Australians pride themselves on a fair go and I believe many would be disappointed that the nearly 1.8 million Australians who live in the 1555 small towns across Australia are still disadvantaged when it comes to having access to many basic essential services.
On top of that, we have pressing problems with mental health - with the rate of suicide in remote areas four times of that in the cities. Other health and schooling outcomes are well below city levels, and kids in rural and remote areas are twice as likely to have developmental issues in early childhood.
It must be recognised that the Turnbull Government has been active in this space. It has allocated over $2billion in the 2017/2018 Commonwealth budget to be spent over four years on workforce and incentive programs to improve the number of health professionals in rural and remote areas. But a report “Pillars of Communities ” recently released by Australia’s first independent regional think tank, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), has cut through the usual anecdotal evidence on rural issues and examined the facts about what is actually going on.
It is a very mixed scorecard in the small towns across Australia, but too often they either don’t have access to a general practitioner, pre-school teacher, psychologist, or dentist – or you have to travel hundreds of kilometres to see one. Contrary to popular belief, more Australians are choosing to live in small towns than they were 30 years ago and they are not shrinking.
Over the last 12 months, RAI has been looking at the how we have fared as a nation in providing access to professional services to residents living in small towns by using census data to track the number of GP’s, dentists, nurses, psychologists, preschool teachers, primary school teachers, police officers, paramedics and social welfare workers in small towns from 1981 to 2011.
The report found only 18 per cent of small towns have access to a GP, just six per cent have a psychologist, and our preschool teacher numbers have gone from a place of advantage - to below the national average.
Firstly, supporting community initiatives is crucial. Each town has unique issues and policy made in Canberra might not fit. It needs to be flexible. If we listen locally and spend locally, we can get a better result. We need to be more flexible about the roles professionals can play and invest in supporting specialist online services. Nursing in Bourke is different to nursing in Sydney.
Finally, we need to target funding to those rural and remote communities that need it most. If spending ends up supporting more professionals in places that don’t need it or goes to programs that don’t have a local impact, we won’t see any change.
We congratulate the Federal Government on the allocation of money but urge them to look closely at better ways of improving the effectiveness of how it is delivered in small towns so we can close the gap on services between cities and regional areas.
- Mal Peters