Regional Australia: International migration key to country towns

In the big Australia debate we should not neglect the role of international migration to small town Australia. Diversity is not just a city thing.

Just as migration is transforming city futures, small towns here in Australia are growing through migration and this is transforming their fortunes. This is no accident, small town communities themselves are leading the way.

To illustrate the trend, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has taken a closer look at significant migrant settlements in our small towns and local areas.

To paint a picture of diversity in regions the RAI used Census data to determine the areas that have a significant concentration of particular ethnic groups residing permanently in local communities.

The results will surprise those who see rural Australia as the stubborn last bastion of 20th century white Australia.

Across Australia, we are seeing significant clusters of Maoris, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Karen, Germans, Italians, Papua New Guineans, South Africans, Irish, as well as French. Our ‘Top 60’ regional ethnic communities include small towns from Western Australia through to Victoria and north to Queensland.

Job opportunities are of course an important factor in these movements. Many of these people have been drawn by opportunities in the mines or in agriculture and related industries, but there are other factors as well.

In rural Dalwallinu WA, a community led migration strategy is responsible for Filipinos now representing 5.5 per cent of its population. As a result, this small rural area, struggling with population decline, turned its fortunes around and achieved 15 per cent population growth. None of this would have happened without community leadership.

Filipinos have also revitalised the town of Pyramid Hill in Victoria. For the first time in many years, this town of just over 420 people is seeing new houses built to accommodate its new Filipino residents - who now make up 25 per cent of its population.

At the local Catholic School, more than 75 per cent of students are Filipino and the town now has a local Filipino grocery store with 400 different grocery lines.

Also in Victoria, Hindmarsh LGA now has a significant Karen population of more than 200 new residents. Again, this is due to the efforts of the community of Nhill and the desire and needs of one local employer, Luv-a Duck poultry farm, to fill local jobs.

These significant changes in population and ethnic diversity don’t happen by accident.

The change is being driven from within rural communities by groups of locals who recognise that if they want their place to grow they need more people, if they want their businesses to succeed they need more workers and if they want their community to thrive they need to be open to change.

The change in our small towns is also being driven by migrants who see the opportunity that rural towns offer. For people looking for a way into the Australian economy, a pathway to owning their own home and for security and community for their families rural areas can offer much better prospects than the run down parts of our major cities.

While it might not solve the traffic jams in Melbourne or Sydney, rural migration strategies can have a meaningful impact on Australia’s other population problem – rural population decline coexisting with permanent jobs going unfilled or not being created at all.

For many towns across Australia, international migration is now the first choice, not the last in addressing population decline.

Migrants are helping to fill the jobs that domestic workers are unwilling to take on. They are correcting aging population trends and they are ensuring important health and education services are being maintained for all residents in our country towns.

In our Big Australia debate let’s make sure there is room and priority for the aspirations and needs of small town Australia, where migration is as much the future as it is in our cities. Many community leaders see this opportunity and we need to make sure we help them to succeed.

Take a look on our website to see if your region made our ‘top 60’ migration area list.

Jack Archer is the chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute.