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Why don't we know where we're going?

AFTER SPENDING MORE than fifty years of my life in Tasmania, in 2009 I belatedly joined the brain-drain exodus to the mainland. I had a wonderful time living in southwest Victoria and working for Deakin University in Warrnambool and Geelong.

There are many similarities between the southwest of Victoria and Tasmania. Someone even described Warrnambool as an 'upside down Devonport', with the coast to the south instead of the north. The weather is cool, wet and windy. Geelong is a liveable city on the water, and just a little bigger than Hobart. Like Tasmania, it is in the midst of economic restructuring. For Geelong this is from a heavy industrial and manufacturing economy to an advanced manufacturing and research economy. The education attainment rate in the whole region is a concern. Like Tasmania, Geelong and the southwest have a single large university that dominates higher education and research in the region. There are marginal electorates. The whole region from Geelong to the South Australian border has a population of about 350,000, a bit smaller than Tasmania.

However, it quickly became apparent that there are some big differences between Tasmania and Geelong/southwest Victoria. Victoria has regional plans for most aspects of society and economy: infrastructure, health, economic development, and so on. Geelong especially has a shared understanding of the social, economic and environmental projects that it needs to position itself for the future. It has a bank of potential projects in numbered order of priority. It has the ear of the state and federal governments, and is consistently successful in attracting large projects. Regional Development Minister Simon Crean is quoted as saying that Geelong always knows what it wants and if you give a project to Geelong you know that all will agree it is the right project. The region to the west of Geelong is working to emulate Geelong's united front to government and big business. It has recognised that this will take hard work, but has made a constructive start. Meanwhile, Tasmania lacks a sense of direction. Infighting dominates the news.

How does Geelong get its five local governments, large industries, small businesses, government utilities, TAFE and university all to agree on top priorities? There are three key structures that facilitate agreement: G21, the regional development body; the Committee for Geelong, the advocacy body, and the Geelong Cats Australian Football League (AFL) club, which build and reinforce internal bonding and external bridging social capital. The other ingredient is a diversity of leaders who work together as a leadership team for Geelong.

How can Tasmania learn from Geelong's experience?

Highly regarded social capital theorist and expat Australian, Michael Woolcock, is among those who have identified bridging and linking social capital as critical to regional development and renewal[i]. Bridging social capital is the networks and shared norms, values and trust that allow groups within a region to develop a shared vision and then work together to achieve it. Relationships are the engine room of social capital. The proper care and maintenance of bridging social capital requires structures and occasions that bring people together both for formal consideration and decision making, such as regional development bodies, associations and committees, and for informal, more relaxed and fun activities. A shared sense of identity helps. You only have to drive around Geelong when the Cats are in the finals to realise that the Geelong Football Club shapes the identity of Geelong. Almost every car proudly flies a Cats flag and the shops and streets are festooned in their blue and white team colours. Tasmania's island experience creates a ready-made shared identity, but Tasmanians consistently fail to coalesce around a shared identity. Tasmania has attempted to import the Hawks football team, but it seems that parochial north-south rivalries have won over a shared allegiance, with the Hawks been regarded as a northern team by southern interests who agitate for an AFL team of their own.

I watched in awe the hive of activity in the President's Lounge at Skilled Stadium during a Geelong Cats home game as acquaintanceships, relationships and friendships were made and nurtured. Deals are hatched and earmarked for follow up during the working week. Those at risk of not supporting a 'Geelong' bid to government or elsewhere are gently prodded into line. Similar scenarios play out in places such as Geelong Performing Arts events in the beautiful Costa Hall, which doubles as Deakin's lecture theatre during the day. Interactional infrastructure, or places and opportunities for people to come together for formal and informal interaction, fosters social capital[ii]. G21 Pillars bring together people with a common interest around economic development, education, environment, arts and culture, sport and recreation, planning and transport. When the G21 Board or one of its Pillar committees sits down to make decisions about how to spend funds or which project to prioritise in lobbying in Canberra or Melbourne, all the hard work has already been done. There is a shared vision and the elected and employed leadership of G21 works to make it happen. A stream of email newsletters and Tweets from G21 keep a wider group informed of progress.

Linking social capital is networks and trust that provide access to information, resources and support from sources outside the region[iii]. Universities such as the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and Deakin are a rich source of linkages to external researchers, and corporate and government sectors that can provide access to external resources beneficial for regional capacity. Geelong taps into university linking social capital through Deakin's membership of formal structures such as G21, the Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturing Council. Deakin also is a member of the Geelong Cats Football club. Places at the Deakin table on game days are available to staff members to host guests with a view to persuade them of the benefits of investing in a research project, donating a scholarship, supporting a land use planning proposal, etc.

The Committee for Geelong is a not-for-profit body funded by organisational and individual memberships and housed at Deakin. It specialises in building and maintaining linking social capital, and in a leadership program that develops a stream of new leaders for Geelong. Participation in its leadership program is sold as a way to develop networks, and attracts mid- to senior-level new arrivals to the city. The Committee for Geelong has a communication plan that targets state and Australian government politicians, their minders and bureaucrats, as well as leaders of major industries in Geelong or those likely to invest in the region. G21 and the Committee for Geelong make regular advocacy trips to Canberra and host a stream of leaders on information trips to the region.

When the Regional Development Australia (RDA) Committee for Barwon South West Victoria was established in late 2009, the members from the Geelong, Barwon end of the region were all members or employees of G21 and/or the Committee for Geelong. Along with my fellow South West RDA Committee members, I observed how the overlapping community/work and social networks of our Geelong colleagues brought social and economic investment to their region. Key success factors were trust and a shared vision and direction that allowed projects to be prioritised for the good of the whole region. The run-up to an election meant identifying the infrastructure projects that politicians love to promise; social projects are priorities at other times. Upgrade of the Princes Highway West from Geelong to Colac was identified and agreed as a high priority by G21 and endorsed by the RDA Committee in the lead-up to the 2010 State and Federal elections. Much business activity and transport in the region, including for the major population and economic centre of Geelong, happens east of this highway, that is from Geelong to Melbourne. Despite this, there was a consistent message in meetings with politicians and aspiring candidates in the lead-up to the elections, especially from Geelong-based leaders, that the Princes Highway West was the regional priority. G21 arranged for candidates to be photographed on the highway. The Committee for Geelong raised the upgrade as the priority in lobbying trips to Canberra. The incoming governments each committed around $370 million to the project. Campaigns to attract funding for social projects are similarly well organised and orchestrated. It was not good luck that brought a National Disability Insurance Scheme launch site to Geelong, but strong and coordinated advocacy on the part of the G21 and local health and not-for-profit community organisation leaders. The leaders are active members of the G21 Health and Wellbeing Pillar which developed a brochure selling the advantages of Geelong as a launch site, and worked with local agencies and the Victorian government's NDIS Implementation Taskforce in advance of the decision on NDIS launch site locations.

South West Victorian local government, business and education leaders saw the advantages of a unified regional voice. We used the RDA Committee and the social capital built among the members from the two ends of the region to learn from the Geelong experience. Geelong leaders were among panel members on 'Q and A style' forums on education and building skills, planning, and leadership for our region held at Deakin's Warrnambool Campus. These attracted as many as 80 people on cold winter nights, including bureaucrats from Melbourne. The Warrnambool Standard, a Fairfax publication like the Examiner and the Advocate in Tasmania, took a leadership role in bringing the region together. Regional Fairfax papers in a number of locations, for example Ballarat as well as Warrnambool, adopt a community development philosophy that sees a larger proportion of community development good news stories appear than in other regional papers. The Standard's senior staff appeared on panels; it co-hosted events and published editorials with a positive spin on regional unity and the future of the southwest. The six local governments have now formed Great South Coast Group Inc., with a Board and four pillar subcommittees covering community, economy, environment and connections. Local government, business, education and community members on these committees are working in the interest of the region as a whole. The establishment process took more than three years. The Great South Coast Group Inc. would not exist without the efforts of people who went beyond their personal and work roles and acted for the benefit of the region. They were from diverse backgrounds: local government, the newspaper, radio station, Deakin, TAFE, large companies and self-employed business people. These people told their own 'warts and all' stories on panels in the series of community forums that addressed the hard questions of regional planning, how to improve skills and educational attainment, and most controversially, regional leadership. The newspaper and local commercial radio station regarded each other as competitors for the local advertising dollar, but the two managers stood up together with leaders from the city council, Deakin and TAFE to launch 'Wonderful Warrnambool' as a brand. The brand celebrated the identity of the city and the region for its residents, as well as being a vehicle to sell the region to investors, tourists and new residents.

In 2011, the Grattan Institute published a report, Investing in regions: Making a difference.[iv] This report took an unapologetic economic stance, and recommended that market forces should be left to 'get on with it'. The authors suggested that government investment in regions that are growing slowly, or not growing not only makes no difference to those regions, but sacrifices national growth and productivity through investment foregone in faster growing part of the nation. Social, civic and environmental returns are key components of liveability. They are the reason people are moving to coastal cities and Grattan's 'bolting' regions. The real question is one that the report did not ask: how do we design policy that takes account of the unique and complex mix of economic opportunities, social needs and natural, human and other resources that are present in each of our regions? Geelong's experience suggests that answer to the question of how to invest in our regions lies in working with the regions, and building their capacity to plan for the future.

Geelong is proof that government investment in 'lagging' regions can pay off. The secret is funding must be targeted to projects aligned with a regionally developed and shared vision and plan. The vision must be built upon the collective knowledge and experience of local people of their own regional context; its people, natural and manmade assets and business and industry strengths. The plan must be based on hard evidence; quality research, and facts and figures that apply the research evidence to the region's context. Constructing this foundation is not simple and cannot be rushed, but government investment in 'lagging' regions that is based on such a foundation does pay off, not only in terms of social returns, but economic returns as well.

So, what can Tasmania and other regions learn from Geelong and southwest Victoria? G21 emerged from a time of economic downturn, even crisis, in the history of Geelong, when textile manufacturing closed and the Pyramid Building Society, headquartered in Geelong collapsedin 1990 with debts of more than $2 billion. Now it attracts international attention as a model for locally driven regional development. In August, 2012, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) delegates visited the G21 region to study rural and urban relationships.

Tasmania is in the midst of an economic downturn. When things are not going as we would like, we have a choice: to act as a victim and blame others, or to look to our strengths and to take some ownership over our future. A crisis brought Geelong people together. There was broad agreement among leaders from business, education, industry and government that the future should, and could be more prosperous. This is one of many examples of unity following from adversity; my former UTAS colleagues Ian Falk and Lesley Harrison analysed the success of the Tasmanian town of Deloraine, the first Australian Community of the Year Award winner in 1997, following deep community division and adversity[v]. Leadership and a conscious decision to bridge the community divide moved Deloraine to the diverse, but united community it remains today. The unifying vehicles included a community arts project and the nationally renowned Tasmanian Craft Fair.

So now is a good time to act. It is up to us to move beyond the prevailing entitlement mentality. We must look at our strengths, build a positive and shared sense of identity and use our bridging social capital resources to develop some consensus about what we want our future to be. We need structures that allow us to use our bridging and linking social capital resources to develop and implement a plan to get us there. This requires many of us to act as leaders.

First, we must believe in ourselves and our identity as Tasmanians, and value what we have. When I said that I was moving back to Tasmania, people in Victoria were uniformly jealous. There was envy in their voices as they spoke of visits to Tasmania and recalled the natural beauty, friendly people they had met and Tasmania's fine art and crafts, and food and wine. We need champions to remind us of the good things we have and the things we do well.

The Tasmanian State Government is developing an economic development plan and three supporting regional plans. The plan builds on the Tasmania Together vision 'Tasmania is an island community, unique for its natural and cultural environment, where people enjoy a prosperous lifestyle based on quality, creativity, and opportunity'[vi]. A plan is a roadmap for achieving a goal or a vision. The RDA Committee for Tasmania is also developing a plan. We should pay attention to structures that we can use to shape and implement our vision for Tasmania. We must embed consultation and then implementation of the plans into existing organisations and associations around the state. Tasmania's future direction and how we can get there should be on the agenda of industry and business groups, unions, company and not-for-profit boards, and key leadership groups within our education sector as well as local and state government. Some things should be easy to agree. As the OECD has pointed out, the well-being of nations, and the regions within them, depends on skills and social capital[vii]. We should all agree that wherever we are going we will need an educated workforce and well developed social capital.

Then we need robust structures that allow ongoing two-way communication between government and not only geographic regions (north, south, north-west), but also between sectors such as health, business, environment, heavy industry, food production and processing, education, arts and culture, and so on. A Committee for Tasmania that advocates for the state separately from the state government wouldn't go astray.

Formal structures to bring people together for focussed attention on a shared future are only one part of the united Geelong success story. We need a range of opportunities to come together for leisure and to celebrate successes. What brings Tasmanians together? Our natural environment is a hot topic that engages many, but a divisive one. Football creates a safe shared space for conversations in Geelong; organising arts and crafts events worked for Deloraine. It doesn't matter what, but shared customs, rituals and associated spaces must be something we can all 'back' and be proud of.

At a whole state scale, planning and community engagement in Victoria are easier than in Tasmania because the state government has an integrated set of processes for planning at local government, regional and state levels. There is a Department of Planning and Community Development that is underpinned by regional community member committees. All areas of government business follow a similar planning pattern. For example, every local government area must prepare a public health plan that is renewed every four years. These must be informed by state health priorities and feed into regional and Victorian Public Health Plans. The Tasmanian government can learn from this.

Leadership is the oil that will allow us to work together to build our new Tasmanian identity and to achieve our shared vision. We need champions and leadership from a diverse group of people from different walks of life. Tasmania is full of leaders, in industry, business, UTAS and other educational institutions, health, the not-for-profit sector, our communities and in public life. There is a Tasmanian Leaders Program to develop aspiring leaders. It is time to look for things that are in the common Tasmanian interest, not individual interests. Leaders on the North West Coast have set an example of what can be achieved in terms of an agreed direction and priorities. We must build the foundation vision and plan that will bring social and economic returns from government investment. It is time to start some tough conversations and to change the way we think. It is time to talk Tasmania up.

Who will up their hand to be part of a CommitteeFOR Tasmania?

Professor Sue Kilpatrick, PhD, is director, Centre for University Pathways and Partnerships, University of Tasmania, Australia. She was formerly Pro Vice Chancellor (Rural and Regional) at Deakin University, Australia. Sue has had a diverse career in higher education, including in economics, education and rural health. She holds a PhD in the Economics of Education and a Master of Economics in Labour Economics. A born-and-bred Tasmanian, Sue is committed to working with the communities in which she lives.

 


References

[i] Woolcock M and Narayan D (2000). Social capital: Implications for development theory, research, and policy. World Bank Research Observer, 15, 225-249.

[ii] Kilpatrick S and Loechel B (2004). Interactional infrastructure in rural communities: matching training needs and provision. Rural Society, 14,1, 4-21.

[iii] Kilpatrick S Johns S Mulford B Falk I and Prescott L (2002). More than an education: Leadership for rural school-community partnerships. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation: Barton ACT.

Haslam McKenzie F (2003). The challenges of achieving community self-determination and capacity building in a neo-liberal political environment. Australian Journal of Primary Health, 9,1, 39-49.

Healy K Hampshire A and Ayres L (2004). Beyond the local: Extending the social capital discourse. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 39,3, 329–342.

[iv] Daley J and Lancy A (2011). Investing in regions: Making a difference. Grattan Institute: Melbourne.

[v]Falk, I and Harrison L (1998) Community learning and social capital: "just having a little chat". Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 50,4, 609-627.

[vi] Tasmanian Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts (2012). Economic Development Plan, http://www.development.tas.gov.au/economic/economic_development_plan.

[vii] OECD (2001). The Wellbeing of Nations: The role of human and social capital. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: Paris.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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