Wake-up call for rural and regional SA

Aug 06, 2014

A farmer from the south-east of the state recently phoned me to take me to task for comments I had made about the importance of local-level leadership in shaping the future of places.

My central argument was that community-based or regional leadership is an important determinant of whether places grow or decline, and that the very act of leaders coming together to plan for the future has a positive impact.

Examples of the effectiveness of leadership at the local level are legion: whether it is nationally (for example, Beechworth in Victoria and Hallett in South Australia) or internationally (South Ostrobothnia in Finland).

My caller agreed that community leadership is important but argued – very gently – that it is wrong to promote local leadership.

His view was that in the current era of tight public-sector budgets and testing economic conditions in most rural and regional communities, the challenges of leadership are too great, and the workload simply too high, to recommend it to anyone.  He spoke from first-hand experience, having been a leader in his community and region for more than 30 years.

These comments represent a wake-up call for South Australia as a whole, and rural and regional parts of the state in particular.

There can be no denying that community-level engagement and action is important in shaping the future of places.  The fact that places – cities, towns and communities – have become more important as global trade and information technology have “shrunk” the planet is one of the ironies of globalisation.

We now know enough about local leadership to be able to identify what works and what doesn’t. It’s not rocket science, but it is important to remember.

Good local leadership is simultaneously connected to the community and outward-looking; it is a property of groups, with individuals collaborating to ensure the common good; it builds upon, and reinforces, pre-existing community assets such as trust and local knowledge; and it is about being willing to think outside the square and articulate a vision for the future.   That vision may well be very different to the past, but it is just as likely to commit to established growth and development trajectories.

Local leadership – as my new farming friend pointed out – also carries costs. Leaders need to have the time and the resources to talk with others and complete the essential work of being a leader.

One of the most successful local leaders I ever met was a dairy farmer in Victoria who spent every Saturday morning in the main street of his town, talking to others within his community.  He also gave up three afternoons a week for committee work.

If regional communities are allowed to contract further, they will lack any capacity for local leadership, and thereby any chance of shaping their future

It is helpful if leaders have a degree of financial independence so they can give difficult messages to those in power without fear of the consequences.   This latter point is important, and explains why farmers often lead regional communities.

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Increasingly, however, there are fewer and fewer farmers – or people in comparable occupations – in rural and regional South Australia with time to spare for leadership.   Many of the industries and occupations that formerly provided leadership at the community scale – think local bank managers, school principals or accountants – have been restructured out of smaller places.  At the same time, drought and the vagaries of modern agriculture have added to the workload of those family farms that remain.

There is some evidence to suggest that this problem is greater in South Australia than in many other parts of the nation.  We have large areas of agricultural land affected by population loss; we have few large country towns and even fewer regional centres.

We also lack the diverse agricultural production found in a number of other states.   All of which adds to the vulnerability of South Australia’s communities.

Before 1910, South Australia was acknowledged as one of the nation’s agricultural powerhouses, producing more wheat than NSW.  Before the Playford era, agriculture was the mainstay of the state’s economy and the primary source of export earnings.

Over the past five decades, agricultural production has declined as a share of Gross State Product, but it remains important for state prosperity and the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

The conundrum we face is that if regional communities are allowed to contract further, they will lack any capacity for local leadership, and thereby any chance of shaping their future.  From there it is a small step to decline and – perhaps – eventual demise.

The challenge we face as a state is to find new ways to build and empower local leaders.  Actions to do so will build the economic resilience of the state and help build our place in the world economy.

Professor Andrew Beer is director of the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning (CHURP) at the University of Adelaide. He is lead author of two recent papers aimed at mapping the role of leadership and how country towns can take control of their futures.


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