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Population shock: "Past the point of no return for some regional towns"

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Population growth in regional South Australia has not merely stalled but gone backwards, with the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing an alarming decline in the 12 months to June last year.

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The ABS’s Regional Population Growth figures, published last week, show Greater Adelaide growing at just 0.7 per cent (9371 people), well behind all other metropolitan centres in percentage terms.

The metro growth rate for SA was also behind the regional growth rate for New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

But perhaps more concerning was that the rest of the state’s population, while remaining static in percentage terms, actually fell by 109 people to 381,781.

Migration agent Mark Glazbrook, who has previously called for reductions to the 457 visa threshold to stimulate regional employment, says the latest data is “very concerning”.

“When you look at the number of regional centres losing hospitals or schools closing down… it almost appears as though we’ve now gone past the point of no return for some regional towns,” he said.

“Many will find it very hard to wind back the population issues they’re facing.

“Unless we can get changes made to the structure of the migration program that allows those towns to attract the type of worker that they need, they’re not going to be able to even backfill those vacancies.”

Glazbrook says it was “not that long ago” that population growth in SA was more than 20,000 per year, including 5000 to regional SA.

The former Rann Government’s strategic plan had a population target of 2 million by 2027, but Glazbrook says to achieve that now, “SA would need to grow at 30,000 people per year, not 9400 per year”.

“If we could attract 30,000 people per year to SA, that would transform our economy and could potentially create 30,000 new jobs per year,” he said.

He said the figures would have been far worse if not for the efforts of the Murray Bridge, Nuriootpa, Victor Harbor and Light regions, which all experienced notable growth – but “outside of these areas regional population fell by 870 people”.

“The fact that there were more people living in regional SA 12 months ago than there is today is reason for grave concern,” he said.

“Depopulation of regional areas is a significant problem and will continue unless something changes to advert this trend. This is why urgent changes to the Australian migration program are required.”

The first order of business for Mark McGowan’s new Labor Government in WA last month was to request Perth’s removal from the regional sponsored migration scheme, a move the Premier argued would “put WA jobs first”.

Glazbrook said such rhetoric was symptomatic of the current political dialogue, in which members of both major parties as well as the likes of Pauline Hanson and Dick Smith have helped demonise regional migration.

“It certainly does, and post-Trump I suppose we’ve seen a lot of that,” he said.

“I think there’s a big element of this which is more about politics than looking at a non-political economic discussion about what’s best for SA and our regional areas, and ensuring they’re able to grow [in a way] that creates economic opportunities and jobs and helps them to maintain the essential services that they need.”

He said that for every person that moved to regional SA, “it’s going to create at least one more job”.

Questions to Regional Development Minister Geoff Brock’s office were initially referred on to Employment Minister Kyam Maher, before being referred back to Brock, who conceded: “It’s a concern when regional population numbers decline.”

“That’s why we have a number of initiatives in place to grow our regional economy,” he said in a statement.

brock cabinet

Geoff Brock with Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis and Premier Jay Weatherill in Port Pirie this week. Photo: Facebook

“One example of this is the Regional Development Fund which has been increased to $15 million a year to create more jobs in our regions. Another example is the Regional Youth Traineeship Program for councils across the state which has created 114 jobs for young people in our regions. They undertake a two-year traineeship with a local council which keeps them in the regions with a job.”

Premier Jay Weatherill’s ‘Country Cabinet’ is this week visiting regions in the mid-north, including Brock’s home town of Port Pirie, and is in Whyalla today.

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