Opinion: small towns forgotten in election campaign

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In the lead up to the next election there are no discussions around how to help the thousands of people in small towns across Australia, says WAFarmers CEO Trevor Whittington

In 1946, Australia had a population of 7.5 million. Since then another 7.5 million people have migrated into the country and, through natural growth, we have added another 11 million to reach a total population of 26 million.

Of these, 22 million mostly live in urban Australia and, increasingly, on the coastal fringe.

Of the 4 million in rural and regional Australia, i.e. those outside the major cities, a little over 1.5 million are living in Australia’s 1,614 country towns that have a population of less than 5,000.

With each new wave of migrants and each generation of Australians born here, the lure of the big cities and big regional centres grows. Today, Sydney has a population of 5.36 million, up from 1.5 million in 1945, and Melbourne 5.09 million, up from 500,000. They are like massive black holes sucking in and feeding off all around them.

In the US, they would be the second and third largest cities, sitting behind New York at 8.55 million and ahead of Los Angeles 3.97 million.

Our biggest inland regional towns – Toowoomba (132,000), Ballarat (101,000), Bendigo (103,000) Albury-Wodonga (97,000), Shepparton, (52,000), Mildura (51,000) and Tamworth (42,000) – are a fraction of the size.

There are no incentives for people to move to small towns

Australia, unlike the United States and Europe, has been far less successful at spreading its population across the landscape and despite what we have heard recently about the reverse flight away from the cities to the bush, our big cities continue to grow at the expense of the regions.

While COVID-19 has encouraged some to follow the sea changers and tree changers away from the big smoke with the allure of cheaper housing and a romantic lifestyle, at best they are but putting a toe in the water and staying near the coast or within striking distance of the big cities.

In the meantime, our capital cities are expected to keep expanding at a rate of knots with Melbourne predicted to hit 8.5m by 2050, Sydney 8.3m and even Perth 3.5m, up from its current 2.09m.

As for all those little country towns servicing the 55,000 broadacre farms across Australia, the predictions are that their 50 year downward path of decline of around one per cent annually of their population will continue each and every year.

In part this is driven by the continued aggregation of farms into bigger enterprises, which is tracking along at around 2.5 per cent a year, so that by 2050 we will have around half the number of farm businesses left as we do today.

Fewer farmers means bigger farm machinery, more automation and the reduced need for full time and casual workers.

Despite all the talk of super towns and regional hubs, the future of our smaller country towns looks bleak. In the old post-war days, it took a family to run 3,000 acres of a mixed enterprise. Today, that same family can easily run 13,000 acres and increasing numbers of families are running 13,000 hectares or more.

But we are not hearing about this radical and rapid change to our rural and regional landscape from our political elite.

Instead, in this federal election, we are getting the usual rubbish policies that talk about turbo charging the regions with the Liberals claiming they can create 450,000 jobs in regional Australia over the next five years, while Labor is promising to spend $15 billion to support projects that create well paid jobs in regional Australia.

Good luck with that if their focus is also to shut down the coal and gas mining sectors, but I digress.

None of the policies the major political parties are putting up are likely to make a difference in the future of those smaller regional farming towns.

Governments don’t create jobs, they create the opportunity for the private sector to invest in job creation and I see no sophisticated plans that will incentivise people to move to smaller towns to start small businesses.

There are no special tax rates like we have seen in Dubai to attract businesses to set up shop, no targeted incentives like Israel has used to supercharge its tech sector, no farm immigration visas targeted to bring people from the Philippines or Eastern Europe to bring their farming or mechanical skills and move permanently to regional Australia.

The Liberals took seven years to get their ag visa off the ground but it never got implemented and offered nothing more than seasonal workers.

Labor promises to kill the ag visa and double the Pacific worker numbers, but these people don’t have the skills to reprogram sprayer computers or the qualifications to repair farm machinery.

There is little reason to expect any of the political parties’ policies will help repopulate our smaller towns or even solve our farm skills problem.

Australians, and the 200,000 migrants coming here each year, don’t want to move to small towns as there is a big town down the road and the big towns are competing with the regional centres, which are competing with the big cities. Each one offers a better lifestyle, fancier sporting facilities, further education and greater health support than the other.

In this election campaign I’m not hearing any discussion on what the future is for our small regional towns.

These are the forgotten communities – those that the politicians fly over and drive past as the voters are too few to worry about.

They are the ones the state governments pencil in to close the hospital, the ones that struggle to attract and afford a doctor or pharmacy and which the telcos have low on their list for more towers or 5G communications.

These are the towns that teachers, nurses and police rotate through as fast as possible to do their time, the ones that are closing down the golf course and struggle to fill the footy team.

They are the ones with the cheap houses going in the tens of thousands and the nice modern houses at far below replacement cost. This is forgotten Australia sitting in mostly safe conservative seats that have the infrastructure to support a growing Australian population.

Maybe there is no future for them, maybe they are a relic of the horse and cart days when towns needed to be closer together and farm sizes were far smaller.

Maybe, by 2050, they will have half the population they have today, with empty houses and closed hospitals but still with farmers screaming out for more skilled workers and local businesses to service their machinery.

I would have liked in this campaign to see a discussion on the future of the 1,088 towns of less than 1,000 people across Australia that are home to 518,000 people and the 526 towns of 1,000–5,000, which are home to 613,000 people.

Do any of them have any ideas on how to fill the empty houses, how to attract young qualified Australians to start their first business or foreign workers to make a small town home?

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