New report finds communities reliant on agricultural are worse off

By Rodney Woods

A new report has revealed the basin communities most dependent on agriculture are poorer in terms of population change, their economy, and are less likely to have access to infrastructure services compared to other regional communities outside of the Murray-Darling Basin.

But it wasn't all bad news, with these communities said to be going "pretty well" when comparing social connection.

The study was completed by University of Canberra professors to help inform the eventual findings and recommendations provided by the Panel for the Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Associate Professor Jacki Schirmer spoke at the Murray-Darling Association national conference on the work she and her colleagues had done to examine which basin communities are thriving, surviving or declining and what factors were most commonly associated with that.

To measure this, Prof Schirmer looked at how people feel about the communities they live in, how populations are changing, the economy, employment opportunities and standard of living, the level of community and social connection, physical amenity, and services and infrastructure.

“We had a bit of a look at what predicts these (findings) because the patterns we were seeing weren't consistent with the story of the basin plan and water reform being the key driver of this,” she said.

“It doesn't mean it isn't a driver, but we need to be careful of focusing on that at the expense of understanding the broader drivers that are leading to the basin having different trajectories to other parts of Australia.

“Things that really strongly predicted outcomes were remoteness, economic diversity — we have a lot of basin communities that aren't as economically diverse as areas that are of a similar remoteness outside the basin — and dependence of agriculture.

“The more a community was dependent on agriculture, the poorer it tended to be going in terms of population change, in terms of economy, but it tended to be going pretty well on social connection,” Prof Schirmer said.

“The high dependence on agriculture was also associated with less infrastructure services but importantly there wasn't a difference between communities that were reliant more on dryland versus irrigated agriculture.

“So what that's telling us is this (differential) is resulting from those big mega forces that are changing agriculture.

“Agriculture has had to get massively competitive, it's had to get so much more efficient that it needs a lot less labour.

“That has been associated with population loss in a lot of communities around Australia and internationally.

“I'm not saying we can magically return all these agricultural jobs, I actually don't think that is realistic,” she said.

“What I'm saying is the success of the basin being efficient in agriculture leads to some other challenges to community livability that we need to look at in the coming years."