LAURIE PATTON. ‘Un-populate or perish’ – rethinking the Whitlam decentralisation vision in a digital age

Dec 12, 2016

There’s been quite a deal of media coverage lately about the need for better Internet access in regional, rural and remote Australia. Earlier in the year delegates to the annual Broadband for the Bush conference highlighted the communications challenges facing everyone living outside our major population centres while pointing to opportunities for better delivery of health services and education using emerging online technologies.

There’s no doubt that many people will be caught in a ‘digital divide’ unless we provide fast, affordable broadband via a 21st Century NBN serving the entire country. However, the debate thus far has centred on those already living and working in the bush. Perhaps it’s time to consider the advantages of encouraging more businesses, and the people they employ, to move to regional centres? Rather than seeing the demand for broadband outside our capital cities as a problem, perhaps we could turn it into a solution?

Four decades ago the Whitlam Government recognised the economic and social downside to cramming people into a handful of increasingly overcrowded capital cities. Envisaging a more decentralised nation, the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation was formed.

There are many reasons why the Albury-Wodonga experiment failed to spur a wholesale shift of our population. For one thing, subsequent governments didn’t share the Whitlam vision and didn’t follow through with the incentives required to encourage more such developments.

But arguably the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services at the time. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were habitually held face to face, and even before we all had fax machines, this was an insurmountable hurdle. The question we need to consider now is has the Internet provided the solution – people communicating with each other without necessarily having to be in the same room? We’ve already seen the creation of numerous Internet-based jobs that can be carried out remotely. This is a trend only likely to continue.

Perversely, while nearly 90 percent of Australians live in cities we have quite a low level of urban population density relative to other developed nations. Given our large land mass, we’ve unsurprisingly allowed our major cities to spread out such that people have huge distances to travel to and from work. The cost of providing and maintaining public infrastructure is so immense it is crippling state budgets.

Urbanists will always argue that it is more economically efficient to contain people in existing cities rather than build new ones. However, given the costs of continuing the urban sprawl it might be timely to conduct an analysis of the respective costs of building homes and providing the associated utilities in outer areas of large capital cities compared with moving people to smaller centres. But, in any case, is it all about economics? What about quality of life?

Last week saw Townsville become the centre of Australia’s first “City Deal” – jointly signed by the Prime Minister, Queensland Premier and Townsville Mayor. According to the official announcement, the idea is to deliver “an integrated package of initiatives to make Townsville more attractive to investors, increase jobs and growth, and revitalise the city”.

One of our largest telcos has several high rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy lunch. Yet they all struggle with congested transport systems that mean hours spent getting to and from a workplace that could, in most cases, be located pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, there are country towns dying economically because outdated local industries have closed down.

America provides a case study worth considering. Rather than all fighting for space and labour in a handful of places, US businesses are spread across hundreds of regional cities. One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce that makes a city viable.

The new digitally-enabled world we are entering will be full of avenues to rethink how we build a better Australia. New ideas will abound, but perhaps we should also have another look at the visions of the past that might have been ahead of their time but are now possible thanks to technology.

As we envisage our future we need, more than ever, governments that listen to the people. For example, a recent Essential poll found 88 percent of respondents see the Internet becoming an essential service, yet only 22 percent believe our current NBN strategy will meet our future needs.

More community participation in decision-making processes might help us strike the right balance between forcing people to move (as in the controversial plan to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale) and an orderly and welcomed creation of opportunities to decentralise. Maybe the sea-changers and tree-changers were just the advance guard?

Appropriate tax incentives, subsidised relocation expenses and the like would need to be worked out. So long as this was done in collaboration with appropriate stakeholders, including community groups, trade unions and so forth, then surely it is not beyond us?

The Internet has already dramatically changed the way most people work and live. We’ve only just begun to realise the potential. But it all revolves around building a broadband network capable of matching our imagination.

LAURIE PATTON is CEO of Internet Australia. The views expressed above are his own, but may well be shared by others.


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