There is a lot to like about our region. The ease of getting around, good schools, amazing opportunities for sports and outdoor activities, and at least in normal times, easy transport connections to larger centres. The last 10 years have seen some great social investment, with features such as Kershaw Gardens, the riverbank, the Keppel Kraken and the Yeppoon Lagoon/The Rocks, offering public facilities equal to anywhere. There are also a lot of people invested in our region, not just in a financial sense, but across innumerable volunteer roles where quite often a very small number of people take on huge responsibility and effort for the good of the rest of the community. There are many medium sized businesses that we should be proud of, as they are growing and employing people. 20 years old in February, The Investment Collective (which I run), is among them.
In the last week of January, CQToday offered a full-page report on the establishment of a School of Advanced Manufacturing in Gladstone, and a School of Mining in Rockhampton by Central Queensland University (CQU). Politicians turned up in force for the opening, and with 311 construction jobs on the table, why wouldn’t they?
Unlike the politicians, construction jobs are not top of my interest. More important to me is that each of these schools plays to our natural strengths. Our region is home to world class mines and heavy engineering/manufacturing. The fact they are world class is indisputable, as they operate in competitive international markets and would not survive if they were not. Moreover, they are world class even though their operations are (rightly) subject to western safety protocols and environmental standards. The development of schools of Advanced Manufacturing and Mining is positive and dovetails perfectly with the strengths of the region. Done properly, it could see our region become a leader on the world stage.
There is however a disappointment for me in all this. 20 years ago, via a report completed for what was the RDPDA, I recommended the development of specialties focussed around the support of industrial processing and instrumentation in particular. Then 5 or 6 years ago I was invited to present to a group of public sector leaders, and suggested amongst other things, a Centre for Mine Remediation as an endeavour that would play to our strengths. By then however, CQU was deeply committed to a strategy focussing on international students. Despite success in that field, such offerings are not well-differentiated and have exposed many universities to the chill winds of COVID-19 and political tensions. CQU is a business and some of this pain would have been mitigated if the university had exploited sensible niches to create an economic moat.
Moving on from the university, Rockhampton has made little progress on the levy and virtually none on flood-proofing the airport, the latter even with Alliance Airlines selecting our town as a maintenance base which potentially aligns with CQU’s aeronautical offering. Currently, these delays are overshadowed by substantial government spending on the bypass, improvements at Shoalwater Bay, and other impending projects including a solar farm at Bouldercombe. This activity will last for a while and adds to recoveries in agriculture and resources, and the effect of people ‘coming home’ due to COVID-19. These are positives for our town, but perhaps except for COVID-19 led repatriation, they are cyclical. Eventually, the cycle will wane, and our region will find itself worse off than the previous economic bottom.
This is why it’s critical that our community leaders grasp the opportunity during buoyant times to invest ahead of the lean times. There needs to be much greater investment in things that play to our strengths, and that put our region on the map again, things that overshadow the negativity, things of which the whole community can be proud. For mine, a proper clean-up of the Mount Morgan Mine is long overdue, and spinning off that, a pumped hydro facility may well make sense (note Stanwell’s recent advertisements looking to acquire renewable energy projects). Our dump, which admittedly is vastly improved compared from 20 years ago, is still an underutilised resource, one that can attract Federal Money for the right projects. Also, the university should relocate some of its courses to town, as I proposed perhaps 23 years ago, and as was started under the Smart City Initiative. The Council should also explore alternative funding methodologies, including public-private partnerships.
At its heart, we can think of the failure to invest according to our strengths as theft. That’s because every day that goes by is one you and I don’t get again. Every delayed initiative denies us the benefit of that investment. Progressive communities know that and now there are some green shoots here. How will our leaders nurture them?