If you ever wonder what happened to the billion dollar per year Royalties for Regions fund set up by Brendon Grylls and the state National Party, then you are not alone.
The answer is; it has become the lead actor in a real-life version of a Monty Python skit – the one where they refuse to admit that the parrot (named R for R) is dead.
While the money is real, with $829m allocated in last year’s state budget (cut down from $956m in 2018-19), the responsible agency Regional Development within DPIRD is like the walking dead they exist in name only—a department running around with no money to spend on their core business of regional development.
All that remains are the nine Development Commissions administering an almost empty bucket of funds and spruiking information about their regions that can be found on any number of government web sites.
Back in it’s heyday, during the Barnett/Grylls years, the dedicated Department of Regional Development was all powerful, acting as a government within a government allocating over seven billion dollars across 3600 programs. It was the place to go to get funding for your community, your sporting club, to undertake agricultural research and build hundreds of mobile phone towers.
But with the demise of Barnett and the rise of McGowan, the ALP moved to funnel the dollars through the black hole of Treasury, not surprisingly the money disappeared into the void of the new governments priorities which were retaining metro seats and building metro rail and road projects.
The original R for R fund was intended to allow departments and communities to pay for regional projects outside of normal Treasury processes, many of which would never have seen the light of day if the Treasurer of the day had the final say.
But any attempt now to find a full list of current R for R projects signed off by this government is all but impossible. Any search for the missing $3 billion dollars that should have been rolled out over the past three years would naturally commence with a review of the responsible ministers press releases, as we know all Ministers like to put their name to spending your money.
While our Regional Development Minister has been very busy, her spend does not add up to $3 billion dollars, far from it.
Moving on to the DPIRD – Regional Development web site in search of the lost $3 billion all I could find on the News and Events link were announcements celebrating the 2017 RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards finalists and the 2017 Regional Visitor Centre Sustainability Grant Program. No lost billions to be found here.
Next my search took me to the DPIRD link – Our Major Regional Projects which listed long completed Seizing the Opportunity old Ag Dept projects which were started by the previous government. Unfortunately, the $100m a year once pouring into ag related R and D projects has dried up to virtually nothing under this government.
In short, the McGowan government has spent the past three years strangling the Nationals’ pet project while pretending that the patient is still alive and doing just fine.
The regional development department lives on and while it still sponsors awards nights (or used to) it’s hard to see what else they do, as to where the money they used to oversee has gone the search continued.
The budget papers tell us that $829m was allocated to R for R for 2019-20, so there must be a list of projects somewhere that shows where that money went. Looking deeper for the lost list starting with DPIRDs 2019 Annual Report and you won’t find any detailed list of projects, something that was standard in the Barnett year’s budget papers.
However, there is a hint of where the money went in the DPIRD budget papers which shows 50 projects under the heading Grants and Subsidies. These included some of the last of the Barnett government’s R for R projects and, not surprisingly, that funding allocation has been tracking downwards from $136m in 2018/19 to just $67m in 2022/23. This is not just Ag related projects; this is any project administered by Regional Development.
A search of the nine individual Regional Development Commission web sites will also show no list of projects that adds up to anything like the nearly billion dollars they should have been administering for the year. The best I could come up with was a link to something called New Projects Grant Applications.
Here each Regional Development Commission proudly announces that there is $700,000 up for grabs as part of the Regional New Industries Fund, a total allocation of just $6.25m plus $4.5m for all Regional Economic Development Grants. $10.75m in total! What exactly do the nine development commissions do if all they have is a little over ten million dollars to hand out in grants.
The reality is most of the Commissions work has evaporated and all they are doing is acting as a referral office for other departments not to mention promoting the efforts of their minister. Would it not be better for the govt to divvy up their collective operating costs and allocate the $10m plus as additional community grants? That would at least doubt the chance of the tennis club in Corrigin or Cunderdin to pick up a grant to resurface their court surfaces.
With no list of projects adding up to a billion dollars in the budget papers, I ultimately found the answer in the Annual Report of the Western Australian Regional Development Trust. This obscure agency hidden away by Treasury actually lists a breakdown of Royalties for Regions Funding but only by headings;
- Regional Community Services Fund $427.9 m;
- Regional Infrastructure and Headworks Fund $392.5 m;
- New Regional and State-wide Initiatives $48.8 m;
- Regional Reform Fund $26.8 m
This confirms the government’s sleight of hand – Treasury has simply used R for R to fund health, education and road projects in the regions that would normally come out of the consolidated account.
What the government has done is allocate the R for R bucket to its pet urban projects such as $852m for the Bunbury Ring Road and $275m for the Bindoon bypass. It’s all spin aimed at hiding the fact that they have raided R for R to support marginal ALP outer metro seats.
The people in the regions were expecting the R for R funds to go into projects like spending $852m upgrading the 4300km of wheatbelt grain roads which desperately need to take 80 tn trucks—not the $70m pittance they got in the last budget.
Or maybe allocate the $275m Bindoon funding to 275 additional mobile base stations or a $275m upgrade of Albany highway. Orit could have been used to fund three years of fisheries and agricultural, R and D projects, or given to local councils to upgrade their community facilities.
The government needs to spare us the sort of spin we read in last year’s budget press releases. In one titled ‘Delivering for the Regions,’ the government proudly claimed they are spending $4.2 billion in R for R funding. What on – the Bunbury Ring Road and the Bindoon Bypass.
With the state budget due on the 14th of May, its time to call out the McGowan Government for what it’s done to Royalties for Regions. No doubt it will use the covid-19 crisis to justify more spin but spare us. We can take the bad news— the parrot is dead just admit it.