Resilience demands innovation and self reliance in western Queensland Outback

In central western Queensland there hasn’t been a worse drought in living memory.

Most people are doing it very tough and talk of financial and social stress peppers street conversations from Bedourie to Blackall.

Dry lean times are no stranger to these western communities, long known for their hardiness and resilience.

Unsurprisingly, hope and optimism still shine through.

The question though is for how long?

Locals know that in this most climate-variable region on Earth, droughts and floods will continue to frame their lives.

But with a looming severe El Nino promising to deepen the big dry and push back to 2018 the prospect of any decent farm cash flow, some are beginning to wonder what if anything can be done to stake a future for the region.

Stoicism by itself is not going to win through.

Federal and State governments are offering a mixed bag of emergency welfare and local employment generation and pest eradication schemes, but everyone knows that ‘bail-outs’ in themselves are not the long term answer just as they haven’t been in the past.

After more than a generation of slow decline there is a creeping realisation in the thinking of some regional leaders that survival for regional communities means a new way of thinking that breaks the mould of ‘rural exceptionalism’ and government paternalism.

Self-reliance, strategic collaboration and direct regional engagement with investors and markets here and overseas has to become western Queensland’s mantra if it is to have any chance long term.

Such thinking starts with those primary producers looking for a way forward that is more than a return to the past – to the last good season.

The shortages of the current crisis are prompting some far-sighted local producers to tackle the pointy end of a conundrum confronting broader rural Australia, namely how to innovate beyond the paddock to creating new investment, ownership and marketing models.

In the coming decades the Australian rural economy is likely to transform from being primarily a debt leveraged bank financed industry to a globally connected business sector sourcing private and institutional equity capital.

Finding a place for the family farm and its agrarian culture into this broad transition is as much an issue for drought stricken districts as it is for the rest of regional Australia

Progressive regional leaders in central western Queensland know that the do nothing alternative to innovative thinking simply guarantees a ‘Wild West’ future marked by de-population, desertification and failed communities.

With only 12,500 people in an area larger than Germany, the challenges facing the region demand nothing less than a coordinated infrastructure response from the three levels of government as well as private sector investment in fields as diverse as energy and water utilities, food processing, tourism, communications and health and education services.

While marketing campaigns to flag the outback heritage experience with city tourists should give a welcome boost to the region, more important is the digital connectivity so crucial to assisting community cohesion and communication and to providing essential business platforms integrating the region with the boarder national and global economies.

The days of city bail-outs for country communities and farmers who cannot make a go of it may be coming to an end, but the quid pro quo should be the removal of the red and green tape and remnants of the old paternalistic approach to regional development that actually stands in the way of innovation, entrepeneurship and self-reliance.

Good examples include taking a closer look at the way the region makes use of its own energy and water resources including the Great Artesian Basin.

A most obvious reform to foster local self-sufficiency and initiative would be the ending of the State Government’s monopoly on the sale of electricity through Ergon in favour of locally grounded partnerships between public and private sector players.

With local economic multipliers of at least 4 and as much as 7 to 1, every dollar spent that actually circulates in the region is far better for the cause of regional development than a dollar remitted to Brisbane or Canberra.

And before the gas companies get more active in western Queensland, the Palaszczuk Government should move to limit FIFO in new projects and require the energy industry to invest as one in genuine social and economic infrastructure rather than tokenistic giveaways like basketball courts and play-ground shade cloth.

For their part local regional council leaders should do all they can to stimulate new thinking and maximise the participation of all parts of the community in coming up with ideas and pathways building opportunity and resilience.

Collaboration and community consensus are essential for effective action as has been reflected recently in a way forward being found for the wild dog fence.

The stakes are high demanding an all hands on deck commitment – but there is no group of regional Queenslanders better able to pull off their own renaissance than those in the central west.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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