Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Sixth Annual Regional Illawarra Leadership Summit

Location: Northbeach Novotel, North Wollongong


Can I start by also adding my acknowledgement to the traditional owners.

Can I also acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues Minister John Ajaka MLC, Minister for the Illawarra, Lee Evans, Gareth Ward and Ryan Park; Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery OAM; other Mayors and councillors; Mr Eddy De Gabriele, Chair, RDA Illawarra, Ms Natalie Burroughs, CEO, RDA Illawarra and staff; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to be able to join you today for Illawarra RDA’s sixth annual Regional Leadership Summit and as an Illawarra-based Senator, I am indeed honoured to be here today representing the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP.

As you know the British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron is addressing the joint sitting Parliament today. I am pleased though that I was able to be here today.

The Prime Minister has asked me to commend you for your tremendous contribution to our region and passes on his very best wishes.

Having been born and raised in the Illawarra, I remain staunchly proud of this culturally diverse and unique slice of Australia, especially given my role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services with special responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

Today 45% of us were either born overseas or have a least one parent who was born overseas. We speak over 300 languages including indigenous languages. The Illawarra is very much reflective of contemporary Australian society. This is of great advantage to us.

The Illawarra has made significant progress in the nine years since I delivered my maiden speech in the Senate in June 2005. I said at the time that the Illawarra had yet to realise its full potential.

Since then, there have been global economic shifts including a downturn in steel demand which have impacted on our region. We have challenges to meet but it is not a story of doom or gloom, rather it is a doorway to the future.

Our region is currently entering a period of transition from a ‘Steel City’ to a ‘City of Innovation’.

We are shifting from a traditional manufacturing and heavy industry base to one making the most of new opportunities in the services sectors and digital and knowledge-based industries.

Wollongong can pride itself on its position as the third largest city in New South Wales and the tenth largest in Australia.

The University of Wollongong is now ranked in the top two percent of universities in world with the SMART faculty acknowledged as an international leader in applied infrastructure research.

I congratulate RDAI. Your practical and co-operative steps demonstrate the regional leadership that is required to build on the diverse strengths of the Illawarra, to provide an achievable vision for the future.

Can I particularly commend your proactive approach through your Transition Illawarra initiative. The Illawarra has a highly skilled workforce, and great potential for growth and development.

The Transition Illawarra report provides a blueprint for the future, a clear pathway on how to capitalise on growing opportunities on a local, national and international front.

I welcome that the RDAI will continue to promote the Illawarra to the business community as a major source of investment opportunities.

Briefly, I would like to take this opportunity to give you a quick update on the Government’s progress on the RDA Committee network and a reminder about the National Stronger Regions Fund application process.

As most of you will be aware, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Warren Truss MP, announced the Government’s position on the RDA Committee network at the Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia Conference in Alice Springs on 8 October.

The Deputy Prime Minister reiterated the important role the Government has to play in supporting the economic development of all regions.

The Government had hoped that agreement could be reached with all States to develop a model where all three tiers of government worked together to sponsor a national network of regional development organisations. However the prospect of all States agreeing to participate in a common RDA network anytime soon seems remote.

Nevertheless, the Coalition Government will continue to cooperate with those states and local Governments that want to work with us.

The importance of engagement with local government will be reinforced and tripartite arrangements such as those that exist in South Australia with the Local Government Association will be encouraged, as will relationships with Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

We will retain the existing 55 RDA Committees. This means that for most RDAs — including RDAI — current arrangements and structures will not be greatly changed.

Committees will be expected to focus more strongly on regional economic development and facilitating local projects that make a difference for their local communities, drive economic growth and make the most of the potential capability of their region.

There will be some changes made to streamline the RDA Committee appointment processes, reduce administrative burden and simplify governance arrangements.

The current appointment process will be simplified with the Chair and Deputy Chair appointments being made by the Government, jointly with State and Territories where they are funding partners.

Expressions of interest were advertised in National and State newspapers on Saturday 25 October 2014 and I encourage you to apply.

RDA Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs will make the appointments to fill Committee vacancies themselves.

A further review into the RDA network will be undertaken in two years to assess the effectiveness of the arrangements, especially in light of the current federalism discussions.

The Government continues to support regions through the National Stronger Regions Fund.

Round 1 applications opened on 1 October and close on 28 November for grants between $20,000 and $10 million for up to 50% of the cash cost of projects.

The Fund will invest $1 billion over five years and will prioritise funding in disadvantaged areas.

These investments will have a focus on strengthening economies in Australia’s regions by improving their productivity, economic opportunity, employment and workforce skills.

To best deliver critical infrastructure, the Fund will encourage the formation of strong partnerships that engage project proponents with the private sector and local, state and territory governments.

Unlike some previous funding programmes, RDA Committees will not be involved in the prioritisation and selection of projects. However, they can be an integral part of the identification, development and preparation of suitable projects.

I encourage you to assist applicants in the Illawarra to identify priority projects, facilitate links with potential partners and assist where necessary in the application process in projects that you feel would meet the criteria for funding.

This new Fund of course is coupled with other initiatives being delivered for regional Australia.

We continue to deliver almost 300 small grants for community projects as part of our $314 million Community Development Grants program.

There is $565 million to fix Black Spots on roads.

We have funded a new $300 million Bridges Renewal Programme which has generated strong interest and the first round of applications are currently being assessed.

And we have much more planned including the $100 million Mobile Phone Blackspot Program which will extend mobile phone coverage and competition in regional Australia.

The list goes on. We have been working hard to ensure that regional Australia receives due focus and we are delivering real initiatives and resources on the ground.

Future growth for the Illawarra will require all sectors of the community working together with all levels of government.

I firmly believe the complex social challenges facing our society will never be solved by governments working alone, but in partnership with civil society.

This is the social glue that binds our society together and gives us a sense of belonging in our communities.

I thank RDA Illawarra for your commitment to building a prosperous and sustainable future for our region. I look forward to working with you in the coming months and facilitating your efforts to help showcase the Illawarra in Canberra.

I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward to hearing about the outcomes of today’s summit.

On behalf of the Australian Government, can I thank you once again for the opportunity of inviting me to this important event.