Self-Helping from the Hand That Feeds? Evaluating the 'Deserving Community' Ethic of Governance in North East Tasmania
Godwin, Michelle, Pritchard, Bill, Rural Society
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.
Yet, in this milieu of difficulty, Dorset has been lionised as a 'self-helping success story'. During the period 2002-2003 the community established a regional development organisation (the Dorset Economic Development Group; usually abbreviated as Dorset EDG), which was incorporated as a non-profit organisation in May 2003. The group comprises approximately seven elected community volunteers and one salaried Chief Executive Officer. It also boasts a representative board, with members from all key industry groups and tiers of government1 . As with many similar types of organisations in regional Australia (Beer & Maude 1997; Maude & Beer 2000), it operates on a shoestring administrative budget and relies predominantly on voluntary labour (the CEO is the only salaried member of the group).
The stated objectives of Dorset EDG are to promote business in the area 'through the establishment of a comprehensive database, provision of community information, and broad linkages with support ing business and pol i t ical stakeholders' (Dorset EDG 2003, p. 4). By managing the distribution and investment of money secured through various funding schemes, Dorset EDG has assisted the growth and development of some small businesses, but more significantly it has maintained its institution as a presence in the community.2 The reasons for Dorset EDG's apparent success are twofold: first, that the group successfully negotiated a combined package of $650,000 worth of economic development funding for the region3; and second, that, in 2004, it received an Australia and New Zealand Regional Science Association International (ANZRSAI) award for excellence in community economic development, an award that is acknowledged and supported by the federal Department of Transport and Regional Services. …