Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Regional, rural & the whole damned policy mess

Last night, the ABC's Q&A program was broadcast from Albury and has a specific focus on regional development and regional policy. Those who are interested can find the program details here; the transcript should be up this afternoon.

I tweeted two questions, both of which reflect my interests. They were not good questions for that audience and were not picked up, but I asked them quite deliberately.    

For tonight's Q&A panel. Why is so little attention paid to the history of regional policy? We constantly re-invent the wheel #qanda

Follow up question for Q&A panelists. Do you support new states such as self government for New England? #qanda

In this post, I want to look the issues raised by the program and the reasons I asked those questions. I do not want this to be an especially long post. I just want to make a few points.

Global Perspective

The problem of drift to the bigger cities and the continuing depopulation of certain areas is a global phenomenon. However, Australia has some relatively unique features.

The first is the early dominance of the capital cities. From the beginning, there was a large and growing gap between those cities and the hierarchy of towns outside them.

The second and linked phenomenon was urbanisation. At the start of the twentieth century, the proportion of the population living in urban centres was very high, the rural population low, by global standards. Then people began to leave for the capital cities. Official Australian publications over the first decades of the twentieth century such as the Australian Year Books worried about this trend, suggesting that the growing population dominance of the capital cities was unusual by international standards.

Most recently has been something of a rush to the coast more generally. A very high proportion of the Australian population now lives within 50k of the coastline. Inland areas have suffered population stagnation, even actual declines.

For the benefit of international readers who might think of inland areas as places remote on a US or China scale, Australia's climate means that much of the continent is very thinly populated. While more remote areas have lost population, much of the shift has come from areas not all that far from the seaboard by continental standards.

I make these points to set a context.

The Q&A Program

The Q&A program had an inland focus. Many of the questions and subsequent discussion focused on now common issues - differences in health, education and other services between country Australia and the cities; poor communications; the difficulties in attracting population.

The responses by the Panel took fairly familiar patterns.

Simon Crean as responsible Federal Minister argues that local areas needed to adopt a proactive approach in defining their needs so as to force Governments to respond. Independent member for New England Tony Windsor, a man who has begun to acquire a quite remarkable national following, argued that the 30% of the population living in the country must organise and use their balance of power.

I quite enjoyed the exchange here, for Tony neatly pinned another panel member, Sophie Mirabella, the Liberal Member for Indi (once a strong Country Party seat), on the Victorian side of the border.

Sophie is Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science. She was caught between her role as local member and her broader Party position, making it very hard for her to respond to some of Tony's arguments.

I was also interested to hear Tony's support for the WA National Party - they are not in coalition with the Liberal party - and his apparent intent to visit WA with Federal WA National MP Tony Crook to campaign for the WA Nationals.

The Panel argued for improved infrastructure (the National Broadband Network received a strong push with Sophie dissenting!), more education, better health services coming in to support local activism. Pretty much standard stuff.

Problems with Definitions

Throughout the discussion, people kept referring to regional and rural, then they would shift to country, or to inland Australia.

Now regional and rural is a term I really don't understand. Surely a rural area is also a regional area? You will find a little of the history of the term here. It is actually a pretty meaningless term, but it's also a sign of language fragmentation that absolutely bedevils the creation of any sensible regional policy.

I spoke a little about this in my Armidale paper on Social Change in New England 1950-2000. An excerpt follows. In reading it, bear in mind that integrated policy is almost impossible if there are no common terms.    

The decline in the use of the words New England was not the only semantic change affecting the North. Words are important because they affect and reflect changing perceptions. In 1950, the word country was commonly used to describe NSW outside Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. While the use of this term divided Newcastle from the rest of New England, a divide that accurately reflected cultural and political differences, country was at least a broad, commonly understood, geographic term.

By the 1970s, country was losing favour, in part because of the growth of urban centres whose residents did not identify with the term. In its place came the word regional. This fragmented in turn. By 2000, there was something of a crazy patchwork quilt of words – country, regional, rural, remote, coastal – that overlapped and were used in different combinations. This growing confusion in terms reflected in part the increasing use of ARIA.

ARIA, the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia, was developed by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS. ARIA measures remoteness based on the physical road distance between a settlement and four classes of service centre. In 1999 a further revision of ARIA called ARIA+ was developed that incorporated more information on the location of service centres.

While ARIA was a simple geographic descriptor intended to measure remoteness from services, its widespread use by the Commonwealth Government for statistical purposes and to guide service delivery affected the use of words. In 1950, the Australian states still retained a substantial degree of independence. By 2000, the Australian Government was involved in every aspect of policy once the preserve of the states. To the officials in Canberra seeking mechanisms to allow for national uniformity in service delivery while also taking geography into account, the ARIA classifications seemed a useful device; very remote, remote, outer regional, inner regional and major city were now firmly added to the semantic mix.

The difficulty from a New England perspective lay in the way that these various terms cut across the area’s natural geography, further fragmenting the sense of New England or Northern identity, while creating problems for integrated service delivery based on geography. We can see this if we look at New England’s Kamilaroi or Gamilaraay Aboriginal language group who occupied the Western Slopes and Plains. Their traditional territory was variously classified from very remote to inner regional, a classification that affected the services provided. People with a common culture sharing common problems received different benefits depending on just where they lived.

Problems with history

If problems with terminology don't create enough problems, we have a problem with history. More precisely, we have a problem with loss of memory of history.

If you look back at my brief remarks under Global Perspective, you can see why decentralisation and regional development has been such an enduring Australian issue.

In the first period after Federation, new states (the creation of new self-governing bodies from existing states) were seen as a natural answer because they would give more local power to address local problems. I remain a new state supporter on grounds of practicality and sentimentality, although they are not a panacea.

Opposition to new sovereign states led to the idea of regional councils. Part of the push here came from the Labor Party which had adopted a unification policy with the National Government delegating powers to regional governments. Part, too, came from state governments looking to head off new state agitation.

The 1924 NSW Cohen Royal Commission into new states concluded that the country had been disadvantaged in the past, but that was no longer true. Remaining country grievances and development needs were best met by the creation of regional councils within NSW.

By the late 1940s, it was clear that neither regional councils nor existing general decentralisation policies were likely to have any real impact. On one side this led to a resurgence of new state agitation, on the other to the development of the idea of selective decentralisation, concentration of resources to build specific regional centres.

New state agitation largely collapsed after the narrow defeat of the 1967 New England New State Plebiscite, while the idea of selective decentralisation was apparently discredited by the failures of the Whitlam Government. In their place came a patchwork and varying quilt of policies whose existence and longevity depended on the political circumstances of the time.

Those policies did not work, nor could they work because they suffered from fundamental weaknesses. They:

  • ignored history and experience
  • were often ideologically rather than practically based.
  • rarely survived for long enough too have any meaningful impact
  • lacked any meaningful integration
  • could not overcome existing power structures.


I have no faith that anything has changed.

In asking the question about history, I knew that neither the Q&A team nor indeed the panel knew enough to respond to the question. I may have been able to phrase it better, to make it more relevant, if I had had time. I did not.

I am not necessarily a great supporter of Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana's comment that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". In this case, I think that it's relevant.    

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