It is cold and wet in Wilcannia. Wind is blowing through town as about 20 locals gather around a park bench on the Barrier Highway to sign time sheets proving they have worked the hours to earn a government allowance.The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program manager requested a shed from the federal government seven months ago from which to run the scheme.But work-for-the-dole participants are still meeting in 48-degree summer heat or the biting autumn wind that characterise the weather extremes on NSW’s flat, far-western plains.It is National Sorry Day, 2010, and Wilcannia, with a population of about 700 – two-thirds of which is Aboriginal – is a town broken.At its peak in the late 1800s, it was home to 3000 people and a busy inland port.More than a century later – notwithstanding the recent welcome rains and flowing Darling River – shops are barred and boarded up, the only employers to speak of are government departments, and the town centre is bookended by two poverty-stricken Aboriginal communities, the Mission and the Mallee.About five years ago 28 government houses, designed to be energy-efficient, were built. The residents have complained of being cooked in the sauna of their own crumbling homes ever since.The median income across the vast Central Darling Shire is just $310 a week. In Wilcannia, unemployment is estimated at more than 60 per cent.But immense resources are thrown at the town. The council has counted more than 50 government and non-government agencies that service its barely 15 streets and their residents.Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is cited by the Central Darling Shire Council as a big problem, but alcohol and marijuana dependence, as well as an historical paucity of activities and jobs are others.”They’ve really had no purpose the last 30 years,” the Darling Shire community and economic development manager, Kym Fuller, said.In the first week of June, Wilcannia lost four of its residents to drug and alcohol-related disease and organ failure, he said. They were all aged under 45.”There are cars stolen to get to funerals,” Mr Fuller said. ”People are putting their hands out for petrol so they can squeeze 10 people into the car.”But just before Christmas, something close to a miracle happened. Five members of the Wilcannia CDEP committee entered their council building – some for their first time in their lives – and sat down on the”flash, cushion chairs” to reach agreement on constructing a drive-through art gallery at Reconciliation Park opposite the hospital.”Before, they were told what to do. Now they’re asked what to do,” the CDEP manager, Trevor Johnstone, said. ”We’re supposed to be dumb blacks. They think we’re dumb blacks.”Their victory over a few business owners concerned, among other things, that the view to the golf course would be blocked by the open-air gallery, has given locals a sense of pride and community ownership they haven’t known for decades, Mr Johnstone said. ”There’s been a lot more pride up here because they’ve been treated with respect.”Mr Johnstone sees hope for Wilcannia in spite of years of setbacks. ”You’ve got to treat them like people,” he said.Each week, more than 30 CDEP workers meet in town to help fashion the drive-through gallery. Among them are recognised artists, 10 of whom will paint one wall each to contribute to the rest area, where it is hoped tourists will stop to break the drive to or from Broken Hill, which is 200 kilometres west.The project is a far cry from the not-too-distant past when, it is rumoured, business owners would buy paintings from locals with a case of beer and then sell their works to visitors for $200 apiece.Woddy Harris, who lives on the edge of town in a shed, spends his days carving didgeridoos, clapping sticks and bowls out of mallee, river red gum and leopardwood. He is passionate about returning the younger Aboriginal generation to the ways of old. ”There’s a spirit, whether you believe in it or you don’t believe in it. It’s still there,” he said. ”I learned [to carve] by my vision of the old people. You create life for yourself.”The revival of the town’s rugby league team, the Wilcannia Boomerangs, has also raised the chins of locals. ”Last year, they won every grade in the [Outback] Rugby League, from seniors through to juniors,” Mr Fuller said. ”They bloody did too, the bastards,” Mr Johnstone, who lives on Menindee Yabbies turf 150 kilometres away, said with a grin.There are other plans afoot to boost the town. Nobody quite believes it will happen, but a Sydney couple have bought a huge property on the outskirts of town with 15 kilometre of river frontage and plans to develop a luxury eco-resort there.Jim Sammon, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in Wilcannia for 20 years, owns the mining camp-style accommodation at ”The Shannon” next door to the proposed resort. He said life had been worse in his adopted home town in the past: ”It used to be a pretty rough sort of a place, but it’s good now.”
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