Desert Knowledge: Return on investment – a second look


p2139-Don-ZoellnerCOMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA
The Don Zoellner review of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) reports a “return on investment” at the rate of $19.90 gained for every dollar spent on it by the NT Government, conjuring up the impression of an ingenious product on the open market resulting in a sensational windfall for the Territory taxpayer.
DKA statements such as “local alliances will build capacity and capability [so that] local desert firms are better able to compete against the big city firms” would further encourage such an interpretation. But it would be a misinterpretation.
Dr Zoellner (pictured) said this morning the majority of money channeled through Desert Knowledge Australia was public money, including running costs of roughly $1m a year for 10 years from the NT Government, and project funding from Canberra.
The construction of what is now the Desert Peoples Center, $12m, is part of the spend, and $28m for the Desert Knowledge CRC, while it was still part of DKA. Ninti One and DKA currently only have a landlord-tenant relationship.
Dr Zoellner says available records from DKA do not show in all cases what money came from where: “The sources are not easy to find.”
Secondly, the “return on investment” assessment is made on the assumption that without DKA those grants, and donations from benefactors such as BHP Billiton, may not have been made, and those monies may not have been spent in the region.
But then again they may have been. What if, for example, the applications had been made by existing organisations such as the Town Council, Charles Darwin University, the Chamber of Commerce and countless others, without creating a new bureaucracy behind a new edifice?
Dr Zoellner calculates “total economic impact” to have been, in today’s dollars, $130m plus the $93m “Solar Cities impact”, arriving at the $19.90 return on investment figure.
But this clearly needs to be considered in the light of what has – or rather, has not – been achieved by DKA: Dr Zoellner in his report is mostly scathing about DKA’s activities and projects, and how they were managed, to the point of urging the “renewal” of senior management and the board.
No doubt defenders of DKA will hang their hat on the return on investment figure, but that would be saying, it doesn’t matter what taxpayers’ money is spent for, so long as it is spent here. And this is no more than a continuation of the entrenched dependency of this region on the public purse.



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