With median house prices in Australia's capital cities reaching levels that must take the breath away of "average" workers, you have to wonder why there isn't a bigger exodus to the bush. Surely homes for just $250,000 have got to appeal to at least some people? Especially families struggling to make ends meet in our cities.
Maybe the arrival of faster internet will change the nature of the people who would consider a tree change – from blue collar workers such as mechanics, and service providers such as hairdressers – to people who can work remotely wherever, whenever? It's certainly not happening yet. In the most recently released ABS figures on population growth, more than two-thirds of Australians live in capital cities.
Some of the biggest population increases in the nation were in our capitals – for example, in NSW nine out of 10 of the fastest growing areas in the 12 months to the end of June 2010 were in Sydney.
Population losses in 2009-10 mainly occurred in inland rural Australia, particularly in north-eastern and south-eastern parts of the nation and in rural Western Australia.
The ABS surmises the falls could have been driven by the drought or mining areas losing workers. The figures for this year (not due out until next March) will be interesting to see. You'd probably expect some turnaround of the trend of shrinking rural populations but not a complete reversal. And judging from the sheer flood of "for sale" signs swinging off country homes at the moment, the rains haven't enticed back workers or residents yet.
The change looks more structural as farms grow larger and more automated and communities discover that they don't need to buy many things from their local stores after all – they can just jump online and order goods cheaper from other parts of Australia, or in many cases overseas.
But perhaps those very things could be the saviours for rural areas? People traditionally baulk at the idea of moving to the country because of the sheer isolation. The internet with all its potential for information, online communities and online shopping have helped to bring rural areas closer to the rest of the world. With high-speed internet, other barriers may fall too – country residents might still be far from big cities but if the political promises materialise, quick broadband will bring much-needed resources that could help to provide better remote healthcare and education.
Internet speeds in many country towns have improved rapidly in recent years and already are fast enough for the average knowledge worker needing to plug into the office, download emails and talk online. The question is, will these changes be enough to entice people out of the city and into the interior?
Written by Carolyn Boyd (Fairfax/Domain)