Bleak future for growth in the bush
The romance of the outback is close to every Australian’s heart.
So why is it so hard to convince Australians to pick up their lives and move to regional WA? And why can’t we keep those with country roots in the places they grew up?
The latest population estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics paint a bleak picture for the bush.
Rural decline is nothing new for farming communities but the problem is creeping into our once booming mining and coastal towns.
Outer suburbs in the big smoke are growing rapidly but of 110 regional areas, 72 were in decline in 2016-17, and 18 grew slower than the metro area.
Of the 20 regional local government areas to outperform Perth, five are on the urban fringe.
Removing the nine major population centres from the equation, outback WA has had a net loss of residents for each of the past five years.
End of the line
About 60km from Mount Magnet, the Mid West town of Sandstone is the centre of the least populated local government in WA. As of June, 2017, just 85 residents live in the area, and 26 residents have left since 2014.
At this rate, it will be a ghost town around the time of its 125th anniversary in 2030.
Donna Bennett and her partner bought the National Hotel in Sandstone seven years ago to save it from being boarded up.
“We have put our heart and soul into this pub, I don’t want to see it become a ghost town, another Gwalia,” she said.
Mrs Bennett said resettling refugees in town and reopening the school would provide an instant shot in the arm to Sandstone.
“Let’s integrate them into smaller community and open our arms to them,” she said.
Sea-change slow down
Margaret River’s Lindsay sisters have grown up in an area of regional WA bucking the trend.
Augusta-Margaret River is booming.
Amy Lindsay loved growing up in Margs and seeing the region flourish. Now though, she says it is time to leave.
“I moved away about six years ago to Queensland and came back last December not planning on staying for long,” she said.
“There is not a lot to do for people my age so I am heading up to Perth for more work and study opportunities.
Amy’s sister Sarah also left Margaret River to study, but has returned and is loving life back home.
“If you leave you appreciate where you are from,” she said,
Rust on the iron throne
The Pilbara’s population problem is well documented. The construction boom led to a huge influx of workers and towns weren’t ready, forcing the price of everything through the roof.
The State Government responded, undertaking a billion-dollar transformation of Karratha, Port Hedland and Newman.
By the time infrastructure projects to accommodate this growth took shape, however, it was too late. The price of iron ore and LNG tanked and within months thousands of workers left.
Karratha has become a modern regional city, but the once-in-a-lifetime boom delivered only 2000 extra residents over 10 years.
The City has stalled around 22,000 and population in the Pilbara’s two other major towns is falling. Fly-in, fly-out workforces are a problem, but the isolation and image of the Pilbara is the biggest challenge. Despite plenty of wellpaid jobs on offer, people do not want to move to the region.
Born and bred Pilbarian Geoffrey Ellis is one of many residents who says the image problem has no basis in reality.
“Here in Wickham there is a sense of community, there are more clubs opening up,” he said.
Made in Merredin
One farming community bucking the trend is Merredin. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s the Wheatbelt hub was going the same way as most surrounding towns.
In recent years, however, something has changed. Merredin is growing. It is slow growth, but it is steady growth. Merredin product Emily Alberti was part of the youth exodus, having left for the big smoke as a 19-year-old in 2010.
“I thought I would give Perth a go and see what the fuss was about,” she said.
Ms Alberti moved back to Merredin two years ago to work at the wheat bins after finding the city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Ms Alberti attributes the growth to a renewed pride of place and says more people born in town are staying.