• Australia;
  • economic geography;
  • regions;
  • regional policy;
  • globalisation


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion

The Australian economy has experienced profound change over the last five decades, moving from an industrial to a post-industrial structure. This transformation has had far-reaching implications for the nature of economic activity in Australia and has provided the backdrop for the evolving analysis of the nation's space economy. The paper argues that three interrelated themes underpin much of the work of economic geographers in Australia: the impacts of globalisation on Australia's space economy; neoliberalism and the governance of regions; and policy-focused analysis of regions, their history and prospects. The paper concludes that economic geography will continue to make important intellectual and practical contributions to Australia in the near future as the reshaping of the Australian economy continues and as new challenges reshape the nation's regions.

Economic geography remains a vibrant area of intellectual endeavour in Australia and, in common with most aspects of geographical research, has changed over recent decades in response to new philosophies of knowledge, the impact and influence of specific ideas, and broader-scale shifts in public debate. The changing nature of the economy has also driven the transformation of the study of the economic geography of Australia, with new questions of theoretical and practical significance thrown up by the restructuring of employment, investment, and firm growth across Australia. The analysis of Australia's economic geography has, in some key respects, developed a unique focus and character when compared with the development of the discipline in some other nations. Dimensions of its distinctive nature include a strong empirical and policy focus, engagement with – and to a degree capture by – the broader discourse of regions as non-metropolitan places, and the weaker development of at least some of the theoretical components of contemporary economic geography. It is beyond the scope of any paper to reflect upon all contributions – and even all themes – within the broad body of work that constitutes economic geography in Australia. The discussion is restricted to a specific set of themes and the period from the 1960s and to the contribution Australian economic geographers have made to Australian-focused research. Many Australian researchers have made important contributions to our understanding of the functioning of the global economy or particular regions outside Australia, but this work falls outside the scope of this paper. This paper undertakes a selective review and traces three interrelated themes: first, it argues that researchers have been increasingly concerned to understand the spatial impacts of an emergent global economy. Second, it recognises that neoliberalism has both had an important impact on the nation's economic activity and has served as a focus for the work of many researchers. Third, it traces debates on regions and regionalism in Australia and how the complexion of public debate on this topic is a product of both the impact of global economic processes and the nation's embrace of neoliberal philosophies of government.

Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion

Australia in the 1960s and 1970s may well be unrecognisable to many scholars working in Australia today, including those active in research at the time. Economically, it was a nation dominated by manufacturing, with one quarter of the employed workforce working in this industry at the 1976 Census (Forster, 2004). Agriculture was both a significant export industry and source of employment, while those industries we would now recognise as part of the ‘services sector’ were largely underdeveloped. Importantly, the economy was both highly regulated and highly protected: in the 1920s the Australian Government introduced the ‘Tariff Board’ to, in theory, advise on industry assistance but in practice to ensure that ‘industry got the protection it deserved (and wanted)’. High rates of protection were maintained with the consequence that by the late 1960s Australian manufacturing industry enjoyed the highest rates of protection in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, excepting only New Zealand (Rich, 1987). Agriculture also enjoyed high levels of public sector support, with government-mandated marketing arrangements providing surety to many farmers and cushioning some from both international competition and the vagaries of global markets. Importantly, Australia until the early 1970s was an insular economy, distanced from the global economy by layers of government regulation and a policy focus on national economic development that was separate from notions of productivity or efficiency.

From the late 1960s researchers began to question the social, economic, and business processes driving Australia's pattern of economic activity. Researchers, such as Frank Stilwell (1974; 1980; 1992), were eager to unpack and understand the spatial implications of capitalism in Australia. This work drew upon broader international perspectives (Harvey, 1973; 1975; Massey, 1984; Massey and Allen, 1988) and focused on both the broad scale ‘logic’ of capitalism and its role in creating unequal regions. Stilwell (1974; 1992) showed that Australia's industrial capitalism in the post-war era inevitably generated spatial inequalities as a consequence of wage inequalities, differential access to public services, and differentiated positions within the economy.

Much work in this period was informed by political economy perspectives and the inevitable tension between the interests of capital and labour that undeniably shaped Australia's economic landscape. Marxist interpretations, however, are now less commonly employed than in the past, but economic geography internationally remains much more strongly wedded to structural explanations than many other areas of contemporary social science. Class analysis has retained both its intellectual rigour and vibrancy, with scholars such as Kathie Gibson acknowledging change but arguing that

Monolithic images of the ‘working class’ associated with craft unionism or Fordist industries may no longer be recognised by social theorists or those who labour . . . But class is not thereby diminished as a process that overdetermines social development and political change. Instead the role of class as a social process is recast in different social and theoretical settings (Gibson and Graham, 1992, 124).

In common with other prominent economic geographers internationally, such as Doreen Massey, Gibson has also considered the role of gender in the formation and expression of both industrial disputes (Gibson, 1992) and the experience of migrant contract workers (Gibson et al., 2001). Importantly, this work has emphasised the complexity of the lived experience of workers and their families and highlighted the role of human agency within both potential and expressed class conflict. Women in the coal mining towns of Queensland, for example, do not dogmatically support their male partners in industrial disputes because of their own disadvantaged position within both the domestic and formal economy.

The new economy, the new regions

Economic geographers in Australia have continued to explore new social and economic processes as they have emerged and reconfigured the spatial distribution of economic activity in this nation. This has included ongoing work into economic globalisation and its outcomes, financialisation, and the changing strategies of business. The decision of the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s to reduce tariffs on manufactured goods heralded the start of significant policy change. Deregulation of the economy gathered pace in the mid 1980s under the Hawke–Keating Governments, with the floating of the Australian dollar, further reductions in tariffs and a wide-ranging program of microeconomic reform. Globalisation and its impacts has been a major theme in the analysis of Australia's economic geography since the 1980s. Fagan and Webber (1994) documented the system-wide impacts of a more open economy on the location of economic activity and population while a number of studies have considered the impact of globalisation on particular places. Fagan (2000) discussed industrial change in Sydney in the face of an internationalising economy. He noted the loss of 178 000 manufacturing jobs in Sydney between 1970 and 1985, the changing distribution of industrial activity within the metropolitan area over that period and sectoral shifts, as trade-exposed industries declined. At the same time, Sydney's economy became much more focused on services, including retail services, but most especially financial and business services. Later research reinforced the significance of Sydney's central role in integrating Australia with the global economy, with Searle and Pritchard (2005) highlighting the ‘propulsive effects’ of Sydney's integrative economic role in driving the growth of the Information Technology sector in that city.

Sydney's economic transformation in response to the processes of economic globalisation was distinctive when compared with other regions in Australia because it became the unrivalled leader in the provision of financial services and the point of engagement between many parts of the Australian economy and global financial markets. In other respects this story of change is typical of the economic restructuring associated with this period: across the nation, regions and urban centres experienced profound change in their economic roles and functions and in many instances experienced new growth dynamics (Lepani et al., 1995; O'Connor and Stimson, 1995; Beer and Clower, 2009). Economic globalisation has released new drivers of growth into Australia's system of regions, with a renewed emphasis on tourism and tourism-related development in even the most remote parts of Australia (Sorenson and Epps, 2003). Some of these drivers have included the emergence of new, globally focused, agricultural industries – such as the wine industry and parts of aquaculture – and changed business models in many parts of the economy, as established manufacturing and service industries either adopt, or become integrated with, international supply chains.

O'Neill and McGuirk (2002) argued that from the early 1990s Australia experienced a ‘new prosperity’ based on the financialisation of the economy, where the term financialisation refers both to the growth in financial service sector employment per se, but most especially to the intrusion of financial instruments of management into every sector of the economy and every part of the production process. This process was part of a global trend and while this change has resulted in income growth for an urban elite, those living in regions outside the dominant capitals have suffered. Incomes in rural and non-metropolitan regions have not kept pace with the capitals, and many regions have lost important sources of employment as a consequence of the resulting privatisation of previously public enterprises. Fagan (1990) has also shown how the financial restructuring of major enterprises such as BHP Billiton has had important consequences for the spatial distribution of economic activity. Critically, the use of a financialised paradigm of business management has carried with it the potential to sunder established relationships between major corporations and regions, while driving new investment decisions that are odds with historical practice. It is notable, for example, that BHP Billiton's major expansion of copper, gold, silver, and uranium production at Olympic Dam in South Australia will not be accompanied by significant growth in minerals processing. Production will largely be exported in raw form, with processing taking place overseas in order to maximise the return on capital.

One of the consequences of a financialised economy has been the restructuring and redevelopment of Central Business Districts (CBDs) in the major metropolitan centres, and O'Neill and McGuirk (2003) set out to incorporate CBDs into their broader project of work on understanding the social and spatial implications of the financialisation of Australia's economy in the 1990s. Economic geographers in Australia have historically been concerned to understand the nature and dynamics of commercial property – and especially office space – because of their important role as a source of employment and their central position in the command and control functions of the economy (see, for example, Adrian, 1986). O'Neill and McGuirk (2003), however, have argued that the level of attention afforded to the dynamics and functions of office-based employment has been inadequate, with greater focus on more ‘visible’ sectors, such as manufacturing, agriculture, and mining. They noted that the nature of CBD employment has changed fundamentally over the past two decades, with a consequent impact on both the nature of economic activity and the configuration of individual office towers and – by implication – the structure of the CBD overall. O'Neill and McGuirk (2003) highlighted the significance of interconnections between different types of businesses – especially major corporate entities and the providers of business service – which has served to reinforce the centrality of CBDs across Australia generally, and the Sydney CBD especially. This theme of networked enterprises was also explored in O'Neill and Whatmore's (2000) work on the interconnections between businesses in the luxury hospitality sector. More broadly their work has contributed to an emerging concern within the literature on Australia's economic geography that highlights greater spatial and economic complexity within the economic landscape, the importance of networks for the competitive functioning of businesses, the influence of global connectedness, and the blurring of spaces for production and consumption.

Not all change within Australia's regions is attributable to the direct impacts of globalisation. Maude (2004) undertook a review of the major themes in regional development in Australia and concluded that spatial centralisation was one of the dominant drivers of change between and within regions. He noted O'Connor et al.'s (1998, 218) assertion that ‘economic concentration forces remain the dominant feature of Australia's economic geography’. Maude's (2004) review of a number of studies by Australian authors led him to conclude that

Overall, the economic decentralising forces that operate in the US, but maybe less so in Europe, appear to be relatively weak in Australia. Possible explanations for the possible contrast with the US are that Australia has a much smaller economy and population, weak pressures to relocate from the major cities, very few medium sized cities to which decentralising firms can move, limited differences in wages between regions and even localities, no major research institutions outside the capital cities and Canberra, a smaller variety of attractive inland environments, a more centralised system of government and poorer transport and communications infrastructure than the US (Maude, 2004, 8).

Critically, Maude's analysis suggests that Australia's regional structure remains a determinant influence on future development. This level of path dependency within Australia's economic geography (Boschma and Martin, 2007) is seen to be reflected in the location decisions and presence of manufacturers, producer services firms, cultural industries (Gibson et al., 2002), and retailers. Maude (2004) noted that even tourism is concentrated in the major metropolitan regions.

Mining is one sector that appears to have thrown off the shackles of its past and along the way reshaped the economic geography of Australia. Critically, its growth reflects global dynamics rather than economic forces originating in Australia. Over the last decade the mining industry in Australia has been transformed, and the scale and pace of change has reshaped the national economy and fundamentally transformed the fabric of many mining regions. In Western Australia's Pilbara region investment in new and expanded production has been sufficient to trigger a rebuilding of centres such as Karratha which are being redeveloped with respect to both the quality and quantity of their housing stock, the nature of their commercial activities and the vibrancy of their living environments (Taylor, 2011). In many ways, these are the ‘new regions’ of the 21st century, with advocates of development in Australia's north positing a future of economic growth in tropical Australia fuelled by resource and agricultural developments (Shanahan, 2011). Baum et al. (2005) have noted that mining centres such as Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Port Hedland, Roxby Downs, and Mt Isa are some of the most advantaged places in Australia with respect to household and individual incomes and in both the short and long term, localised prosperity has the potential to generate new forms of economic activity.

The rapid expansion of mining investment in Australia since the end of the 20th century has reshaped the economic landscape, with a new focus on growth outside the capitals and in northern Australia especially. Mining development carries negative as well as positive impacts. Researchers have noted the adverse impact of fly-in–fly-out mining on the social well-being of the communities which serve as a reservoir of labour for mining firms (Haslam McKenzie, 2011). While many mining workers live in one of the capital cities or in a sea change community (Haslam McKenzie, 2010) others are drawn from country towns that may already be under pressure as a consequence of drought, deteriorating terms of trade, or industry restructuring. The absence of workers from these communities places additional pressure on their families and their social networks and may contribute to the decline of sporting clubs or other social groupings. Mining centres also are beset by problems: while mining employees are well remunerated and able to live thousands of kilometres from their place of work, residents of mining regions who are employed in ancillary industries or other sectors often earn much more modest wages and are confronted by both high house prices and inflated living costs (Haslam McKenzie et al., 2009).

Australia's resource boom has reshaped Australia's economic geography in other, less direct, ways. Recent public discourse has focused on Australia's ‘two speed’ economy. Under this characterisation of economic performance, Australia is seen to be marked by fast growing resource regions and lagging industrial and metropolitan centres (Garton, 2008), though others have suggested it is a patchwork economy, with even greater levels of variation (Wong, 2011). Regardless of the label applied, regional performance in Australia is high variable and reflects a set of processes associated with the impacts of ‘Dutch disease’. The term ‘Dutch disease’ was coined in the 1980s to summarise the impact of the expanding gas sector on the economy of the Netherlands (Beer and Thomas, 2008). Rapid growth resulted in a rapidly expanding economy that ‘crowded out’ other sectors of the economy and reduced their competitiveness internationally (Chambers and Kerr, 2011). National Economics (2011) has shown through their report on the State of the Regions, 2011 that the growth of resource industries has had a comparable impact on Australia in the 21st century. A strong Australian dollar and the concentration of new investment in mining has contributed to employment loss in manufacturing and related industries. National Economics (2011) was able to show that even the addition of new jobs to the Australian economy would benefit few persons already resident in the country, with most positions to be filled by immigrants.

The restructuring of industries and places

Globalisation and consequent increased competition from overseas producers has fundamentally reshaped the Australian space economy, resulting in challenges for some regions, but new opportunities for others (Fagan and Webber, 1994). Change has also taken place within the context of overall economic and population growth, which has meant that many individuals have had to move between employers and industries and that in relative terms, regions have needed to grow in order to maintain their place within the nation. Economic restructuring has been a recurrent theme within Australia's economic system since the mid 1960s and the nature, causes, and impact of industrial restructuring has been an important theme within Australian economic geography over the past 50 years. There have been seminal contributions made by a number of authors, both in understanding the emergence of new industries – and their regional implications – and in investigating the consequences of industry or enterprise decline. Some of this work has focused on case studies, while other work has sought to integrate experience across regions and industries.

Rich (1987) documented the drivers and outcomes of industrial restructuring in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. His analysis showed that manufacturing change especially was an outcome of both ongoing national economic integration and the opening up of the economy to global competition. In many respects the former was more significant than the latter, as the economy retained many of the structures and protections that have been in place since the early part of the 20th century. O'Connor et al. (2001) also considered economic change at the national scale and noted shifting patterns of employment and population growth with significant shifts to both ‘sunbelt’ locations and the major centres. From the mid 1970s, growth in the services sector emerged as a major driver of growth for many regions, with finance and producer services reshaping the economic landscape of the major urban regions, while some rural settlements benefited from the expansion of community services (Hugo and Smailes, 1985; Hugo, 1989).

The pursuit of studies of the drivers and impacts of restructuring in particular industries has been an important theme in the body of work undertaken by economic geographers in this country. Haughton (1990) studied restructuring in BHP's steel making plant in Wollongong, while Webber and Weller (2001) examined the impact of economic restructuring on the textile, clothing, and footwear industries in Australia. Both pieces of scholarship serve as valuable exemplars of the contribution economic geographers have made to understanding the spatial implications of major economic shocks. Economic adjustment and the ‘downsizing’ of industry are evident in all economies, especially those in the developed world where the costs of production are often higher. While there is a well-developed body of work internationally on the impacts of such change, nation-specific analysis is needed because the outcomes of employment loss are mediated by factors such as the nature of national income support systems, the strength of regional labour markets, the recruitment practices of firms, and the industrial relations framework.

The work of Webber and Weller (2001) focused on the impact of firms relocating production offshore and how this approach was incongruent with the history of industrial policy in Australia, reaching back to Federation. Their research examined how policy change reshaped the lives of individuals working in affected businesses, restructured the nature of economic activity in Australia, and recast the productive capacity of individual regions. Their work reflects an ongoing theme in the work of economic geographers in Australia that it focused on the impacts of change in particular industries. For example, Weller (2007) considered the spatial nature of labour markets in the light of the 2001 collapse of Ansett Airlines, while Beer and Thomas (2007) examined the regional impacts of the closure of an automotive plant in Adelaide, South Australia.

Industry adjustment and its local consequences remains an important area of academic and public debate. Recently, Daley and Lancy (2011) noted the high cost of industry restructuring programs and the limited evidence as to their efficacy. This dimension of their analysis of regional policies more broadly highlighted how relatively common major industry adjustment packages have been within Australia's economy in recent years – including six packages of various size in the years 2007 and 2008. Since the release of Daley and Lancy's (2011) report, there have been continuing calls for industry assistance and labour market adjustment programs as a consequence of the closure of one of Bluescope's smelters in the Illawarra and ongoing pressure on Australia's car industry. The number of industry adjustment packages is a clear indicator of the pace of economic restructuring in Australia in the 21st century and suggests a new economic landscape for the nation. The evidence suggests an Australia populated by a number of regions characterised by lost industrial production. More generally, research in this tradition has drawn out insights of both public policy and academic interest: it has highlighted the relatively poor employment outcomes of retrenched workers, the impact location may play in finding work after redundancy, and the critical role of government policy in determining the success or failure of regions and their industries. There are important links here with work by McGuirk (2003) on scalar politics and the ways in which governments attach strategic priority to some regions, but not others. Overall, it is clear that all industries within Australia have been affected by the processes of restructuring and that location plays a formative role in the processes of adjustment.

Considerable research effort has been devoted to understanding the regional impacts of declining non-metropolitan industries, especially the fate of country towns affected by reduced employment in agriculture, publicly funded services, or resource industries. Dibden (2001) observed the depth of the crisis confronting many regional communities. She noted that the loss of services, or poor quality services, contributed to population loss, with young people in particular often leaving their regions because of shortfalls in the education available to them locally. This movement out of the region, Dibden (2001) observed, has profound implications for the sustainability of these places in the long term. Cocklin and Dibden (2005) noted that the state of rural communities was a matter of intense debate throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. Critical issues have included the loss of banking services, schools, hospitals, retail establishments, and other commercial services. Cocklin and Dibden (2005) suggested that the sustainability of many country centres was under threat and that the key to understanding the capacity of these places to survive was their varying endowments of five capitals: natural, human, social, social, and produced capital. They also noted that public discourse tends to equate non-metropolitan concerns with rural industries and in many respects the failure of rural economies to either foster the development of new industries, or enhance the profitability of existing production systems, has contributed to the decline of these regions (O'Connor et al., 2001). In the absence of significant innovation or new enterprise development, many regions and centres face bleak prospects. While some research suggests that alternative models of regional economic development are possible (Cameron and Gibson, 2001), widespread adoption of such models appears unlikely.

Pritchard et al. (2012) also considered threats to the long-term survival of ‘rural heartland’ communities and focused on the potential impact of shifts in farm purchases away from local providers to major regional centres or the capital cities. They concluded that farmers remained committed to purchasing locally where possible and that places able to retain their retail presence in periods of crisis would have the benefit of local farm expenditures in the long term. In this context, the sense of belonging that many farmers feel for their communities and regions drives their decision to continue to purchase goods and services locally. McManus et al. (2012) concluded that a degree of optimism could be expressed for the future of many country towns because

…as farmers adapt to changing business circumstances, so too do the towns in their vicinity. The nearest town remains an important place for farmers. It is the primary place where they connect with others, offer and seek support, and build up feelings of affiliation and belonging. The community field has enabled farmers to endure the harsh environmental and economic conditions of the past decade (McManus et al., 2012, 28).

Neoliberalism and Australia's regions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion

Over the last decade economic geographers in Australia have given renewed attention to broad scale public sector dynamics and their role in reshaping regions. Much of this discussion has been concerned to understand neoliberal modes of government and its implications for the well-being of places. Building upon international scholarship by authors such as Peck (2004) this discussion was brought into focus in Australia through a Special Issue of Geographical Research (Vol. 41, no. 1) edited by Neil Argent and Phil O'Neill. Neoliberalism can serve as a simple, but powerful, interpretative tool because it recognises the priority governments now award to market approaches to questions of economy, environment and society, and its ubiquity. As one commentator noted, ‘neoliberalism lurks’, appearing nationally and internationally in the conceptualisation, delivery, and development of government programs (O'Neill and Argent, 2005). Within this debate, neoliberalism is not construed as a singular entity, rather it is a tendency that takes varying forms at different times and in different places (Larner, 2005). It does, however, provide an overarching metanarrative within which to understand institutional arrangements (O'Neill and Moore, 2005), the structure of regional development agencies (Beer et al., 2005), the practice of urban planning (McGuirk, 2005), and changing suburban employment (Fagan and Dowling, 2005). Pritchard (2005) has also noted that neoliberal philosophies have permeated industry, including agricultural industries, with substantial implications for the sustainability of many farming enterprises. While large scale agri-businesses have benefited from the liberalisation of trade and the removal of regulatory barriers, small scale producers in a range of sectors have been confronted by increased risk, greater exposure to global competition, and inflated prices for factors of production including land, water, and labour.

The debate on the impact of neoliberalism on regions has added an additional perspective to more applied debates on the governance of regions, towns, and communities (see, for example, Martin and Eversole, 2005). From one perspective, neoliberalism is seen to create a vacuum in the administration of places as central governments abrogate responsibility for the well-being and development of vulnerable cities, towns, and communities (Gray and Lawrence, 2001). The development of new governance structures, such as regional development agencies or catchment management authorities, provides governments with an opportunity to give the appearance of granting autonomy to regions, while maintaining control (Hearfield and Sorenson, 2009). The impact is said to resemble ‘attempts to bail a sinking ship, at least for many parts of regional Australia’ (Sorenson et al., 2007, 313), and from a broader perspective, the inclusion of community actors into the management of places ‘poses few threats to the state's hegemonic project of subjecting citizens and primary industries to the vagaries of global markets’ (Cheshire and Lawrence, 2005, 442). However, other scholarship has seen greater promise in the evolution of governance in Australia, arguing that it offers the prospect of socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable communities (Everingham et al., 2006). From this perspective, governance structures comprised of government, private sector, and community actors are seen as constituting new, more effective, structures for the management of places.

Cooke (1999) noted that research into economic geography and regional development took a ‘cultural turn’ in the 1990s, with a greater focus on the social, economic, and institutional arrangements that supported the progress of particular places. In part, this ‘cultural turn’ reflected a fresh acknowledgement of the important role both government and governance can play in determining the growth or demise of regions. Critically, the emergence of neoliberalism has necessitated the rise of alternatives to previously established arrangements for the governing of regions and places. The withdrawal of government from many spheres of social and economic life – especially in the periphery – has placed new emphasis on the understanding and development of local leadership, social capital, creativity, and innovation. In some respects, these new objects of research represent the focus of development efforts that remain when direct government action is no longer possible.

Sorenson and Epps (1996) examined leaders and their expression of leadership in four central Queensland communities. They concluded that the four communities varied substantially in terms of both the number of leaders resident, their effectiveness as leaders, and the ways in which their leadership was expressed. The Australian literature on leadership in rural and regional communities has continued to explore a number of themes, including the nature of the relationship between power and leadership (Gray, 1991; Gray, 2001); the sources, origin, and social constitution of leadership in these communities (Kroehn et al., 2010); the links between formal power structures and leadership at the local scale (Sorenson and Epps, 1996); and, the relationship between community-scale leadership and the state (Herbert-Cheshire, 2003; Gray and Sinclair, 2005; Beer, 2011). Other, applications-focused, research has considered the potential of regional leadership groups to achieve environmental goals (Gray et al., 2005; Beer and Baker, 2012). Haslam McKenzie (2002) and Davies (2009) have examined regional leadership programs, with both concluding that while there is some potential for the betterment of communities, there is too great an emphasis on ‘top down’ leadership skills, and too little understanding of the conditions necessary to bring about transformational change.

In the first part of the 21st century research into the economic geography of Australia began to consider the role of creativity or the creative class in determining the nation's economic landscape. In 2002 the American economist Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class where he argued that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high technology workers, a large gay population and ‘bohemians’ working in creative industries experienced higher rates of growth than comparable centres dominated by conventional blue- or white-collar employment. He referred to these new types of workers as the ‘creative class’ and argued that cities and regions needed to foster a creative environment or culture in order to grow. Researchers examining the development of Australia's regions have considered Florida's arguments and their implications for economic growth in this nation. Rainnie (2005) questioned the relevance of Florida's analysis for Australia's smaller communities. His concerns were echoed by Collits (2002a) who noted that non-metropolitan Australia was poorly placed with respect to Florida's drivers of growth. By contrast, Sorenson (2009) supported the emphasis on creativity but questioned the urban bias he identified within Florida's work and noted that Australia's rural communities tend to rate very highly on particular dimensions of creativity.

Following Putnam (1993) the nature, functioning, and origins of social capital attracted considerable attention in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. While it has often been assumed that rural communities will have higher levels of social capital than metropolitan communities (Onyx and Bullen, 2000), Alston (2002) argued that it is the interaction between community and key aspects of government policy that determines the development of social capital. Tonts (2005) came to a similar view on the interaction between social capital and the wider processes of social and economic restructuring in his review of the role of sport in building social capital. He found that while sport built and strengthened social capital in towns in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, it could be eroded in places affected by employment loss and falling incomes. Tonts (2005) observed from his interviews that social capital was ‘fragile’ and could carry negative, as well as positive, outcomes for members of the community, with some residents potentially excluded as a consequence of race, social standing, or simple non-participation in sport. Smailes and Hugo (2003) also noted the less attractive dimensions of social capital in rural communities but their focus was directed towards excess bonding social capital that gave rise to parochialism. On a more positive note, residents of the Gilbert Valley (their study site) were highly active socially and reported very high levels of volunteer work. The authors calculated that the 2700 residents of the region attended 69 000 formal social events a year and while they recognised that such attendance was not a measure of the depth and impact of such connections, the sheer magnitude of social interaction gave an indication of its impact.

Regional policy and regional development

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion

Regional policy and the processes of regional development has been an important focus for the work of economic geographers and related scholars in Australia. These topics have been, and remain, prominent in the international literature but in Australia much of this debate, and associated research, has been focused on non-metropolitan regions alone. Collits (2002a; 2002b) has noted that ‘regional’ policy in Australia has a long history, which in large measure has been a product of political agitation by the non-metropolitan conservative party (initially the Country Party and then the National Party) which from the 1960s onwards promoted ‘decentralisation’ policies as a strategy for achieving ‘balanced’ development. The strength of the National Party's franchise outside the capitals has been such that public debate commonly equates ‘regional Australia’ with non-metropolitan Australia. The corollary of this position has been an implicit acceptance in public discourse and much policy development that regions exist outside the major metropolitan centres, and that what happens within metropolitan boundaries is important but not regional. Regional policy is seen to encompass non-metropolitan regions alone, but within those regions includes virtually all dimensions of social, economic, and environmental well-being. While academics (Stilwell, 1992; Beer et al., 2003) and policy makers (Crean, 2010) alike have challenged this non-metropolitan slant, it has exerted an important influence in directing scholarship into regional issues.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s Australian economic geographers began to engage with issues of policy formation and implementation. In large measure, these interests were fuelled by government policies, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s began to consider disparities in regional growth trajectories and incomes, the apparent ‘over development’ of some metropolitan centres (Neutze, 1977; Neutze, 1978), and the desirability of encouraging the growth of ‘new cities’ (Logan, 1978). Research was concerned to understand the size, nature, and structure of investment needed to launch and sustain economic growth locally and, potentially, in adjacent regions (Pred, 1975; Higgins, 1983). Analysis considered the success (and failures) of such attempts (Scott, 1975), as well as the barriers to more effective policy development. Growth pole theory was, perhaps inevitably, flawed with Higgins (1983, 5) arguing that ‘perhaps never in the history of economic thought has so much government activity taken place and so much money been invested on the foundation of so confused a concept as the growth pole theory had become in the late 1960s and early 1970s’. This confusion contributed to the failure of the Whitlam Governments to develop both effective regional policies and new, decentralised cities. This in turn resulted in a decade-long policy hiatus nationally, and in many states, from the mid 1970s.

By the mid 1980s new philosophies of regional development had emerged which

represented a move away from a framework in which central government policies were implemented on a ‘problem’ region to one where governments worked in consultation with the community to facilitate ‘longer run social and economic growth’ (Taylor and Garlick, 1989).

Beer, 2000, 175

This new paradigm of regional development created both the scope, and need, for research into regional conditions and growth processes that was inevitably, and inescapably, geographical. The new focus upon growth that was locally constituted and enabled by the human and other resources within a region, generated demand for new insights into both generic processes and locality-specific conditions. At a governmental level this resulted in the publication of a number of case studies (see, for example, Commonwealth of Australia, 1990a; 1990b) with economic development in Esperance, Western Australia, something of a cause celebre. For the research community, the new policy setting provided added impetus for research into the nature, causes, and direction of economic change at the scale of the locality, community, region, and city. A concern with the locality-specific potentials and processes of growth has resulted in considerable intellectual enterprise, with studies focused on both the prospects of individual places and the broader processes of growth. For example, Connell and McManus (2011) considered the role of place marketing in the revival of regional centres in Australia. Much of this research has been critical of a paradigm of development that places the onus on small, and often poorly resourced, communities taking responsibility for guiding the process of economic change (see, for example, Sorenson and Epps, 1996; Gray and Lawrence, 2001).

Many economic geographers have contributed directly to the debate on what form regional policy should take into the future. Collits (1999) observed that regional policy in Australia since the mid 1970s has been limited by the ambivalent attitudes of central governments. On the one hand, governments seek to make a case that they are addressing regional issues, while on the other, they remain reluctant to redirect substantial public funding to the regions they claim to wish to assist. He noted that regional policy in Australia has been characterised by ‘pragmatic incrementalism’ with limited capacity to achieve significant change. Daley and Lancy (2011) made similar observations, noting that too often governments have presented conventional public sector expenditure in regional communities as investment in regional development and that government action to revitalise declining regions would require much greater public sector commitment than evident now or in the recent past. Beer (1999) suggested a ten-point strategy for encouraging the growth of regions that included both direct government pump priming and a reshaping of the relationship between regions, their communities, and governments. Overall, Collits (1999) argued that there was a need for flexible and responsive regional development policies that were able to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. McManus and Pritchard (2001) adopted a more prescriptive approach, arguing that there is a need to move away from a reliance on market mechanisms and to instead implement a National Urban and Regional Development Policy that would

consider the survival needs of small towns, the pressures of rapid development on fragile locations and the spatial pressures of the continued expansion of our larger capital cities. In short, we are talking about Triple Bottom Line outcomes that are built upon, and cognisant of, spatial factors (McManus and Pritchard, 1999, 257).

They believed that such a policy would allow Australia to better address issues such as the integration of immigrants into cities and regions and the need to consider national priorities in directing development. There are, however, substantial political and constitutional barriers to the introduction of a national regional development policy (Beer et al., 2003), and while the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have advocated for renewed engagement with cities and regions, their policies and actions have not been framed within a single powerful national strategy.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion

The nature and spatial distribution of economic activity in Australia has changed substantially over the past decades, and the debates and concerns of economic geographers have mirrored that transformation. This paper has argued that there have been three persistent themes interwoven through much Australian economic geography over the past 50 years: the impacts of globalisation on Australia's space economy; neoliberalism and its impacts on regions; and the formation and expression of regional policy. The paper has shown that the removal of tariff and other barriers to Australia's integration with the global economy has had a profound impact on the structure of the nation's economic geography and the rate of change appears to be increasing. Currently, hundreds of billions of dollars of resource developments have either been approved and await development, or are on track to receive approval. These projects range from Western Australia's Pilbara region to South Australia's Gawler Craton and the coal producing region of Central Queensland. What is more important than the nature and location of such investment is the sheer scale of capital flows and their potential to be both switched on and switched off within relatively short time frames. Fundamentally, however, this transition to a minerals-based economy simply reflects the ongoing integration of Australia's economy into global production systems and global markets.

One of the goals of this paper was to review – albeit in a limited way – the corpus of work that is economic geography in Australia. The local nature of much publishing on the economic geography of Australia is one of the observations to emerge from this review. It is evident that many economic geographers writing on Australia and its evolving space economy have either published books locally or in Australian-produced journals. While such practice retains a certain sense, both supporting local debate and facilitating engagement between research professionals, it has clearly meant that the story of Australia and the spatial consequences of its economic transformation over the past five decades has not reached a global audience. This must inevitably result in a closing off of debate with the broader community of scholars, who might otherwise have fresh and enriching insights to offer to the analysis of Australia's economic landscape and the development of regional policies.

Looking to the future, we should anticipate that over coming decades the analysis of the economic geography of Australia will pay attention to a different set of questions to those that have underpinned the discipline for the past 50 years. The impact of climate change on the economy of Australia's regions is one topic that is already gaining prominence. While research has been published on the vulnerability of particular places to climate change, much of this work has been limited to the impacts of climate change on agricultural industry. Researchers still need to consider the first, second, and third order impacts of a human-modified climate on the full range of industries extant in Australia's regions. This analysis will need to be undertaken in a sophisticated and fine-grained fashion. While climate change impacts 100 years into the future may appear a low priority, some of these changes are to be expected to become apparent soon, with the introduction of a price on carbon almost certain to result in the closure of large power stations in the La Trobe Valley and in the Upper Spence Gulf of South Australia. More broadly, placing a price on carbon and introducing a range of strategies designed to limit the extent of climate change will usher in numerous second-order impacts. Some non-metropolitan regions may be able to secure their future by taking on a role both in the sequestration of carbon and the production of carbon neutral energy.

The challenges to confront Australia in the 21st century will provide a new backdrop for the discussion of the nation's changing economic geography. The history of scholarship in this discipline suggests that significant conceptual advances will accompany broader scale change, that the work of economic geographers will continue to inform regional policy in Australia and that both the applied and theoretical dimensions of this work will continue to attract academic and community interest.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Globalisation and the determinants of Australia's space economy
  4. Neoliberalism and Australia's regions
  5. Regional policy and regional development
  6. Conclusion
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