Sea-changers and shifting political loyalties in the Northern Rivers of NSW 1966-2007

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Author: Bradley Bowden
Date: Nov. 2007
Publisher: Royal Australian Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,822 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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In the early 1960s the people of the Northern Rivers' region--the vast area that stretched north from the Clarence River to the Queensland border and west to the New England Tableland--despaired for the future. Like other rural areas, the region's population stagnated as traditional industries, most notably dairying, suffered a marked decline. Between 1954 and 1966 regional centres such as Grafton, Byron Bay, Kyogle and Lismore all experienced an absolute population fall. (1) The loss of the region's youth to the cities caused particular anguish. In Nimbin one long-term resident complained that his township, like many others, had become 'a hamlet of old people'. (2) The 1966 census provided a few rays of hope. The population in most districts continued to fall. But the coastal hamlets of Yamba and Ballina experienced an influx of new arrivals. Both grew by almost 20 per cent between 1961 and 1966. (3)

During the 1970s the trickle of new arrivals became a flood. Most settled in the coastal villages and towns. Byron Bay, hitherto an industrial centre geared towards the processing of animals and milk, grew by almost 80 per cent to 18 150 between 1971 and 1986. (4) The coastal hinterland witnessed an influx of 'rural retreaters', many of whom were attracted to the area by their experiences at the Nimbin Folk Festival of 1973. In 1982 a Ballina Shire Council study found that this population influx was producing a fundamental social transformation as 'affluent young middle class families desirous of a rural environment in which to pursue their basically urban lifestyle' replaced 'traditional farmers'. But the same study also highlighted the diverse social composition of the new arrivals. While a minority were professionals, a disproportionate number were elderly or unemployed. One in four adults received a pension or some other form of benefit. Many were forced to live in caravan parks. (5) Such inconveniences did little to slow the tide of people. By 2001 the Northern Rivers' population stood at 255 656, compared with only 123 309 residents in 1966.

The changing demographic and socio-economic patterns in the Northern Rivers were not unique. By 1976 statisticians had detected a net out-migration from Sydney and Melbourne towards the coastal fringe. As this sea-change movement gathered momentum it significantly altered patterns of Australian settlement. Between 1976 and 2000 the population of the nation's non-metropolitan coastal Local Government Areas (LGAs) grew from just over two million to almost 3.5 million. By 2001 one Australian in five was a provincial coastal dweller. (6)

In contrast to previous population movements, the sea-changers were not driven primarily by a search for work. Instead, lifestyle, environment and climate provided the main reasons for a change of abode. In large part this value-driven population movement was underpinned by the redistribution mechanisms of the welfare state. This enabled the unemployed and retirees to choose lifestyle locations in preference to metropolitan centres. (7) In the Northern Rivers, as in other sea-change locations, relatively few sea-changers arrived with any fixed prospect as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A175064738