Colin Long

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Colin LongColin Long lectures in cultural heritage at Deakin University. He is an urban historian with interests in Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian history and heritage, Australian urban and labour history, and heritage in post-communist societies. He is also the President of the Deakin Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.

 

 

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I did my honours thesis in 2006 on this topic, would be keen to have a much broader conversation with people about it. I think you are right, regional development bodies are key, and they need to be participatory, with budgets that they have discretion over (as well as adequate accountability), harnessing the altruistic energy that is plentiful in regional Australia. It was a real pity when the federal government closed Area Consultative Committees in 2009- the participatory, volunteer run structures that they themselves had begun in order to deal with economic restructuring in the early '90's under Simon Crean's leadership. The new RDA committees are now far more distanced from the grassroots communities than the ACCs were. I remember the dismay among ACC members when the old model was taken out, (due to a understandable suspicion of the national party influence in the committees, since the chairs of the committtees were appointed by politicians). Under the former structure, different regions developed different strategic focuses appropriate to their region, with the South Coast of NSW/ North coast of Victoria ACC focusing on alleviating dependence on fossil fuels/ oil as part of their strategic plan. Other ACCs focused on specialising the region in a particular industry, in building skills in that industry, and in attracting investment. A whole lot of projects with a social dividend would not have been funded had it not been for Regional Partnerships, such as mens sheds or Kennedy's recycled Timbers in Brisbane. However it's hard to judge- there were other projects that WOULD have been funded anyway, and that factor, as well as corruption was what turned 'regional partnerships' into a dirty word and a liability for the federal government. In my research, I looked at the transition policies enacted when the BHP steelworks was closed in Newcastle in 1999, and it was very clear that the 'solutions' that came from the outside (called 'chasing smokestacks' by some) were far less resilient than those industries that were home grown. Also the important role of the Hunter Valley Research Foundation and the Newcastle Herald in canvassing options for the region's people to debate and deliberate on their future cannot be overstated. The unions and other advocacy groups were able to hold BHP to account for the intangible debt owed to the region in addition to the monetary debt that workers were owed. Due to the concerted campaigning of steelworkers and their communities in Newcastle, BHP was brought to the table to negotiate 'world's best practice' in industry closure, with many workers being paid in the last two years of the plant's operation to work as well as be retrained in the industry of their choice. They were also provided with counselling- both psychological and financial, training about how to apply for a job (which many of them never had to do- huge cultural changes in the job market have taken place) etc. Yet even through all this, many older middle age workers were not able to secure a job. In addition to assistance for workers, there were government grants programs funded by both the state and federal governments for industries to expand operations and thus to diversify the economy. This probably produced the most mixed results, with some companies such as Compass airways going belly up soon after securing grants, as well as many accusations about the companies rent seeking and feeding off the public trough. However the grant programs did create more jobs but the question of their longevity and their value for money remain. These days I'm enthused about the potential of participatory budgets for regional development. These have been experimented with around the world, notably in Brazil, Europe and the US. I also think the Transition Towns model has a lot to offer regional communities to become more locally self sufficient, in particular the initiative of local currencies that have been created in several transition towns in collaboration with local businesses and authorities. Cheers and thanks for your article.
Anne | 22 May 2012


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