Facing our population decline crisis

Facing our population decline crisis


Opinion
Rural councils with declining rate bases are struggling to maintain their extensive road networks.

Rural councils with declining rate bases are struggling to maintain their extensive road networks.

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Opinion: Recently released statistics show rural Australia is gradually dying - what can be done to arrest the population slide?

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Opinion | The Gauge 

NEW data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is a stark reminder of the challenges we, as rural Australians, face in coming decades.

While government departments will glibly reel off positive population stats, tweaked by including regional honeypots such as Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria or Orange and Bathurst in NSW, the figures for rural and remote areas are far less rosy.

As you would expect, the drought is biting hard.

The Gunnedah region, located smack bang in the middle of what is usually one of the country's blue ribbon cropping districts, the Liverpool Plains, has lost over 10 per cent of its population in the 2012-2018 period, while Walgett - Lightning Ridge is down 9.6pc.

But it is not just the drought that is causing people to leave rural Australia.

The Wimmera has had a reasonable run in terms of seasons but it has not been immune to the exodus, with a small increase in population for the regional centre of Horsham not compensating for declines in neighbouring municipalities.

It is a potentially disastrous recipe for small municipalities already suffering from a low rate base and the burden of maintaining an extensive road network.

There are talks of further local government amalgamations but this is not a popular option as it will either lead to unwieldy supersized municipalities with the same problems as the old shires on a grander scale or a takeover from the nearest regional centre, with the residents of the smaller areas feeling neglected.

Across Australia small communities are locked in a battle for their ongoing sustainability - and if our way of life is continue we'll have to come up with a solution ourselves.

Already, city-based social commentators are placing the rejuvenation of rural and remote communities in the too hard basket and are advocating that the best approach is to simply smooth the dying pillow while small towns gradually fade away.

What can be done to prove these naysayers wrong?

Firstly we must look at just what is it that is causing people to leave and what can be done to arrest the decline.

There are the obvious factors at play, such as the increased size of farms and young people departing to go to university or for work opportunities but what else is at play?

Job opportunities exist, there is a wonderful quality of life, with a two minute commute to work, yet people are still leaving, often to gridlocked capital cities where you can easily spend 10 hours of your week in the car.

There are success stories in terms of rural migration, such as the Karen community that has made the Wimmera town of Nhill their home but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Decentralisation of government services is a wonderful concept, but it tends to benefit the large regional centres, rather than rural towns, and the infrastructure required to host a large employer is frequently not there in small towns.

Instead, a large part of the solution has to come from us working better to get people into our communities.

Rural people aren't prone to bragging as a rule, but perhaps we need to sell the advantages of our communities better and demonstrate the lifestyle benefits of rural life.

Frequently people who have moved away from the area will return to raise a family, but perhaps targeting people in the outer suburbs tired of the daily grind would work.

Although telecommunications are not perfect by a long stretch in general they are sufficient to allow us to work remotely so theoretically there should be more opportunities than ever before, there is cheap housing and a community spirit that is all too rare in the cities.

Once we get people to our wonderful regions they often stay for life, the hard part is attracting them in the first place.

In the meantime, the small stuff matters.

Whether that means supporting your local rural merchandise store even if it is a couple of dollars more expensive or not buying your clothes online, even though there is a greater range than the store in town, it all has a flow on impact on the community.

Lobbying hard to ensure the profits from our labours stay local is also critical.

Too often we see mines comes and go, with massive profit margins yet other than a renovation of the footy club rooms or a new playground the benefits are largely unseen in the immediate area.

In agriculture value-adding packers and processors have been a boon in small towns and replace some of those farming jobs that have gone with increased mechanisation, so supporting these businesses is also valuable.

There are problems, we have poor healthcare, our public transport is virtually non-existent and there are services we miss out on - but the positives far outweight the negatives.

We have a great story to tell, and it is imperative that we tell it now - before our towns are no more than a memory.

The story Facing our population decline crisis first appeared on Farm Online.

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