I recall hearing a story a few years ago about a fellow who had turned up at a hospital with a chair in his eye.
Yes, a chair. Not a splinter or even a stick, a chair.
I kid you not; it made the mainstream news. A nasty altercation between several men resulted in one suffering the indignity of a chair leg through his face, just below his eye socket. Rather than risk trying to remove it, those who came to his rescue elected to move the man and chair, as one, for treatment.
The image of a person with a chair sticking out of his head is a hard one to shake. I’d say that was a pretty big event for the man concerned and no doubt made a reasonable impact on everyone involved. It would be hard to miss such a glaring issue.
As a passionate observer of progress in this region for more than a decade, I propose that lack of a clear identity and a focus on where we are heading is a similarly glaring issue.
A handful of the comments on the Geelong Advertiser Facebook page about high rises in the CBD suggested we should remain a biggish country town and resist becoming a ‘city’. Although not statistically significant, I found the comments interesting because I feel this tension between identifying as a big country town or a city is stalling Geelong’s movement forward.
Firstly, we cannot, and should not, deny the proud heritage of Geelong and its people. With a history steeped in township status and the hardworking nature of primary industry and manufacturing, it may seem callous and brash to be aspiring to become a ‘world class capital’.
Let’s look at some pros and cons.
We all love the romantic notion of a country town – friendly, open and natural, no ‘slickers’. Whether it’s Geelong, Moe, Maldon or Morwell, there is no question that there are enormous emotional, spiritual and physical benefits from regional living.
Not many would argue that the warmth and connectedness of a country town is hugely comforting. It implies a sense of welcome, camaraderie and support, where the casual wave and nod of the head from fellow townspeople are signals of belonging and acceptance.
However, there is a flipside to small populations and it most notably appears as parochialism – a narrow focus and limited view.
The cosy interconnectedness can also breed other undesirable behaviours. These include exclusivity, cronyism, cliques, gossip, nepotism and the inevitable conflicts of interest when there are minimal degrees of separation.
The small pond phenomenon can also allow people of questionable substance to rise, as big fish, to positions of disproportionate influence. This may be why country towns are as notorious for scandal and abuse of power as they are celebrated for down-to-earth, honest citizenship.
In the Geelong context, our police superintendent and Friday columnist Paul Pottage says there is no question - Geelong is already a big city.
The benefits of stature include political recognition and consequent financial support plus national (and some international) kudos. Big cities typically also offer more education and employment opportunities, sophisticated entertainment, big-league sport and a thriving arts scene.
The downsides include increased crime and traffic, parking pressures and the compromises associated with mixing retail, housing, entertainment and public spaces.
So which direction are we heading, how do we ensure we take the best of both scenarios and, critically, are we including everyone in the journey?
It certainly feels like the movement is towards big city thinking with high rises being mooted and a state-of-the-art library underway. But who is involved in the discussion? And what are the decisions based on?
There are unquestionably behind the scenes conversations going on, but do they have integrity and a sustainable long-term view? Are there big fish making short-term decisions on the community’s behalf?
To determine a successful future, we need a clear and measurable direction. That means plans that are grounded in brutal facts. Can we see recent evidence of baseline data or meaningful, objective measurement that brings our identity or regional future to the table for discussion?
As the population expands, we will naturally retain the positive cultural elements of Geelong’s country heritage – people don’t need to stop being friendly and all the ‘satellite’ townships can also remain accessible, beautiful and rich in history.
The people will continue the legacy of a proud, natural and hardworking region because that is what appeals to all of us who choose to live here.
These behaviours will provide our foundations as we raise the bar on creativity, leadership behaviour, genuine governance and sustainable development. We should embrace more scrutiny, accountability and professionalism.
If we can gently remove the chair from the face of Geelong and find out where we stand now, we can commit to an intelligent and inclusive process for developing our future.