Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Whether Australia’s regions rise, or fall, depends on the stories we tell

Recent stories

Professor Andrew Beer, University of South Australia

Across Australia, one in five regions is struggling, but the one-dimensional solutions we commonly look for don’t work.

Drought
Photo: Sandy Horne

Tourism destinations from Lakes Entrance in Victoria through to North Stradbroke Island in Queensland have struggled with the impacts of our worst ever bushfire season, only to be hit by COVID-19 lockdowns that smashed their tourism businesses.

Just two years ago, major towns in Queensland and NSW including Tamworth, Stanthorpe, Forster, Braidwood and Bathurst either ran out of water or almost ran out of water, leading to a bundle of emergency infrastructure measures.

Governments often respond with a limited menu of quick fixes – build more infrastructure, provide cash grants for ‘structural adjustment’, provide a grant for the latest start-up, or announce additional apprenticeships.  Somehow, a launch always seems to be the pivotal part of a region’s recovery – at least in the minds of some.

But the future prosperity of regions lies with those who live there, rather than those who govern, especially when they do so from a distance. Mobilizing regions is a matter of empowering regional leaders – making sure they have the tools needed to bring about change while enabling them to both listen to others and be heard across communities. 

Often, it is the stories they tell that are most influential in driving positive change.

We have long known that storytelling is not only a way of reflecting reality but shaping it. Some of the most powerful stories in Australia come from our regions; whether the legend of the Kelly Gang or the romanticized plot of the Man from Snowy River, these stories about ourselves and where we live have a huge impact.

At a personal level we make sense of our reality through the stories we manufacture for ourselves. Increasing numbers of Australians look to social psychology gurus like Brené Brown to help create more positive ‘self-talk’, focused on making sense of chaos and achieving positive change.

What is not so widely understood is how the stories we tell each other are even more impactful than those we tell ourselves. When we look at regions confronted by crisis, we see that positive transformation – change worth having – is often brought to life by local leaders talking about how to achieve success (see here) This emphasis on progress leads to action.  And their rhetoric of change is then amplified by audiences within the region and elsewhere though discussion, collaboration and engagement.  Australian governments respond to success, including the prospect of success about to be delivered.

So, what does all this mean for the rebuilding of Australia’s regions affected by population loss, a variable climate, competitive world markets and the on-going withdrawal of services?

First, we have to understand what happened in the past but move rapidly to shaping the future. History, of course, has many valuable lessons, not the least of which is acknowledging the need for change.  

Second, there is a pressing need to move away from the expectation that governments will provide a solution. The evidence of the past is that they either cannot or will not. However, they can be an important partner in growth – alongside private industry and the community.

Whyally steelworks
Whyalla. Photo: Sandy Horne

Third, it is important to think about, and focus on, those who can bring about change. This means the individuals and groups willing and able to advocate for their community or region, unfettered by the cautions of government accountability. 

Fourth, we need to pay attention to how the story of change is crafted: who is going to take charge, how are they going to bring about growth and what can be done to speed it up?

We can see the impact of these four in the transformation of Whyalla and its steelworks after Arrium went into administration in 2016. Purchase by Sanjeev Gupta and his company Liberty Steel made possible a new story line centred on Whyalla’s rebirth through renewable energy, the upgrade of steel making facilities, and integration into a global corporation with international markets and know-how.

And while Liberty’s financial troubles have cast a shadow over the steelworks and its future, the business remains stronger and more productive than ever.

Finally, it is important to accept that while stories of regional rebirth alone can’t bring about change, they are vital in establishing a vision and a set of expectations that is positive, future-looking and inclusive.  Without them very little happens.  They also serve as a powerful tool, enabling people in all parts, and at all levels, of the community to work towards a better future.

Professor Andrew Beer is the Executive Dean of UniSA Business.

His research interests include the operation and functioning of Australia’s housing markets (including the provision of housing for persons with a disability), the drivers of regional growth, structural change within the economy and the impacts of an ageing population. He is currently undertaking research in four major areas: the outcomes of the closure of the Australian automotive industry; the cross national analysis of the leadership of places; the quality and condition of Australia’s housing stock; and the use of services and housing by Australia’s ageing population. Currently he is collaborating with Professor Markku Sotarauta of Tampere University, Finland as a joint editor on the Handbook of City and Regional Leadership (Edward Elgar) and is in the process of completing a Policy Expo for the Regional Studies Association on place based policy.

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