“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”