Australia’s Immigration Solution: Small-Town Living

Similar to strategies to encourage rural immigration in Canada (e.g., Atlantic Canada, Francophone communities outside Quebec):

PYRAMID HILL, Australia — A lanky Filipina girl with long black hair stood at the wickets behind St. Patrick’s School, waiting for a bowl from a burly dad with a reddish beard.

The cricket ball came in slow. Her swing was quick as a bee’s wing, sending the ball skyward as a gaggle of kids — mostly Filipino, some white — cheered and elbowed to bat next.

The game, played on a recent afternoon, was a typical mixed gathering for Pyramid Hill, a one-pub town of around 500 people in central Victoria that has become a model of rural revival and multicultural integration.

“I’m still surprised they’re as open to us as they are,” said Abigail Umali, 39, a veterinarian from Manila who works at a local pig farm, and whose daughter, Maria, was the girl at bat.

“This school wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” said Kelvin Matthews, 36, the bowler, as he watched the children interact.

Towns of a few hundred people are fading like puddles in the sun

Filipinos now make up nearly a quarter of Pyramid Hill’s growing population. New homes are going up here for the first time in a generation — and both the newcomers and lifelong residents say they have found the answer to rising concerns about immigrants straining resources in Australian cities.

It’s called small-town living.

“People in the country mix, and need to mix,” said Tom Smith, a pig farmer who inadvertently started the town’s revival in 2008 when he sponsored visas for four workers from the Philippines. “It’s just different out here; it’s the only way to survive.”

Rural collapse is a familiar tale, seen across the American Midwest and in many areas of Europe, where small communities have been squeezed by globalization. It’s no different in Australia: an urbanizing country, as physically large as the United States, where towns of a few hundred people are fading like puddles in the sun.

But the success of Pyramid Hill — and many other small Australian towns — suggests that there are opportunities being missed and lessons to be learned. At a time when politicians in Australia, and around the world, are calling for restrictions on immigration, small towns in Australia are asking for more immigrants.

“There’s a real network of people who know how to make this work, who make it work in their community and can share it with others,” said Jack Archer, the chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute, a government research organization. “This is something we should really be thinking about scaling up.”

Landmarks of Despair

Pyramid Hill is a quiet drive of about 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, from Melbourne, finishing with a stretch of land that is mostly empty except for golden wheat fields and lint-gray sheep.

The community took its name in 1836 from a granite outcrop on the town’s edge. From its peak, I had little trouble seeing newer landmarks, which rose above the countryside and hinted at local despair: grain silos that are no longer used; a pet food factory that shut down in 2008.

Residents still talk about the era before the Filipinos came as one of quiet desperation. Streets without children. Homes decaying. The town’s population bottomed out at 419 in 2011, down from 699 in the 1960s.

“We were in dire straits,” said Cheryl McKinnon, the mayor of Loddon Shire, the municipality that includes Pyramid Hill. “We needed our population to grow.”

Economists often discuss immigration in terms of a multiplier effect. Newcomers don’t just fill jobs, they also create them, by bringing demand for new products and services.

This is especially true in Australia, where the minimum wage is 18.29 Australian dollars an hour ($13.70) and most migrants are skilled workers or students.

“Australia’s focus on skilled migration has demonstrated positive effects for economic growth,” a recently published government report on population growth found, “because our migrants on average lift potential G.D.P. and G.D.P. per capita.”

In many cities and suburbs, though, population growth has brought frustration. Melbourne added 125,000 people during the last fiscal year, its largest recorded increase, and Sydney added 102,000. In both cities, immigration was the primary cause, prompting complaints about housing, crowded schools and traffic.

The areas reviving most quickly tend to offer new arrivals not just jobs but a sense of community

The government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has responded to such concerns by restricting immigration: maintaining harsh offshore detention centers for asylum seekers and limiting the number of skilled-worker visas.

Places like Pyramid Hill offer an alternative.

“There just has got to be some employment opportunity,” said Mr. Archer of the Regional Australia Institute. “There’s more of that than people think.”

Statistics from the institute suggest that many rural communities suffer not from a lack of employment, but a lack of employees.

Labor market participation in regional Australia — the areas outside major cities — is well above the national average. And since rural populations tend to be older, that means many people continue to work well after they might have wanted to retire.

Research from the Regional Australia Institute shows that the areas reviving most quickly tend to offer new arrivals not just well-paying jobs but a sense of community.

In the Shire of Dalwallinu, a town in Western Australia’s Wheat Belt that is coming back to life thanks to migrants from the Philippines and elsewhere, residents helped workers move their families from abroad.

In the small town of Nhill, in northwestern Victoria, locals have managed the arrival of ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar since 2010, helping them find housing, learn English and engage in social activities.

Pyramid Hill’s evolution has been just as personal. Neighbors regularly meet to share food and learn about each other’s cultures.

“Every month there’s one Australian speaker and a Filipino speaker, and we cook for each other,” said Helen Garchitorena, 47, a leader of the exchange. “We explain the importance of the food, and we talk.”

Compared with those in many cities and suburbs, people in Pyramid Hill seem to have more time and interest in building bonds across ethnic boundaries. An annual Filipino “fiesta” was added to the town’s events calendar in 2015, and every week seems to include an opportunity to socialize.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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