Bleak fu­ture for growth in the bush

Broome Advertiser - - News - Tom Zaun­mayr

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.

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