Pork-barrel politics rolls regional Australia


The post-election political chaos has brought the disadvantage of regional Australia to the nation's attention. This geographical inequity was portrayed by Emeritus Professor Tony Vinson as 'hidden', in a 2007 report titled Dropping Off The Edge The Distribution Of Disadvantage In Australia. Vinson demonstrated that extreme social disadvantage is real, measurable, endemic to a small number of locations in regional areas, and fixable.

Fortuitous political circumstances have now forced the Federal Government to act. If that is what the 'new paradigm' is all about, it can only be a good thing. Except that allocating a fairer share of Commonwealth funding for the bush will probably lead to a fresh set of inequities, because it is being driven by the need to buy political support, and not the demonstrated needs of rural Australians.

Hospitals will be renewed in the electorates of Lyne and New England, while others in equal or greater need will miss out. Wagga Wagga Base Hospital is rundown, and it had been ranked at the top of the priority list for rebuilding. But last week, hospitals at Tamworth and Port Macquarie won preferential treatment under the deals struck between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

There is also speculation that communities in Lyne and New England will be given priority for connection to the National Broadband Network. If the common good or the most pressing need were previously the determining factors, they have now been cast aside.

Pork-barrelling has always been part of the political process, but that does not make it any less of a scandal. Politicians steal from those whose votes do not count and give to others whose votes ensure their political security. If Labor is serious about governing for all Australians, it will find a way of convincing the Independents to support funding allocations and priorities for regional Australia that address the greatest need.

The Independents are not in an unassailable position, as was apparent last week when Windsor let slip his belief that the alliance with Labor rather than the Coalition is more likely to allow him to remain in his pivotal position of power. If she wants to, Gillard is surely able to use this to ensure a more appropriate distribution of funds among rural Australians.

It is not the case that experts lack a detailed breakdown of where regional Australia's greatest needs lie. Various studies have been completed, such as the work done by Vinson, which was on behalf of Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia.

Using data provided by entities such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink and the Australian Health Insurance Commission, he produced a map intended to assist governments to better grapple with rural disadvantage. He specified ten postcodes of high national priority, none of which lies inside the electorates of Lyne and New England.

Significantly non-government organisations have been most proactive in collating data that is readily available, in order to tell a story that happens to reflect many decades of neglect of regional areas by both sides of government. Governments would do well to routinely collect and analyse this data themselves, and own the task of addressing regional disadvantage.

The data itself makes a strong case for special programs and assistance for rural areas, and this ought to be a priority that attracts bipartisan support.

It becomes more urgent when given the context of the population debate and decisions — both difficult and exciting — about the future of regional and remote communities. Where is the White Paper articulating government policy for regional Australia for the next 10–20 years? If any good comes out of pork-barrelling, we might hope for such a blueprint and subsequent delivery of programs.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.He also teaches media ethics and law in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: regional Australia, Tony Vinson, Dropping Off The Edge, windsor, oakeshott, gillard, pork-barrelling



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Existing comments

I was living in remote and rural areas of Australia most of my life. I am now lucky enough to live in a city within a few kilometres to all the services. If you live in a remote or rural area you may be lucky if you are able to see a dentist once a month. If you manage to get an appointment, then you are lucky; otherwise you just wait for another month and take painkillers.
In most rural and remote areas there are no secondary schools. Parents are forced to send their children away at the age of 13 to live in a boarding school often hundreds of kilometres from home. In most cases there is no public transport and you have to drive your children to the city.
I think it is time rural and remote areas are getting a chance to catch up. It makes me laugh when people living in a major city believe they are “disadvantaged”. Let them live in a remote town of the NT or SA and let them decide who is “disadvantaged”!
Beat Odermatt | 13 September 2010

City-based commentators squarking about pork-barrelling have no idea about the extent to which State and Federal governments have pork-barrelled by either loading goodies into capital cities for decade after decade, or claiming that the private sector would do the job for us.

Oakeshott and Windsor are, fortuitously, in a position to encourage government to cease abrogation of its duty to its citizens.

If the private sector is all it's cracked up to be, then there are profits to be made in service provision to urban areas. I therefore demand:

1. NO further state or federal investment in hospitals in urban areas.
2. NO federal investment in broadband network in urban areas.
3. NO federal investment in any transport in urban areas.
4. NO public funding of any more water extraction from urban hinterlands to meet capital city mug punter driveway hosing requirements.

At least, not until the requirements of regional and remote Australia are addressed.
David Arthur | 13 September 2010

Why such unreasonable haste? The Gillard Ministry has yet to be sworn in. Certainly there are many matters of urgency to be addressed by our government but sensibly its motto could be "Festina Lente".
David | 13 September 2010

Hopefully, doing something in the electorates of Lyne and New England is just the start of helping all the neglected areas of Australia.

And it's more likely than under one who would "Stop new taxes", reduce other services and sell Medibank Private so as to "Pay back the debt".

(On the list of OECD countries showing tax as a % of GDP, Australia is near the bottom - and one would not want to be sick or unemployed in any of those countries nearer the bottom of the list.)
Geoff | 13 September 2010

Thank you david arthur.
russell | 13 September 2010


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