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New book explores tensions between locals and outsiders


Sharlene King
11 May 2011
While residents of Lismore on the New South Wales north coast were shocked by the grisly murder of German backpacker Simone Strobel in 2005, some locals were equally upset at calls to erect a monument in her honour.

Southern Cross University lecturer Dr Rob Garbutt explores this issue and others in his new book The Locals: Identity, place and belonging in Australia and beyond.

Dr Garbutt said letters to the editor in the Northern Star newspaper at the time reflected community sentiment.

“A lot of the comments were along the lines of there have been local women murdered so why aren’t there monuments to locals? We should have that, they were saying, before we put up a monument to an outsider.”

His book presents the first comprehensive survey of being a local in Australia, with a particular focus on the North Coast, blending an analysis of regional print media with autobiographical accounts by the author, himself a Lismore ‘local’.

Dr Garbutt was born and raised in the Northern Rivers, then headed to Sydney in his twenties before eventually returning to his hometown.

“After a long time away I picked up a copy of the Northern Star and noticed how locals seemed to be calling the shots and that media often used the term ‘local’ in headlines and articles.”

Through his research Dr Garbutt concluded that identifying as a ‘local’ provided a crucial insight into power relations as people strived to make places important to their identity.

“It’s not in the front of people’s minds all the time but when pushed locals draw a boundary and say, this is our place and we decide what happens here. That’s what unfolded during the Cronulla riots back in December 2005 when locals came out in their thousands to reclaim the beach.”

Similarly, the construction of a sporting complex at Lismore’s Trinity Catholic College caused angst when the contract went to a Queensland company.

“Locals were asking, why aren’t the contracts being given to us? Locals first, that was the thing.”

The Locals also explores the place of Indigenous Australians in the local politics of identity.

Locals remain wary of newcomers, Dr Garbutt said, creating a kind of tension.

“There’s the whole idea of labeling people as being just a blow-in so they have no right to be saying whether, for example, there should be a marine park at Byron Bay. In fact locals were adamant there was no need for a marine park since they’d been looking after the place for so long.”
But when and how do you become a local?

“In some communities it can take 20 or 30 years to earn the right. Others say you’ll never be a local unless you were born here or your parents were born here. But then there are other factors as well, like how well you fit into your community, being a bit outlandish, or whether you’re Indigenous, which is pretty ironic.

“In the end, I think that if the place where you live is important to you, and you care for it and involve yourself in it, then you can claim the tag of local. Generally people want a place to belong, and as most people in Australia were blow-ins at some stage in their family history, it’s wise not to get too exclusive about it.”

Photo: Dr Rob Garbutt with a copy of his new book, The Locals. Media opportunity: Thursday, May 12, at 4 pm. Lismore Mayor Cr Jenny Dowell will launch the book at the Co-op Bookshop, SCU Lismore Campus.