News headlines about rural Australia decry its demise and increasing marginalisation. The ‘death’ of the country town is measured according to number of parameters, for example, departing small business, broader economic decay, the outmigration of young people, or an ageing population. While rural Australia is by no means a ‘sexy’ topic within the academe or more broadly, it remains important. Particularly for a nation with a unique geographic profile characterised by a relatively small population spread across a vast land. Indeed, concern has risen and generated debates regarding the relative sustainability and viability of rural towns in Australia. Such discussions have become a central topic within rural studies, as well as government
Much of this talk about rural Australia makes broad assumptions on what constitutes ‘rural’, and the dynamics that are occurring. Often, a particular version of rurality is imagined within these contexts. It is a clear vision of a small country town in decline. It is a place where an agricultural industry once thrived and where nostalgia reigns. Where, on the whole, things used to be much better ‘when we were young’. It is a discourse increasingly focused on young people. They are cast as potential saviours, selfishly moving away and forgetting their country roots. What they leave behind is an aging, ailing population. They run from unemployment, as well as endless boredom punctuated by long car drives from place to place.
This is indeed a dismal imagining of rural decline and disadvantage. It is also a highly homogenized rendering of rural towns and the experiences of those who live there. Most people in Australia, if asked, have a ready idea of what a ‘rural town’ is and what it looks like. However, rural Australia is an incredibly diverse type of place that is difficult to adequately define.
While populations may fluctuate over time, they are not necessarily in constant decline. For example, population mobility takes place in the form of international migration or sea/tree changers. Further, the decision young people make on whether to leave or stay is not necessarily straightforward. Still the realities and disadvantages of living in rural Australia are very real. Still, once some of this complexity is introduced, it becomes much more difficult to provide an absolute categorisation of rurality. More than a demographic reckoning based on population, geography or industry, rural places can be understood in a variety of different ways. Imaginings and discourses narrating rural localities reproduced within the media and other outlets do not always take this into account.
Is it quantitatively true though? Is rural Australia in constant, irretrievable decline? Will the country end up as one gigantic, amorphous urban sprawl?
Perhaps. Though these kinds of dystopian imaginings neglect the heterogenaety, diversity and inherent complexity of rural places. So a more fruitful way to talk about rural places in Australia may not be to envision a ‘typical country town’ in opposition to city places. Ultimately, more can be gained by conceiving localities and regions in the particular context in which they have emerged.