Successive governments have poured billions of dollars into efforts to improve access to basic services for regional Australians but a new report questions whether that money has reached the towns that need it most.
The Pillars of Communities report compiles 30 years of data to reveal the level of access to professionals working in 10 basic services, such as health and education, in towns with populations between 200 and 5000.
While there were signs of progress in some areas, a report card produced alongside Pillars of Communities gave an ‘F’ grade for access to psychologists, dentists and preschool teachers.
The report was produced by the Regional Australia Institute and chief executive Jack Archer said accessibility problems corresponded with high mental health issues, poor dental health outcomes and early development problems in small and remote towns.
“A big part of the reason why we’re not solving these problems is that we just don't have the people in these communities to make it happen,” he said.
Between 1981 and 2011, the percentage of small towns with a preschool teacher dropped from 25 to 16 per cent, while dentists dropped from 9 to 5 per cent.
The percentage of remote towns with psychiatrists dropped from 24 to 11 per cent in the same period, however, small towns overall saw an increase from 1 to 6 per cent.
Pillars of Communities also revealed a greater proportion of Australians (8.5 per cent) lived in small towns in 2011 compared to 1981 and Mr Archer said a key takeaway was the gap wasn’t being closed.
“We’re still got big gaps in the availability of those basic service providers. What we’re also seeing is that inner regional areas are growing much faster than the rural and remote areas where we have really poor health and education outcomes,” he said.
Pillars of Communities hit home for North Burnett Regional Council deputy mayor Faye Whelan, who said the remote towns in her Queensland municipality faced some of the issues identified in the report.
“I’m saddened to think there’s other areas of Australia in the same boat as us,” she said.
Mrs Whelan has spent her whole life in rural areas and while she’s witnessed a decline in basic services, she said better government incentives could attract more professionals.
“I’ve seen instances where professionals have come for 12 months and they’ve realised it’s a much better lifestyle to bring up children and have stayed,” she said.
The latest Commonwealth budget allocated $2 billion over four years for workforce and incentive programs to increase the numbers of health delivery professionals in rural and remote areas.
But government initiatives don’t always recognise the unique challenges faced by individual communities as is the case for Moore Park Beach east of the North Burnett council district.
Local pharmacist Adam Harradine said the town had difficulty attracting general practitioners but a District Workforce Shortage classification would make it easier for doctors who’ve trained overseas to set up a practice.
But Moore Park Beach can’t get that classification because it's too close to the regional city of Bundaberg.
Mr Harradine said Bundaberg was only 20 minutes away but the only road there is prone to flooding and recently cut off Moore Park Beach for two days.
“There’s no GP and one road in and out that floods. That isn’t a great thing for a 70-year-old to drive,” he said.