Thursday, June 16, 2011

Belshaw's World - blueprint is wearing no clothes

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 1 June 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I was saddened to hear of Maris Cash’s death. 

The Cashs arrived in Armidale in my last year at TAS. The relationship was then a more formal one – of school boy and headmaster and his wife. It was much later before I really go to know them as people. 

Mum used to say it’s getting thin around here dear. I know how she felt. It’s just a function of age, added to long connection to an area. 

The on-line edition of Monday’s Express carried a story by Peter Barrett reporting on the Evocities program. The headline ‘Bush image slows growth, says Treloar’ captures the message. 

As I have previously commented, the difficulty in putting aside the label ‘country’ in favour of ‘regional’ lies in the way regional itself has acquired the connotation of second rate.

In a discussion during the week on one of my blogs, one of my regular commenters suggested that the growing disconnect between the bush and city reflected the breakdown in family connections between the people living in metro areas and the rest of the country. 

I think that he is right. 

Once, many city people had immediate links or connections to country Australia. This is less and less true today. 

You only have to look at the migration numbers to understand why. Most new settlers come to the capital cities and stay there. The partners their children select generally come from that city or, sometimes, from the home country. 

At the last census, 40 per cent of Sydney’s population was born outside Australia. If you add their children, a substantial majority of the Sydney population belongs to that group least likely to have connections with non-metro Australia. 

This is not a comment on migration, simply an observation on social trends. 

Last week, we saw an example of the problems created by current perceptions and lack of knowledge in a new report issued by the Melbourne based think tank, The Grattan Institute. 

The report carried the innocuous title ‘Investing in regions: making a difference.’ The report itself was hardly innocuous, nor was the national media coverage it attracted. 

In essence, the report argued that government resources and support should be re-allocated from lagging to fast growing or bolting ‘regions’. I have put the word regions in inverted commas because the report’s focus is actually on cities, not regions. 

The report also suggested that additional resources provided to regional universities could not be justified on economic grounds and that more resources should be provided to assist regional students to attend capital city universities. 

In NSW, the ‘bolting’ regions worthy of more support were Western Sydney, Coffs Harbour and Tweed Heads. The slow growth or laggard regions included Newcastle, Wollongong, Tamworth, Bathurst, Orange, Albury-Wodonga and Port Macquarie. The regional universities included the University of New England and Charles Sturt. 

Not unexpectedly, the report was welcomed by my old work colleague Alison McClaren who is president of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. 

I am in the process of writing a detailed critique of the report for it’s a deeply flawed document. For the moment, I want to concentrate on some of the issues that I have previously explored in this column.

The report starts from the premise that present government policies are based on historical populations and ignore future trends. 

As I have shown a number of times, the opposite is in fact true. Most Government policies take into account population projections that actually limits resources going to slow growth areas, thus reinforcing the population projections. 

The report is confused and confusing in its use of terms. I have written about this too, for the geographic terminologies used in policy development fragment and confuse policies. Regional is a case in point.

The report’s authors appear to have little understanding of the history of regional policy in Australia, of the variations across the country, or of the nature of structural changes that have taken place across time and space. 

They are not alone. I wrote of this most recently in the context of the ABC’s Q&A program. Those who forget their past are easy victims to current fads.

Finally, the economic and demographic analysis used in the report is deeply flawed, so deeply that a simple cross-check on on-ground conditions would have cast doubt on the methodologies used. 

Had the report been issued as a discussion paper challenging some current nostrums, I would have welcomed it. However, its claim to be in some ways a definitive analysis, its likely use in current debate and its role in reinforcing current misconceptions all combine to make it a dangerously misleading document.  

In my next column I plan to examine in detail the report’s analysis on regional universities because this is so important to Armidale.


Stu said...

There is a massive disconnect between the country and the city and it seems to be mainly along economic lines.

Because most high paying white collar jobs in NSW both in the private and public sector are either in Sydney or Canberra, smarter people have to live in these places to obtain employment. This has lead to families coming to the city and staying there for many generations. The only high paying jobs in regional areas are medicine, law and mining. So essentially wealthy intelligent people live in the city and welfare receiving bogans live in the country.

This means most people in Canberra or Sydney have no family in the country and may only visit it for a week a year or if they holiday overseas, never. These people know nothing else than the city, which we know is an artificial world made possible by the wealth of the regions.

This reinforces the country city divide.

This divide is also reinforced by the media which, if ABC24 is any gauge, is now dominated by young urban women, and only deals with city issues. If the country does get a mention the town name is usually mispronounced and positioned wrongly on the map.

I agree that the history of regional issues is being ignored and facts and stats are being cherry picked to serve the authors ends. Bob KAtter has made some great points in the recent cattle debate and has used history as a reference. Despite the media's best attempts to portray him as a country yokel he has shown a depth of understanding that puts most 'sophisticated' city journalists and hip greens polies to shame.

Who are these think-tanks such as the grattan and the institute of public affaris. They are just fronts for political parties or big business aren't they? The reports they produce are invariably flawed and serve the agenda of the authoring body. These reports should be subject to academic rigor; stating the terms of reference, objective and acknowledging any conflicts of interest- before they are taken seriously.

The Hunter Development Corporation was a prime example of this, producing 20 or so reports that concluded the Newcastle rail line needs to be removed. This conclusion was reached as it was their aim and in their interests. Their interests were not to consider the best public transport but to justify removing a valuable tax payer asset to sell off to party cronies. Other non biased reports since have concluded the obvious, that trains are good for transport into the Newcastle CBD and should not be removed.

It just amazes me how morally bankrupt these people are that they produce these self serving reports and how complicit the press are in publishing them and presenting them as fact and how gullible the public are in accepting it- it seems that to justify a policy, govt finds a compliant consultancy firm and gets them to draw up a fancy report confirming the govt's policy - whether it is right or not.

Anyway enough of my rant and I hope that I've set the record for the longest comment.

Jim Belshaw said...

Stu, my apologies for the slow appearance of your comment. It got caught in the spam trap! Response follows in a moment.

Jim Belshaw said...

Stu, I'm not sure that you have set the record for the longest comment, but you may be close!

As you might expect, I agree with most of your points.

I have argued before that we need a New England Research Foundation whose role should be to analyse issues from a broader New England perspective. This would help balance. It should not be partisan, but objective.

Stu said...

Yes that's a good idea.

It should be staffed by tenured academics from Newcastle, New England and Southern Cross Unis, as they are well qualified and due to their employment certainty can offer the frank and fearless advice that the pollies have eradicated from the public service.

New England needs a voice other than that of often poorly qualified pollies.

Jim Belshaw said...

I like that idea, Stu, re staffing.The Foundation would then encourage researchers to look at NE issues.

Looking at the history of UNE, those early academics made a tremendous contribution to the North because they saw it as part of their role. When you look at Grattan and then at their (the NEUC/UNE) academics, you can see just how silly the Grattan analysis is re contribution. You simply can't use stats based on a point in time to measure real contribution.

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