Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tony Burke's bullshit

I do wonder sometimes.

According to Milanda Rout in the Australian, Australia's Minister for Sustainable Population Tony Burke has ruled out solving the country's population problems by encouraging people to move to selected regional cities through the relocation of government jobs.

Whether or not the movement of government jobs is a good or a bad thing is arguable. However, the report suggests that Mr Burke has very little knowledge of history in his portfolio area. To illustrate this, this post takes Mr Burke's reported views and then provides a comment.  

"Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke told The Australian he would not follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and get people out of the cities and into the country by shifting public service departments.

He said this policy -- used by many past state and federal governments in places like Albury-Wodonga -- had failed in getting people to move over the long term, and it was better to let the market decide which regional areas should boom."

The first major move of Government jobs to a country region was in a place now known as Canberra, a move that had major locational effects. I know of no evidence that those moves that have taken place - and there haven't been all that many of them - have failed in getting people to move over the long term.

"I won't try to fix it by picking winners," Mr Burke said. "What I don't want to do is to get into some direct centralised-control argument about the commonwealth somehow determining which will be the growth centres and which will not. That argument will always fail."

Now that's an interesting comment. Most people who read this won't know the history. As it happens, I'm writing something on it at the moment.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Australian Government turned its mind to post war reconstruction. After the turmoil and rigours of the war, there was genuine national interest in new ways of doing things. One part of that was the need to achieve effective community development and decentralisation.

In New England, Drs Belshaw and Voisey launched a regional councils movement. To Belshaw in particular, regional councils were the best way of achieving effective decentralisation. In January 1948, the Australian Institute of Political Science held its annual summer school in Armidale. The topic was decentralisation. It was a well attended meeting attracting great local interest. It was also the meeting that re-launched the New England New State Movement.

Unlike his son, Belshaw was not a new stater. He believed that regional councils were a more effective solution. Disillusioned by the failure of the NSW Government to grant the new regional bodies any real powers, convinced that it never would, he turned to the idea of selective decentralisation. Let's concentrate resources on the development of a small number of major non-metro cities.

This idea was picked up, developed and popularised by Professor Neutze and others at the Australian National University. It then became the basis of the new Whitlam Government's growth centre strategy. Two growth centres were picked in NSW - Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange. For a number of reasons including the demise of the Whitlam Government, the policy did not deliver the desired results.

Since the Whitlam Government, all Australian Governments have refrained from picking winners, all have said let the market decide, all have provided generalised regional development initiatives open to all. None of the policies had delivered effective results. This is not to say that selective decentralisation is a better approach, simply that it seems that Mr Burke is unaware of history.

The minister said the national population strategy, due to be released in the middle of the year, would instead focus on how to address "barriers" to people living in booming regional areas where there are housing shortages.

He described mining towns where people were well-paid but had to pay $2000 a week rent and could not get a sandwich as a "market failure".

"It's a case of trying to work out how we, at a commonwealth level, look at where those failures are and unlock some of the constraints," he said. "We need to be able to find ways to work out what is the market failure that is causing a massive demand in employment and a supply gap in allowing people to live locally and take those jobs."

Mr Burke's approach seems totally driven by the current mining boom. If Mr Burke were to argue for studies and approaches that attempted to address and remove the barriers limiting decentralisation, he would have my full support.

As I have tried to demonstrate on many occasions, those barriers are structural and are directly related to the locational impact of state and federal policies. Even in housing, and again as I have argued, the problems are not so much market failures but the outcomes of generalised state government policies whose effect is to make the release of new land and houses very expensive. You need a big market price to recover the costs, and development takes a long time,    

Mr Burke, who is approaching his 12-month anniversary in the portfolio, said the country was at a unique stage in its history because the mining boom meant the growth in regions was commercially driven rather than led by government.

"We have a really different opportunity because regionalism is being market-driven," he said.

This is absolute bullshit. Regional growth has rarely been led by Governments, often occurring in spite of governments. Australia has experienced many mining booms.

If Mr Burke wants to argue that Government action is required to ensure that regional communities from the Hunter to the Pilbarra get the best local gains from mining while minimising costs I would support him. But that's not what he is saying.

In fairness to the man, I should note that I suspect that none of his advisers have any knowledge of history. If they did, they would correct his remarks. 


I probably shouldn't have used the word bullshit, but I was cranky!


Miss Eagle said...

Perhaps Tony Burke has done the political rather than population numbers and figures that sending everyone to the regions will build conservative seats? I have spent a good bit of my life in mining towns - namely Mount Isa and Tennant Creek. Boss those bullyboys from the mining corporations about and tell them to pull the pin on FIFO. Go back to building communities - especially if they want to build a social licence for mining in a carbon conscious world.

Jim Belshaw said...

And, by implication Miss E, Labor seats in the city?

The last issue of the Harvard Business Review had some very interesting stuff on the need to new approaches to management somewhat along the lines that I have been arguing for a number of years.

Michael Porter and others are now arguing that things like FIFO are simply not in the long term interest of business. I do mean to write something on this.

Greg said...

Jim, Canberra only exists for one reason - government. If Melbourne had remained the capital it would probably be bigger than Sydney today. At the very least Canberra would not be anything more than a cow paddock, so clearly government does result in permanent shifts of population.

Also how does he account for the fact that ALL of the five biggest cities in Australia are state capitals - one for each state? How absurd to claim that moving government departments does not lead to lasting population shifts! How could it not?

Suppose that the NSW government was shifted lock stock and barrel from Sydney to a regional centre. It would almost certainly result in a hundred thousand people or more directly and indirectly dependant on government also relocating.

Clearly the man has an agenda that does not include regional growth. He surely cannot believe his own "bullshit". The argument for new states would be lost on him.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, you do capture my feelings! I suspect that you are right on Mr Burke's views on new states, although we can't be sure until we actually talk to hin. Feel like a visit to Canberra?

Greg said...

Jim, I would go tomorrow if I thought it would make a difference.

Miss Eagle said...

Greg, good point. To reinforce it, I would suggest contrasting Darwin and Townsville. Darwin has a population of 124,800 it is the seat of govt (although govt is not really much more than a town council)for the Northern Territory. The population of Townsville is just over 180,000 and is the defacto capital of North Queensland. Anna Bligh has mentioned that Qld may declare Townsville a second capital city. If there ever was a new state for North Queensland (provided for in the constitution), it is assumed Townsville would be the state capital. Contrast the two cities. Townsville has for many decades been an industrial city. It is a city with a mixed economy including industry, health (T'v Hospital is a teaching hospital), education and tourism. Darwin does not have the industry that Townsville does but it does have a seat of govt. A seat of govt not only attracts population. There is a certain type of infrastructure and a demographic which has some superior and useful skills. If Townsville, were to be a seat of govt it would not only transform, in my view, the city into a major centre superior to its current status. It would embed it more thoroughly in regional economies from Mackay north. This in turn would attract even further population and provide economic and demographic boosts to a much neglected tropical north.

Greg said...

Miss Eagle - I beleive that decentralisation is the single biggest argument for new states. Another half dozen or more capital cities could create another half dozen or more growth centres around those capitals.

Interesting that you should compare Darwin and Townsville. Darwin is growing at between 2% and 3% per annum. From what I have read Townsville is growing even faster at above 3%. At that rate Townsville's population will double in about 24 years. Darwin's population would take a few years longer to double. Both are remarkable growth rates and would lead to them becoming substantial cities within the space of a generation or so.

Townsville is already a sort of de-facto Capricornia capital and is benefiting from that. Cairns is also growing strongly as sort of a de-facto capital for the far north. With the current growth of their regions, I expect that it will become harder for Brisbane to ignore demands for greater self-government for NQ. It seems that regional growth there is a driver for self government rather than the other way round (ie. self-government being a driver for regional growth).

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, Greg re drivers. Cairns and Townsville are both remote from Brisbane. New England gets squeezed between Sydney and Brisbane.

Greg said...

Yes Jim - Cairns and Townsville are both very remote from Brisbane. At about 350 km and nearly 5 hours drive they are even fairly remote from each other. As a result both get national exposure as important cities of the north. I always notice this on the national TV weather for the "major cities" which feature both as well as the state capitals.

By comparison no city between Sydney and Brisbane get a mention. Even Newcastle which is substantially bigger than both Cairns and Townsville combined doesn't rate a mention on the national weather, presumably because it is only 160km from Sydney.

New England - located as it is between Sydney and Brisbane is nearly invisible and overshadowed. It is frustrating and a source of annoyance that the 1 1/2 million people between the Hunter and the Qld border are pretty much ignored. If they can't even find space for New England in the national weather it isn't hard to see why it gets overlooked for everything else

Miss Eagle said...

Greg, Cairns is only 3hrs from Townsville. Almost commutable. And in fact some people do. There has always been a lot of prejudice against Townsville. I think because it was regarded as the ugly duckling to green tourist-y Cairns. Things have gotten a bit Sydney-Melbournish. That is changing. For many years, Townsville didn't get a mention on weather reports - always Cairns. I presume because of the tourists and the international airport. Cairns, however, is remote from the rest of the north. If you count from Sarina/Mackay, north, Cairns is remote while Townsville is centrally located and where Highway 1 from the Outback and on the coast form a conjunction. However, for decades Townsville has been the administrative centre for North Qld. The true test economically came in the 1989 pilots strike. Cairns was - and probably still is - a one industry town. It was hit hard. Virtually closed down. Townsville, on the other hand, with its mixed economy in which residents had long resisted being taken over by the 80s tourism push in favour of a mixed economy, took things more calmly and survived much better. Currently the Qld Govt has designated a development triangle of Mount Isa, Townsville, Bowen - all places well known to me from spending large chunks of my life in each of them. The development strategies are of great concern to Bowen people - and I don't blame them. Bowen is at the top of the beautiful Whitsundays. It is good to question how development will impact the natural beauty of the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. A bigger say in development issues through self-governance makes a lot of sense, except if you live in Brisbane.