News from the front desk issue 437: If the climate election turned out to be the hip pocket election, then Queensland led the charge. But the issues this reveals are not confined to Queensland. The regions are in trouble everywhere and urban and regional planning right now looks powerless to help them.

If Queensland rejected the climate election and voted instead for coal, the pleasure of winning was not long lived.

By Thursday morning a much bigger coal mine than Adani, the $6.7 billion China Stone promising 3000 jobs was canned. At about the same time Japanese bank MUFG joined the long list of financiers who said they would no longer fund coal fired power stations. This, while the Queensland state Labor government was falling over itself come Monday morning to show it would approve the Adani mine as fast as possible.

But if you think this hip pocket election was all about coal or even franking credits, you’d be wrong. Sure Adani had the lion’s share of attention and Bob Brown’s convoy undoubtedly galvanised opposition to the greenies from the south, but behind the wholesale rejection of Labor and its ultraism is a problem deeply rooted in the regional and urban planning issues of this nation.

It’s the thing we’ve heard about from Brian Haratsis at Tomorrowland18, and from countless other planners and strategists. Our social and economic world is splitting along geographical fault lines.

The high-value jobs and the highly educated knowledge workers are co-locating in droves to the dense inner urban areas of our cities, leaving regional people and even those on the fringes of the metropolitan areas, way behind. Remember the Red Rooster line?

You could see all this from the counter-intuitive way the votes flowed: towards the coalition on the promise of material improvement – or no loss of benefits – in working class electorates; away from the Coalition and towards a more altruistic Labor Party/Greens/climate advocates in wealthier electorates.

According to two academics with a deep knowledge of Queensland, Neil Sipe professor of planning at the University of Queensland and Jago Dodson, a professor at RMIT and director of its Centre for Urban Research, who spent 10 years at Griffith University in Queensland, none of this is a surprise.

The regions in Queensland and other regions all around the country are increasingly missing out on the benefits of global trade and the rapidly restructuring high tech economy, with no sign this will be reversed any time soon.

Mining and agriculture are some of the main sources of jobs in Queensland. Problem is that both these industries are increasingly mechanised and subject to bigger industrial-scale efficiencies.

Jago Dodson says, “I think there is a seriously emerging issue in Australia in the increasing concentration of high-value jobs in the centres of our major cities.”

There might be a few well-paying jobs in mining areas, but not many.

“This has been known since the mid-90s that the outer metropolitan areas and rural areas experience insecurities.”

They’re being hammered by the “ongoing waves of impacts of the long-running restructuring of our economy”.

And politicians are increasingly out of touch, on both sides of the divide. Mainly because their campaigns are run by highly educated technocrats based in the city centres. 

And there’s another thing going on

A story we’re running this issue will rub salt into the wound.

Not only are jobs disappearing from the regions (and coal) but they’re growing in the green sector.

The NSW Innovation and Productivity Council has released research to prove what so many people have been thinking and saying for quite some time: that whatever poor news is happening in the “old” economy, it’s not happening in the green sector.

This environmental goods and services or EGS sector is where things are looking distinctly better, in both jobs and in value. Here’s a taste:

  • In NSW, there’s been 7.1 per cent growth in sales in the EGS sector for the 2017-18 period, with a total value of $43.9 billion, $10.9 billion of which was in renewable energy.
  • This compares to just 2.6 per cent in the old, or regular, economy to $593 billion.
  • And jobs in NSW EGS also exceeded that of the state’s agricultural and mining sectors combined: 152,000 EGS jobs in NSW, including 40,000 in renewable energy, versus 73,000 in agriculture and 32,000 in mining for a combined 105,000.

Those 3000 people who were counting on jobs at China Stone can only look longingly at this. They might also cast their eyes to the renewable energy based economic fillip that Sanjeev Gupta has injected in Whyalla in South Australia after the closure of the steelworks.

So while the Queensland government was busy appeasing its loudest voices, what was it doing about transitioning the poor economic prospects of its most fearful citizens and looking at what some people say will be the biggest revolution in history?

To do that, governments need a plan.

Neil Sipe says it’s hard to create job opportunities in regional centres such as Townsville and Rockhampton but equally hard to get people to work in those areas if jobs do become available.

The federal government’s city deal offered some hope for Townsville, but the centrepiece was a new rugby stadium, not exactly the stuff of ongoing economic activity.

And not at all like the city deals in south-east Queensland, where the focus is on creating longer lasting jobs, such as in technology.

“I think the mining discussion has taken away some thinking of other alternatives,” Sipe says. “The state government is conflicted over what to do and the discussion has been all around Adani.

“There’s no meaningful discussion I can see about job creation in the regional cities such as Mackay, Rockhampton and Townsville and Cairns.”

We ask him about the Queensland Plan, cited by Mick Daley in his deep dive on Brisbane and Queensland infrastructure this issue.

Not many people know it exists, Sipe says. “It had 30,000 respondents, but it’s the first time I’ve heard about it in a number of years.”

On the other hand, Advance Queensland “actually has some money behind it”.

Sipe, who’s from the US but has been in Queensland for 20 years, says Australia generally “talks a good game” and can produce world-class strategies, but when it comes time to implement these things we’ve got problems.

“All you need to do is look at the Great Barrier Reef. The government wants to spend a lot of money there but they don’t care about outcomes. They spend millions but there is almost no evaluation.”

One issue is lack of good governance. The other problem is there while there is no shortage of good ideas there is a lack of venture capital.

The US has the opposite problem: plenty of money but a dearth of good ideas. And it’s why so many VC funds will pick 10 projects to invest in and be happy if one comes good.

Politics – Queensland deserves a deeper look

Sipe thinks Australia and Brisbane is a pretty good place and has no intentions of returning to the US when he retires later this year.

Certainly he doesn’t think you can write off Queensland as some sort of “red neck paradise”.

Sure Australia tends to emulate the US in many trends but it lacks the critical mass of right wing extremists that’s evident in the US.

Jago Dodson says you need to look at more than the recent election to understand the state.

Queensland elected the first female premier, with Anna Bligh; it elected two state Labor governments in a row and was quick to dispense harsh judgement on conservative premier Campbell Newman after he sacked 14,000 or more public servants in one fell swoop.

Also, the Greens are strong there, Dodson points out. Their vote held up on Saturday, and former Greens state leader Drew Hutton when he chucked in the leadership, took to his station wagon, headed to middle Queensland and pretty much started the successful Lock the Gate movement.

In other words, there are plenty of rural folk and farmers who are seriously worried about fracking and their water supplies.

Queensland is a complex place, Dodson says.

You can say this for the rest of the country.

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  1. In the North Coast of NSW politicians rather build and fund rail trails than reinstate the railway from Casino to Murwillumbah and then extend it extended to Robina Station in Qld.

    The rail groups of NSW are holding a symposium to push the NSW Government into action. We want all the railways reinstated that will serve both passenger and freight services.

    It is the low carbon green alternative that is the future of not just NSW, but the whole of Australia.

    It is a no-brainer or are the politicians that thick and self centred that they can not have a real vision for the future of Australia.