Liberals lack of regional development has worsened the water crisis

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Australia's drought situation has left areas like the Murray-Darling almost dry (Image via Flickr)

While Australia struggles with a national water crisis, the LNP struggles with the concept of sustainable regional development, writes Dr Evan Jones.

MY FATHER WORKED in the federal industry bureaucracy in the early 1950s, then located in Menzies’s Department of National Development.

In that capacity, he collected and retained in his papers a sizeable supplement in the Sydney Sunday Herald, 17 August 1952. The supplement was headed ‘What will we do with Australia?’

Early on, we meet an article titled The Most Arid Continent In The World, which deserves quoting at length.

Nearly 30 years ago, Professor Griffith Taylor suggested at a scientific conference that Australia’s maximum population might be somewhere between 20 and 30 million people, on existing standards of living; that the Northern Territory was no El Dorado; and that we could never do much with the great part of the continent.


He was subsequently attacked fiercely in the Federal Parliament. Western Australian schools would not use his books for a time, because they emphasised that the State had big deserts.


When the storm had subsided a little it was found that most of his colleagues supported him. Most [present-day authorities] still agree, with some reservations.

Dr John Andrews of Sydney University put it this way in his book, “Australia’s Resources”:


‘An opinion widely held among Australians is that the country of their birth is a land of unlimited opportunity, bountifully blessed by Nature and possessing exceedingly rich but relatively untapped resources. All that is needed (in the popular mind) is a larger population, the necessary capital, a dam here, a dam there — and hey presto, Australia becomes a new Garden of Eden, a land flowing with milk and honey, a new, New World.


It is not just a historical accident that the USA has a population of nearly 150 million and Australia that of eight million — even though both countries are approximately the same size.’


As it is, we have to accept that such rain as we get often comes where and when we do not want it, that about half the continent is virtually useless.


Last week, Professor Griffith Taylor was unrepentant about his forecasts. “What I said of Australian conditions 30 years ago is still true.”

And yet this very article ends on a contrary note:

The economists and geographers naturally take a realistic view. But when all allowances are made for poor and uncertain rainfall, for the problems of the deserts and the tropics, for distance and other difficulties, it is still obvious that a large and useful area of the continent remains to us — and it is not only half-developed, or not developed at all.

The entire supplement, it transpires, is devoted to that end. Complementing the text, the advertising content is chock full of bulldozers, mega-tractors and transports, readily available from local suppliers for the developmental adventure.

Subsequent articles in the supplement beef up the optimism — in particular, the large-scale irrigation prospects from the Snowy Mountains Scheme, then under construction. Add a dam here, a dam there, and ‘hey presto’.

For this newspaper supplement, then, it should be full steam ahead. All we need is ongoing technical advances (pipe water from PNG?) and the will to implement them. 

But there’s a proviso. With one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world, notes the supplement, there is the necessity to decentralise habitation and to do so actively.

To that end, there was then a Federal Division of Regional Development (created by Labor in 1945 as part of post-war reconstruction) within the Department of National Development. The Division was headed by the indefatigable Grenfell Rudduck, who naturally has an article in the supplement brimming with ideas. There were also complementary Decentralisation Departments in some states.

However, Rudduck’s Division of Regional Development was dismantled a mere month later, with an ascendant Federal Treasury and Public Service Board looking to rationalise programs. Not a good look.

If one is going to have functional decentralisation, one needs a stable institutional framework properly staffed, strategic orientation and flexibility in the light of experience. And a beady eye on sustainability, in which water is a key factor.

The Libs seem to have trouble with the concept of regional development per se. John Howard’s 1996 Officer Commission of Audit actually recommended that ‘there is no clear rationale or constitutional basis for Commonwealth involvement in [regional and local government programs] and that they should be eliminated post-haste.

Howard also privatised the fully integrated Telstra, with wonderfully adverse effects on regional employment. In response to rural dissent, Howard orchestrated several rural summits that were pure substance-less grandstanding.

Absence of regional development policies doesn’t inhibit regional development, but it does contribute mightily to incoherence (assisted by pork-barrelling) and unsustainability.

A prime example of dysfunctional pork-barrelling was the Barnaby Joyce-driven decision to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale. The adverse implications of this move have been well covered by ABC reportage and by Michael West’s well-informed contributor.

These days, there is no intelligence whatsoever directed to the bush and the regions. There is only a useless and corrupt National Party at Federal and State levels, water-ravenous mining projects to which the Nats are committed (with post-political revolving door payoffs), a water licensing regime steeped in abuse and cotton boondoggles exemplified by the preposterous Cubbie Station.

No water, save for the privileged handful? No worries. The “market” knows best.

The current water crisis has been a long time in the making.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist.

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