The life of rural and remote communities, and the lives of young men and women, have been subject to fundamental strains over recent decades. Some have prospered in the changing environment of economic restructuring, globalism, and the social and economic transformations that the communications and information revolution has brought about. Others have worn it hard, and have struggled to survive.
Rural Australia has had to adjust to deregulation both of their own industries and of other sectors on which they are highly dependent - particularly the banks. Buffers and protections have been removed. Government and business policy has homed in more narrowly on economic efficiency as the dominant criterion for decision-making, including decisions about what to put where. Rural Australia has become more centralised and regionalised. As a result, many small rural communities face a downward spiral as local offices close, local business moves to the next big town or to the city, more local businesses shut their doors and young people, facing a jobless town, move away. As the economic core of the town falters, its social and educational resources also tend to deteriorate. Much of this drift has been to capital cities. Most of the rest has been to "sponge cities" - large regional towns where better economies of scale apply - and to the more amenable environments of the coastal fringe.
Young people across Australia have been vulnerable to the impact of economic restructuring, but not more so than in the bush. The collapse of the youth labour market, where many of the jobs that used to be done by young people no longer exist, has hit rural Australia as hard as anywhere else. The youth jobs that have not disappeared have been casualised or made temporary or part time, in the quest for a more flexible, cheaper, ready-made, "just in time" labour force. The growth even in these positions has mostly been in bigger population centres, and young people have followed. Even with the out-migration of young people seeking work, unemployment has been higher among young people in rural Australia than in the city. Young people's involvement in small business has declined, with a more complex business environment and higher start-up costs in many lines of work.
In country areas, these problems have been made worse because access to career information and transition-to-work programs that are available to other young Australians, including job search support. Training programs like apprenticeships and traineeships are difficult to get in places where most businesses employ less than five people and where access to TAFE programs is limited.
Rural young people's vulnerability is accentuated by a global economic environment that is education-hungry. Educational resources are shallower and more thinly spread outside major metropolitan centres, especially in post-compulsory education. It is harder to recruit and to keep experienced and skilled teachers. So young people either content themselves with lower than average levels of education, or leave home to head for the city where secondary, technical and tertiary opportunities are much richer. Access to education is not the only problem. Housing, transport, communications, leisure and cultural resources follow the same pattern.
All of these forces bite harder for Indigenous young people, who have to deal not only with often greater degrees of remoteness and with an educational curriculum that is culturally and linguistically foreign, but also with entrenched discrimination when they are looking for work. As a result, completion rates in education are a fraction of the average, and unemployment rates are much higher.
Current policy directions indicate that the needs of rural Australia are increasingly being recognised by Federal and State Governments, though consultations indicated some concern in current Federal Government labour market policy and programs. Concerns were raised in particular about the Youth Allowance, especially the impact of farm assets on eligibility, compliance problems with Mutual Obligation requirements, and access problems with the Job Network. Many of these issues have been identified by other reports, and several may have already been addressed by the time this report is published.
Projects such as Networking the Nation, the Telecentre network in Western Australia and its equivalents in other States were identified as the kinds of initiatives that are providing an effective base for further educational and economic development for young people. While information and communications technology should not be seen as a cheap substitute for face-to-face services, there was widespread opinion that the potential of this technology had not yet been fully harnessed. The efforts of all levels of government in supporting community development and consultation with young people were appreciated, and their extension, in cooperation and consultation with local communities, was strongly endorsed.
Several towns have recognised that their futures are caught up in the future of their youth. They have brought together the resources they can muster to engage young people, to see what they can do about what young people need in order to stay. They have worked hard to address important contributing factors like transport, accommodation and cultural opportunities. They have thought hard about how to retain local business and foster the local economy, and how to include young people within that. They have worked out the sorts of things, thinking creatively, that could work in their community, and new industries - such as tourism, bakeries or cheese factories or other "boutique" industries, data processing services and other "telework", and specialist agriculture - have been initiated. Studies investigating what went right in such cases have identified the following components:
- belief and expectation;
- local commitment and investment;
- use of community economic development methodology;
- presence of healthy community behaviour, e.g. participation,
- inclusiveness, consensus building;
- local decision-making;
- leadership and its continual renewal (including a focus on young
- men and women); and
- positive and proactive local institutions including education,
- local government and media.
On the last point in particular, schools have a critical role to play in the survival of rural communities that goes way beyond the task of teaching children how to read and write. Very often, schools have provided a point of focus, facilitated linkages, established partnerships with industry, and provided coordinating roles for small town revitalisation. Frequently, this has been done through the energy and enthusiasm of individual teachers and community members. For an approach less dependent on chance, resources - money and training - will need to be provided to encourage and enable country schools to take on some of these roles.
The report documents the efforts of several such towns and communities, here and overseas. Few of them are rags to riches kinds of stories. Some are exciting stories of profound, accelerating change and high imagination. Most involve small-scale initiatives, often vulnerable to the loss of key people from the project or the loss of external support. Many have yet to significantly engage Indigenous young people. But many towns have begun the process of rebuilding, and the potential for an upward spiral of revitalisation is significant. At least, the fundamental reversal has already happened: that young people are seen as the key to the town's future, and are correspondingly valued, honoured and included.
Much remains to be done. While communities themselves must do the driving, there is a major role for governments to play in priming the rejuvenation process, and in providing key supports to encourage, maintain and extend it. This report makes a series of recommendations about ways in which this could be done, and the case studies provide a set of successful examples. There seems to be a growing consensus on the principles, and these are documented in the report. Together, they point to a healthy future for rural communities in Australia.
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