My various road trips have highlighted the number of empty houses in both the South Australian and Victorian Mallee due to the de-population of the countryside. People are leaving the countryside and moving to the more prosperous towns and cities. As young people depart, they leave small towns and hamlets of empty houses and shuttered shops, of closed schools and cafes, and a greying population.
What is not happening in the Mallee is that the relatively affluent city folk are leaving their capital city and moving to poorer, rural parts of regional Australia , buying or leasing properties as holiday places or thereand living their full-time or for long periods each year. The relatively affluent city folk are moving to the coastline of eastern and southern Australia, not to the Mallee. Moreover, immigrants tend to head for the towns and cities where jobs are more plentiful and where others from similar ethnic backgrounds have already established themselves.
The causes of de-popualtion of the Mallee are well known. Globalisation of the agricultural markets means the shift from the family farm to mechanised agribusiness, which employs fewer people. A lack of employment opportunities, education opportunities and affordable housing drives young people to the cities. This leads to the closure of schools, an ageing and increasingly dependent population, as well as a deterioration and then withdrawal of health, transport and other services. This is then linked to falling incomes and tax revenues, which in turn limit investment in the internet and modern telecoms or new and existing businesses.
Countrymindedness–that is preserving and supporting rural communities as essential to Australian’s national development— has lost its political force within policy making circles with the shift to a neo-liberal mode of governance that favours small government, market -driven solutions and community self-help in the 1990s. That means self-help is the answer the revitalisation of rural communities and towns because it is not the role of government to preserve and protect rural communities or their public services if these represent a cost burden. The social consequence is the outmigration of rural young people in search of education and employment.
Neoliberalist modes of governing centre on the ‘active citizen’ and, by extension, the ‘active community’ imply a new models of so-called locally led, bottom-up entrepreneurialism and community development as the panacea to regional inequality. From what I could seen from my road trips through the Mallee, tourism is usually seen as a panacea for the problems faced by declining rural communities and towns. Rural tourism is seen as a possible engine for development. However, it tis those communities with high relative accessibility—to metropolitan and urban centers and the coast—and an established or emerging tourism industry that are most likely to be the winners. The losers will be the smaller towns that are further away from the urban centres.