Barnaby Joyce sure can crack a joke!
Last week we learned he was moving his ministerial office from Sydney – where every other NSW minister is located in an office block leased for the purpose – to Armidale. His claim it was about decentralisation had them rolling in the parliamentary aisles. Fred Brophy's boxing tent would do more for Armidale in one night than Barnaby’s office could do in a year! It will though, do quite a bit for his own political fortunes, giving him a permanent presence in both Armidale and Tamworth, which happen to be his electorate’s two biggest towns.
But maybe we should give the Minister the benefit of the doubt?
Maybe this is a cunning but unnecessarily expensive tax payer funded plan to put decentralisation back on the national policy agenda? If so, I would be happy to welcome a sensible discussion on regional development. It is an historic fact that Federal Labor Governments have shown more interest in decentralisation and regional development than conservative governments. There is no better example than Gough Whitlam’s efforts in the early 1970s.
But as the Productivity Commission has pointed out decentralisation on its own has met with little success. A relatively recent example was the relocation of the NSW Department of Agriculture to Orange in 1991. The move involved about 350 people. There were plenty of incentives for staff to move. Nevertheless, the Department lost almost one-quarter of its staff in the transition.
There is certainly no evidence one three-person ministerial office will do anything for Armidale. So before getting too excited, we need to investigate the facts, define the problem and properly frame the solution.
What we already know is that Australia has the most urban-concentrated population in the world. Our urban areas are home to nearly ninety percent of us. Our capital cities house sixty percent of we Aussies and eighty percent of us live within fifty kilometres of the coast. It’s been that way for 150 years!
While our capital cities groan under the weight of urban congestion, our rural communities cry out for people and the opportunities that give them reason to stay.
Many of our smaller towns are in dynamic decline. One problem with decentralisation is that when it works well, it does so in our bigger regional cities where public servants are more willing to relocate and labour force retention tends to be met with greater success. But as I’ve pointed out, even moves to larger regional centres have struggled.
Armidale I know well, I enjoyed a number of university residential schools there. Like all regional towns it is not without its challenges. But it's a Cathedral City with a population approaching 25,000. It is home to the University of New England, a host of prestigious private schools and a CSIRO laboratory. Few towns boast such sound economic, social and institutional foundations.
Which reminds us of another important point - rural decline is patchy. Some regions are bolstered by factors such as mineral wealth while others struggle. While the bigger regional centres can always do with some help, it's the smaller towns which have lost their original economic foundation which need help most.
Addressing the challenges of struggling rural communities demands a mix of public policy responses. The first is a realisation that the Federal Government - as the dominant revenue raiser, the body with its hand on the macro policy lever, and the only one well placed to drive a national uniform approach - is best placed to lead and dominate regional development policy.
I still vividly recall John Howard justifying his first-term decision to dismantle the Keating Government’s regional strategies by declaring "the Commonwealth has no Constitutional role".
The second ingredient is a strong, growing national economy which provides the best foundation for a strong regional economy. That's one of the many reasons the former Labor Government's response to the Global Financial Crisis was so important.
The third ingredient is empowerment. Our regions must be allowed to be masters of their own destiny. Local people know what is best for their region and the rural towns within it. That’s why Labor established Area Consultative Committees and later, Regional Development Organisations.
The fourth is funding. Local organisations have the capacity to identify opportunities but rarely do they have the finances to fund them. Federal Governments must be prepared to fund well planned, researched, targeted projects of quantifiable merit.
Fifth, regional policy must be backed by research and be evidence based. That’s why Labor established the Regional Australia Institute.
Sixth is social infrastructure. Governments must spend sufficient money to give rural people access to good health, education, childcare and other services. They can’t expect people to live in the bush if these services can’t affordably be accessed.
Last but not least, the Federal Government should test every policy proposal for its impact on rural and regional Australia. In 2003 I persuaded the Shadow Ministry to have a section in Shadow Cabinet submissions which explained and assessed any impact on rural and regional Australia. The practice continued during Labor’s years in government.
I don’t know if Tony Abbott has retained that practice but having studied the Budget, I’ll be surprised. But don’t worry - Armidale is going to be OK!
This article was first published in The Land Online Wednesday 4 June 2014. Click here to read online.