What has become of the Federal Govt’s drought hubs?

Eric Barker, August 7, 2023

MORE than two years after the former Coalition Government started setting up drought hubs to help communities solve the issues created by dry times, the programs are undergoing an independent Productivity Commission review.

With the Bureau of Meteorology forecasting a turn in the season and a possible El Nino, there has been plenty of talk about the hubs, the work they have done and how they might play a role in the future.

The Government started rolling out the eight Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation hubs in 2021, partnering with universities who shared in its $86m over four years under the Future Drought Fund. The universities were in strategic locations across the country.

The idea of the hubs was the create an intermediary between the universities and producers to better direct research and drive adoption. Each hub was set up with “nodes”, which are essentially remote offices with extension and research staff.

Former agriculture minister David Littleproud said the aim was to take research to agricultural areas and help with adoption.

“They are the ‘shop-front’ of our research and development and the conduit to the farmers,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Most of the research was being done in sandstone universities in capital cities, which were too far away from regional areas for farmers to adopt it.”

Mr Littleproud said the former government was also trying to better coordinate levy-paid research funding with government research funding and generating investment from the private sector.

“We had a commercialisation part of the research and we were hoping that the research could give a return that meant that they didn’t need financial support from the drought fund,” he said.

“The idea being that the research was prompted by what farmers actually want and will adopt.

“I think some of the hubs are more advanced than other on this goal and some are going to have it easier than others because of the scale of production and factors like that.”

Better defining the role of drought hubs

The Future Drought Fund and the drought hubs are currently being looked into by the Federal Government’s independent advisory body the Productivity Commission.

The commission released an interim report in June recommending that the hubs should get another round of funding while raising concerns about confusion over their role.

“While the Hubs are only newly established, stakeholders are sometimes uncertain about the role of their local Hub, partly because of limited public reporting on their activities,” the report said.

“There are concerns that Hubs are duplicating or competing with established services and networks. Despite these concerns, Hubs are a valuable regional presence for the FDF.

“Funding for Hubs should be extended beyond the end of this Funding Plan, however, continued funding for any individual Hub should be contingent on demonstrating adequate performance and governance in a review midway through the next funding cycle.”

Demonstrating adequate performance

Several hubs have responded to the Productivity Commission’s interim findings with the Southern Qld and Northern NSW hub, the first one that was set up pointing at the work it has done.

“The Hub and nodes actively held, supported, presented at or participated in 88 events involving more than 3,000 people across Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland, ranging from mental health provider forums to agritech workshops in the last six months,” its submission said.

“It has taken 18 months to embed the hub and nodes into the region. Now, the Hub can progress in 2023 to get action on the ground to ensure the funding is effective and co-designed with community members within their regions.

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, to continue this public good work and continue to leverage the structure that has been established without the continued government funding model. It is strongly suggested though, that a longer-term funding cycle (that maintains the commitment and discipline of co-investment) would better support the movement away from in-drought support and short-term measures to proper preparedness and ability to sustain through climate variability.”

Coordinating drought relief

Making the hubs play a coordinating role of drought funding has been a consistent theme through the Productivity Commission’s inquiry – with NSW Farmers lobbying for that change to be made.

“The hubs should be refocused to play a coordinating role, providing a critical link between those delivering programs and those on the receiving end of programs. Hubs are already meant to bring in non-government stakeholders but there are questions around their effectiveness of doing so,” its submission said.

“Therefore, refocusing the hubs on this role as their main priority is recommended, which will fill a long-standing hole in Australian drought policy. This would align the with the PC recommendation that the FDF should have fewer, better integrated programs.”

A sentiment the Tropical North Qld hub said it would need to be geared up provide information about drought support.

“The TNQ Hub anticipates that during the next extended drought, communities and the public will perceive the Drought Resilience Hubs as coordinators of drought relief funds and services,” its submission said.

“Whilst this is not an intended role of the TNQ Hub we acknowledge that being able to provide some support and direct people towards services could be a valued and important role.

“There is a risk if the TNQ Hub is unable to provide any level of service or support, we will be seen as irrelevant and unhelpful. This may be a risk to the FDF which considered in the design of the next funding phase. Where FDF support and services contribute to maintaining social connectivity and social capital at the same time as providing valued relief during drought, this may be a strategic co-benefit.

“We agree that stakeholders have been uncertain about the role of the Hubs. Firstly, this in part can be aligned to initial recruitment of stakeholders who supplied expressions of interest without both parties fully understanding how their services would be integrated into the Hubs work. In some cases, there is no direct link to the services offered and as such, no way to deliver on the stakeholder’s commitment.

“Secondly, due to the late commencement of the Hubs, we have not had the opportunity to engage with the stakeholders beyond initial co-design of the programs. We would welcome the opportunity to participate in a co-designed statement of expectations and a whole of Hubs MEL Plan.”

  • The Productivity Commission is due to hand down its final report in September


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