If you approach Glen Innes from the south, passing through Ben Lomond and Glencoe amidst tall stands of poplar and conifer, you could be forgiven for thinking you were taking the high road through a small patch of Auld Scotland.
It’s midday on a Friday and I slip past the Clansman motel with its triumphant bunting of rampant lions and saltires, cross Mackenzie and Lang streets, looking for somewhere to eat. As I walk there’s a familiar — but unlikely — sound, which only grows louder as I turn onto Grey Street. Outside the town hall, in glengarry and hose, kilt and sporran, stands a lone piper playing what Alec Guinness once called The Tunes of Glory – “Flower of Scotland”, “The Gathering of the Grahams”, “The Black Bear” and all the rest.
I’m on a mission, but if I had the time I wish I could stop and ask, between sets, whether he was doing it for love, for auld Scotch sentiment, or whether the local chamber of commerce thought it might enhance their idea of a commercial Celtic theme park.
There’s a McDonald’s up ahead, and it is only when I step inside that I’m confronted by a reality of life in the economic rationalist paradigm: poverty. Not kids whiling away the hours, either jigging school or killing time before their next Centrelink interview, but real, grinding poverty. Middle-aged poverty. The poverty of people in stubbies and bare feet, people who might have once had jobs and who might have once sunk roots into their own plot of earth.
Glen Innes, like so much of regional Australia, seems a throwback to an earlier time when our nation was not only more homogeneous, but was also more inward-looking and yet more socially aware.
40 years ago, it was a proud town of 6000, with a bustling population of working families who earned a few bob through honest work and spent most of it in their own town.
Its population is still hovering around the 6000 mark, in a state that has grown grown over the intervening years from 4.78 million to 7.48 million — an increase of 56% that Glen and most towns like it have missed out on. And beneath these depressing stats lies another Glen.
A special research report on northern New South Wales commissioned by the 1974 Henderson Inquiry into Poverty — they don’t have such inquiries any more — concluded that 25% of households living in dire poverty in the New England region actually had an employed bread-winner; mostly working as fettlers (railway maintenance workers) on the Main Northern Railway which passes through Glen towards the border town of Wallangarra. Yet such employment, modest though it was, still provided sufficient income for railway families to live in detached cottages, many of which they were able to own themselves.
Then in 1988 NSW voters elected the bone-dry Greiner Coalition to government — and one of their first actions was to close the Main Northern Railway north of Tamworth. Perhaps they really believed, as Margaret Thatcher had asserted so stridently in the UK ten years previously, that there would inevitably follow a shaking out of employment from dying industries to those of the future. Or perhaps they didn’t.
In any event, unemployment figures from 1996 tell the true story. The Commonwealth Employment Service measured the unemployment rate in Glen Innes (at a time of economic growth) at 11.3%. And we can believe the integrity of those figures, as they were among the last produced by the CES before it, too, fell under the axe of John Howard’s Thatcherism.
The nice thing about poverty is that, as an equal opportunity employer, it doesn’t discriminate. Crumbs brushed from the table of plenty are available to anyone. They’re all there immersed in the palsied pallor of poverty — a grey, hollow-eyed stare of hopelessness.
When I return to Grey Street later, a transformation has occurred; the street is virtually deserted. The piper has packed his bag and headed for the hills, farmers have gone back to the property, the wait staff are wiping down the coffee-shop tables, and the Centrelink recipients lounge around. And it is then that we see Glen Innes as it really is after 40 years of neglect. The last desperate bastion of the battler.
The bookshops, second-hand only, display their stock out hopefully on the street to tempt the passer-by, as do the the clothing shops. But the young bloods on their skateboards, sideswiping dumb tourists like me, aren’t interested in thieving. Even for a cheap thrill. For what is more significant than these brave acts of commercial trust is that there isn’t a single sign of that hallmark of our age — the branded, franchised store. No Katies, no Sportsgirl, no Brumbies, no Bakers Delight. No Optus, no Telstra. No Sanity, no Bras N Things. You name it, it isn’t there.
All that is left in Grey Street are the vestiges of an Australia left far behind in a mad rush to global identity. Instead, we see the family butcher, the family baker, even mum and dad’s fish ‘n’ chip shop, 200 klicks from the sea. Still hanging on. With barely a customer in sight.
Perhaps I should have contacted the local council or the local paper or the local chamber of commerce for a comment but I wasn’t brave enough to cop an earful of boosterism that would have earned the envy of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt.
I could have contacted the personable Adam Marshall, local state member of parliament and junior minister in the Berejiklian government, and asked: “Why, Adam, is it that you seem unable to demand from your Coalition partners, those arch champions of investment — be it light rail, heavy rail or, sine qua non, stadiums — that they invest a little extra in people, for a change?” But that would be rude.
And then I thought of Barnaby Joyce, local federal member and special drought envoy, who had been in Glen recently, sounding-off as ever. I was desperate to ask him why he had a fixation on beef export prices, cotton irrigators on the Barwon and Sarah Hanson-Young? If he’s the drought envoy, what about a cloud-burst of federal dollars onto his own constituents, whose entire lives and well-being appear terminally drought-ravaged?
But then I had serious misgivings. Joyce is such a busy man with important power stations to build in central Queensland, that he might just say, Let’s cut out the middle man and you read this instead, it’ll explain everything — thrusting at me a copy of his recent philippic memoir Weatherboard and Iron.
I quaked at the idea, not so much as wilting before the wit and wisdom of St Barnaby, but rather at the thought of returning to Maccas and suggesting to The Great Unshod still marooned there that they read it.
I didn’t want to be any sort of middle man to be cut out of anything.