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The regional price of democracy

By Paul Collits - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The election has come and gone, and it is time once again to think about regional development, and who is responsible for driving it.

What particularly attracted my attention was the campaign in the Victorian rural seat of Indi run by independent Cathy McGowan and her social media savvy Gen Y squadron of McGowanistas. Her campaign was conceived specifically to turn Indi into a marginal electorate in order to get more "attention" from Canberra. This is straight out of the Tony Windsor playbook. In this version of democracy, the role of the parliamentarian is to "get stuff from Canberra for the electorate". There are various euphemisms for this, like getting Canberra to "take us seriously" or to have Canberra "listen to us" or "give the electorate a voice" in Canberra, and so on. But the bottom line is that "we" must get our fair share. Tony Windsor turned this into a chant for the whole of regional Australia. Mind you, Tamworth, Armidale and Port Macquarie did particularly well out of the deal!

If it is not regions (electorates) playing this game of fair share, it is industries. The car industry is a classic. Just give us a bit more, and we will stay manufacturing in Australia and keep the good people of Geelong or Adelaide in jobs. The story is played out also by community groups who rely on government funding, and certainly by academics who crave their access to research grant funding for all sorts of esoteric or kooky projects. This is the world of vested interests, or in that delightful contemporary parlance, "stakeholders".

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Well, what this gives the nation is ever rising government spending, taxes higher than they otherwise might be, and debt. But it also bastardises democracy itself, turning it into a vote buying exercise where those with the loudest voice, or the savviest social media skills, can mobilise "voice" to, basically, bid up the cost of government. Each group must make the argument, ever louder, that if funding for such-and-such is removed, the whole world will cave in. There is a group of economists and political theorists who study all this. They are called public choice theorists, led by the late Professor James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986. They believe that politicians, public servants and other groups act in their self-interest in order to build coalitions of support that uses the process of government rather than the marketplace to get what they want. Buchanan's colleague Gordon Tulloch termed this "the vote motive".

This is all very interesting, you say (I hope). Where is he going with this? Well, the Windsor view of regional funding and regional policy pursued so effectively by the McGowanistas in Victoria is essentially an example of what Buchanan and Tulloch were talking about. This approach perverts, indeed corrupts, real regional development; fosters a "we was robbed" culture in regional Australia; reduces the will of regional people to develop their own solutions to their regions' challenges; ingrains a mendicant view of regional development; and distracts regional development players from their key task of building in each region a flourishing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Turning regional policy into a mere process of distributing funding shares diminishes creative thinking about the big questions of regional development – What are we trying to achieve? (or, what is the problem we are trying to solve?) Who is responsible for regional development? What drives regional growth and decline? What works? What are the things that we, locally, can influence? The cargo cult approach diminishes creative policy thinking in Canberra and in Brisbane, and it diminishes creative strategic thinking in communities and regions as well. It is a cop out. Creating buckets of money saves thinking about the hard questions. It is mere "process regional development", devoid of policy imagination. And it simply feeds the monster that is government in Canberra.

Under this regime, just as academics now spend much of their time applying for research grants rather than getting on with teaching and scholarship, so regional developers spend much of their time applying for grants from government. It is only the name of the program that changes. This leads to a perpetual game of "funding funding funding". The competition for public resources, fighting over shares of the pie, merely takes us all away from the real game of growing the regional pie. Regions need to get off the treadmill, the drip feed, and cease simply looking to Brisbane or to Canberra for regional solutions.

Now, if we must keep playing the competitive grants game, we should at least get our grant programs focused on creating or supporting the creation of a business culture that rewards entrepreneurs and encourages them to invest, grow and create jobs. But let's draw a very clear distinction between "spending on regions" and regional policy. The latter should not be about perceived fairness and fair shares, but about working with communities and regions to create new value in local economies. And government interventions cannot, of themselves, do this. Only communities can. Adding value means identifying regional assets and using them in new ways. It means working in collaborative partnerships across regions and sectors. It means picking up the phone and working together to create that "innovative ecosystem" that separates the Silicon Valleys of the world from the others who just tag along hoping for government morsels to fall from the table. And working together doesn't just mean writing a grant application together, just so we can employ yet another project officer.

Getting a new hospital or community hall or indeed the NBN in Tamworth, Port Macquarie or anywhere else is not regional development. I just hope that the McGowanistas in Indi and all the other good folks who complain about getting fair shares for the bush accept the need to do a major reset, and instead get themselves focused on what really drives regional growth.

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This article was first published in the Fraser Coast Chronicle.



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About the Author

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland and is Research Director of the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration at the University’s Fraser Coast Campus.

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