Rural communities are as diverse in kind and character as they are numerous while also often sharing characteristics in common like small population size and diversity, strong senses of tradition, a wariness of outsiders who rush to judgment about them, and reliance on a limited range of economic activity.
In relation to Australia's future, vibrant productive rural communities are of critical importance- an absolutely ‘must have' if we as a nation are going to at least maintain, and hopefully improve, the opportunities and qualities of life for all Australians. The ‘bottom line' is rural communities produce and manage most of the basics for daily living- food, water, energy, minerals, and a healthy natural environment.
As Tim Flannery, an internationally renowned Australian scientist, argues that "[o]ur search for sustainability...[is] the greatest challenge we have ever faced" (2008, p.8).
While it is true that "rural communities themselves...often have long memories, kept alive by the all-too-tangible reminders of better times evident in disused or decaying buildings and faltering local institutions" (Davison, 2005, p.39), it is also true that they are frequently very keen to engage with issues that are central to their survival and thereby, play a very active role in Australia's future. Deficit thinking about rural Australia and rural communities is toxic- it is critically important to adopt a ‘start with what you have' philosophy. Put another way, the power and significance of place linked strategically into and with others like essential government services and business is likely to be more successful than not.
Davison's five phases of rural development in Australia since white settlement are instructive when thinking about rural communities and the future. The first phase he argues commenced when they were planted in the early colonial years. This was followed by the water[ing] phase when governments worked to support the growth and expansion of rural communities, then the protect[ing] phase characterized by special treatment to prop up their survival. The fourth phase (post World War 2) focused on plan[ning] with an emphasis on decentralization. The fifth (and current) phase, sustain[ing], is characterized by rural communities having to deal with the impacts of globalisation and do more than just survive and be more than just survivors (2005, pp.39 & 40).
So, for rural communities, a major question- a survival question- is how to move forward; how to reconnect with and realise the potential of rural for nation building in a context where sustainability must be ‘front and centre' of our thinking and actions?
Education is central to answering the question.
It is absolutely essential that people who live and work in rural and remote Australia have access to high quality, relevant and affordable education, training and care at all ages and stages of life. As well, it is essential that people who live and work in urban contexts and provide policy advice to governments, and design and manage a myriad of programs intended to benefit country people and communities, deeply understand rural. In the Background Paper for the International Conference on Issues Affecting Rural Communities, held in Townsville in 1994, Sher and Sher argue that "[f]rom a rural development perspective, education is both the necessary precondition and the primary enabling strategy for [driving the 3 other arenas of action identified by them-empowerment, environment and entrepreneurship]" (p.27). The validity of the argument remains and if anything, has strengthened in the ensuing period.
Davison, G. (2005). Rural Sustainability in Historical Perspective. In C. Cocklin. & J. Dibden (Eds.) Sustainability and Change in Rural Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
Sher, J. & Sher, K.R. (1994). Beyond Conventional Wisdom: Rural Development as if Australia's Rural People Really Mattered. Background Paper: An International Conference on Issues Affecting Rural Communities. Townsville Australia: James Cook University.