Speech to Annual Western Queensland Local Government Association Conference – “The limits of localism”

8 May 2015

A little over 12 months ago I rose in the Senate chamber for the first time, to deliver my maiden address.

Generally speaking, a maiden address seeks at explain who you are, how your world view has been shaped and how it will influence your time in the political arena.

After going through my family’s long association with the bush – including my grandfather’s attempt to convince the police that a pair of sheep he stole from a mustering camp were in fact feral goats – I moved onto what I feel is among the greatest threats facing the survivability of our rural communities.

I said that whilst all levels of government acknowledge community services obligations and a responsibility to distribute the wealth of our nation evenly amongst its citizens, we tend to struggle in the delivery of these commitments the further it is that we get away from places where the postcodes end in three zeroes.

I said I believed the progressive restructuring of government agencies with an emphasis on a corporatized model, compounded by the overarching principles of economic rationalism, has seen us significantly and aggressively reduce government based and government funded services to many parts of regional and rural Australia since the 1960s.

In the months since I delivered my maiden address I have travelled extensively across the state, meeting with many of you in this room today.

And from our conversations at those meetings, I can now say my views have only deepened that we need a new approach if we are going to revitalise our communities and see them to reach their true economic potential.

My time on the road meeting with you all, and my time in Canberra, has illustrated to me there are distinct and frequent disconnects between the policy agendas of successive governments and the hopes and expectations of rural communities.

We must now work collaboratively to repair these differences if we are going to improve the future economic capacity and liveability of our rural areas.

For several decades, successive State and Federal Governments have promoted a view that “localism” is the best policy mechanism to grow the regions.

By localism, I mean the belief that community-based solutions are the most effective in solving regional problems.

Central to this strategy is the view that regions can and should invest in their own growth through mobilization of local assets and resources, so as to capitalize on their specific competitive advantages.

In theory this sounds very fair and reasonable, perhaps even preferable.

However, the problem is that localism will almost always fail wherever critical investments are poorly resourced.

While State and Federal governments have remained in control of the budgets, these same political parties have promoted market liberalisation and dedicated resources to enabling structural adjustment so that ‘less efficient’ operators could leave the industry.

All too often, policy settings committed by State and Federal Government to pursuing free-market agendas and so-called small government has simply resulted in governments of both political stripes retreating from their commitments and responsibilities to local communities despite the fact there is often a clear expectation from rural communities that government will fairly address the social and economic consequences of its policies.

Wherever economic rationalism has been combined with a localism policy setting, it has resulted in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market plucking basic services from our rural communities and, more often than not, replacing it with nothing.

As a result, we are consistently seeing the pace of regional economic development falling well below national economic growth.

Taken to its extreme, some economists and politicians who favour economic rationalism have even questioned whether large sections of traditional rural Australia should be discarded as economically unviable wastelands that are too costly to the nation.

This viewpoint was most publically shared by then-Australian Workers’ Union National Secretary Paul Howes, who said Australia should replace ‘Ma and Pa’ farming with a stronger corporatized model.

In Australia, our State and Federal Governments also promote the ideals of localism but in practice, maintains close control over budgets and the investment program.

This means that localism in its truest sense cannot really function because local communities cannot control both the resources and the decision-making process.

Instead, it simply becomes another form of governmental bureaucracy for communities to wade through.

So given these public policy challenges it is little wonder that we in rural Australia have from time to time questioned why we get up every morning and continue to battle against the bureaucrats, let alone our natural enemies of drought, fire, flood and cyclones.

But there are alternatives to our current situation, which would enable us to better collaborate, share information and coordinate across all levels of government as well as with other significant regional stakeholders.

The future of rural economies is increasingly being based on local capacity to develop and innovate, particularly through utilizing assets which are distinct to particular localities and therefore offer real local economic potential.

In countries like Australia, the competitive economic advantage of specific rural communities has more recently been promoted through the development of mining industries.

But we are seeing the end of the mining boom, and so we are again experiencing a shift in focus to the so-called soft commodities in agriculture.

More and more we are hearing economists say that a vibrant, innovative and competitive agriculture sector will be one of the key pillars essential to underpinning Australia’s economy in this century.

It took the world population millions of years to reach the first billion, then 123 years to get to the second, 33 years to the third, 14 years to the fourth, 13 years to the fifth billion.

The human population today stands at an estimated 6.8 billion, of whom an estimated 1.02 billion are undernourished and 2.5 billion are expected to enter this middle classes in the next two decades.

How we fashion a 21st-century agriculture industry capable of feeding these distinct groups is the great question of our age.

And it a question for which we in rural Australia must be providing answers in the wider national debate about our future economy.

Potentially valuable kinds of economic development are all too often blocked in principle, without considering the contribution they can make to supporting both the local community and the national economy.

Each time this happens, it is a major opportunity lost for our rural communities to explain where real local economic potential lay.

Taken as a whole, rural areas in Australia are more entrepreneurial and generate higher levels of business creation per head of population than in the capital cities, and as our national economy transitions to rely more heavily on agriculture, your regions must be ready to canvass the state and federal ministers about the real potential for true economic and employment growth in your paddocks and in your streets.

You must be prepared to take the argument of the economic rationalist and say that the government should increase the funds for services in your communities – not because it might be considered fair and reasonable – but because these funds will lead to a higher economic output from your community and thus increase revenue for the national coffers.

We must become better co-ordinated to sharpen our arguments with supporting economic data to illustrate how a profitable agriculture sector is essential to the economic wellbeing of the entire nation.

And the only way we will be able to attract the right people to work in this industry is if we improve liveability in our rural communities.

Next Week my government will deliver its second budget and its core focus will be to establish sustainable public finances and productivity enhancing policy.

Rural Australia will continue to linger behind the metropolitan centres until we generate a more co-ordinated approach that truly answers the policy questions being asked by key decision-makers in every state and federal government.

Gatherings such as today’s are the perfect forums to begin this important discussion, they prove we have the organisational infrastructure to develop a new approach.

Thank you for the invitation to speak and I look forward to talking more to you as the day progresses.