It may surprise some people but things may have really been better in the old days – especially in rural and regional NSW.

As NSW embarked on a new century in 1901 the state population was estimated at 1,362,232 – a healthy rise of 17 per cent over 10 years.

Sydney’s population had grown to 482,493 while the burgeoning rural and regional areas totalled 879,739 people.

Sydney’s population represented 35.4 per cent of the state’s figure with the ‘Bush’ making up 64.6 per cent.

(In many ways Melbourne and Victoria remained just ahead of NSW in terms of growth and economic progress at the turn of the century).

Confidence in the future abounded in regional NSW and the strength of the rural areas economically and politically was recognised in the
deference and recognition given by the leading NSW and federal politicians of the day.

In the background to all the political debate in NSW of the time was agreement about the behaviour of the dastardly, untrustworthy Victorians who were out and out protectionists and radically inclined liberals. Hard-working conservative New South Welshmen, on the other hand were committed to enterprise and free trade.

Echoes of that early rivalry resound even today.

By today’s standards country NSW was underdeveloped and under-populated yet sprinkled across the state were a great many population centres, mostly small but confident and self-contained. Grazing, wool and cattle production, mining in some areas, along with an expanding wheat industry were underpinning regional wealth.

Small towns boasted a wide range of services and industries, breweries, cordial factories, meatworks, engineering and small factories, farm suppliers, transport firms, and more.

The small communities also contained educational and cultural facilities that often outshone what was on offer in the poor industrial suburbs of Sydney.

Remember, too, that the NSW railway system was well developed and played a crucial role in the development of inland NSW.

As the 20th century progressed, however, the shape and balance of economic and social reality in NSW changed to the situation we have had to recognise as normal.

The modern country-city divide has for decades been based on the fact that the metropolitan areas on the coast outweigh the inland areas in terms of population and economic, political and cultural weight.

Ironically, a global pandemic may have provided a catalyst for new spasm of economic and social change in NSW.

The imposition of lockdowns, introduction of strict social rules for protection against COVID-19, and a scramble by business and governments to find new ways of doing things has, amongst other things, focused attention again of the virtues of decentralisation and regional strengths.

City people and city businesses have discovered that sea-change and tree change not only offers attractive lifestyle benefits but may actually contain long-term economic and work-friendly benefits as well.

New NSW government initiatives to encourage and foster regional development proposals were announced by the Deputy Premier John Barilaro on Wednesday, February 24.

Mr Barilaro acknowledged the impetus for the new policies owes much to the impact of COVID-19.

“In the COVID world the secret to success is relocation, relocation, relocation, to regional NSW, giving companies access to a wider field of skilled workers and reduced operating costs,” he said.

Among the new plans to assist firms wishing to decentralise is a new NSW government concierge service to help firms develop business plans and provide practical advice about establishing jobs, offices and headquarters in regional towns and cities.

It’s early days … but perhaps the fortunes of regional NSW may be set to enjoy a long awaited upturn!

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