Archive for September, 2012

Collaborator Profile: Graham Simmons (Sydney, Australia)

September 26, 2012


My name is Graham Simmons. Born in Albury, raised in Sydney and Melbourne and lowered in Canberra. Began my career in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics working on wool marketing and a range of other rural issues. Then a mid-life interlude enjoying the lifestyles of Indonesia and SE Asia. Have spent the last 18 years as a travel writer/photographer. I am currently biding my time playing a little golf and doing some landscaping while trying to figure out what on earth meaningful travel is all about.

What is exciting you at present?

I think that the Cockatoo Network makes an outstanding contribution to bringing regional development issues from around the globe to the attention of stakeholders and policy makers. It has certainly got me thinking about how the travel journalism that nowadays so often lacks depth could be re-shaped as a means for connecting people in different countries.

One project I have in mind is to capture on film and in print the thoughts and ideas of some of the amazing, but unknown, community leaders in the developing world. An example is the businesspeople of Africa who are revolutionising the use of mobile phones for private banking and for business communications in a continent where landlines are at best scarce. My wish is to take their dreams and ideas onto a bigger stage by connecting them up with folks with similar aims and mindsets.

Example – the Vietnamese poultry farmer I photographed a couple of years back – see
– please note these photos are rights protected). If I had my time over again, I’d like to grab an interpreter and quiz him about his business plans. Who knows, he could be a budding entrepreneur just looking for that career break! And the Cockatoo Network could help us develop the collaborative pathways for him and many others like him.

If anyone has any thoughts on how this idea can be furthered, please contact me care of Cockatoo or E-mail

If anyone has any thoughts on how this idea can be furthered, please contact me care of Cockatoo or E-mail

And here’s a link to some published articles (interview with the son of the late President of Zambia for the Sun-Herald)

Political gifts

September 7, 2012

There were a lot of federal officials choking on their cornflakes recently when news broke about the junkets being enjoyed by federal politicians.

The reason is that foremost among the recipients was Bronwyn Bishop MP who reportedly has been taken on extensive overseas trips by Huawei Technologies and the Hong Kong Government. This is the same woman who has campaigned for years about the need for probity and transparency within the federal bureaucracy.

The news item also referred to free tickets to AFL/NRL matches and Qantas upgrades and ipads for a host of MPs and ministers.

I got to thinking why the corporate sector bestows such gifts on our politicians when they are well paid, and when surely people with a disability, their carers or community volunteers would be more deserving. And I thought further and realised that the feds have recently funded $10 million (from the Regional Development Fund of all places) towards Skilled Stadium in Geelong (home of the Cats) and $50 million towards the Sydney Cricket Ground (home of the Swans). I could never understand these decisions until now…

Lobbying – knowing who you’re dealing with

September 3, 2012

When dealing with the federal government, it’s wise to check who you’re dealing with. For example, a director could be the head of an agency like ASIO, AusAID or the National Library.

On the other hand, a director could be the head of a section within a vast Department. For example, the employment department (DEEWR) has 550 Director-level positions (or EL2). Such a director generally has 2-3 assistant directors (EL1), and DEEWR has 1521 of these. There are a similar number at the next rung down (APS6). Above a director are the SES officers, of which there are about 160 in DEEWR.

I make this point not to demean the common variety of directors. These days they are very well qualified, and they should be across the necessary detail. Getting anywhere on an issue usually requires you to convince a director or assistant director. Don’t feel shy about inviting them to your neck of the woods, to say a think tank or similar. During the Canberra winter is a great time! Note also that you don’t have to pay for their airfares, meals or ipads.

Maiden speeches

If you’re meeting with a Minister, read his/her maiden speech to Parliament. This will help you align your pitch. For example, by googling ‘Gillard maiden speech’, you will get an insight into what makes her tick. In her case, it’s education, jobs and a ‘fair go’.

Colin Steele (Section51) and I are geared to run workshops around Australia – to help councillors and staff to influence federal decisions and improve their access to grant programs. Please contact us for details.

Local government in Australia powerless?

September 3, 2012

Associate Professor Paul Collitts (Southern Cross Univ.) has prepared a thought-provoking paper ‘Is there a regional Australia, and is it worth spending big on?’ (Policy Magazine of the Centre for Independent Studies

Paul worked in the NSW Department of State and Regional Development when I first met him – a sharp, ‘call it as you see it’ bloke. Well he has maintained his track record. His basic messages in the above paper are:

1. Local government is weak almost to the point of powerlessness in Australia and that we do not have genuinely ‘regional’ government to match our regional economies.

2. Regional development authorities should either be funded properly or disbanded, and not simply used as filters for centrally determined funding decisions. A statutory authority at some distance from ministers could assist in embedding good regional policy in central governments.

3. Regional policy must get let go of the conviction that big infrastructure projects like the NBN or indeed hundreds of smaller infrastructure projects will ‘save’ regional Australia.

Freshwater’s fresh insights

I thought Paul Collitts’ opinions were a little harsh until the Regional Australia Institute’s inaugural event in late August. It featured international speakers including Professor David Freshwater (University of Kentucky) who had just been in Victoria discussing regional development issues. His translation of OECD and US policy experience into the Australian context was very useful at a number of levels.

His first point was that local government in Australia is highly dependent on transfers from the federal and state governments. He’s dead right. An eventual referendum recognising local government in the Constitution is one thing, but getting better balance in federal-state-local revenues is still problematical. It’s a difficult road because every time the defence, welfare and education lobbies scream blue murder at likely funding cutbacks, the chances of the feds agreeing to local government’s needs become more remote.

Freshwater’s second point was that our planning processes are reactive to federal/state settings, rather than being bottom-up, and that there’s an absence of business and volunteer input to planning processes. Well this is correct too, because the feds’ revenue powers provide no incentive for local stakeholders to get involved. The hypocrisy is that federal ministers and officials continue with devolution rhetoric while entrenching top-down program delivery systems.

The third observation by the learned US academic was that efficiency-based cuts in service delivery to rural areas, in Australia or anywhere, have detrimental effects on economic opportunity. He suggested that service delivery to the regions requires different mechanisms. according to the regional circumstances.

This is so true, and councilors and council executives might usefully reflect on whether you have the energy and commitment to lobby for a new mechanism for your region. As I’ve indicated in this column before, the delivery of federal programs is patchy and expensive.

The better solution is to wind back the competitive bidding by junking half the existing programs, and transferring those funds to Regional Development Commissions, similar to the WA model. This would give meaning to bottom up processes, deliver respect and attention to local stakeholders, and enable federal officials to get out of program administration into problem fixing.

This approach won’t be possible in all regions, but where there are a group of councils with a collaborative spirit it should be possible. Opposition will come from those who fear the rise of super councils. But the alternative is to suffer ongoing under-funding and centralised decision-making.

A review of the Local Government Financial Assistance Grants program has just been announced. Perhaps that is an avenue for the ALGA to float the above suggestion?