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Outback exodus: the population problem facing country WA

Whether a bush baby or concrete cowboy, the romance of the outback is held close to every Australian’s heart. It is a cherished part of our national identity.

So why then is it so hard to convince Australians to pick up their lives and move to regional WA? And why can’t we keep those with country roots out in the place they grew up?

The latest population estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics paint a bleak picture for the bush.

Rural decline is nothing new for farming communities where the rot has been experienced for more than two decades. More and more, the problem is creeping into our once booming mining and coastal towns.

Outer suburbs in the big smoke are growing rapidly—4,500 people moved to Wanneroo in 2016-17 alone—but of 110 regional areas, 72 were in decline, and 18 grew slower than the metro area.

Of the 20 regional local government areas to outperform Perth, five—Serpentine-Jarrahdale, Rockingham, Murray, Harvey, and Chittering— are on the urban fringe.

When the nine major population centres are removed from the equation, outback WA has had a net loss of residents for each of the past five years.

With regional towns across the state crying out for everything from population-anchoring industry, tax exemptions, youth retention strategies and migration agreements, regional population policy is a major headache for politicians and public servants at every level of government.

End of the line

About 60km from Mount Magnet is the Mid West town of Sandstone. It is the centre of the least populated local government in WA. As of June 2017, just 85 residents live in the area.

The decline has been a slow burn since the mid-1900s, but now it is accelerating. 26 residents have left since 2014. At this rate, Sandstone will be a ghost town around the time of it’s 125th anniversary in 2030.

Facing the of the end of the line for their home town, Sandstone residents have few options left to inject new life into the historic settlement.

Sandstone's historic National Hotel.Sandstone's historic National Hotel.
Camera IconSandstone’s historic National Hotel.Picture: Kalgoorlie Miner

Donna Bennett and her partner purchased the National Hotel in Sandstone seven years a go to save it from being boarded up.

“We have put our heart and soul into this pub, I don’t want to see it become a ghost town, another Gwalia,” she said.

“I want it to thrive, I want people back here, I want to bring some joy back into this old population.”

Mrs Bennett said resettling refugees in town and reopening the school would provide an instant shot in the arm to Sandstone.

“Let’s integrate them into smaller community and open our arms to them,” she said.

“It would be a wonderful place to raise children, it was a wonderful school.”

Mrs Bennett admits the idea of bringing refugees to the town is a controversial one, but says some in town are slowly warming to the idea.

Sea-change slow down

Margaret River’s Lindsay sisters have grown up in an area of regional WA bucking the trend. Augusta-Margaret River is booming.

It is a stark contrast to other coastal towns. Geraldton, Bunbury, Esperance and Carnarvon are in decline. Growth in Albany, Busselton, Exmouth and Broome is sluggish.

Amy Lindsay loved growing up in Margs and seeing the region flourish. Now though, she says it is time to leave.

Coastal towns are still growing, but not very quickly.Coastal towns are still growing, but not very quickly.
Camera IconCoastal towns are still growing, but not very quickly.

“I moved away about six years ago to Queensland and came back last December not planning on staying for long,” she said.

“There is not a lot to do for people my age so I am heading up to Perth for more work and study opportunities.

“I don’t think I would move back.”

Amy’s sister Sarah also left Margaret River to study, but has returned and is loving life back home.

“If you leave you appreciate where you are from,” she said,

“I like the atmosphere, I like the people, I like that you can go to Coles and know 90 per cent of people.”

Sarah said as long as a job was available for her she was happy to stay in town.

Rust on the iron throne

The Pilbara’s population problem is well documented. The construction boom led to a huge influx of workers. Towns weren’t ready, forcing the price of everything through the roof. The State Government responded, undertaking a billion-dollar transformation of Karratha, Port Hedland and Newman.

The aim was for the two coastal towns to reach a population of 50,000 each by 2035, and for Newman to hit 15,000. By the time infrastructure projects to accommodate this growth took shape however, it was too late. The price of iron ore and LNG tanked and within months thousands of workers left.

Population is falling in most resources-focused areas.Population is falling in most resources-focused areas.
Camera IconPopulation is falling in most resources-focused areas.Picture: Pilbara News

Karratha has become a modern regional city, but the once-in-a-lifetime boom delivered only 2,000 extra residents over 10 years. The City has stalled around 22,000 and population in the Pilbara’s two other major towns is falling.

Fly-in, fly-out workforces are a problem, but the isolation and image of the Pilbara is the biggest challenge. Despite plenty of well-paid jobs on offer, people do not want to move to the region.

Born and bred Pilbarian Geoffrey Ellis is one of many residents who says the image problem has no basis in reality.

“Here in Wickham there is a sense of community, there are more clubs opening up,” he said.

“It is a small town but it doesn’t have that small town feeling it used to.

“The experiences we have had camping, you can still get that in the city but we have this close knit environment here.”

Mr Ellis said he could see a lot of effort going into improving the image of the Pilbara, but like most in the region, he doubts those lofty population targets can be met.

Made in Merredin

One farming community bucking the trend is Merredin. Through the late 90’s and early 2000’s the Wheatbelt hub was going the same way as most of it’s surrounding towns.

In recent years however, something has changed. Merredin is growing. It is slow growth, but it is steady growth.

Merredin product Emily Alberti was part of the youth exodus, having left for the big smoke as a 19-year-old in 2010.

Population growth is a mixed bag across agricultural regions.Population growth is a mixed bag across agricultural regions.
Camera IconPopulation growth is a mixed bag across agricultural regions.Picture: West Regional News

“I thought I would give Perth a go and see what the fuss was about,” she said.

“Out of my whole age group only a couple stayed in town because there wasn’t much work.”

Ms Alberti moved back to Merredin two years a go to work at the wheat bins after finding the city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I wasn’t saving money, wasn’t enjoying it and I wanted to make a change,” she said.

Ms Alberti attributes the growth to a renewed pride of place. She says more people born in town are staying.

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