I'd had a reasonably happy childhood in the suburb of Caulfield in Melbourne, Victoria, when at 18 my family bought a newsagency in Benalla. We all moved to this country town with a telephone exchange, a post office, saleyards, railway and even a picture theatre. House blocks in the main street acted as paddocks for a horse; telephones had handles which you would up to get the girl on the exchange who would put you through to the number you wanted. All very new to me, coming from a city with automatic phones.
It was the social structure that really hit me. As owners of the newsagency Mum and Dad were invited to judge the belle of the ball at Dookie. This was a status that Mum and Dad had not had in Melbourne. On top of that, my brother was a good cricketer so there was competition from a number of teams in the town for his services. All of the children of the family were expected to help in the business; I worked in the shop while the boys did paper runs.
The town was in those days run first by the pastoralists, then the small business people, perhaps also the senior people of the shire and sometimes headmasters of the schools. These were the members of Rotary. This has changed over the years with decentralisation and a small flood of public servants who worked at the SEC headquarters; Telstra (then known as Telecom); Conservation; ‘the Ag’ and the Forestry Departments; and at a Vet Lab which supported the farmers.
The majority of the public servants disappeared with privatization. We now have a town much more dependant on welfare recipients with limited input from retired or semi-retired people who have sold farms or city dwellers who have sold their expensive houses and have a restricted income. Our service clubs are not the centre of action they once were. Where once there were jobs young people leaving school could get as an apprentice or on the railways or even in our small factories, these are no more. Our bright young students end up leaving Benalla for university rarely to return. There is no longer a Benalla cricket competition.
Are there some bright spots? Well, we have a young Mayor and Councillors who have the best interests of the town on their agenda. But is the town ready to get behind them? Have they got a future plan? They might have, but I don’t know of it, which I guess means neither do the rest of the town. A hard working Street Art Committee is bringing new life to tourism in the town. I’m part of a strong band of volunteers, but we seem to become bogged down with issues such as ‘where to now for the piano at the art gallery?’.
I guess it is leadership I’m looking for. In my 75th year this is not going to come from me and I’m not sure where it will come from for our future.