CityLife BUSINESS | Balancing leadership diversity in the Tropical North

Business People Walking Outdoors the Way Forward


Balancing leadership diversity in the Tropical North

Sonja Johnson
Chief Executive Officer
Regional Development Australia Tropical North (RDA)

Since Regional Development Australia’s (RDA) inception over a decade ago, the national network of 52 committees has seen subtle changes to the network’s purpose and charter. These incremental changes are influenced by the Federal Government’s priorities, emerging regional challenges and intelligence from RDA committees.

Each RDA committee is made up of local leaders who work with all levels of government, business and community groups to support the economic development of their regions. The committees have an active and facilitative role in their communities with a clear focus on growing strong and confident regional economies that harness their competitive advantages, seize economic opportunities and attract investment.

Regional Development Australia Tropical North (RDATN) has within its economic development remit, a geographic area covering approximately 16 percent of Queensland’s land mass, 21 local government areas, more than 60 traditional owner groups and one of the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations (14 percent).

RDATN, like the other 51 RDAs, are incorporated not-for-profit entities, governed by a group of local volunteers. Each committee can set its own membership seats, with the Chair appointed by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

From a Federal Government perspective, each committee should aim to have an equal balance of men and women and some representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It would also be prudent to ensure sub-regional representation, for example, from remote council areas. While commendable, the challenge of meeting diversity requirements alongside representation that provides the skill sets needed to meet the organisation’s objectives, is constantly at the forefront of the Executive’s minds during times of committee member recruitment.

The most recent change to the RDA Charter in October 2020, saw a decided shift to facilitating local procurement outcomes, promoting Australian government policies and research and provision of evidence-based advice on regional development issues. There is also a requirement to develop a strategic regional plan – this supports the notion of RDAs acting as ‘umbrella’ organisations for their respective region through coordination of existing plans and priorities authored by various economic development agencies and community organisations.

Balancing the governance diversity requirements of the Federal Government with the industry, innovation, entrepreneurship, business, social services and environment/conservation skills needed to achieve the RDA Charter can become insurmountable. It is difficult to find leaders who have both the diversification element and necessary qualifications or work-based experience.

Whilst our Charter calls for a 50/50 male-female ratio in selection of the committee, the main focus has been on the ability of members to lead our region forward and portray strong leadership skills within the organisation. We have been fortunate enough to have both, with a mix of business, industry, academic and local government expertise from community members who currently lead or have led, organisations and companies.

Moving forward, RDATN is focused on leadership diversity as a principle, not a policy. Our principle is to find local leaders who meet the skill requirements necessary to advance our agenda and fulfil our strategic objectives. Prospective candidates are scored based on their qualifications and experience – in the instance where multiple candidates are all exemplary based on merit, the vacancy will be awarded to the individual who also meets diversity criteria.

Through this principle-based method, RDATN aims to meet the organisation’s Charter and deliver key economic outcomes for the Far North Queensland and Torres Strait region.