The longstanding debate between Federal and State Governments has been intensifying on who should dominate or even survive. In part, this has come about because local government is morphing into a more powerful regional force across Australia.
This article explores some of the experiments and thinking behind the clustering of communities into more coherent regions and where this all may end up, and, in particular, what benefit, if any, could occur for us in the Hinterland as part of the Sunshine Coast region.
My first observation of this desire to cluster in Australia was in 1997 when Rory McEwen, the then President of the Greater Green Triangle Regional Local Government Association, comprising of seventeen local government areas throughout south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia, created a storm in State Government that resulted in front page headlines demanding his resignation.
Rory’s crime was to state on prime time television that once the regions in Australia had worked out how to use emerging internet technologies to aggregate their internal economic and political power they would start to trade with other regions around the world. His stance was that regions would trade with regions around the world where the common interest could, in some cases, be stronger than trading with regions within Australia.
The consequences of this, he suggested, would usher in the beginning of the end of State Governments in Australia because the regions would manage themselves more effectively and have the flexibility to deal with regional issues.
He was one of the pioneers to aggregate the demand for local telecommunications to improve services and reduce the cost. He even attempted to purchase the mobile analogue network and run it at cost for the region. But the aggressive stance by some members of the industry killed off what would have been the lowest mobile network in the country.
Rory then joined State politics in the belief that he could better assist the regions in SA to develop the competence and infrastructure to achieve greater self determination. He has had a great deal of success in linking up a range of regional industries like tuna, crayfish and abalone for the export market to other regions in Asia.
Again his stance as an Independent representing the region seems to have been successful as he has been elected Minister for the regions both during the Labour and the Liberal Governments
In WA during 1999 Hendy Cowan, the then Deputy Premier and national leader of the National Party, held a four day think tank along with the most influential planners in the state including the under treasurer and head of Premier and Cabinet, Ian Fletcher.
The objective was to fashion a statement for the Premier Richard Court whereby he could demonstrate that the government not only understood the future but had worked out a pathway for WA and its citizens to excel in the brave new world of global economics.
Interestingly, a by-product of this discussion was the realisation that the State government would reach a tipping point where it could no longer afford to meet the growing needs & expectations of the regions. They also realised that the regions themselves would, at the same time, begin to grow in economic & political power along the lines predicted by Rory in SA.
It was determined that the endpoint for regions would be a greater degree of autonomy to the point where they would demand to control budgets for core government services delivered in their own region. Also they reached a highly radical conclusion that the regions would probably want a percentage of the taxable income from the region that normally would go to the State. The general view was this perspective would not be universally welcome in state government circles.
Labour swept to power in WA and Ian Fletcher head of Premier and Cabinet found himself out of state government and running the Kalgoorlie regional council where he quickly started to implement some of the ideas explored in the think tank. This started with establishing a consensus amongst the three tier government, mining industry and communities, on the future vision of the region. They identified the interdependency between all the various groups in order to establish where the common interest lay so that the focus on building the region was to achieve a clear tangible and measurable outcome.
The benchmark for this was that all of the underpinning conditions, such as skills, infrastructure, employment and amenities, must exist so that its youth could and would want to live there. A difficult task considering that the region stretches from the sea all the way to the dry centre encompassing urban, rural and remote communities with a wide range of employment and social conditions.
So the strategy was to initially stream line government services to make it easier and more effective; then to transform the role of regional government from simply looking after roads, rates and rubbish.
This started by positioning themselves as an ‘honest broker’ between the various groups to see how greater collaboration could generate immediate public value and then build upon success as the trust evolved. This covered a wide range of opportunities based around the concept of aggregating the demand for common needs starting with lumping together the telecommunications requirements of the communities using the large mining groups to force the telcos to open up the 5 fibre optic cables that ran untouched through the region to provide low cost phone and broadband.
Another development was to rationalise logistics and create a hub in Kalgoorlie, saving time & money on transport because freight for mining would no longer have to go via Perth.
A broadband network to improve health outcomes was established providing video based access to experts for remote communities, including the large Aboriginal communities.
The tourism fraternity was organised to push the federal government to fund projects like the new tourist track through the region to Alice Springs.
As the fruits of this broad collaboration started to manifest in tangible benefits, the local Mayor who was also the national chairman of Local Government Authority, started to promote the view to the Federal Government that the regions could do a better job than State Government in regional development.
The argument went along the lines that the State Government, with its centralised bureaucracy and quick turn-around of ministers, tended to do quick fix solutions which were expensive to implement and of limited value due to their generic nature which rarely took into consideration the diversity between the various regions.
He advocated the Federal Government work with a small group of the leading self-defined regions to show case how these partnerships could reap tangible results. Some of the inherent weaknesses of the regional councils were to be addressed via funding projects to bring them into the 21st century in terms of efficiency, being goal orientated rather than procedure orientated and, most importantly, skilling the workforce to change the culture to that of a modern service industry.
At the same time, but closer to home, Bernard Cleary headed the Wide Bay 2020 vision planning process in a region comprising of 18 mayors. Bernard had the extraordinary experience of having been the town planner for Dubai where, unlike Wide Bay, they had almost unlimited financial resources to build their region. Bernard’s view was that once some common ground had been established and the consent of the various communities acquired it would be possible to establish the infrastructure required to underpin prosperity for a 21st century knowledge based regional economy.
Interestingly, Bernard cited the common thread for generating employment, regardless of whether the region had massive resources like Dubai or very few like Wide Bay, was to create an affordable modern sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband and the services that run on it, to underpin trade, and, even more importantly, to either develop skills to enable the region to shift its reliance from declining industries, to regenerate them or develop new ones.
They started an impressive Internet access model for the whole region which the telcos claimed, at the time, was not technically possible or financially viable. They later forced the telco industry to open up broadband at prices similar to urban rates just by threatening to provide a community based model themselves. They started to consolidate the information within the region by creating the Australia’s first regional electronic map (GIS), available to anyone via the Internet, similar to what Google have now started. This map included multiple layers of information to strengthen and better co-ordinate regional service delivery for all services, including welfare and emergency. This was also expanded to support sustainable decision making in town planning and to help primary industries to diversify by offering investors better decision support tools.
Bernard’s view was that if the region could act as a trusted broker and acquire a critical mass of consent to force the use of the most effective infrastructure available then a region could not only get things cheaper but also create the conditions for employment. He saw no reason why the region should not have its own type of free internet including free phone calls, such as Skype, where government and industry would use their buying power to work with the community.
Bringing free or cheap broadband to every community, he argued, along with programs to educate the youth, would stimulate employment and enable our youth to acquire the skills to compete. Adelaide now has free broadband across the CBD where it can be used by the public to make free Skype internet calls to any other internet user in the world, bypassing the cost of mobile phones. In Maleny’s main street this service has also been available for years but to date has not generated sufficient interest to expand this across the whole community.
This experience of partnership and aggregating the demand for services led Wide Bay 2020 to explore how to deliver the same beneficial outcome for banking. This eventually led to a meeting with key executives from one of the big four banks, John Anderson, the then Deputy Prime Minister and the department responsible for regional development.
The proposed model would enable the councils to purchase banking services via their own regional broker and, as with the telecommunications model, the broker would buy this at a wholesale price. The core benefit for each council would be a vast improvement in productivity by using a new online streamlined banking system. But a major benefit for the region was that the money saved on over a billion dollars of yearly transactions via a wholesale price would go directly on developing skills and job opportunities for the youth in the region. The model would have provided for small branches to be opened up in each community, regardless of size, operated through local retail outlets in the same way that we are now seeing local newsagents providing traditional banking services. The big surprise was the model allowed for free accounts and core services to any person in the region should they need it.
This common interest in youth by all parties in the region was intended to be the glue to make the collaboration work. However, the bank tried to skew the model towards a franchise system that they could better control, and so the project stalled.
Similar discussions have been occurring in other countries on how to combine the strength of a geographic region or even a community of common interest. Tony Blair asked his think tank if it would be possible to address the problem in the UK for those who could least afford electricity or gas, from paying up to three times the retail price via coin slot meters controlled by landlords. They are now exploring whether it would be possible to link these people, through internet technology, into a single buying group to get better prices. Blair even suggested the government join this group to provide additional demand to justify huge discounts to people on welfare. Interestingly, it was discovered that the same technology would allow entire regions to aggregate demand for utility services and pass on the wholesale price to its households. London is now exploring this approach and is also considering a project in the UK where the region would produce its own cheaper power. In Australia this brokering would have to occur at a regional level because, in many cases, the State Government would have a conflict of interest being the owner of the retail profits from utilities.
We are all becoming increasingly aware of our dependence on forces that we struggle to understand, let alone control, such as the shift to global knowledge based economies, and how that, in turn, makes our financial and cultural security fragile and vulnerable.
This, in turn, begs the question as to whether we have the motivation and tenacity as a region to utilise the very same technologies that challenge our stability to take back some control at a regional level to make things better for us and our kids.
It would appear from the experiences of other regions that the difficulty will be to overcome the barriers that fragment a region and the practical problems of providing the constant levels of consent to any regional leadership so that they could act knowing that were indeed acting on our behalf. Again, with the ability to conduct trusted online transactions, including voting, on the internet or via phones, then providing referendums would become an option to create a powerful evolution of our democracy for this brave new electronic world.
How far could the Range and Sunshine Coast go if it had a greater capacity to shape its own destiny certainly needs greater exploration, as does the question of where we are likely to end up if we do nothing ourselves but let the current political short term policies of growth and the global trends that erode traditional employment take their natural course.
The Green Triangle Plantation Region is comprised of seventeen local government areas throughout south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia
Population throughout the Victorian section of the Green Triangle region is approximately 146 000.
Hon RORY McEWEN MP
Minister for Agriculture, Food & Fisheries
Minister for Forests
Minister for Regional Development
Rory McEwen had a long involvement in local government before being elected as an Independent for the Seat of Mount Gambier in 1997.
He was Chairman of the District Council of Mt Gambier from 1989 to 1996, and was then inaugural Chairman of the District Council of Grant, following an amalgamation in 1996. He is a Past President of the South East Local Government Association, Greater Green Triangle Regional Association and member of the Local Government State Executive.
In Parliament, he has been a member of the Economic and Finance Committee and several Select Committees. Since May 2002, he has been a Member of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee.