This speech was delivered last week by Finley High School principal Bernie Roebuck at the Murray-Darling Basin Plan consultations in Deniliquin. It received a standing ovation from the 3000 people present — including federal water minister Tony Burke and Murray-Darling Basin Authority head Craig Knowles. Burke later commented: “Everything at these meetings obviously stays with me but I don’t think there’s been a presentation that I’ve been to probably in my life that will stay with me like Bernie’s.”

My name is Bernie Roebuck and I am currently the principal at Finley High School. Previously I was principal at Deniliquin High School and for a two-year period worked as a principal consultant across all schools in the Riverina.

Though I might be called a “blow in” by some standards I have lived and worked in communities in the Murray Valley for 34 years. My grandfather settled in Deniliquin during WWI and my father was born in Deniliquin in 1919. My children have all been born in the Murray Valley and two have started their working lives there. So “blow in” maybe, but for 96 years and four generations my family have lived in this part of the world and it gives us a claim of having a vested interest in the future of Riverina communities.

I represent the NSW Secondary Principals Council, a professional organisation of public school secondary principals. So what has the Murray-Darling Basin Plan have to do with school principals?

In truth, heaps.

The reason for our existence, our students, are the group of people that will be most affected by whatever the final decision is in regard to the Basin Plan — the full effects of these proposals will fall on my children’s heads and their children. We must not forget this.

It also affects our staff — their future employment is at stake, the value of the homes that many of them purchase is at stake. It also affects school communities. Uncertainly has already taken its toll in many instances.

The young people that we work with on a daily basis are not oblivious to the pressures that their mums and dads are under, and there is no question that affects many of them.

This is my second stint at Finley High. In 1990 when I was first appointed there as a head teacher the student population was 720. Currently our enrolment is 450 — a decline of close to 40%. In the Deniliquin area of schools known as south-west Riverina this enrolment decline is similar across all schools. In fact, apart from Albury, and to a lesser extent Wagga, it is the pattern across the whole Riverina.

What has this meant for schools? Less students means we can give students less options in terms of curriculum choice, recruiting staff is more challenging. Because there is uncertainly of employment the pool of quality students in each year group continues to get smaller and this can have a critical impact on student outcomes.

We have any number of schools that are so critically small now that they are absolutely in danger of closing or of not being able to deliver a quality education.

This is not some emotive throwaway line, it is the honest truth.

Of greatest concern for students is their life after school. Increasingly they know that local jobs are hard to come by. Increasingly young people see no future in their communities.

Some see no point in studying when there is a limited future. We constantly hear about things such as skills shortages, but as an example try and find a building apprenticeship easily in this part of the world. Increasingly they seek work away from these communities and so not surprisingly rural communities have less and less young people.

The decline of schools in our communities has other effects as well.

Less students means less teaching and admin staff, and often affects trades that support schools such as builders, plumbers, electricians, local grocers, bus drivers etc, so that income therefore disappears from the local economy and the multiplier effect on local businesses rolls out.

I feel bemused, and confused and quite frankly angry when I hear criticism as soon as someone makes any emotive response to the plan, or when someone wants to talk about the human cost of the plan, such as what I am doing right now.

Constantly I hear that emotive calls, emotive language, emotive pleas, emotive people should be dismissed as the lunatic fringe because they exaggerate, they misrepresent, they do not produce balance nor facts in dealing with the plan.

I would say how can one not be emotive if your livelihood, and all that is important to you, is at stake. I see no reason for us to need to apologise for being emotive. But that does not mean we cannot be rational or that we do not understand what is happening in the basin.

Few would deny that the Murray-Darling Basin has a complexity of issues to address. And find me an irrigator who would not applaud the concept of a sustainable Murray-Darling river system.

Many of my students have real mums and dads who are farmers. The very same people who produce the quality wine, rice, rockmelons, potatoes and grains that are in such demand in the supermarket. The vast majority of them are not environmental vandals.

They are in many cases hard-working, highly skilled operators who have a vested interest in protecting and preserving their land, and they do so. Why would they not want a sustainable future for their sons and daughters?