Effective services for Australia’s small towns
The small Australian town, with the butcher, corner store and hallowed local pub prevails as one of the defining images of our country’s national identity.
Since the start of the 20th century, it has served as home to our farmers, miners and manufacturers, exporting key commodities like wool, wheat and ore to the world. In a deeper sense, it has also played an instrumental role in developing our iconic ‘bush’ mythology, strongly supported by governments seeking to ensure social equity and equality of service for all Australians.
Yet in the 21st century, as our country continues to change and evolve, the role and future of these small communities is decidedly less clear.
In 2015, around 1 in 14 Australians still called a small town home. Yet substantial challenges exist for many of these communities when compared with urban areas. Those living in rural and remote areas typically face:
- an average wage 13 per cent lower than that of the national average
- an unemployment rate close to 10 per cent higher than the national average
- a suicide rate for men that is 1.3 to 2.6 times higher
- demonstrably worse health conditions and a lower life expectancy.
Small towns also face an overwhelmingly outward and youth-concentrated migration. Headline factors such as employment opportunity, urban amenity and Australians’ love of the coast summarise complex social, economic, and cultural trends that have resulted in an ongoing growth of cities and regional hubs in this country.
Throughout this development, the role that governments play through the delivery of basic services such as health, education, public safety and social welfare in Australia has also transformed significantly.
Since the 1980s, rationalisation and microeconomic reform have brought a continued drive toward efficiency for the Australian public sector, and in many cases, a marketisation and privatisation of what were once exclusively government-delivered services. Markets now exist as an intricate mix of government, non-profits and the private sector.
While there are many positive outcomes from this reform approach at the national level, few have stopped to ask if reforms directed towards economies of scale, outsourcing, competition and choice have worked in our dispersed, small-town communities in the same way it has our major cities and regional towns. Can a town of less than 5,000 reasonably be expected to experience efficiency and depth of service like a city of over 4 million people?
With this in mind, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) is undertaking research in 2017 to examine how the delivery of services such as health, education, safety and community services has changed for small towns of Australia over the last 30 years. For example, how has the number of nurses, doctors, teachers and police serving small towns changed in response to the rationalisation of government services, and how might this have impacted the wider community? How do the experiences of small towns compare with metropolitan Australia over this period? Have we seen gaps in key services access and outcomes narrow or widen during this period of reform?
By exploring what impact the reform of government services has had, we will discover opportunities to provide more effective services for Australia’s small towns into the future.
The Regional Australia Institute will be conducting research into Effective Services for Australia’s Small Towns throughout 2017 and welcomes your contribution. For further details or information, please contact Andrew Nash on 02 6260 2009 or by email [email protected]
 For the purposes of this research, the Regional Australia Institute has assumed small towns to be less than 5000 in population and outside of major metropolitan areas
 Based on ABS series – 3235.0 Population by Age and Sex, Regions of Australia
 Based on ABS series – Estimates of Personal Income for Small Areas – 2012-13
 Based on Department of Employment series – Unemployment by SA2 (September 2016)
 National Rural Health Alliance – “Suicide in rural Australia”, http://ruralhealth.org.au/sites/default/files/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-14-suicide%20in%20rural%20australia_0.pdf
 National Rural Health Alliance – http://ruralhealth.org.au/sites/default/files/publications/nrha-remote-health-fs-election2016.pdf
 Based on ABS series – Regional internal migration estimates, Statistical Area Level 2 – 2006-07 to 2014-15