of course it is easier for large regional centres to gain government funding for projects, but it is the smaller communities that we have to encourage and build so that the children will want to come back home, and find meaningful jobs into the future. In our region, the Manillas, the Barabbas, the Quirindis, the Nundals, and the smaller communities.

CREAN: That’s exactly right and that’s another reason it is terribly important we provide the education and training opportunities within those regions. I had the opportunity at this conference to speak to the Vice Chancellor of the University of New England, for example. I am very interested in the sorts of distance education and the role of the regional universities and the TAFE facilities

and the high schools in providing these better training options, the options that suit more effectively the needs locally, so that people a, don’t have to travel to get the training, but b, if they are getting the training that is relevant to their area, it is going to help that area grow and they also get job opportunities in that area as well. I’d say again, Gary, it is not Canberra that knows best what happens, it is not Macquarie Street that knows best what happens in terms of that, it is the regions themselves. And we have to tap, not just the regional input, but make sure that the resources of all levels of government, federal, state and local government, are working in a more responsive and reflective way to address those needs. It is not that we lack resources, between the three levels of government, there are important resources out there that one way or the other are spent on the regions. What we have to do is to make sure they are spent more efficiently and the most effective way to do it is to respond more effectively to the needs that the locals themselves have identified.

COXHEAD: It appears we have been swept into a global economy, we are part of a free trade and a free market world now, but we have not invested to make the structural adjustment necessary in regional and rural areas so that the people on the ground are not suffering the pain of these changes.

CREAN: Well, that’s a very important point. You can’t stand still, you’ve got to respond to the opportunities in a global environment. But for that you need governments investing in innovation, in skills, in research and development, in proper industry policy, assisting people who previously used to produce just for the domestic market to get into export markets, and you need a trade policy that opens up those markets. Now I have been a very passionate advocate for value-adding our natural resource base. I think there is a huge potential for Australia to be, if you like, the food bowl for the Asian region. There’s nothing we can’t grow, there’s nothing we can’t produce, and what we do produce is recognised for its nutritional, clean and green qualities. If we can market that, if we can value add, if we can supply to bigger markets, then you are going to provide huge opportunities in regions where people who know their industry get involved more, up the chain, in what that industry does. It is not just the growing of the product, it is the marketing of it, the packaging, the research that goes into it, all of those complementary industries, that is where the brain power, the skills base can take us. But we won’t get there unless we invest in the skills and innovation, and unless we give genuine empowerment back to the regions to identify those opportunities and can give them the support that is needed to get their products to the markets.

COXHEAD: Simon, what you are talking about is a very necessary debate for this country, because what we are talking about is my daughter and the other young people, their future, the future of our kids.

CREAN: And we need to put the effort in on their behalf because they won’t let us down. If we give them the opportunity they will take the country further and that is what all of us want, Gary, so I do see a real role for government in all of this, but it is a role for government tapping the local

knowledge. You’ll be hearing a lot more from us about it. It is a debate that we do have to have and it is one that as we get closer to the next election that will become increasingly more prominent.

COXHEAD: Simon, thank you very much for sharing the details with us this afternoon.

CREAN: My pleasure, Gary, all the best.