The Government has announced its reforms to the RDAs and responded to the Independent Review of the Regional Development Australia Programme (the ‘Smith Report’) from December 2016. The recommendation to Government to disband the RDA Programme has been rejected and instead, the network will be retained and refocused from that of planner to one that helps attract investment and facilitate economic opportunities in regions.
After the government’s decision and the Smith Report’s release, media commentary highlighted a need to ‘refocus’ RDA committees, sharpen their direction and have ‘performance measures’, while a range of other pivotal themes went unreported. Among the report’s many findings, three key themes stand out:
First, regions are ‘planned out.’ Each Regional Development Australia (RDA) Committee has published a plan that provides a roadmap for growth in their own particular region. While these plans may vary in quality, they lay essential groundwork that is unlikely to change over the next decade. “Regional plans are now developed,” says the report, “the focus going forward must be on the activities that deliver on these plans” (p. 4).
Second, partnerships matter. Governments need to collaborate with each other and communities.The report highlights several examples where government initiatives are misaligned, not only between state and federal levels but also within these levels themselves. Regions need real, active partnerships with all levels of government, communities and business leaders. This will help to sustain efforts over the longer term and are foundational to ‘top-up’ initiatives like the Regional Growth Fund or Building Better Regions Fund, which can be targeted to regions that have been left behind.
Third, regional development is not just about hard infrastructure. While bridges, roads and other hard infrastructure is important to economic growth in regions, it is only part of the picture. The real driver of growth in regions in the 21st Century is people, their skills and how they work together. This means that ‘soft infrastructure’ like education, investing in skills to use digital and connective technology, improving a community’s capacity to collaborate and to deliver services is just as important as concrete.
Overall, the RDA reform process has produced a decent result and it is great for the network to have security and a renewed mandate so they can get back to work.
The RAI has for a long time supported a significant reduction in RDA effort on planning. This change will free up limited resources to be devoted to implementation and playing an active role in key regional issues.
We have also been longtime supporters of improvement rather than abolition and redesign of the network. The only time institutions can be perfect is the moment before they actually exist. The tendency in Australia to continually abolish and remake regional institutions hasn’t advanced their basic design in any significant way. Instead abolition and redesign mostly undermines the essential soft infrastructure of strong networks and partnerships that enable economic development in regions.
We commend the government for committing to the continuation of RDAs and to work on the performance of the network, and look forward to working with RDA leaders and the government as they implement this new mandate.