Outside forces killing our country towns
Rosedale is a small country town in central Gippsland. Now a stop for tourists on their journey from Melbourne to the Ninety Mile Beach, the Gippsland Lakes, or southern New South Wales, Rosedale was, from the earliest days, a resting point for weary travellers.
Following the discovery of gold at Walhalla, the town became a staging point for the Cobb & Co coaches transporting miners, supplies, and gold between Port Albert – and later Melbourne - and the rich goldfields.
Although there are no major ranges between Melbourne and Gippsland, a combination of swamps, and a heavily treed chain of hills between the Great Dividing and South Gippsland ranges deterred exploration from the fledgling Victorian capital. As a result, south eastern Victoria was opened up by explorers from southern New South Wales.
A cairn in the Rosedale town square commemorates Angus McMillan, the Scottish overseer of a station at Monaro, who explored the region in the late 1830’s naming it after Governor Gipps. A few miles down the road stands a memorial to the other explorer of the area, Paul Strzelecki, a Polish Count, who finally made the journey to Westernport Bay in 1840, walking some of it through tree tops because of the density of the forest.
The squatters soon followed, bringing their cattle to the rich plains interspersed by the rivers running from the Great Divide to the Gippsland Lakes. The great homesteads still stand – Kilmany Park, The (Snake) Ridge, the Holey Plain, and Nambrok. Named after Rosalie Dutton, the wife of the original land owner, Rosedale was originally the home of the station workers.
For two decades, Gippsland was sparsely populated, relying on the supply of stock to Tasmania for its prosperity. With the discovery of gold at Stringer’s Creek in 1863, the relative obscurity of the region was soon to change. Within a decade, the Long Tunnel Mine at Walhalla had become one of the richest in the world, as prospectors and miners converged on the mountain. By 1885, more than 4,000 people lived on the steep hillsides. Transport hubs, like Rosedale, Sale and Port Albert expanded, as farmers had a ready market for their produce.
The development in the 1870s remains evident today. The two hotels built in Rosedale at the time housed travelers. The townsfolk commenced a commons school in 1870. By 1873, they had paid off the debt, and handed the fine brick building over to the colonial authorities - the 770th school to be registered in Victoria.
A year later, the Mechanic’s Institute Hall was built. The Bank of Australasia was constructed at the time, along with the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic Churches. For a century and a half, these buildings formed the civic fabric of the community.
Demand for overland transport saw a railway built from Melbourne in the 1870s. Its construction marked a changed fortune for Rosedale. No longer the staging post between the mines and the port, the township prospered nonetheless as a hub for the rural community.
It was just outside this small country town that I grew-up in the 1960s. Returning for a few days over Christmas, I was struck by how little the basic structure of the township had changed since it was first laid out in 1855. Now the home for 1,500 people, it never had a population of more than a thousand for most of its existence.
As I surveyed the manner in which the town had adapted in the past, I was struck by the way that outside forces continue to affect rural towns.
Let me illustrate. Standing in the main street, just opposite the Mechanic’s Institute is a statue of Patrobus, the brilliant three year old, who, in the space of three weeks, won the Caulfield Guineas, the Victoria Derby and the Melbourne Cup in 1915. Mrs Widdis, the owner of Nambrok station, became the first woman to have a Melbourne Cup winner. Patrobus is the only Gippsland horse to win the event.
A few years ago, the local traders organised the erection of the statue of the horse in full flight. The passersby learn of the exploits of the local champion, but nothing of the local race club.
For more than a century, the townsfolk and nearby famers ran a successful racing club. Four times a year, locals flocked to the races. Women purchased new dresses and hats, children played on the lawns, and the men discussed the finer points of the competing animals. The profits generated were returned in prize money and to local charities.
Then in the late sixties, the racing authorities decided that there were too many clubs. In the new era of the tote, turnover was everything. A century of local commitment came to naught.
Some years later, the Kennett government decided there were too many municipalities in Victoria. The Rosedale Council was absorbed into the regional Wellington Shire and the headquarters moved to Sale.
Subsequently the banks moved out, leaving locals little choice but travel half an hour to the next town until a local community bank was opened.
The buildings remained, but the professionals were gone. The decisions robbed small communities of human capital. There was no longer a shire secretary, an engineer, and other professionals who contributed to the community. The townsfolk and farmers who voluntarily gave of their time to serve on the Council were unwanted, their skills, experience and contributions discarded. The folk who voluntarily devoted hours and hours to the race club were left without even a thank you from all omnipotent bureaucrats in Spring Street.
Each of these decisions was made for a logical and understandable reason. Yet each of them had a profound impact upon the town and its community. Little of this impact was known or appreciated by those who made the decisions.
Each year, hundreds of rural and regional towns throughout Australia experience the impact of decisions taken in capital cities. There is no community impact assessment, no informed consideration for how the decision will impact on the community concerned.
Most towns survive and move on. Some don’t. Every now and again, rural people revolt, voting against governments they believe have lost touch of their aspirations and concerns.
Rural communities are often subject to changing economic circumstances. When the gold ran out, Walhalla slowly withered. For 20 years, a pineboard factory provided employment for many people in Rosedale, but, like the Cobb & Co service a century before, it subsequently closed. A few years later, a tannery commenced operations in the same premises. A century earlier, there had been a local tannery until it had become unprofitable. Changing technology led to changing circumstances.
Droughts and rains, fires and floods have a regular impact across the nation. These are part of the cycle of life that country people know and experience.
What they object to is over-arching governments, hell bent of some grand plan, who are ignorant of local sensitivities, take them for granted, assume their acceptance of whatever change is proposed, won’t listen, and are not prepared to compromise.
We need a renewed sense of subsidiarity in the Australian polity. Not all decisions taken at the central level are the optimal. More often than not, local communities know what is best for them. Sometimes they are wrong, but they also know that they suffer the consequences of their choice.
There are issues that require central approaches – but the case should always be made out. Otherwise, let local communities flourish. The experience of local people running hospitals, schools and nursing homes enriches these institutions and the communities they serve. We need more of it.
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