Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Turning New England around

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 11 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.

One Sunday morning in January 1967 I flew out of Armidale to take up a position as Administrative Trainee with the Commonwealth Public Service Board. This marked the start of an intensive twelve month training course intended to train future public service leaders.

Young and away from home for the first time, I found my new life far too interesting to worry too much about past concerns.

The loss of the new state plebiscite later that year marked a something of a full stop in my mind; it would be almost five years before my interest in country matters really re-surfaced; a further nine years before I could properly articulate the economic and political factors that created systemic bias against regional areas and that of themselves justified (among other things) the new state cause.

Growing up, I saw things simply in terms of an oppressive city, an oppressed country; “on the money from the North, cabinet ministers sally forth”, to quote the words of a New England song, pretty much summed up my views.

I was to find that the real difficulties were far more complicated, that much politics and policy failed because they dealt with symptoms, not causes.

The dividing line in my thinking came early in 1980.

After almost twelve years in the Commonwealth Treasury I had accepted a position as the Department of Industry and Commerce’s professional economist, head of the Department’s Economic Analysis Branch. That Friday evening I was at the Departmental happy hour when John Martin, my senior Director, came to find me to tell me that Keith Purcell, my Division Head, needed me urgently.

Keith explained that Prime Minister Fraser and Industry Minister Philip Lynch had been talking that afternoon about the decline of Australian manufacturing.

Minister Lynch wanted proposals on his desk Monday morning explaining how this might be turned around. He would then talk to the PM. I gulped, and started calling in staff.

We worked all that weekend. Our problem was that we could use statistics to delineate the problem, but beyond individual measures such as accelerated depreciation that had not really worked before, we had no real solutions. I was mortified and swore that I would never find myself in that position again. It took us several years to work out possible solutions.

How does all this link to the decline in New England that I discussed in my last column?

Well, just as the problems faced by our manufacturing sector in 1980 were systemic, inter-related and poorly understood, so are New England’s problems.

Further, the measures that have been tried to address those problems have not worked. We need to find something new.

To start turning things round, I think that we have to do four things. We are already doing some of these things. We need to do them better and in a more integrated way.

First, we need to work on a long term, say twenty years, time horizon. Our problems did not just emerge; their resolution will take time.

Secondly, we need to continue to focus on community development at a local level even when the problems seem great. Bob Neville’s community redevelopment in Tingha is a local example. This provides key building blocks.

Thirdly, we need to focus on cooperative action between communities, but do so in a different way.

In particular, we need to focus on ways of helping other communities achieve their objectives, not worry too much about how they are going to help us achieve our own.

This builds cohesion and leverage.

Fourthly, we need to articulate broader approaches to development within New England that might provide solutions to common problems, forcing politicians and policy makers to respond.

These may sound just words. They are more than that.

In some of my coming columns I will flesh these points out, using specific examples to make them tangible and precise.

To finish with an apology: I am still having email troubles, so have not been able to respond properly to people’s emails.

No comments: