Resilience, tenacity and authenticity are in abundance in rural Australia. We also tend to be conservative, and don’t always throw ourselves readily into change. And why would we, when the weather, markets and the innumerable variables of farming dish out plenty of surprises?
The farming life has enough unknowns without volunteering for more.
But change is also the condition that produces opportunity. It is a good time to be pondering change + opportunity, because Australia is somewhere in the process of the biggest change in its short modern history.
Economically, and in some cases politically, we are switching our gaze from our cultural origins in the Western world to our geographical location on the edge of Asia.
That change is well under way. I was recently a guest at an investor conference hosted by vibrant venture capital firm Blue Sky, and was blown away by some of the analysis around the unprecedented size of the markets opening up in Asia, and the vigorous response of some of our forward-thinking agribusinesses.
One talk, by demographer Bernard Salt, brilliantly sketched out the colossal changes occurring in Asia (and demographically within Australia), but laid down a warning: Asian prosperity is not ours for the taking. We can stuff it up.
Bernard made the point that as a whole, Australia’s entrepreneurial culture hasn’t strongly distinguished itself in the world. The world’s biggest companies – Apple, Microsoft, Google – have sprung up in the US within the last few decades. Australia’s biggest companies — BHP, the banks, CSL, Wesfarmers — all started more than a century ago.
And while we may be excited about our prospects in Asia, Bernard observed that, “We are conceding sovereignty in the agribusiness sector to other nations … if you look at the competitive advantage of Australia, we should be leading the world”.
In Bernard’s reading of the situation, relative wealth and prosperity are one of the things hindering Australia’s entrepreneurial drive.
We Australians have had 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, an incredibly rare luxury for any nation. The result: a generation that thinks prosperity is normal.
(Bernard had some entertaining thoughts about this leading to the “pillowfication” of Australian homes, in which the increasing number of superfluous pillows on beds and couches are a signal of surplus wealth.)
We need to get uncomfortable, Bernard suggested, particularly about how we control our massive resources and means of production, and use that discomfort to kindle a more vigorous spirit of entrepreneurship.
My own extensive travels around this country tell me that Bernard is nailing something here.
Individual entrepreneurs exist, and there are companies that operate in that spirit (not least Blue Sky, which handled $150,000 in venture capital in 2006, and now has $3.5 billion under management).
But we are generally too comfortable to be driven. We don’t even have the inferiority complex that has enabled New Zealand to be the scrappy small dog of agribusiness.
That comfort is delusional. There are no guarantees for Australia in the changing balance of global power and wealth. Without some drive and cleverness, we risk becoming a modern colony, shipping our resources offshore without extracting their full value.
I hope those of us associated with rural Australia can scent the danger wrapped up in the Asian opportunity, and become the makers of change, not the victims of it.
Let’s ensure future generations of young rural Australians carry on the ‘can do, work hard and have a go’ approach to Australian agribusiness and its place in the world.