Self-Helping from the Hand That Feeds? Evaluating the 'Deserving Community' Ethic of Governance in North East Tasmania

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper critically evaluates the related concepts of the 'deserving community' and 'self-help' forms of governance that have underpinned the economic development initiatives of the Dorset local government area, North East Tasmania. Following the announced closure of a major food processing factory, this region implemented a regional development strategy based around stated principles of community self-help. The perceived success of this strategy led, in 2004, to Dorset winning a national regional development award. Inspired by recent research on regional 'showcasing' and the political construction of 'deserving communities', the paper problematises Dorset's enactment of the self-help model and its claims of success. As applied in Dorset, 'self-help' is buttressed heavily by the support of external actors. Yet despite these contradictions, the ethic of self-help resonates within hegemonic rural discourses and, accordingly, finds favor as an organising set of principles for local community action. As such, it is suggested that discourses of regional self-help provide a negotiating field through which rural communities facing difficult economic situations can simultaneously depend on, yet perceptually distance themselves from, government regional development assistance.

Keywords: Self-help; Rural development; Rural governance; Tasmania; Local empowerment; Community economic development

Introduction

The past two decades have produced significant economic change for regional communities across Australia (Stimson 2001). Those regions prospering in today's economic climate have been heralded by governments as illustrations of the positive capacity of globalisation to spread its benefits beyond the elite enclaves of the major cities. For those communities buffeted by unstable commodity prices, intensified import competition and cutbacks to government and commercial services, the specific policy response has been to invoke the ethic of self-help. In his opening address of the Regional Australia Summit of 1999, for example, the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, summed up this approach when he stated that: 'The strong prejudice we have is that the Commonwealth Government is not going to try and help a community that is not helping itself' (Anderson 1999, cited in Herbert-Cheshire 2000b p. 2).

These sent iments may f ind ready resonance in the can-do discursive world of rural and regional Australia, but what do they mean in practice? How does a community self-help itself; how can the local be empowered; how is this demonstrated; and how do government bureaucrats then evaluate the self-helping ethic and translate it into practical policy mechanisms? The intention of this article is to pursue these questions through a case study of the Dorset community in northeastern Tasmania. Dorset is a local government area with approximately 7,000 people, of which 1,874 live in the municipality's largest town, Scottsdale. In key respects, the recent history of this small community echoes wider trends of a rural downturn across much of regional Australia. Although bestowed with an attractive and fertile landscape, its economic base has been unsettled by successive closures of key private sector employers, including the Legerwood Milk Factory in 1999 and the Simplot food processing plant in 2003. Together, these two factory closures saw the loss of over 150 jobs in the local region. The restructuring of the timber industry through the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement, and continual cut backs to local vegetable growing contracts (potatoes in particular), have also had significant negative flow on effects throughout the region. Furthermore, the proportion of young people in the municipality is below the State average, as are average levels of income and education. This declining, aging and increasingly welfare dependent population is consistent with Tasmania's status as Australia's poorest state. …