Australia and Ireland are two countries in which the economic importance of agriculture has been steadily declining. There are few similarities in the form of agriculture in the two countries, with greater diversity of produce and larger scale evident in Australia. Despite these differences, there are similarities in the social and economic problems faced as agricultural areas adjust to changes in markets, production methods and government policy.
For much of the past three decades or so outmigration, population decline, the contraction of local economies, the withdrawal of services, and the collapse of social and cultural institutions have been features of many rural areas in Ireland and Australia. While both countries have a history of proactive government involvement in rural development, more recently they have adopted quite different approaches to addressing rural decline and disadvantage.
In Australia, the emphasis has been on 'market led' solutions that have seen Federal and State governments adopt a minimalist role in promoting rural social and economic development. Under this model, the productivity and profitability of primary industries (especially agriculture) are assumed to be the key elements in ensuring regional social and economic wellbeing. Accordingly, governments have pursued policies aimed at liberalising the economy and promoting economic efficiency and productivity in primary industries. Regional development beyond these aims tends to be lightly funded and emphasises community driven self-help responses to economic and social problems.
In contrast to Australia, rural development in Ireland has a high place on the political agenda at both the national and European levels. The focus, however, is not simply on increased productivity and competitiveness in agriculture, but rather on the viability of rural life more broadly defined (Hoggart et al 1995). As in the case of Australia a locally driven 'bottom-up' approach has been encouraged as a means of solving rural problems, though a key difference is that this has been accompanied by considerable financial and administrative support from higher tiers of government.
This paper contrasts the general philosophy and approach underlying regional development policy in Australia and Ireland. It begins with a review of recent developments in Australian regional policy at the State and Commonwealth levels. It points out that economic concerns, rather than sociocultural goals, tend to dominate regional policy and that the responsibility for pursuing development has been increasingly devolved to the local level. The paper then introduces some key features of the European Union's approach to regional development, in particular the priority given to maintaining rural cultures and lifestyles. The paper then examines the position and role of European Union regional policy in the context of Ireland, before considering some of the areas in which Australia might learn from the Irish/European experience.