Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The rural vote in Australia: A story of population and service loss

On my recent trip "down under," a front page story in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, caught my eye. The headline for the Nov. 16, 2010 story was "Fields of Discontent." In the run up to the state parliamentary elections, it discussed the situation in a farming area called the Mallee, in the far northwestern part of the state of Victoria. The sub head on the front page was telling: "There might be only 50 people in Werrimull, but they do vote." A further subhead stated: "Unlike their city cousins, Werrimull locals such as Ron Hards, don't have to fret about the quality of the local hospital, or the punctuality of the trains. These services are long gone."

The story unfolds as the headline and subheads suggest: a rural place with an agricultural base suffering population loss and an attendant loss of services. The story focuses not only on Werrimull, but on the wider district in which it sits within the Mallee region, which is the Millewa. Werrimull has just one school, the P12, but the story discusses the town's kindergarten as the institution most at risk. With just 14 children, classes have been cut back to just one day a week, whereas it met twice a week just three years ago. This kinder is the only on in the Millewa, and one family travels 100 km round trip to reach it. To be open for two days now, journalist Darren Gray reports, each resident of Werrimull would have to donate $1000--on top of funding from the state. An organizer of the local kindergarten comments:
Our kids deserve the same opportunities that the children in town get and they deserve an education. ... They need to change the way they fund kinders. And instead of funding per child, fund for a teacher ... And at least have a look t the way they fund rural areas.
Gray observes, however, that "Politicians don't venture into the Millewa too often, and when they do, they don't bring a funding solution for the local kinder with them." He also lists other issues likely to influence how residents vote:
[T]he state of "The Millewa" road running east-west through the district and its lack of bitumen shoulder, the controversial $692 million north-south pipeline built to suck water from the Goulburn River but now sitting idle, the government's response to the expected locust plague and the lack of local health services.
Gray and those he quotes suggest that the current labor government in Victoria is unlikely to fare well with Millewa voters, in light of these issues.

Finally, the story touches on other rural themes, including attachment to place and population loss. About a century ago, the Millewa was part of a "closer resettlement scheme" which "carved up enormous pieces of land to lure settles to the bush." Early on, Werrimull had a population of 1000, and a "bush nursing hospital, three churches, government offices, a doctor, police station, local town hall and a bank." Now, many of those who remain are descendants of those who came to The Millewa nearly a hundred years ago--including Jess Hards, the woman quoted regarding the local kinder. She is the daughter in law of Ron Hards, the farmer featured in the story, whose family were among the region's pioneers.

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