Directing the drift

Rhett Kleine

As I stand, peering out over Brisbane from the lookout at Mt Cootha, I ponder while gazing at the all the buildings, roads and other monotone infrastructures as if I was David Attenborough viewing humanity as a colony of ants.

How might he describe the way we congregate in one area?

Would he marvel at the way we utilise resources from the world around us to build our metropolis?

“Brisbane from Mt Cootha-02+” by Sheba_Also 17.5 Mil + views is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I think it’s more realistic that he would stand in horror, understanding just how much we’ve exploited and devastated the natural world around our cold, senseless hive.

Don’t stop reading in fear of finding this article another berating humanity on its trajectory towards ecological destruction.

No, because where my thought takes me next is back to school.

The deep, crackly, northern-English accent of my Geography teacher soon fills the caverns and halls of my mind as I recall a term.

“Rural to urban drift.”

While being somewhat self-explanatory, let me elaborate.

Rural to urban drift is the movement of populations away from rural areas towards more centralised urban towns and cities.

This can happen for a plethora of reasons.

Margaret Alstom, a researcher into rural poverty and disadvantage attributes this to two main causes.

“Traditionally the shift has occurred due to not only work moving into cities but due to educational opportunities in major cities becoming more accessible.”

Mechanized agriculture also leaves farmhands without work.

Alongside the buying up of properties by the larger or more profitable farms.

This has led to many farming families moving to larger towns or cities.

“Outback Highways NT” by RonBentt is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

These cities, generally economic centres, gradually offered up more and more jobs than the slowing shrinking rural towns.

So, a gradual drift from rural to urban centres occurs.

This drift, as its transpired, has led to a rapid decline, socially and economically in rural Australia. 

On average rural Australians live shorter lives than those who reside in major towns or cities.

This, in part, is down to a lack of medical services.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 3 in 5 Australians in remote/very remote areas reported they didn’t see a specialist due to there not being any nearby.

As the population moves away, so does the support industry.

With no one to support, and subsequently no work to be found, medical practitioners are reluctant to seek work outside of major towns and cities.

The issue has been that people need to work to make money.

Work, mostly located in the urban centres, has left ageing and largely unemployed rural populations without support, career prospects and disadvantages that has even begun to seep down into education.

With some rural public schools receiving less annual funding than the yearly fees for a single student at some boarding schools.

Mining and gas have weaved their way in, bringing money and jobs.

But the permanency of the economic boosts these industries have brought is far from the answer rural Australia needs.

Cameron Anderson, whose family runs a cattle station up in Clermont, North Queensland, noted how the movement of the mines and money they bring can be seen in the Central Highlands Rugby Union competition.

“Wherever the mines are, the closest rugby team will usually win the premiership for a few years while they’re around.”

Mines, and the work they bring to towns such as Clermont, are finite.

A lifeline, but not an answer.

Rural Australia is undoubtedly in a freefall.

As jobs move further into the city with the migrating population, and no incentive to bring people back to the outback.

It seemed for a while that soon all that would be left of the quintessential Aussie outback, would be the ballads and songs of Slim Dusty, John Williamson and others of those Akubra-donning, RM wearing ilk.

Until now…

In March of 2020, Australia went into lockdown to stem the spread of the Novel Coronavirus, “Covid-19.”

This meant that everyone, aside from essential workers such as nurses, emergency services, grocery store attendants etc, had to stay home.

People were only able to go out to shop for essential items, seek medical aid or to see close family.

What this meant was workplaces had to be shifted online.

People couldn’t be near each other, but still had to be in contact to do their jobs.

So, platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams became the new office spaces.

“Working from home” by Roubicek is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 40% of employees were already working from home to some capacity.

With offices, and other workplaces leaving workers vulnerable to Covid-19, what we have seen is an unprecedented shift in the way we work.

Changing the status quo of the workplace within a matter of weeks.

While on the other side of the coin, for many this lockdown has resulted in a loss of jobs and economic hardship.

But, as we begin to glimpse the other side of the pandemic, we need to be looking towards the future, and what we can improve as we move forward.

The ABC has reported that almost half of Australia’s workforce worked from home during the lockdown.

Businesses where they could, adjusted to the world apart.

This has the potential to entirely shift the paradigm causing rural to urban drift.

With many businesses not only adapting but also seeing the benefits of remote workforces.

Remote work in remote places

We now have the potential to revitalise rural Australia.

Experts are already promising that Covid-19 won’t be the last pandemic of its kind.

In which case it is absolutely in the nation’s interest to start dispersing the population.

But, if we begin to incentivise moves outwards into rural Australia, there is a plethora of benefits we might reap from such a scheme.

The obvious benefit is that of the economic nature.

If people move more rurally, while working online, they will need services and businesses they once had in the city: restaurants, specialists, entertainment, utilities.

All of which will come from the community where they have relocated.

Bringing peripheral jobs back into rural communities which at the moment are in severe decline.

“Chillagoe. The historic pub in this old former copper mining and smelting town on the western fringe of the Atherton Tablelands.” by denisbin is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

If another global pandemic like Covid-19 is to cut a swathe through the normality of everyday life again, what we will need, and what we were, at times, lacking was a greater sense of community.

A majority of Australia’s population, living in major cities, have lost the connection once held in the small towns and sleepy suburbs of 20th century Australia.

As the population has shifted toward urban centres, community connection has been oversaturated.

There are too few local grocers, community sports clubs, bars with regular patrons for communities to form like they used to.

The population is saturated, despite this there were numerous accounts of people helping out their neighbours.

Although it is not unfathomable that many people, especially the more elderly of our population suffered alone during lockdown.

If rural communities were to grow and urban centres to disperse, we would undoubtedly find ourselves much better equipped to handle another pandemic, at least in a communal sense.

Communities would be there to support one another.

Not only this, but with less people living in dense, urban sprawl, the risk of infection would be much lower, making the curve much easier to flatten.

Drifting takes time

It’s all well and good writing about all these benefits, but the problem is that they are benefits that will build over time.

With rural Australia in such a desolate state, how can we incentivise people to move outward?

The deepening recession, one that will rest uneasily on the shoulders of many young Australians, may just provide such an incentive.

With house prices in Australia, notably Sydney and Melbourne, being among some of the most expensive in the world, the dream of owning a home is one already wrought with doubts and apprehensions.

The ABC has recently reported that national home ownership levels have dropped by 5% in the last 20 years to only 65%.

It is in this we see fertile soil for growth in rural Australia.

All the seeds need now is water.

The pandemic has unleashed a torrent of it.

The economic fallout will taint the hopes and aspirations of Australians for generations.

This flood is unavoidable.

But to take from the wisdom of water, when faced with adversity, sometimes the only safe bet is to go with the flow, rather than stand in opposition.

If the Government can incentivise individuals and businesses to work remotely by relocating to rural towns, we might just be able to channel this flood into something our nation desperately needs.

Margaret Alstom, the academic I cited earlier in this article, also noted as to the huge capabilities for growth and ingenuity in rural Australia.

Tourism represents a potential growth area, particularly when overseas travel is off the cards for the foreseeable future.

It’s Australian tourism that now needs to be cultivated.

The outback needs a lifeline

Hemmed in by drought, reeling from a savage bushfire season, and all the while facing a general socio-economic decline, rural communities are struggling.

These unprecedented times and how we react to them could just be a lifeline for Australia’s rural communities.

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