Shifting welfare, shifting people: rural development, housing and population mobility in Australia
Rural welfare is more than addressing problems of ‘poverty’. As we argue here, social policy initiatives are also conceived by governments as solutions to geographical problems about uneven regional development and population distribution. What these problems were, and how welfare provision could solve them, has varied from generation to generation and takes shape in place-specific ways. That welfare provision has operated as de facto geographical development and population policy is particularly the case in Australia, in its context of massive continental size and heterogeneous rural places. In Australia, the ‘rural’ means much more than just the ‘countryside’ surrounding or between networks of cities and towns (in the traditional European sense; see Gorman-Murray, Darian-Smith, & Gibson, 2008). ‘Rural Australia’ is inserted into national politics as a slippery geographical category, coming to encompass all of non-metropolitan Australia (each of Australia's states only having one major city), within which there is great diversity: broadacre farming regions involving the production of cash crops at scales of thousands of squared kilometres; regions producing rice and cotton with state-sponsored irrigation; coastal agricultural zones with smaller and usually older land holdings (often the places of traditional ‘family farming’ communities); single industry regions focused around minerals extraction or defence (many of Australia's major defence bases being located outside state capitals either in sparsely populated regions in Australia's north or in smaller ‘country towns’ in the south, where they dominate local demography); semi-arid rangelands regions dominated by enormous pastoral stations leased on Crown land (single examples of which rival the United Kingdom in size); and remote savannah and desert regions many thousands of kilometres from capital cities, supporting Aboriginal communities living on traditional country mixing subsistence hunting and gathering with government-supported employment and food programmes. In this context, rural welfare performs a social policy function, but also becomes a means for government to comprehend, problematise and manage geographical space.
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