Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

What is the future for Australia’s declining country towns?

By Gordon Forth - posted Thursday, 31 August 2000

In second semester 1999, as a Visiting Faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Community Planning at Kansas State University, I had the privilege of studying small-town decline and revitalisation in America’s Midwest. As a regional historian with a long-term interest in Australia’s regional communities, I was seeking to discover just what Australian country towns experiencing decline could learn of practical value from their Midwestern counterparts.

My time at KSU and fieldwork undertaken in the United States provided useful insights into the complex factors underlying the ongoing decline of both American and Australian small towns and how certain rural towns have successfully reinvented themselves. Yet the main, unanticipated consequence of my recent journey along the Yellow Brick Road that commenced in Manhattan, Kansas was to reach certain conclusions regarding the inevitable long-term decline and eventual demise of certain small towns in non-coastal Australia. Some of the views presented in this paper may verge on the heretical. I will argue that the decline and ultimate demise of many smaller country towns is part of an inevitable historical process and should be accepted as such.

The decline of Australian country towns and the regional communities of which they are part needs to be considered in the context of Australia’s recent economic history. It is in an understanding of this historical process, rather than singling out recent government policies or pointing the collective finger at multinational companies or the globalised economy that we gain critical insights into the underlying causes of small-town decline. I would suggest that even if government policies that have impacted negatively on regional Australia were reversed and agricultural commodity prices return to the higher levels of the long boom (1950-74), this would do little to prevent the ongoing decline of many Australian country towns.


My understanding of what constitutes regional decline was broadened as a result of visiting a number of smaller incorporated towns within commuting distance of Manhattan, a prosperous university town of 38,000 in north-central Kansas. One such township was St George, once a thriving agricultural-transport centre that now provides "affordable housing" for low-income families employed mainly in nearby Manhattan. In the case of St George statistical evidence confirms the obvious visible indicators of small-town decline, yet due to the availability of affordable housing, including the development of a basic mobile home park on the outskirts of the town, the town’s population is actually growing. The point that needs to be emphasised, is that while population loss remains the key indicator of rural decline in rural Australia, in the United States this is not necessarily the case.

Though less apparent than in north-central Kansas, the lower cost of rental accommodation in Australia’s country towns is providing an attraction to welfare-dependent families rather than the working poor due to the general lack of employment opportunities in these towns. If the gap between urban rich and rural poor continues to widen, a possible, albeit unattractive, future for country towns would be to provide alternative affordable accommodation but minimal services for a new inter-generational underclass.

Before describing the historical events that resulted in the establishment, development and inevitable decline of hundreds of rural towns in the American Midwest and Australia, let me define country towns. The Australian country towns with which this paper is primarily concerned are those with populations between 200 and 4000, which are experiencing ongoing decline.

At this point, those concerned with the future of Australia’s small towns in decline might well ask why one should look to the American Midwest for new insights or possible solutions. In both Australia and the United States the great majority of small towns experiencing ongoing decline are located in rural regions and remain dependent on resource industries – agriculture, forestry and mining and related manufacturing – for wealth and employment generation. In terms of understanding the underlying causes and developing policies to assist Australia's country towns in decline, the history and recent experience of the American Midwest is highly relevant.

While there are important differences in the political, cultural and physical environment of the two regions, the basic, yet often overlooked, reason why small towns in both these wider regions have, are and will almost certainly continue to decline has to do with the nature of European settlement in the Midwest and non-coastal Australia. In both regions European exploration and subsequent occupation involved several decades of rough pioneering during which time enterprising settlers sought a better life through agriculture, speculative livestock farming and mining. In both places the arrival of Europeans with their diseases, firearms and land-hunger heralded the dispossession of the indigenous population and wholesale destruction of native wildlife.

Recently arrived European migrants and families from the previously settled areas sought to establish themselves as small-scale agriculturalists, often on land that was basically unsuitable for the purpose. Restricted by the obvious limitations of horse transport and encouraged by the construction of private and public rail transport systems, these settlers were responsible for the establishment of hundreds of small towns in Australia and the United States that provided basic services to local farming communities. Though increasingly mechanised, agriculture in the late nineteenth century was still labour-intensive and provided regular or seasonal employment for farm labourers as well as family members.


In post-goldrush Victoria and New South Wales, newly constituted democratic governments promoted closer settlement schemes that involved the forced-resumption selection and sale before survey of vast areas of Crown land. The so-called "Free Selection Acts" of the 1860s largely failed to achieve their stated purpose of establishing a class of self-sufficient Yeoman farmers in place of large-scale pastoral leaseholders. However, in south-west Victoria, Free Selection together with an increased demand for labour in the pastoral industry resulted in the rapid growth of small towns such as Merino, Casterton and Branxholm.

Following both World Wars, the Australian government developed Soldier Settlement schemes to provide thousands of veterans with an opportunity to become farmers. As with the Free Selection Acts, the productive capacity of land allotted to many soldier settlers was insufficient for viable farming enterprise. The subsequent restructuring of Australian agriculture has involved the ongoing consolidation of many of these farms into larger holdings.

The initial optimism of farming communities in the American Midwest and rural Australia west of the Great Dividing Range was soon tempered by the discovery that these regions were subject to prolonged periods of drought, destructive floods, bush-prairie fires and insect and mice plagues. In both regions, overstocking of grazing land and wholesale clearing of native vegetation reduced the productive capacity of what was in many cases marginal farming land. In Australia, environmental degradation of marginal farming land has impacted on the viability of many small towns that basically depend on local agriculture for their survival.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This is an edited extract from a speech given at the First National Conference Future of Australia’s Country Towns Bendigo, June, 2000.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Gordon Forth is director of the Centre for Regional Development at Deakin University.

Related Links
Deakin University
Dr Forth's concern about misrepresentation
Photo of Gordon Forth
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy