Is the Australian country town dying?


Connor McGoverne

Ardlethan’s main street

Ardlethan is a town in the Riverina district of New South Wales and at a point last century was a thriving community whose small economy was driven by a large tin mining operation.

But those days have long gone.

Standing in the main street, you can see both ends of town. The paint is peeling from the original weatherboard shop signs and a pub rots in its former glory.

For local resident Pauline, who was born and bred here, the decline over the past 30 years has been significant.

“Ardlethan is an ageing population,” Pauline says. “We’ve got a lot of older people here. It’s going to die. It’ll be here but it’ll die. There’s nothing for people to come here.  There’s no jobs. And what jobs there are, people will stay in them forever. So, the kids have to go away to get a job.”

Ardlethan – population 350 – is symptomatic of many similar-sized towns that, one day, might cease to exist as Australians who were born in the country are increasingly gravitating to the major cities.

Just one third of our population now live in regional Australia with Bureau of Statistics figures showing that since Federation, the proportion of Australians in country areas has almost halved from 64 per cent down to just 36 per cent.

And in that time, the number of country towns that have officially ‘died’ has risen 65 per cent.

Lack of adequate transport, education, and health facilities are often cited as reasons why people migrate to the city.

However, leading demographer and social commentator, Bernard Salt, says that a lack of suitable job prospects has also contributed to the decline of small country towns.

“The issue is that millennials are often highly educated people, requiring skilled employment and there’s not that much opportunity [outside capital cities].”

He says the towns that do thrive rely on being a drivable distance to larger centres – such as Dubbo, Armidale, Mount Gambier and Geelong – that offer the services that smaller towns are so sorely lacking.

Salt foresees a thriving future for these larger regional towns across Australia.

He calls these larger towns ‘sponge cities’, because they offer better access to schools, hospitals, jobs and more, and soak up the population of smaller, surrounding country towns.

This phenomenon is demonstrated in the New South Wales Riverina district.

Wagga Wagga is a thriving city of almost 60,000 and lies equal distance between Sydney and Melbourne.

It is the state’s largest inland city and as an important agricultural centre, Wagga Wagga provides services to smaller towns in the surrounding region.

In that catchment area is Ardlethan. Home to Australia’s iconic sheep dog, the kelpie, the town at its peak had more than 700 people.

But the demise of the tin mine precipitated a slow but steady decline in population, which has led to low school enrolments, businesses closing and job opportunities drying up.

According to the Adrian Beresford-Wiley, CEO of the Australian Local Government Association, the ‘sponge city’ effect has led to the decline of towns like Ardlethan but, at the same time, also improved the quality of life for people in those communities.

“One of the things that we’ve done in regional areas over the past fifty years is pour an enormous amount of money into trying to strengthen infrastructure, particularly roads,” Bereford-Wiley says.

“What that’s actually done is link those smaller communities with larger regional communities around them.

“But we’ve seen a drain out of those smaller regional communities and people shop in the larger communities now because the roads are better and it’s easier to drive for half an hour from a small town to a larger regional centre.”

It’s not all gloom and doom.

Peter Kenyon is an economist and small town expert who was the 2017 Senior West Australian of the Year.

He says that if young people can be convinced to remain in, or move to the country, they will hold the key to keeping small country towns alive.

“It’s estimated that by 2025 that the average age in the wheatbelt of Western Australia for example will be 65,” Kenyon says.

“The most critical age group in any community is your 25-40 age group. That’s the group who have family, that’s the group who starts businesses, that’s the group who are buying homes, that’s the group who provide your mentors and your coaches of local groups. That’s the group we have to attract back.

In Ardlethan, Pauline says the shrinking of the town has not all been bad news.

“It’s funny, you don’t think you have lots of things in the country, but you do. It gets in your blood when you live in the country. It probably happens for people who live in the city but who wouldn’t want to live out here?”