After years in abeyance, regional development is suddenly back in the political spotlight. Right smack in the middle.

Now that the major parties need to woo the country independents, they’ll be falling over themselves to elevate regional development issues up their order of priorities.

The last time this happened was in the late 1990s, when the rise of One Nation sent a shiver of fear through the Coalition. They initially laughed off One Nation as a threat to Labor’s blue collar conservative base, but their attitude, and particularly that of the Nationals, changed when Pauline Hanson began striking a chord with regional communities.

When the Coalition had first got into power, it slashed and burnt Labor’s regional development programs, and axed the entire regional development department, previously led by Brian Howe. It wasn’t just fiscal rigour — there is a genuine and well-founded antipathy amongst many Liberals to regional development programs, which they regard as crass National Party-style pork-barrelling. In the first blush of ideological fervour on returning to power, regional development copped it from the Howard Government.

Pauline Hanson soon changed their mind. John Anderson, who succeeded Tim Fischer in 1999, was particularly concerned, and not just for the electoral impact on his party. Anderson, probably the most thoughtful and intelligent figure to emerge from the Nationals in recent decades, was genuinely dismayed by what he saw happening first hand in communities in his own electorate, which every redistribution had to be significantly expanded to reflect population loss.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, many of the problems that deeply worried Anderson were temporary. Regional Australia at that stage was still getting over the savage recession of the early 1990s, which had been exacerbated in regional communities by large institutions like banks withdrawing services. But by the middle of the 2000s, parts of regional Australia faced labour shortages, not unemployment, because of the mining boom, and the inability of the agricultural sector to compete with it to retain workers.

As I noted during the election campaign when I visited Bendigo, many of the solutions mooted for that town back in the 1990s proved illusory. Instead, the area just got on with developing itself via a mix of light and heavy industry, local and export-focused manufacturers, and regional specialisation in agriculture.

The Howard Government’s initial response was to talk a lot about the problem, and emphasise how “coordination” was the key to fixing the problem. Anderson gave his famous “Two Nations” speech. A Regional Australia Summit was held. Communiques were issued and Regional Impact Statements made compulsory. The only substantial program put together was for Rural Transaction Centres, designed to provide a one-stop shop for services withdrawn by companies like banks (according to Sussan Ley, RTCs was the brainchild of Wilson Tuckey).

It was only once the budget was back in strong surplus that the Howard Government began throwing serious money at regional programs (academic Paul Collits has a great discussion of regional development policies in recent years here).

The problem was — and is — that regional development issues are amazingly nebulous. As the Bendigo example demonstrates, and Collits notes, just why certain regions develop and others don’t remains a mystery to experts and politicians alike. And the nature of the “problem” keeps changing. For much of the last decade the “problem” has been drought and labour shortages in many areas.

Despite Anderson’s efforts, things haven’t been helped by the Nationals. The Howard Government notionally devolved decision-making about regional development to regional communities themselves via its regional funding programs like Regional Partnerships, which called for applications from communities themselves. But in practice — as the ANAO revealed — National Party ministers used the programs as a giant porkbarrel, systematically rorting programs by overruling departmental assessments and intervening for political purposes, not merely blatantly corrupting a program, but defeating the essential logic of devolving decision-making to communities.

Collits suggests a couple of basics: removing the overlap between different levels of government on regional development policy — State and local governments run their own parallel regional development programs and policies, and devolving decision-making fully away from politicians to a rationalised, simplified, community-based framework.

The bigger problem is that governments only seem to get serious about regional development when they’re forced by the electorate to focus on it, and their instinctive reaction is to throw money at it. We’re back at another such moment, driven by representatives from three quite different regions. It’s noteworthy that both Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have been vocal on the need to more urgently address climate change than the major parties seem to want to do, reflecting their awareness that regional communities are more exposed to climate change impacts.

The issue is especially acute for Windsor given the likely impact on water in his electorate; he has warned of “allowing the irrigation industry to collapse due to climate change and global warming by doing nothing.”

Most likely, the major parties will mess around in regional development policy to give the impression of activity while they have to. It would be a rare achievement if the independents could force them to take a serious look at exactly what all three levels of government are trying to achieve, and how best to do it. After all these years we’re still struggling with the basics of defining the problem and whether it has a solution.

Bernard Keane worked in the Department of Transport and Regional Services until 2000 and wrote speeches for John Anderson.