06/05/2014 - 10:11

Sister cities are doing it for themselves

06/05/2014 - 10:11

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How does a visit by the mayor of US oil capital Houston link to Western Australia’s local council amalgamations?

Sister cities are doing it for themselves
SISTERHOOD: City of Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi and City of Houston Mayor Annise Parker last week. Photo: Attila Csaszar

How does a visit by the mayor of US oil capital Houston link to Western Australia’s local council amalgamations?

The City of Perth has been heckled by neighbouring jurisdictions and labelled an opportunist by critics for offering to take control of several key areas outside its current borders as part of the state government’s local council amalgamations plan.

Among other things, Perth has suggested it should have the Burswood Peninsula, including the Crown Casino, the University of Western Australia and the QEII Medical Centre.

One of the justifications the City of Perth made for its claims to these strategic assets in neighbouring councils was the work done by the council to raise the profile of the city internationally.

There is no doubt the city puts a fair amount of effort into international engagement via a couple of key associations – its sister city network and another more structured network called Energy Cities.

Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi said the city employed three staff in the international relations area, as part of the City's Economic Development Unit, with specific emphasis on securing economic benefit from existing or new international relationships or approaches.

Their work is supported and supplemented by other officers and senior staff, including managers, directors and the CEO.

She highlights that the city’s corporate business plan for the five years from 2013 to 2018 forecasts an enhanced focus on international relations and economic development and sees this as a growth area for Perth in the years to come.  The city is near completing a comprehensive international relations strategy.

Ms Scaffidi believes it is important for the city to broaden its economy by attracting overseas business investment and developing other industry sectors by forging stronger links with economies where critical mass and population allow us to leverage significant market opportunities.

It has argued this effort benefits internationally focused businesses such as Crown and, no doubt, organisations such as UWA and medical researchers at QEII would fit into a similar category due to the global nature of academia and high levels of cross-border collaboration.

For an isolated city, Perth has a high number of regional headquarters due to its resources focus and, therefore, there is value in playing host to companies establishing bases beyond usual councils business.

However, like anything, it is hard to know whether any cost-benefit analysis would come out in the positive, especially with a globe-trotting premier and key functions of government operating from within the city’s borders and doing very similar and more high-profile work.

Bureaucrats and politicians, including Lord Mayors and councillors, often get criticised for embarking on such travel. The term junket is derisory, mostly because too many such trips involve indulgences such as the taking of partners, expensive frills such as accommodation, unrelated side trips that appear to be the main focus of the excursion or poorly planned itineraries from which we don’t expect much to be learned.

Furthermore, we rarely see the obvious results of such travel, like policy or reforms that have occurred because an influential figure saw something similar elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I support legitimate travel and think we are done a disservice when the worst excesses of junkets receive wide publicity while rarely any light is shed on the benefits.

By contrast business engages in such travel all the time, largely without issue.

At Business News I have travelled to the US a few times to attend relevant publishing conventions and visit similar newspapers. When the prime minister recently went to China in a high-profile visit he was accompanied by representatives from 300 businesses, including a few from WA.

And, remember it is not a one-way street. For we hope to receive delegations here to highlight our city, something that is hard to achieve if we are not prepared to occasionally reciprocate.

Clearly, there is a feel-good factor in playing host. The visit last week by Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston, which, for the geopolitically challenged, is a city in the US state of Texas and is regarded as the centre of the global oil industry, brings a lot of attention to Perth, which wants to be recognised as a major oil player.

As Perth grows the energy side of its resources sector, there may be much we can learn from cities that have already have a concentration of businesses in those sectors. It ought not be surprising that Aberdeen in Scotland, another energy city, is, like Houston, also a sister city of Perth.

The business links and networks through these industry links are important, although it must be recognised that these and other cities, such as Stavanger in Norway, are not looking to diminish their own roles as important centres for the sector. Which makes them competitors, too.

Much more benign are some of the other sister cities that have other links to Perth be they cultural – such as Kastellorizo in Greece and Vasto in Italy where large numbers of migrants came from – to more market-orientated paces such as Nanjing in China, a trading partner and source of foreign students.

Some of these cities are tiny and others are huge. In fact, it is hard to spot a consistent theme among the group of Perth’s sister cities.

Perhaps that is reflective of an ad hoc approach to such things in the past; before this was seen as an economic development opportunity.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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