RURAL AFFAIRS: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
WA report highlights declining rural infrastructure
, April 22, 2000
A report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation has highlighted the extent to which the withdrawal of health, banking, shopping and other facilities to rural Australia has caused a decline in rural populations, threatening the collapse of rural communities.
The report, The Impact of Declining Rural Infrastructure, was compiled from about 400 people, taken from a random survey of people living in the central wheat belt of Western Australia.
As such, it represents perhaps the most comprehensive recent survey of the state of rural Australia.
The study showed that contrary to widely held belief that people in rural areas are conservative, lack flexibility and a willingness to innovate, throughout the 1990s, almost all of the people had tried a variety of means to address the problems of falling incomes and rising costs.
Forty six per cent had increased their bank overdrafts, reflecting the fact that 44 per cent had increased their acreage, 63 per cent had increased their cropping programs, 73 per cent had increased their use of fertiliser, and 27 per cent increased their stock numbers.
Almost a quarter admitted that they had increased bartering of goods and services with neighbours. Almost a third had also sought off-farm income.
While the added income from working in country towns was vital to the survival of many farms, there was a realisation that this often was done at the expense of running the farm.
A significant component of the study was devoted to assessing the effects of diminishing infrastructure provision, the centralisation of services into fewer areas, and/or the closure of services.
Those surveyed confirmed that the provision of government infrastructure, including railways, postal, health and education services, as well as financial services provided by the banks, are crucial to decisions by country people to remain on the land.
One consequence of the financial pressure of low commodity prices for wheat, beef and wool has been the move towards aggregating farms into larger units.
In fact, in the central wheat belt of Western Australia, where this survey was conducted, there has been a steady fall in population since the 1961 Census.
The study said, "There is the possibility that the trend is cumulative and self-perpetuating ... and becomes self-sustaining as it leads to service diminution and subsequently more outmigration.
"A large number of participants in this research project have increased the acreage of their farm enterprises in order to achieve economies of scale and sufficient return on investment.
"Many of those same farmers expressed regret and concern about the dwindling rural population and the shrivelling of a sense of community. With a little prompting, many conceded that a farm enterprise 'buying out' another farm enterprise translates to fewer children in the school, fewer teachers in the community, fewer customers for the local community, and so the cycle continues."
The report found that as a result of the declining number of people in rural areas, many government services had been withdrawn or centralised.
It said, "Bank closures have had wide business and community ramifications. Having access to cash for residents and businesses is often a problem, but a growing concern is the requirement to carry substantial amounts of cash and the lack of safe storage.
"Banks and government have tried to encourage electronic banking, but in most of the central wheat belt there is only limited access, if any, to the internet, and a general aversion to electronic banking."
It concluded, "The promise of better business through Internet and e-commerce is falling short of promises made by politicians and banks for many farmers."
The study also found that many farm families had attempted to offset dwindling service infrastructure through electronic business, but the service levels here are below those available in the cities, due to "frustrating time delays and occasional operational failures."
Farm succession issues have caused "a great deal of angst and wasted valuable resources", with 17% of the people involved considering leaving the land for this reason alone.
All this has created high stress levels in many farming families, serious problems of mental health, and high suicide rates. "Many participants indicated that mental health issues encompassed unresolved family issues and sustained stress, and was having a direct impact on the economic viability of some enterprises."
The report concluded, "There is not enough public money to sustain rural services, nor is there the voting population to persuade politicians otherwise. It is inevitable, then, that some communities will wither, unless industry diversification is encouraged by both the Government and local rural residents."