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Compass -

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Small Town Salvation

Summary

The tiny NSW town of Cumnock (pop. 300) is hosting a real-life experiment that could resonate
across Australia. The scheme was launched to save the local primary school, but many families have
come to escape the 'rat-race' and find out if life is indeed 'happier' in the country. How will
this experiment play out? Good will abounds on both sides but can it last? 18 families, mostly from
the city, have moved into empty farmhouses ('renovators' delights') for a peppercorn rent.
Differing values and moral codes are on the line. What role do traditional institutions like the
church and local council play? By following families and key players, including the local Anglican
priest, Compass examines Cumnock's unfolding story.

HELLO AND THANK YOU FOR JOINING ME.

WE'VE ALL HEARD ABOUT THE RURAL CRISIS AND ITS IMPACT ON COUNTRY LIFE - DECLINING TOWNS, THE EXODUS
TO THE CITY - DRAINING THE LIFEBLOOD FROM A TRADITIONAL WAY OF LIFE.

WELL, ONE TOWN IN NSW HAS COME UP WITH AN ANTIDOTE ...A REAL LIFE EXPERIMENT THAT IS DRAWING FAMILIES
BACK TO THE BUSH, TO SAVE ITS LOCAL SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY.

GOOD WILL ABOUNDS ON BOTH SIDES, BUT IS THAT ENOUGH? WHAT ROLE ARE TRADITIONAL INSTITUTIONS LIKE
THE CHURCH PLAYING? THIS PROGRAM LOOKS AT THE UNFOLDING STORY OF ONE SMALL TOWN FIGHTING BACK.

MARGE

Cumnock was very much larger place. We used to have the railway here. At one stage we got up to 135
children at the school. They say it's progress, but it's not really.

NARRATION

JUST OVER A YEAR AGO THE PEOPLE OF CUMNOCK, A TINY TOWN FOUR HOURS DRIVE WEST OF SYDNEY, WERE
PRESENTED WITH A RADICAL IDEA.

CHRISTINE WESTON, A LOCAL FARMER SUGGESTED THEY OFFER THEIR EMPTY FARMHOUSES TO FAMILIES FROM THE
CITY.

CHRISTINE

Cumnock needs families with children to help the public school and pre-school. We need families
with renovation experience to be able to do these farmhouses up. We want families that are ready
for a tree change.

CHRISTINE

Put the cake in there, and put the fire in there

NARRATION

THE FAMILIES WOULD PAY ONLY A DOLLAR A WEEK - BUT THEY'D HAVE TO DO SOME BASIC REPAIRS.

CHRISTINE

Boil a billy on the top ...

NARRATION

CHRISTINE, A MOTHER OF THREE, FELT THE TOWN HAD PLENTY TO OFFER.

CHRISTINE

We have this amazing freedom and open space and our three children love riding their pushbikes,
collecting the eggs and climbing trees and playing in the dirt. So, I just thought, it's just a
beautiful way of life for your children.

NARRATION

AMONG THOSE INTERESTED WERE THE MERCERS FROM MELBOURNE: SIX KIDS, TWO JOBS, A BIG MORTGAGE.

SICK OF THE DAILY GRIND TO MAKE ENDS MEET, THEY MOVED FROM THE SUBURBS TO THIS "RENOVATOR'S
DELIGHT" LAST SUMMER.

NICOLE

We thought we wouldn't ever be selected when we applied. But then when were selected had to really
stop and think, oh hang on, is this really what we want to do?

MATT

We've already done a fair bit in this room. Sorry but there's a fight going on outside... We have
knocked down some walls and opened this area up".

NARRATION

THE MERCERS WERE AMONG MORE THAN A HUNDRED FAMILIES WHO APPLIED FOR CUMNOCK'S "DOLLAR-A-WEEK,
RENT-A-FARMHOUSE" SCHEME.

MATT

...and the kitchen was just in here ...

NARRATION

CHRISTINE HAD DEVELOPED A WEBSITE TO PROMOTE THE SCHEME, AND WHEN APPLICATIONS FLOODED IN, THE
TOWNSFOLK CALLED A SPECIAL MEEETING.

SYNC

There's four children here. Two are probably out of high school. But there's another two here which
are Year Three and Year One. But this gentleman wants to escape noise and pollution and the
aggression and the lack of community in the city he's living in at the moment.

I want to move to the country because mum won't have to work much and I can walk to the farm and
see the animals and look out my window and see the farm.

There's been a lot of thought go into some of these. And we've obviously struck a chord with the
city people to come to the country, hopefully.

CHRISTINE

And there were some really sad stories, really sad applications that came through. There was the
family that was living in a car because he'd lost his job and lost his house and the kids were in
the car as well. So I felt quite saddened, bit overwhelmed by that.

NARRATION

CUMNOCK NEEDED FAMILIES WITH YOUNG CHILDREN TO BOOST THE SCHOOL AND PEOPLE WHO COULD RENOVATE ...

CHRISTINE

The third thing, the family has to be community orientated, so maybe to join Pony Club or to join
the Show Society. And fourthly, somebody who's ready for a tree change. Someone who's aware of what
a tree change is all about.

MAN

This guy says he's got a dog that thinks he's human and a cat that thinks it's divine.

CHRISTINE

But I think the turning point for me at that time was when the CWA lady said to me, you've got to
really look at, you've got to select that is running to something. Don't select a family that is
running away from something. To select a family that wants to grow vegetables or select a family
that wants to run because the kids want to climb trees or ride bikes. You know, they want to start
a new life. Because, she said, your town is not going to be able to cope with it. You haven't got
the right resources or the welfare services in your town. So, she said, you need to strengthen your
town first. So, thank goodness for the CWA. It was a bit clearer then.

NARRATION

SOME APPLICANTS WANTED THE LIFESTYLE, BUT DIDN'T WANT TO RENOVATE. THEY WERE OFFERED ORDINARY
RENTAL HOUSES AT COUNTRY PRICES.

MARGE

The ones I've met seem very enthusiastic and keen to become part of our community. That's what we'd
like to see. Not only just somewhere cheap to live but to be part of the community as well.

NARRATION

IN SYDNEY'S WESTERN SUBURBS, STEPHEN SLEE AND RACHEL KENNY ARE PACKING UP TO MOVE TO CUMNOCK.
THEY'LL BE AMONG THOSE PAYING NORMAL RENTS.

THE COUPLE MET TWO YEARS AGO, BUT HAVE FOR LONG BEEN DISASTISFIED WITH THEIR LIFE IN THE CITY.

STEPHEN

We're not going in with our eyes closed and thinking it's going to be you know. There'll be
problems that probably we haven't considered or something like that. And I left a job down here to
go up and I don't have anything. That's the only thing we really left you know.

RACHEL

Oh I think it is going to be better. Jack's had a bit of dramas here at High School where teachers
don't have control over the classroom. They keep throwing tables and chairs around and have fights
and that.

JACK

The school I go to now is a school that likes to have fights, seven fights in science actually. I
reckon up there, there's a lot less people and less people interrupting, much more education so you
can learn better

TIFFANY

I'd like to plant and do vegetables, make things, and be like an artist kind of a person.

STEPHEN

Ultimately we're considering having more children and you couldn't realistically do it here for
space or financially. And to move around here, even just renting it, it just goes up and up.

NARRATION

THE RENT ON THEIR NEW HOME WILL BE ABOUT HALF OF WHAT THEY'VE BEEN PAYING IN SYDNEY.

TIFFANY

There's only one thing I don't like about the house. The toilet's outside.

STEPHEN

We will just settle in there and hopefully we'll enjoy it and they will enjoy us, and one day buy
our own home out there you know.

TED

Well I came in on it, in one sense, fairly late in the discussion. I could see that there could be
problems, and so I wanted to be just a bit outside of that arrangement team so that I can be a
roving person that can help. Hear people's grumbles and joys. So that fits in part of my role as a
priest I think.

TED

Hello Helen. Thank you for putting up with me being late.

NARRATION

TODAY TED IS VISITING ONE OF THE NEWCOMER FAMILIES ... THE WHALLEYS WHO'VE JUST MOVED HERE FROM
BROKEN HILL.

TED

G'day Patrick! How are you? Are you ready for an invasion from me?

HELEN

That's the lounge room there that's been burnt. We've got some work to do in here.

NARRATION

HELEN'S HOUSE WAS DAMAGED BY FIRE FIVE YEARS AGO AND HASN'T BEEN LIVED IN SINCE.

TED

How do you work to get that off

HELEN

Lots of scrubbing, and then sugar soap..

NARRATION

SHE'S STARTED RENOVATING BY HERSELF. HER HUSBAND WILL JOIN HER IN A FEW WEEKS.

HELEN

This room here was like the room out there, all black and disgusting. We scrubbed it for days and
then we put on about six coats of paint to get it looking to this standard.

TED

That's a lot of paint. It's only a small room, what's it going to be like for the ...

HELEN

I don't want to know yet.

TED

I think what I like about being a country priest is the fact that, the emphasis is on people, and
that's country living.

TED

I think the main reason I want to contact you is just community. For the families coming in, I
think it's an exciting adventure, new start type of thing. They're obviously looking for something
and here's something quite different and challenging. It's a big alteration to our community. It
challenges us because we have too make friends with a lot of people all at once. And that's not
easy.

NARRATION

IT'S AUTUMN NOW. THREE MONTHS SINCE THE MERCERS MOVED TO CUMNOCK, AND MATT IS STILL BUSY
RENOVATING. HE'S A CARPENTER AND PLUMBER BY TRADE. BUT REPAIRING THE HOUSE, AND LIVING IN IT WITH
SIX YOUNG CHILDREN AT THE SAME TIME, PROVED IMPOSSIBLE.

MATT

The first week was horrible. I know at one stage Nicole sat there and she was in tears and she was
basically saying I want to go home. And it was completely understandable because we had bugs all
over us, rats running through everything in the kitchen and the bedrooms. It was horrible.

NARRATION

THE MERCER'S WERE AT THEIR WIT'S END UNTIL A KINDLY LOCAL STEPPED IN.

CALLE

Well I helped the Mercers when they were in trouble. I rang them impulsively and I knew, I knew
they were going to say don't be silly you can't do that. But I just offered them to come and share
my house. I saw this family with little children and water issues and washing issues. But it was a
pleasure. A pleasure for me to have them and hopefully they'll stay. I see them as people that
would probably end up staying in this community. Hope so.

MATT

Five years from now if we were still in the city I think we'd either be divorced. I'm quite
serious. To give you an idea what was going on before we came here. Nicole was working three to
four, at least three often four, sometimes five night shifts a week. And I was working between them
and looking after the kids and Nicole was looking after the kids. The kids were shunted off
everywhere and all over the place.

NARRATION

NICOLE IS A NURSE ... AND HAD TO JUGGLE SHIFT WORK WITH CARING FOR THE CHILDREN.

NICOLE

The children were leading at different times, a very separate life to us. I'd be in bed trying to
have a sleep. I'd hear the older children come home from school. They'd come and say hello to me
but then they'd be downstairs while I had a quick nap before I had to go off to work again that
night.

MATT

That pressure was immense. And we had a beautiful house but all I kept thinking after we'd moved
into it was yeah what have we got really. I've got a horrible life. We would end up hating each
other. I've got no doubt about it.

HELEN

I've only just finished the kitchen to get to a point where I'm happy to cook in it. Yeah. And
we're just trying to clear the yard.

NARRATION

SIX WEEKS IN AND HELEN WHALEY IS STILL WORKING ON MAKING HER HOUSE A HOME. SHE'S DONE THIS SORT OF
THING BEFORE. AND SHE'S LIVED IN THE "'COUNTRY'' BEFORE.

HELEN

In some country towns you to people are very worried about people from outside, more the older
generation. But I think with most country towns, and I've lived in a couple of country towns, I've
found that it just takes time make good friendships. And people like to check you out for a little
while, and that's alright. They want to know who you are and mainly if you are going to stick
around.

NARRATION

AS WINTER SETS IN MANY OF CUMNOCK'S NEW ARRIVALS ARE EXPERIENCING THE BITTER COLD OF THE NSW
CENTRAL-WEST FOR THE FIRST TIME.

RACHEL

It's been a bit different, like the weather here. So been a bit stuck inside a lot. It's very windy
here. It could be really sunny and it is really windy all the time. And that can be a problem with
getting outside and doing some things. And we've had a lot of rain. So we sort of haven't really
done much.

STEPHEN

I don't know that we haven't done much.

RACHEL

I'm cooking more and liking that, yes.

NARRATION

IT'S TWO MONTHS SINCE RACHEL AND STEPHEN MOVED TO CUMNOCK. BUT THEY'RE A LONG WAY FROM TOWN.
STEPHEN DOESN'T HAVE HIS DRIVER'S LICENSE, AND HASN'T GOT A JOB YET.

STEPHEN

As you can see it's pretty isolated out here. We try and go and attend things and meet people. I
wouldn't say I've made any close friends or anything. But when I start working and find a job and
that's how you sort of - to me it hasn't really been long enough yet. We're just sort of settling
in and establishing ourselves.

RACHEL

No, not going over to people's houses yet and having coffees and things like that. But that will
come in time.

NARRATION

STEPHEN AND RACHEL HAVE NEVER LIVED IN THE COUNTRY BEFORE, SO THEY'RE STILL WORKING IT ALL OUT.

STEPHEN

We were a bit concerned that moving out here whether you could sort of get that thing where if you
haven't lived here for 40 years no one will speak to you. But we haven't found it anything like
that. People have just been so helpful and welcoming.

RACHEL

But they are like old fashioned. You walk down the street. You don't know someone, say, hey, how
are you going. And that to me is old fashioned. If you walk down the street in the city you say hi
how ya going, you'd probably get your head punched in or something like that.

STEPHEN

I wouldn't call that old fashioned though.

RACHEL

I do.

STEPHEN

I would say they would probably be more honest. I wouldn't even really say it like that because it
makes it like everyone here is perfect. And that's not. Like I said before it's a lot more of a
community. And I think that helps in the sense that if little Johnny's running around mucking up,
Missus up the road is going to tell the mum. Like, certainly where we were, like, I lived there for
like two years and never spoke to the neighbours. Just didn't happen.

NARRATION

RACHEL'S CHILDREN - TIFFANY AND JACK - HAVE ADJUSTED MORE EASILY TO THEIR NEW LIFE IN THE COUNTRY,
HELPED BY THE DAILY ROUTINE OF GOING TO SCHOOL.

JACK

Love it. Definitely. It's the best place, they've fixed my guitar and they let you even go on the
computers at lunch time.

TIFF

It's much better I can say than Sydney schools. It has more education. I've learnt a lot since I've
been up here and I just want to stay up here for the rest of my life. It's awesome.

NARRATION

IN ALL, TWENTY FAMILIES HAVE MOVED INTO THE DISTRICT AS PART OF THE RENT-A-FARMHOUSE SCHEME. AND
CUMNOCK IS ALREADY FEELING THE IMPACT.

CHRISTINE

Good Morning. How's business?

KAYE

Really well.

CHRISTINE

What about all the new faces in town? new customers?

KAYE

Heaps. Loving it.

CHRISTINE

Are they coming in and buying hamburgers?

KAYE

Friday nights, there's a lot of people coming in. Terrific. Really Good.

CHRISTINE

Someone said there were three new houses going up in Cumnock over the next few months, so that's
exciting. Maybe we'll get back to the former glory of the good old days.

PEEWEE

You've done well Christine

CHRISTINE

Everyone's happy. It's been a group effort, hasn't it? A community effort.

PEEWEE

I think it'll expand again these little towns. If you've got the facilities there and the
infrastructure, yeah I'm sure. Towns will grow.

NARRATION

THE DISTRICT'S POPULATION HAS, IN FACT, GROWN BY TWENTY PER CENT TO AROUND SIX HUNDRED, AND THE
MERCERS ARE IN THE THICK OF IT.

NICOLE

On the social scene I feel like I'm home, where I'm very busy with being Secretary of the
pre-school. So that's really helped me become really involved and find a way really where I fit in
the community. That's something that really scared me at the beginning. I was meeting all of these
fantastic women who were so strong and progressive and just able to do anything. And I just had
this thought in the beginning, gee, how am I going to compare myself with these women who just get
in there. You want something done, they'll do it. Or they will get a group of people to do it. So
the women folk of Cumnock are just absolutely amazing and I really find that I am finding a place
to fit and a role to live into.

MATT

Well, Nicole is being very humble. I think Nicole fits in very well with those women. That's the
thing. She doesn't realise how amazing what she does is. We've got six kids and she works, and she
creates a house and a home for us all. So it's no different to the farmer's wife out west really I
suppose. And there's a reason why people don't have six kids any more, and we well and truly know
why.

NARRATION

AFTER FIVE LONG MONTHS CAMPING WITH LOCALS, THE MERCERS HAVE BEGUN MOVING INTO THEIR FARMHOUSE ...
THE DREAM IS FINALLY BECOMING A REALITY.

NICOLE

We really feel like there's a sense of freedom and re-awakening with the environment. You walk
outside the back door and you've got this beautiful view of the trees and the mountains and the
bird life. There's just the nature and also the seasons.

NICOLE

So I guess just by doing what we've done we've shown our children that you can step outside your
box and you can explore different things.

MATT

I think at the moment there are things that I have to learn too. Especially the boys, is that it is
impossible to do this type of thing unless you really love your partner. And I know I love mine.
And it is impossible you couldn't do this without it. Because you are isolated in doing something
like this. So, if you don't get along very well, you shouldn't do it. Don't.

NARRATION

COUNTRY LIFE PROVED TOO ISOLATING FOR THREE FAMILIES WHO DROPPED OUT EARLY FROM THE SCHEME. THE
REST ARE BEING WELCOMED TODAY AT THE ANNUAL CUMNOCK SHOW

GRAEME SMITH

G'day, kids. How are you going? Are you part of the new crew in town? Hello, I'm Graeme. What's
your name?

GRAEME

From my point of view it's been one of the highlights of my career. Because, we're a county
council. I've worked in several country councils across NSW. But this is one of the best projects
I've seen in my life.

PEEWEE SHOW SPEECH

The real reason for this gathering is to welcome into our community 18 families through the
Rent-a-Farmhouse Scheme. Which means that our population has grown by 20% in our little town.

CHRISTINE SHOW SPEECH

There was a lot of apprehension at first. I mean what a mad idea trying to rent a house for a
dollar.

GRAHAM SHOW SPEECH

Some of these kids are real characters. I'm sure back in their lifetime there's some country blood
in there. Because there's some dead-set characters there I think they're going to grow up to be a
great part of the Cumnock Community. So, Cumnock, give yourselves a big round of applause. You've
done a great job.

CHRISTINE

What's happened is a knock on affect. It's actually motivated the existing residents. One lady
started up a Cumnock Co-op selling fruit and veg once a month. The volunteers have painted the
Community Centre. The pub has got a new little play area out the back. So it is amazing what has
happened in our town, all the positive vibes and new ideas has got everyone motivated and going.

MATT

You drive through town and it's so quiet and sedate, there's just nothing happening. But once you
scratch the surface it's just one hundred miles an hour you know. .... We shouldn't be busier now,
but we are.

NARRATION

AS SPRING ARRIVES, IT'S A YEAR SINCE CUMNOCK LAUNCHED THE SCHEME THAT'S CHANGED THIS TINY TOWN AND
ITS PEOPLE, IN WAYS UNEXPECTED.

STEPHEN

Yeah we've progressed. Got my license and yeah got some work too. So all in the same week actually,
so yeah. Very happy about that.

RACHEL

We scored a car too, all in the same week. It was like, bang, bang, bang.

NARRATION

STEPHEN AND RACHEL HAVE DECIDED TO CEMENT THEIR RELATIONSHIP AND ARE GETTING MARRIED THIS WEEKEND.
THEY'VE MADE FRIENDS WITH HELEN WHALLEY AND HER HUSBAND MATTHEW, WHO ARE HELPING THEM PREPARE THE
CHURCH.

STEPHEN

But it's good you know, things are coming together for us you know. Especially just before the
wedding. One less thing to worry about without the wedding so, thank God that's nearly here, eh,
Darl?

NARRATION

RACHEL AND STEPHEN HAVE CHOSEN THIS CHURCH AT CURRA CREEK, JUST 20 KILOMETRES FROM CUMNOCK FOR
THEIR CEREMONY. RELATIVES AND FRIENDS HAVE TRAVELLED FROM AS FAR AWAY BRISBANE.

STEPHEN

Yeah I have had times when have I bitten off more than can chew. But we've always managed to just
keep our head down and things will come.

PEEWEE

We've been told by some of the people moving into town how wonderful people are and how they've
made everyone feel welcome that have moved in. I think that's part of our life in a little town.

SYNC

May they do your will and always live together in peace, goodwill, and love. We ask this through
Christ, our Lord, Amen.

CHRISTINE

My grandmother was born in 1905 here in Cumnock and the stories that she used to tell me about what
they used to do. I'd like to think that maybe one day we could actually bring back all of the life
that Cumnock had back then.

CALLIE

But for us that are involved I think it's been wonderful. You can see a future and keep our little
town vibrant and exciting and things to do.

CHRISTINE

Our first Rent-a-Farmhouse wedding. How funny!

MARGE

People say, oh, Cumnock. What can poor old Cumnock do? But we've really shown that we can do quite
a bit.