A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Campaign to get Melburnians to ‘go bush’ under a cloud despite bursting capital

A Napthine Government initiative encouraging Melburnians to relocate to country Victoria faces an uncertain future in the wake of a planned State Government review of regional development.

Words by Lorna Musgrove
 

Launched three years ago, the Good Move campaign includes aspirational television advertising, a dedicated website and an annual expo of regional exhibitors. Essentially a sales drive, it aims to spread Victoria’s population more evenly across the state, taking pressure off a capital bursting at the seams.

But despite many country councils singing its praises, the campaign appears to have had little impact on regional population growth.

In the lead up to this weekend’s Regional Victoria Living Expo, the new Minister for Regional Development, Jaala Pulford, revealed that the Andrews Government would assess the expo “in the light of this year’s event and the overall State Budget context”.

Ms Pulford failed to respond to requests to discuss the future of the Good Move campaign, but Labor has criticised the previous government’s regional strategy as inadequate. In announcing the regional review earlier this year, Ms Pulford said that “under the Coalition, regional Victoria went backwards – the only thing that grew was the unemployment queue”.

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But the Shadow Minister for Regional Development, Damian Drum, slammed the review.

“I have said from the very outset that this is totally unnecessary,” he told The Citizen. “To literally freeze investment in regional Victoria for five-to-six months while we wait for a review is an absolute disgrace.”

The expo, which is being held from today through to Sunday (May 3) at the Melbourne Exhibition and Conference Centre, has gained in popularity over the past three years, hitting new heights in 2014 when more than 9000 people attended.

Despite this, the rate of population growth in the country has been slowing. The year before the campaign was launched, Melbourne’s population increased by 1.6 per cent, while the regions grew by 1.2 per cent (2010-2011).

By 2013-14, despite the introduction of the Good Move campaign, regional population growth had actually slowed to 0.8 per cent as the capital’s numbers rocketed ahead by 2.2 per cent. The trend continued last financial year with Melbourne adding 95,700 people – 262 people every day – to reach 4.4 million.

State and local governments are keen to sell the message of ample room in the regions. While Greater Melbourne houses 75 per cent of the state’s population, the rest of Victoria is home to just a quarter, and trying to accommodate the lion’s share of new arrivals in the capital is straining infrastructure and adding to congestion.

“It takes a lot of work, encouragement and resources to ensure that each of the 48 regional councils are represented at the Regional Living Expo . . . [But] only time will tell whether [the government] are genuinely interested in the expo, or whether they are just going to go through the motions.” — Damian Drum, Shadow Minister for Regional Development

The Regional Development Victoria Annual Report (2012-13) noted that $95 billion in cumulative congestion costs could be expected should new arrivals be concentrated in Melbourne’s outer suburbs over the next 20 years. Growing the regions is seen as a cheaper option, underscoring recent government efforts to coax city slickers to the bush.

However, for most newcomers, the capital is alluring. Fearghal Cronin, who moved from Dublin to Melbourne, loves the bars, bands and buzz of the city. “I hadn’t really thought about moving to regional Victoria because Melbourne’s got a lot going on.” 

Luca Rosati, who moved to Melbourne from Rome three years ago with his wife, agrees. “We prefer the city to regional areas because of the number of opportunities available, the night life, restaurants, shopping, cinemas, theatres, sport events, job opportunities.” Mr Rosati said he would only consider a move should the right job opportunities arise for the couple. Neither Mr Cronin nor Mr Rosati had heard of the Regional Victoria Living Expo.

Even so, many of those Melburnians who have made the shift are quick to sing the praises of the country. The simple joy of diving into your own pool and bobbing around in the afternoon sun was what Tim and Nicole Lyons enjoyed most when they relocated to country Victoria. For beautician Caterina Armstrong, 34, it was the absence of road rage and rat race traffic.

The Lyons and Ms Armstrong are part of an exodus that the State Government has been encouraging. Ms Armstrong said the lack of congestion created a relaxed lifestyle and “people aren’t all fighting one another to get to work, to get in and out of the supermarket as quick as they can”.

“I feel as if I have settled in better than expected,” she added. Shepparton “certainly doesn’t have the energy of Melbourne, but it does have an energy that’s special in its own way. It’s calmer, it’s peaceful and more natural.”

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According to market research carried out for Regional Development Victoria in 2011, around one-in-10 Melburnians (more than 400,000) were contemplating a move to regional Victoria over the following three years. But actual growth figures suggest this was a case of wishful thinking. And in the preceding five years, according to census data, just 2 per cent of the capital’s population actually made the move — around 76,000.

Ms Armstrong acknowledges the fear that accompanies such a dramatic change. “I knew it would be a shock going from living a life in Melbourne where I had always been in the hustle and bustle. I was quite scared as to how I would feel. However, I knew that I needed to give it a go.”

Hugh Koch, the manager of economic development and tourism for the Southern Grampians Shire, believes the expo provides a great opportunity to meet potential new residents and allay their concerns about leaving the city. After the first expo “three people relocated as a direct result”, he said. “It’s fine to have information digitally, but when you speak to a local, that’s the most powerful advocacy.”

Mr Koch said he understood that Melburnians “aren’t going to move without visiting”, so the shire follows up the expo with an ‘open weekend’ in which prospective residents can visit and experience the lifestyle firsthand.

The Mayor of Benalla, Justin King, agrees that encouraging new arrivals is vital to reinvigorating the regions and reversing the brain drain that has seen young country people head for the city for education and work.

“It’s very important that we have population growth so that our community can continue to grow as well,” he told The Citizen. There was a constant stream of “things happening to promote Benalla”, he added, but the expo provided an opportunity both to market the region and to get valuable feedback from Melburnians. “It’s always an opportunity for us to take away a lot of information and look at ways that council can act on that information,” Mr King said.

“I knew it would be a shock going from living a life in Melbourne where I had always been in the hustle and bustle. I was quite scared as to how I would feel. However, I knew that I needed to give it a go.” — Caterina Armstrong, on moving to Shepparton

However, not all councils have reported similar success. Some had seen little-to-no benefit from the expo or the Good Move campaign overall. Although declining to comment publicly, some regional figures suggested that funds spent on the expo could be better spent on other regional initiatives.

The Andrews Government has so far centred its regional growth strategy on the creation of a $500 million infrastructure fund that will invest in public projects across the state, with some observers suspecting the annual Regional Victoria Living Expo to be a likely casualty of the shift in focus.

But the Nationals’ Mr Drum protested: “It takes a lot of work, encouragement and resources to ensure that each of the 48 regional councils are represented at the Regional Living Expo . . . [But] only time will tell whether they are genuinely interested in the expo, or whether they are just going to go through the motions.”

This year’s expo features more than 130 exhibitors, attractions and key speakers.

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