It is early on a Thursday morning in late May. As I write, it is pitch black outside but soon I will see another sunrise over the mighty Murray River. Yesterday it was at Swan Hill. To-day it is at Robinvale. The drive between Swan Hill and Robinvale is a lesson in Australian geography, sociology and economics.
I am in Mallee country. Mallee is a species of eucalypt with many bracts or trunks. It inhabits arid and semi-arid areas of southern Australia. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many would-be farmers broke their hearts and their backs trying to clear mallee scrub for agriculture.
The drive from Swan Hill to Robinvale across the mallee country is an entree to the fruity riches of Sunraysia. While there are many vegetable crops along the way, it is the orchards - of citrus, of olives - and the grape vines that are the attention getters. Thousands upon thousands of hectares planted in the straightest of straight lines, undoubtedly due to the wonders of GPS.
I did come across, though, mass destruction of citrus trees. Perhaps someone can enlighten me why this destruction was taking place. Firstly, I came across huge bonfires of cut down trees. Further on, I saw a whole section of uniformly dead citrus trees, starkly grey compared to the usual dark green glossy leaves. Further on, ploughed fields on which the ashes of fire were still present.
I know there are farmers who are or will be destroying their trees in the Goulburn Valley area of Victoria because of the SPC Ardmona cutbacks - but does this impact on growers this far west? Perhaps the destruction was of trees which were past their use-by date and no longer as productive as once they were? Perhaps the destruction was the result of a commercial decision to destroy a section of citrus to plant other crops such as olives or grapes?
As I came closer to Robinvale, white plastic was on many of the vines. This was to keep the birds away from the grapes underneath. In one area, I saw pickers at work and trucks loaded with boxes. Harvest was in full swing.
Which brings me to what I really want to talk about ... the people.
Particularly since World War II, both sides of the Murray River - in New South Wales and in Victoria - have developed multicultural populations. Large Italian communities are evident but there is quite a mix. Family farms have become agricultural corporations. In some cases, not only is fruit produced it is also processed at an industrial level locally. Wineries abound. Those thousands of hectares of GPS-ploughed fields represent huge financial investments and some thick wallets have been developed in communities either side of the NSW-Vic border.
But in the end, there is a harvest and that fruit - whether it be citrus, olives or grapes - has to be picked. In come the pickers, the casual workers. Who are these people? Young, old - single, married, in relationship - educated, uneducated, undereducated - male, female - Australian born - foreign born Australian citizens - illegal immigrants. What does it matter, some might think, as long as the job is done; the fruit is picked; the fruit gets to market, to the processors.
People have to live. People have to have shelter; health care; schools for kids; public services such as police, fire brigades, ambulances. In these days of ubiquitous technology, people need access to computers, phones. Those with no English or basic English need language classes. Sometimes strangers need people to talk to. How can all this be managed?
Communities have a way of managing. We have governments at federal, state and local level with a mix'n'match - and, sometimes, mismatch - of responsibilities in service delivery. Since around the 1970s, communities have found that less formal services than those provided by bureaucratic government departments are needed to plug holes, fill gaps, communicate. To do this work, across the nation numerous NGOs have sprung up, assisted by government funding, to meet specific and even non-specific community needs. There are Welfare Committees, Neighbourhood Houses, Community Networks, Housing Co-operatives, Hospital Auxiliaries .......
What NGOs - and even local councils - have found is that there has to be thought, organisation and planning even at volunteering levels to get done what needs to be done. Funding comes from on high it would seem - particularly if you live far from a state capital, let alone far from Canberra. Application for funding and succeeding on obtaining sufficient funding can be quite a skill - particularly when people operate more informally and more collaboratively at the local level and then have to learn the ways of bureaucratic operation to find a pathway through the morass of forms as well as build linkages with departmental contacts.
For Local Government and NGOs to get funding, they have to substantiate their case. Anecdotes and reporting of experience won't do. Proof, facts are required. The basic turn-to for such proof, facts is the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And the basic turn-to is the regular Census statistics. The last Australian Census collection was in 2012. However, it is a bit difficult for the ordinary citizen to find useful and detailed statistics relating to their town. In short, it is not easy to find an online breakdown of census statistics for Robinvale either as a town or as a district.
Robinvale is in the local authority area of Swan Hill which has been deemed, in somebody's wisdom, a 'rural city'. Now from my community studies training "rural city" is a bit of a contradiction in terms.
The long and short of this is that it is quite clear that the citizens of Robinvale have no confidence in the population statistics for their town and believe that various departments and bureaucrats have not been doing their job well. A visit to the Information Centre in Robinvale will get you a very useful booklet called Official Visitors' Guide - Robinvale Euston - Victoria Australia. On Page 1 of this booklet under the title of this is robinvale euston, the third paragraph down makes for interesting reading:
Our vibrant townships on the Murray River comprise over 22 different nationalities, and according to the 2011 census data, has a resident population of around 4,500. Although as many of the locals will tell you, this is severely understated. They believe a more accurate figure is between 8,000-10,000 people, due to the seasonal employment nature of the area and many residents being missed at data collection time. None the less, Robinvale Euston is one unique multicultural melting pool.
I went shopping at the local IGA Supermarket between 5pm and 6pm yesterday evening, and I can assure Networkers that this didn't seem like a town of 4,500 people. I've lived in small towns, tiny towns, regional cities, and capital cities across the eastern seaboard and in the Northern Territory and I reckon the supermarket test give a reasonable feel - on all sorts of levels - of a town, its population, and its social demographics.
So, I reckon I agree with the people of Robinvale. The true population and its needs are not currently reflected in the official figures. It would be good to have some way for politicians and departmental bureaucrats to recognise this so that more precise information can be available to local government and NGOs as well as giving the aforesaid politicians and departmental bureaucrats the tools to better serve Robinvale.