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Rural Social Work in Australia

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the role of social workers in rural and remote areas of Australia. The uniqueness of Australia’s landscape, its vast distances, and sparse population base, create unique issues relating to service delivery in general and social work in particular. High levels of poverty, poorer health, lower socio-economic status, and an aging population base typify Australia’s remote areas. Despite these factors, inland regions of the country are subject to economic rationalist policies that make service access problematic. It is in these regions that rural and remote social workers practice. The article outlines the personal, practical, and professional challenges facing social workers and notes the unique opportunities available to workers who choose to live and work in these regions.

Keywords: rural and remote social work, economic rationalism, challenges, Australia

Australia is a vast continent with approximately the same land mass area as Europe. However, by contrast with Europe’s 750 million people, Australia has a small population of 23 million. This comparison illustrates the critical paradox of Australia—its extensive land mass and sparse population base. The vastness of Australia’s area masks other unique features of the country—it is surrounded by sea, and therefore has no borders with any other countries, and its people, for the most part, hug the coastline. Approximately 85% of Australians live within fifty kilometers of coastal regions (ABS, 2004), and only 15% inhabit the extensive inland areas of the country. These dimensions give a sense of the sheer size of Australia, its unique characteristics, and the complexities of its uneven population spread. These significant idiosyncrasies provide the background to Australian rural social work practice, arguably making it unique.

This article addresses the issues facing social workers living and working in rural Australia. It will do this by first noting the rural cultural context, the socio-economic and policy changes that are shaping rural social work practice, the evolving models of rural practice, the types of creative and innovative social work practice that are emerging in rural places, the constraints and challenges facing practitioners, and the tremendous opportunities available to rural social workers. There are perhaps few countries where social workers have had to adapt to such significant practical, professional, and personal challenges, and yet, perhaps paradoxically, many Australian rural social workers profess a deep love of place.

Defining Rural Australia

Because of the vastness of the Australian continent, binary definitional categories of rural vs. urban make little sense. There have been numerous attempts to define gradations of rurality via statistical means. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012b) has adopted the Australian Statistical Geographic Standard (ASGS) to define geographical areas. Thus major urban areas with populations over 100,000 and other urban areas with populations from 1,000–99,999 are regarded as urban areas under the ASGS classification, while bounded localities and rural balance are regarded as rural. As well, and indicating the need to factor in the level of isolation from population centers and services, the ABS uses a remoteness structure to determine the level of remoteness of various rural communities (ABS, 2011). The Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) defines five relevant categories of remoteness—major cities, inner regional, outer regional, remote Australia, and very remote Australia—largely determined by distance to a service center. The complexity of these definitional categories reveals the significant difficulties associated with defining and categorizing areas beyond Australia’s cities and larger regional centers. What we can note however is that remote and very remote areas are particularly isolated, and that people living in these areas face unique challenges.

Cultural Context of Rural Australia

While Australia’s rural and remote areas have constantly evolved during the 227 years since Europeans invaded the country, rapid changes have occurred over the last 50 years. Migratory trends, changing fortunes, industry diversity, and the declining political influence of rural areas have eroded the population base and changed the socio-economic profile of these areas. In addition, a widening cultural divide between rural and urban areas has developed, not least because the vast majority of migrants coming into Australia settle in capital cities. Over one quarter of Australians were born overseas (ABS, 2014), and this suggests a more diverse population profile in urban as opposed to rural and remote areas. At the same time, Indigenous Australians, who make up 2.5% of Australia’s population, are more likely to live in rural (43%) and remote regions (24%) than in urban areas (32%) (ABS, 2010). Thus the population characteristics of rural and urban areas are becoming recognizably divergent.

Other demographic differences are also evident. The rural Australian population is aging faster than urban areas due largely to the trend for rural young people to gravitate to capital cities (Department of Health, 2008). Thus, there are marked differences in population demographics, with urban areas more typified by a younger, more culturally diverse population. Nonetheless, while one third of Australians live in Sydney or Melbourne, and nearly 70% live in large cities, nearly 2 million Australians reside in rural and remote areas, making this a not insignificant proportion of the Australian population (ABS, 2013b).

While the population composition differs, so too do socio-economic indicators of disadvantage. Rural places, and particularly remoter areas of the country, have higher rates of poverty; reduced access to services, including health, education, transport, and telecommunications; and declining employment opportunities, and they experience greater levels of social isolation (NRHA & ACOSS, 2013). The work of Tony Vinson in analyzing indicators of deprivation every seven years to isolate the most disadvantaged areas of Australia reveals the over-representation of rural areas in those most consistently disadvantaged. Using a variety of indicators including income, education, and housing stress, the most recent analysis undertaken by Vinson and Rawsthorne (2015) again shows rural areas dominating the list of those local governments identified as most disadvantaged. In Australia at least poverty does have a postcode.

Education access is one of the critical indicators of disadvantage detailed by Vinson and Rawsthorne. Rural people have consistently lower educational achievements and these relate to problems of access and financial barriers. In work commissioned by the Australian government during the long-running Australian drought, we found that rural and remote education access was declining, despite young people expressing a clear desire to continue their education (Alston & Kent, 2006). Cost and distance are often impenetrable barriers that are not adequately addressed by social policies, and this leads to unfair and inequitable outcomes.

Meanwhile, comparisons of health differentials indicate significant and confronting differences between rural and urban Australians relating to levels of health and wellbeing. Rural people die younger and have higher rates of cancer, obesity, asthma, diabetes, alcohol abuse, smoking, and mental health issues (Garvan Research Foundation, 2015).

Disturbingly, the Garvan Research Foundation (2015, pp. 5–6) found that:

  • death rates in remote areas are 40% higher than in major cities;

  • life expectancy is lower for males and females compared with major cities;

  • the relative survival rate for cancer decreases with increasing remoteness;

  • diabetes kills more people living in remote and very remote areas compared with regional and major cities;

  • the rate of suicide is 66% higher in the country than in major cities;

  • the rate of suicide among young Indigenous people (aged 15–24) is five times higher than that for non-Indigenous people;

  • the leading causes of death for indigenous Australians are cardiovascular diseases, cancer, injury, diabetes, and respiratory diseases.

They conclude that rural and remote health services are typified by primary care services, and that rural areas do not have the infrastructure or facilities to provide a wide range of specialist care. This necessitates rural people having to travel long distances for health services at significant personal cost. Distance and access are barriers to health service access and explain the disturbing statistics noted above. When access is difficult, many rural people delay seeking help, leading inevitably to higher morbidity and mortality rates. Service access is a critical indicator of access to social workers, as many workers are located in secondary health and welfare services rather than primary health services. This reduces the interactions between social workers and those living in rural and remote areas. This has implications for social workers, trained and working in cities and thus with a more limited understanding of rural and remote issues, and for those living in rural and remote areas who have limited knowledge of the types of services social workers can provide.

Meanwhile further research reveals that women’s access to services is also severely compromised in rural areas. Finding services to address violence against women can be difficult if not impossible, and, given the vast distances, violence against women is difficult to police (Alston, 1997; Whittenbury, 2013). Further, reproductive health services, including access to basic birthing services, are often several hundreds of kilometers away, causing significant anxiety and dangers to health. A report on remote women’s access to birthing services undertaken by a team including the writer, was titled Luckily, We Had a Torch, a direct quote from one mother who gave birth on the side of the road, an uncommon, but nonetheless terrifying experience for remote area women accessing birthing facilities at some distance from their homes while in labor (Dietsch et al., 2008). This lack of access to basic services including birthing was corroborated in a wide-ranging research study undertaken in 2004. The writer led a team to conduct perhaps the largest quantitative survey of rural women across Australia on the adequacy of their health services (NRWC & CRSR, 2004). Respondents, numbering 820 women, were asked to comment on their access to a range of services. Table 1 shows the percentages of respondents who had difficulty accessing the listed services, many of which are more likely to include social workers.

Table 1. Access to Services

Service

Difficulty accessing, %

Aged care

39

Counselling

43

Mental health services

53

Health information

24

Cancer care

45

Palliative care

42

Medical specialists

65

GPs

34

Bulk-billing

60

Adolescent services

52

Emergency services

30

Nutrition services

39

Older women’s health services

41

Mid-life services

41

Preventative health

39

Community nursing

24

Family planning

30

Terminations

44

A hospital close by to give birth

51

Birthing center

58

Home births

68

Gyms/leisure facilities

44

Critically, many of these services would be viewed as essential in an urban environment and would include a range of social work services. The lack of basic services has significant impacts on quality of life factors in rural and remote areas.

Respondents in our survey were also asked to comment on the most available services. Most nominated doctors, a local hospital, nursing home, and community health service, thereby corroborating the Garvan Research Foundation (2015) finding that primary health care is the most accessible form of care in rural and remote areas. Asked to nominate the least available services in their areas, high on the list were birthing services, bulk-billing, female general practitioners, mental health services, medical specialists, women’s health services, dental services, aged care, counseling, domestic violence services, gynecologists, family planning services, cancer care, and palliative care.

While many women nominated service access as problematic, the adequacy of those services that were available was also highly contentious. Table 2 indicates the percentages of women who viewed their services as adequate or inadequate. Note the remaining women either did not know or chose not to respond.

Table 2. Adequacy of Services Available In Local Area

Service

Percentage who view the service as adequate, %

Percentage who view the service as inadequate, %

Child care

36

36

Education

65

29

Health services

42

52

Domestic violence services

17

35

Aged care

38

44

Disability services

18

50

Telecommunications

46

48

Internet services

50

44

Rail services

30

69

Air services

43

56

Bus services

44

54

Roads

49

51

In summary, rural service infrastructure is problematic, often inaccessible or inadequate, and based around primary care. Access to education, health, and employment are made more difficult by problematic telecommunications and transport infrastructure. Given the vast distances that typify rural and remote Australia, this is a significant problem restricting easy solutions and heavily impacting on quality of life factors. This lack of adequate services and infrastructure has implications for social work services as will be outlined below—more particularly, this summary reveals that the services that are available are less likely to be those that employ social workers; therefore, (a) there is less attention to the social justice issues revealed in this article; and (b) critical social work services are lacking in rural and remote areas.

Further, while this research reveals the significant social, health, and service access issues in rural Australia, what is less evident is how well social work departments across Australia, all of which are located in cities and regional centers, prepare students for rural and remote practice and provide educational understanding of rural and remote Australia. Given the clear indicators of disadvantage, there is an obvious need for this education and for social workers to be lobbying for services to be established in these areas. The statistics of rural and remote disadvantage reveal a transparent requirement for social work departments to prepare students to practice in rural locations and to create a dialogue on rural and remote areas as essential sites for social work practice. While many universities offer rural and remote field education opportunities, this is inconsistently applied. Arguably, students should be exposed to rural practice in the classroom and in their practice-based learning experiences. There is, however, a quite limited development of rural practice-based learning material, and this lack of foundational experience reduces attention amongst social workers to the social justice and human rights implications of the social disadvantage of many rural and remote Australians. Before we turn our focus to rural social work practice however, there are other significant changes taking place in rural areas that are also relevant to this discussion.

Changing Fortunes in Rural Australia

Socio-economic factors have altered the traditional notions of rural and remote Australia and indicate critical differences between urban and rural areas. One of the major factors driving this divergence is the changing rural industry base. Rural Australia, traditionally, has relied heavily on thriving agricultural industries producing a diverse range of products. However, since the 1980s, the number of farms has declined from 240,000 to 135,000, a decline equivalent to approximately 300 families leaving agriculture each month (ABS, 2012a). The reasons for this exodus are many and include the opening up of globalized markets, declining commodity prices, the need for farms to expand to be viable, and a declining interest among young people in taking up farming. Nonetheless, these changes have had significant impacts on rural and remote towns and communities, including a decline in the numbers of school children and the consequent closure of some schools, and flow on impacts to other services and supports, including employment.

Meanwhile there has been a steady growth in industries such as mining, a critical wealth generating industry in Australia over the last two decades. Many mines are in remote and very remote areas and are largely staffed by fly-in-fly-out workers (fifos) who work long hours for several days before flying home for extended periods. These well-paid workers are now a highly visible feature of Australian airport travel in their brightly colored, company embossed vests. Most do not see themselves as rural. For example, 22% of Western Australian miners reside in the state capital, Perth (ABS, 2013a), and it is not unusual for workers to fly to Western Australian mines from their homes in the eastern seaboard capital cities, or in some cases, from the Asia-Pacific region. Fifos have changed the nature of the communities where they work, many of which now act as service towns to the mining population. The more than 270,000 mine workers (nearly 70% of whom are male) (ABS, 2013a) do not necessarily identify as rural and have little commitment to, or investment in, these communities.

Migration, whether it be the in-migration of fifos, or the out-migration of young people is a feature of rural Australia. Less well understood is the gendered nature of this migration. While the predominance of men amongst fifos means that mining communities are very masculinized, so too are the many rural communities across Australia reliant on agriculture. There are more jobs targeted at young men, including those in agricultural industries, with the result that young women dominate the numbers of out-migrating young people. They go in search of education and work, and leave behind communities where the social interactions of young men are limited. These patterns of migration are having significant impacts on rural social conditions and on the types of issues presenting to social workers.

Finally it is worth noting that a critical outcome of rapid changes has been the declining political influence of rural Australia. While rural areas could once count on their ability to ensure favorable political decisions for their constituents, this is no longer the case. The National Party, which once purported to represent rural people, has now become a party supporting big business. It does not lobby for, or engage with, rural communities in ways that would improve rural and remote quality of life. Not surprisingly there has been a rise in the numbers of independents elected to parliaments from rural areas, and these people are amongst the very few who focus attention on rural disadvantages. Because they are small in numbers, the public funding directed to rural areas does not appear to match the contributions made through taxation, and certainly does not focus widespread community attention on rural disadvantage. One very obvious result of this is the poor health and welfare infrastructure noted above. It is also evident in the lack of mobile telephone coverage, low levels of Internet access, limited and expensive public transport facilities, and general neglect of services and supports to rural communities.

Policy Challenges

Critical to the poor levels of rural services is the philosophy governing Australian public policy development. A dominance of economic rationalism underpinning policies has influenced the way services are delivered to Australians. The principles underpinning this philosophy include a smaller government presence in service delivery, user pays principles, mutual obligation, privatization, demand driven service infrastructure, centralization of services, and the application of market principles. They do not acknowledge the human rights, quality of life, or equity expectations of rural and remote people. In a country as large and as difficult to service as Australia, this results in poor service delivery, efficiency being prioritized over need, over-priced and privatized services, long distances to those services that are available, and an often prohibitive cost structure.

Social service delivery in Australia rarely reflects need, citizenship rights, or quality of life indicators. Rather there is a punitive overlay to policy and services that casts recipients as morally suspect with the result that welfare recipients may be treated in punitive ways. Because rural Australians are over-represented amongst the disadvantaged, this underpinning philosophy facilitates a reluctance by those in need to seek help, as well as a lack of attention to rural welfare needs.

Consequently, there have been calls from a range of organizations to introduce the United Kingdom model of “rural proofing”—that is, assessing policies for the impacts they might have on rural and remote people. In work currently underway, we argue that a model based on Norway’s living countryside principles would be more appropriate (Shortall & Alston, 2016). This model dictates that citizens should expect consideration regardless of where they might live. Under this model, equity is facilitated by injecting higher per capita funding into health and other services and by creating taxation zones based on remoteness. Such a model would appear suitable for Australia and would facilitate more vibrant areas where people had greater access to the services they require. It would also make such areas more attractive and desirable. The current policy drivers create the opposite effect.

Social Work Services

It is all of these issues that shape rural social work in Australia. Social workers are exposed to a variety of health and welfare needs, usually with inadequate resources and hampered by the scale of need, distance, policy drivers, and infrastructure issues. While these act as significant deterrents, the engagement of rural social workers indicates a new and vibrant form of practice, perhaps unique to Australia.

It is evident that the current economic rationalist regime shapes the way social work services are delivered into rural and remote areas. Services are patchy and highly reliant on civil society organizations and the innovations developed by workers. A large proportion of rural social workers are based in the regional cities dotted across rural areas where there are extensive social support services across a range of areas including aged care, disability services, unemployment, family counseling, crisis intervention, women’s health, etc. These services employ large numbers of social workers and provide good career pathways, allowing workers to progress to senior levels. They also enable social workers to come together in interagency groups to provide a complex systems approach to social issues.

Because of the issues outlined above—the reliance on primary health services in small rural communities and the neoliberal policy environment—the range of social work services in the more remote areas of rural Australia is limited. This is despite the socio-economic indicators of disadvantage and the readily identifiable social issues outlined above and the well-documented needs of Indigenous communities in remote areas, where arguably the most disadvantaged Australians live.

Social workers working with people in small rural communities are more likely to be involved in services that operate out of regional centers, to be working in the local community health services, or for one of the very few non-government organizations that are available in remote areas. Social workers working in small communities are usually generalist social workers and address a range of different issues. Nonetheless, because there are few workers located in small communities, rural people are less likely to identify social workers as a source of assistance. In research undertaken in the early years of the century, after several years of drought across the country, respondents noted that if they required help they would go to the local doctor, the rural financial counselor, or to charities (Alston & Kent, 2006). Rarely were social workers mentioned, presumably because people are far less likely to have been exposed to social work services. Further, there are very few dedicated community development positions despite the identified need for extensive and ongoing community work resulting from socio-economic disadvantage. Thus, there is less attention to community capacity building activities, social activism, and advocacy than there might be if there were dedicated rural social work positions addressing demonstrated needs.

With the uncertainty surrounding climate changes, environmental factors, industry changes, and declining socio-economic factors, the lack of social workers is a significant gap in Australia’s welfare support systems. In earlier works (Alston, 2005, 2007a, 2007b), the writer has argued the need for a new rural social work paradigm that provides:

… an enhanced, community-based role for social workers in an emerging area of significant need—as in-situ advocates, community development workers, and coal-face workers in small rural communities.

(Alston, 2005, p. 278)

While rural social work practice is evolving into what Dylan (2012, p. 79) terms radical, sustainable social work practice, little has changed in rural Australia since this model was suggested. Social issues are often recast as economic problems, and there is little attempt to reimagine rural places as significant sites where social cohesion and place shaping can be fostered and developed. There is limited conceptualization of a living countryside and little attention to human rights and equity. It is the prioritizing of economic indicators of success and the lack of an understanding of rural places as social spaces that is at the heart of the policy neglect. There is also an increasing tendency amongst politicians to shut down dissent and advocacy, principally through funding obligations to civil society organizations. Arguably, one result of government resistance to advocacy is that there are few government funded social work positions dedicated to community revitalization.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of dedicated attention to rural welfare and community development needs, there are many hundreds of social workers who do work in rural communities across a range of organizations and areas of practice, including major service providers who provide social support or health-based services. These organizations tend to adopt hub and spoke models of service delivery with the hub being based in a regional center and the spokes, or outreach services, going out to smaller towns. Thus, regional offices and senior supervisory and management staff may be located in the large regional centers, while workers travel to smaller communities, providing regular but often limited access to various services.

There are both positive and negative aspects to this service delivery model. The positives for clients include access to services that might otherwise not be available, the convenience in terms of time and resources saved, and the building of understanding of rural areas amongst the professions. For social workers, the benefits include having access to senior social workers to provide supervision, having access to the benefits of a regional center, and the professional development opportunities of working in a team rather than sole practice. The negatives for clients include the limited hours of service in small communities, the potential lack of continuity of service provision and service provider, and the lack of immediate access if there is a crisis. The negatives for social workers include the long distances to be travelled, often at the beginning and end of long days, the issues of occupational health and safety this poses, and the lack of understanding from senior management personnel of the conditions sometimes experienced.

On occasion social workers may be located for extended periods into rural communities particularly if there is an emergency—a climate-related disaster for example, such as a major bushfire or flood. One example occurred during the long-running drought of the early 2000s, when social support services were located in the affected areas. Social workers operated out of small communities for short periods during the worst periods of the drought. A similar model was adopted following the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and the floods in Queensland in 2011. These short-term appointments give those affected by the event immediate access to services during the crisis period. There are significant benefits to these service supports, particularly during the very traumatic period following an emergency. Workers also benefit from having easy access to those affected. There are issues, however, for workers in these temporary, high stress appointments, including the possibility of vicarious trauma, the short-term nature of the appointments, and thus the insecure working conditions (Alston, Hazeleger, & Hargraves, 2016).

Constraints—Working in Rural Communities

Social workers who engage in rural practice identify issues that impact on their practice context. These critical issues can be divided into practical, personal, and professional factors.

Practical

Practical issues include critical problems associated with the lack of mobile telephone coverage in many areas, the lack of reliable and affordable internet connections, the sometimes difficult access issues caused by poor road infrastructure and impassable roads after rain storms, and the very long distances to be travelled between towns or to clients on isolated farms, etc. These distances can sometimes mean that the numbers of clients that are be seen in a day can be far less that urban social workers, and this can create issues with management, who are unfamiliar with the circumstances. Long periods of driving also has other implications in terms of health and safety, with workers noting they can become very weary and must be alert to kangaroos, emus, and other wildlife on the roads.

Housing is a significant issue for workers moving into small communities. Finding suitable accommodation, renting, or sharing may be problematic if housing stock is limited. Further, if workers are moving into mining communities, the rent on available housing can be prohibitive, as this is set to meet the market rate paid by mine workers. The rents in many mining towns have skyrocketed, resulting in a problematic housing crisis for service workers and professionals.

Personal

Personal issues relate to the nature of living and working in a small, close community where people know each other. There is, for example, the very real possibility that workers will meet their clients in other social contexts and circumstances—in the supermarket or at a social event. Workers often refer to clients expecting them to be continuously in their social work role and to be ready for sometimes quite complex discussions. This “always on the job” aspect of small town life can place constraints on personal time and space. As well, some clients may indicate a level of embarrassment at seeing the worker out of context and may actively avoid them in social situations.

More ethically complex factors are associated with meeting clients in other situations, or being aware of issues raised by clients, including meeting people they know to be perpetrators. There are also complex situations that arise when workers are under statutory obligations to report issues such as child abuse and mental health issues. On occasion, workers have reported feeling exposed and vulnerable to violence themselves.

Additional challenges result for workers who note the difficulties associated with being seen to be “having a good time” or drinking in social situations, as this can reflect on their professional persona and can place constraints on socializing. Workers may also refer to the lack of a social group and limited opportunities for expanding their own networks in small communities. One result is that, particularly younger workers, may spend their weekends in larger centers or travel long distances for social events on weekends.

Professional

Professional limiting factors include the potential lack of colleagues, the difficulties associated with accessing supervision and professional development, the costs of travelling for professional opportunities and the time away involved. Many new graduates find their first job in rural areas, making these areas what Healy (2004) refers to as “professional nurseries.” Often these younger workers will stay for short periods before relocating to the cities, leading to a revolving door of workers through rural and remote services and a potential for more limited development of local knowledge, understanding, and networks.

One of the more critical issues facing social workers who are located in rural communities relates to working conditions. They may be on precarious contracts, with insecure employment conditions, and with limited hours, and receiving low pay. Alternatively, and this is leads into the real positives of rural practice, they may move into secure senior appointments quite quickly.

Turning Constraints Into Opportunities

Workers who have chosen to work in rural and remote communities and have remained for lengthy periods will recognize the issues outlined above. They are also likely to note that they love where they work and could not imagine being anywhere else. There are many reasons underpinning the intense professional satisfaction expressed by numerous rural and remote workers. Perhaps the most common is that workers know they are needed, undertake a recognizable and important role in the community, and gain great satisfaction from assisting people through difficult situations. They are highly valued members of their communities and share the common goal of wanting to improve these. As Pugh and Cheers (2010) note, they are likely to understand the history of their communities, its politics, informal networks, and local knowledge; this creates an intense connection to community and provides an extensive network of supports.

Workers in rural and remote communities are often members of cross-agency groups working with other professionals including police, doctors, and teachers, to address community problems. This provides strong support groups for workers who may otherwise be isolated in their professions. The rural location also provides extraordinary capacity to develop innovative practice ideas that can be tested and refined. An excellent example revealed during a research project in a very isolated community during the drought involved the doctor, social worker, financial counselor, and hairdresser setting up “men’s days” in isolated village pubs. On these days, and in a spirit of real camaraderie, men were given a health check, counseling advice, and a haircut! This program was one of the most successful in engaging isolated rural men during the drought (Alston & Kent, 2006).

Additional advantages noted by rural workers are that they can progress quickly, often reaching senior positions in a very few years, and gaining extensive experience at relatively early points in their career. Workers also note the relaxed lifestyle, the excellent environment in which to raise children, the cheap housing, lack of traffic problems, and the peaceful surroundings. All of these advantages lead workers to note they have rich and fulfilling lives, and that they can see they are making a real difference. Professionally, rural workers also develop strong advocacy skills and are usually at the forefront of lobbying campaigns for their communities.

Conclusion

Rural and remote social work practice is challenging, exciting, innovative, and professionally engaging. Despite Australia’s rural and remote areas having a very small population base spread across a vast land area, rural practice holds endless possibilities. Critically, there are unique challenges, evidenced by indices of socio-economic disadvantage, poor service infrastructure, and the economic rationalist mantra, that dominate service delivery for rural practitioners in Australia. These create significant issues related to service access and shape the types of work social workers do in these areas.

Arguably this also provides a basis for social work advocacy around social justice and human rights issues. The disadvantage experienced by rural and remote dwellers, and amplified in Indigenous communities, indicates the need for social workers to argue for improved and innovative service infrastructure. Australia has developed remarkable advances in remote education through the School of the Air and health services evidenced by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It would seem obvious that similar and unique social work services could also be developed. To do this requires a more targeted attention to rural practice by researchers and educators. Arguably, this critical lack of engagement reduces attention to the issues of isolation and disadvantage, policy failure, and reduced quality of life.

Social workers in rural and remote areas express enormous satisfaction with their work and find they are able to undertake critical and creative practice that makes a real difference to people’s lives. Rural and remote practice may not be for everyone, but having lived and worked in a rural area for over 30 years, the writer can attest that this provides an excellent model for innovative and deeply satisfying practice. What we need is more support to advance rural practice as a dominant and innovative field of practice.

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