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$755 million spent, so has this government fund managed to Advance Queensland?

Opinion

The Queensland Government has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and incentives under its Advance Queensland initiative. Have we got our money’s worth, asks Robert MacDonald

Print article

When the new Palaszczuk Government rather unexpectedly won office in early 2015, it suddenly needed an economic development plan to call its own.

It could have relaunched former Labor Premier Peter Beattie’s initially mocked but ultimately productive Smart State idea.

But a new government needs new ideas. And so, just days after being sworn in as premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk used a reception of business leaders at Parliament House to unveil Advance Queensland – a  $50 million plan “to reinvigorate research, science and innovation to help create the well-paid knowledge-based jobs of the future.”

Not exactly too far from Beattie’s Smart State concept, launched 15 years earlier, but at least a plan with its own name.

And a plan that quickly grew in size. By the time of its first budget in July 2015, the Palaszczuk Government had increased its support for Advance Queensland programs to $180 million.

Today, by the Government’s counting, “the Advance Queensland initiative is a $755 million investment that is driving economic growth and creating jobs across all Queensland regions.”

It now encompasses “a range of programs (delivered by nine government agencies) to develop entrepreneurial and research talent, build Queensland’s research and development capacity, support start ups and businesses to deliver new products and services into global markets and establish new industries that will provide the jobs of the future.”

It is also designed to “build on our natural advantages and help raise our profile as an attractive investment destination”.

A big part of the Advance Queensland approach involves handing out lots of money by way of grants, loans, subsidies and even direct investments in private companies – about $500 million or so by my count.

The Government has so far distributed almost $130 million in Advance Queensland grants to more than 1000 individuals, organisations and companies – from companies that make food treats for pets and native beehives to PhD researchers.

Advance Queensland’s $80 million Business Development Fund has invested in more than 40 startups and its $150 million industry attraction fund has, to date, supported 19 projects.

Other big pools of Advance Queensland-branded money are the Screen Queensland-managed $85.7 million screen production attraction scheme and a $48.6 million Attracting Tourism Fund, which invests in “major new international aviation linkages and landmark new tourism product, experiences and infrastructure projects.”

After five-and-a-half years and just weeks before the next state election, the question to ask is whether this hand-out heavy approach to economic development is working.

Yes, of course, says the Government, which, by now, has a polished approach to highlighting the good news – it has issued more than 750 media releases promoting Advance Queensland activities.

It says Advance Queensland programs have “helped thousands of innovators and projects to succeed”, attracted nearly $850 million in new investment to Queensland and “supported close to 20,000 jobs across the state.”

Government websites also have plenty of case studies, such as Huds and Toke, which makes and exports pet treats from a purpose-built factory on the Sunshine Coast, and Hive Haven, also on the Sunshine Coast, which has developed hives and commercial opportunities for Australian native bees.

There’s no question Queensland is full of inspiring examples of local entrepreneurial skill and brainpower and that government can help along the way.

But what’s missing from the Government’s public reporting is anything remotely resembling a cost-benefit analysis of whether the hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds so far handed out have actually delivered value for money.

There’s no context for the numbers the Government publishes and no explanation of how they were arrived at.

And of course, there’s been no attempt to work out whether all this public money actually has made much difference.

That’s to say, how much of what the Government is claiming as Advance Queensland-inspired success might have happened anyway?

But that’s almost beside the point. The thing about grants programs is that they’re politically attractive. Who’s going to object to being given some public money?

They also produce a steady stream of announceables and photo-ops for local members and ministers, always keen to associate themselves with a home-grown success story.

And handing out money – as long as you’ve got it to hand out – is simple, easier certainly than sitting down with companies and working out what else government might be able to do to help them by way of changes to policy, infrastructure or practice perhaps.

The Queensland Auditor-General does have an audit to assess how effectively the Queensland Government implements its Advance Queensland initiative on its forward work program – but not until 2022-23.

And so, in the meantime, has Advance Queensland been worth the cost? Who knows?

But if this Government – and the next – are really serious about spending public funds efficiently, they really need to get cracking on working out the real benefit of all this Advance Queensland largesse.

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