Who's responsible for driving regional development?

OPINION: The election has come and gone, and it is time once again to think about regional development, and who is responsible for driving it.

What particularly attracted my attention was the campaign in the Victorian rural seat of Indi run by independent Cathy McGowan.

Her campaign was conceived specifically to turn Indi into a marginal electorate in order to get more attention from Canberra.

There are various euphemisms for this, like getting Canberra to "take us seriously" or "give the electorate a voice" in Canberra, and so on.

But the bottom line is that "we" must get our fair share.

If it is not regions (electorates) playing this game of fair share, it is industries. The car industry is a classic.

Just give us a bit more, and we will stay manufacturing in Australia.

The story is played out also by community groups who rely on government funding, and certainly by academics.

This is the world of vested interests.

Each group must make the argument, ever louder, that if funding for such-and-such is removed, the whole world will cave in.

This approach perverts, indeed corrupts, real regional development; fosters a "we was robbed" culture in regional Australia and reduces the will of regional people to develop their own solutions to their regions' challenges.

Turning regional policy into a mere process of distributing funding shares diminishes creative thinking about the big questions of regional development - What are we trying to achieve? Who is responsible for regional development? What drives regional growth? What works? What are the things that we, locally, can influence?

The cargo cult approach diminishes creative policy thinking in Canberra and Brisbane, and diminishes creative strategic thinking in communities and regions as well. It is a cop out.

Creating buckets of money saves thinking about the hard questions. Under this regime, regional developers spend much of their time applying for grants from government This leads to a perpetual game of "funding funding funding". The competition for public resources, fighting over shares of the pie, merely takes us all away from the real game of growing the regional pie.

Regions need to get off the treadmill, the drip feed, and cease simply looking to Brisbane or to Canberra for regional solutions.

Now, if we must keep playing the competitive grants game, we should at least get our grant programs focused on creating or supporting the creation of a business culture that rewards entrepreneurs and encourages them to invest, grow and create jobs.

But let's draw a very clear distinction between "spending on regions" and regional policy.

The latter should not be about perceived fairness and fair shares, but about working with communities and regions to create new value in local economies.

And government interventions cannot, of themselves, do this. Only communities can.

Adding value means identifying regional assets and using them in new ways.

It means working in collaborative partnerships across regions and sectors.

It means picking up the phone and working together to create that "innovative ecosystem" that separates the Silicon Valleys of the world from the others who just tag along hoping for government morsels to fall from the table.

And working together doesn't just mean writing a grant application together, just so we can employ yet another project officer.

Getting a new hospital or community hall or indeed the NBN in Tamworth, Port Macquarie or anywhere else is not regional development. I just hope that the McGowanistas in Indi and all the other good folks who complain about getting fair shares for the bush accept the need to do a major reset, and instead get themselves focused on what really drives regional growth.

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland's Fraser Cost campus and research director of the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration.



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