Marcus B Lane, Geographical and Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
It is far too early to tell if the headlong rush to organise governance around the principles of civic regionalism will halt environmental degradation and secure a sustainable future for Australia. Civic regionalism is a social and environmental experiment.
As with other policy fads, civic regionalism will have its successes and failures, and it is likely to create new difficulties and problems of its own. We therefore need an ongoing critical and impartial debate about how to get the best of what civic regionalism offers and to avoid its most treacherous pitfalls. Australia must to look to the following:
Civic regionalism promises environmental governance that is done ‘by the region and for the region’. Evidence from many parts of the world, however, suggests that the role of national and state governments will continue to have critical enabling functions—facilitating regional development, developing the capacity of regions and communities, maintaining a strategic gaze and, where required, mediating contests among participants with reference to national and international standards of good governance, fairness and democracy. We need to recognise this rather than seek to diminish this role.
Civic regionalism presumes an entirely different approach of doing policy and governance. The environmental managers of tomorrow need new skills in working horizontally, building enduring collaborations, mediating disputes and maintaining networks. Quite literally we need to re-skill our environmental managers.
Environmental science is too crucial to become marginalised in the development of management strategies. Instead, we need to continue to invest in environmental science and ensure that it plays a prominent role in the development of management approaches.
NRM has moved into the social sciences by changing the scale of governance, emphasising citizen engagement, and recognising the role of multiple players. Designing effective governance arrangements therefore requires far more effective utilisation of social scientific research and advice. The evidence from institutional experiments elsewhere—such as decentralisation—needs to be taken into account when the new institutional framework is being designed.
The tendency of ecosystems to change unpredictably is in part responsible for the new mantra of environmental managers—adaptiveness. Environmental managers must now be adaptive to surprise events and changes, recognise that their interventions are themselves potential sources of (unpredictable) ecological change, and that their efforts are experiments in ecological intervention. We therefore need to be much more assiduous in monitoring and auditing the performance of regional and other NRM organisations and using those data in designing and re-designing our institutional framework. This requires political will, considerable investment and the development of new methods.
The cost of developing regional capabilities and ensuring performance may be very high, at least in the medium term. We must be prepared to pay this price if civic regionalism is to deliver. The influential report, Repairing the Country, estimated that the cost of repairing the Australian landscape was $60 billion (NFF/ACF 2000). If this is correct, and if the other development costs of civic regionalism are as high as expected, more funds for NRM will be needed than currently exist. Greater investment is essential.
Since the functional and democratic potential of civic regionalism rests so heavily on the ability of communities, regions and non-state participants to engage directly in policy development and implementation, environmental information—scientific and other—needs to be widely and freely available.
International experience (for example, Geddes 2005) makes it clear that the effectiveness of local and regional efforts depend heavily on the practices of higher levels of government. NRM needs to be seen therefore as a multi-level, multiple-scale activity in which the enabling behaviours of state and federal governments are crucial. Some have expressed concern that decentralisation might actually constitute ‘passing the buck’, or that it will paradoxically result in increased centralised control (Gerritsen 2000). If the benefits of civic regionalism are to be achieved these possibilities need to be avoided and multi-level partnerships developed and maintained.
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