Saturday, 12 March 2011


I've spent this morning in Morwell, so I'll stray from the story of the house for today. Not that the house story hasn't already had its asides...

When I was growing up Morwell was thriving. It was a busy place - all the shops occupied, the streets always crowded, the cinema busy. It was a blue-collar town, a bit rough around the edges, but it always felt like an easy place. I mean easy in the sense that it was unpretentious, its citizens at ease with themselves and their place. I'm not saying that it didn't have problems: there were large tracts of commission housing and the Morwell kids we played football against were tough, but it was always a place I enjoyed visiting.

Morwell had two busy halves, one on each side of the railway tracks. The local radio station broadcast out of the subway beneath the rails and I loved going there on occasion to collect a single or cassette I'd won. There was a t-shirt shop too, with a KISS shirt i wanted terribly... The local primary school ran a unique and groundbreaking Japanese/English curriculum to cater for the children of Japanese families living in Morwell for the brown coal liquefaction project. It was an exciting time, a time of ease. There was no sense of what was to come. It is still difficult for me to reconcile the Morwell I knew with the Morwell I visited this morning.

I still like going to Morwell, but now it doesn't feel easy. Now it feels on edge. There is an almost palpable sense of unease. So why do I go? I love the gallery. I love the op shops. I love that the Coles has an Asian section. I love Manny's Market. I love the continental deli and the old lady who runs it. I love the fruit and vegies and the less old lady who runs that (which reminds me, I still owe her the $3 I was short on my last visit...). I love the old Italian men who gather and chat beside the window that shows the coffee roaster and sacks of beans. I love that for a few months there was an African grocer. I love the fact that this place exists. Thinking about Manny's Dutch licorice selection makes me salivate... Ah, Pavlov, I am but a dog.

What happened? The place got Jeffed. It's rare down here to hear someone mention Victoria's previous conservative premier without his name being preceded by an expletive. Fucking Kennett. Split up the State Electricity Commission and sold it off. Privatisation. That's what it was called. Midnight sitting of parliament. Deal done. Fait accompli. No one asked the people of the Valley. No one did a study into the social impacts of the sale. Efficiency was the buzz word, the reason given, the excuse. Efficiency. 

It's Labour Day tomorrow. Poignant really. When I was at High School the SEC employed more than 10,000 people in the Valley. It took hundreds of apprentices every year. At the end of years 9, 10 and 11 I had schoolmates who left school to take up apprenticeships with the SEC. It caught all those kids who weren't academically inclined, gave them hope, work, skills, pay. Now those kids stay on at school, their self-esteem as low as their grades, their hopes equally dismal. And the presence of those kids in schoolrooms? It distracts the students who do want to learn, spreads teachers too thin, allocates resources across too many. So everybody loses.

The five companies that replaced the SEC in the Valley employ around 2,500 people now.  That's 7,500 fewer wage-earners in the Valley. Assuming that probably half of them would've lived in Morwell, that's about, say 3,500 people.The total population of the town is 13,500. So, more than a quarter of the whole town's population lost their jobs almost overnight.

Kennett also merged the councils and located the new amalgamated council in Traralgon. Finally, the construction of MidValley shopping centre which once augmented the Morwell CBD and provided a commercial bridge through to Traralgon sucked all remaining money and activity out of the town. Any wonder the place died... If there was ever a need to create a ghetto out of a thriving community, this'd be the blueprint. Take away the jobs, take away the identity, take away the shoppers...

I remember coming home from London and visiting Morwell after all this had happened. It felt as though there'd been an emergency evacuation and we hadn't heard about it. The streets were deserted, every carpark vacant. The decal signs were peeling off empty shops to reveal the names of long-gone tenants. It was depressed and depressing. Unease. That was the first time I'd felt it there.

This morning I went to the multicultural festival. It was nice. Poorly patronised though. Pity. It was sponsored by the Latrobe City Council, the second event I've attended in a week that the council has sponsored, the other being the Boolarra Folk Festival. And that got me thinking...

There has been a lot of money spent on urban renewal and community-building in Morwell. Across the greater Latrobe Valley I guess, but I'm less familiar with Churchill, Moe and Traralgon. I cannot even begin to imagine the social security money that has been poured into Morwell over the last generation.

I'm not sure what the sale of the SEC netted the government but whatever it was it wasn't worth it. The financial cost of a crippled Morwell is probably measurable. Someone with more time and a better knowledge of economics and statistics could probably find the dollar value of Morwell's devastation and measure it against the money reaped from the sale. Am I being fantasist to suggest that the two figures may be closer than we might imagine? Regardless, no amount of money can come close to justifying the loss of hope that has afflicted Morwell, its residents and its generation of children born into poverty and abject unemployment. No amount of money, surely, should buy ease...

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