Successive governments have poured billions of dollars into efforts to improve access to basic services for regional Australians but a new report questions whether that money has reached the towns that need it most.
The report by Regional Australia Institute (RAI) highlights 10 basic services, such as health and education, in towns with populations under 5000, and has graded the level of access for residents living in smaller towns.
Data collected has led to the RAI scoring psychologists, dentists and preschool teachers an ‘F’ grade and social welfare workers a ‘D’ in the Small Towns Report card: access to Services.
RAI chief executive Jack Archer said the news may not come as a shock to those living in rural and remote areas, however it was an opportunity for governments and town, and community, leaders to identify the real issues.
Working from the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics remoteness structure Moree, Inverell and Goondiwindi fall on the border of outer regional Australia where as, Tamworth and Armidale are considered inner regional Australia and do not have the same accessibility issues.
“We use the remoteness measure because it is a way decisions are made about services depending on what type of region you fall in, inner or outer,” he said.
Between 1981 and 2011, the percentage of small towns with a preschool teacher dropped from 25 to 16 per cent, while dentists dropped from 9 to 5 per cent.
The percentage of remote towns with psychiatrists dropped from 24 to 11 per cent in the same period, however, small towns overall saw an increase from 1 to 6 per cent.
“For towns like Moree and Goondiwindi these issues are really familiar, these are things people locally have been working on for years but the report puts the facts on the table.
“We know governments have been spending lots of money on incentive programs for health professionals but now we have to ask the questions ‘is that really going to the areas that need it?’
“Because these are rural and remote areas where we have health and education outcomes that aren’t as great as other parts of the country and we haven’t had the growth in professionals that we need to support these communities,” he said.
Mr Archer noted the location case studies highlighted in the Pillars of Communities report for each state were “quite interesting”.
“In places like Hay and Ceduna these issues of healthcare and education have tried to be resolved locally but there wasn’t a factual picture over the 30-year period for governments and town leaders to look at and say ‘well what can we do to fix this?’.
“This report should really strengthen and inform the discussion about how to use that government money that is on the table to get more doctors and nurses, physiologists and dentists in places like Moree and Goondiwindi,” Mr Archer said.
In summary, the report reveals four main recommendations including: Supporting community led initiatives, creating flexibility in the roles of professionals in small towns, virtual services methods such as online services and incentives to target staff areas.
“We’ve talked to people in small towns and we’ve seen how they’ve tried resolve their issues. We’ve taken their feedback and also looked at the evidence around the broader strategies that matter to create these four key points.
“Incentive funds cannot be soaked up by programs that don’t actually ground in areas that need it, we need to be more flexible on what nurses and primary school teachers can do because they are really important in small towns.
“Online is becoming more and more important so how do we make that work and we need to back local communities. The issues and resolutions in Moree and Goondiwindi are going to be different, let alone a small town on the other side of the country,” he said.
Mr Archer said Cenduna residents identified housing as an issue restricting health care professionals to the area, specifically doctors. Once that was fixed, GPs began taking up work in the town.
To view the full report head to www.regionalaustralia.org.au