As the 1990s came to an end, regional economies and communities were confronting momentous changes. Global trends and domestic policy decisions have had a significant impact on sustainable regional development in Australia. The globalisation of trade and economic activity is increasingly testing their ability to adapt and achieve a competitive edge. Furthermore, in the last decade a dominant neoliberal policy agenda has been a driving factor. This has been manifested by fiscal restraint by government; minimising public expenditure; increased use of so-called market forces rather than government intervention to drive change; and devolution of responsibilities and functions from governments to the private and community sectors. The Australian Federal Government has suggested that, in the search for sustainability, greater reliance should be placed upon local populations to become more self-determining; to take responsibility for both economic development and natural resource management, and to manage their affairs within locally determined, yet globally responsive, community based decision-making frameworks. Commonwealth and State governments have tended to advocate a ‘self help’ approach to rural economic development and viable rural enterprises are considered the key to arresting rural decline.
The Progress Rural WA programs aimed to widen community leadership and were designed to encourage participants to be transformational leaders; to empower those around them and support them in the process of change. Each of the Progress Rural WA programs emphasised peopleoriented leadership characterised by relationship building. Such relationships develop according to Burns (1978), where there is “mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders” (p. 127). Furthermore, women and their attributes as leaders have been encouraged in all of the leadership programs developed through Progress Rural WA, but most particularly in the Rural Women in Leadership program.
The Progress Rural WA programs enabled participants whose commitment to their communities and industries is clear, to visualise and work towards achieving networks and leadership strategies that would enable them and those around them to have some control over the change process in a collegial and collaborative environment. The courses aimed to give them specific leadership tools and knowledge that could be used to initiate and drive community social and economic development. The community outcomes have surprised and delighted the participants, their neighbours and government. At the same time, there is evidence to show that the new businesses have been developed and established businesses revamped to take advantage of previously unforeseen business opportunities. Overall, there has been a greater sense of ownership of community outcomes and commitment to a regional future.