From paradise of dissent to paradise of diversity

Appointed as South Australia’s adviser on international engagement last May, Sydney-based Tim Harcourt speaks to The Adelaide Review about his role and rebranding the state.

With a new South Australian brand about to be launched, Australian economist Tim Harcourt (aka The Airport Economist) thinks this is an exciting time for South Australia to have a conversation about how others perceive us and how South Australia perceives itself. “There’s been a lot of very impressive creative work and it’s great to see so many people in SA excited and wanting to make a contribution,” Harcourt says of the rebranding. “Some of the entries I have seen from people all over the state were highly original and creative. I think people will be excited about what will be unveiled. And it will be the start of a discussion on brand and how we promote ourselves internationally.” When the former Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) Chief Economist, and the current J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at the University of New South Wales, was appointed to the part time role, Premier Jay Weatherill said the state had a clouded international image. “There was a lot of talk about a name change and how South Australia is confused with South Africa etc. In many ways this was a good way to start the conversation and have people thinking about the state’s brand and image. Actually South Australia (and Western Australia) are good state names really. Funnily enough, when I say I work at the University of New South Wales, some global media outlets think I am in Cardiff, Wales (with my accent!) and a Chinese TV station once said I was from University of New South Whales (and it’s my brother who is the marine biologist!).” Harcourt, who has visited 57 countries over the last five years, thinks South Australia has a solid overseas reputation. “We are good team players. We work well with Austrade (whilst other states sometimes put their state interests internationally ahead of the national interest). I think that is ultimately a better more sustainable strategy than being parochial and going for quick wins at the country’s expense. South Australians are not natural braggers, so we hold back a bit. But I would say we could be more confident (without crossing the line into being cocky). Adelaide doesn’t have tourist icons like the Sydney Opera House or Uluru or Kakadu but we are a very civilised society with a good quality of life. There’s no way we should try and be the biggest and brashest, but we can go for high quality and good value as a livable destination for work, rest and play.” Harcourt attended Unley High School before studying at the University of Adelaide, the University of Minnesota and Harvard. While there is talk of South Australia’s brain drain, where our best and brightest move interstate or overseas, Harcourt doesn’t see this as a problem as it’s beneficial to have South Australians in high positions across the globe. Also, many expats return to Adelaide after gaining experience interstate or overseas. “Having a leading light at Oxford like Amanda Stranks, or Andrew Hough, a young scoop doing his bit in the British media, Andrew Grill, a leading entrepreneur in London, Andrew Glynn, who sets up agricultural projects in Indonesia, or Steve Baker, a major SA chef in Shanghai, builds great networks for others. Recently a young designer from Adelaide, Emma Kate Codrington, headed off to Paris and London, to seek some international experience and the Adelaide Londoners ‘Generation Expat’ have rallied around to make her welcome and help her find work. I think many of these stars will return home and they’ll bring great experience and skills with them to South Australia.” Even though Harcourt has lived and studied interstate and overseas, he always considered himself a South Australian. “I am both a statriot and a patriot. I am a proud Australian but I am also very proud of South Australia’s reformist past – votes for women, universal suffrage, conciliation and arbitration, state schools, the housing commission, Aboriginal rights, Dunstan’s social reforms, and what we have achieved more recently, particularly in economic development, education, social inclusion, creative capital and environmental issues.” And how can we bring more investment and skilled workers to South Australia? “I have always thought South Australia, which started as a ‘paradise of dissent’ could become a ‘paradise of diversity’. Migrants really make the state. Research I did shows that 50 percent of exporters and two-thirds of our entrepreneurs were born overseas. What a great talent pool to draw from! They bring international networks, create wealth, generate exports and create jobs for fellow immigrants and South Aussies alike. And the restaurants improve too – look at the amazing culinary strip by the Central Market! I also think Adelaide’s status as a University town – particularly with the number of overseas students living in the CBD – could be a source of future entrepreneurial talent.”  

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