BEFORE finding his niche in local government, Nils Hay had a varied career, working for a car manufacturer in Japan, in real estate and dabbling in music journalism as well as completing his degree in international relations and international business at Bond University.
Hailing from tropical north Queensland, Mr Hay's entry into local government was in 2014 at the Burke Shire Council, Burketown, as a project and human resources manager and then, in 2016, as the council's deputy chief executive.
By mid 2018, Mr Hay longed for a sea change and in an effort to further advance his career he successfully applied for the role of chief executive at the Shire of Mingenew, and decided to take a leap of faith on the opposite side of the country.
In the years since, Mr Hay has cemented his role in the local community, promoting the Mid West as a great place to visit by highlighting the region's unique wildflowers and astrotourism.
He has also been a leading figure in Mingenew's recovery since ex-Tropical Cyclone Seroja in April last year. Having recently been appointed as the Mid West Development Commission's chief executive, Mr Hay spoke to Farm Weekly journalist Bree Swift about what he hopes to achieve before and after he begins his new role on July 4.
QUESTION: Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?
ANSWER: I grew up in tropical far north Queensland, north of a place called Mossman, about half way between Port Douglas and Daintree.
I have a few step brothers and sisters, but we didn't live together growing up, so I was an only child.
My dad was a solicitor and my mum worked as an educator and in a childcare centre.
I grew up on the beach and have always loved it.
I did all of my primary and secondary schooling in Mossman, which is a small town in sugar cane country and it was a really excellent place to grow up - I had a great childhood.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
A: When I went through my dinosaur phase as a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist and then a marine biologist for a while there as well.
I had a really rubbish senior biology teacher in grade 10 and that put me off biology entirely, so I didn't pursue that, although I do enjoy scuba diving, the beach and love looking at all sorts of critters underwater.
I've spoken to a few marine biologists over the years and they certainly don't earn a lot of money and are doing the job out of pure love for science and the ocean.
Q: Can you tell me about some of your career experiences prior to working in local government?
A: If I'm honest, I probably had a bit of a meandering career path for a long time.
I did an undergraduate degree in business and international relations at university and, as a result of that, I ended up working in Japan for a couple of years for a car parts manufacturer.
I was living in Yokohama and working in Tokyo.
I studied Japanese language a little bit in high school and university and had done a couple of exchanges over there, so I already knew I liked the country.
The company I worked for was a relatively traditional Japanese company in terms of its workplace culture.
You didn't leave your desk before the boss had finished for the day, even if that meant you were just shuffling papers.
I didn't particularly enjoy that aspect, as someone who had come over from Queensland and had very different views about leisure time and how it should be used.
But I had a blast there and after a couple of years I moved back to Australia.
I went to Bond University on the Gold Coast and took a temporary job with a property developer, doing real estate sales.
It was a good time for property, so I stayed in it for about five to six years and that's where I got my first taste of management experience.
When the market started to fall apart I spent some time in a business development role for a business coaching firm on the Gold Coast.
However, around that time, I had a quarter-life crisis and felt the need for a change so I moved back up to north Queensland.
I picked up my excavator ticket and ended up doing labour hire work, working on the installation of the nbn project around Cairns and spent some time working for Biosecurity Queensland on the electric ant program.
Q: You've also been a music journalist and freelance writer - how did you get into that?
A: I had a few friends who were in bands and they wanted someone to write a review for them, which I did, and then I submitted that review to a few street rags.
Those mags then asked me if I wanted to do some freelance work, so it was a bit of a side hustle where I was getting paid in CDs and concert tickets.
Although it was the least financially rewarding, I probably enjoyed doing the journalism work the most.
I loved doing the interviews, the research and talking to some really genuinely interesting people.
I gave it up a few years ago because once I moved into local government I had less time to do it on the side.
Q: Did you play any musical instruments yourself growing up? What musical genres do you prefer?
A: I played piano and saxophone when I was younger.
I still have a piano at home which is terribly neglected so I always feel guilty when I walk past it.
It's one of those things - when you're reasonably good at something when you're younger and then you try to get back into it as an adult.
I need to tame my hands to try and get myself back there.
Being a music journalist, it really broadened my horizons in terms of musical genres.
Throughout that period I was listening to rock, pop, hip hop, jazz, classical, experimental, ambient and EDM (electronic dance) music.
It was a really beneficial experience being a music journalist because you're forced to sit down and critically analyse all different types of music, which might not be your usual cup of tea.
These days I listen to stuff from the 90s and 2000s because that's the music I grew up with.
My heart will always be with alternative Sussie rock like the Spiderbaits, Powerderfingers and Grinspoons of the world, because that was what I was listening to in my formative years.
You have nostalgia attached to songs that might not even be that great, but it's the memories and feelings that come with them that make them great.
Q: Do you have kids and what does your partner work as?
A: I don't have kids but my partner, Pippin Holmes, is a Mingenew girl and a GP in Geraldton.
She also teaches third and fourth year med students as well.
We met in 2018 at my first Mingenew Irwin Group Spring Field Day as the CEO of the Shire.
Q: What prompted your move from Queensland to Western Australia?
A: I'd been working in local government at the Shire of Burke in north west Queensland for about four years and I worked my way up to the position of deputy CEO there and was looking for my next move.
Ideally I wanted to have a crack at being a CEO and I was single at the time, so I wasn't really tied to staying in Queensland.
WA obviously is a very large State and there are a lot of local governments here, which means there are a lot of CEO jobs.
I had come to WA a few years previously to visit my half sister in Perth and I liked what I'd seen, which was mostly the South West, so I applied for the job in Mingenew.
One of the councillors took me for a bit of a drive to see Dongara and the surrounding areas and I thought, 'yeah I could live here'.
So when they offered me the job I was very happy to accept.
Q: What do you think are some ways regional areas like Mingenew can attract and retain young people?
A: The easiest way is to start with young people who are from the region.
They are more willing to go to a regional place and stay in a regional place, because that's what they grew up with and what they're comfortable with.
But that limits the available workforce and it really is a difficult question that regional Australia is grappling with, because there is a shortage of talent and young people.
Using Mingenew as an example, once the kids hit year 7, there's no high school in town, so they have to leave town for school, whether they're just going up the road to Morawa or Dongara or going to a boarding school in Perth.
So from a fairly young age they are actually conditioned to living outside of the region, and that's where their friends group will form and what they will become comfortable with, so that makes it hard to get people back into the region.
Thought needs to be given to the attraction and retention of talent.
At the end of the day, some of it will boil down to money, but that's challenging as well, as regional businesses don't always have the capacity to provide more of that.
Part of it is also promoting the regional lifestyle.
The pandemic has highlighted that a little bit, because places like Mingenew had been basically untouched by COVID for the vast majority of the past few years and life has almost gone on as normal.
There is that lifestyle and community feeling that you don't get in the city and a lot of people are lamenting being lost in society more broadly.
You need to find someone that is happy to sacrifice having everything they want at their fingertips.
It also comes down to personality, as you might be able to attract someone out to a region with a good salary, but if it's not what they're into they'll stay for a couple of years, take the money, and then probably move on.
Another way is to hitch the single people up with locals, so they form an attachment to the place.
Q: You previously worked as the Burke Shire Council deputy CEO in Queensland and you were the Shire of Mingenew's chief executive for almost four years before you were appointed as the chief executive of the Mid West Development Commission last month.
What have you most enjoyed about working in local government?
A: I feel like a turncoat saying this because I'm moving to a job in the State government but local government, as the tier of government closest to the community, can be the most impactful form of government and it's certainly the one that people most interact with in their day to day lives.
If you are playing in the park or putting out your bins - you're engaging with the local government, whether you like it or not.
Certainly in regional local government it's amplified even more because you don't have State and Federal government agencies in towns like Mingenew, so a lot of those services provide an awful lot for the community.
What is rewarding is you get that immediacy of feedback when you do things and you can also see people use things and facilities you've been involved in the planning and construction of and take some pride in that.
The flipside is you are much more exposed as it is a bit of a fishbowl environment, so you develop a thick skin as a result of that.
But the ability to do something and then see the result of that quite quickly and tangibly is really nice.
Q: Did you find many differences between how local governments operate in Queensland and WA?
A: The legislation is slightly different from State to State, but the core functions are largely similar.
In WA, for example, some local governments are largely responsible for water and sewerage, but not all of them, whereas in Queensland that often falls under the local government remit.
The way councilors are remunerated is quite different councillors.
In Queensland they're paid a lot more than councillors in WA - certainly in places like Mingenew.
It basically becomes like a community volunteer role for the huge amount of work that they take on.
But most of it is pretty similar.
Q: As most of the ratepayers in the Mid West pay a farm rate, which is a reduced ratepayer rate, councils like the Shire of Mingenew become more dependent on State government money to fund their vital infrastructure projects.
Do you think enough money is being tipped in by the State government for regions like the Mid West for its roads and infrastructure?
A: Small local governments like ours are incredibly reliant on both State and Federal money to exist and operate.
Our rates don't cover our annual budget by any stretch, it's probably about 30 per cent on a typical year.
There are operational grants you receive from the Federal government, and if you didn't get them you probably couldn't function (as a local government).
Both tiers of government are really important contributors to what we do, so there is certainly money that comes through the State government and the regional road group to help us do roadworks.
There's a number of Federal programs that provide a fair bit of support in that space as well.
But as a local government our ability to raise revenue when you've only got a small population is really limited, so in order to provide those services we are very reliant on external funding.
Q: A lack of doctors in the regions can lead to older generations relocating to towns or cities that have better healthcare facilities.
Some towns have come up with innovative solutions such as providing housing and sweeteners for healthcare professionals to keep them in their towns.
What do you think are some other viable solutions to attracting and retaining healthcare professionals in the regions so older generations can remain in their towns?
A: We only have a doctor one day a week in Mingenew and we subsidise Midwest Aero Medical.
By doing that they are able to bulk bill everyone in town, so the people can receive that service.
But it's not only doctors we need, it's nurses.
We provide a house for the Silver Chain nurse in town.
The nursing post had to be closed for a couple of weeks this year because they simply couldn't find someone.
They're going through a recruitment process at the moment, which is hopefully going to yield us a new nurse, but they've been through a period where they haven't been able to have someone in the acting position because of the labour shortage.
Part of the solution is probably also looking at making sure we are keeping pathways open and bringing lots of medical professionals into the sector, and another element is also international professionals coming in as well, which over the past two years has been incredibly difficult.
Q: You have been a Mingenew Midwest Expo board member for the past three years.
The show was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic but ran last year.
Do you have any concerns about the event being squeezed into a one day event this year?
Do you think this will only be for 2022?
A: No, the intent is to do it as a one day event this year and bring back the two-day event next year.
Unfortunately, because of COVID, the labour shortage and a range of other factors we thought this year would be more appropriate to go with the one day event.
The risk for the expo, being the small organisation it is, is if you plan the two days and only a few weeks out find you aren't able to put on the event due to COVID restrictions, and it effectively wipes out that organisation.
That wasn't a risk that the board wanted to take and obviously this was a decision made a few months ago.
I think if we had to make the decision now it might go a bit differently.
It's got a strong board and since we announced the one dayer and that we're having a more ag-focused event this year with some speaker panels and some ag tech talk, there has been really positive feedback from our exhibitors.
It's also an opportunity to trial something different.
Q: You have been a big promoter of astro tourism in the Mid West.
Do you think this feature of our regions has reached its full potential yet, or is there more work to do?
A: I nearly said the sky's the limit, but I won't be responsible for that.
There's certainly a lot more potential there.
There's the eclipse in Exmouth next April which I think will shine an even bigger spotlight on our potential.
WA as a State is fantastic and obviously I am parochial about the Mid West and the opportunities that we have here in addition to the fantastic arts.
You have things like the square kilometre array and Mingenew has a range of space industry infrastructure as well.
Obviously stargazing is one element of it, but space and science are also really important components that feed into it and work really well with astro tourism in terms of it being a gateway and education source for these industries that we have.
Q: You have been the chairman of WA's Wildflower Country for the past three and a half years.
Do you think there is also space to make this a bigger drawcard for the Mid West?
We recently had a tourism development plan workshop with Tourism WA, Australia's Coral Coast and Australia's Golden Outback talking about the destination management plan for the north Midlands area where wildflower country is situated.
I think there is a returning focus to wildflowers as one of WA's hero experiences as the borders reopen.
It is one of the few things we have that is genuinely unique.
The conversations I've had with those in the tourism sector and Tourism WA is that this is an area that will be getting increased focus.
That is fantastic, as it's obviously a big drawcard for our region and a lot of us have looked at what else can we do outside of wildflowers and wildflower season in order to give people a reason to come here.
It's important to lengthen the tourist season to keep the visitor economy going and keep businesses afloat.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in your role at the Mid West Development Commission?
A: I'm about two months from starting, so my focus at the moment is finishing off as much as I can with the Shire of Mingenew and making sure I can provide a good handover to whoever comes in, so I haven't given a massive amount of thought to the next role yet.
Obviously there are some important projects the State government has planned for the Mid West and if I can do my part to make some of these big things happen and keep the Mid West moving forward, that will be nice to be doing some things that benefit the region.
Q: Off the bat are there any changes you plan to make?
A: My role will be to push what the region requires, so I don't want to put my own stamp on it too much just yet.
Obviously during my time in Mingenew, tourism is something I've done a fair bit of work on, housing is an issue we are facing across regional Australia and certainly in Mingenew.
I know it's something that the commission is focused on.
There's a whole range of potentially huge resources and hydrogen and industrial development that could bring a lot of jobs, skills and population to the region as well.
Q: What achievement are you most proud of professionally?
A: I'm really happy with how we managed to get through the first 12 months after Ex-Tropical Cyclone Seroja - that was really a case of getting thrown right in the deep end and I think Mingenew swam.
I'm proud of the way I managed to help steer the Shire, as an organisation, and the community, as much as I could, through that.
But obviously that's hardly a solo effort - I have a great team around me and the community was also incredibly supportive as were my councillors.
Looking back to where we were 12 months ago compared to where we are now I think we've done pretty well.
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
A: I like diving and I want to do a lot more swimming and get to the coast.
I do a little bit of photography as well, stargazing and a bit of Netflix.
The two places I like to find myself are out in the night sky or the ocean.
Q: What is your next goal?
A: I want to hand over the Shire in the best possible shape I can to the next person.
I never planned to work in local government and not many people do.
But it's a really diverse sector and a really rewarding career path and I'm sad that I didn't discover it sooner.
It doesn't do a very good job of promoting itself either, but if you're in marketing or an accountant or a gardener or into IT - you name a profession, there is probably some sort of role or connection to local government and a job that exists there in the sector.
We are often overlooked as a place where you can build a very rewarding career and do a job that is professionally rewarding and has a really positive benefit to the community.
I think there should be more of a plug, for not only the work that local government does, but the opportunities that exist in local government for people who are thinking about the next step in their careers.
One of the best jobs in local government is now being advertised and that's the CEO role at the Shire of Mingenew.
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