Saturday 9 May 2009

Regional Failure

Far North Queensland's boom is over – and statistics indicate our recession may be worse than the rest of the country.

CairnsBlog columinist Syd Walker argues that lack of visionary leadership in this region is squandering key opportunities to kick-start investment in a more resilient and sustainable FNQ. He believes jobs in Cairns and the region will suffer as a result of backward-thinking, unimaginative planning.

It’s less than a year ago since the ink dried on a new regional plan for Far North Queensland. The plan assumed more or less constant growth in the region over the next 25 years: growth on population and growth in the economy. No other scenario was considered: just one growth trajectory, that amounted to population growth of nearly 2% per annum. Now that estimate seems long short of a good bet.
Is FNQ 2031 already out of date?

I think so – or more accurately, I don’t believe it ever defined or addressed the region’s real problems. It is a planners’ treatise based on politicians’ fantasies. The only surprise is how quickly the latter have been exposed.

The fundamental assumption of FNQ’s recent regional planning process was growth. Population growth and economic growth were considered more or less certain. The only job of planners was to channel and accommodate the growth – to find places to put the extra people with a modicum of environmental protection, given the 'fact' that region's economy is permanently on steroids.

I don’t know how many others felt this agenda was absurd. Friends of the Earth Kuranda certainly did; I helped co-author the submission FoEK made to the regional plan’s terms of reference. This is what we submitted to government in March 2007 (it seems so long ago!)
  • “…at some time FNQ must learn how to have a successful economy without a rising population. FNQ’s population cannot grow for ever!

    Moreover, factors beyond our control in FNQ may cause a decline in this region’s population. If the global tourist industry goes into sharp recession – something that could well occur as a consequence of wars, economic depression, sky-rocketing fuel prices, tight global emission controls or a combination of these factors – people may well move out of FNQ faster than others move here.

    This region’s economy is heavily reliant on the tourist industry. Consequently, it is not resilient in the event of external economic shocks. We believe FNQ’s current reliance on tourism is excessive and exposes the community to great risk. We also believe it is irresponsible to encourage more people to live in this region, unless and until we diversify the economy...

    We do not oppose further growth in population as such, but growth should no longer be encouraged via deliberate government policy unless and until we implement a realistic plan for sustainability…

    The region’s economy must kick the population growth habit. It should not need a population growth fix each year to stay healthy. We should – and can – find other and more sustainable ways to maintain a healthy economy."
None of this input, as far as I can see, bore fruit in the planning bureaucracy. Such ideas are heretical. ‘Sustainable’, for these folk, is a word to play games with; the main trick is to weld it to unlikely partners such as ‘growth’. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the oxymoron ‘sustainable growth’, I’d be very well off).

This is what FoE Kuranda had to say about Climate Change in the same submission, written in March 2007:
  • "(Climate Change)… cannot be treated as a side issue. It is a CENTRAL issue for long term planning.

    It is increasingly likely that in the next few years, global targets will be agreed for greenhouse gas emission reductions requiring significant changes to our way of life. The well-known British economist Nicholas Stern has estimated a 2050 target for developed, high-emission countries such as Britain and Australia of 60-90%. In our view, any plan that assumes ‘business as usual’ in per capita greenhouse gas emissions is not likely to have a long life.

    To achieve the requisite level of greenhouse gas emission reductions, existing industries, settlements and transport systems will need to be ‘retrofitted’ to reduce emissions. This retrofitting will be costly...

    The ultimate goal – achievable within a generation or two – is to develop ‘carbon neutral’ human economies. We need to live in such a way that the atmosphere stabilizes. It may even be necessary to revert to pre-industrial atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases...

    We believe that any long-term plan that does not take full account of climate change - and face up squarely to its many challenges - will be outdated before it is published.

    FNQ 2025 must embrace ecologically realistic targets for greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that any new settlements and other infrastructure are suitably located and built to appropriate standards."
Now in fairness, FNQ’s new (2031) plan didn’t completely ignore climate change as an issue, in the manner of its notorious predecessor FNQ 2010. When published, ‘Climate Change’ featured prominently in the text. But there’s no plan to deal with it! As FoEK feared, the regional plan embraced no emissions targets. It didn’t really consider the new infrastructure needed to achieve a low emissions future. That task was left for future processes.

I fear that was a grave mistake – a classic example of feeble thinking - and the ordinary folk of FNQ are about to pay the price.

We're about to pay, because just over two years after those words were written, key assumptions in the politicians’ ‘vision’ have come unraveled. Economic growth is not inevitable. It has stalled. Growth in tourism is not inevitable. Population growth in FNQ isn’t inevitable either. A plan that didn’t aim for resilience - a plan that didn't show how to stimulate economic activity pursuant to the achievement of long-term sustainability - was the wrong plan at the wrong time. It was an opportunity squandered.

Suppose - as FoE Kuranda argued at the time - FNQ 2031 had contained specific, well-thought out proposals for new regional infrastructure. Suppose it had endorsed the state-of-the-art rail system that (I believe) will clearly be needed eventually to limit greenhouse emissions and facilitate less car-dependent, village-style development.

These infrastructure proposals could now be under consideration in Canberra and Brisbane – the subject of intense lobbying from our region’s MPs, with a united community behind them.

FNQ could be ahead of the game in implementing a stimulus package that’s focused on appropriate long-term investment.

Instead of that, our economy suddenly appears beached like a sick whale – while the region’s politicians wring their hands and blame factors beyond their control.

They’re right, in a way. Steve Wettenhall, Desley Boyle, Jason O’Brien and Jim Turnour didn’t create the global economic crisis. But they did, in my opinion, squib the chance when they had it to make serious plans for the next stage in refashioning our region’s economy. That plan could now be the foundation of FNQ’s stimulus package. Thanks to the failure they oversaw – it still doesn’t exist.

There are at least two immediate economic opportunities that visionary FNQ politicians would be pushing for like fury. The first is the recently announced national broadband rollout. The regions that will benefit the most are those regions that get the new infrastructure first. It will give them a competitive advantage – and ensure there are plenty of jobs installing the new infrastructure sooner rather than later.

Tasmania, I understand, is first in the queue for the rollout (It helps having plenty of Senators, per capita, in the national Parliament). Where is FNQ? Are we anywhere at all on the rollout list? Has anyone even asked the question?
Hello, Jim Turnour – are you there? You can always use the comments button below this story...

The second opportunity relates to expenditure on greenhouse-friendly infrastructure. Some of this is ‘big ticket’ expenditure (e.g. light rail and heavy rail). Some is not (e.g. retrofitting houses for energy-efficiency).

The need for counter-cyclical economic stimulus packages on a massive scale provides literally the opportunity of a lifetime to spend big now to build a sustainable futrure. The smartest countries are doing it. Fully 80% of South Korea’s stimulus package, for example, is in emissions reduction technology. The comparable figure for Australia is a pitiful 10%.

The Australian Government has blown Australia surplus and is fast turning it into a large long-term deficit. That’s a shame – but may well be inevitable at a time of massive recession. But the greatest shame is that most of the money is being spent keeping the existing economy on life-support. We’re going into massive national debt – but we’re not investing most of the funds were borrowing in long-term resilience and sustainability. That’s more than a shame. It’s sad.

Given this rather dismal national context, FNQ politicians would have a harder task than their counterparts in other more enlightened nations to get big bucks for immediate expenditure on new infrastructure in this region. But are they even trying?

This may have been a recession that FNQ ‘had to have’, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as all that. This is still a marvelous part of planet earth – blessed by high rainfall, marvelous nature assets and resourceful people. But our political leadership does leave a lot to be desired – as does the mass media where opinions are fashioned and our community can come together and debate.
The still-influential print media is monopolized by News Corp, which seems to care more about the latest and greatest overseas wars than FNQ.

That’s tragic.

Footnote: See also Serious Scepticism on Wong Climate Change Policy in which Syd Walker discusses in the 'direct spend' approach to tackling the climate change crisis. It differs in emphasis from 'economic instruments' strategies that have dominated debate in recent years - although could well be used in conjunction with them.


hieronymus bosch said...

Never fear, Blakey's on the case!

"Being a councillor is not a popularity contest. It's about making decisions that are right for the region, no matter the risk to your short-term popularity. You cannot serve the region if you live in a bubble, focussing on what it will take to get you re-elected rather than what it will take to create a more sustainable future for the region."

Jason O'Brien said...

I haven’t blogged here for a while but I can’t let this one go through to the keeper.

FNQ 2031 addresses climate change and economic diversity in a number of ways. Firstly by locking in the urban footprint and protecting good quality agricultural land from subdivision.

Agriculture is still an important industry in the region and protecting this land allows in to continue and diversify. Depending on the crop, it can be an important carbon sink and if people choose to buy locally can also reduce transport related emissions.

Locking in the urban footprint means it is easier to plan and deliver public transport systems.

The Plan also clearly defines the regions’ conservation areas, especially on hill slopes and along watercourses.

The plan was never meant to have all the answers to combat climate change but these three examples show that it has been a significant part of the planning considerations for the region.

I do agree that we need a population policy in Australia but believe that if any such policy was ever put forward we would still need to plan for population growth in far north Queensland.

Syd Walker said...

Hi Jason

Good to get a reply from you.

I think you make fair points. I didn't intend to give the impression that I believe FNQ 2031 was a complete waste of time.

But yes, I do think it should have gone further - or be immediately completed by an additional process. I - and others - did say that from the outset.

It should have been possible, within the lifespan of the planning process (a couple of years), to define a package of work - mainly new infrastructure - that enjoys more or less consensus support subject to availability of funds.

Those proposals could now be ready to kick-off and form the center-piece of FNQs economic stimulus.

Do either the State of Federal Governments have anything in mind re: major new stimulus package regional infrastructure for FNQ? What is it? And is it conducive to lowering our emissions - or just more $ on business as usual such as more Main Roads?

Finally, while I realize telecommunications is a Federal responsibility, has anything been done to get FNQ high up the list for the broadband rollout?

Doc of Cairns said...

If Joel Harrop ad been elected we'd already see the blowtorch put to them. Jason even you admitted you'd work well with Joel.