Let’s cut to the chase. Rural Australia is in a downward spiral which has no natural stopping point. If we want to have country communities – and, spoiler alert, I think we should – we'll have to take on their survival deliberately, as a national goal.
Till now, we've left it to the market. Back when sheep and wheat were a quarter of the economy nobody needed to do anything to support country towns; the rural workforce supported the local pubs, clubs and churches bounteously. Now only 2% of us work on farms, and that's left a big hole. Mining doesn't actually employ many people, even if you throw in National Party members, and it's better at digging holes than filling them ...
As with the rest of the economy, work in country towns has largely switched over to the service economy, and it's just this that has been devastated by the three horsemen of the 2020 apocalypse – Drought, Fire and Pandemic. These have left thousands of individual tragedies which continue to affect the country, and that threaten to bleed the country dry.
What we've seen in recent months, too, is that the Invisible Hand of the Free Market isn't actually God Almighty. When the Market told us that 50,000 people or so were going to have to die to keep the shops open, we told it to go jump. We intervened directly to command the economy to produce a desired outcome. We should do it again.
I don't just mean by this that we should encourage decentralisation or promote investment in the regions. That's not going to work. When Barnaby Joyce made the Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority move to Armidale 96% of the agency refused to go. You can move money around, yes; you can't drive people.
What people in the city need to be guaranteed before they'll consider moving are, first, upgrades of all the things where for decades country people have had to settle for second best; better hospitals, better schools, better local transport, and better pay, bringing them up to parity. Second, city people want all the lifestyle options that the Nationals use to insult them – chardonnay to sip, lattes to swill, and trees to hug. And thirdly, we need to get off the down escalator.
The problem that country towns face is colony collapse. First gradually, then all at once. There aren't enough young people to form a netball club, and from there it only takes a few people to be discouraged and leave to make the paper unviable, force the school to phase out a class or two, and even place the pub itself in danger. We have to do it the other way. If we build it, they will come.
Every country town needs a guaranteed infrastructure, subsidised, if necessary, by the government. If the newspaper can't find advertising, the government chips in. If the football league can't make a go of it, the government chips in. If the school age population drops below the magic number, some lucky child gets a one-on-one education until the numbers pick up again. Likewise a bank and a store. And people. If Pesticide and Veterinary Medicine experts won't brave the Armidale climate for the money they're being offered, offer them more.
Australia has a lot of enormous challenges – climate change, social inequality, indigenous reconciliation – waiting in the queue forming behind the Coronavirus. Saving county communities may not seem the most urgent – after all, we've successfully kicked the can into the bush for half a century at least. Still, while addressing climate would certainly cut down on bushfires and make treechanging more attractive, the reverse is also true; the environment needs its guardians driving the fire trucks, and they're not feasible without a community to grow them in. We can build aspects of our other goals into our save-the- countryside plan, too, saving two birds with one tree.
This piece is running in many regional newspapers, mind you, so I may be preaching to the choir. But nobody who's ever heard a country choir at peak hymn would think that's a bad thing.
Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis with free resources at: www.ourcommunity.com.au/saveoursector
This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.
This commentary also appeared as part of a monthly column that's published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.
We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.
Here's a taste of some other recent commentaries as they've appeared in some of those publications, as well as our own.