The story of how three families of refugees have revitalised a dying village in the western reaches of Tenterfield Shire was just one of the case studies presented at a Regional Australia Institute (RAI) conference at Parliament House on May 22.
Mingoola project driver Julia Harpham was invited to participate in the conference to share her experience of the challenges involved, including identifying empty farm houses to accommodate the families and employment opportunities.
Mingoola is among a handful of rural towns across Australia that have welcomed migrants to arrest population decline, in Mingoola’s case leading to the local school being reopened. The RAI says it’s time the rest of the country gets on board.
Mrs Harpham said her participation in the conference was a very positive experience, but what impressed her most was the political bipartisan support for establishing mechanisms to help those willing to settle inland rather than in highly-populated coastal communities.
“To see (deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister) Michael McCormack and (shadow minister for rural and regional Australia) Joel Fitzgibbons shake hands across the table was like a first in politics,” mrs Harpham said.
“They were both on the same page, and said this is a ‘no brainer’ for the health of rural communities.”
Mrs Harpham said participants were most curious about the process to actually get families to Mingoola. In this case it was through a series of chance meetings and grasped opportunities (and a lot of heavy graft by Mrs Harpham and husband Philip).
That process is now being made much easier with Mrs Harpham sharing some sage advice with other communities contemplating the move, and by a toolkit being created by refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni – so instrumental in the success of the Mingoola migration – on behalf of the RAI.
In it will be the pitfalls to avoid and the resources available, including access to an interpreter which Mrs Harpham said would have made things so much easier in the early days.
She encouraged any group considering resettlement to firstly have a community meeting to gauge the level of support for the proposal.
“If the community doesn’t want it, then don’t bother,” was her advice.
She likened Australia’s population distribution to a walnut, with overcrowded cities on the fringes but little inside. She feels that communities should be coming together to engage in a type of succession planning, discussing how they want to look in five, 10, 15 years.
“Every community will come up with its own answer.”
She said Mingoola is an example of how a community changes. Mechanisation altered the way farms operate, leading to migration to larger centres. Despite this there remain a lot of manual tasks like fencing, regrowth management, hay stacking and pumpkin harvesting to be done, with a diminishing labour force.
Mrs Harpham said the new residents have taken up this work, as well as establishing their own small enterprises with market gardening (particularly of niche products such as traditional African produce) and a degree of self-sufficiency through goats and chickens.
“A healthy community needs lots of young people,” she said.
“Our cities are at bursting point, but moving people into cities is easier because the services are there.
“Settlement Services are preparing for more regional migration, but everyone has to get their head around the fact that migration doesn’t necessarily have to mean Fairfield or Moorooka.”
RAI CEO Jack Archer said regional migration projects scattered across Australia are paying huge dividends for the towns involved.
“In many cases, these migration strategies have been locally-led, but carried out in isolation. Now we need to connect the dots and help other rural towns capitalise on the opportunities migrant settlement programs can deliver.”
Other success stories discussed at the conference included initiatives at Nhill, Pyramid Hill, Biloela, Dalwallinu, Hamilton, Rupanyup, and Nobby.
“From a position of decline, these towns are now thriving. But collectively, we must take stock of what has worked and what will work in the future for other rural towns,” Mr Archer said.
A new RAI policy paper – The Missing Workers – suggested establishing a network of priority rural migration areas could enable communities to meet their local labour market needs and provide support for local growth and community renewal. The paper addresses the resources required for regional assessments, support for new arrivals, employment tools, as well as the toolkit to help communities successfully welcome new migrants into their towns.
“We also have identified some changes to government policy that should be considered to help make it easier for rural employers to employ migrant staff,” Mr Archer said.
The RAI says that if regional Australia could welcome an additional 2000-3000 migrants per year it would put a stop to population decline in most rural areas.
“These policy changes could be achieved at low cost to governments and we know philanthropic investment may also be an option for other resources needed,” Mr Archer said.
“Most importantly, we know that many communities in rural Australia are ready to pursue this option - if we can make it easy for them to do so.”