The future of small Australian towns


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1991


Five years ago, the residents of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory envisaged a thriving community with an increasing population and employment opportunities. But the outlook now, as the recession settles in, is bleak and typical of that facing most small Australian towns. Towns such as Tennant Creek, argues the author, are important in sustaining the rural and mainly inland fabric of Australian society. They need to be supported in such a way that they offer a genuinely viable alternative to living in cities. Tennant Creek is one of the communities included in the Australian Institute of Family Studies Study of Australian Living Standards.

That employment is a major issue, and will remain so throughout the nineties, is nowhere more obvious than in rural and remote communities like Tennant Creek, in the middle of the Northern Territory. In the local idiom, the situation can be summed up simply: 'There's no work here, eh.'

Here, where the Institute has begun interviewing for the Australian Living Standards Study, the community has lost ground during the eighties, despite all its efforts and plans. Of course, there is work in town, but not nearly as much as would be needed to hold the line, let alone offer increased opportunities.

The town's ambition to double its population by the end of the decade has faded to the reality of a town shrinking in size, due mainly to the drying up of traditional sources of work, particularly in the mining industry. Townspeople estimate that the population has dropped from 3500 in 1986 to something less than 3000.

As a small town distant from a major population centre, Tennant Creek is not alone in its difficulties; such towns are under increasing threat from the need of governments and private enterprises to constrain their spending in areas of health, education, employment support and general service administration. The threatened withdrawal of such services recently provoked a 24-hour general strike in Broken Hill a signal that small towns are not about to simply lie down and die.

The advent of telecommunications, the support mechanisms offered through the social security system and the relatively smooth provision of stores and supplies make survival easier to prolong. And the determination of small town residents is further fortified by their real sense that cities are overcrowded and polluted.

Building Better Small Towns

Under the recently announced Building Better Cities Program, significant funding was allocated to looking at the issues of controlling the growth of cities and the implications of urban sprawl for providing services. Perhaps some of that money needs to be allocated to looking more closely at 'Building Better Small Towns'.

Such towns are important in sustaining the rural and mainly inland fabric of Australian society. They need to be supported in such a way that they offer a genuinely viable alternative to living in cities. Boosting employment opportunities would need to continue to head the list, but a more comprehensive approach is necessary to monitor the effects of policy change and to plan the future of small towns with social, as well as economic, goals in mind.

People living in rural and remote communities have been accustomed to hardship in the course of the natural cycle of drought, fire and floods, but they are not prepared to accept without a fight the new regionalism which, in the pursuit of economic rationalisation, takes services away from small towns as rural employment shrinks.

With new regionalism there is no promise, as there is in the natural cycle, that all will turn around again. Once a service has been withdrawn to a town that may be hundreds of kilometres away, or is being delivered over the telephone rather than face-to-face, will it ever be restored to its former level of operation?

In Tennant Creek, as in other rural and remote communities, people are being mobilised in the battle to retain services for residents. Town officials ply the thousands of kilometres between home and the centres of political decision making Darwin, Canberra, Alice Springs to argue over relatively small amounts of funding.

The argument, although somewhat more complex in its detail for different situations in different towns, is based on a simple premise: small communities function differently from large, cosmopolitan conurbations. And yet most policy making and design are done by urban dwellers with urban experiences and structures in mind. It is often forgotten that measures that work in cities may have little meaning in a town where, for instance, public transport is confined to the Wakkapikari Aboriginal-owned supermarket bus and a taxi service that targets the car-less (largely the Aboriginal community), and where travel by bus to the nearest centre 500 kilometres away costs $80 one way (unaffordable to the town's unemployed and low wage-earners).

As the area manager of the Northern Territory Open College of TAFE in Tennant Creek said in making a submission to the recent inquiry into adult and community education by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training: 'We are given programs to work with, and funding is tied very closely to programs, with rules that do not work in the Northern Territory.'

In discussing service delivery, Smith (1989) argues that there needs to be a range of options to choose from, sometimes using one option alone and sometimes several in combination. This, he says, provides 'remote areas welfare services which can accommodate the ''special characteristics'' of those areas'.


Although Tennant Creek (like the other two country areas in the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study Roma in Queensland and to a lesser extent Berri in the Riverlands) is a regional centre, its employment situation is so difficult that the town council has made a request for the whole town (not just the Aboriginal population) to be considered for the Community Development Employment Plan.

This program allows a community to administer social security payments in return for hours of work done, and at the same time to receive extra funding for the purchase of equipment needed for acceptable work projects. Its main application has been among Aboriginal communities, but in Tennant Creek (where around two-thirds of the population is not Aboriginal), unemployment is not confined to any one group. Mine layoffs, the closure of the meatworks and the contraction of the service industry to larger centres have all contributed to local jobs being scarce. Like everywhere else, though, Aboriginal people have far greater difficulty obtaining work outside that offered by their own organisations, now usually with funding from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

The town is planning to boost tourism to help develop employment opportunities.

It has set up a 'search conference' to allow Aboriginal people to discuss their employment avenues, and existing barriers, with employers from the town and the nearby mining and pastoral industries an initiative developed from the ideas of the first Aboriginal person elected to the town council and followed up by an active non-Aboriginal councillor who is herself a small employer in the town.

There is, too, a significant group of non-Aboriginal people who were born in the town, or who are long-term residents, or who were attracted originally by jobs that have since dried up, whose needs for employment must be recognised.

As well, Tennant Creek has a significant young population coming up through the schools who will need jobs if they are not to be lost to the bigger towns and cities. The Aboriginal young people will be less likely to leave town, as they and their families have ties to the land and live either in the 11 town camps, the town itself or on the developing outstations in the region. However, without jobs, their prospects are more of the same: unemployment just like their parents.

On the Cutting Edge

These locally initiated employment activities, like many others underway in employment, health, recreation, education and social areas, portray a town of political dynamism. Tennant Creek, Roma and the Riverlands may be small and distant but are really microcosms of the same political processes that occur in larger conurbations. The political wisdom of key figures in the town is called into play at least as often as their urban colleagues, and their ingenuity stretched to the same extent. The fax machines of Tennant Creek run hot when new policy initiatives are announced in Darwin or Canberra.

As Jull (1991) notes: 'One of the more harmless errors southerners make about the north is that public affairs there are undeveloped. In fact, northerners are more intense and constant in their discussions of public and political issues than most southerners.'

These dynamic rural and remote communities in which the Institute is pleased to be working will provide a key to sustaining country families into the 21st Century.


  • Jull, P. (1991), The Politics of Northern Frontiers: in Australia, Canada and Other 'First World' Countries, North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University, Canberra.
  • Smith, B. (1989), Welfare Service Delivery: Options for Remote Areas, NADU Occasional Paper No.2, North Australia Development Unit, Darwin.

The Australian Living Standards Study includes three country communities in its 12 study areas: Riverlands, in South Australia; Roma, in Queensland; and Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory. Early visits to all three areas, and more intense work now being carried out in Tennant Creek, produced the above observations. The Institute has received invaluable guidance and pragmatic wisdom from Barry Smith, from the North Australia Development Unit, in starting its work in these areas. He, in turn, is carrying out the Study on behalf of the Institute and NADU at two other remote communities in Queensland: Richmond and Doomadgee.