Regionalising Australia – An Achievable Goal

As anyone who read my Monday blog about Canowindra would know, I had a great time there as an escape as well as being a culturally awakened experience.  We are definitely going there again.  It was also very encouraging that people from the community responded so warmly to my post, both on here and through Twitter.

Since my return, I have ground my way back into urban life, managing the great trick of driving through semi rural areas of Sydney to get to a workplace that is just at the edge of an urban sprawl nightmare.   There is no way I could work closer to Sydney, as my profession really does require a car and the M4 is murder.  It was with interest, therefore, I read Ray Dixon’s blog written in response to an article by the IPA’s Chris Berg, published on The Drum about the Federal Government’s policy encouraging people to move to regional areas.

The concept of governments encouraging people to go to regional centres is not new. There were old schemes designed to use Albury/Wodonga, Bathurst and other places more attractive for city based people, as well as moving government department officers to those regional centres.  And now, faced with very real problems of urban sprawl and poor infrastructure, the Federal Government is again looking to the rural areas for a pressure valve.

And there is a desperate need for a pressure valve.  Berg, in his article makes a comment that

“Trains and trams seem packed. Infrastructure has not kept up with demand – or, if it has, no voters seem to believe it”.

There’s no “seems” about it.  Infrastructure hasn’t kept up with demand.  Favouring the private car over the public train has been transport infrastructure policy, at least in Sydney, since after World War Two.  This is why very few new train lines have been built in that time, whilst a proliferation of motorways have sprung up, choking up at a faster rate than even the most pessimistic traffic projections.  The M4 past the Lighthorse Interchange is a horrible nightmare from after 6am pretty much every morning.  Not seems at all. The other difficulty is that suburbs have been built around these motorways, rather than around train lines.  I would invite Mr. Berg to come out to Glenmore Park, a suburb built in the 1990s, to see just what a problem private vehicle-biased urban planning has caused.  And that’s 60 kilometres from the centre of Sydney – right at the edge of the Sydney Basin.  Sydney, for most intents and purposes, is almost built out.

Therefore we return to the idea of encouraging people to move to regional centres.  To develop employment, cultural and social hubs for people to move to, in order to help them start out in life.  This is not baby boomers “tree changing” that I am talking about – I am talking about people starting out in life.

When I was in my 20s, I hated Sydney and its sprawl and wanted to start out afresh.  So, I went to Wagga Wagga.  There are plenty of employment opportunities in a range of industries and professions there, as well as a population of 65,000.  And in my profession, teaching, the salary is the same there as it is anywhere.  Thanks be to awards.  Rent was much cheaper in Wagga in Sydney, as were houses.  The sums, really, are obvious.

But life in Wagga was hard, I will admit – there is, as Berg points out, “conservatism”, “narrow-mindedness” and “lack of ethnic diversity” present in the city.  Curious enough, that was mostly restricted to my work colleagues, not people in Wagga on the whole.  And, as I found out later, those kind of negatives was mainly restricted to my workplace – it wasn’t in all the schools in the district.  All I really needed to do in order to feel more comfortable in the area was make a bit more of an effort to find different interests to pursue.  Perhaps the people Berg selective quotes from in his article could have tried harder to find a niche.

However, there was one major barrier to enjoying an extended life there, which was a lack of doctors in the town – which was an issue for us, with a new child.  Only new patients could be added to the waiting list of a GP – you weren’t allowed to switch.  But this isn’t the fault of the town, it is the fault of doctors, who don’t seem to mind setting up practices in cities where they compete for patients.   Whenever I see a GP set up a new shingle and pay for advertising in a city area, I just think of the great people of Wagga not having the choice of doctor.   I think new doctors should be, like teachers in olden times, made to start their careers as members of the GP practice in a rural centre, as to make such medical services available.

Ironically, any new doctor in a rural town is treated like a crown prince by the townspeople – they are treasured and appreciated.  I’m not sure doctors in medical centres would feel the same level of acceptance and affirmation.  The same goes for country teachers.

But, the question remains, why do professionals gravitate to major cities instead of these rural places.  I think it’s partially down to perceptions, not realities.  These perceptions are neatly summarised in a number of quotes from Berg:

“After all, an urban population is a richer population”

“City dwellers aren’t only richer – they’re happier too”

“Successful cities, Glaeser uncontroversially says, are those which attract smart and creative people, and allow those people to interact in close proximity to each other”.

Firstly, the inference there is that money is what drives people’s happiness – to be prosperous is paramount to the Berg and Glaeser thesis.  This is a fairly narrow definition of “rich”.  The concept of “happier” is also curious, in that it’s a large generalisation to say all people in cities are happier than all people in rural areas.  Whilst Berg peppers his article with “to each their own”, it is clear that he believes that city people really are happier than those in rural areas, partially because they are economically prosperous. This discounts any possibility that rural areas have lower pollution, which relates to physical happiness as well as provides a number of pathways to happiness that cannot be equated to economic prosperity.

And then there is the last point, which seems to infer (probably accidentally, to be fair) that rural areas don’t attract smart and creative people. Berg does not make the attempt at any time in his article to talk about regional universities, cultural clubs and the like in rural areas.  This is a particularly galling point, because most regional centres have a great heritage of having smart and creative people as a part of their communities.

One thing I found in Canowindra this past weekend is an emerging cultural community that has grown into a long lasting, viable group.  We visited two art gallery spaces and talked to people who were spoke of a long tradition of community theatre groups.  The winemaker we spoke to was very up to date with contemporary issues and it is the case that locals are technologically savvy and engaged with the opportunities afforded by the internet.  40 minutes away is Orange, which has a network of great restaurants, a university campus and music school.  Classical music.  So, the idea that people in rural areas can’t engage with a wider cultural milieu and are instead stuck in some kind of cultural backwoods is fallacious.

For my own time in Wagga, I was more culturally engaged than I have been in my more recent urban life.  I simply don’t have the time here and cultural groupings are more scattered and find it hard to connect.  In contrast, I wrote and acted in a play in Wagga Wagga.  I can’t see that happening anywhere near as easily in an urban centre.

We then come to another part of Berg’s thesis, which is based on an unlinked article from the Sunday Age in 2009 –

“A report in the Sunday Age in 2009 found a substantial proportion of people moving to quieter parts of the country regretted it – 90 per cent planned to leave within the next five years”.

“As one academic said at the time, “People bought the dream about the idealistic country life, then they moved there and were confronted by the reality: poor health care, poor road quality, fewer work opportunities, expensive food, lack of entertainment, obesity, lack of ethnic diversity, difficulty making friends, conservatism and narrow-mindedness. They expected to find an enjoyable life with less work and less traffic. But they found a lack of stability, lower pay and longer commutes.”

The thesis here is that rural areas are unattractive places to live and people from the cities want to run screaming back to the cities. However, one survey about which we don’t know the terms of reference and provenance in addition to one unnamed academic, who may or may not have been a sociologist or cultural historian, really cannot form the basis of a solid criticism of lifestyles in rural communities.  It has the same weight as my recently gathered anecdotal evidence that there are many great, unclogged rural roads, great quality and value food, good work opportunities, excellent entertainment and the like in Canowindra and Orange.  And much shorter commutes. The point here is that any well rounded response to the Federal Government’s plans for regionalising needs more support than just one article from a Melbourne newspaper. It would be just as absurd to base a Federal Government policy on one of my blogs.

Finally, this is not to say that the future of the nation is to have people from Sydney being relocated to Canowindra.  Not all regional centres have its advantages, for sure.  It’s also not for everyone. However, what is needed from the Federal Government is a systematic plan for making a regionalisation work.  The solution cannot be just throwing money at people so they’ll move.  I suspect that is an area on which Mr. Berg and I would agree.  I believe, though, that any regionalisation plan must focus on getting the services right first, such as hospitals, doctors, schools and the like as well as following through with the NBN promise.  There seems to be a cynicism amongst many rural communities about the actual delivery of the NBN – it promises much, but it will be hard to deliver.

A successful regionalisation program is also a matter of creating the right atmosphere for new people to arrive – culturally, socially and economically.  That way, the stereotypical experiences and attitudes experienced by the people referred to in the Sunday Age article are not repeated across the country.  That is why communities should be involved in such a regional program – have a Community Welcoming Committee, showing new arrivals what opportunities are available in the various facets of a community’s life.

But I think it would be great for Australia to stop clinging to our overcrowded major cities.  I think we in the urban areas need to see regional centres as more than holiday destinations and as a viable way for Australia to grow.

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2 thoughts on “Regionalising Australia – An Achievable Goal

  1. Preston has a couple of good points, one important thing to take note of is that the state government needs to be aware of what is over the great divide (there is a larger percentage of the state here), the infrastructure that has gone on between Newcastle and the South Coast is impressive, the state government has spent more % wise than the rest of the state, yet not all of the state live between those areas.
    The state government needs to increase the spending outside of the major metro regions to increase the flux away from the already strained infrastructure of the major metro areas, the cost of living is less in the rural sector but the support is less too.

  2. A large percentage of one’s happiness, I believe, is whether or not you find a bunch of similar-minded folk to fit in with, ie., you find ‘your tribe’. If perhaps you are more of a fringe dweller than a main stream person, finding other people of your ‘tribe’ will be, be harder because – by definition – there will always be less of them present than ‘mainstream’ folk.

    In a city with a large population, this isn’t so much of a problem. There will be enough people of ‘your tribe’ to make a viable social network for yourself if you know how to seek them out.

    But a small town? The odds get increasingly small that there will be a thriving community of your own type of ‘fringe dwellers’ there as the town gets smaller. And small towns don’t benefit from the economies of scale as cities do – any activity, any community group, and *organisation* has to be able to get enough numbers to keep itself viable, and that – when the numbers are limited – means making decisions about how to appeal to the majority of punters. They cannot afford to cater to the odd few percent in their town who may desire non-mainstream entertainment, organisations, facilities etc etc that a large city can do.

    The people who grow up in those towns aren’t usually aware of what they are missing out on until they live for some time in a big city, so for the most part the ‘locals’ are happy as they are. But city folk – who have grown up taking the availability of more ‘niche’ activities for granted – will notice their absence very quickly in a small town. Moving to a small town from a city is particularly hard on those who make the most use of such ‘niche’ activities, those who aren’t into the Pub & RSL scene, who aren’t fond of sport and the other mainstream activities that a small town /can/ support. A city dweller, particularly one wo is more ‘fringe’ than ‘mainstream’ will quickly feel that they don’t fit in, indeed *can’t* fit in, and will long for a place where their interests and social needs are better catered to.

    Its not the fault of small towns. From my experiences, small towns – for their size – are even more diverse – per capita – than cities. Small towns make the extra effort to seek out diversity, to bring it in, to welcome and encourage different organisations, businesses and different recreational activities so their community can experience as much as possible compared to ‘the city’. But its simply economics of scale. To a city, catering for 1% of the population still means catering to thousands of people. To a small town, that might mean that out of everyone there, only one person will ever show up to the shop, the club, the gallery, the show. Odds are, that one person will either return to – or migrate to – the city.

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