Journal article

The issue-attention cycle and regional development: is it really back on the political agenda?

Regional planning Government Australia
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The starting point for this paper was the assertion that "Regional policy is now more firmly on the political agenda than it has been for twenty years". This brought two things to my mind. The first was the question posed by Dorothy Parker, the American writer, when told that President Coolidge had died. She asked: "How can you tell?" The second was recollection of a 1970s article by Anthony Downs in the journal The Public Interest called "Up and down with ecology - the 'issue attention' cycle?" Downs used the rise to prominence of environmental issues on the political agenda to discuss how a "problem suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then - though still largely unresolved - gradually fades from the centre of public attention". I shall return later to the five stages Downs identified in the "issue-attention cycle".

Let us accept that there is recognisable political agenda at any given time. How can we tell whether a policy area is on it and how we measure that area's purchase on public attention, its ranking on the agenda relative to other issues jostling for place? Rural development, regional development, balanced development, decentralisation, regional adjustment - under one label or another for over a hundred years these regional policy issues have been in and out of the parking lot from which the issues to construct and reconstruct the political agenda in Australia are drawn. Always a throng of journalists, academics, consultants, bureaucrats and politicians hovers around waiting to propel their favoured issue onto and up the agenda.

Some issues are mere ephemera: selection of a table for the Lodge; diplomatic spats; scandals real or alleged. Some issues such as tariffs and wage fixation are (or were) organised into politics as a constant with an institutional support system. Some like aboriginal land rights or regional development are intermittently on the agenda.

Occasionally an event like a Mabo judgement can define the terms of a more general issue like land rights and catapult it to the top of the agenda. "Regional development" has had generations of unproductive exposure as a policy issue. It gains a place on the agenda laboriously as a political symbol rather than a sharply defined policy issue. Like other positive political symbols such as "justice", and "democracy", it has "the key characteristic of lack of definition" (Gibson and Hodgkinson, 1980) and is amenable to symbolic policy declarations. In this context, perhaps

"By 1996, no Australian region will be in poverty"

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