The city and the bush: complicated thoughts from the ocean wave

Travelling to work aboard a ferry frees you to think about things, and cruising across Port Phillip Bay from the Bellarine Peninsula to Melbourne’s Docklands seemed a handsome setting for a spot of pondering.

Goodbye to all that?: The Melbourne skyline from the Portarlington ferry.Credit:Tony Wright

It was one of those rare mornings, the sun playing on a calm sea and the towers of the city rising through a light mist. For a moment I thought: Thank you, COVID-19.

A bizarre notion, of course. If anyone heard someone say such a thing out loud, there is no telling what violence might ensue. You don’t thank a pandemic for visiting.

The truth, however, is that for many of us COVID-19 has altered the way we live, possibly forever. And it hasn’t always been for the worse.

Many of us experienced the revelation during the long claustrophobia of Victoria’s lockdowns that life in the big city mightn’t be all it was cracked up to be. It was expensive and unless you were loaded, with a lawn stretching to a gatehouse, you could feel hemmed in.

But here suddenly was the imposed freedom, for many of those lucky enough to still have work, to operate from home, wherever home might be.

Without being bound to an office, commuting daily from the suburbs, it dawned on quite a few that to continue living in the metropolis was no longer the obligation it had been.

Thousands of people have since upped stumps and moved to the regions – the bush or the coast.

I’m one of them. I quit Melbourne and moved four hours away down the south-west coast. A laptop, a phone and an internet connection rendered distance meaningless.

A daughter, no longer charmed by a tiny rented house in an inner-city suburb, shifted out with her partner and baby to a much larger home with a garden and a beach nearby on the Bellarine Peninsula, which is how I found myself on a ferry this week.

Feeling the need to visit the office in Melbourne – something I hadn’t done for almost a year – I drove up the coast from my home, stayed overnight in my daughter’s new house and rode the bay from Portarlington to Docklands.

It seems almost providential that my daughter’s new address is around the corner from the setting of the first TV series of SeaChange, which popularised the hankering among some city folk to strike out for new beginnings in lovelier and less complicated surroundings.

But 20 years on from that series, today’s exodus from the big city has become a stampede. The statistics show it, but anecdote is as reliable.

The very week my daughter left the city, three other families in her little street packed removal vans and headed to the Surf Coast.

Ask around and you’ll find the same sort of thing all over the state, including in far-flung districts accustomed to stagnant or negative population growth.

In my local town, far beyond commuting distance, it was not uncommon a year or so ago for those wishing to sell a home to find it sitting on the market for months or even years waiting for a buyer.

Now houses hit the market one week and are gone the next as those fleeing the city tumble in, cashed up from selling metropolitan homes.

The trend became clear as early as the June quarter, even before Melbourne went into its second, painfully protracted lockdown.

Until then, more country people typically moved to Melbourne than drifted the other way.

But figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last year showed a sudden reversal: in just the three months to June, almost 12,000 people left Greater Melbourne for new lives in regional Victoria, while a little less than 6000 moved from regional Victoria to the city.

The September quarter showed the trend continued, though at a slower rate: Melbourne had a net loss of 4700 to the regions, compared with 6000 the previous quarter.

The only surprise is that so many managed to escape the city – metropolitan Melbourne was locked behind its infamous “ring of steel” for all but a few days of that quarter.

Reliable figures will be revealed next month, when the ABS releases its annual Estimated Resident Population. You can be confident they will show the exodus became a torrent after the police and troops ceased guarding Melbourne’s exits.

It all sounds romantic, this surge towards imagined freedom. But no profound population shift has ever occurred without pain and broken expectations.

The transplanted must cope with leaving behind friends, familiar cafes, great entertainment venues and accustomed bustle. Whatever the pandemic might have done to it, Melbourne is known as Marvellous for numerous good reasons.

Out where a lot of us live now, there are barely enough phone towers for reliable reception, hospitals are under pressure, retirement and nursing homes spaces are scarce, it can be hard to find a doctor or job, roads crumble and educational attainment is typically well below that expected in the big city.

Meanwhile, all around country and coastal towns, pressure builds to open green fields and untouched vistas to developers, threatening what made these locations attractive in the first place.

Strange where a ferry ride on a perfect morning can take you.

This column was written prior to the announcement of the latest lockdown in Victoria.

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