Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Social change in rural, regional & remote areas : changes brought by the car and good roads : poor mobile phone coverage

I have spent a fair slice of my life living in rural and regional areas in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.  I can recall a time when the only Woolworths and Coles stores west of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland were in Mount Isa.  

I read this article to-day about the mooted closure of primary schools at Toobanna, Bambaroo, and Helen's Hill. 

The drive from Townsville to Cairns is one of my favourite sections of car travel.  I used to live at Bluewater Park, half an hour north of Townsville, between Halifax Bay and the Bluewater Ranges which are part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage listing.  Some mornings, on the way to work, I was quite conflicted.  Turn right for Townsville and work or turn left for a beautiful three hour drive to Cairns.

Just up the road is Ingham and along the Bruce Highway are some beautiful scattered country schools: Toobanna, Helen's Hill, Bambaroo.

While Townsville sits in the Dry Tropics, the Wet Tropics begin just south of Rollingstone.  The three schools being considered for closure are situated in one of the wettest areas in Australia.  They are nestled in a sea of green.  I loved seeing them.  In my mind's eye, I idealised them as oases of education and centres of community life and knowledge.  To know that they are being listed for closure brings sadness with it - as I am sure it does for those closely associated with the schools and the communities in which they are situated.  

However, modern life brings its realities.  Reliable family transport and a major highway make it more likely that children can be schooled in nearby Ingham or even Townsville.  The car and personalised transport have given us much and taken much.

I recall, when I was living and working in Walgett in the early part of the last decade, hearing from local residents of the impact of cars and a good road on their community.  People could now travel comfortably to Dubbo for shopping.  The pull of convenience, greater choice, and lower prices to larger centres takes a great deal from isolated and remote communities.  It takes the dollar out of town. It deadens the streets.  People do other things while they are away shopping - visiting the doctor and the hairdresser and so on.  This can mean that the smaller community might find it hard to get a doctor into town because the health business goes elsewhere.

Admittedly, in the early 21st century, we find things changing in more closely settled areas as people repopulate small villages and rural areas which are in driving distance - or are well served by public transport - of a major centre.  A pull factor in these areas is  the affordability of land and housing. These areas are seeing a rejuvenation - more kids at the local school; local markets springing up; a  somewhat different economy developing.  

Meanwhile, in remote and isolated areas the decline continues.  The rigid and anti-people orientation of mining companies to FIFO policies is working solidly and in ever-extending circles against the economic interests of inland Australia.

Australia is being hollowed out.  I know of no better example of what is happening in out-of-sight-out-of-mind remote Australia than the Telstra map of the continent showing its mobile coverage.

In many places in remote Australia, Telstra is THE ONLY mobile service.  From Alice Springs to Tennant Creek is a drive of approximately five hours.  From just north of Alice to just south of Tennant there is no mobile coverage.  In Alice, Telstra is not the only provider.  In Tennant, Telstra is the only provider.  In recent times, remote Australia has been the greatest source of development, wealth, and employment - yet it still does not have the universal competitive communications service that is available in the closely settled coastal and near inland areas of the continent.

Postscript:  My inland credentials - as well as Walgett, NSW - include McArthur River Station, NT; Mount Isa, Qld; Tennant Creek, NT; and (currently) Black Hill in Ballarat, Vic.  I am currently living in my third mining town and my second gold town.  

I live at the foot of Black Hill and across the road from the Yarrowee River - a very historic part of Ballarat where they used to roll the quartz down the hill to the river to use the water to reveal the gold.  These three mining towns are the best places I have ever lived. 

Ballarat and the regions surrounding it are undergoing population growth as people move from Melbourne to a more affordable and comfortable lifestyle while living close to Melbourne with comfortable access by road and rail.  .  

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