Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Overcoming the curse of local self-interest

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 18 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

At last, fully back on line.

Last week, I suggested that first two building blocks in turning New England around were the adoption of a long term view plus a continued focus on community development at a local level.

I will say a little more on these two later. In this column, I want to discuss the remaining building blocks I mentioned: a focus on ways of helping other communities achieve their objectives; together with the articulation of broader approaches to development within New England.

As I wrote my last column, Walcha withdrew from the organisation of southern Tablelands’ councils. I cannot comment on this action because I do not know the facts. I can say that local self-interest has been one of the curses of New England.

I don’t think that I need to labour this point. Anybody who has been involved at any level with regional development activities will know what I mean.

This self interest has fragmented collective efforts to achieve things that would benefit all. Among other things, it has allowed those seeking power in Macquarie Street to practice what I call the pottage approach to politics.

First brought to an art form by Sir Henry Parkes, this approach involves buying votes in particular communities through direct assistance – a playground here, a road works there, a grant to a community organisation. The skill lies in playing off different interests to achieve the desired results for the minimum amount of cash.

The pottage approach divides. Peoples’ views shrink to their localities. They act to protect what they have, forget broader interests.

We need to turn this around, to reach out to help others. This may sound like idealistic clap-trap, so let me illustrate.

Armidale’s core business is education. That business has been under threat because of demographic change. UNE is the business flagship. Yet UNE’s future is not secure. There is still a real risk that the university may end up at best as a branch campus controlled elsewhere.

Every family added to Tamworth or Inverell, Tingha or Glen Innes, Grafton or Kempsey, means at least one potential UNE student. Yet, and I stand to be corrected, I have seen little interest in Armidale in building those other communities.

There will always be conflict between communities when they are fighting for the same piece of cake. Conflict drops as you seek to create new cakes that all can share.

To extend my argument, take the Tingha community regeneration example I referred to in my last column. On every statistical measure, Tingha is one of the poorest communities in Australia. It is also a community with a high indigenous population.

Bob Neville’s community regeneration project - -aims to rebuild Tingha from the bottom up. Success will benefit not just Tingha, but nearby communities as well.

The gains to Armidale may be small in absolute terms, but the project still warrants Armidale support. My point is that success in rebuilding New England depends upon a whole series of small compounding steps.

I mentioned Tingha’s high indigenous population. This brings me to my last building block, the need to force Governments to respond by the articulation of broader approaches to development within New England.

One measure that I used to review the NSW Government’s state plan was the extent to which it might address indigenous disadvantage in New England. I thought that it would have little effect.

Following the riots at the Block, the NSW Government created a Minister for Redfern, now Redfern Waterloo. The post is currently held by Kristina Keneally.

At the last census there were 1,982 indigenous people in the City of Sydney. They have a Minister. Tamworth Regional Council with an indigenous population of 3,705, up 35% from the previous census, is just a dot on the map.

We cannot afford to be treated in this way. Resolution of indigenous disadvantage is a mainstream New England need in a way not seen in Sydney where indigenous populations, while sometimes large in absolute terms, are a tiny proportion of the overall population.

The key issue is access to opportunities, and that means economic development and jobs. Here Indigenous and non-Indigenous needs are in fact identical, because Indigenous jobs in places like Kempsey, Tamworth or Moree depends upon broader economic development. Aboriginal specific economic development strategies have their place, but will have little real impact in the absence of broader development.

We need to make Sydney recognise this, forcing them to respond to our broader needs.

No comments: