People living in small cities and towns across Australia, away from the big capital cities in which about two-thirds of Australians now live, have been worrying about the future of their communities for the best part of a century – and for most of that time, not without good cause.

But it is just possible that the increasing concentration of the Australian population in capital cities – a trend which has been going in since Federation, if not earlier – may have run its course.

The most recent data on ‘internal migration’ published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show an unprecedented, and significant, outflow of population from Australia’s big cities to regional centres since March last year. Music to the ears of local councils – if they are prepared!

Most of the movement  is from Melbourne – a reaction, almost certainly, to the mis-handling of the pandemic by the authorities in that state, and the over-the-top policing of health restrictions (borne out of a much longer-standing tradition in Victoria of using the police as an arm of the State Revenue Office).

But there has also been a significant acceleration in the long-term outflow of people from Sydney, and a marked slowing in the long-term flow of people to Brisbane.

Obviously, these developments have been prompted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there’s a chance that they mark the start of something that may continue after the pandemic has receded.

In particular, people’s experience with the pandemic has shown that people in so-called “white collar” jobs can work effectively, without any loss of ‘productivity’ or the capacity to ‘work in teams’, from their homes, without needing to be at their desks, in their offices provided there is affordable, efficient internet access.

And people doing these jobs have discovered that there are much better things to be doing with the first and last hours of each working day than sitting in their cars as they crawl along clogged freeways, or sniffing the underarms of their fellow passengers on crammed trains, buses and trams – whether that be working, spending time with their families, exercising or just relaxing.

In many cases, these discoveries are likely to become permanent, even after the scourge of Covid-19 has passed. Some workers will, for various reasons, relish the opportunity to return to their offices. And some employers will insist that their staff ‘come back to work’. But many employees will prefer not to: and many employers will see more flexible working arrangements as a way of reducing costs. 

As a result, more people are likely to come to the conclusion – as some already have – that they can ‘escape from the city’ without necessarily having to give up jobs which they enjoy (or jobs on which they rely for their incomes). 

Moreover, if someone only needs to be in ‘head office’ for, say, three or four days a month, the prospect of a four-hour drive, or an equivalent train ride – particularly when it might be possible to ‘start out’ at, say, 10 am rather than before dawn – doesn’t seem so daunting as it would if it had to be done five days a week.

And that in turn opens up the possibility that towns from which it simply isn’t possible to commute to a capital city CBD on a regular basis – towns which are, say, four hours rather than two by road or rail from a capital city centre – may nonetheless become more attractive places for people doing “white collar jobs” to live. 

Of course there will need to be ‘pull’ factors as well as ‘push’ ones to make this possibility a reality. 

In particular, city-based people and families contemplating moving to smaller and more distant towns will want to be confident that they’re not compromising their kids’ access to educational opportunities, or their own access to health care, by moving away from large population centres. They will want access to  attractive and spacious land not eaves rubbing boxes on which they can build houses. And they will expect to find opportunities for recreation and entertainment – not necessarily the same as they might have become used to in big cities, but nonetheless some choices as regards “things to do”. These “things” – food, entertainment, tourist attractions et all could in themselves become business opportunities.

Meeting those expectations will require considered, and concerted, positive responses from all levels of government – federal, state and local. 

We shall see!

Saul Eslake

Independent economist, speaker, company director and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania

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