Australia is the sixth largest country in the world. It is roughly the same size as continental USA. But it is home to fewer than 25 million people. And if you look at where those people live, Australians are clustered in an arc of urban areas on the coastline, stretching from Adelaide in the South East through to Brisbane on the central East coast. (There is also Perth, the most isolated city in the world, stuck out by itself on the West coast gazing toward Africa.) Of course, there are some truly beautiful beaches and harbours in Australia, so it makes sense that many people would want to live on the Asutralian coast. And then the interior of Australia is largely made up of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, red shrubby desert and burning forests. So there are some good reasons to stick close to the shoreline. (And just ignore the sharks and jellyfish in the sea – seriously, what is wrong with the wildlife in Australia? Even the platypus is poisonous!)
About 29 per cent of Australians live in rural and remote areas – areas outside of the major cities. The vast majority of the Australian landmass is designated as “very remote” and has very few people living in it. The cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide (with a combined population of about 15.2 million) take up about one-tenth of one per cent of the total area of Australia. In short, most Australians live in a very small amount of Australia’s real estate. And that trend is true of new Australians too. Writing in the Guardian, the president of the National Farmers’ Federation, Fiona Simson notes that 79 per cent of Australia’s population growth between 2017-2018 has occurred in state capitals.
And this is not really surprising – the jobs, infrastructure, cell and internet coverage, healthcare and public transport are all generally much better in larger urban areas. However, many in the big cities complain of wasting their lives sitting in traffic jams, worry about the frenetic pace of life that consumes them and fret at the large proportion of their income that is devoted to the mortgage or rent. A slower pace of life, having more time to spend with the family, being nearer to nature with room for the kids to run around outside and where you know your local community – these are all compelling reasons to want to leave the big smoke behind and to relocate to a rural or regional area. And spreading the population out of the big cities a bit would ease pressure on infrastructure in those places and reduce the demand pushing up house prices and rental rates.
But how do people make that move when the jobs and infrastructure aren’t there? How do you ensure that the drop in living standards that comes with a move from Sydney to the bush does not come with a dramatic drop in living standards (or at least does not seem to require such a drop)? Simson advocates for an ambitious goal for Australia for the next decade: doubling the population of regional Australia by 2030. She argues that Australia should focus on the inland, the north and the west of the country and that big business, IT and other services should be encouraged (by all three levels of government) to move to, or to establish in, regional areas. Fiscal incentives, for example, decreased tax rate on individuals or companies living and operating a certain distance away from the capital cities, should be considered. And in these days of low interest rates, the time is right to invest in the regions, especially in high-speed, reliable internet so that business can actually occur outside of the major cities. Simson argues that Australia should:
“… pinpoint hubs for focused agricultural production, infrastructure pathways to connect them and the businesses and services needed to support the development.
The growth of these industries, regions or zones would be supported by a hub and spoke model, which will see small towns, villages and whole geographical regions thrive, rather than just regional cities.”
I have often thought of leaving the big city and moving somewhere quieter (I grew up in a small town of 6,000 people). However, jobs and schools are the major reasons that we have never seriously considered the prospect. If Australia wants to alleviate the population burden on cities like Melbourne and Sydney, then it will need to show city dwellers that there are the jobs and the schools for them out in regional areas. Otherwise, many may dream of leaving the one hour commute, but will never make the move.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.