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March 2021 update

26 March 2021

Regionalisation is a term gaining increasing traction in public discourse, particularly since the COVID-19 outbreak early last year. In February, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), the Business Council of Australia (BCoA), and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia COSBOA) launched ‘The Time is Now for Australia’s Regionalisation’ initiative and last week it was front and centre at the RAI Regions Rising Summit in Canberra.

The term has many interpretations but in my mind it is simply about putting regions at the centre of all planning and in greater control of their own future.

So why all the fuss? COVID has created a significant shift to remote working and with it a realisation of the reduced need to live and work in a large capital city. According to the RAI, between 2006 and 2016 the net movement between regions and cities was +135,000 in favour of regions.

So, what is the aim of regionalisation? In a broad sense it is about ensuring more resources and more jobs for the regions, and hence increasing sustainable populations from a largely socio-economic standpoint. The NFF-led agenda goes further, recommending that governments ‘pick winners’ for regionalisation, investing resources into selected regional cities and towns based on a set of criteria. The result = more jobs, regional manufacturing, and so on.

This brings us to the question of leadership. What is the role of leadership in relation to regionalisation and what might a leadership ‘approach’ to this complex challenge look like?  We need to ask how we will navigate complex relationships, power, authority realities, and institutional frameworks to get there?

We all know that leadership can take many forms.

When people talk about showing leadership or calling on others to show leadership, there is often a strong taste of self-interest in their motivation coupled with a decisive, hardline stance. This is one approach and can lead to some level of change but this behaviour is one-dimensional and outdated.

Leadership requires supporting others to act; aligning with others who may have different views to enrich problem-solving and being responsive to changing contexts.

Leadership also requires courage and taking risks to move from what exists now to what could exist in the future. This means challenging existing narratives, systems, structures, and always acting in the interests of something larger than oneself.

In 2015, the ARLF convened a diverse group of our Alumni and other rural, regional and remote leaders around the question of what a better future for rural, regional, and remote Australia might look like and how we might achieve this. The focus of this initiative was not to produce a shopping list of actions and calls for funding but to catalyse a new approach based on reaching solutions that are regionally applicable, tailor-made or community-owned and led.

This initiative called for regions to play a much stronger role in determining their own future and for all levels of government, together with non-government organisations, to partner in that change. At the time, a strategy for regional Australia did not exist and that remains the case today, although ARLP Course 2 graduate and then Member for Indi Cathy McGowan did succeed with the Office of Regional Australia Bill and other initiatives in her time in parliament. This was recognised as vital to achieve the balance between regional self-determination and the national interest.

It is initiatives like this that reflect a contemporary leadership approach to change. This approach is occurring in other parts of the world like Europe, where regional-level decision-making has been strengthened through systemic change. This includes de-concentration of central government service delivery, inter-regional co-operation, regional decentralisation and establishing regions with elected self-governments and fiscal autonomy.

Regardless of what the best pathway to regionalisation may be, the question is – can we break away from existing thinking to imagine a different future? And, in getting there, is any behaviour acceptable or is it important that we change our behaviours given the changing context we are now living in?

A final question for our network is, how do we support others to act so that there is a critical mass of people thinking and acting beyond themselves to ensure we arrive at a place that supports the needs of many and not just a few?

Let’s keep the conversation going!