After Holden: think national, act local

Motoring executives and politicians have met to discuss assistance for the manufacturing sector, but they shouldn’t overlook the need for local leaders. Joe Castro/AAP

The Abbott government has made its first move to assist the regions affected by Holden’s planned closure. A high-profile taskforce, to be led by prime minister Tony Abbott and include two other federal ministers, will have up to A$100 million to assist the process of adjustment in affected regions - primarily South Australia and Victoria.

The loss of industry has hit Australia hard in recent decades and a number of assistance packages have been rolled out to help communities and industries.

Australia, of course, is not alone in being affected by the loss of manufacturing capacity, though some nations, such as the United Kingdom, appear to be witnessing the resurgence of manufacturing employment as some firms return from overseas. In large measure this “re-shoring” of manufacturing jobs reflects a fall in the value of the pound stirling, but comparable national-level processes are unlikely to assist Australian manufacturers and their workers as our currency remains relatively strong.

Action at a national level is important in responding to “economic shocks” - only central governments have the resources and money to put forward a comprehensive program of action. But although such measures are necessary, they are not sufficient.

Local leaders required

International research suggests local planning and local action needs to be a fundamental component of any adjustment strategy, and essentially it is a matter of empowering local leaders to lead. National governments struggle to award priority to one region over others, even when they face considerable hardship.

Leadership at the local level is something that researchers have considered in detail. Good local leadership is very different from commonly held assumptions about “great leaders” acting in isolation to lead a community to a better future.

Instead good leadership at the local level is collaborative, and involves groups of individuals with a strong connection to the community working together. Ideally, these groups have a diverse range of skills and perspectives. Good leaders are task and outcome oriented, but they are not afraid to pay attention to the socio-emotional side of group dynamics. That is, they care about people and aren’t afraid to show it.

Good leaders at the local level are able to bring resources to the task of leadership - ideas, time, social networks - and are willing to use those resources to advance community wellbeing.

Importantly, local leadership isn’t limited to any group, gender, industry or occupation. There is a considerable body of research that shows effective leaders often come out of industry, but they may also be local government officers, economic development practitioners, students, retirees or members of one or more community groups.

In the 1990s, Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula was confronted by stark economic conditions as the tightening of quotas for Southern Bluefish Tuna undermined one of the key industries in the region. Key individuals from the industry transformed production, resulting in a more viable fishery and a more productive economy.

Elsewhere, Western Australia’s oil mallee industry emerged from the efforts of public officials keen to improve the sustainability of farming practices and simultaneously diversify the region’s economic base.

Anyone can apply

The positive message here is that anyone within the community has the potential to emerge as a leader and most regions have considerable capacity to develop their local leadership. These leaders in turn can then identify specific actions that complement national programs intended to assist the adjustment process.

Good leaders do not inevitably emerge when a region, city or community is confronted by crisis. Too often external shocks such as the closure of a major plant are accompanied by internal failure, as local and national processes fail to shape a new future for the affected region.

What then does all this mean for those communities affected by the Holden closure?

First, governments should be looking to develop local responses to a challenge that will have very significant impacts at the local scale. Part of their response should include the mobilisation of local leaders and the associated provision of resources to help them with their task.

Second, discussion last week about the intended closure of Holden as a producer of cars generated considerable heat. The energy and commitment directed into posts on this website and others can be redirected into a community resource that assists the process of change. There are ways of capturing these ideas in a positive way and then using them to energise growth. At the very least, local leaders can consider these ideas as they plan for the future of their communities.

Governments and communities alike can encourage the development of local leadership and the steps needed to foster the emergence of local leaders start with governments and local communities making a genuine commitment to dialouge and action. They then need to establish systems that assist the exchange of information.

It helps if central governments are willing to delegate some powers and responsibilities to the local level, but each must be willing to take action and honour their commitments. Finally, local interest groups need to be realistic and discipline themselves to understand the pressures on government and then work to achieve the best possible outcomes, while still holding high expectations.

Local leadership in the process of industry adjustment does not guarantee positive outcomes for affected individuals or communities. But it does enable those affected by such changes to take control of their lives.