In the final chapter of a five-part series about the crisis in our country communities, Peter Devlin looks to the future, and at the efforts of Wellington locals to turn their town’s fortunes around.
Inspector Scott Tanner, Wellington duty officer for the Orana Local Area Command, says the police and the community of Wellington are working hard to change both the perception and reality of the town. Wellington police have engaged the community on a number of projects aimed at reducing crime.
“The police can’t solve it alone but if we get together with the community, we can go a long way to solving Wellington’s problems,” he says.
The NSW police force has developed the Gungie (Aboriginal word for police) Origin in partnership with local businesses, disability services and Aboriginal elders. It is an initiative designed to communicate knowledge and understanding of modern policing to prominent members of the community, such as religious leaders, business luminaries and cultural identities. It was initially launched in 2010 through the NSW Police Customer Service Program, and has gained major traction in 2015, Inspector Tanner says.
Under the Gungie Origin initiative, police are working with the Wellington Information and Neighbourhood Service (WINS) to raise funds for a Youth and Community Boxing Gym.
“We have the positive mentoring of international boxing star Anthony Mundine, who has come on board as a major benefactor,” Inspector Tanner says.
Upon completion, the gym will provide a safe and harmonious environment for the community to actively engage, with a large focus on developing a healthy lifestyle through physical activity.
Pensioner Darren Elwood says some people in Wellington are reluctant to help the police with initiatives such as the Gungie Origin.
“A lot of people have had trouble with authority in the past so they won’t let their children socialise with the police, particularly the PCYC,” Darren says.
However, Inspector Tanner has recently seen a shift in attitude and feels the local police have started to gain back the trust of the community.
“After conducting a search warrant for methamphetamine in April, we had neighbours coming out of their houses and congratulating us. This wouldn’t have happened five years ago; they would have covered for the criminals,” he says.
Lynn Fields, of the Nguumambiny Corporation, a non-profit organisation established to help disadvantaged members of the community through providing workshops and life skills, agrees with Inspector Tanner.
Lynn is a straight shooter and tells it how it is when she says, “A huge disadvantage in Wellington is that everybody wants to take control but if we all work together this town will be better off.”
Lynn has first hand knowledge of shifting community attitudes through her involvement with the Nguumambiny Corporation. “People want to work”, she says. After the opening of Nguumambiny in 2013, Lynn was overwhelmed by locals offering to help, including Darren Elwood.
“I had 44 people wanting to volunteer. One young fella was injured in a car accident. He was depressed and suicidal because he wasn’t able to work. After giving him some referrals to mental health services, he came back to volunteer with me, answering phone calls, sorting out leaflets and handing out posters,” Lynn says.
Over 20 per cent of Wellington’s population have an Indigenous background. Many of Lynn’s clients are “black fellas”, she says, but stresses that the problems affecting her clients are not a matter of race.
“It’s like living in a shit-bowl. On some occasions you might be on the top of the water, on others you might be shoved to the bottom. White or black, it doesn’t matter,” she says.
Unfortunately, after 18 months the Nguumambiny office in Wellington was forced to close. A lack of government funding and increasing local council rates gave Lynn no choice but to operate solely out of Dubbo, 50km away. She continues to help the disadvantaged in both towns from her current base at the Dubbo Information Centre.
Without adequate government funding, and the introduction of programs such as ‘Fit for the Future’, Wellington Council is struggling to provide support services to alleviate the social and economic stresses blighting the community.
Christine Robinson, a former social housing manager in Wellington, now works as a tour guide at the town’s most popular tourist attraction, Wellington Caves. Christine has seen a lack of federal support for local councils across rural NSW, and says that the council’s responsibility in Wellington has been spread too thin.
“There’s been too much put on Wellington Council in the last 10 years. They can’t function as a business because they are forced to provide services such as mental health, or drug rehabilitation programs, which in a major city, would be provided by private organisations. Local councils used to do mainly roads and water, but now they have to find money for all these other services,” Christine says.
WINS has taken on a large chunk of this responsibility, providing a number of services that Wellington Council cannot. The organisation is governed by a community-based board and offers an information and referral service, a social worker, a youth service, public computer and internet access, tax information as well as a Centrelink agency and a space for outreach services such as NSW Housing.
Alison Conn, manager of WINS and local council member, says Wellington received funding from the State Government in 2012 with the introduction of a bus service between Wellington and Dubbo.
“An enormous number of people in Wellington don’t have a licence, they can’t afford a car, let alone the fuel, so the bus has been a godsend,” Ms Conn says.
Without continued support from the State Government, Ms Conn is worried the town’s population will continue to decline. “Sometimes it feels like the Government is working against us. I would hate to see our town disappear,” she says.
However, it was announced by the Federal Government in March that Wellington will receive a $19 million share of a $58 million funding boost as part of the Federal Government’s ‘Close the Gap’ campaign, aimed at reducing the health and life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The Wellington Aboriginal Corporation Health Service (WACHS) will administer the funding over three years for indigenous health care, such as GP services.
Mark Coulton, the Federal Member for Parkes, says he was “pleasantly surprised“ by the amount of the funding, but that it was a tribute to the good work organisations such as WACHS do throughout western New South Wales.
Despite Wellington’s social issues, tourism has always been a solid performer for the community. Christine Robinson says tourism is vital for the town’s economy because a lack of employment or a dwindling population doesn’t directly impact on tourism.
“When people come here, they’re just passing through but issues we have in town are not stopping them from visiting Wellington Caves,” she says.
In 1828, explorer Hamilton Hume gave the first written description of the caves, which were used for phosphate mining during the early 1900s. The caves were the first known source of marsupial fossils in Australia.
Adjacent to the caves are the Osawano Japanese Gardens, constructed in 1999. There are 1,500 individual plants in the gardens comprising 126 different species. The funding for the project was a gift from Osawano Town Council, Wellington’s Japanese sister city.
Christine encourages families to explore the Wellington Caves complex. “It’s a great place. We’ve got a bird aviary, a fossil trail and the Japanese Gardens all in one location,” she says. The complex is eight kilometres south of Wellington on the Mitchell Highway towards Molong.
Almost since the time of the discovery of the Caves, sport has been an integral part of the community. “People have been playing sport here since the 1900s,” says Farren Hotham, managing editor of The Wellington Times.
Wellington showcases many exceptional sporting facilities, all of which support a strong community focus, including rugby league and union ovals, three cricket fields with turf pitches, an athletics complex, netball, basketball and tennis courts, as well as an Olympic swimming pool.
Marilyn Keirle, owner of the Cactus Cafe, says her grandson, Daniel Keirle, certainly makes use of the sporting facilities Wellington has to offer.
“On Saturdays he plays netball; he’s a bit of a star. Then he goes over to soccer near the Macquarie River and he plays with the Red Devils,” Marilyn says.
Marilyn braved blustery conditions at Rygate Park, one of Wellington’s many sporting ovals, to watch her grandson play rugby on Mother’s Day this year. “On Sundays he plays rugby union. They play a round robin so I sat in the freezing cold wind and watched Daniel play four games. I loved it,” she says.
Wellington Soccer Club hosted the Country Cup for Under 12, Under 14 and Under 16 Girls over the June long weekend at Pioneer Park, when more than 100 of regional NSW’s best female players visited the town.
While Farren Hotham admits he is an “ultimate optimist”, he believes Wellington is on the “verge of a turnaround”.
He points to Wellington’s booming aged care industry. Maranatha is an aged care facility currently offering 60 beds, however a $3 million dollar Federal Government grant will soon see this number increase to 80. “I think Wellington will become a desirable place for the elderly,” Mr Hotham says.
The grant covers a complex of 20 bed units, as well as an administration block, training facility, chapel, new kitchen, laundry, car park and garage. Maranatha’s vision is to continue to grow to meet the needs of current and future residents.
As Farren Hotham says, the estimated cost of the facility is $4.5 million with Maranatha, a community-owned facility, funding the other $1.1 million. Construction of the complex is set to commence later this year.
The most important priority for Wellington Council is to increase population.
“Wellington will prosper quickly once it knuckles down and gets back into reality, keeps the positives going and makes the changes it needs to move forward,” Mr Hotham says.