Chapter 14 - Rural and regional communities
...poverty and geographic locational disadvantage is a very
serious issue that we need to grapple with in the short term rather than over
the long term.
14.1 Evidence to the
inquiry pointed to the problem of poverty and disadvantage in many rural and
regional areas across Australia. The evidence pointed to the generally lower
incomes of those living in these regions; reduced access to services such as health,
education and transport, and declining employment opportunities. These factors
are compounded by the problems of distance and isolation.
14.2 The Committee
visited a number of regional centres and heard from a large number of
organisations and individuals in these areas. These witnesses highlighted the
difficulties faced by many communities in confronting issues of poverty and
financial hardship and were particularly valuable in the insights they provided
and the need for governments to address the issues raised.
The urban-rural/regional divide
14.3 The importance
of focusing on locational disadvantage was emphasised during the inquiry. The
experience of poverty is closely connected to where people live and the
resources which are collectively available to people who live in a particular
locality. QCOSS stated that an important feature of poverty in Queensland and 'an
emerging feature' of poverty in Australia generally is the 'place-based nature
of poverty....poverty is not spread equally and evenly around the state and
there are particular localities that experience a set of characteristics that
are both disadvantageous to that locality and reflect significant groups in the
population who are living in poverty and financial hardship'.
14.4 Other States and
Territories reflected similar concerns. WACOSS commented on the problems of
regional disadvantage in Western Australia –'we feel very strongly about
regional issues in WA. People living in poverty in the remote areas are doubly
disadvantaged as a result of high living costs and reduced access to services'.
NTCOSS reflected on the specific characteristics of the Northern Territory
which impact on poverty in the Territory, including remoteness, a large
Indigenous population, the problem of distance with a small population spread
over a large geographical area and high population mobility. NTCOSS noted that
these factors 'pose challenges in providing adequate physical and social
infrastructure as well as costs for people in the NT'.
14.5 One study
described the spatial dimensions of poverty since the 1970s in non-metropolitan
areas as 'the emergence of declining rural towns with large numbers of
households on social security payments, declining industrial towns which have
experienced severe cutbacks, and selected coastal regions in NSW and Queensland
attracting large numbers of low-income people who are either in low-paid casual
work or unemployed'.
14.6 Submissions and
other evidence graphically highlighted the plight of many communities in rural
and regional areas across Australia, as illustrated below.
Poverty in rural Australia
– the plight of the bush
branch to branch, we are concerned with poverty because we are concerned with
drought. We are also concerned with poverty because we cannot afford to keep
our farms going. Poverty is only one tiny part of it, because rural life has
changed so much. Our kids are educated out of our communities, we cannot get
doctors, we no longer have banks, we do not have trains and we do not have
public transport, yet, when you put into action ideas for getting those little
communities to pull together and be more self-reliant, they turn up in droves.
The volunteer spirit is still very strong. But in terms of poverty there is a
lot of stoicism and resilience – a "we'll be right" attitude.
Committee Hansard 27.5.03, p.444 (CWA of NSW).
thing I would like to touch on briefly is rural women. There is a culture
within the rural community of being a stalwart...but one thing I have noticed is
that when you go to rodeos or country community events you see very thin women
with reasonably well presented children and reasonably well presently husbands,
and you talk to people and they will quietly say, "They are doing it very
hard". You can see exactly what has gone on. These women are sacrificing
themselves to make sure that their children are looked after and their husbands
can get out there and still work their properties.
Committee Hansard 28.7.03, p.1066 (Hon. Jonathan Ford MLC).
and regional communities are generally poorer than metropolitan regions with
unemployment often being the cause of financial constraints for many. Access to
social services and subsequent lack of opportunities in the areas of education
and health exacerbate the deprivation in these areas.
148, p.28 (Catholic Welfare Australia).
employment possibilities and poor access to health services, education and
transport, lower the quality of life for many in rural communities. While this
pattern is not uniform across rural and remote Australia...many people are living
with the consequences of economic deregulation, industry restructuring, the
withdrawal of government services, such as hospitals and schools, and the
closure of banks and other businesses. This has led to job losses and reduced
incomes and further exacerbated rural poverty levels.
184, pp.17-18 (COTA National Seniors).
vulnerability of many regional and rural communities has become magnified by
the recent drought...the drought combined with already high rates of
unemployment, fragile local economies and the ongoing loss of many social and community
services has been devastating for many individuals and families.
166, p.19 (Salvation Army).
are actually seeing people who are in greater need than I have perhaps ever
seen. I have been in the game for approximately 25 years and I have seen urban
poverty right through to rural poverty. It is kind of the end of the line. They
are coming forward, but it is only because there is nothing left. It is really
awful. For example, I was in touch with a service station owner who was distraught
because he had had to knock back a person who was trying to get some petrol on
tick. The person who was wanting to get petrol on tick was a woman whose family
had a farm. They could not pay their bills and so they could not get the petrol
on tick. But if she did not get the petrol on tick she could not come in to
work in the chemist's store where she earned $125 a week, which was what they
used to feed themselves and to pay for the next lot of fertiliser for the farm.
He was feeling awful; she was feeling awful. It is really very tough. I agree
with you—people are beginning to come forward, but their level of need is far
higher than what you would perhaps see in similar circumstances in an urban
population and that is combined with a lack of familiarisation with the kind of
help that is available, which is another stumbling block.
Committee Hansard 6.8.03, pp.1249-50 (Lifeline North Queensland).
14.7 The lack of
services – both government and non-government – in a whole range of areas, such
as education, health, transport, banking and other community services, and the
general loss or downsizing of essential infrastructure was a frequently
expressed concern during the inquiry. The Country Women's Association (CWA) of
NSW described the situation in one small country town:
Mrs Brown – At Yeoval, which is another 25 kilometres on from
Cumnock, which is 25 kilometres from Orange, there is a community bus once a
fortnight. At Cumnock we have just got a doctor half a day a week – yes! – but
we had no doctor before that.
Senator LEES – Is there a bank?
Mrs Brown – No. The bank moved into the post office when the
bank closed, and then the post office closed. So we have the Commonwealth Bank
and the post office in the general store.
14.8 The decline of
services and the social infrastructure can have a serious impact on local
communities and can, in many instances, accelerate the decline of small rural
communities. Anglicare Victoria spoke of this effect in the following terms:
We have talked about increasing centralisation of services, the
closing of post offices, banks, hospitals and court houses in a lot of smaller
communities; the loss of other businesses as the people employed in those
services leave; the drop in school numbers and then school closures; and the
general breaking down of social infrastructure in many small communities. Young
people and families leave to get education or broader educational opportunities
and do not return. Not only is the social infrastructure disappearing; the
people left in the small communities are the most isolated and vulnerable – the
people who do not actually have a choice to leave.
14.9 The problem of
poverty amongst Indigenous Australians in rural and remote areas was also
highlighted during the inquiry. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission (ATSIC) stated that in remote areas the lack of accessible services
and inadequate infrastructure greatly exacerbates problems that perpetuate
poverty. In many remote communities, basic amenities and services such as
water, sanitation, power, telecommunications, and public transport and housing
are non-existent or insufficient to support the population.
Catholic Welfare Australia stated that rural poverty 'is most pronounced
amongst Indigenous Australians. This is evident in all areas of their lives.
Rural Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy 20 years less than
non-Indigenous Australians and have twice the mortality rate of non-Indigenous
For a further discussion of issues relating to Indigenous Australians see chapter
emphasised the often 'hidden' nature of poverty in regional and rural Australia.
The CWA of NSW referred to a study of jobless families in north-east NSW
arguing that it was the intangibles that flowed from their financial plight that
resonated. The CWA added:
...these families appear to lead "normal lives", working
at school canteen, or going to TAFE, and so on, but they never invite anyone to
their homes nor discuss even casually their personal circumstances with others.
Most of the families live in unsuitable or unconventional accommodation, some
sharing houses with virtual strangers, others sharing with relatives "for
the time being".
14.11 Recent drought
conditions have also exacerbated the often dire economic situation with
increasing hardship for many farming families and significant flow-on effects
to local communities. Evidence to the inquiry from welfare agencies and local
community groups indicated that many communities are faced with increasing
levels of stress, family breakdown, domestic violence, suicide, substance abuse
and crime as a result of these increasingly difficult economic conditions and
the recent drought.
14.12 An indication of
the extent of hardship being experienced in rural and regional Australia is
provided by the calls on assistance being provided by charitable and welfare
organisations and other groups. The CWA in NSW spent $380 000 (up to a
maximum of $1000 per family) in less than two months on assistance to farming
families for their domestic needs.
The SVDP Society conferences also indicated continuing demand for their
services. For example, one conference reported that:
The continual increase in the number of people is of great
concern as financially this imposes a very serious demand on our limited
resources. Our volunteers are finding there is insufficient time to properly
assist people with material assistance, many of whom relish the opportunity to
have a one-on-one discussion with a willing listener.
14.13 Many rural
populations are also ageing as younger people move to the larger towns in
search of education, work or a better lifestyle. COTA National Seniors spoke of
life in rural communities becoming harder for older people. A lack of suitable
accommodation and services often leads to depression and a severe sense of
isolation. Cutbacks and closures in hospitals and health services have had a
particularly adverse effect on the lives of older rural Australians, many of
whom are unable to access timely and appropriate care. There is a widespread
lack of aged care facilities and support services, particularly HACC services,
to enable older people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. With
the movement of younger family members to cities and larger regional centres
frail older people have even fewer resources.
Social and economic disparities
14.14 A number of
major economic and social disparities affecting rural and regional communities
were highlighted during the inquiry and these are discussed below.
pointed to increasing inequality in the distribution of employment
opportunities between rural and regional areas vis-à-vis metropolitan areas. Mission
Australia noted that 'the lower share of employment generated by primary
industries in recent years, exacerbated by the current drought, has meant that
many non-metropolitan regions have far fewer jobs than in past decades'.
UnitingCare Australia stated that communities in regions with single sector
employment are particularly vulnerable to changes in policy that result in the
movement of job opportunities away from the region. This disadvantage may be
compounded in regions offering unskilled employment as the job market
increasingly moves towards demand for skilled workers.
14.16 During the 1990s
there were significant variations in the rate of unemployment in the various
States as well as variations within both the metropolitan and non-metropolitan
areas of States and Territories. A snapshot of unemployment, based on 1996
Census data, shows that non-metropolitan regions had, on average, higher unemployment
rates than metropolitan regions. In that year, non-metropolitan regions
recorded an overall rate of 10.5 per cent, while metropolitan regions recorded
an overall rate of 8.5 per cent. Within non-metropolitan regions, in general,
the more remote areas exhibited below average rates of unemployment. Above
average levels of unemployment were found in coastal NSW, particularly the North
Coast, and south-eastern Queensland, as well as in areas surrounding Australia's
major cities. It appears likely that these areas have attracted unemployed
persons from large cities.
14.17 Studies have
found growing income disparities between people living in the capital cities
and those living in rural and regional areas of the country. One study found
that in 1996 household incomes in metropolitan regions were significantly
higher – nearly $10000 or almost 30 per cent – than those in non-metropolitan
Data for 2000-01 indicated that at the national level, average incomes in the
capital cities were 20 percent above those in the balance of the particular
State, and in each State capital city average incomes were above those in the
balance of the State. The largest difference was in NSW where the capital city
incomes were 30 per cent above the average incomes across the rest of the
However, regional areas are not uniformly disadvantaged in terms of income
disparities, with different patterns being experienced in particular States and
14.18 A study by Lloyd
et. al. examined changes in the incomes of households living in regional
Australia between 1991 and 1996.
The study found that 'there is a large and growing gap' between the incomes of
those living in the capital cities and those living in the rest of the country.
The incomes of metropolitan residents increased at about double the rate of
those living in other major urban centres and regional and rural towns in the
five years to 1996. The results indicate, however, that regional Australia is
not uniformly disadvantaged and not uniformly declining. The biggest 'losers'
in terms of income appear to be residents of small rural towns rather than
residents of rural areas as such.
14.19 The situation
for regions aggregated across Australia masks very different experiences in
particular States and regions. Income inequality between regions becomes more
apparent when the States are analysed separately. While incomes grew strongly
in Sydney and Melbourne between 1991 and 1996, the growth was not as strong in
most other areas of NSW and Victoria. Both Western Australia and Queensland had
strong growth in most regions. In rural South Australia and Tasmania incomes
increased substantially, but in other areas of both States real incomes were
stagnant or declined.
14.20 Not only did the
income gaps between regions increase in the 1990s, income inequality within
regions also increased. The proportion of households in the middle income
ranges declined while the proportions in the high and low income ranges
increased. Non-metropolitan areas had a much higher proportion of low income
households than did the capital cities and a lower proportion of high income
households. The proportion of low income households grew more slowly in the
capital cities than the rest of Australia, except rural areas, during the
1991-96 period, while the proportion of high income households grew more
pointed to the lack of access to health services for people living in rural and
14.22 The Australian
Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) noted that access to health services in
regional Australia is influenced by the lower number of GPs; lower rates of
bulk billing; and lower levels of access to specialists and major hospitals as
a consequence of greater travel distances. For example, with regard to medical
practitioners, AIHW statistics show that in 1999 there was generally a higher
proportion of medical practitioners relative to population concentration in
capital cities than in non-metropolitan areas. For other rural and remote areas,
the percentage of medical practitioners was generally lower than their
proportion in the population.
14.23 Submissions also
pointed to disparities in access to educational opportunities, (especially
secondary education) for people living in non-metropolitan areas. Children in
these areas are less likely to complete their education than those living in
While there is considerable regional variation across non-metropolitan Australia
there appears to be a clear negative relationship between the proportion of 16
year old children attending school and the degree of remoteness of the
locality. Areas exhibiting below average continuation of children to
post-compulsory education are concentrated throughout central, western and
14.24 There are also
disparities in access to higher, technical and further education. While mining
areas (particularly in Western Australia) have a relatively high proportion of
people with tertiary qualifications, in many areas of NSW, Queensland, South
Australia, northern and western Victoria and the Northern Territory, the
proportion of people with these qualifications is well below the
Addressing poverty and disadvantage in regional and rural areas
14.25 Evidence to the
inquiry proposed a number of strategies to address poverty and disadvantage in
regional and rural areas, including:
improved access to services;
regional development strategies;
- job creation initiatives; and
- capacity building.
These approaches include strategies to improve access to
universal services and, in addition, provide more targeted initiatives for
rural and regional areas.
Improved access to services
14.26 People living in
rural and regional areas need greater access to a range of government and other
services, including health, education, aged care, transport and other community
services than is currently provided. Catholic Welfare Australia emphasised that
decisions on the continuation of services such as transport, health, police,
post offices and schools in rural areas should be influenced by social
considerations, not purely economic factors.
14.27 ACOSS suggested
that the Commonwealth and State Governments should commit to national minimum
standards of access to essential community services, including public health,
education, and social welfare services. This commitment would help stem the
loss of publicly-funded services in many areas of Australia. ACOSS suggested
that the commitment should be implemented jointly by the Commonwealth and State
Governments through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) process.
14.28 The Committee
has made a number of recommendations in other chapters to address several of
these issues, especially in the areas of health, education and housing.
Provision of government and other services in rural and regional areas remains
an urgent need that the Commonwealth and States Governments should address as a
matter of priority.
Regional development strategies
14.29 The need for
regional development programs to address poverty and disadvantage in regional
areas was stressed in some submissions. The Queensland Government noted that:
Regional development is an important tool to enable people in
regional areas to participate in economic development and achieve sustainable
increases in living standards. Without regional development, poverty and
disadvantage in regional areas are likely to increase.
14.30 VCOSS also noted
that regional development strategies that focus on maintaining a proper share
of economic development in rural and regional areas are needed to halt the
rural decline. Such strategies should include a mix of business and industry
stimulation, local education and training initiatives and social housing
Anglicare Victoria noted that it is often difficult to attract investment 'beyond
a certain circle around metropolitan areas. Profits from industries are often
not invested in local communities. There are often no employment alternatives
when industries close down in rural areas'.
14.31 States have
implemented various regional development strategies. In Queensland, the most
decentralised mainland State, the Government provides substantial
infrastructure investment support to regional areas – in the 2002-03 Budget,
$2.1 billion of planned capital outlays (43 per cent of the total) were
allocated to regions outside southeast Queensland. In addition to capital
investment, the Office of Regional Development within the Department of State
Development coordinates regional development policy and implements regional
economic development projects from a whole-of-government perspective.
The Victorian Government has developed regional development projects and a
major regional regeneration program based on public housing estates. The
Government has also expanded job opportunities with more than a third of jobs
growth occurring in rural and regional Victoria in recent years. In addition,
the government has established a Regional Infrastructure Development Fund to
maximise regional growth and development activities.
Job creation initiatives
14.32 Submissions and
other evidence argued that job creation initiatives such as public
infrastructure development programs and the encouragement of labour-intensive
private sector services should be targeted to regional areas.
14.33 A number of submissions
suggested that nation building projects could be undertaken. ACOSS argued for
the implementation of a national public infrastructure development program
targeted to disadvantaged regions, with priorities to include social
infrastructure development such as public housing, hospitals and schools. The
development program should be designed to generate jobs in two ways – in the
construction of infrastructure, and by improving the efficiency of the regional
economy. Contractors should be required to source as much of the labour for
these projects from within the regions concerned, and to establish partnerships
with local Job Network services to take on local unemployed people.
14.34 Catholic Welfare
Australia also proposed that nation building projects could be undertaken
under collaborative partnerships between Government and business to deal more
adequately with major environmental problems, including salinity and water
management. The Government 'should target funding of such projects to areas of
greatest disadvantage to stimulate employment and reduce poverty in those regions'.
argued that governments should encourage the expansion of labour-intensive
private sector services in regional centres, for example, by improving
education and training and other public infrastructure and promoting tourism
development. ACOSS noted that this is probably the most sustainable basis for
employment growth in disadvantaged regions. Governments can help disadvantaged
regions compete for employment opportunities by investing in education and
training to improve a region's skills base. Institutions such as regional
universities also generate jobs in their own right. Local public infrastructure
such as roads could also be improved to help attract both employers and
differed on the efficacy of using tax concessions or other subsidies to
encourage employers to relocate to disadvantaged regions. Catholic Welfare Australia
argued that governments should implement tax credit regimes as an effective
wage subsidy for new jobs created in areas of greatest regional disadvantage.
These arrangements would provide tax credits for employers in disadvantaged
regional areas to take on additional employees. Similar schemes have been
operating in several US states.
ACOSS, however, argued that the use of tax and other concessions are a costly
way to improve job opportunities. They may have unintended consequences, for
example, by drawing employers away from surrounding areas that may not be much
better off. A related problem is the destructive competition between State
Governments to attract private sector investment using these concessions.
14.37 Submissions also
argued that industries should be encouraged to decentralise and some government
departments and agencies could be relocated to regional centres.
emphasised the need for capacity building as a means of addressing poverty and
disadvantage within communities. Mission Australia noted that it was important
to 'build community networks so as to improve social capital, and to strengthen
the capacity of communities to deal with the consequences of hardship'.
ACOSS noted that community capacity-building is often a crucial first step
towards economic and social revival of disadvantaged regions – 'initiatives
planned by local people are more likely to achieve their objectives than those
that are delivered from the top down'.
There is a need for skilled facilitators to be employed to get communities
organised, determine what actions need to be taken and mobilise the people of
the community for their own betterment. Submissions noted that while it was
important to draw on local community skills this should be combined with
effective government resources and encouragement.
14.39 States have
implemented various community development programs. The Victorian Government has
a community building program with a strong regional dimension which is
complementary to its regional infrastructure development program.
The Queensland Government operates a community renewal program which works
closely with local communities to promote a variety of projects, including
those that provide increased employment and training opportunities and those
that improve services and facilities.
14.40 The Committee
believes that the poverty and disadvantage experienced in many rural and regional
communities needs to be urgently addressed by all levels of government. The
Committee considers that access to government services in such areas as health,
education, housing and transport as well as other community services, such as
banking, needs to be expanded in many regional areas to provide the necessary
social infrastructure to enable these communities to function effectively.
14.41 The Committee
also believes that Governments should play a key role in building up the
economic infrastructure of these communities by developing national public
infrastructure development projects, and maintaining and extending regional
development and other job creation strategies. It is only by concerted and
sustained government action that the disturbing urban-regional economic and
social divide can be overcome.
14.42 That the
Commonwealth and State Governments maintain and expand services in such areas
as health, education, housing and transport to rural and regional areas.
14.43 That the Commonwealth
and State Governments set national minimum standards for access to essential
community services, such as health, education and welfare services in rural and
14.44 That State
Governments maintain and expand regional development strategies in rural and
14.45 That the
Commonwealth Government develop a national public infrastructure development
program targeted to regional areas focusing on such areas as transport,
hospitals and schools.
14.46 That State
Governments encourage the expansion of labour-intensive private sector services
in regional areas by improving education and training and other public
infrastructure and/or providing tax concessions or other subsidies to encourage
employers to relocate to regional areas.
14.47 That State
Governments support local employment and social development initiatives in
rural and regional areas.
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