By ERWIN CHLANDA
Is Alice Springs becoming a fly-in, fly-out centre? Statistics say it looks like it.
A growing number of people working or spending time here do not call Alice home. Only 71 “family type” three bedroom homes were built between 2006 and 2011, whereas a much greater number of flats, units and apartments were constructed.
However the FIFO workers aren’t engaged in the lucrative mining industry, but most likely in the public service, in government initiatives such as the NT Emergency Response and Closing The Gap, says Dr Andrew Taylor, Senior Research Fellow, Demography and Growth Planning, of the Northern Institute, commenting on the five year Australian census results just released.
He says the biggest “industry” in Alice Springs is government administration. The proportion of employment in that sector “has been growing steadily over the past 10 years or so”.
Yet the town’s resident population has grown only marginally in the last five years, by 5.5% and in fact the current official figure of 28,500 is down 100 on the year before, 2010.
“All of the growth from 2006 to 2011 took place in 2006 and 2007, and since 2008 there has been a slight decrease,” says Dr Taylor. This takes in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
It’s clear “we struggle to retain people on a long term basis. Teachers are a classic example”.
This is going to be more of a problem as a “big cohort” of public servants is approaching retirement. Nevertheless, the population 55 and over has increased by about 20%.
“That growth took place in 2006 and 2007, and since 2008 there has been a slight decrease,” says Dr Taylor. This takes in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It may be the case that more people are staying here after retirement – and perhaps fewer “cashing in their house and leaving the Territory,” he says, but the increase is from a low base.
“Getting several generations of one family to remain in town is the ultimate aim.”
There also was a large growth in the non-indigenous population, in their early career ages, who are calling Alice home. That group has increased by about 13% (20 to 24 by 6%; 25 to 29 by 20% and 30 to 34 by 14%).
There is nothing in the Census data to support the often raised specter of urban drift from Aboriginal communities: on the contrary, the number of Indigenous people aged 20-34 who call the town home has fallen by 9%.
Dr Taylor says: “Ascertaining who is in town, when and for what reason is difficult.”
Reasons that others have put forward for people being in town temporarily include visiting family, opportunities of living in town, trouble in other communities, alcohol regulations in town and out bush, plus other factors.
Even thought the 20-34 years age group declined, overall the town’s Aboriginal population grew by 5% over five years – 1% a year – while the non indigenous growth rate was 5.5% over the five years
Both growth rates are very low, by national standards.
Dr Taylor says it’s very hard to determine how many of these are moving to and from bush communities but not working here: the employment statistics are not due out until later in the year. However, that Alice is on the way to become a black town is no more than an urban myth, on the present figures.
The town camp population is lower than in in 2006.
A major development is the influx of people from NZ, India and the Philippines. Overseas born residents now make up 20% of the population – the same percentage as the Aboriginal population.
It’s more likely that Aboriginal migration, following global population trends, will be mostly to the big cities, Darwin and interstate, in our case, says Dr Taylor.
A clearer picture about the Aboriginal employment participation rate will emerge in the job stats later this year, but Dr Taylor says the “general consensus” is that participation rates for Indigenous Territorians are around half of the non-indigenous rate of 80%, and this changed little during the last 10 years.
By and large, recruiting staff in the NT is inefficient, largely because we don’t have the “core” of workers which the states enjoy: If Victoria needs a teacher in Geelong they will get one from Melbourne. If Alice or Yuendumu needs a teacher, he or she is likely to come from Brisbane or Adelaide.
The census shows a 6% decline in the 15 to 19 non-indigenous age group indicating we may be failing to retain our kids to study in the NT. Dr Taylor says the global trend towards off-campus courses, using digital technology, could help reverse that trend.
The figures in the tourism industry are bleak. In the 12 years between 1999 and 2011 holiday makers declined by around 40%. The corporate and convention business may be more stable while the backpack market may have fallen a staggering 50%.
Dr Taylor says we are failing to take account of “changed desires” of tourists. We’re still focussed on our icons but visitors are looking for something more substantial than a snap of The Rock. They want something they can take away with them, a skill, a scuba ticket, for example, or an adventure like mustering and branding work on a cattle station.
As operators offer this in the more easily accessible parts of the country, people don’t bother spending the money on going all the way to The Centre.
Dr Taylor says the 4WD and grey nomad markets seem to be holding up but they are highly networked groups, always on the look-out for advantages and opportunities – or reasons for not going to some place. Dr Taylor says “pockets of success” in the sector include the Flinders Ranges in SA – a long way from our neck of the woods.
He will be one of the four guest speakers at next week’s public symposium on Future Directions in Alice Springs at CDU.
Photo: On present trends, when kids pictured above in the 2010 Bangtail Muster reach their teens, their town won’t be much bigger, the racial composition will be much the same, they will head interstate to do their tertiary education, the population will be older and a booming tourism industry in The Centre will be the fond memory recalled in a Skype chat with their grandparents.