This is part one of a five-part series about country towns in crisis. Peter Devlin welcomes you to Wellington, New South Wales. Population 5,200; future uncertain.
Outback Australians are synonymous with resilience. Since European settlement, Australian folklore has identified those from the bush as buoyant people who face adversity with stoicism. However, generations of doing it tough are taking its toll on remote communities.
As the sun rises in Wellington, people awake with something akin to a hangover, sensing another headache around the corner. The town is feeling the effects of a continued drought, a dwindling population and a methamphetamine epidemic. Customers leaving Kimbell’s Cafe and Bakery, pies in hand, squint as a blinding light streams through pin oaks opposite. An elderly man parks himself on a bench along Mitchell Highway, west of the town’s main intersection. His thick, dark glasses hide his eyes, and his thoughts. While the occasional road train screams through, few cars pass him by.
However, when optimism takes hold, Wellington is full of potential. Local business owners sweep the yellow autumn leaves from their doorsteps. At the north end of town, school children pace over the cross walk on their way to Wellington Public, one of the town’s five schools. Teachers herd them through the metal gates. The cold brings out red faces and rosy cheeks as they breathe in the crisp air, a truly fresh start to the day.
Wellington is in the centre of rich agricultural land. John Oxley was the area’s first European visitor and, inspired by his glowing report of its agricultural potential, a convict settlement was established in 1823. The Wellington agricultural economy is worth approximately $70 million a year.
However, Farren Hotham, managing editor of the Wellington Times, explains this industry doesn’t employ as many people in Wellington as it once did.
“These days farming is family-orientated or employs part-time people and transient backpackers to help with picking and shearing,” Mr Hotham says.
This is the strategy John and Margaret Schmitt have used on their cattle farm, Locherne, southwest of Wellington, since moving there in 1989. “It’s always been in the family; our two sons are working with us,” says Margaret proudly.
Farren Hotham knows the importance of a thriving agricultural industry in Wellington. “If the agricultural economy is failing, Wellington has problems. To be successful, the town needs the agricultural economy to prosper,” he says.
Small talk at the local coffee shops reveals that, hidden behind its tough exterior, there is a sense of urgency to combat the social and economic pressures blighting Wellington, like those troubling so many of Australia’s country towns. Wellington’s uncertain future is heightened by the possible amalgamation of the town’s municipal council with those in Dubbo and Narromine. Under a State Government proposal to increase efficiency to councils unable to generate sufficient funds to provide the levels of service and infrastructure needed for their communities, the number of councils in NSW will be reduced from 223 to just 97.
“That’s what we are scared of,” says Alison Conn, Manager of Wellington’s Information and Neighbourhood Services, and local council member. “Three councils all joined together doesn’t make one big right council, it could make one big wrong council. And it means that places like Wellington would lose out if we amalgamated.”
More than half of Wellington’s residents (population 5,200) receive social welfare, keeping people like Alison busy. “We are what you would call socioeconomically disadvantaged. 60 per cent of people in Wellington are on unemployment benefits, and this has been going on for generations,” says Farren Hotham.
These stresses haven’t always afflicted Wellington. Marilyn Keirle, long-term resident of Wellington and owner of the Cactus Cafe, takes herself back to the 1950s when she describes more exuberant times. “We used to go to the theatre and I was an usher,” she says. “My mother had a ball going to all the dress shops we had in town. Dad would throw up his hands with mum coming out with another new outfit every weekend.”
An indication of Wellington’s booming population was the building of Burrendong Dam, begun in 1958 up stream of the township, to provide flood mitigation, irrigation and water supply. “When the dam was being built, we had people from all different nationalities here, which really boosted the town. We had balls and dances, it was much more social,” says Marilyn.
A decreasing population and steep rent has forced the closure of many local businesses along the main road, with Target the latest to close.
Marilyn has taken on the responsibility of selling clothing out of the Cactus Cafe. “As different things in the town closed, I expanded so now I’ve got clothing, giftware, handbags, a bit of everything,” she says. Looking around the place with all its different stock, she acknowledges how many different businesses have closed their doors in Wellington since hers opened 17 years ago.