Part III: The final boundaries - Rodney
- Probably the most prominent reaction to the EBC’s report came from the district of Rodney. Under the proposed boundaries, Rodney was to be abolished and divided among neighbouring districts, with 26,722 electors being included in Swan Hill, 7,103 electors in Seymour, 2,379 electors in Shepparton, and 659 electors in Bendigo East. The proposal aroused a strong protest, with submissions (many of which were form letters) being sent by residents of almost every town in the district. Objectors included the National Party, the member for Rodney (Mr Paul Weller, MP), the Campaspe Shire Council, and 27 local community groups, such as the Committee for Echuca Moama Inc., the Rochester Community House and the Wollithica Traditional Owners Group.
- Nearly all objectors deplored the loss of rural representation in the Victorian Parliament caused by the abolition of Rodney, with some writers criticising the use of elector numbers as a criterion for setting electoral boundaries. Related to this was the necessity for local representation: the member should be local, accessible, knowledgeable about the particular issues and industries of the electorate, and act as an effective advocate of local people and industries. Writers and speakers at the hearings praised the local knowledge, hard work and helpfulness of the member for Rodney and the electorate office staff, who dealt with matters ranging from $14.1 million government funding to upgrade the Port of Echuca to attending to a homeless person seeking assistance. People feared that this local representation would be lost if Rodney was abolished, requiring constituents to go all the way to Swan Hill to see their member. The Nationals’ submission observed that, for a user of public transport, it was effectively impossible to travel from Echuca to Swan Hill and back in a day.
- Writers were proud of their electorate of Rodney – one of the few that has existed ever since the first Victorian Parliament in 1856. They argued that the electorate had a strong identity, based on the thriving regional centre of Echuca. The abolition of Rodney would act against community of interest in two ways – by dividing the existing community, and by forcing together the very distinct communities of Echuca and Swan Hill. On the first point, the Campaspe Shire Council observed that currently the whole municipality is in the Rodney district, and that “having all Campaspe communities within the one electorate has served this municipality well, allowing all Campaspe communities to advocate jointly on issues at a State level”. Under the proposed boundaries the Shire would be fragmented. The proposed boundaries would place Stanhope in the Seymour district, and the Stanhope and District Development Committee stated that, as a dairying area, Stanhope had much more in common with the other dairying areas to its north than with distant Seymour. On the second point, dairying was central to the differences between Rodney and Swan Hill. Writers stressed that the main industry of Rodney was dairy farming on a family basis, while Swan Hill was characterised by large-scale horticulture. As Mr Richard Avard contended:
The two areas are chalk and cheese, different worlds in many respects, and each need specialized, dedicated local knowledge to manage properly...
Rodney holds mostly family farms, consolidating into intensive dairy, horticulture and viticulture undergoing rapid modernization, dynamic and youthful...
vs. a small strip of irrigation run by corporate mammoths along the river, run by capital city accountants, determined to screw every last cent out of the people and the landscape.Many writers noted that they had no real connection with Swan Hill, and never had cause to go there for services. The Nationals argued that the Murray Valley Highway was not a link between Echuca and Swan Hill, with the Hon Bill Baxter at the 12 August public hearing stating that the highway “between Nathalia and Kerang I think is the second least used highway in the State, after the unsealed parts of the Omeo Highway at Glen Wills”. Rodney’s primary connections for major services were to the south, down the Northern and Midland Highways and the railway to Bendigo.
- Rodney’s connections with Bendigo led writers to suggest an alternative to the EBC’s proposed boundaries. Writers argued that enrolment for Rodney was only 1.12 per cent below the 10 per cent tolerance, and, now that population growth had resumed following the long drought, minor adjustments to boundaries would suffice to bring Rodney back within the allowable threshold. The most popular proposal was to expand Rodney to the south, towards Bendigo, taking in Goornong and Huntly. At the 16 August public hearing, Mr Weller argued that, contrary to the view of the EBC (paragraph 41), Huntly was not part of the Bendigo urban area but was a country town, “surrounded by piggeries, by broiler farmers, egg producers and broad acre farmers”, and so fitted well in the Rodney district. Of course Huntly had links with Bendigo, but so did the rest of the district. Another suggested expansion of the Rodney district was to the north-east, to take in Numurkah because of its commonalities with Nathalia (currently in the Rodney district).
- The EBC acknowledges writers’ passionate identification with Rodney district, and the strength of many of their arguments. Nevertheless, the EBC is not convinced that the proposed boundaries should be overturned, for the following reasons.
- First, the proposed boundaries will not necessarily harm local and accessible representation. The EBC has nothing to do with the location of electorate offices; this is decided by the Department of Parliamentary Services in consultation with the elected members. It may transpire, however, that under the proposed boundaries, the electorate office would remain in Echuca. In some large districts with two major centres, such as Lowan, the member has established a second office. Wherever the electorate office is located, the electors of the current district will still be represented on the same basis as all other Victorians, with the elected members ultimately determining their interaction with the community.
- Second, although it is undeniable that Echuca and Swan Hill are separate and differing communities, the gulf between them is not as vast as some submissions maintain. Mr John Mawson’s submission stated that:
There is a significant commonality of interest between the farming communities within the [Rodney] electorate, with the focus on irrigation dairy farming and some dry-land grazing and cropping. Conversely the predominant agriculture within the existing Swan Hill electorate is dry-land cropping and grazing with some dairying and other irrigated fruit and vegetable cropping.This description suggests that differences in agricultural practices between the two districts are rather subtle. Mr Neil Pankhurst wrote that “the Swan Hill electorate and northern half of the current Rodney electorate do have an interest in common around the Murray River, tourism and broadly agriculture”, though he thought that Rodney had a stronger north-south alignment towards Bendigo. A current State Government Regional Growth Plan groups Campaspe Shire with four other north-western municipalities in the Loddon Mallee North Region. The Plan discerns overlapping Campaspe and Gannawarra communities of interest, but within the context of a general Region. The Plan sets out major transport links through the Region, including the Murray Valley Highway between Swan Hill and Echuca29. VicRoads traffic volume statistics indicate that 1,500 vehicles a day pass along the Murray Valley Highway at Cohuna – considerably less than the 2,900 vehicles a day on the Northern Highway at Rochester, but still showing that the Murray Valley Highway carries a substantial volume of traffic between Echuca and Swan Hill.
- Third, there are some difficulties with the alternative boundaries proposed for Rodney. Enrolment for Rodney is currently 11.12 per cent below the State average. Notwithstanding population growth in Echuca, enrolment for the district is projected to decline further to 13.79 per cent below the average by 2018. This means that any expansion of the district would have to be substantial, to ensure that the district stayed within the 10 per cent tolerance. Turning to particular areas, Huntly appears to have something of a mixed nature. It lies just beyond Bendigo’s built-up zone, and the intensive pig and chicken farming surrounding the town are characteristic of such near-urban areas. Huntly is included in the VicRoads street maps of Bendigo. It is only 12 kilometres from the centre of Bendigo and 80 kilometres from Echuca, and it may be that residents would feel more of an affinity with Bendigo than with Echuca. On the other side of the district, Numurkah is much closer to Shepparton than to Echuca (32 kilometres as against 83 kilometres).
- If Rodney could be considered in isolation, these problems would not necessarily rule out the retention of the district. Yet retaining Rodney would have major consequences across half the State. The pattern of low and relatively declining elector numbers in north-western Victoria would make sweeping changes inevitable. To the west of Rodney is Swan Hill district, which has the lowest enrolment in the State and is predicted to decline further to 26.37 per cent below average. To the west and south of Swan Hill are Mildura, Lowan and Ripon, which are also below average and forecast to fall beneath the 10 per cent tolerance. Mr David Park’s submission suggested abolishing Swan Hill and dividing it among the surrounding Mildura, Lowan, Ripon and Rodney districts. Apart from electorate names, this is exactly what the EBC has proposed. Mr Jeff Waddell’s second submission illustrates the consequences of retaining Rodney: his proposed Murray-Mallee district stretches right across the State from Kerang to the South Australian border. If Rodney was retained, the resulting boundaries would have to be along the lines of the National Party’s initial submission, under which the Wimmera would be divided in three, Portland would be allocated to Lowan, and there would be significant flow-on changes to Ripon, South-West Coast, Polwarth and South Barwon. The EBC considers that such changes would significantly impact communities of interest and the outcome for the whole of the State more than the abolition of Rodney does. It should be noted that submissions from western Victoria strongly favoured the proposed boundaries because they were seen as corresponding with communities of interest. Therefore, while recognising the arguments for retaining Rodney, the EBC has decided that the proposed boundaries will stand.
- A secondary issue is that of the name of the electorate. Several writers commented that, with 26,722 Rodney electors in the new district and only 17,923 electors from Swan Hill district, the electorate could more appropriately be called Rodney. The EBC believes a more neutral name would be preferable. Several names have been raised, including Murray River, Murray Valley, Mid Murray and Loddon Murray. The EBC considers Murray Plains to be the best name, as it describes the main geographical feature and topography of the whole district.
Loddon Mallee North Draft Regional Growth Plan, June 2013. Downloaded from Rural City of Swan Hill website, 2 September 2013.×