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Following the Yellow Brick Road and the Future of Australia’s Declining Country Towns

Dr Gordon Forth

Director, Centre for Regional Development, Deakin University, Warrnambool Victoria. Phone: (03) 5563 3263 (W) fax: (03) 5563 3534 email

In second semester 1999, as a Visiting Faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Community Planning at Kansas State University I had the privilege of working with our keynote speaker Professor John Keller and his colleagues including Dr David Darling of KSU’s Extension Service. My basic purpose in undertaking this all too brief period of research leave was to study small town decline and revitalisation in America’s Midwest, concentrating initially on north central Kansas. As a regional historian with a long-term interest in Australia’s regional communities, I was seeking to discover just what Australian country towns experiencing decline could learn of practical value from their Midwestern counterparts. My time at KSU and fieldwork undertaken in the United States did in fact provide useful insights as to the complex factors underlying the ongoing decline of both American and Australian small towns and how certain rural towns have successfully reinvented themselves. Yet the main, unanticipated consequence of my recent journey along the Yellow Brick Road that commenced in Manhattan, Kansas was to reach certain conclusions regarding the inevitable long-term decline and eventual demise of certain small towns in non-coastal Australia. In terms of the strongly held values and assumptions of many participants attending this conference, some of the views presented in this paper may verge on the heretical. I may well be a very lonely figure at the conference dinner.

It would be naive to assume that the individuals attending this timely conference are disinterested observers regarding the future of Australia’s declining country towns. In their pre-conference promotion material the organisers of this First National Conference left potential attendees in no doubt as to the main purposes of this event. After being assured that “Country Towns are an essential part of Australian society” we were informed that “….they and their people have been marginalised in the Australian economy, … ignored by policy makers and seen as devoid of good ideas and success”. The Conference Organising Committee assures us that “The Federal Government is listening to rural and regional Australia”. This is undoubtably true. However, what is far less certain is that current or future Australian governments, federal or state, will, or for that matter even can, do anything to significantly assist many of Australia’s declining small towns. Based on my recent observations in the U.S. and the research literature on changes in rural society in Australia and the United States, I will argue that the decline and ultimate demise of many smaller country towns is part of an inevitable historical process and should be accepted as such.

As a starting point the decline of Australian country towns and the regional communities of which they are part needs to be considered in the context of Australia’s recent economic history. In their executive summary, the authors of State of the Regions conclude that “the economic benefits of [Australia’s] sustained economic recovery over the nineties were unevenly distributed”, the “losers” being “rural regions based on traditional agriculture”1. The detailed statistical analysis provided in this report supports the view of Australia’s traditional rural regions as deprived regions in terms of economic and population growth. However the authors of this report have little to say about the long-term historical process which has resulted in much of rural Australia, including country towns, failing to benefit from the economic boom of the nineties.

It is in an understanding of this historical process, rather than singling out recent government policies or pointing the collective finger at multinational companies or the globalised economy that we gain critical insights into the underlying causes of small town decline. While the rationalisation-privatisation of government services has certainly exacerbated difficulties experienced by Australia’s rural communities, these policies are more a consequence of regional rural decline than it’s basic cause.

This paper provides a general overview of the underlying long-term causes of ongoing decline of small towns and regional communities in non-coastal rural Australia and the American Midwest. It draws upon the historical and more recent experiences of South West Victoria and North Central Kansas regions to provide illustrative examples. In taking this approach I am not seeking to discount the importance of more immediate, more readily identifiable causes-consequences of small town decline such as recent changes in government policies or low average commodity prices. Rather, I would suggest that even if government policies which have impacted negatively on regional Australia were reversed and agricultural commodity prices return to the higher levels of the long boom (1950-74), that this would do little to prevent the ongoing decline of many Australian country towns.

In discussions of decline in regional Australia the focus in government reports and subsequent media coverage at a local, regional and national level has been on measurable demographic indicators. For example the Victorian State Government’s recent publication Victoria in Future: Overview, provides a detailed analysis of projected changes in population for each region in the state from 1996-2021. In this report and most regional development strategies produced by state and local government authorities, the critical cause/consequence of regional, hence small town decline is identified as an ongoing loss of population, especially of younger people, with a subsequent ageing of the population. Population loss inevitably leads to more visible indicators of decline such as the closure of schools and businesses in a particular town. With the possible exception of local employment statistics, less emphasis is given to other key indicators of decline, including lower average family incomes, low educational attainments or reduction in the general quality of life including the health of residents of rural communities.

What is often avoided in discussions regarding the likely future of small towns experiencing ongoing decline are references to changes in the socio-economic status of the population. Clearly one of the obvious consequences of small town decline is the increased availability of traditional “affordable housing”. This is more evident in rural Australia than American Midwest where a proliferation of mobile home parks on the outskirts of rural towns provides housing of sorts for many of America’s working poor. In Australia, the availability of cheap traditional housing, (a three-bedroom residence on a quarter acre block) will attract low income or social welfare dependent families to relocate to that town. While such inward migration may slow general population loss, in rural communities where family incomes and levels of educational attainment are already significantly lower than state and national average, the long-term consequences of such a development are both obvious and ominous.

My understanding as to what constitutes regional decline was broadened as a result of visiting a number of smaller incorporated towns within commuting distance of Manhattan, a prosperous university town of 38,000 in north central Kansas. One such township was St George, a once a thriving agricultural-transport centre, which now provides “affordable housing” for low-income families employed mainly in nearby Manhattan2. In the case of St George statistical evidence3 confirms what obvious visible indicators of small town decline- houses in a poor state of repair with rusting automobiles and rubbish in the front yard, reveal. Apart from low average family incomes and the fact that single mothers constitute half of the heads of households, a sign prominently displayed in the front of the local school prohibiting hand-guns and syringes confirms the visitor’s negative impression of St George. Yet due to the availability of affordable housing, including the development of a basic mobile home park on the outskirts of the town, the town’s population is actually growing4. There are several instances in North-Central Kansas of small towns in obvious decline but within reasonable commuting distance of a major centre where “affordable housing” has resulted in population growth. Clearly this situation could change if there was a significant rise in the cost of gasoline. The lack of affordable established housing has in other instances led to development of mobile home parks for permanent owner-occupiers which lack the amenities and scenic locations of Australia’s caravan parks. The point that needs to be emphasised, is that while population loss remains the key indicator of rural decline in rural Australia, in the United States this is not necessarily the case.

Though less apparent than in north-central Kansas, the lower cost of rental accommodation in Australia’s country towns is providing an attraction to welfare dependent families rather than the working poor due to the general lack of employment opportunities in these towns. In identifying key indicators of regional rural decline, we need to be aware that the population levels of certain Australian country towns may stabilise as a result of “affordable housing” attracting economically disadvantaged families to a particular town. If the gap between urban rich and rural poor in both Australia and the United States continues to widen, a possible, albeit unattractive future for country towns would be to provide alternative affordable accommodation but minimal services for a new inter-generational underclass.

Before describing the historical events which resulted in the establishment, development and inevitable decline of hundreds of rural towns in the American Midwest and Australia, let me clarify just what type of country towns I am referring to. Clearly there would appear little point in including larger country towns, with relatively stable populations of 5,000 or more, which provide their catchment population with a range of services including health, retailing, education and finance. However in South West Victoria, formerly known as the Western District of Victoria where the total population of the region continues to decline5, there is growing concern regarding the future of even larger towns such as Hamilton (9,000) and Portland (8,000). In demographic and business terms only the region’s largest centre, Warrnambool (c.28,000) is growing, with much of this growth due to internal regional migration and an increasing concentration of retail activity and service provision within the region. Nor is there much point in focusing on dying townships, which have long since passed the point of no return. There are of course many Australian country towns with considerably less than 4000 residents which have successfully reinvented themselves as tourism, aged retirement or commuter centres and whose future viability is assured. The Australian country towns with which this paper is primarily concerned are those with populations between say 200-4000, which are experiencing ongoing decline.

At this point, those concerned with the future prospects of Australia’s small towns in decline might well ask why one should look to the American Midwest for new insights or possible solutions? Given the growing concentration of the population of non-metropolitan Australia along the eastern seaboard, it perhaps would be more useful to focus on once declining, now resurgent small towns on the West Coast of the United Sates or even the northwest of Ireland? Yet in both Australia and the United States the great majority of small towns experiencing ongoing decline are located in rural regions and remain dependent on resource industries- agriculture, forestry and mining and related manufacturing for wealth and employment generation. In terms of understanding the underlying causes and developing policies to assist Australia's country towns in decline, the history and recent experience of the American Midwest is highly relevant.

While there are important differences in the political, cultural and physical environment of the two regions, similarities in the history and current situation of declining small towns in the Midwest and regional Australia are quite striking. Indeed the basic, yet often overlooked, reason why small towns in both these wider regions have, are and will almost certainly continue to decline has to do with the nature of European settlement in the Midwest and non-coastal Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century. In both regions European exploration and subsequent occupation involved several decades of rough pioneering6 during which time enterprising settlers sought a better life through agriculture, speculative livestock farming and mining. In both the Midwest and Australia the arrival of Europeans with their diseases, firearms and land-hunger heralded the dispossession of the indigenous population and wholesale destruction of native wildlife. Like their more numerous and warlike Native American counterparts, most of South East Australia’s surviving Aboriginal population were eventually confined to government reserves7. As part of a general movement of population from Northern Europe to the New World, during the second half of the nineteenth century virtually all suitable farming land in the Midwestern states and Australian colonies was taken up by Europeans seeking a better way of life. In these New World communities, recently arrived European migrants and families from the previously settled areas sought to establish themselves as small-scale agriculturalists often on land that was basically unsuitable for the purpose. Restricted by the obvious limitations of horse transport and encouraged by the construction of private and public rail transport systems, these settlers were responsible for the establishment of hundreds of small towns in Australia and the United States which provided basic services to local farming communities8. Though increasingly mechanised, agriculture in the late nineteenth century was still labour intensive and provided regular or seasonal employment for farm labourers as well as family members. The establishment and subsequent growth of numerous inland towns in Kansas, Nebraska and other Midwestern states and the Australian colonies reflected the particular circumstances of European settlement and land-use in these regions in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century.

In post goldrush Victoria and New South Wales, newly constituted democratic governments promoted closer settlement schemes which involved the forced resumption selection and sale before survey of vast areas of Crown land9. The so-called “Free Selection Acts” of the 1860s largely failed to achieve their stated purpose of establishing a class of self sufficient Yeoman farmers in place of large scale pastoral leaseholders. However in South West Victoria, Free Selection together with an increased demand for labour in the pastoral industry resulted in the rapid growth of small towns such as Merino, Casterton and Branxholm. Following both World Wars, the Australian Government developed Soldier Settlement schemes to provide thousands of returned veterans with an opportunity to become farmers10. In South West Victoria the town of Mortlake some thirty miles north of Warrnambool developed as a service centre for the extensive soldier settlement, which took place in this area after both wars11. As with the Free Selection Acts the productive capacity of land allotted to many soldier settlers was insufficient for viable farming enterprise. The subsequent restructuring of Australian agriculture has involved the ongoing consolidation of many of these farms into larger holdings.

The initial optimism of farming communities in the recently settled American Midwest and rural Australia east of the Great Dividing Range was soon tempered by the discovery that these regions were subject to prolonged periods of drought, destructive floods, bush-prairie fires and insect and mice plagues12. In both regions man-made factors as well as natural disasters reduced the productive capacity of what was in many cases marginal farming land. These included the overstocking of grazing land and the wholesale clearing of native vegetation, which with irrigation in Australia resulted in salination. In Australia environmental degradation of marginal farming land has impacted on the viability of many small towns which basically depend on local agriculture for their survival.

During the twentieth century the application of advanced technology to farming and regionally based manufacturing has significantly reduced the demand for labour in rural Australia and the United States. As with other resource industries, including forestry and mining, in order to compete on world markets including food imports from low wage countries, Australian and American agricultural producers and processors have invested heavily in labour saving capital infrastructure. The reduced demand for labour in rural industries together with improved transportation has been a major cause of the ongoing decline of small towns which remain largely dependent on primary industries and related manufacturing. In Australia and the United States the rerouting of state or federal highways and the closure of railway lines has also contributed to the demise of once prosperous farming towns. In others such as Marysville, a town of around 3,000 an hours drive north of Manhattan, improved road transport together with the development of a Walmart complex outside the traditional CBD, resulted in the closure of most retail businesses in the main street.

The population of much of non-coastal rural Australia is not only decreasing, but as one rural business writer stated in a recent article, “If you live in the bush, you are more likely than other Australians to be sick, unemployed and poorly educated”. The same article, published in the Weekend Australian in September 1998, claimed that of the forty poorest Australian electorates, thirty-six are rural or provincial13. Those who leave obviously include many of the brightest young people who move to larger cities in search of better employment and educational opportunities. In addition, retired farmers who once relocated to their nearest small town are increasingly moving to larger regional centres, usually on the coast, in order to access services which small towns cannot provide. Though the loss of services, such as the closure of the local bank, cinema or pharmacy, are highly significant in explaining small town decline, they are essentially the consequence of both population loss and reduced demand for essential and non-essential services. Available research together with a general understanding of the historical process outlined in this paper clearly indicates that for many Australian-American traditional small towns decline will be ongoing.

One moving and insightful account of the development and decline of a traditional American small town is James Dickerson’s history of McDonald, a wheat farming community in Western Kansas. Dickerson’s great grandparents “were part of a stream of settlers who migrated to Western Kansas after the Civil War to become wheat farmers”. As with hundreds of Midwestern rural communities, in the case of McDonald a “…little more than a century later, the population has ebbed away, ….many of the farms, schools, churches and towns lie vacant, dilapidated and boarded up like old boomtowns”14. In regional Australia the critical question is not whether or not isolated rural towns which rely on primary production and processing for employment will decline. They inevitably will. Rather the central issue is whether or not whole rural regions such as Wimmera or Darling Downs will continue to lose population and hence services which must impact adversely on the costs and quality of life of those who remain. In both the United States and Australia it is simply unrealistic to hope that the cavalry in the form of some substantial federally funded rescue package15 will eventually arrive. It won’t.

This brings us to the potentially divisive issue of just what if anything should governments at all levels be doing to address what I have referred to as dying town syndrome. Until recently, significant state intervention to assist the economic development of rural Australia was accepted as an essential part of government policy. However one of the outcomes of recent economic reform of Australian state and federal governments has been reduced funding for interventionist regional development policies. Given the ongoing commitment to improving Australia’s international competitiveness it seems likely that future Australian governments will basically let the historical process involving the ongoing urbanisation of post-industrial Australia and the restructuring of Australian agriculture, run its course. This will result in the decline and eventual disappearance of hundreds of Australian small towns.

The main arguments raised in favour of significant government intervention to assist rural communities to remain viable entities rarely address the longer-term issues underlying small town decline. It has been argued that small rural towns provide essential services to the local primary industries, which in the case of Australia are major generators of critical export income16. Within certain Australian rural communities it has been assumed that if significantly higher average commodity prices could be obtained for agricultural exports such as wool and wheat this would somehow assist small country towns to remain viable. In reality, in order to access even quite basic services, in health, banking, finance and retailing, both residents and local farming families are increasingly bypassing their local small towns to travel to major regional centres. While this is partly due to a loss of services in smaller towns involving the closure of banks, shops and schools it also reflects individual’s desire to access better quality, more sophisticated services. It is generally only larger centres, with a minimum population of around 10,000, that can provide the range of services required by regional communities including those involved in agriculture. It is also suggested that the demise of small-towns and their regional communities would result in a movement of population to already overcrowded cities causing additional social and environmental problems. In both Australia and the United States the main movement of population from small towns has been and will continue to be to larger, “sponge” regional centres.

Underlying these more pragmatic considerations as to why Australian and American towns in decline ought to be preserved is the widely held view that they are an essential part of both societies’ national heritage. This is so strongly evident in American and Australian literature, film and television culture as to require little further explanation. Central to both mainstream Australia’s and America’s sense of national identity are distinctive small town and rural community values which evolved as part of the pioneering settlers and their descendants response to the harsh conditions of frontier life. In Dance with the Community, Robert Fowler Booth observes that the bucolic image of small town America is looked upon as the repository of the nation’s traditions, norms and values. Another 1991 study claims that three out of four Americans would prefer to live a rural, small town lifestyle.17 In Australia it was the “bush”, loosely defined, rather than small country towns that was central to development of a distinctive Australian legend or ethos18. In his stimulating analysis of the American Middle West, James Shortridge refers to a “general blossoming of rural culture in the United States” where “Hardships had been overcome and people were better for having endured such suffering”. In this sense “the plains (of the American Midwest) were special. There the struggle against climate, grasshoppers and economic depression were substantial”19. Broadly speaking, Australia’s isolated bush towns have been represented by historians and creative writers as having special significance in the evolution of a distinctive, Australian identity. Unlike the Australian colonies which were centrally administered, the expansion of European settlement in the United States in the nineteenth century involved the development of hundreds of relatively independent incorporated small towns. Australians through films and novels based on life in American small towns are familiar with town meetings where the residents, rather than some distant government department made key decisions about “our” school, “our” hospital and “our” police service. As an Australian used to the central provision of essential services it still came as something of a surprise to find incorporated towns with populations of less than two hundred responsible for funding and managing their own schools, police service and alike. Faced with this loss of government services and the apparent indifference of an increasingly urbanised Australia to their plight, should Australia’s declining country towns look to adopt American models of community governance in order to have increased influence in determining their own futures? For reasons which should be readily apparent, I believe that moves towards this type of arrangement would not be in the interests of Australia’s declining small towns or rural regional Australia generally. Rather I would support the development of wider, more autonomous regions of the kind recently proposed by the former Federal Minister Chris Hurford20 in his Australian Constitutional Renewal paper.

In contrast to the United States, descriptions of life in Australian small towns by local writers, serious film-makers and academics has generally been less than positive21. To some extent this has been counterbalanced by the images of country town life portrayed in popular television series such as Bellbird and Country Practice. While these long running series included episodes that deal with such problem issues as racism and alcoholism, they basically represent small country towns as wellsprings of community mindedness and the Australian way of life. Regardless of the place of now declining small towns in national mythology, the reality is that few Australians or Americans wish to live in them. It may well be the case that increasing numbers of Australia’s and America’s retirees or young professionals, in search of a different lifestyle may relocate to small towns. But these will be the scenically located small towns with reasonable amenities or within commuting distance of a major centre.

Regretfully or otherwise, there are no long-term solutions for most small towns in decline in non-coastal Australia and the American Midwest. My recent time in Kansas and other Midwestern states, where the visible signs of small town decline are much more dramatic that for most of regional Australia, brought this reality into sharp focus. “Solutions” such as using cheap and vacant housing to attract working poor or welfare dependent families to reside in small towns will create more problems than solutions. Nor are the interests of small town communities in obvious decline served by well-meaning but “false wizards” in the form of consultants, politicians or other experts who suggest that all would be well if only these communities could work together to develop “innovative” yet totally unrealistic “visions for the future”. Small town communities need to be provided with objective information so as to be able to plan sensibly for their future. For certain small towns in rural Australia facing ongoing decline the best long-term “solution”, for those who wish to leave, may involve a managed movement of population into larger viable regional centres. A challenge for all concerned with the future of small towns in ongoing decline, including participants at the conference, is to assist these communities to come to terms with the realities and consequences of the historical processes outlined in this paper.


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1 National Economics, State of the Regions: A Report prepared by National Economics for the Australian Local Government Association, Sydney, 2000 p.4

2 Interview with Professor John Keller, KSU Manhattan, Kansas, November 19, 1999

3 Kansas, Statistical Abstract, 1999, Thelma Helyar, ed, published by School of Business, Department of Economics, The University of Kansas, May 1999 for details of Kansas Incorporated towns referred to in this paper.

4 ibid p2-84, From April 1991 to April 1999 population of St George increased from 397 to 556.

5 National Economics Report, p.43 Based on ABS data this report rates Local Government authorities in terms of projected population growth. Western Victoria is ranked second last in the bottom fifteen regions.

6 For more detailed accounts of the European settlement of Kansas and South West Victoria see Davis, Kenneth S, Kansas: A History, The States and Nation Series, American Association for State and Local History, W.W Norton & Company, New York, 1984 and Kiddle, M.L, Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria, 1835-1995, M.U.P, Melbourne, 1958 and Lomas, L G. Western District Farmers, 1914-1927, Ph.D, Monash, 1978.

7 For an authoritative account of European-Aboriginal conflict in South West Victoria see Critchett J, A Distant Field of Murder, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988.

8 For a more subjective account of the history of farming and farming communities in Western Kansas see James K. Dickenson’s Home on the Range: A Century on the High Plains, University Press of Kansas, 1995.

9 See J.M. Powell’s The Public Lands of Australia Felix, M.U.P., Melbourne, 1970 and Serle, G, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1851-1861, M.U.P. Melbourne, 1970

10 See Lake, M, The Limits of Hope, OUP, Melbourne 1987 and Smallwood R, Hard to Go Bung. World War II Settlement in Victoria, 1945-1962, Hyland House, Melbourne 1992

11 Lawrence, G, Farm Structural Adjustment: The Imperative for the Nineties, Rural Society, Vol.2, No.4.

12 Alton, Lee J, T-Town on the Plain, Sunflower Press, Kansas 1999.

13 Watslquist, Asa, “Great Diving Range”, Weekend Australian, September 26-27, 1998, pp.23-24.

14 Dickenson, James R, op. cit. P.4

15 For an excellent general survey of recent research relating to American rural communities see Galston, William A & Baehler Karen J, Rural Development in the United States, Connecting Theory and Practice and Possibilities, Island Press, Washington, 1995. For details of financial assistance provided by the Federal Government to regional and rural Australia see Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services, The Rural Book. The handbook of major Federal Government services and programs for people in regional and rural communities. 1999-2000, Edition 1, Canberra, October 1999 and Anderson, John Regional Challenges: Meeting the Challenge, Commonwealth of Australia, 11 May 1999. John Anderson, now leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister was then Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

16 McGovern, Mark, “On the Unimportance of Exports to Australian Agriculture” Australian Journal of Regional Studies, Vol.5, No.2, 1999. For a general account of the recent decline of rural Australia see Lawrence, G. Capitalism and the Countryside: The Rural Crisis in Australia, Sydney, 1987.

17 Matson, Gary A, “Review Essay Redefining the American Small Town: Community Governance, Journal of Rural Studies, Vol.13, No.1, pp.121-130, 1997, p.121. Matson’s article provides a useful definition and recent history of the decline of America’s small towns; much of which is directly applicable to the situation of Australia’s country towns.

18 Ward, Russell, The Australian Legend, Melbourne 1958

19 Shortridge, James R, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 1989, pp.20-21.

20 Hurford, Hon. Chris, AO, Australian Constitutional Renewal, 25 February, 2000. This proposal envisages the creation of a two tier system of regional states through the merging of state and local government.

21 See for example. Dempsey Ken, Small town: A Study of Social Inequality, Cohesion and Belonging, OUP, Melbourne, 1990 and Wild K.A., Bradstow: A Study of Status, Class and Power in Small Australian Towns, Melbourne, 1978

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