Regional development policy is back in vogue, and not just the usual rhetoric.
In April a landmark report published by an unlikely alliance, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and the Local Government and Shires Association of NSW, is a breath of fresh air in a debate raging for a long time in this country – how to create jobs and prosperity in regional Australia.
This report, entitled ‘Enterprise Zones’, provides some timely answers to these crucial questions.
At this time last year I argued for the establishment of Free Trade Zones (FTZs) in Australia in the Illawarra Mercury editorial pages after reading some captivating work undertaken by the Hunter region’s Beyond 2000 Committee.
I suggested that the Illawarra had to be "… more proactive in picking up the pace of industrial diversity by joining our Hunter region colleagues in arguing for the establishment of a free trade zone".
I suggested this region’s political, business, trade union and community leadership needed to ‘quickly and actively partner’ the Hunter’s push on this concept. Nothing has changed my mind.
There are no easy solutions to creating jobs in regional areas - except we do know that without job creation, regions decline, services vanish, and the opportunity to share in Australia’s economic growth goes with it.
‘Enterprise Zones’ shows that Australia’s policy-makers and commentators need to actively rethink the basis of regional development policy and programs. And the time is now.
For too long Australia’s regional development policy has been set as either non-existent – as is the case now – to focusing on short-term, ad-hoc planning and too-little-too-late intervention.
The rhetoric is there. The nature of the problems facing regions is clear. But the conclusions are harder to implement.
The Howard Government cleared the decks of its role in regional development. After the 1996 election then Minister for Transport – and former member for Gilmore – John Sharp made it clear that the Constitution did not foresee a role for the Commonwealth in regional issues.
The regional development cause has not been a glowing show for Labor governments either, but Labor’s rhetoric was matched by solid commitments. Whitlam created for the first time a department to deal with regional issues. Fraser pretty much ignored it. Hawke, despite an early interest, suddenly had it wane.
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