Article – Funding focus for marginal regions

10 October 2014
Colin Bettles
North Queensland Register
DEPUTY Prime Minister Warren Truss has kickstarted the $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund that aims to deliver economic infrastructure projects in the bush.
However, Labor Shadow Regional Development Minister Julie Collins says the Abbott government will use the fund to secure marginal seats, just like the last time they held office.
Mr Truss pledged the Fund in last year’s election campaign saying $200 million per year would be invested into regional projects over five years, starting in 2015.
“These projects will make regional communities a place where more people choose to live as they pursue opportunities for themselves and their families,” he said in his National Press Club address during campaigning.
“This Fund will have a capacity to generate billions of dollars of investment in the most depressed regions of our nation, with an initial allocation of $200 million per year.”
Under the Fund, regional councils and community groups can now apply for grants of between $20,000 and $10 million.
Each project requires a 50 per cent matching financial contribution from community groups, private sector groups and local or State governments, which Mr Truss said was “like the old Regional Development Fund under the Howard government”.
The National party leader and Infrastructure Minister says the Coalition is expected to increase the $1 billion cash pot as the Australian economy’s conditions improve.
The Fund will target regions with low socio-economic circumstances, where unemployment levels are high through projects that enhance freight and transport projects.
Convention centres and major multipurpose sports and community facilities are also in the mix.
Mr Truss said projects seeking funding will be considered in consultation with the Australian government’s National Infrastructure Committee, which has a strong interest in, and commitment to, harnessing the potential of Australia’s regions.
However, Ms Collins was not amused by the Coalition’s regional funding promises. She said the Fund was “cold comfort” to regional Australia which has endured nothing but “cuts and neglect” since the Abbott government took office more than 12-months ago.
She said Mr Truss’s first act as Infrastructure and Regional Development Minster was to gut $250 million out of critical regional projects resulting in these projects being either unfunded or “indefinitely delayed”.
That was on top of the more than $900 million “ripped out” of local government through the Abbott Budget cuts to vital financial assistance grants, she said.
“If Warren Truss thinks regional Australia will praise him for a fund that doesn’t come close to covering the even larger cuts he has already made, he’s obviously lost touch with the bush,” she said.
“By the time any money actually starts flowing from the Stronger Regions Fund, it will be almost two years with not a cent hitting the ground in regional Australia thanks to the Abbott government.
“Equally concerning is that the Abbott government will use this fund to secure marginal seats like they did when last in government.
“We already know the Abbott government has used its Community Development Grants Program as a slush fund to target marginal regional seats now held by the Liberal and National parties.
“More than 80 per cent of those funds went to seats held by the Abbott government.”
Ms Collins said money from the Fund must be allocated to projects that deliver the most benefit to regional communities, not on the political party of the local member.
“Minister Truss must assure regional communities that the Stronger Regions Fund will not become another regional rorts program,” she said.
However, in the election campaign Mr Truss said the Coalition would honour all signed contracts but any unsigned projects were “just a Labor Party election promise”.
“I can recall when we lost office in 2007 that the Labor Party immediately cancelled all of the projects which we had committed to under the Regional Development Fund,” he said.
“So, Labor did not fund the commitments that the Liberal and the National parties had made in 2007.
“And from our perspective, promises that the Labor Party have made are their promises and the promises that we make are our promises and they are the ones we are going to keep.”
The Fund was praised by rural coalition MP’s including NSW Liberal Angus Taylor, NSW National Michael McCormack and Queensland LNP Senator Matthew Canavan.
Mr Taylor said the Fund would support a range of local and regional development initiatives designed to spur economic growth.
“The government’s focus is on strengthening economies in Australia’s most disadvantaged regions and communities by improving productivity, economic opportunity, employment and workforce skills,” he said.
Mr McCormack said the Fund would encourage communities to engage with the private sector and potentially state and local governments in developing local solutions.
Applications for round one funding will be accepted between 1 October 2014 and 5pm on 28 November 2014.
Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.
Courtesy of the North Queensland Register