The politics of regional disadvantage: regional differences in public sector employment.

Author:Colley, Linda
Position:Queensland, Australia


Programs and policies to ameliorate regional differences and particularly, redress locational disadvantage have been the concern of public administration place-based programs and policies (Redell, 2002; Walsh, 2001). However, the role of the public sector as an actor in regional development requires further investigation. Public sector agencies may have specific activities or 'buy local' policies that start to leverage the role of the public service as an active participant in regions (McCabe, Parker and Brown, 2012), rather than providing an underpinning safety net as part of services provision.

Disparities across geographic and political boundaries present policy challenges, particularly in industrial relations and in the ability to promote decent work for all. Regional disparity is underpinned by factors including the nature of labour markets (ALGA, 2011; Moore, 2009). We argue space and place are under-recognised aspects of employment policy and employment relations research (Ellem & Shields, 1999; Herod, Rainnie, & McGrath-Champ, 2007; Ward, 2007) and we contend this neglect is especially significant in a public sector context. Labour markets are socially regulated rather than regulated by a price mechanism, and the dynamics of labour markets vary according to local conditions (Peck, 1996). Each regional labour market differs according to the industrial make-up and the political, economic and social trends of the region. Regional prosperity is affected by a region's ability to attract capital investment (Herod et al., 2007).

Differing regional prosperity is also affected by government activities, through provision of amenities such as social and physical infrastructure and the presence of a large public workforce. Governments were traditionally viewed as 'good employers' and as such might be expected to contribute positively to regional labour markets (K. Brown, 2008). While local labour market conditions vary according to sector, public sector employment relations has relied on a central framework of consistency and equity with minor recognition of local conditions (e.g. allowances for hardship or remote area living costs) (Bach & Bordogna, 2011; Waterhouse & Brown, 2006). This standardisation is in stark contrast to local social regulation of labour markets and does not acknowledge the importance of actively engaging with locational issues in employment relations. The literature largely focuses on capital and the private sector labour market, but we suggest that public services require a different conception of space, place and scale, given the complexity of government interaction with capital and labour. Public services are the ultimate social construct, with the size, shape and nature of public services affecting, and being affected by, local labour markets.

This research examines regional disadvantage through the lens of labour markets, and asks what is the position of centrally-regulated public sector employment within local labour markets. To address this question, the research canvasses the key concepts of regional labour markets and the politics and policies of regional advantage/disadvantage. It briefly outlines regional differences through uneven regional development, and continues with an examination of the concept of regional difference in government/capitalist activity, labour markets, and industrial relations processes. This review adds to the conceptualisation of regionality in the public sector context, with hypotheses about the way in which public services interact with regions to affect the quantity and quality of public service jobs in regional labour markets. This discussion supports tentative hypotheses that are examined through a study of the Queensland public service (QPS) in Australia. The research examines regional difference in terms of the quantity of QPS jobs, internally between QPS regions and externally between the QPS and each regional population and labour market. It also examines the quality of jobs, analysing trends between QPS regions and within regional labour markets. The research concludes that regional disadvantage could provide a theoretically and methodologically robust approach to understanding differences in regional labour markets and employment. The research also provides a baseline to explore the effects of the dynamic political context and widespread job cuts occurring at the time of writing.


Regions vary in prosperity due to natural and constructed factors such as geographical endowments, political decisions and capital-labour decisions. While Ezcurra and Rapun (2006) suggest that initial unequal growth of regions is soon moderated once initial advantages diminish, the more common view is that inequalities are enduring. Hadjimichalis (2011) argues that unequal regional development, and the resulting individual and collective inequalities, is fundamental to the reproduction of capital. Perrons (2009) suggests that inequality between regions is wide and increasing. Marcouiller et al (2004) contend that regions with high amenity generated through the natural and built environment can expect higher income, attaching an income premium to the quality of space and place.

Regional development proceeds at an uneven pace, as growth in capital is accompanied by growth in amenities (including public services) and the population concentrates around growth centres (Park & von Rabenau, 2011). Uneven regional development can stem from the three characteristics of the geography of capitalism (Storper & Walker, 1989, p. 10). Capitalist societies are economically and spatially expansionist, forming new growth centres wherever possible (Storper & Walker, 1989) and attracting workers to the centre (W. M. Brown & Scott, 2012). Each centre expands at a different pace over time, with the obsolescence of older industries and the creation of new industries or clustering of production activities through a sequence of industrialisation. Instability can result, as cycles of growth and contraction change the configuration of regions over time and differentiate them in terms of employment and income as well as economic, political and social structures. As Ward (2007, p. 270) notes, the 'wealthy coal-producing town of yesteryear is the unemployment problem of today'.

Australian evidence indicates a rapid increase in regional disparities in income, labour utilisation rates and economic prosperity (ALGA, 2011), supporting Perrons' (2009) contention. While there is evidence of regional decline over several decades through the impact of technology in agriculture, transport and communications, there are also regional 'winners and losers' due to the regional response to industry restructuring, the extent of natural capital and tourism potential (Stimson, 2001, p. 204). Further, Stimson (2001, p. 207) suggests there are 'communities of opportunity' comprising populations of above 10,000 people that have the potential to prosper. Baum et al. (2008) found that regional decline was not so marked when larger areas were mapped rather than highly localised areas. Mitchell and Carlson (2005) propose three regional types: high growth with locational advantage; moderate growth reliant increasingly on part-time employment; and low growth that requires targeted job creation amidst a changing industrial structure. The high growth category is consistent with Marcouiller et al.'s (2004) amenity proposition regarding the importance of natural capital for regional jobs and prosperity.

Governments have a prime role in regional development, often carried out by public service workforces. Capital accumulation is not a purely private process, and depends upon the state taking a role in providing infrastructure as well as managing law and order, property rights and frameworks for economic cooperation (O'Neill, 2008, pp. 262-264). Governments interact with place to reflect political and economic preferences and local conditions at that time: sometimes leading spatial expansion to develop new regional areas; sometimes following capital and labour to support spatial expansion through economic, legal and social infrastructure (such as roads, railways, hospitals, schools, and police); and sometimes continuing to provide the resident population with services even as capitalism contracts or withdraws and a community declines. The waxing and waning of capital and labour in regions affects the space, place and scale of public service workforces.

Regional Difference and Effects on Job Quality in Regional Labour Markets

Uneven regional development leads to key differences in regional labour markets (Peck, 1996; Storper & Walker, 1989), particularly regarding the quality of jobs. Industries differ in terms of products, technologies, organisational structures and profitability, and remuneration rates within industries are related to the scope of the skills required for jobs, the productivity and value added by each worker, as well as industrial leverage and bargaining power related to their contribution and replace-ability (Storper & Walker, 1989).

Labour market segmentation varies across regions as even generalised processes are implemented with local variations. All labour markets are segmented, with primary labour market conditions tending to include greater job security, skills, wages and opportunities for advancement - higher quality jobs--and secondary labour market conditions being the opposite. Neoclassical economic theory suggests that increases in skill or human capital lead to increased productivity and hence rewards (Peck, 1996; Storper & Walker, 1989). Conversely, labour market segmentation studies suggest that rewards do not necessarily coincide with workers' productivity and skill, but rather with systematic industry and occupation differences (Storper & Walker, 1989). Skill is socially constructed from supply and demand factors as well as ideological...

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