VICTORIA needs a cabinet portfolio for the food industry, writes GREG WALSH
In co-engineering the shock defeat of the former Kennett Government 11 years ago, John Brumby displayed an astute awareness of one of the first principles of Victorian politics: that the pathway to winning and holding government in this state runs through regional and rural communities.
The release of the Victorian Government's Regional Development Blueprint last week demonstrates that Mr Brumby has not forgotten this.
But election politics aside, there is much in the blueprint that Champions of the Bush - a small, but influential group of regionally-based businesses from across Victoria - has advocated and now applauds.
The emphasis given in the blueprint to providing young Victorians in regional areas with greater access to training and education is critical to the balanced development of business and community life across the state.
In addition to strengthening the delivery of TAFE and university services in regional and rural areas, the next 12 months will also see the Victorian Government back some exciting new approaches to bridging the knowledge and skills gaps between regional and metropolitan areas.
One of these is a program established by Champions of the Bush to assist 72 businesses in six regions across Victoria.
The Regional Executive Forum initiative, as we call it, is a business capacity building program that will bring together the managing directors of regionally-based businesses interested in accessing new information and technologies relevant to the growth and sustainability of their businesses.
It will also provide a structured opportunity for regional business managers to share knowledge, experience and expertise in resolving day-to-day, business management issues and problems. The program will be facilitated by SED Consulting and led by six highly experienced business leaders drawn from industry around Victoria.
Champions of the Bush also welcomes the dedicated funding packages for small towns, the continuing funding for regional infrastructure and the additional assistance to be provided to the tourism industry.
However, the blueprint makes only tangential reference to Victoria's most important regional industry - the food and beverage industry.
It provides $500,000 for the development of a new regional food industry strategy.
Compare this with $10m provided to boost country football and netball. In the end, the viability of football and netball clubs depends on their participants' capacity to find work in the regional areas in which they exist.
The food and beverage industry is the state and nation's largest manufacturing industry and the second most important source of export earnings.
From an urban settlement point of view, Australia remains a highly urbanised and centralised society; but from a food and beverage industry perspective, it is more diffuse, decentralised and regionally based than is commonly understood.
For example, although a third of Australia's population lives outside the capital cities, about half the total number of food and beverage manufacturing firms in Australia are in regional areas.
Our strategic planners and political leaders need to better understand the disproportionately large contribution that the people of rural and regional areas make not only to the health and wealth of the nation, but also to resolving international food security crises now occurring in various parts of the world with increasing frequency.
If governments wish to shape regional economies, the food and beverage industry is the access card they must use.
Champions of the Bush would like to see the food industry more effectively managed by government through the establishment of a dedicated cabinet portfolio which encompasses the entire value chain in the industry, from agriculture, through manufacturing to retailing and export.
- Dr Greg Walsh is Champions of the Bush chairman