27/07/2011 - 10:38

Grylls revisits regional dream

27/07/2011 - 10:38

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The Nationals leader Brendon Grylls has devised a bold decentralisation policy involving nine towns and $86m this year.

NATIONALS leader Brendon Grylls took his critics by surprise when he successfully promoted the contentious Royalties for Regions strategy in the lead up to the last state election. The policy has since been enshrined in legislation.

Now he’s taking it up to his critics again, this time with a bold decentralisation policy; only he doesn’t mention ‘decentralisation’. The scheme is to be called the Regional Development Plan (SuperTowns), with nine towns carving up $85.5 million this year “to plan and implement projects and services to cater for a major population expansion and economic growth”. 

Mr Grylls, the regional development minister, points to predicted population growth, adding: “Failure to prepare for rapid population growth would be a mistake, as it was in the Pilbara where lack of strategic planning has been disastrous.”

That is a thinly veiled swipe at the fly-in, fly out policy that has become standard in new mines in the north, and keeps Perth Airport hopping virtually 24 hours a day. Political leaders are divided on FIFO, but Mr Grylls is a firm opponent.

The push for decentralisation in Australia is nothing new. The concentration of population in our capital cities is one of the highest in the world, and Western Australia would have to go close to being the leader. But efforts to encourage growth in regional centres have met with mixed success.

Gough Whitlam’s Labor government implemented one of the most ambitious plans between 1972 and 1975. It was based on a Cities Commission report in 1973, which noted. “It is already apparent that sub-standard neighbourhoods are growing around the central cores of the major capital cities with many people living in conditions of poverty, poor housing and a lack of social and recreational opportunities. 

“Without positive government intervention this urban decay will spread.” 

Several WA areas were listed as locations for viable new cities – the Albany-Bunbury-Geraldton regions, the Pilbara, and in Perth’s north-west corridor.

But the implementation concentrated on eastern Australia, with growth centres based on some of the more populous regions such as Albury-Wodonga, Bathurst-Orange, and Macarthur on the south-western outskirts of Sydney. The results were patchy, to say the least, and enthusiasm waned after the Whitlam government’s defeat in 1975.

If Australia has a two-speed economy, WA has a two-speed trend all of its own. Wheatbelt towns are declining, but some other country centres are rejuvenating. They include Boddington and Ravensthorpe, the latter recovering from a near-death experience when the GFC led to BHP Billiton quitting its major new mine.

And this is where Mr Grylls’ plan will succeed or fail. The nine towns selected under the ‘SuperTowns’ scheme are: Katanning; Collie; Esperance; Northam; Jurien Bay; Morawa; Boddington; Manjimup; and Margaret River. 

Several have had their ups and downs. For example, Collie has relied almost solely on coal-fired power stations, which are now on the environmental hit list. Manjimup has been hit by the end to the logging of old-growth native forests and Northam by the cut back in railway workers. The plan to house refugees at the old Northam Army Base could reverse the town’s fortunes.

People will only be attracted to regional centres if there are jobs to go to. Otherwise they will stay in the cities and try their luck.

The story with Ravensthorpe was that, because of the expected influx of workers and their families once the mine was opened, school, health and other facilities were provided in advance. Good planning. And local and state governments were far from happy when BHP Billiton quit the project.

The initial reactions from some of the towns listed in Mr Grylls’ announcement of the initial carve-up of funds seemed to be bemused delight. One shire president was reported as saying: “ ...  in terms of what can be developed, and what can’t, I’m yet to see the detail on that”.

But the key driver of any decentralisation policy is jobs. Only if the ‘SuperTowns’ can attract the industry, which will in turn attract workers and their families, will the initiative prove to be money well spent.

Uranium dogs Labor

A SHOWDOWN in the state Labor Party over its policy banning the mining and export of uranium is moving inexorably closer, with a federal Labor minister from WA saying he is a ‘staunch supporter’ of the industry.

Member for Brand, Special Minister of State Gary Gray, expressed his backing at the recent Australian Uranium Conference.

He was speaking only a month after the party’s state conference reaffirmed its opposition to the industry, warning that the development of uranium mining would be stopped in its tracks, with no compensation, should Labor win the 2013 state election.

Mr Gray indicated he was not convinced about the decision to withhold compensation, warning that the party’s stance could be costly, and that a federal Labor government would not be providing any financial support should compensation have to be paid. 

“They cannot expect the federal government to compensate for that massive potential cost, which no doubt will be measured in the tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.   

Mr Gray told delegates at the uranium conference it had been a difficult year for uranium, although the industry was expanding, including locally. But he expressed support for the Barnett government’s stance on development.

“Here in Western Australia the very good decision to lift the ban on uranium mining has led to a surge of activity,” he said. “As a result, an increasing number of projects are at various stages of development and approval. The uranium reserves in this state may be worth as much as $9 billion. The Australian government expects the uranium industry to expand, and we support that.”

Federal Labor’s uranium policy leaves it up to the state branches, in government, to decide whether deposits within their boundaries can be mined and exported. For example, major deposits are due to be developed at Olympic Dam, just across the border in South Australia, under a state Labor government.

The Barnett government is preparing for mining to begin locally, possibly in 2014, announcing recently a 5 per cent uranium royalty. 

Mr Gray’s comments are consistent with Labor’s federal policy. And a key reason for the lack of enthusiasm for change within the WA party is the fact that the right wing faction is divided on the issue. The only opportunity to modify the party’s platform before the 2013 election will come at next year’s annual conference. But Mr Gray says some responsibility to win over more public support rests with the industry itself.

“Personally I believe uranium mining is safe and environmentally manageable, but if the industry is to be embraced by the Australian public, it must continue to work hard to pursue public education,” he said.                                                                                       

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