Marcus B Lane, Geographical and Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Paradigm shifts are frequently spoken of but rarely observed. We may, however, be witnessing one in the way we approach the management of natural resources.
The traditional ‘top-down’ model of centralised natural resource management (NRM) that relies on governments for planning and implementation is no longer in favour. It is being replaced with processes that rely on participation by citizens in their own regions.
This emerging paradigm is called civic regionalism. The term is shorthand for the decentralisation of authority and resources for NRM to regional citizen boards and statutory committees. There are many examples of this at the federal level (under the Natural Heritage Trust II) and in the states (particularly South Australia, NSW and Queensland). A similar shift in governance—the approach to government and management—has been underway in social and economic policy.
As a new approach, civic regionalism is being pursued in different ways in different parts of Australia. Even so, there are three concepts that dominate this model of NRM:
- NRM needs to be scaled-down to the regional level so that management efforts can be focused on a single geographic unit.
- Government has failed to secure environmental sustainability (or, at least, government action has proven ineffectual) and so alternative ways of managing need to be found.
- Citizen participation should be central to the development and implementation of NRM strategies. Instead of being treated as stakeholders, the citizens of any given region should be directly engaged in policy development and implementation.
The support for civic regionalism has been florid. Cries of ‘let the locals lead’ (Head 2004, 30), or of a need to ‘give power back to our communities’, or ‘it is vital to cut the bureaucratic red tape … that is strangling on-ground action’ (The Wentworth Group 2002, 3) are but a few examples. Critical debate about these changes—and what they might mean for Australia’s environmental future—has been far less colourful and frequent.
Fortunately there are precedents. Some 60 countries around the world have pursued decentralisation as a means of improving governance across a range of policy sectors, including environmental management. Australia also has its own history of policy development for regions, albeit ‘patchy, non-systematic and ideologically driven’ (Rainnie 2005, 132). So, as Australian governments develop and support civic regionalism, they are not moving into unexplored territory but instead following a well-worn trail.
There is a significant body of Australian and overseas research from which lessons, questions and problems can be discerned. Some sit uneasily with some of the arguments in favour of civic regionalism. The purpose of this discussion is to identify issues that are central to the capacity of civic regionalism to deliver, and consider them in the light of available evidence. In the final section, some thoughts on the way forward are presented.
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