Whether Barnaby Joyce or Pauline Hanson is the wiser statesman, the better politician or the more intelligent citizen is a moot question upon which few could hold a certain opinion, for now at least. The evidence, such as it is, is not yet all in. But there is nothing wrong with either of their impulse to believe that the nation might be a good deal better off if the Commonwealth, and Commonwealth agencies, again developed a presence in regional, rural and remote Australia.
The pity is that both seem to lack the brains, equipment or the will to develop their ideas beyond mere feelings, prejudices and slogans, or penchant for misappropriation of public money.
Perhaps one could forgive the Pauline Hanson One Nation movement a bit of opportunism and intellectual sloth – given her lack of education and the fact that Hanson is a magnet for people with nutty ideas.
But one cannot be as forgiving of Barnaby Joyce, or the National Party. The Nationals are a party of government, with, much of the time including now, access to the experience, academies and resources of the state. They have no known scruple about expropriation of public money for its own ends, but are supposed to be tactical, if not strategic about it. I cannot think of a single one of Joyce's predecessors as leader, alive or dead, who would not despise both his arguments and his priorities, even as they recognise that his every stunt and bizarre attention-seeking statement is focused on making a vote for the Nationals seem more rational than one for One Nation.
Success in politics may entitle a party to expend public resources in support of pet theories or so as to reward and punish enemies, or to seek to cultivate constituencies. But the current Joyce crusade about getting government agencies into the bush – transparently so that the Nationals can out-Hanson Hanson – will do the Nationals no good, will do the country no good, and will do the nation no good.
Only in the rarest of circumstances does regional, rural or remote Australia need specialist agencies without much in the way of local functions or occasion to be located away from the centre. Out of sight means out of mind. Bodies like the pesticides authority, the one Joyce wants to dump on Armidale, need central services, access to decision-makers, or access to the very best in the way of brains and equipment. Such centres and agencies will inevitably struggle to attract the best people, struggle to retain them, and struggle to have the influence and effect on decision-makers that are vital for their function.
The big losers from self-indulgent transfers of bodies such as the pesticides regulatory authority to Armidale, in the New England region of NSW (and Joyce's electorate), will be people involved in agriculture. And the taxpayer, stiffed for an extra $40 million or so. The consequence of the disruption that Joyce is demanding will almost certainly be a worsened access by farmers and graziers to the best agricultural and veterinary chemicals, and a reduced quality of service to Australian agriculture and our export trade. We can scarcely afford it.
Joyce's response to criticism of the merits of his boondoggle is to widen a demand that more and more such agencies be shifted away from Canberra and elsewhere into regional and rural communities. He suggests that Canberra (even if a regional and rural centre in its own right) is a form of la-la land completely out of touch with mainstream Australia, particularly people living in National party constituencies outside metropolitan centres. Canberra, he argues, has become too big, and services that were once centralised there should now be decentralised among the people the agencies were intended to serve.
Another part of the rationale, though Joyce would probably deny it, comes from old decentralisation doctrines, some of which have been associated with Bob Santamaria and his early pet lobby, the Catholic Rural Action movement, as well as the general idea that public services are best organised and delivered as closely as possible to the subjects of their services.
There are government services that could stand decentralisation. In general, this is particularly where direct services are being offered.
Think-tanks, repositories of specialised knowledge, regulators, and consultative bodies only rarely operate effectively away from their key audiences, and away from where the power is. The pesticides authority has almost no direct interaction with farmers or graziers, almost no association with university research, or the sorts of professions educated by institutions such as the University of New England. Very little of its work is on the ground with farmers. Its dealings are with chemical and pharmaceutical companies, with agencies at national and state level, and with the world of regulation, control and information sharing.
With broadband, a pesticides authority would be at no particular disadvantage in promulgating its edicts from Armidale, 500km from Sydney. But it could not recruit its specialist staff locally (and certainly not from any association with UNE). Those it could recruit from elsewhere would have to travel regularly to places such as Canberra, whether to commune with experts of like mind, or to bend the ears of bureaucrats and politicians. By contrast, Canberra has a significant scientific establishment, in the biological sciences as much as in chemistry, physics and other fields.
It is hardly surprising that very few of the present staff want to go to Armidale, and that the overwhelming proportion of staff will take redundancy rather than go. Most will not face unemployment here as a consequence.
But it would be a good thing if some serious work were done in repopulating rural Australia. And with real jobs, not bogus ones. Joyce does not hesitate to remind young Australians priced out of the metropolitan housing markets that there are much cheaper houses for sale in Tamworth. But houses are cheaper because of fewer, on average, jobs that are worse paid, and that those in such towns have worse access to services.
But it ought not be beyond the wit of man and woman to imagine that there are some types of goods and services conveniently organised outside the big cities. These include convalescent health care, aged care, educational services, community services, including prisons and refugee centres. That's quite apart from existing and continuing industries in agriculture, mining and the exploitation and interception of money intended for Aboriginal advancement.
Fifteen years ago, much of rural NSW was in a drought almost as severe as the federation drought 100 years before. Travelling on assignment through some of the drought country, I was struck by how remote politicians now seemed from what was happening. Once towns had post offices staffed by Commonwealth public servants; there were Commonwealth Employment Service offices, social security offices, and scatterings of public servants engaged in military, mapping, meteorological, scientific, public health and Aboriginal affairs. These were forces in being, able to be mobilised for wider purposes if there were a natural disaster, such as a flood. They were a local intelligence service for local MPs, ministers and bureaucrats in the state capitals or Canberra. The local manager of an agency such as the CES was a great man (he was, in those days, usually a man) in the local community, and, in many cases, had taken this great assignment intending to serve out his days in the local community. As often as not, the prime minister knew him by name – indeed better than did the departmental secretary.
The shrinking of the public interface did not improve services. If it made them cheaper, it was by virtue of making them more impersonal, more remote, and less responsive to local circumstance. Nor was the managerial mania for efficiency and savings particularly effective. In fact the wild oscillations between centralisation and decentralisation of government services over the years owe more to fad than managerial science. Only 40 years ago, the Commonwealth was flirting with models of regionally headquartering almost all Commonwealth service delivery.
It would be even better for regional, rural and remote Australians if such a re-population were accompanied by a colonial push by state governments, with an army of police men and women, teachers, nurses, and community services officers returning to at least the larger country towns. And even better still if just those same population centres again possessed local shires, council workers, road and bridge builders, baby health facilities and child care centres.
Just such people, plus post office and telephone linesmen, bank clerks, district agronomists and ambulance officers, and their partners and children, were the critical mass that made communities of rural agglomerations. Who staffed the football teams and the netball teams. Who coached the kids. Formed and funded the volunteer bushfire brigade. Whose shopping and consumer expenditure, and house building, house buying, car buying, and eating and drinking and gambling were the oil that made the local economy work. The schools have a critical mass of students, and settled people in the community have an idea that the place had a future. Where the first bit of social capital was a society.
No one has abandoned rural and regional Australia more thoroughly than government, although the banks run all three levels close. The retreat first was from tiny towns and villages – a process sometimes masked by the extension of bitumen roads, power and more accessible, but more centralised shops. Then even the bigger towns and communities folded into themselves as police services, dentists, doctors, and other professional services retreated to the small rural cities, and many of the things once available within 50km were available only within about 150km. Bigger towns, provided they were far enough removed, could avoid some of the centripetal force sucking everything towards the bigger communities.
Many potential One Nation voters worry that things are not like they were, and that it's a damn pity. Theirs is a nostalgia for an imagined economic and social stability in an older, whiter, more Anglo Australia. An Australia that had jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers as well as for tradesmen, where one knew one's neighbours and had grown up with them. Where it seemed that people looked after each other.
The idea that we can revert to some sort of monocultural ghetto may be a nonsense, as is, of course the notion that people are going to abandon the opportunities provided by computers, communications, good roads and greatly improved access to facilities.
But not all of the social, technological and economic forces that hollowed out old rural and regional Australia was inevitable, or necessary, or, as it happened, beneficial to society at large, as well as locally. And many things done by government on the altar of efficiency, effectiveness and new models of service delivery, including contracting out, privatisation and the forced amalgamations of services, particularly local councils.
Police operations did not become more effective as police "professionalised" and centralised their operations, and became more distant and remote from the communities they were supposed to service. Health care is only more efficient if one discounts the social and financial cost of travel. The quality of much rural education, particularly in the government system, has collapsed, thanks to white flight. The social cost of rural decay, including in suicide, family violence and drug abuse is hardly even factored in to calculations about the quantity and quality of services needed.
But the National Party, One Nation and many of the ragbag of people focused on decentralisation, a more human scale society, or, perhaps, the turning back of the clock for a recreation of some imagined monocultural bucolic past can't get much beyond feelings and prejudices, convictions and emotions. The intellectual sloth and ingrained ignorance of the National Party, or at least its Barnaby Joyce wing, ought to be particularly galling to taxpayers, given the party's access to the resources, funds and brains of government, and its lack of scruple about the misappropriation of public resources to its own.