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!