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Small town struggle

Tuesday, 20th December, 2011

By Paula Doran

The future of towns like Wilcannia, Menindee and Ivanhoe is under the spotlight, following a federal investigation into the changing landscape of country Australia.

A report by the National Institute for Rural and Regional Australia says the nation’s small towns, particularly those with a population under 15,000, may not be viable based on local economic prosperity alone.

Institute director, Dr Anthony Hogan, said the country’ís policy makers, at all levels need to be pragmatic about the fact that many towns are not viable without government funding to keep them afloat.

Whilst conceding the sensitivity in discussing whether one town should be maintained versus another, he said government funding was keeping many towns from total decline and questioned whether that sort of buffer, in the long-term, was worth it.

Dr Hogan said models like the Regional Development Australia fund would not necessarily stimulate long-term economic development in many communities, and were instead essentially a band-aid to ease an immediate burden.

“It is sensitive but it’s people’s lives and we need to have an open discussion about it,” he told ABC Online.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate that people, or if you like, communities be left on the vine as it were, that they would just naturally decline because we didn’t want to discuss it.”

Among the findings in the Paper were that not since World War Two had there been any significant regional policy or planning by a Federal Government.

Dr Hogan found that through drought, mineral booms and economic shifts - and more recently on the eastern seaboard the Murray-Darling Basin Plan - rural communities were more insecure than ever.

“While agriculture in Australia remains an important industry, it is no longer central to the nation’s economic agenda,” he said. 

And so while the country is no longer riding on the sheep’s back as it were, the widening gap between city and country is also leaving those towns outside the city centres at a loss as to where their place on a national political agenda is, and where their futures lie.

Dr Hogan said the increased efficiency that has arisen in mining and agriculture have also had the effect of requiring less workers.  

“So suddenly those towns that had full-time work that supported ten families, now have much less need.

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