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New think tank for regions fulfils hung parliament promise

When Tony Windsor was questioned yesterday over his allegiance in any ALP leadership swap, the independent MP declared Kevin Rudd wouldn’t get his automatic support. “I would be going back to the start and deciding between two candidates, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd,” he said. “Or whether there should be a third option — let the people make the decision.”

Fellow independent Rob Oakeshott made similar remarks. Less than two years ago it was their dual support that secured Julia Gillard the prime ministership. Gillard cinched the votes of Windsor and Oakeshott with a deal for regional development, education and infrastructure worth millions.

So it seems appropriate that one of those hung parliament initiatives, a new think tank dedicated to regional issues, is set to launch next week. The Regional Australia Institute (RAI) will focus specifically on national debate that affects regional Australia, including mining, tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and transport.

Compared to international jurisdictions, Australia doesn’t have a good research base of regional development,” Oakeshott, the member for Lyne, told Crikey. “So this is an opportunity to get greater co-ordination in regional thinking and regional policy development. That was the fundamental behind it.”

Mal Peters, the new chairman of the RAI, spoke to Crikey about his aims and hopes for the institute. He thinks the RAI can help to raise the profile of regional issues in metro public spheres.

The reality is because the majority of the populations are in the metropolitan centres, that tends to suck the oxygen out of the space that regional Australia can become involved [in],” said Peters. “Regional Australia has always lacked power in national debates because our advocates have lacked [the] sophisticated analysis and arguments [that can] influence governments. Our role will be to capture independent thinking from the best brains domestically and internationally, innovative solutions to some of these intractable problems that are in regional areas.

We also need to assist those communities that are going through transition and find better ways of engaging the regional communities for delivering services. The benefits of that are to make sure the nation as a whole gains the benefits.”

Peters says that this is the first national independent think tank devoted to regional issues.

I see this institute’s role is to make sure that factual base is in the national debates. Equally, to make sure that the research that is out there and the research that we conduct will be the bridge between academia and policy makers. There’s an awful lot of research conducted that sits on university shelves and doesn’t go anywhere.”

Oakeshott agrees there is plenty of work being done and says there is a distinct lack of co-ordination. He says a key to the success of the RAI will be as much a matter of co-ordination of existing research as in creating new research. As well as presenting governments with the results of research that can have an effect on policy making, the RAI will also engage with the media.

I would hope metro media as much as anyone else wants to engage all Australians,” said Oakeshott. “If there is some research that is newsworthy that makes people think about life outside metro areas a bit more, then Mal — and others hopefully — will be able to get that in front of as many people as possible. That’s not the reason behind the institute but if that’s one of the secondary benefits of its existence, then great.”

One problem the RAI may turn its attention to is the issue of land use, where mining companies and farmers want to use the same bits of land for different purposes.

The land-use conflict issues, the issues that are associated with fly-in-fly-out workers — and that’s not only in the mining industry, that’s happening across a number of sectors at the moment — that creates a lot of strains on rural communities,” said Peters. “I don’t think it’s clearly understood what the impacts are, what the costs are, but more importantly what opportunities could be created perhaps if it could be done a different way.”

Peters stressed the need for factual bases when discussing regional issues such as land use, foreign ownership of agricultural land, food security and food pricing: ”We don’t want to lose opportunities because we get bogged in debates that are being run on emotional lines rather than factual lines.”

Focusing on the facts could also lead to the RAI assuming an advocacy role for the regions.

Regional Australia is quite often portrayed [in the metropolitan media] in times of adversity, in droughts and in situations like that,” said Peters. “So the mental picture is painted of a poor-bugger-me-give-us-a-hand type mentality, rather than ‘this is an exciting place, there’s dynamic things happening, we are significant contributors to national wealth, here’s our story’. We need to be selling positive messages about regional Australia to make sure that people can see what a dynamic and exciting opportunity it can be.”

Peters notes that regional centres such as Wollongong, Port Hedland, the Gold Coast and Lake Macquarie are growing as fast or faster than capital cities. He also says that regional Australia contributes about 67% of the nation’s export income. ”Population growth in some of these regional centres equals and even exceeds the 1.8% growth experienced by major cities,” he said.

The RAI’s CEO has been selected but the name cannot yet be announced. The board that Peters chairs holds five other people: Ian Sinclair is a former leader of the National Party, professor Sandra Harding is the vice-chancellor of James Cook University, Dr Ngaire Brown was one of Australia’s first Aboriginal doctors, Grant Latta is a former chairman of Grains Research Development Corporation, and Christian Zahra is a former member of federal parliament from the Australian Labor Party. Peters himself is a former president of the NSW Farmers Association and runs a beef cattle farm in NSW.

He says the RAI will be “completely independent” of government. It has tax-free status, and is working with the Australian Tax Office so that donations made to it will be tax-deductible. It has seed funding of $8 million, enough to cover operations for an initial three years, but Peters says the RAI will be approaching other potential donors from time to time.

We’ll be talking to state governments on a project-by-project basis and talking to corporations on a project-by-project basis. And making sure that we can leverage extensively those funds that we have as seed funding,” he said.

The RAI will be launched at Parliament House on February 28. Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, will officiate alongside Peters.

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