States need skills re­ten­tion plan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources - Keith Orchi­son

ONE of the big­gest prob­lems for state gov­ern­ments in pur­su­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment is their in­abil­ity to re­tain skilled plan­ners, ac­cord­ing to a ma­jor man­age­ment con­sul­tancy com­pany. Ron Lo­borec, head of Deloitte’s en­ergy, in­fra­struc­ture and re­sources di­vi­sion, and Roger Black, the con­sul­tant’s na­tional in­fra­struc­ture leader, say the skills short­age is­sue is far from unique to Aus­tralia — it is be­ing en­coun­tered around the world — but is ex­ac­er­bated here be­cause most state gov­ern­ments are still wrestling with private own­er­ship of key ser­vices and with the con­cept of part­ner­ships with the private sec­tor.

As a re­sult, they warn, the av­er­age age of im­por­tant Aus­tralian in­fra­struc­ture as­sets is head­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion.

With the ex­cep­tion of Vic­to­ria, which was put in the van­guard of a new approach by the Ken­nett Gov­ern­ment a decade ago, they say, state gov­ern­ments have yet to fully ac­cept that the old way of de­liv­er­ing ser­vices does not work very well any more.

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem, they ar­gue, is whether plan­ning is un­der­taken proac­tively or re­ac­tively. Mostly, they say, gov­ern­ments be­have re­ac­tively and al­most al­ways too slowly to meet con­sumer and com­mu­nity needs.

But even where a gov­ern­ment has the right approach, says Black, cit­ing the 2026 plan for south-east Queens­land as an ex­am­ple, the mag­ni­tude of the task may well over­whelm its ca­pac­ity to de­liver — and this is mostly the out­come of a short­age of peo­ple with the skills set to ne­go­ti­ate and de­liver ma­jor con­tracts. ‘‘ The enor­mity of the task leads to paral­y­sis in man­age­ment.’’

Look­ing ahead eight to 10 years, Lo­borec and Black pre­dict, one of the big changes to be an­tic­i­pated in Aus­tralian in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment is the way gov­ern­ments de­liver ser­vices. Gov­ern­ments, they say, must over­come ‘‘ the urge to own and con­trol ev­ery­thing’’ and come to terms with a new re­la­tion­ship with busi­ness in in­fra­struc­ture plan­ning and man­age­ment.

How fast a new approach can be em­braced, they add, will de­pend as much on gov­ern­ments be­ing able to find and re­tain man­agers with the abil­ity to un­der­stand the is­sue and to drive a new approach as it will on pol­icy change.

With ser­vices such as en­ergy, rail and health re­ly­ing in­creas­ingly on age­ing in­fra­struc­ture, say Lo­borec and Black, there is an ur­gent need for state gov­ern­ments to re­vamp their plan­ning pro­cesses, but they are more and more hin­dered in the task be­cause the best and bright­est pro­fes­sional work­ers are mov­ing in to the private sec­tor.

Gov­ern­ments, says Black, need to ac­cept that private busi­ness is bet­ter equipped, bet­ter skilled and has greater in­cen­tive to tackle the in­fra­struc­ture back­log that is now widely iden­ti­fied as hold­ing back Aus­tralian eco­nomic progress.

An ad­di­tional key fac­tor, adds Lo­borec, is the need for gov­ern­ments to recog­nise the ur­gency of im­prov­ing reg­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing plan­ning pro­cesses. ‘‘ Even if reg­u­la­tion isn’t per­fect,’’ he says, ‘‘ gov­ern­ments can en­cour­age in­vest­ment by mak­ing it cer­tain.’’

How far the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment can in­ter­vene to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion is an im­por­tant is­sue, Lo­borec says.

He points to the suc­cess­ful use by gov­ern­ments such as Queens­land’s of a co-or­di­na­torgen­eral to over­see the spec­trum of pub­lic sec­tor in­fra­struc­ture ac­tiv­ity.

‘‘ Such a post could en­able the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment to en­sure ap­provals for ma­jor projects deemed to be of na­tional in­ter­est to be man­aged more ef­fi­ciently,’’ he sug­gests. ‘‘ It would help over­come one of the big­gest com­plaints of busi­ness: that in­con­sis­tent reg­u­la­tion be­tween ju­ris­dic­tions adds sub­stan­tially to project cost bur­dens.’’

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