Date posted: 2/11/2017 7 min read

Working as a CA in remote Australia

Living and working in the remote Red Centre of Australia offers a wealth of benefits for accountant Tanya Kirker.

In Brief

  • SMEs in the area tend to choose accountants based on the person, not the designation.
  • Workers can command higher wages in Alice Springs due to the remote location.
  • The cost of living is higher but travel distances are short.

When Tanya Kirker CA moved to Alice Springs 17 years ago, at first she wanted a job where she could work outside. That was until she encountered the searing summer heat, with daytime temperatures regularly around 40 degrees Celsius. “I thought right, I need an air-conditioned job.”

So the Kiwi woman capitalised on her Bachelor of Commerce degree and her accounting experience in the building industry, and became a chartered accountant. She is now a director of Verve Group, which offers financial advisory services and has offices in Alice Springs, Adelaide, and Manila in the Philippines.

(Pictured: Tanya Kirker CA)

Kirker ended up in Australia after finishing her university studies in Auckland. “I followed a boy to Australia – the Sunshine Coast. I spent ten years there – I married him, divorced him, stayed in Australia.”

She was planning to head overseas when she met her partner, Steven, who lived in Alice Springs. She subsequently moved there and quickly secured a job with an accountancy firm, thankful Australia was just about to introduce the GST and her skills were in demand. She attained her CA designation while she worked. 

Isolated area

Alice Springs is nearly equidistant from Adelaide and Darwin. It has a population of 29,000, 18.6% of whom are Indigenous Australians, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Kirker describes the town as “a pretty special place”.

“It’s a unique town in the middle of nowhere. It’s very isolated but it’s got all the amenities and all the facilities of some of the larger regional areas. There’s plenty to see and do, the weather’s fantastic – it’s great for clean, fresh air – and it’s a good place for families,” she says. “It’s a great little place – it has its issues, but most places do.”

The outback weather she dubs “fantastic” needs an explanation for the uninitiated. Located in the desert, on any given day the temperature can range by about 20 degrees Celsius. When Kirker spoke to Acuity at 8am Northern Territory time it was four degrees Celsius. That mid-winter’s day later had a forecast high of 27 degrees Celsius. 

Kirker appreciates the close community, saying people work to help each other. The flipside, however, is that in a small town, people talk. “So if you don’t do a good job then it gets around very quickly.”

It’s a “bucket list” place

Known as Australia’s Red Centre, Alice Springs’ economy is driven by tourism, the cattle industry and the community sector, including government and indigenous associations. And tourism is having “a cracker of a year”.

“Central Australia is a bucket list thing for a lot of people and it doesn’t really get impacted too much by global issues.”

It does well with domestic tourists – particularly people from the country’s southern states seeking winter sun. “A lot of them are driving, so the caravan parks are full and because it’s a bucket list thing, people have got a bit of extra money to spend rather than being on too much of a shoestring budget.”

In addition to its proximity to Uluru/Ayers Rock (450kms away), other tourist attractions include an annual camel race and a dry river bed “boat race” on foot-powered vessels. Kirker says the town’s stagnant population is a barrier to growth. She’d like to see an additional industry, 10,000 more residents and more money allocated to the Northern Territory Government.

I can’t get a chartered accountant to come and live in Alice Springs
Tanya Kirker CA Director of Verve Group
 In Alice Springs, Verve Group’s client base is mostly small, mum-and-dad businesses with a turnover of A$500,000 to $5m. They operate in a range of sectors, from retail stores to medical practices, fuel stations and cattle stations.

Some aspects about working in Alice Springs that set the town apart from the rest of Australia have nothing to do with climate or location. Kirker says doing things by email and online doesn’t cut it in Alice Springs.

“Because we’re so isolated, we’re so far from everyone, people in Alice Springs actually want to talk to people,” she says, adding this hasn’t changed despite the advances of technology. And when it comes to SMEs choosing their accountant, they tend to base their choice on the person, not the designation.

“I’m very passionate about my CA qualification, I worked very hard to get it, but the smaller mum-and-dad businesses... they don’t actually recognise that as much.” 

“I can’t get a chartered accountant to come and live in Alice Springs,” Kirker laments, admitting she is short staffed. She blames people’s perception of living in Alice Springs, which doesn’t necessarily match the reality. “You do your research online and you go, ‘oh, it’s hot, it’s going to cost me a lot of money to live here’.”

Related: Succeeding in regional areas is all about trust

Crowe Howarth partner Craig Macalister CA sees Invercargill as a wealthy regional area that requires a different accounting approach than a city.

While the cost of living may be steeper, for example the price of fuel, it is offset by having short travel distances when people are carrying out their daily lives. “The town itself, from one side to the other, is probably 10kms,” she says. Flight costs, however, can be prohibitive.

And while interest rates are on par with the rest of the country, she admits rents can be a little higher. But there is “plenty of work”, and salaries are slightly higher. Kirker pays a receptionist in Alice Springs 15-20% more than someone doing the same role in Adelaide.

But she says she can’t compete with the wages some of the indigenous organisations offer, where workers can also get tax offsets and fringe benefits for working in a remote location. Kirker admits there is “a little bit of trouble in town”, referring to youth crime, but says she feels safe there, and advises people to take the same precautions they would in other towns and cities.

She doesn’t see herself in Alice Springs forever, but only because there are other things she wants to do elsewhere.

“I won’t retire here but we’ve got a great little town… it’s a great place to make our money and to enrich the lives of other businesses in the town, then hand it over to the next generation.”