Note: This post was original published on 6 July 2015; I’ve updated it several times because both parties keep revisiting a decentralisation agenda.
Once again we’re hearing the argument that Australia would be a much better place if only we could actively “decentralise” population. The argument is we should encourage people out of our big cities – notably Sydney and Melbourne – and into smaller cities, like Wollongong and Ballarat. One recent claim comes from the Liberal Party’s Tim Smith, the member for Kew and Victorian Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader (Population Policy and Housing Affordability). In an article in The Australian, he argues:
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s vision is to decentralise Victoria and develop its regional cities, to take the pressure off Melbourne and grow country Victoria.
The state desperately needs a government that is committed to decreasing the percentage of newcomers who make their home in Melbourne. Our state needs a government that will engage in a mature debate about how to incentivise newcomers to move to country Victoria, or give them the confidence that if they move to a regional centre they can commute to Melbourne with reliability and ease …
… An effective decentralisation agenda is key to improving capital city liveability and the economic wellbeing of the regions.
In pursuit of this, various governments over the years have tried to move departments out to regional cities. Smith implies that Labor doesn’t want decentralisation, but the evidence suggests Labor is just as keen on the idea as Smith is. The Victorian government under John Brumby even ran an advertising campaign in Melbourne encouraging people to move out and resettle in regional Victoria.
This sort of argument has often been based on the idea that these regional areas have lots of existing infrastructure that we can exploit at little cost. It has been encouraged by talk of the “Death of Distance” and “The Flat World” – the idea that globalisation and modern telecommunications are making location obsolete, so you might as well live in the countryside. It’s particularly popular wherever there are plenty of marginal regional electorates.
And this argument seem to be spreading. So here’s the case against spending government resources to actively encourage decentralisation.