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The Regional Australia Summit

Regional Australia SummitINTRODUCTION

In early 1999, staff of the Regional Services, Development and Local Government Division sensed that for several months that year they might be putting their lives on hold. For during his National Press Club speech in February of that year, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Hon. John Anderson MP, announced that he would convene a summit to be held 2729 October 1999 at Parliament House in Canberra to address the difficulties and challenges facing rural and regional Australia.

Minister Anderson had spoken of his concern that much of regional and rural Australia was feeling a deep sense of alienation, of being left behind, and of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution being made to the nation. He had also expressed concern that Australia was at risk of splitting into two nations.

A Regional Australia Summit of the scale that it turned out to be was a big ask for the Division. Events of that magnitude normally take 1218 months to organise, but in this instance the event was held eight months after its announcement and with funds re-allocated from the Departments budget. For the Department of Transport and Regional Services, the Regional Australia Summit became the priority event of 19992000, and reinforced the important regional role of the portfolio among Commonwealth agencies.

Getting things underway the Summit Unit

In the early days, four staff worked on the Summit, often for 18 hours a day. Their number increased to six full-time staff and one part-timer: the Summit Unit was established. There was continuous discussion among Ministers, their advisers and the Summit team, with ongoing and broad-ranging briefing on the issues arising from Summit preparation.

As time went on, the range of tasks that would deliver a program to make the most of this gathering of regional and rural representatives grew. From March until October, the team undertook a range of activities, from ordering stationery and Summit packages for delegates, to more complex and time-consuming tasks such as talking with senior business, government and community leaders and subject experts, and commissioning background papers for participants' fuller involvement.

Before the Summit was held, and during it, it was all hands on deck, with officers from right across the Department acting in a variety of roles, from ushers to scribes.

The Summit Unit entered a contract with a professional conference organisation, which helped organise the transport, accommodation, venue secretariat services and Summit registration. Other consultants were engaged for discrete elements of the Summit and more specific input to the proceedings, as required.

In the Summit lead-up, the Unit:

  • processed more than 600 expressions of interest in attendance, including calls from members of the public in rural and regional Australia interested in finding out more;
  • discussed the Summit and its potential outcomes and benefits to regional Australia with Chief Executive Officers and other leaders to shore-up commitment to the event;
  • gathered the names of potential background-paper contributors, commissioned 27 such papers and commented on abstracts and drafts;
  • engaged 12 people to facilitate the Summit's theme working groups. This involved framing tender specifications, drawing up contracts, providing detailed briefing in Canberra, arranging meetings with the Minister and Summit Reference Group, and arranging tours of the venue in advance of the event; and
  • invited and briefed six keynote speakers to address the delegates, including two international speakers.

The Summit Unit also gathered case study information from communities around Australia, four case studies finally presented to demonstrate different aspects of Summit themes. They were presented so that problems and the resulting solutions, models, ideas and techniques could be explored and discussed in terms of their application to other communities.

Diplomacy and trouble-shooting skills became finely honed as the Unit managed a variety of views on how the event should proceed and dealt with last-minute confirmations and sudden unavoidable withdrawals from the event.

Summit Reference Group

In May 1999, Minister Anderson announced the establishment of a high-level Reference Group, chaired by the Rt Hon. Ian Sinclair, to assist in the development of the Summit. The Groups task was to shape the broad themes of the Summit into a detailed program, ensuring that overall objectives were met, the Department providing secretariat support. These objectives were to:

  • develop a national appreciation of the challenges facing regional Australia;
  • gather ideas on how these challenges could be met;
  • establish a series of goals for regional Australia; and
  • identify the roles that government and the corporate and community sectors should take to achieve those goals.

AT THE SUMMIT

Participants

Involvement in the Summit was by invitation, the Summit Reference Group advising the Deputy Prime Minister on potential participants. The Group had wanted a broad mix of participants from all parts of Australia, from relevant industry sectors and from the community sector. It also attempted to achieve a reasonable gender balance and significant indigenous and youth participation.

Representatives of State, Territory and local governments were also invited, and in the months before October, staff visited and briefed relevant State government agencies and other key organisations such as the National Rural Health Alliance.

The Summit eventually involved more than 500 attendees with 282 delegates, about 50 of whom were high-level attendees specifically invited to a concurrent meeting. That group included federal Cabinet Ministers, chief executive officers of Australias major companies, and political leaders from the States and Territories. The strategy was to focus attention at the highest level across all sectors on the issues of regional Australia, and to build support for the notion of a partnership response. Some participating in the high-level group were Mr Ziggy Switkowski, CEO of the Telstra Corporation, Mr David Morgan, Managing Director of the Westpac Banking Corporation and Mr Bailleau Myer, Chairman of the Sidney Myer Fund.

Though working behind the scenes, public servants and politicians were not formal delegates. The Summit Unit set up an office in Parliament House to orchestrate the program, while the Divisions web publishing team found a niche in Minister Andersons dining-room.

The two portfolio Ministers and the Parliamentary Secretary attended the Summit, but indicated they were there to listen and learn, and restricting their speeches to opening and closing remarks.

Theme working groups

During the Summit, working groups were established on the basis of the 12 Summit theme topics. Participants joined groups depending on their subject of expertise or interest. Group facilitators possessed some content knowledge and good facilitation skills. The role of Departmental staff was to work with the groups as scribes. Working Groups

One of the 12 theme topics discussed
was communications.

More than eight hours of the Summit program were devoted to the working groups, with the aim of using the opportunity provided to develop clear and concrete priorities and strategies.

Reporting

The 12 working groups developed key priorities, and each group produced a detailed report on its respective themes.

Each identified four or five key priorities, major issues and challenges, and proposed strategies to address them. It also identified who or what would be needed to implement the strategies. Approximately 250 specific strategies were recommended by the groups and presented to the plenary by the facilitators on the last morning of the Summit.

The formal dinner

On the evening of the second day, Minister Anderson hosted a formal dinner for all attending, providing an opportunity for participants to mingle and talk with others at leisure. The Prime Minister was guest speaker at the dinner, organised by the Summit Unit, which found itself taking on a surprising range of duties, from choosing courses, arranging flowers and chamber music, and managing seating arrangements.

REPORTING THE SUMMIT

Significant Departmental public affairs support was harnessed to develop a detailed communications strategy, which included a Summit media centre. A large display of case studies was also set up in the Mural Hall of Parliament House for the three days of the event. The result was hundreds of print and electronic media stories, and nation-wide interest.

The public affairs support by Departmental staff also included a comprehensive web site, which displayed all background papers and related information. During the Summit, the web publishing team from the Divisions Regional Communications Unit worked an average of 16 hours per day over the three days, updating the site and acting as the coordination and liaison point between the Department and the Summit Secretariat. Regional Communications Unit web publishing team

Allyson Luders and Nathan Wall from the Regional
Communications Unit web publishing team
of the Division, on site at the Summit.

There were 19 major updates over three days. Departmental staff posted papers as they were released, announcements as they were made, keynote addresses as delivered, and working group reports as finalised. The web site was also linked to the public broadcasters (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) web site, where plenary proceedings were webcast live.

The site proved very popular, 11 500 pages requested during the Summit and a further 8900 documents downloaded during October, and 10 380 during November.

A freecall telephone and fax and electronic mail Solutions Line was also established to provide more people with the opportunity to contribute potential solutions to the challenges facing regional Australia. The lines operated in the week before and during the Summit, input analysed daily and provided to delegates.

POST-SUMMIT IMPLEMENTATION

Regional Australia Summit Steering Committee and Secretaries Taskforce

At the conclusion of the Summit, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Regional Australia Summit Steering Committee, to be chaired by Professor John Chudleigh,Professor and former College Principal, Orange Agricultural College, The University of Sydney. A Departmental Secretaries Taskforce was also established, chaired by the Transport and Regional Services Secretary, to raise the profile of regional issues in all Commonwealth agencies.

The Department

For some time after the Summit, the Summit Unit worked with other agencies to further Summit outcomes and provided advice to the Commonwealth Government. The Department has provided ongoing secretariat support to the Steering Committee and produced a newsletter and website updates on the Committees activities and thoughts.

SUMMIT OUTCOMES AND ACHIEVEMENTS

Since October, the Department has worked to facilitate cooperation among governments, and has facilitated or begun implementing programs that found their genesis in the Summit.

  • Cooperation between levels of government

Ministers convened a meeting with State and Territory ministers for regional development and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) in March this year, and agreed to work to establish a clear framework for cooperation among all levels of government in areas of regional development. A further meeting will be held later in 2000.

On 21 July 2000, Ministers and the Australian Council for Infrastructure Development, jointly convened the National Infrastructure Round Table in Melbourne. The Round Table explored the Commonwealths role in creating an economic environment more conducive to private-sector investment in infrastructure, whether independent of government or in partnership with it.

  • Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal

The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, announced at the Summit, was established during the 19992000 financial year. This philanthropic foundation is helping to provide a viable social and economic future for Australias regional, rural and remote communities, with emphasis on economic development and job creation.

  • Regional Solutions Programme

The $90 million Regional Solutions Programme announced on 18 June 2000 is specifically designed to help regional and rural communities develop and implement locally focused solutions in building their economic and social bases.

Funding is targeted to communities dealing with economic stagnation or population decline due to industry restructuring and a lack of development opportunities, and to regional areas with high population growth experiencing above-average unemployment levels. The programs flexibility is a direct response to concerns of Summit delegates that one size fits all programs do not meet local needs in regional Australia.

  • Research programs for rural and regional Australia

Flowing from the Summit recommendations was the announcement in May of research and development programs for rural and regional Australia. They comprise the Understanding Rural Australia Programme, Rural and Regional Development Grants, and the Research, Information and Data Fund.

The aim is to improve the availability and application of research into and data on economic issues, foster community development activities, and enhance local understanding of development techniques and processes.

Budget-related Ministerial Statement

Regional Australia: Making a Difference, was the Budget-related Ministerial Statement published by the two portfolio Ministers in May 2000. The Federal Governments embrace of the Summit Steering Committees vision and its commitment to working in partnership with communities, governments and the private sector is set out in this document. Making a Difference outlines new measures from the Government, and policy and programme developments and enhancements made in response to the needs of regional Australians as voiced during the Summit.

The Summit identified three strategic areas requiring action: equity of services in regional communities, economic and business development, and community empowerment. Making a Difference encapsulates the work being done across the broad range of Commonwealth portfolios to address these three areas fundamental to regional life.

The Department

The Department has a significant role to play in furthering the federal aspects of Summit outcomes. It is:

  • leading the development, nationally, of an integrated whole-of-government approach to regional issues, that supports communities own solutions;
  • encouraging Commonwealth agencies to give priority to issues facing regional Australia when they develop and implement policies and programs; and
  • improving the understanding of Commonwealth agencies of the requirements of individual communities, by improving the ways regional needs are analysed.

Since the Summit, the Departments regional service and development functions have been reconfigured, to organise the Department to undertake better the service, program and policy activities expected and required of it.

The Department aims to ensure that the momentum established by the Summit continues.

Northern Forum

On 13 September 1999, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, Senator the Hon. Ian Macdonald, announced there would be a forum with a northern focus. Northern Australia: Forum for Growth into the New Century, is to be held 17-20 October 2000 in Katherine in the Northern Territory. The aim of the Forum is to assist the people of northern Australia to examine their future economic direction and identify emerging industry opportunities.

The Regional Forums Section of the Regional Services, Development and Local Government Division was subsequently set up and its six staff have been busy conducting local pre-Forum consultations and arranging the logistics of the Forum itself. Approximately 150 participants from across northern Australia and the Indian Ocean Territories are expected to attend.

The Divisions Communications Unit has also been involved in Forum preparations, working on media liaison and releases, and producing promotional material, including newsletters and a web site. Post-Forum, the Division will coordinate a whole-of-government response by the Federal Government and be working with State and Territory departments, the private sector and the community on the Forum outcomes.