GREEN FIELDS AND BLUE SKY

On Nick Cleary’s fast-rail dream, CLARA

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - BY PADDY MAN­NING

It’s the sec­ond-last “Joker Poker” raf­fle night at the Doo­dle Cooma Arms, and the crowd’s get­ting hap­pily soz­zled. For now the bistro is flat out serv­ing $12 piz­zas but next week the only pub in the New South Wales town of Henty, pop­u­la­tion 900, will close. The much-loved local has been on the market a while – of­fers over $300,000 – but the owner’s had enough. The local butcher, Trav, who’s sit­ting at the bar, says he’d buy it him­self if he had the money.

“Henty is dy­ing!” says third-gen­er­a­tion gra­zier Doug Meyer, the 71-year-old deputy mayor of the Greater Hume Shire, who des­per­ately hopes to save his home town. The bowlo still looks busy, but given the age of the mem­bers its days are prob­a­bly num­bered too. Where there were seven bank branches be­fore, now there’s just one, a Bendigo fran­chise owned by the com­mu­nity. De­spite a fit­ful “shop local” cam­paign, Henty’s main street feels empty: ev­ery­one who needs any­thing heads off to Wagga Wagga, or Al­buryWodonga, both 45 min­utes away by car.

Yet this is the heart of the Rive­rina, source of 70% of Australia’s food, at the be­gin­ning of what should be a decades-long soft-com­modi­ties boom. City folk might have never heard of the place, but farm­ers have; ev­ery year, 60,000 of them con­verge for one of the key fix­tures on the agribusi­ness calendar, Henty Ma­chin­ery Field Days.

Right now the ru­ral econ­omy is buoy­ant: prices for beef and lamb are high; crops are in in­creas­ing de­mand over­seas, and there is plenty of wa­ter around (in some places, too much). The grass has never been greener.

Roughly half­way be­tween Syd­ney and Mel­bourne, in the most set­tled cor­ner of the coun­try, Henty should be pump­ing. It isn’t: farm ag­gre­ga­tion and au­to­ma­tion mean em­ploy­ment in agri­cul­ture is de­clin­ing, even as pro­duc­tion goes up. As is the case in most coun­try towns, the kids from Bil­l­abong High soon head off to the big cities for jobs or degrees, sap­ping pop­u­la­tion growth. So it’s last drinks at the Doo­dle.

It’s a fa­mil­iar tale. What’s dif­fer­ent now is that a pri­vate com­pany, Con­sol­i­dated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA), has turned up in Henty with a plan to build a city of be­tween 250,000 and 400,000 peo­ple, five min­utes out of town, on a site be­tween Mun­yabla and Pleas­ant Hills. As if that’s not am­bi­tious enough, CLARA’s plan is that Henty would be the fifth of eight en­tirely new cities it would de­velop over three decades, along the route of a new high-speed rail link be­tween Syd­ney and Mel­bourne.

It’s the $200 bil­lion dream of an en­tre­pre­neur from the NSW South­ern Highlands, Nick Cleary, a one-time dairy

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