The Deniliquin Model: An Undergraduate Response to Rural Economic Development in Southern New South Wales

 

etiennetheplanner reflects on some future economic development prospects for Deniliquin, and proposes that a ‘new water future’ need not spell the death of an otherwise resilient rural community.

 

By my reckoning – ill-informed as that might turn out to be – the residents of Deniliquin have between three and five years to reframe the economic profile of their town to best prepare it for the next round of challenges heading their way. If one thing is certain from the time I spent there back in September, it’s that although some hard times lay in their wake, there’s more of the same to come.

I was one among a large contingent of undergraduate students from La Trobe University’s Bandigo campus who visited Deniliquin on the weekend of September 13 to 16, 2012. Principally we were there to gather evidence for, and to present an economic development study of the community. Admittedly, not all were as keen as I to learn more about the home of the ‘Deni Ute Muster’; some were there to drink beer and get academic credit for having turned up. Nevertheless, all were made to feel warmly welcome by a variety of business and community leaders, council officers and the newly elected Mayor.

Alas, after three days we probably didn’t provide any revolutionary insights that will pave the road to a prosperous economic future. In fact, I’m quite certain of it. But we gave it a shot.

So what else is there to say? Deniliquin can expect more of the same, I guess. Or were there some ideas worthy of further investigation? Notwithstanding the prospect that these came from the ethanol clouded minds of some undergraduate university students, I think there was. Really…

 

A Word about Water

Without doubt, it’s the uncertainty about water and water policy that dominates the community discourse over Deniliquin’s economic future. Talk of the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) evokes an impassioned response from those impacted directly and indirectly by it. As one council officer put it; “I wish our economy didn’t rely so much on water”.

Me too. But it does.

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The Edward River at Deniliquin. Image: Chris Rowlands

The Deniliquin economy is heavily dependent on water, and equally dependent on the outcome of the debate around water policy. I’m pessimistic about what will come from the conclusions of the MDBA and it’s MDBP. I expect that Deniliquin and many towns like it will probably have to find a way to adapt to a ‘new water future’. There will be much pain – unprecedented pain – perhaps. But that’s where my pessimism ends.

Opportunity exists elsewhere within the local economy. Particularly if we accept that the amount of change that has occurred in the past 20 years could be used to inform us about the changes ahead of us in the next 20. It would be wise to start taking some preparatory steps; informed again by those very changes we’ve witnessed.

 

A Change and Innovation Continuum

We must accept that the population profile of Deniliquin will change. It may get bigger, but it probably won’t. There will probably be fewer farmers, and they will probably operate larger farming businesses with even greater levels of efficiency and productivity. Those farmers may produce rice, but they might not. Forgive-me my indecision; but the only thing that I am certain of is that the Deniliquin community will change, it will adapt, and it will be at the forefront of innovation in direct response to that change. In fact, the necessity to innovate in response to change is perhaps what Deniliquin does best. It’s this ability that I believe has the potential to put Deniliquin at the forefront of case studies into rural and regional economic development. The very change the community fears might just bring with it the opportunities they seek.

 

An innovative past, present and future

Without dwelling too much on the past, even a cursory look back uncovers some impressive examples of innovation and success. From the Peppin family’s Merino breeding, and the marketing of a new Sunwhite Rice (SunRice), to the world record Ute Muster and invitation to come and Play On The Plains;  innovation has been at the heart of each phase in the development of Deniliquin and it’s place in the regional, national and global economies. With these examples to draw on, it’s my contention that despite the dearth of tertiary education opportunities and the loss of professional people to other places, there remains a bank of ‘institutional knowledge’ that is unique to the township and its rural hinterland. In particular, the two activities dominate the economic and cultural profile of the region; agricultural production, and large-scale event staging. In both, the people of Deniliquin have consistently proven the adage that security is derived from opportunity, and not the other way around. By combing the capacity to innovate with the willingness to do so has allowed the Deniliquin community to adapt to the challenges of the past, and should continue to do so in the future.

Unlike times past however, emergent commodities are less dominated by primary and secondary production and hard distribution infrastructure, and more orientated toward services and information. Irresponsible as it would be to ignore the role primary industry has and will continue  to play; it would be equally irresponsible to allow the economic fortunes of the region to remain exposed to the turbulence that comes from a preponderance to adopt historic models of rural economic development. For at the heart of the service and information age is, well, service and information; and information that is unique and useful to others can easily become a commodity. But it needs to be mined, and packaged, and sold. The information age presents challenges in this respect, but it also presents opportunities.

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A Model for Rural Economic Development. Image: etiennetheplanner

Historically, it was universities and government agencies that fulfilled this role. But with public funding cuts this work is increasingly being done by the private sector. The irony of research funding cut-backs in the information age ought not be lost here either, but a distinction should be made about the type of information that is of value to others and therefore, a potential commodity that brings economic benefit to Deniliquin. For example, I’m certain that there’s much the world could learn about dry-land farming under drought conditions. There’s much rural communities everywhere could learn from Deniliquin about staging high profile public events. And with a clever strategy that makes optimum use of current and emerging communication technologies to share contemporary stories of a progressive rural Australia, there is the potential that Deniliquin could play a leading role in this regard.

 

So, that’s it then…

I’ve steered clear of proposing any specific projects that might illustrate these ideas more clearly. We pitched some to those who assembled for our public presentation on the Sunday afternoon before we left, but I think there’s much more to learn before any of those ideas would come close to resembling a plan. Nevertheless, it appears to me that the economy of Deniliquin is well positioned to adapt, if for no other reason than it will be forced to. The forces of change need not however, be reason for pessimism. Change can be good, if for no other reason than it teaches us that we can.

 

etiennetheplanner is a third-year undergraduate student of urban rural and environmental planning at La Trobe University, Bendigo.

 

Epilogue

This article was composed prior to the release of the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I imagine the release of the MDBP might bring with it a little more certainty, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Also, it has been announced that the ute muster site will play host to the 2013 Deni Blues and Roots Festival, featuring Chris Isaak, Carlos Santana and a variety of other international and local acts.

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