A crucial question facing all communities, as processes of governance evolve, is whether they have the right institutional framework to support those decisionmaking processes that they collectively deem desirable and effective. On one hand, modern debates about 'governance' have certainly shifted beyond simply analysing fixed institutions of government, which are no longer seen as the key 'drivers' of governance. 'Governance' in its broadest sense describes 'the processes by which institutions, both state and non-state, interact' to manage the affairs of a community or nation (Weller 2000, p.4). Recently in Australia, as elsewhere, we see a much stronger focus on the roles of individuals, interest groups and networks in governance; on knowledge, ideas and capacity to innovate; on the resources available to actors irrespective of their institutional position; and on the great intricacy and dynamism of collective decision-making processes. Gone are the days - if they ever existed - when we expected national Constitutions to explicitly guide the detailed daily exercise of political power; or for passage of legislation by a parliament to necessarily guarantee a desired social or economic result; or, in the language of Star Trek, for a government directive for the implementation of policy to itself 'make it so'.
On the other hand, while formal institutions are no longer seen as sole or primary drivers of governance, we must remember their ongoing fundamentality. Formal institutions are still ever-present actors. They remain the primary custodians (and consumers) of society's collective financial and technical resources when tackling any given policy problem. Federal and state constitutions continue to determine how public policy, resources and electoral and executive politics interact to facilitate desired outcomes - or indeed frustrate them. Much can be talked about, but only so much done without the collection of public revenues, appropriation of dollars, support of departments, deployment of expertise and roll-out of incentives and sanctions legitimated by law. We may no longer place primary reliance on legislators and public officials to devise and implement policy responses, but their power and momentum are still needed to realise the answers; and if not mobilised in the right direction, they have an inertia which even the most inspired innovation will not overcome. Institutions may not be sufficient, but are still necessary, and indeed unavoidable, in the quest for better governance.
This article addresses the recently reduced focus on the role of formal political institutions in governance, by presenting new evidence about the way that Australian citizens view these institutions. It presents key results from a public attitude survey of a random sample of 502 adult residents of NSW in late 2005. 1 This survey built on and extended a previous survey of 301 Queensland adults in late 2001 (Brown 2002a, 2002b). The results are of special significance for the governance of rural communities, both because many of the known pressurepoints for change in governance processes particularly affect rural regions, but also because the attitudes of urban and rural communities towards the future of the political system are not as markedly different as many policymakers might customarily believe. The major finding is that in NSW, as in Queensland, there is evidence of a previously undiscovered popular interest in medium- to long-term change in the federal political system, in ways that would also strengthen regional governance. The extent of this interest, combined with the degree of convergence between rural and urban communities on preferred styles of institutional change, suggest major new possibilities for reforms that can transcend political opposites based on past, apparently diminishing stereotypes of the 'urban-rural divide'.2
The first part of the article briefly outlines the historical and political context for the survey, examining why it is important to include institutional and constitutional change in our analysis of changing processes of governance. …