I spent seven long years investigating the reasons why government attempts at decentralisation – moving people and economic activity out of the cities to the country – always failed, and why they eventually gave up trying. Seven years I will never get back, alas.
Many Australians, and their parliamentary representatives, have long lamented our massive imbalance in population and economic activity between the huge, sprawling cities and the vast, almost empty inland regions. The features of our economic geography are familiar, if depressing, for those who crave more “balanced development”. Australia lacks middle-sized cities (except for Canberra, Toowoomba and a couple of coastal centres like Geelong and Townsville); most of the flood of immigrants settle in the capital cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne; there is an endless and debilitating youth brain drain from the bush; around two thirds of the population live in the capital cities; and the cities suck up most of the spending on infrastructure and wield disproportionate political power.
Unlike many countries, we even have a political party – several, in fact – which owe their existence to the city-country divide. The Nationals, of course. One Nation. The Country Independents. The divide is a running gag in our historical narrative. And the resentment of those who live outside the main centres of population runs very deep. NSW stands for “Newcastle Sydney Wollongong”. The “sandstone curtain” is a barrier to growth and understanding. For Sydney people, the “west” means Penrith.
AD Hope famously ruminated (in his poem Australia) upon our (mainland) capital cities as “five teeming sores”. That was only the beginning of his biting take.
Because all this is regarded as a “problem”, rather than the outworking of natural and to-be-expected economic and demographic processes, politicians have naturally sought to fix it, to meddle in complex matters over which they have no control and little influence, matters therefore which are way beyond their capacity to intervene effectively. This seldom stops them from trying. Perhaps we should be grateful that decentralisation isn’t very expensive. Not like that other area of policy fantasy, fixing climate change, which costs global taxpayers trillions a year.
Politicians who cannot fix things, like viruses, still like to be seen to be doing something about perceived problems. John Stone once memorably implored the government of the day: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” They seldom take this advice. And for a long time, governments tried to alter the imbalance of settlement in Australia. There is a whole history of misplaced effort that had next-to-no impact on where we live and work. There were inland infrastructure projects. There were soldier settlements. There was the creation of an inland capital. There were tax subsidies for country industries. There were marketing campaigns trying to get people to move out of the capitals, including migrants. There were industry incentives of various sorts. Dispersed university campuses were created. Government departments were shifted.
On and on it went.
All that happened was that, over the course of the twentieth century, the cities and their economic domination only got bigger. This was driven by a number of things. Our population mainly grew, at least in the last seventy years, as the result of overseas migration. Migrants all stayed in the city. The other thing that happened was the mechanisation of agriculture. Our biggest rural industry now just doesn’t need many workers. The best salaries are in the city. The best universities are there, and now that everyone has to go to a university to get on in life, most of the best and brightest of our rural young naturally leave. They then stay in the city because that is where they form families and where career progression occurs. That is also where people can best accumulate chunky capital assets (city real estate). And where the dual incomes now demanded by households are best acquired and maintained.
These are mega-forces difficult to counter, despite the huge disadvantages of cities – crowding, congestion, long commutes, and high property prices. Yet the gap between the advantages and the disadvantages of city life remains sufficient to deter even the most jaded of city dwellers to stay put.
The “triumph of the city”, as one economic geographer put it, seemed forever assured. It even survived the great coming of the internet and the attendant capacity to work from anywhere that emerged in the 1990s. This was claimed by pundits to have created a “new economic geography”. It didn’t. The city also survived the newly emerged desire of many for “lifestyle” living, typically by the beach, and especially among now retiring baby boomers.
The city would survive anything, it seemed, and forever prosper at the expense of the country. Until 2020, that is.
Against all the odds, governments might just have stumbled upon the ultimate decentralisation policy. Quite inadvertently. It is called “Covid”. This is lockdown as decentralisation policy. Two things happened in 2020, out of the proverbial blue, that may just prove the elusive “game changers” so long sought by policy-makers and boosters of balanced development.
Talk about unintended consequences!
The first thing that happened is that the lockdown policies of governments forced many employers to allow their people – those fortunate enough to keep their jobs – to work from home. What was formerly a microtrend is now quickly becoming a megatrend. Yes, a few souls had already begun to work from home. Those who could, like consultants, and a few more sought opportunities in the suddenly trendy co-working spaces favoured by entrepreneurs. Well, these have hit the wall since last March. But not working from home. It is now “a thing”. Big, and possibly permanent.
Most employers previously resisted calls to embrace “remote working”. The reasons usually given reflected three main objections – fears that productivity would suffer, fears that managers would lose control of their teams, and fears that innovation would suffer. Real and still relevant fears. The objections to working remotely have not vanished, of course. The jury is still very much out. But the reality of masses of workers being, in effect, forced to work at home has demonstrated that, for many organisations, the world did not end when this happened. The techno-discovery of 2020 was Zoom. Cutting down useless meetings. Eliminating wasted commute time. Getting workers to work longer hours than before in many cases. Allowing flexibility and better work-life balance. Encouraging loyalty through happier employees – who might just be happy to even have a job.
And when you no longer have to commute, you no longer have to pay the huge premium for working in the “dingy office” and living in the “dirty city”, as Banjo Patterson termed it. Wait a minute. You can live anywhere now. Why stay in the city? And by selling your city property, you will make some money for nothing, at least for the time being while city property prices continue to outstrip those in the bush. When you add to this realisation the ever-increasing likelihood that Covid policies and practices might well become embedded and long-term, then you have some serious shifts occurring.
The second thing to have happened in 2020 – and specifically in the last few weeks of the year in New South Wales – involved ramped up Covid fear campaigns, new impositions like mask mandates, the lockdown of whole regions without notice, cancelled Christmas for many and ramped-up Covid bureaucracy and hyper-regulation. The cricket test was eviscerated. In the case of New South Wales, all this has only happened in Greater Sydney. Everyone outside the city can still range free. Sydneysiders are treated like battery hens. During Victoria’s winter of discontent, the worst of the totalitarian madness of the tinpot dictator south of the Murray, also occurred in the city of Melbourne.
Politicians have, at a single stroke and within a single year, turned our cities into s***holes.
The destruction of downtown city life is all but complete. First, Sydney had curfews and lockout laws – also the result of an overreaction to focus-group-determined fears, in this case of late-evening violence – and then the smashing of business in the Central Business District in order to build tram lines. And now lockdown.
I am writing this article (escaping) on a train from Sydney to Casino (northern New South Wales). What happened at a railway stop called Morriset just north of Wyong? I could remove my mask! The fear of Covid ends at the regional border of Greater Sydney, evidently. As well, I can attend Mass and not be forced to wear a muzzle. I can shop at the local mall without the stifling, useless cloth. I can drop into Dan Murphy’s without signs asking me to submit to QR code fascism, as they do in Sydney.
My wife and I were looking at property in the Blue Mountains the other week. Since the impact of the mask mandate has hit home, we have decided that we will never buy any more property in Greater Sydney until we are utterly sure that no government will ever do this again.
Turning Sydney and Melbourne into hideous hotspots of totalitarian repression, where you are now more likely to get mugged by a cop than by a crim, where you are nowhere spared the prying eyes of governments who have the power to screw with your lives, and where you virtually cannot leave home without a passport, is as good a decentralisation strategy as I can think of. What the economists would call the ultimate “push” factor. I’m a Sydneysider – get me outta here.
These decisions of ours (to look elsewhere than the city for places to invest) might be regarded as the isolated actions of the very few. But the shifts to the regions are real and growing. They are evidenced by the real estate boom outside Sydney, and no doubt outside Daniel Andrews’ lockdown central. The very same thing has occurred in London and New York. Megacities that become viral clusters and thence lockdown central are suddenly on the nose to their citizens. People are escaping, to holiday and to live. Like St Pancras station in London immediately prior to its latest Tier Three lockdown. It was bedlam.
In rural regions in Australia, there have been very few outbreaks of this piddling virus, and hence the urge of governments and the opportunities for them to interfere in the personal lives and health decisions of citizens rapidly reduce outside the metropolis. Life is now MUCH more fun in the country. And you can live and work here as well. A place for lovers of freedom and those who value individual rights over state-imposed security. Perhaps regions in Western (former) democracies could even be compared to special economic zones in China, created by the Chinese Government to facilitate investment but regarded by the many Chinese who flock to them as refuges of relative freedom in a hideous Orwellian state.
Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, describes one strategy for the Christian in an increasingly threatening, post-Christian world. Go live in a cave, like St Benedict did.
It isn’t that bad yet, but so long as governments and their fascist advisers keep talking seriously about lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions to “eliminate” Covid being here for the medium-term (at least), we-the-people could be forgiven for thinking that governments now will be perpetually inclined to ratchet up medically-induced totalitarianism at the merest whim, with awful consequences for our freedom. And everyone knows, one, viral threats occur mostly in cities, and two, the reach of the police state is at its weakest the further from the city you live. Most of us in regional towns hardly ever see a copper!! Not when we need one, certainly.
So, yes, 2020 might just well presage a considerable move to the bush, and pull off one of the greatest unanticipated policy outcomes in history. And since the overseas migrants are no longer coming our way, certainly not right now and not ever, probably, in the numbers of yore, the greatest growth driver of the big cities is in mortal danger of being removed. They may well now remain empty, soulless, purposeless places where the few fearful, cowering, muzzled citizens who still venture out and about will be monitored wherever they miserably plod.
Finally, decentralisation achieved! It is, indeed, a funny old world. Irony is a wonderful thing.