One of the surprise movie hits last year was Red Dog. It is the story of a dog that wanders around the North West of Western Australia and became part of a community. A statue was ultimately erected in his memory. I missed it at the cinema but was able to watch it on the movie channel over the weekend.

One of the most touching scenes is when the whole local community “confronts” the caravan park owner who does not want to allow Red Dog to stay in the park. The scene touches on the notion of a community pulling together for a cause, which is seen as important by all.

The movie is set in the 1970’s when the Red Dog lived. Today the Pilbara region has expanded enormously on the back of demand for iron ore from China in particular. Yet people who are on a fly in and fly out (FIFO) basis now staff many of the mines. These people do not “live” in the towns where they work but do a period of time “on” and then fly home for a period of time “off”. There are numerous variations on that theme but many end up being roughly one to two weeks on and one week off.

As a recent phenomenon, the health effects of this type of work have not really been studied that much as yet. Logic would dictate that families would be disrupted by having one partner (and /or parent) absent for long periods of time and then home for periods of time This sort of lifestyle would best suit young people who have no formal attachments and can work hard for a few years and set themselves up for life by saving money. The pay is generally very good-as it needs to be.

Yet whether this lifestyle affects wellbeing remains in question. During “on” time there may be little to do after work other than drink. Most companies encourage exercise but it cannot be forced. Strict policies about drugs and alcohol exist but it is likely people circumvent them. Food in “mess halls” is not always the healthiest and even where healthy options are available, whether they are chosen or not is also a question.

Yet the Red Dog movie got me thinking about that other intangible pillar of health-relationships. In the 1970’s a community existed that rallied around a dog. Today there is no community to do that in many mining areas. As humans we need good relationships as part of good health.

We also need the feeling of belonging whether it is to a family group, sporting club or workplace or to a geographical area like a town. Small towns have a stronger sense of community than big cities. One of the laments of people who move from the country to the city is that despite being surrounded by people they have never felt more alone.

There are economic issues involved and it suits many people to live in a city and commute (via flight) to their workplace. Some would not want to live in remote areas. A movie like Red Dog reminds us that we can lose something in the name of progress. The notion of FIFO was to make life better for workers by enabling them to not have to move. The flipside is that we may be destroying communities or stopping them from developing.

I do not claim to have the answers to this. However it is time to start asking questions and having a debate that has not yet occurred about this issue.