Finley High School principal Bernie Roebuck spoke at the Murray Darling Basin Plan consultations in Deniliquin last December. It is an amazing depiction of life in a community threatened by climate. Society has got to make a choice between the sentimentalism of rural communities vs the sentimentality of environmental flows in a river system.
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. You may well ask, 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?
These people are happy to discuss changes to aspects of water policy that would lead to a sustainable future. And they would love to see real investment in the infrastructures that would save enormous quantities of water that could contribute to environmental flows.
I for one applaud the announcement this week by Mr Burke of some major infrastructure programs. But why has it taken till this week for such an announcement to be made? And in truth, we would like to think this is but the first step.
Let’s be frank here, our nation is currently spending tens of billions of dollars to ensure that Australia has the technology base for the 21st century through the national broadband network.
The infrastructure base for our irrigation systems is in many cases 70-80 years old — what we are asking for is a fraction of the NBN but it would give this nation a base for huge water savings and at the same time allow for productive 21st century agriculture.
It would also create the jobs and the certainty to give the young and not-so-young people of rural communities hope, security and to feel that they can make a real contribution.
Without a commitment to long-term sustainable development in rural Australia our future is potentially very grim.
My staff and my students and my community are full of some of the very best people. These are the very same people who endure higher fuel prices, higher food costs, poorer medical facilities and poorer educational outcomes than any other part of our country. It is not reasonable, nor acceptable, for people in these communities to continue being treated as the rural underclass.
We are not second rate — we have some of the best brains, the best thinkers, the most creative talents and the best students. I cannot continue to accept that my students and the students of my colleagues at other basin schools should have a quality of life that is less than that of any students in Sydney or Canberra. How totally inequitable and un-Australian would that be?
I do not ever want to see my school become so small and so residualised and marginalised that it cannot deliver top quality education as it now does. Yet that is the clearly the fate in the very near future of many of our rural schools.
I implore you not to sell us down the drain. This issue needs serious and sustained consideration.
(MDBA chairman) Craig Knowles has said that in consideration of the plan there have been vastly opposite views of what needs to happen and what should happen. None of us doubt that. We accept that, we are reasonable people, we will compromise.
Some of those views, however, come from those whose livelihoods are not at stake. They come from those who do not have to worry about their kids futures.
In comparison our governments and business magnates are hell bent on digging everything and anything from the ground.
The environmental issues in so many cases related to mining receive scant consideration — such developments are perceived to be in the public interest and therefore environmental costs are deemed acceptable. The hypocrisy is totally unacceptable.
In truth, rural people do not accept that they are treated with respect. Their opinions, though considered, are often derided as second rate compared to their politically powerful, well connected urban counterparts, and rarely if ever are rural communities given the chance to be a part of the solutions.
In my 34 years in the Riverina I have seen the slow but constant decline in communities to the point where we now have those publicly saying “are communities under 15,000 people worth saving? Is it a waste of government money to keep them afloat?”
All this at a time of urban congestion, rising urban social violence, transport gridlocks, a lack of affordable urban housing, and the need to feed a rapidly rising population in this country and the rest of the world.
We have a rapidly declining manufacturing base and a massive over reliance on the mining sector that has a limited life span. There is a clear and obvious reason why vibrant and sustainable rural environments are critical to this nation.
In conclusion, I want to give my students and my community hope. I want them to vigorously support the concept of long term sustainability but I want governments to give them the sensible pragmatic means to do that.
I plead for some commonsense, practical solutions, not those concocted in the pristine halls of power away from the very people who are most affected. Include rural people way beyond flying one day visits, way beyond fly-in fly-out three hour meetings. Way beyond tokenistic representation on committees and working parties.
Engage with the people here, negotiate with them. Properly and sincerely and seriously engage with them — work with them to find some reasonable solutions. I implore you do not to be so naive as to think that the people of these communities are unreasonable or are not important.