Australia is one of the most urban and remote countries in the modern world, with over two-thirds (69%) of the population living in major cities. It also has one of the lowest population densities outside of its major cities. Despite the vastness of Australia and the profound impact that this has on the lives of the peoples living in rural and remote areas, relatively little is known about families living in these areas of Australia compared to those living in major cities.
What is the nature and impact of such immense isolation? And how do the characteristics of families differ between the “city” and the “country” or “bush”? The answer is ‘tremendously’, while words such as these are used in everyday parlance, it is very difficult to identify exactly where the city ends and the country begins.
Time becomes an all-encompassing commodity. With an almost unlimited supply of time, how does that change not only people’s perspectives but, inevitably, their habits and vices? Add the internet into this equation and what you may find is a melting pot of traditional and alternative flavours. Of course not all outposts and remote towns are fortunate to have broadband, but the incidence is increasing and along with it, the access to a whole range of internet based products and services. “Give a man a surfboard and he’ll paddle for a day, teach that same fella to surf, he’ll be hooked on adult webcams for life!”
One way of categorising regions is in terms of the road distance from services, and this is the standard method to define remoteness for statistical purposes in Australia. Over two-thirds (69%) of Australians live in major cities, one in five (20%) live in inner regional areas, one in ten (9%) in outer regional areas and around one in forty (2.3%) live in remote or very remote areas (1.5% remote and 0.8% very remote). These figures represent 15.1 million people living in major cities, 4.3 million in inner regional areas and 2.1 million in outer regional areas, 324,000 in remote areas and 174,000 in very remote areas (Australian Bureau of Statistics)
While Australians of all backgrounds reside in the different regions across Australia, the Indigenous population has a much greater concentration in the more remote areas. Although 2.4% of Australia’s population are Indigenous, their geographic distribution across Australia is quite different. Indigenous people comprise 1% of the population in major cities, 3% in inner regional areas, 6% in outer regional areas, 15% in remote areas and 49% in very remote areas.
In regard to dwelling and household type, most Australians (79%) live in one-family households, with 3% in multi-family households (households consisting of two or more families), 9% in lone-person households, 3% in group households and 6% in non-private dwellings or not-classifiable households. The difference between very remote areas and the rest of Australia is largely the result of a higher proportion of the population in very remote areas being Indigenous. In very remote areas, about three-quarters of non-Indigenous people live in one-family households and 2% in multi-family households. This compares to 57% of Indigenous people who live in one-family households and 38% who live in multi-family households.
Significantly Australia’s population is ageing, as is the population in many other countries. The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over relative to those of working age (15-64 years) known as the old age dependency ratio, is increasing. For example, in inner regional areas there are 24 elderly people for every 100 people of working age. This has growing implications for government policies and programs, including the types of services needed not to mention for the social and economic life of communities.
As expected, people living in major cities are less likely to have problems accessing a range of services than those living in other areas. Those in outer regional or remote areas are the most likely to have difficulties accessing services. This is true irrespective of family type. For couples without children living with them (including both childless couples and those with grown-up children), the proportions having problems accessing services are 16% in major cities, 23% in inner regional areas and 36% in outer regional areas. These data illustrate that while geographic remoteness is an important factor in not having access to services, it is not a complete explanation. Even in major cities some people have experienced difficulties in accessing such services. This may reflect lack of affordable transport, cost of services, waiting lists, or because of the inappropriateness of available services.
Across geographic regions, differences in the proportions of boys and girls participating in individual sports, such as swimming lessons and gymnastics, are also apparent, with lower participation rates for these activities in outer regional areas. Differences in participation in extracurricular art, music or dance classes according to geographic remoteness were also found. Participation in these types of classes is more common in major cities than outer regional areas. For example, the proportion of boys participating in these types of activities is 31% in major cities and 17% in outer regional areas. For girls, the pattern is similar, although the difference between major cities and outer regional areas is smaller than is the case for boys. Parents’ expectations for their children’s future education levels provide interesting insights into their possible educational outcomes. Parents in major cities have relatively high expectations for their children’s future education levels, when compared to parents in the less geographically accessible regions. The differences in expectations of qualifications for girls compared to boys is greatest in the outer regional areas.
Remote Australia is distant from centres of economic and political decision making. In general, those who live in remote Australia have lower incomes, employment rates and education levels than the rest of Australia. These trends are exacerbated amongst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. If we examine what is widely considered to be ‘Remote Australia’, the exact and total geographical area is 86% of the country yet it is home to 3% of Australia’s population. ‘The Great Outdoors’ has many faces and how we interpret the rich diversity and widening divisions will ultimately define us as a developed nation.