Retire In Canberra — Or Save A Dead-End Outback Town (Decisions, Decisions…)
By Bernard LaganAugust 23, 2012
When Wilcannia’s only supermarket closed temporarily in August, the plight of this dusty, isolated town once again hit the news. When The Global Mail visited last week, it found seeds of hope and civic pride being planted by an unlikely influx of new settlers.
Wilcannia lies shrivelled in the semi-desert a thousand kilometres out on the asphalt west of Sydney, where the Barrier Highway to Broken Hill slices the town; where travellers mostly rumble on, slowing only to gaze at the shuttered shops, burned and boarded dwellings and the sullen little band of Aboriginal drinkers flopped outside a forbidding pub. In the minutes it takes to pass through Wilcannia, deprivation flashes up, confirming, surely, the word around the outback that this is not a town for stopping.
Not much moves on broken-down Reid Street either — save for stray dogs and ambling kids. Once the town's grand thoroughfare, it was lined with broad sandstone houses, shops with brimming verandahs, a dozen hotels and decorative metal columns, back in the old days when Wilcannia was the Queen of the West, the Darling River's third-largest port. In its heyday, in 1887, Wilcannia welcomed 222 steamers hauling in wool from the northwest's great sheep stations; the town had 3,000 people, a brewery and a newspaper. And its former long-time locals, the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land, were forced off to sites outside town.
Today Aboriginal people make up the bulk — about 80 per cent — of the 700 people left in Wilcannia. The town began to fade away in the 1920s, when road transport killed off the steamers. It is now overwhelmingly a welfare town, and even researchers say the official unemployment rate of around 21 per cent for Wilcannia's Aboriginal population vastly understates the truth. A community survey conducted five years ago put Aboriginal unemployment at 43 per cent. Two other sets of statistics help you get a measure on this place.
The well-kept Wilcannia Central School which strives mightily to get kids to school each day — the school bus picks up from every home — struggles to get the secondary student attendance rate much beyond 50 per cent. Only two per cent of the school roll of 140 is not Aboriginal.
And if you are an Aborigine in Wilcannia, your life is likely to be short; Aboriginal men in Wilcannia have a life expectancy of less than 37 years and women less than 43 years, according to a 2009 study of the town published by the Indigenous Law Bulletin. That ranks with Africa's poorest countries. In Wilcannia, suicides take more lives than accidents.
As grim as those statistics are, they've been worse. Just a few years ago pupil attendance at the primary school was — like the secondary school today — not much beyond 50 per cent. Today it is up to 75 per cent. Back in 1993 police and politicians across the country reeled when it was disclosed that Wilcannia had a public drunkenness problem of epic proportions: in that year alone the town recorded nearly 20,000 arrests for public drunkenness, which translated to an arrest rate per person of 25 times a year. And 20 per cent of the arrests were juveniles.
The implementation of a low-strength alcohol policy and restricted hours for alcohol sales have since helped to greatly reduce public drunkenness — and associated violent crime.
Funerals, however, are still frequent — last week there were two — and they're often heralded by an outbreak of stealing and house-breaking, attributable to the influx of youngsters from out-of-town among the mourners. Bill Elliott's little café and second-hand shop on Reid Street — called Miss Barrett's Bits and Bobs, it was Wilcannia's first new shop in decades when it opened a year ago — got hit on a Wednesday night. They forced a window and stole cake and soft drinks.
"It was the one night we didn't have our alarm on," says Elliott, a gruff former farmer from outside the town. "It was probably the same little shit who broke in 12 months ago. I was about three inches away from grabbing him that night."
Across the road Vit and Beth Garkut are rueful, rather than annoyed, about the night's events. While they slept, their cars were broken into. Vit, who owns a bakery on the south coast of New South Wales, has been renovating a sandstone house in the town for his son, a teacher at Wilcannia's school. Fit, gentle and in his late 50s, Vit blames himself for leaving a new digital camera in his car where it could be seen.
Bill Elliott, and Vit and Beth Garkut are three of a small group of recent arrivals in Wilcannia who've left comfortable, often far-removed, lives to quietly set about trying to rescue a forlorn outback town. They channel their own modest cash and bigger dreams into this place, where decades of vast government spending — there are some 43 different state service providers in the town today — appear to have made little difference.
Just how much Wilcannia is in need of rescue became suddenly apparent at the beginning of August, when the last shop in town — save for the gas station — the IGA supermarket, shut down. This meant emergency supplies of fresh food and milk had to be brought in each day by road from Broken Hill, 196 km west — a two-hour drive way.
It showed what can happen when a town goes downhill, businesses close, competition dries up and one man ends up holding all the commercial aces — such as they are.
Broad-shouldered and heavy set, Tony Sorohan is a still forceful presence in late-middle-age, though weakened by two bowel operations and a recent heavy fall. It was the fall, he says, which forced him to close his supermarket for a week. That claim is treated with scepticism by some Aboriginal people and their supporters in the town — especially as the only pub, The Wilcannia Club Hotel, which Sorohan also owns, did not shut its doors. Besides, Sorohan appears to have employees capable of running the supermarket on a day-to-day basis.
It has not gone unnoticed in Wilcannia that Sorohan closed the supermarket two weeks after a flying visit to the town by the NSW Minister for Fair Trading, Anthony Roberts, who subequently went on local radio and lambasted the supermarket's prices.
The minister told ABC Radio: "I can certainly say that I was very disturbed and quite alarmed, particularly when you have a community such as Wilcannia facing the issues that it has, at some of the prices for what are to be considered essentials."
Sorohan's fury at being accused of price-gouging may not be altogether unjustified. While his staples such as milk and bread are certainly well ahead of comparable prices in Sydney, a quick survey shows that his vegetables, drinks and eggs are on a par or even below some Sydney supermarket prices.
Until now, Sorohan has not spoken publicly about the temporary closure of his supermarket — and he's still reluctant. He frequently dismisses a range of people and institutions in Wilcannia who've offended him, as "cunts". He will say that he's long wanted to open a fast-food take-away next door to his supermarket, which he is confident would turnover $15,000 a week. But, in a town of unemployed, he reckons he can't find local people willing to work. "They're too lazy," he says.
And it is true that, just as isolation adds to Sorohan's prices — nearly everything he sells must be trucked the 500 kilometres from Adelaide to Broken Hill, and then on to Wilcannia — so it hampers Wilcannia's ability to attract businesses that would generate fresh jobs. The town is littered with the evidence of failures; the succession of employment projects that have withered includes a new housing development, an art gallery and multiple attempts to establish a horticultural industry and craft centres.
Three years ago the federal Labor government chose Wilcannia as one of 24 impoverished Aboriginal towns in Australia into which it would pour in money and manpower to catapult employment, health and education opportunities to levels enjoyed by similar-sized non-Aboriginal towns. For Wilcannia, the ambition was outsized, given its Aboriginal unemployment, life expectancy rates and income levels that border on poverty
Some things did happen; the town's 122-year-old sandstone post office — empty and abandoned for two decades — has been restored over the past three years using federal government funds. But it is still empty. The hospital has gained tele-medical services that allow doctors and medical specialists far away to diagnose and monitor medical conditions of patients in beds at Wilcannia's hospital. There's a new playground, money for an arts enterprise, and more for the establishment of a men's group.
But there is no evidence of relief in the town's chronic joblessness — despite the four separate organisations in Wilcannia contracted to train people and find them jobs. Some of the difficulty here lies in that fact that there are Aboriginal families in Wilcannia in their fifth generation of unemployment. As Steve Ross, one of the town's co-ordinators for the government-funded make-work scheme (the Community Development Employment Program) says: "People are not lazy, here. But I have seen five generations who've never worked. If you don't know how to work, you have to be taught."
The light in this grim tunnel may yet come from another, unlikely, source. In recent years, Wilcannia has seen first a trickle — and now something more than that — of educated, relatively well-off retirees who've shocked their friends and children by leaving comfortable jobs, homes and lives to move to Wilcannia.
Paul Brown was among the first. He left a corporate job in marine engineering in Sydney 11 years ago, looking to semi-retire somewhere. He considered a coastal motel and then decided to look inland. The journey led him to Wilcannia.
"I ended up buying the motel in Wilcannia and two months later I woke up and wondered what I'd done," recalls Brown, 61, who has a lush beard and a thoughtful mind. He had planned to stay three to five years. But he got involved because he wanted Wilcannia to lift out of its malaise. Brown is renovating a large sandstone house, once a convent, on the Barrier Highway in the town's centre. Manhandling new window frames into place, Brown certainly looks like a man who's staying. He knew the town's reputation when he first arrived but shrugged off any worries on the basis that he'd travelled in and survived far worse places in his days as a marine engineer. Since he's been here, he's cleaned up the town's parks, tidied the streets and, he believes, seen the people of Wilcannia begin to follow suit: "People are taking more care of themselves, they are taking more interest in themselves — how they look, how they behave. Parents are doing more to reduce some of the waywardness."
Brown, tempered perhaps by a decade of watching Wilcannia's struggles to haul itself out of deprivation, has come to see the town as a place always on the cusp. "Ten years ago it was just starting to change," he says. "There were things about to happen. And then they didn't. I think probably the greatest disappointment is in the reading of all the reports. If you read about the projects that have never been started, all of the great things that were going to happen that have been written about, you'll see that very little has actually happened. If we'd been able to do all of those things, we'd be looking at Utopia right now."
Brown is particularly tired of seeing the implementation of short-term government funding for employment and training projects in the town. In tough towns, he says, five-year funding guarantees are needed.
"You can't take people in Wilcannia who have a minimum of schooling, put them into a 13-week program and expect them to be work ready. It doesn't make sense and it doesn't work," says Brown.
Brown is one of a band of renovators — all working independently — who have begun restoring the town's old rambling sandstone houses, many of which have been boarded up or otherwise left to rot as Wilcannia stagnated. Of course, the renovators are partly motivated by self-interest; last year these houses could be bought for as little as $13,000, so there is potential to make a profit. But something else drives them, too — a desire improve spirits in Wilcannia — while building their own pride in this strange and distant place.
Sarah Fethers, willowy and English-born, raised three children in Canberra and held a senior executive position within the National Botanic Gardens before moving to Wilcannia three months ago with her husband, Adrian, a former senior public servant. They, too, are restoring a grand old sandstone building on Reid Street. This month they'll employ an Aboriginal man on parole after serving jail time for violent assault, to help them ready their building for the café and gallery it is to become.
Neither of the Fethers had ever been to Wilcannia until they passed through on road trip to the Sturt National Park in far northwest NSW three years ago. Both had become concerned about slipping into too comfortable a retirement in Canberra: "I knew if I didn't have the job and stayed on in Canberra and did nothing, yes, I would die inside. I think that just be being here we are helping out a bit," Sarah says.
The couple made the 11-hour drive to Wilcannia more than 20 times before they sold their Canberra home, waved goodbye to their young adult children and friends and left.
"We had to decide whether to be in it or not, you know," Sarah says. "It had come to the stage for us to actually commit. So that's when we got rid of our house. The kids were absolutely horrified." Adds Adrian, "They are all independent and away. But you do have a few second thoughts, particularly now. We've only been here three months, so we are still in this conversation with them. None of them have been here yet."
The couple's Canberra friends also expressed concern. Says Sarah, "They were horrified, too. See, I don't think the average person has anything to do with Aboriginal people. I honestly don't. I think they are sort of apprehensive about them. Some are just scared."
Further along the street is the house that Vit and Beth Gurkat are renovating for their son, who teaches at the local school. They are now considering purchasing a second house and opening another branch of Vit's successful bakery at Bawley Point on the NSW south coast.
Vit has a vivid memory of the first time he saw Wilcannia four years ago when he came up to visit his son: "I drove over the bridge into the town and I looked down at those mean streets and I thought, 'Whoa, look at this town!' Everything was boarded up. There was iron and bars everywhere. It was like a Western movie — a little town with tumbleweeds rolling down the street. It was really, really weird."
It's a sign of great progress to Vit that in what's still thought of as the roughest town in NSW he can now walk across the street and buy a cappuccino — at Bill Elliott's café.
At the other end of town, Steve Ross, the town's Community Development Employment (the federal government's make work scheme) program coordinator, has crafted a large garden in the shape of an emu outside his headquarters where the dirt track to Bourke begins. Lush saltbushes, native herbs and flowering plants have sprung out of the semi-desert. Ross, a horticulturalist by trade, has won public funding to begin building a much larger market garden that will provide the town with five more jobs. Work is about to start.
Local support for the market garden has surged since Tony Sorohan shut down the supermarket, despite the past failures in the town to establish similar gardens; a productive garden of sufficient size could help ensure fresh local produce, and help break Sorohan's monopoly. Ross, who took over the employment project a year ago, now has ambitions to also build a food barn equipped with a cooler, which would allow the sale of dairy products as well as fruit and vegetables. A compact, energetic man of many talents ('circus performer' is another line on his CV), Ross has successfully run his own businesses in western towns, so he has the experience to back his optimism.
He may share the widespread Wilcannian disillusionment with public agencies and their ability to ever give the town new life. Right now, he says, "The biggest businesses here are the government agencies, which come in here and don't stay here."
But Ross is a long way from thinking government agencies are Wilcannia's last hope, or that life's essentials can only come from supermarkets. Instead, he says, "Of course this town can be saved, the people are beautiful."