Time to rebuild cooperative culture in regional Australia

In the keynote address at this week’s Bush Council’s Convention hosted in St George by the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ), I argued that the best way for regional communities to build resilience and prosperity was to re-invent the self-reliance and cooperation of old and look less to government for answers.  There is so much under-utilised natural and human capital in regional Australia that could find better expression in regional development created and owned by locals working directly with foreign investors.

Afterwards I did an interview with Shane Rogers, bureau chief for The Australian in Queensland and he has very ably captured these key messages on page 4 of today’s The Weekend Australian (1 Aug 2015).

I have attached Shane’s article below:

‘Handout mentality’ a brake on the bush: it’s time to go global

Australia’s regions have been urged to stop relying on government handouts and start forging their own global networks to ensure their survival and future growth.

Professor John Cole, the executive director of the Institute for Resilient Regions, said farming co-operatives also needed a rebirth and remote areas should stop taking their economic inspiration from big cities.

“The regions can’t expect governments to provide the answer all the time,” he said. “This is a cultural thing for Australians generally. The paternalistic approach by governments of all persuasions to regional Australia has manifested itself in a handout mentality. But the regions should really be building a future on their own terms.”

Professor Cole, who was keynote speaker at a meeting of bush councils in St George in western Queensland this week, told The Weekend Australian that superannuation funds from Sweden and Canada and investors from China were taking a strong interest in regional investment.

Investors from Sydney and Melbourne were often not showing the same level of interest and this highlighted the need for regional areas to seek direct overseas investment rather than filtering the conversation through Australia’s major centres.
In this, a region would always have more knowledge of and passion for the local opportunities than would occur when the selling was done through state and federal governments.

Professor Cole, from the University of Southern Queensland, said the survival of towns could not be an end in itself and regions had to prove their economic viability and not expect cities to “save their butt” every time there was a drought.

“I don’t think (preserving a town) can be an end in itself,” he said, “just like there are some farmers who shouldn’t farm and certainly when the drought breaks should move on. If the reasons for a community’s existence are no longer there, it is hard to sustain them. There are no guarantees here. The thinking has to be smarter and more creative and more adaptive.”

He said an example of this was the belief that remote areas needed to be connected to state services such as electricity when often this could be done more efficiently locally, as seen with Winton in western Queensland going off the grid through geothermal power.

Professor Cole also believed regions needed to regenerate the power of farming co-operatives to become more resilient to economic and climatic fluctuations.

“In local government and communities in a part of Australia that relies so much on the climate you can’t do straight-line projections to the future,” he said. “We have to rediscover what our forebears started 100 years ago when they set up co-operatives.

“At the moment we seem to have this either-or model — it’s either a corporate model or it’s a struggling farmer. Co-operatives can provide a viable in-between.”

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