Eight months is a long time in politics. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s happened in the federal parliament in the past week.) So waiting eight months for a response to a parliamentary report raises certain expectations. When the federal government delivered its response last week to an ambitious parliamentary blueprint for regional Australia, the almost eight-month wait had led many of us to expect something detailed and sophisticated. Many of us are now disappointed.
In formally responding to Regions at the Ready, produced by the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, the government has declined the invitation to engage in clever policymaking. Instead, it has stuck to the well-worn path of decentralising public sector jobs.
Out of 13 recommendations in Regions at the Ready, the government has accepted only five without reservation. Four of these relate to decentralisation (the fifth is on access to higher education in regional Australia). For the remaining recommendations and issues, the government has employed a strategy familiar to all political observers: kicking the can down the road. The government will form an “expert panel” to undertake “a targeted assessment of the key issues raised in the report”.
Some may suggest eight months was enough time to assess those key issues.
To understand the level of underachievement here, it’s necessary to recall the level of policy ambition in Regions at the Ready. When the report was released in June 2018, at the conclusion of a year-long inquiry and on the back of almost 200 submissions, it raised hopes of a better way of designing and delivering regional policy. I described it at the time as “a far-reaching and highly practical work program for regional development”, and I haven’t changed my view.
Bringing together parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle, plus a prominent crossbench member in Cathy McGowan, the select committee grappled with the biggest issues facing regional communities: globalisation, population ageing, urbanisation and technological change.
The committee was also asked to consider decentralisation of public service jobs. It delivered on that task, but it built decentralisation into a much bigger, smarter approach to “place-based” policymaking. Sure, the committee said, moving public servants from the city to the country might be a good idea (depending on the circumstances), but our vision for regional Australia has to be bigger than this.
But the sticking point – and it’s a big one – is politics. The next federal election is looming. While we may not go to the polls until May, Canberra has already tipped over into full campaign mode. Not only is the government flagging in the polls nationally, but a crop of independent candidates is mounting a challenge to sitting Coalition members in regional and rural seats.
In these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that the government has retreated to what must seem safe ground in regional policy: buy them off with “roads and rail” and fiddle with public service jobs.
There may be more to come. But the government’s new expert panel is required to deliver its assessment of the big picture issues by March 31 2019 – and such a truncated process screams “electioneering”. It seems doubtful the bipartisan spirit of the committee’s report will survive this process.
We’ve seen all of this before, in different guises. Politics tends to confound good policymaking for regional development. While the tension between politics and policy is evident across every portfolio of government, regional development is more prone than many to charges of partisanship and pork-barrelling.
The intimate relationship between regional development and the National Party is also in play. That relationship is increasingly fraught, as anyone who has read journalist Gabrielle Chan’s excellent Rusted Off will know. The key question may be: will regional Australians be willing to accept yet another tranche of low-tech, low-ambition policy for their communities?
Regions at the Ready was a genuine, deliberate attempt to sidestep the politicisation of regional policy. As I, and many others, argued in submissions to the inquiry, regional communities in Australia deserve sophisticated policy.
Shifting public service jobs to regional Australia is a policy that Coalition governments keep taking up, despite the lack of evidence that it is effective (and often in the absence of clear goals).
It’s regrettable, but perhaps inevitable, that the good policy work contained in Regions at the Ready is still sitting on the shelf. Whether it gathers dust for eternity will depend partly on how much ambition the National Party can muster between now and the election, and partly on what happens in that election.