Regions in palliative care? Prove the city slickers wrong! – The Good Oil by Rod Brown

“We have been trying for 118 years to get people to move to the regions, and for 118 years we have had glorious failure.”


These are the thoughts of John Daley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Grattan Institute, as quoted in the Fairfax press in late December. 

He continues with aplomb: “People want to be where the jobs are, where their family is, where the services are…regional populations are relatively stable, so we shouldn’t be overly worried about that.”

Terry Rawnsley, a principal at SGS Economics and Planning, ups the ante in the same column by arguing that Australia needs to overhaul the way we think about regional areas, especially federal politicians who cling to the idea of decentralisation. 

Terry says that some regions should be treated like a palliative care situation, whereby you keep the services in place for those people who remain, like Victoria’s Wimmera.

This is all rather pathetic. It’s showing ignorance of potentially better regional outcomes. 

The fact of the matter is that our continual urbanisation – two-thirds of us live in the capital cities – is largely due to the weak regional development policy at both a national and state level.

This has resulted in unfettered urban agglomeration, and minimal appreciation of the adverse social and environmental effects.

What sort of policies are we talking about? 

Well, I’ve spent years tracking international best practice in north America, Europe and Japan in this field, and the evidence suggests at least seven areas where Australia falls behind:

  • Intercity rail services
  • Internet delivery
  • Infrastructure coordination
  • Regional architecture
  • Funding for regional 
  • development agencies
  • Investment attraction
  • Regional marketing and branding.

 

Investment attraction

Investment attraction is one of the most obvious and easily addressed weaknesses. 

As John Daley notes, people go to where the jobs are, and regrettably numerous non-metropolitan regions have shed jobs in large numbers. 

Many of these jobs were in the protected areas of manufacturing - textiles, clothing, footwear, whitegoods, metal manufacturing – and that is now understood and accepted. 

The adjustment programs dealing with the economic dislocation were mostly picking up the pieces. 

However there were good examples of proactive intervention via subsidies for new investments in food processing, information technology and medical equipment as well as the shifting of Tax Office facilities and data centres. The evidence is in places like Albury-Wodonga and Ballarat. 

I remember well these interventions of the 70s and 80s. They were supported by a good deal of economic and social modelling, as well as state and federal collaboration with the private sector.

The interesting thing is that collaborative efforts to attract investments into regions is mainstream activity in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Ireland, eastern Europe, Japan etc.

For some unfathomable reason, the feds have pulled back from this business. 

We dipped our toe in the water about fifteen years ago by establishing Invest Australia, but that was scrapped under a Labor Government. 

The current effort is now mainly left to a few folk in Austrade as well as the states. 

Indeed Victoria is understood to take investment attraction seriously, and it would be marvellous to see job-creating investment in the Wimmera (e.g. Horsham, Warracknabeal, Stawell) to prove Mr. Rawnsley wrong.

 

A sense of regional architecture

The other key area where we languish is the lack of appreciation of the spatial hierarchy and interdependence between global cities, regional cities, towns and villages. 

This is a complex issue but it’s puzzling that on a vast continent and society shaped by distance that we don’t value the inter-dependencies of our cities and towns. 

Perhaps the regional infrastructure has geographic limits?     

 

The politics of the bush

The federal election is going to be a doozie. The goss is that Labor will win in a landslide. And the rural seats, the Nationals’ traditional turf, could be shredded by Labor and Independent candidates.

My hope is that the
Nationals can stand up for themselves, by eschewing the sexual shenanigans surrounding them and focussing on the real issues such as the seven identified above. 

And I’ll throw in a few more. They need to commission some serious research on the big issues to build their brand and prove that they deserve to be there. 

Three issues that they could usefully drive are (i) a population and jobs policy for regional Australia, (ii) the true costs of urban congestion and pollution, and (iii) Waterproofing regional Australia.

The Nats have good politicians in the shape of David Littleproud, Bridget McKenzie and Darren Chester, and Michael McCormack isn’t the dill that the Opposition try to paint him to be. 

So let’s have a real competition between the Nationals and Labor on real policies
for rural Australia!

Grafton’s parking nightmare

We meandered through northern New South Wales in December and there was Grafton, the lovely old town, situated on the lazy Clarence River. 

Home to PM Earl Page. 

You now skip around the edge of South Grafton, but in the ‘old days’ we southerners would drive into the central business district for refreshments while admiring the jacaranda trees in full bloom. 

This time we got caught in heavy traffic due to construction of the new bridge. 

But the congestion continued into the main street, where a couple of old codgers were trying to park. 

Grafton, like numerous other north and west New South Wales towns has ‘rear to kerb’ parking, the logic of which has baffled me for decades. 

The added trouble these days are the blindspots in SUVs which make them terribly hard to reverse.

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network. 

Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559

Email: apdcockatoo @ iprimus.com.au