How immigration could solve the rural population dilemma

Living Well | Words: Peter Wilmoth | Photos: Eamon Gallagher | Posted on 13 February 2019

The answer to Melbourne’s population boom may be in regional Victoria.

The story of rural Victoria is being re-written. And Leonard Nyandwi and his family are part of that changing narrative.

Leonard, 37, grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1996 he fled that country and spent many years in refugee camps before settling in Melbourne. In January 2018 Leonard moved to Hamilton in western Victoria with his wife and four children under nine (a fifth child was born in August).

He works two days a week in childcare as an assistant educator and has been loaned an acre of land, where he is growing crops for his family, as he did in his homeland. He says his family has found somewhere they can call home.

The people here gave us a warm welcome. They come to see you, you talk with them. That didn’t happen in Melbourne.

Image slideshow: Leonard Nyandwi and his family; Rupanyup; Guillermo Javier Sierra in Rupanyup.

Leonard and his family – along with three other families from the Great Lakes region of East Africa who have recently settled in Hamilton – are among rural Victoria’s many success stories, having left a congested Melbourne and joined a community where farming and friendship go hand in hand.  

 “The people here gave us a warm welcome. They are very approachable people. They come to see you, you talk with them. That didn’t happen in Melbourne,” Leonard says. 

The four families – the others are from Burundi and Rwanda – have settled well into Hamilton, having been introduced to the town on a “welcome weekend” where they took a bus tour guided by locals. 

“We stayed in someone’s house, something that would never happen in the city,” Leonard says. “Everyone on that tour – no one slept in a hotel, they stayed with people. It was amazing.”

Data clearly shows consistent job growth in regions and a rising workforce shortage.

The story of rural Victoria is a complex one. It has often been told as one of shrinking job opportunities, an ageing population and stagnant or declining population numbers. But head to rural Victoria today and you’ll hear stories of growth, renewal, unity, strength and opportunity.

Some of those stories are told by those born and bred there and now returning. Others are from migrants making a new life. And still others are from community leaders loudly proclaiming a bright future for their towns, arguing that now is a fork-in-the-road moment for country Victoria. 

Melbourne remains the magnet for the vast majority of new residents – with annual population growth of 125,000, it is one of the fastest-growing developed cities in the word, resulting in significant pressure on infrastructure, services and congestion. Meanwhile some regional centres are struggling to maintain the population ‘critical mass’ needed to sustain services such as schools and healthcare. 

The challenge of diverting some of the city’s explosive growth to regions that need more people is at the centre of the state’s political and economic conversation and is also part of the national debate about migration levels. In the recent state election, both major political parties announced policies to encourage decentralisation, promising increased funding for regional hospitals (Labor) and tax incentives, fast train services and establishing a Population Commission (the coalition). In November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged a review of migration settings to disperse new arrivals into regional areas, declaring that buses, trains and schools in Sydney and Melbourne were “full”.

Cows standing in a dry, grassy field looking at the camera
Monochrome silo art mural created by Russian artist Julia Volchkova
Cows grazing in dry field with a big eucalyptus tree in the background

While policy makers grapple with the challenge of ‘dispersing’ Victoria’s population more evenly, the landscape has changed. Growth in health services, tourism and technology has spawned more and different job opportunities in the regions. Sky-high house prices in Melbourne, and growing traffic problems, mean rural Victoria has never looked more appealing.

In south-west Victoria, the South Coast Economic Migration Pilot is a shining example of how rural challenges can be turned into strengths. Initiated in 2017, the program helps African migrants such as Leonard and his family settle into a welcoming community and find employment, housing and schools. International migration is said to be the key to attracting people to rural Victoria, so advocates are watching this and similar pilot programs with interest.

As an agricultural service town with a population just short of 10,000, Hamilton encapsulates the challenges of life in rural Victoria. While advancing technology is creating new opportunities and driving demand for workers, the town’s distance from Melbourne means it must create its own sustainable future. That means growing its population. Described as a town at “population risk”, Hamilton needs a critical mass to survive, says mayor Mary-Ann Brown. “You need to have a certain level of population to make services sustainable,” she says.

We have many places to live in Australia, we just haven’t been very good at presenting those opportunities to people.

Rural Councils Victoria, established in 2005 to co-ordinate the network of 38 rural councils across the state, released a report in July last year that noted while the state’s population is projected to increase by 1.68 million over the next 15 years, only six per cent of this growth is expected to occur in rural Victoria.

Indeed the report found people were leaving many parts of rural Victoria in increasing numbers. And as numbers dwindle, services such as schools and health care become unsustainable, which in turn drives further population decline.

One solution is international migration. Regional Australia Institute (RAI) deputy CEO Jack Archer says regions now attract just 15 to 20 per cent of international migration. “We’ve got to get a lot better at this,” he says. 

The benefits of regional growth flow through the economy. The RAI notes that when people choose regional centres instead of big cities, there are substantial savings for the economy through avoided congestion and mortgage costs. 

David Matthews, a 60-year-old farmer born and raised in Rupanyup, about 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, agrees. “Melbourne and Sydney are now full, and governments are struggling to keep up with infrastructure needs,” he says. “We have many places to live in Australia, we just haven’t been very good at presenting those opportunities to people.

statistics on housing in Victoria

“We’ve been bashing away at this for a long time, but it’s only because of housing affordability and congestion issues in Melbourne that we’re now getting some attention in a policy sense but also from individuals saying, ‘Wow, is this really the way I want to live my life?’ Here (in Rupanyup and the Wimmera region in general) you can buy a house for $200,000, and your average commute time to work is three minutes.” 

But if rural Victoria is such a good news story, why is it still seen by some as at risk? The RAI says the public debate is prejudiced by negative generalisations, the most damaging of which is that there are no jobs in the regions. “This is not the case,” says Jack Archer. “Data clearly shows consistent job growth in regions and a rising workforce shortage.” 

He says that since 2016, job vacancy growth in the regions has outstripped our big cities, as roles in health and social services replace declining opportunities in manufacturing and agriculture.

The myth of high unemployment in the regions frustrates locals. Guillermo Javier Sierra and his wife Magda, both vets, arrived in Australia from Colombia in 2012. Five years ago they moved from Melbourne to Rupanyup, population 536. Guillermo is working as a crop supervisor as he and Magda cannot practise in Australia until they have upgraded their degrees. They have two daughters, and are in no doubt the move has been a success. 

“It’s been five wonderful years,” Guillermo says. “It is a beautiful community. The people were really kind and welcoming.”

As long as there are sufficient support services available, migrants are often a great source of labour for businesses needing people with a range of skills and a willingness to work.

He doesn’t miss the traffic jams and crowds of the city. “In Melbourne people might be working alongside you and not say hello. Here people wave at you from the other side of the street … That’s really good, knowing each other, sharing dinner with the people in our street.

“On Saturdays everyone is at the oval watching the footy game and netball games. All the community is involved.”

If rural Victoria’s development has been slowed by any single thing, it’s shortsightedness: strategies over the years have lacked an overall plan. Hamilton mayor Mary-Ann Brown says even now strategies for matching migrants with rural communities have not been adequate. 

“I said to Leonard (Nyandwi) ‘When you were told you were coming to Australia as a refugee was there any discussion about where you might like to live?’ He said ‘no’. If we’re looking at our migration, should that be a conversation? Even in the skilled migration program, to identify people who would be committed to rural areas.

“There’s only now starting to be a discussion about what is a reasonable level of population, for Australia, and for cities,” she says. “I think governments are in crisis mode in dealing with that growth.”

But from crisis comes opportunity, and the Great South Coast Economic Migration Pilot program is one. Researchers from the universities of Wollongong and Melbourne are evaluating the program with a view to making it a template for other regions. 

I got sick of the rat race. Here you can take a step back, take a breath. In Melbourne you’re always on the go.

 “It has so much potential,” says Carly Jordan, the pilot’s founder and project manager.  

“There are so many opportunities to fill gaps in labour shortages.” 

She says local farmers lending land to African migrants exemplifies the way the region is working towards growing and welcoming its newest residents. “The donation of farmland is a key element of the project, because you don’t have those opportunities in the city,” she says. “That’s an example of the local people being hospitable. And a lot of migrants say that when they were living in Melbourne they didn’t know their neighbours.”

According to Rural Councils Victoria, regional Victoria needs to reach a population growth target of 8 per cent over the next five years, which equates to average annual growth of 1.55 per cent. The impacts of increasing population growth in country Victoria include offsetting expected congestion costs in metropolitan areas in the order of $5 billion to $10 billion a year. 

For Paul Shipp, co-author of the Rural Councils Victoria report, ‘second move’ migration into the regions is key to healthy population growth. “As long as there are sufficient support services available, migrants are often a great source of labour for businesses needing people with a range of skills and a willingness to work.”

If communities rally to attract migrants, if governments follow through on plans to improve rail links, and if rural Victoria can promote its attractions more effectively, rural Victoria could be a good news story.

Leonard’s lot

After a generous Hamilton farmer loaned a small parcel of land to his family, Leonard Nyandwi has grown corn, peas and other vegetables, which he hopes will develop into a produce business. “We are attached to the land,” he says of the families from Africa. “And it means we are producing our own food, which is very important for us.”

The people of Hamilton have ensured that their new neighbours receive support on personal and practical levels. The town’s “Language Cafe” is a place where recent arrivals from both Australia and overseas get together and socialise, practise English if needed, and network. “The more people you know, the more opportunities you get,” says Leonard.

Rural life has many advantages for Leonard and his family. He is spending less on food and fuel, and his children receive closer attention in smaller school classes. There is no heavy traffic, there is productive land and a range of work opportunities. 

“Most of the people from my background in the city don’t have jobs, they depend on Centrelink,” he says. “I’m not telling them to come, but if they do they will see the difference.”

Many happy returns

While many young people leave the regions, some are now coming back. Marcus Goonan grew up in the tiny town of Dederang in north-east Victoria, about 50 kilometres from Albury-Wodonga. His family owns a 242-hectare beef cattle property. After 15 years living in Richmond in inner Melbourne, Marcus and his partner Lara have recently moved back to the town.

“Lifestyle is the main reason,” he says. “I got sick of the rat race. Here you can take a step back, take a breath. In Melbourne you’re always on the go.”

Fittingly, as we speak, Marcus has a line in the Kiewa River, where he’s angling for trout. “It’s crystal clear,” he says of the river. “Too clear. Not ideal for fishing but great to look at.”

Marcus says living in the country is different from when he was a kid. “Now the general store has a couple of good baristas, there are great organic wineries and good food. It has so much to offer – sports clubs, tennis, bowls, netball, cricket. And you’re welcomed with open arms because they really need people to keep things going.”

Managing the growing pains

For 10 years Victoria’s population growth has been the strongest of any Australian state or territory and it is forecast to almost double by 2050. Victoria’s liveability and economic wellbeing rely heavily on the ability of the transport network to meet the demands of our growing population across the state.

While the size of Victoria’s regional communities will remain modest compared to Greater Melbourne, projections indicate that our regional population will swell from 1.4 million to 2.1 million by 2051.

RACV has called on the federal and state governments to fund 76 transport projects that it has identified are needed across Victoria’s 10 largest regional centres and major commuter corridors. The projects, costed at $4.7 billion, include road, public transport and bicycle projects and are detailed in RACV’s 2018 Regional Growing Pains report.

RACV’s general manager public policy and corporate affairs, Bryce Prosser, says that while it has been positive to see increased funding for regional rail and road safety in recent years, there is still a lot that needs to be done. 

“A holistic approach to planning is required so that we keep up with the needs of Victorians.

“RACV wants to see a pipeline of regional transport projects developed with ongoing funding supported by all political parties, making Victoria a great place to live.”