GREEN FIELDS AND BLUE SKY
On Nick Cleary’s fast-rail dream, CLARA
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