The Real Issues of Rural Community
Rural towns aren’t all that they seem. George Baker reports.
WHEN the future of agriculture in Australia is brought up, rarely is the future of community in rural towns, such as Coonamble, NSW, talked about.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported in the Quarterly Report of March 2011, that 267 Break And Enter Of Dwelling incidents occurred. And those are just the reported incidents.
In the 12 months to March 2011 there was a 13.6 per cent increase in Break and Enter of Dwelling incidents, the lowest increase of reported activities of crime out of the major categories, which included increases in Domestic Violence Related Assault (20.5 per cent), Steal from Dwelling (29 per cent), Non-Domestic Violence Related Assault (30 per cent) and Break and Enter Non-Dwelling (44.6 per cent).
Coonamble isn’t even the place worst affected by reported crime. Property offences were the second highest after Sydney, at approximately three times above the state average, and violent offences were the fifth highest, behind Bourke, Walgett, Sydney, and Moree Plains, almost three times above the state average. While Coonamble’s situation is alarming, it isn’t unique, which leads one to question why such rural communities are showing these signs of rupture and unease?
Mick Leonard, a local business owner who has lived in Coonamble as far back as the Great Depression, says that business used to be thriving in this sheep-raising town. “There were at least 100 permanent shearers and rouseabouts. But today, the land here is turned over to farming. Subcontractors come from out of town to do the work,” Leonard said.
Leonard refers to a community structure alien to the 21st century. “Governments never controlled the multinational companies,” he said.
“The multinationals have been able to move into any town and expand, cutting down the independent business owners, which is a tragedy because the independent business owners were the ones that absorbed an enormous amount of employment.”
Unemployment is currently a pressing issue in Coonamble. Liz Swansborough, a consultant at Orana Education and Training Ltd (OEC), reported that in August 2011 there were approximately 100 clients using the employment service, but only three jobs, all requiring post-school qualifications, were available to be applied for through OEC.
“The majority of clients using the services of OEC have no qualifications and little work experience,” Swansborough says. “But the jobs in demand at Coonamble, like teachers, nurses, social workers, electricians, and mechanics, require experience and qualifications.”
Education is another pressing issue, with the 2010 annual report of Coonamble High School stating that it faced “immense challenges to bring our student achievement levels to where we know they can be.”
“The aim of the school is to embed quality teaching programs and practices so as to overcome the issues of staff turnover and disengaged students. Challenges all rural communities face,” the report reads.
In the last six years, the school has had four principals. No middle and senior executive staff members have served at Coonamble High School in their roles for more than three years.
It is evident that two crucial aspects of a developed society, employment and education, seem to be in an unhealthy state in Coonamble. But there are also underlying problems that are the arterial root of the unhealthiness, such as drugs.
“The difference in our society of today is drugs. Before there was only alcohol, which wasn’t as dangerous or prevalent as drugs… it’s the cause of all the evil, the mixture of the two,” said Leonard.
A policeman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that substance abuse is one of the biggest problems in the community.
“A person gets hooked on a particular substance, and to continue to feed the habit they’ve got to do something, hence the stealing,” the officer said.
It is evident that a lack of support for community growth and individual development exists within Coonamble, and without a doubt other rural communities.
But recently, support networks have been beginning to take shape. Councillor Don Schieb, chairman of the Coonamble Community Safety Committee, says that their number one aim is to “encourage the youth to become active members in the community, to develop better social skills, and to want to contribute to the future of the town.”
Coonamble is acknowledging the need to tackle the image of lost hope and opportunity, seen any night on the downcast expressions of the faces on the darkened main street, which indicates not so much rebellion from societal expectation, but a loss of identity.