To the sea or the trees? More Australians are choosing country life

Jake Cassar grew up in the tiny seaside village of Port Fairy in Victoria. At 18, he packed his bags for overseas and swore he would never live in a small coastal town again.

It took a pandemic and a “ring of steel” lockdown policing movement in and out of Melbourne to convince him to reconsider regional life. Fast forward 18 months and he’s bought a house and started a business in Torquay on Victoria’s Surf Coast. Sure, he’s only braved the ocean once in that time, but he has no regrets.

Cassar is one of more than 60,000 people who left Melbourne during 2020-21, and is part of one of the biggest stories to come out of the 2020-21 census findings: for the first time since 1981 Australia’s regional population grew more than the capital cities.

Jake Cassar at his store Mortadeli in Torquay, Victoria. Photograph: Everyday Nicky

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, regional New South Wales (up by 26,800) and regional Queensland (24,100) led the way in terms of population growth over 2020-21, with regional Victoria (15,700) also increasing.

In contrast, Sydney’s population declined by 5,200 and Melbourne’s declined by a staggering 60,500. The overall decrease of 26,000 reflects increases in four capital cities (Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra) offset by declines in the other four. This is the first overall population decline for the capitals ever recorded by the ABS.

It’s an extraordinary shift, and a huge influx for some regional townships to absorb, as real estate prices soar and local renters are pushed out of the market. But regional migration, which has undoubtedly accelerated over the last two years, isn’t exactly a new trend. As the University of Melbourne Future of Work Lab’s regional migration survey (conducted between October and December 2021) found, “the pandemic reflects more of an amplification of a well-established trend towards counter-urbanisation”.

map showing change in census variables by area

What is notable about the city dwellers who crossed over to “the regions” during the pandemic is the circumstances under which they moved, and the situations they left behind, especially those who fled the lockdowns of Melbourne and Sydney.

Cassar told himself his move was temporary. His wife, Naomi, is a surf fanatic. “She used to wake up at 3am to come from Melbourne to go for a surf before going to work. So she wanted to do it in the reverse,” Cassar says. But he wasn’t convinced. “I’ve done the small beach town thing … everyone knows everything you do. I didn’t like that.”

Cassar had built a thriving travel business and his home in Pascoe Vale was close to the airport, which made a huge difference given he flew overseas at least once a month. But then he watched his business completely disintegrate across the month of March 2020.

Jen Rae and Sally Beattie with their daughter, Vivi Rae, standing in front of the front door of their Castlemaine home
Jen Rae and Sally Beattie with their daughter, Vivi, made the move from Fawkner in Victoria to the regional town of Castlemaine. Photograph: Abigail Varney/The Guardian

“At first, it was the busiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “Three weeks of not sleeping, trying to get people home. But then it was like someone just turned the key, turned everything off overnight.”

Cassar took on full-time home schooling of their eldest son as Naomi ratcheted up her work and their younger son attended preschool. It was only then that they started applying for rental properties down the coast, and immediately hit a wall that seemed more impenetrable than the ring of steel.

Like many who made the move to regional from lockdown cities during this time, it wasn’t exactly a standard relocation.

“We were applying for 50 places a week and couldn’t get anything,” Cassar says. “Finally we secured one through friends … but then two weeks out, the landlords decided they wanted to sell instead.

“Eventually the real estate agents felt sorry for us and rented us out a huge mansion which we didn’t really want but that’s all there was.”

Cassar and his family moved into their new home sight unseen. But after a year in lockdown, anything felt like an adventure. Lockdowns had also made Cassar look at Melbourne differently, especially through the eyes of his kids. “Even though we had a large property and it backed on to a park, it wasn’t enough for them. Melbourne was too claustrophobic.”

He was comforted by the fact Melbourne is not really that far away – Cassar’s move (an hour and a bit from Melbourne) mirrors the regional migrants cited in the census findings – they haven’t exactly moved to the back of beyond. As the ABS notes, people moved to satellite suburbs and regional cities or towns an hour or two from the city. In a way, they hedged their bets. Commuting was still possible; family and friends weren’t too far.

Like Cassar, Jen Rae had circled around the edges of a move to the regions for years, but in lockdown she developed a raging real estate addiction. “I’d just look at it at night, as a coping mechanism, to imagine being elsewhere,” she says.

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Rae, her partner and young daughter were living in the culturally diverse and traditionally low-income suburb of Fawkner at the time, at the centre of the Covid crisis in Melbourne. Rae’s research and work centres on cultural responses to the climate crisis – specifically the role of artists in areas such as disaster preparedness and food justice.

“In March … I recognised that our community was going to be heavily impacted, we were very food insecure,” she says. Rae and her partner, Sally Beattie, started a food hub which they ran for two years, delivering no-cost and low-cost food boxes to people in their area.

But the work took a heavy toll on the family. “We were both still working, and raising our four-year-old,” Rae says. At times, Rae’s daughter would be helping pack boxes at 5am.

Jen Rae, Sally Beattie and their daughter, Vivi Rae, out the from of their Castlemaine home
Rae and Beattie have deliberately hung back from their new community in Castlemaine to focus on their daughter, after being immersed local projects in Fawkner. Photograph: Abigail Varney/The Guardian

Rae has been in Castlemaine in central Victoria for a year now, ever since spontaneously buying a property while they were on a holiday in between lockdowns.

“We took possession of the house on 1 April, April Fools’ Day,” she says. “We were going to rent it out for a year. Then there was another circuit-breaker lockdown. So we went up there just to ride it out for a week. We brought air mattresses and a couple of duffle bags of clothing. We never left.”

For Rae, the story of how they came to live in regional Australia is as much about what they left behind in Melbourne as the qualities that attracted them to to the region in the first place.

Rae found trying to explain the pandemic to their young daughter while pouring every minute of spare time into the food hub extremely difficult. “The Saint Basil’s outbreak [Australia’s deadliest aged care outbreak] was 20 metres from our back door … We were trying to explain the numbers of ambulances going down the road,” she says.

As for building a life in their new communities, Cassar and Rae have taken very different approaches. At first Cassar was content to lay low. “I thought travel would come back faster,” he says. “I thought I’d be on a plane in a year.”

Until the day he and his sister, who are of Maltese origin, attempted to buy ingredients in Torquay to make an antipasto platter for lunch. “There was nothing. There was the Bertocchi ham at IGA that had gone brown cause no one bought it.”

Suddenly, he was all in. Cassar found a shop front that had been sitting vacant throughout the pandemic. With no market research, he opened a coffee and sandwich place named Mortadeli in the depths of yet another lockdown. In less than a year the business has since expanded to include a grocer and in the process Cassar has been genuinely surprised by his new customers.

“At first I played it really safe. I didn’t think people would get it. I was so tame with what cheese and what salami I offered. But people were up for anything. And they really embraced it. I reckon 70% of the customers are old school locals. People who tell me there used to be a continental deli and how much they miss it – and I had no idea one had ever existed.”

Opening the business has revealed another unexpected element of the region. “We were going for just a general Mediterranean vibe but my sister did hang one Maltese artwork on the wall … all of a sudden all these Maltese people started introducing themselves,” Cassar says. “They’re all scattered down here, but they’re here. I never would have known that.”

Jen Rae with her daughter Vivi Rae and cat Rocket and their dog Olive, sitting on orange armchairs
‘We are dealing with a bit of guilt to have been as lucky to do what we did. Not everyone has that choice.’ Photograph: Abigail Varney/The Guardian

Cassar is unusual for committing to set up a business so quickly in his new home town. The Future of Work Lab’s research shows that people migrating to the regions were more likely to retain their metro-based employment rather than changing to work for regional employers. A comparison between pre- and post-Covid data shows the number of dual-income households in regional Victoria in which both partners work for metro-based employers has more than doubled since the pandemic began.

Unlike Cassar, Rae and Beattie have deliberately hung back from their new community to focus on their daughter, after having immersed themselves in their community in Fawkner. “Eventually we will get back into that community, and into those larger circles,” Rae says. “But we do need to just sort of focus on that for a little while.”

Rae is acutely aware of the privilege of being able to move away at all. “I wish everybody in Australia had that kind of home security, in Fawkner we worked with international students, gigantic families, people in really insecure housing,” she says. “We are dealing with a bit of guilt to have been as lucky to do what we did. Not everyone has that choice.”

She’s also conscious of the impact that new residents like her are potentially having on the local community. “We’re aware of the people who are renting, who are being squeezed out … We were already witnessing the gentrification in Fawkner and what that does to a place, to the people.”

But above all, Rae feels an immense sense of gratitude to have made the move with her family. “We’re more attuned to the weather. We’re more attuned to the sounds. So many things are more expansive. The stars, the skies. Our time is more expansive.

“During Covid in Fawkner we were very well aware of hearing the birds come back once the planes were gone because we were on a flight path. But here I get up early in the morning and I go to my studio and I know that when I hear the birds it’s time to go get my daughter ready for school …”

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