Regionalism in Australia

This paper was originally written for a course on regionalism taken in Sweden. This is the second assignment, the first being on the governance of the city of Hobart.

What is meant by "region" in your native country? What are the main functions? How would you estimate the importance or power of the regions in your county?

Australia is a federated country with a relatively homogeneous culture. Because the length of settlement by non-Aboriginal people (mainly Europeans) has been so short, and because so much of this time has been when cheap mass public transport can move large amounts of people around and mass media has spread a diversity of culture, cultural regions have never developed. The federated nature of Australia and large size means that political administrative regions have also not developed. These two points make it hard to discuss what is meant by "region". There are a variety of possibilities that are used in different circumstances.

There are a number of different options as to what could be meant by the term "region". Some (but not all) of these options are: bio-regions, areas where the natural environment is relatively homogeneous; commonly or culturally defined geographical regions;* two Federal departments (the Bureau of Meteorology1 and Bureau of Statistics2) both use regions in their official work; Natural Resource Management project has developed regions with consultation between the Federal and state and territory governments;15 and official geographical regions used by the state governments. In this work, due to space limitations, I shall not examine all of these possible definitions.

As mentioned in my previous paper, Australia has a federal system. The federal government has been assigned certain powers under the constitution and the states have the rest of the political power. Though, the federal government can invoke certain of its powers to interfere with the states (such as the external affairs power and the corporations power). The states (and territories) run the majority of the government in Australia and devolve some of this power down to local government, local councils. Because this devolution of power happens on a state by state basis, in different states, the local councils have different powers. Though generally they provide water, sewerage and look after local roads, with the states looking after health, education, police and so on.

In Australia neither of these two options are presented as being regions, the states are sometimes far too large (Western Australia has the largest electorate in the world, due to the state's large size and relatively sparse population in most of the state). The councils are too small.

Because none of the options presented deal with administrative regions in any meaningful sense, this paper shall simply look at the official 'regions' provided by two states; Western Australia (WA) and Tasmania. Each  has a different need for regions: statistics, development and administrative purposes are all possibilities.

Western Australia is the largest state (by land area) in Australia. Depending on which official website you use, you will count a different number of regions. Different departments have different needs, so the Department of Indigenous Affairs map3 has two south west regions and splits the northern most region (the Kimberly) into East and West (though they treat them as the same). They also fold two regions into one that another Department (The Department of Local Government and Regional Development - DLGRD) split.10  The DLGRD also splits the south west into three regions. In Western Australia, therefore, the regions are used for different purposes for different departments. As such, they have differing boundaries (though mostly the same) and even differing names.

Tasmania is the smallest state, both in land area and population (though both the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have a smaller population and the ACT is smaller in land area). Because of this there is less need for regions as used in WA. Of course, governments like dividing things up. The Department of Primary Industries and Water has 'water management regions'.16  The Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources, appropriately states, "Tasmania can be divided up according to interest in many different ways", and then goes onto list seven regions. So as in Western Australia, different departments have different uses for 'regions' and therefore different geographical boundaries and names.

Regions in Australia are used for a variety of purposes, statistical, development, resource management, and others. In none of the senses where 'region' is used do the actual region have any power or direct importance in and of it self. The federal government, the state (and territory) governments and local councils have political power, and private interests have economic power. So to answer the questions presented at the start: what are the main functions? none; how would you estimate the importance or power of the regions in your county? they do not have any. Regions are not political or cultural entities in Australia the way that they are in other parts of the world.

* I do not mean here that the regions have a distinct culture, but rather that the regions are defined by common usage, both person to person and through the media. People know where the regions are when mentioned, even though they have no official status.

1 http://www.bom.gov.au/ (accessed 12/02/2007)

2 http://www.abs.gov.au/ (accessed 12/02/2007)

15 http://www.nrm.gov.au/about-regions/index.html (accessed 13/02/2007)

3 http://www.dia.wa.gov.au/DIA/Regions/ (accessed 12/02/2007)

10 http://www.dlgrd.wa.gov.au/Publications%5CDocs%5Cmap_RegionalDevelop_Mid.gif (accessed 13/02/2007)

16 http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/WebPages/RPIO-4YHANN?open (accessed 12/02/2007)

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