Sunday, September 02, 2012

Social change, footloose industries and the closure of the Goonellabah Call Centre

In my writing on the social and economic history of New England I traced some of the economic and social changes that swept across the broader New England over the second half of the twentieth century. The pace of change accelerated with the passage of time and has continued to accelerate.PROTESTERS outside Grafton Jail have won another battle in the war to have the decision to downsize the jail overturned.

In July, we had the protests over the threatened closure of Grafton Jail. The photo from the Daily Examiner shows one part of the protest. Now we have the decision by Telstra to close its Lismore Goonellabah Call Centre on October 23 this year with the loss of 116 positions. North Coast Voices has reproduced a copy of the combined letter of protest to Telstra from the Mayor and State and Federal members.

One of the features of the changes over time is the constant claims that these changes will offer benefits in terms of improved services and new local business opportunities and yet, somehow, it never seems to happen. The call centre case is especially interesting in that call centre operations were seen as the new holy grail to replace other losses. Get a call centre to compensate. Now as a consequence of continuing change in the on-line world, the rise of self-service internet transactions, that holy grail has proved to have a very short half life indeed.

Call centres are examples of what I call migratory or footloose economic activities, activities that are actually location independent and rise, fall and shift with changes in relative economics. The rise of these activities was a central feature of the last two decades of the twentieth century.

I don't have an answer. I don't think there is a complete answer. But I do know that it is very difficult for any form of purely local response or protest to have a real impact.P1000324

Further south over the escarpment from Lismore, the NBN (National Broadband Network) is seen as one solution to Armidale's problems and, more broadly, the solution to service delivery problems created by distance. A lot of us have doubts.

You will get a feel of this from a post I did on my personal blog, Saturday Morning Musings - UNE alumni dinner. Will on-line delivery provide a growth opportunity for UNE or will it become another step in the progressive decline of the North? This photo from that post shows VC Barber under alumni questioning.

In the years that I have been writing this blog, I have consistently argued that the rise of localism, the fall in the broader sense of Northern identity, limits our capacity to respond to the challenge of constant change.

Outside the Northern Rivers and perhaps even Lismore itself, there is no appetite for support. The closure is seen as a local problem, one without relevance to concerns elsewhere. That's a problem. United we may fall, but divided we shall surely hang.

One of the difficulties that people have, one that I know that I have despite my own knowledge and experience, is simply the difficulty in understanding just what is happening.

In my professional capacity, I first wrote on the rise of footloose industries in the 1980s. I didn't believe that the outcomes of the new technologies would be as so commonly presented. As best I could, I posed a blunt question to those in Sydney and Melbourne who talked so glibly of the opportunities opening up. What made them believe that in the absence of effective planning, Australia would benefit? Surely it was more likely that Australia as a whole would go through the experiences that South Australia or New England had already experienced, a decline in relevance?

I don't want to discuss the detailed economics of it all in this post, just to record another New England loss and to make a continuing plea for the need for a broader vision.  


Ian Mott said...

This faith in industry saviours is almost like a cargo cult in that it is so divorced from the actual mechanics of an economic engine.

The essence of an economic engine is the presence of decision makers. Where ever decisions are being made the business interests that rely on those decisions are sure to follow.

So when a new state parliament begins to exercise discretion over the 15% of GDP that comprises state level outlays for a region, all the potential bidders know that having a local office and local staff are the key to obtaining a share.

Without decision makers in place within the region the local economy is left to scrounge for the scraps and leftovers.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ian, I am so sorry for my delay in responding to this comment. Obviously I agree wholeheartedly.