Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Note on Australian Local Government and Regional Economic and Social Inequalities

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Note on Australian Local Government and Regional Economic and Social Inequalities

Article excerpt

In common with other advanced market economies, regional and rural communities in Australia have come under increasing economic and social stress. One manifestation of this phenomenon is the growing spatial inequalities in social and economic conditions. This paper briefly reviews the genesis of spatial inequalities and examines their consequences in the contemporary Australian political milieu. The discussion concludes with an analysis of the policy implications of these inequalities for local governments and communities in disadvantaged regional and rural areas.

Introduction

Real and perceived regional inequalities in social and economic conditions in late twentieth century Australia are now firmly on the political agenda. For example, the extraordinary success of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in the 1998 Queensland State Election can at least partly be ascribed to the disenchantment of electors living in relatively deprived rural communities. Similarly, the rise of NSW Legislative Assembly Independent MP Tony Windsor's Country Summit Alliance may be attributed to feelings of marginalisation amongst voters in regional NSW. Numerous smaller and less well-known pressure groups scattered throughout regional Australia are also achieving growing recognition. It is thus somewhat surprising that comparatively little research effort has been focussed on the question of regional inequalities and the role local government can play in mitigating the consequences of these inequalities. This forms the subject matter of the present short note.

The note itself is divided into three main parts. First is a brief review of the origins of spatial inequalities; second, an examination of some of the consequences of these inequalities in the contemporary Australian milieu; and third, a discussion of the policy implications of this state of affairs for local governments and communities in disadvantaged regional areas.

Origins of spatial inequalities

The production of geographical space is integral to political expansion and the development of capitalist economies. Prior to the First World War, geographic expansion was a major means of political and economic expression, manifested, in the case of European countries, largely in the accumulation of territory by colonial aggrandisement; and, in the case of Australia, Canada and the United States, by assuming contiguous territory (Smith 1996). Between the world wars, the diminishing availability of external territory gradually redirected economic expansion into agglomeration, thus creating a fundamental transformation in the spatial economy of capitalism (Harvey 1989). Since the First World War, increasing rural depopulation has occurred and there is now a widespread trend toward the amalgamation of small rural landholdings due to economies of scale from mechanisation and advances in technology and methods of transport (Walmsley et al. 1995). These trends cause private sector organisations to review and, where appropriate, reduce or withdraw operations as depopulation occurs, but few public sector organisations are able to respond quickly to changing demographic and economic circumstances and gradually become less viable because of decreasing demand and income. While these difficulties are being experienced mostly in small, depopulating places and fast-developing suburbs on the periphery of major metropolitan centres, they also occur in the older, inner-city `rust-belt' suburbs (Hallman 1977).

Given that there is, a priori, a degree of acceptance of the `naturalness' of spatial inequality, its existence may not present a problem for society in terms of social or economic inefficiency or pose a compelling political need to find a remedy. After all, those affected by the deprivations of spatial inequality suffer privately; but they are also free to make a private decision either to remain in that location and endure that inequality, to act as best they can to alleviate the extent of disadvantage, or to exit and thereby (hopefully) overcome their disadvantage (Hirschman 1970). …

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