Last week, Fairfax agriculture-focused newspaper The Land and fellow paper Good Fruit and Vegetables hosted a Q&A forum to address concerns in Griffith and the surrounding areas such as job vacancies – currently sitting at 1500 – and how to attain and drive better opportunities within the ‘food bowl’ of Australia.
The forum, known as ‘The Next Crop’, saw a dynamic and diverse group of people from farmers to councillors, the business chamber to employers, and other invested parties discuss measures and means for improving the Riverina.
The panel consisted of Jo Palmer (Pointer Remote, The Rock), Jon Cobden (ICI Industries), Sue Molyneaux (human resources chief at Casella Wines), and Bob Wheeldon (Rest of NSW Inc. chairman).
While many jumped to the defence of the Riverina to share all the positives; the produce; the people, personal stories such as fourth generation Murramai rice farmer Deb Buller’s were difficult to overlook.
“I had my three kids at Leeton Hospital, and while the hospital is still there, giving birth there is not an option for my daughter-in-law,” she said.
“And that is a degradation of services.”
Representatives from around the region were in attendance, including Leeton Shire Councillor Tracey Morris.
Griffith Mayor John Dal Broi gave some preliminary thoughts for the night.
“This is a good opportunity for people in the industry – and not necessarily farmers, but people who are involved in our community to come along and listen and find out ‘where do we go in the future?’” he said.
Host of the forum, The Land’s senior journalist Alex Druce, said he spent “the best afternoon of his life” in the MIA after years in Sydney.
And, now he wants to see the Riverina set the foundation to keep that pride – that one feels as soon as they enter the region – whether that be in business, in tourism, in education, and so forth.
“The diversity in this area of agriculture is pretty damn exciting,” Mr Cobden said.
Some of the issues raised during the night were: finding jobs for the partners of those moving to regional areas, financial incentive to lure prospective workers, payroll tax, land tax and stamp duty.
President of the Business Chamber, Paul Pierotti came to voice his perspective.
“We don’t necessarily agree about evo-cities, country change, relocation grants – we haven’t really seen any of these programs,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of energy, time, and effort put into these programs but we haven’t seen results on the road.
“We’ve got hundreds of jobs available here in Griffith – we’ve got programs to promote that, but I can’t say they’re honestly working.
“I see the biggest hurdle in getting people here is affordable housing, services – our hospital’s a disaster; we can’t find nurses – our education system’s struggling; we can’t find teachers.
“When I talk to people who are considering moving here for career change, their biggest concerns are these issues: transport, health, education.
“And it’s fair for them to be concerned about that, because I don’t think we’ve been delivering.”
Some heat came to the discussion as Griffith Mayor John Dal Broi then took the microphone to defend the Council’s work.
]“I went to a meeting of country mayors and was approached by several mayors who said, ‘What are you doing out there? You’re growing.’
“The only thing that’s going to reduce our growth is water.”
Ms Molyneaux made a point of addressing a common misconception many Sydney-siders believe: the MIA is an isolated region and therefore many are not compelled to make the change.
“We’re not isolated at all – we’ve got four or five flights out per day,” she said.
It's very difficult to get trade-qualified people here.Sue Molyneaux
“Yes, there is a housing issue here at the moment, but there are people putting up rentals at the moment; blocks are being released.
“When people are looking to move to Griffith, I give them my own story.
“And we look after the people when they come here.
“We do need to get more people here – it is a great place to live.”
Though, the adversarial nature of many of the debaters was not forgotten.
“If we’re not careful, we’re going to walk away from here more fed up than what we were walking in,” Mr Cobden said.
The only thing that’s going to reduce our growth is water.Mayor John Dal Broi
“I think some of you have some really good answers to throw at us.
“Let’s walk away from here with something that we can positively do.”
“This is a great forum to work out what we can do collectively.”
While no concrete answers were uncovered during the forum, the opportunity for debate – with a range of groups coming together for potentially the first time – has set the foundation and opened doors for further discussion where those answers could be found.
Mr Druce remarked on the positives of the evening.
“How often do these groups together?” he said.
“Is there a forum for businesses, council, and organisations to come together?”
Ms Buller noted that the issue is “we need to think outside the box”, as many are typically inclined to defend their home town.
“We need to do some pretty outrageous stuff,” she said.
The common consensus however is that ‘centralising’ the regional cities and suburbs – to stop competing with one another and instead come together as a team – seems to be a possible answer to many of these issues.
“We’ve thrown a few things out there. I certainly don’t have the answers and it’s very hard to say, ‘Well, what do we do?’ ‘What’s something we can take away?’” Mr Druce said.