Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MOU-MOUing the future eaters *

*with apologies to Tom Wolfe and Tim Flannery. 

MOU – Memorandum of Understanding: n. (i) a carefully worded ‘all care and no political/legal responsibility’ document used to paper over the cracks of difference in public relationships, or demonstrates to the voting public support for outcomes that are important to them but can be dropped once the popularity fades or gets too politically hot (negative definition); (ii) a document of aspirations for a relationship that has opportunities for social, cultural, environmental and economic development  worded so at the end of the time period specified, all participants can see the real value of getting together in the first place despite the naysayers, and why it is important to build on the relationship into the future (positive definition).

There is a no more flimsy public document than a Memorandum of Understanding.  My cynically worded first definition comes from having to ponder the contents of too many MOUs over the course of time.  Very few have endured and, no matter how useful, have been subject to good ideas being sidelined through political ambitions or changes in government.

There is one, though, that I really support, and really want see succeed: the Hobart-Launceston MOU.  It’s not just about AFL games – seriously, that’s a sideshow for the media tarts and coloured scarf wavers.  It’s also about the contribution of Hobart and Launceston to Tasmania’s economy and this is where the policy work (not so media-sexy) comes into its own.  The H-L MOU is also about tourism, economic development and heritage.  And it’s about population strategies.  These are all inter-connected issues, and if we don’t work on them together, we’ll regret it long after the political caravansaries have moved on.   

Primarily, the H-L MOU is also an acknowledgement of two great changes in our Earth’s society of how humans get on with each other.

The first is the growing significance of cities in the global economy.  The economic prospects for cities shape the economic prospects for states and regions – we only have to look at the use of regional development policies by successive Federal governments and the rise of the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors ( ) in policy setting today.  Anyone remember Whitlam’s Albury-Wodonga experiment and the DURD that started it all?  Did you get to read Richard Florida’s Creative Cities?  Have you observed lately the rise of China’s regional cities, each becoming an economic powerhouse in their own right?

The second, one that is so day to day for most of us now, is the increasing mobility of populations.  Migration is about more than refugees, although such folks have been integral to Australia and Tasmania’s development.  Migration also means within Australia, not just overseas, and not just for holidays – it is favourable work opportunities and lifestyle desires acting as the prime drivers.  Once was, the Electoral Office noticed around 12.5% of people changed addresses each year in Australia – now it is 20% and rising.  Bernard Salt always makes for interesting reading on trends (try The Big Shift).   

The city with the innovation, the cultural changers, the readiness to demonstrably embrace difference, has led the field and created competition for populations.  The city that actively shapes relationships between its economic, environmental and cultural offerings for its people and those it wants to attract is a city for the twenty first century. People will want to live there, even if it means some economic loss.

Imperial power is no longer the attractor for big cities, yet money is always a driver.  But you make a place more pleasant to live in, where people can be happy and experience connected communities, and people will look seriously at changing their home address.

There are two great cities in Tasmania.  Hobart and Launceston.  How they have developed is a matter of historical accident and economic desires to discuss another day, but nonetheless, here they are today, and well-governed to boot by their local councils.  Historically, enmity has been a problem (again, a colonial hangover), but seriously, it’s time we moved on, and the H-L MOU is a key driver for recognising a synergy to the power of two.

While the State government has set a population target of 650,000 by 2050, and even with the Federal government working on new city and regional policies for Australia as a whole, local government still knows its cities best, and what targets and policies really mean.  And here is where the H-L MOU comes into its own.  With the two cities sharing research and policy resources, there is an opportunity for both of us to shape a meaningful strategic position on population policy that works best for both of us.  That’s why it is so important.

Because the State government has no clear goals or strategy on getting to 650,000 people, where they’ll live or who they are and where they come from and I’m damned if I understand how they got to that number and whether the State’s biosphere can support that many humans along with all the other living things that need space and air and light and food.

The old, build it and they will come, policies have long since been discredited in the welter of increasing public debt in servicing declining assets and replacement, and States competing in an ever decreasing to zero-sum race to attract manufacturing and population has simply depleted opportunities to grow the public purse for ever hungry health and education programs. 

People are more intelligent than that.  They choose to live where it suits them and if that means flying in-flying out for work, they’ll largely choose to do it.  And I don’t mean just mining jobs, or those forced to migrate through economic necessity.

Right now information technology is transforming people’s decisions on what work means.  And yes, even in primary industries, such as dairying where getting up to milk the cows at 4am and again at 4pm has been overtaken by automated milking and microchips in the cows.  Even farmers have more choices on mobility and can make cleverer decisions on what work means to them and their families.  

So any policies on population strategies have to be about more than numbers.  Hobart and Launceston Aldermen understand that current and future population growth for their cities is all about maximising ideas and opportunities that attract and retain a diversity of population that makes choices between economic as well as social, environmental and cultural options. 

The key words today for cities are liveability and sustainability.  Hobart and Launceston have that in spade loads.  Ask any newcomer who no longer has to travel for hours to get to work, and sees the trip on the Midlands highway as no barrier, to people from the great capitals of the world where the air is so bad a 4year old living in them is at permanent risk of lung damage, and where the drinking water has been recycled so many times, you wonder if the burn on your throat is another yet infection coming from travelling in the over-crowded tube or just a reaction to the disinfecting chlorine. 

Personal happiness and community connectedness are qualities that the great small cities of the world can offer.  Successful settlement, from a migrant’s point of view, is all about these.  It’s all very well for governments to witter on about social participation and economic wellbeing, but it takes local government, working on a local scale, to deliver what matters to newcomers.  Working together, we can deliver a brand of city that causes people to want to come to Tasmania.

Some would say, leave it to the State and Federal governments.  Some question why Hobart and Launceston Councils should work together?  Because there is so much we have in common, in knowledge, in people, in culture, that if we compete, neither of us will really get the best outcomes, and let’s face it, isn’t it time we stopped State and Federal politicians fanning the flames of artificial competition between us?  As people, we’re so much better than that.  Past experience has demonstrated that when central governments have worked with local communities, Tasmania has done well (think about the post-WW2 migrations).

The sum of us together in terms of infrastructure capacities, shared knowledge, labour movements and flexibility means being in a better position to absorb populations from the mainland increasingly disgusted with the congested capitals.  And cities that can attract the best talent are likely to create competitive advantage for themselves and their regions.  Because let’s face it, outside of Hobart and Launceston, the rest of Tasmania is struggling with high unemployment and economic downturns.  The whole of Tasmania benefits when we get Hobart and Launceston working together. 

If we don’t work together, we’re denying future possibilities.  MOU’s are a first step that creates a future for two great cities co-operating.  It is value, and not just in economic terms, that we create by working together.  That’s why MOU’s are worth the effort.  Give me the second definition any day!



PS Have any of you read Wolfe’s two short essays, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers?  Mau-Mauing is an excellent primer with transferable lessons on getting Town Hall to take on meaningful social change.

This blog is written with thanks to the work of Professor David Adams and Dr Tony McCall and many others who have shaped, and continue to shape, my thinking over the years on population policies and regional development.

Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart

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