Myrene Elemes is demanding change, saying enough’s enough. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
“It’s a beautiful little town. Or it was a beautiful little town. We want that back,” said local Aboriginal elder Aunty Myrene Elemes. “We’ve had enough. The drugs have got to stop.”
Days before the Shorey boys were killed, 24-year-old Brad Stanley died from stab wounds following a brawl in Wellington. The incidents follow a number of other deaths in the town recently, with ice and other drugs always looming in the background. Jacob Donn, who was arrested following the hit-and-run, was also charged with illicit drug possession among 13 other alleged offences.
Mike Nolan, chief executive of the Wellington Local Aboriginal Land Council, said the deaths of the young people have had a real impact on the town.
“It’s pretty much touched everybody. I think the town’s been pretty low,” he said.
On the traditional lands of the Wiradjuri nation, about a quarter of Wellington’s 8000 residents are Aboriginal.
The hit-and-run tragedy has renewed criticisms in the town about perceived neglect by government and police. Mr Nolan and other local Aboriginal figures feel the town’s problems have become worse over the past six months and they want more proactive policing, with officers present 24 hours a day and forming relationships with the community.
Wellington Local Aboriginal Lands Council chief executive Mike Nolan says the recent tragedy has touched the entire town. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
Aunty Myrene believes the accident that killed the Shorey boys could have been avoided if police had been more responsive.
“This town has to be cleaned up,” she said.
As police work to support the community in the wake of the deaths, Assistant Commissioner Geoff McKechnie, the NSW Police Western Region Commander, said crime rates for Wellington have been trending down or static.
“We have certainly put additional resources down there over time, and the town from a policing perspective is very well-serviced,” he said.
“But unfortunately, there’s just been this series, in recent times, of very, very unfortunate and tragic incidents that do have a negative impact on the community.”
Police were praised last year for raids that busted a thriving syndicate moving drugs to Wellington and other regional towns from western Sydney. But locals say the drug trade rebounded quickly.
“The feeling after that was really good and the town just really came alive and people felt safer. It felt like something was happening. And then it’s just slowly started to go back down again,” Mr Nolan said.
Dubbo mayor Ben Shields says Wellington needs more investment in services. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
Ben Shields, Mayor of Dubbo Regional Council, said the area is going “gangbusters” economically but needs more government investment.
“Like a lot of regional areas, we do have ice problems. Just like a lot of inner-city areas, where they have ice problems. But it’s not helped when the facilities to deal with ice problems and drugs problems aren’t there,” he said.
The town’s story is the story of many towns in regional Australia. Entrenched Indigenous disadvantage, long-term economic decline, an ice epidemic.
Assistant Commissioner McKechnie said the structural cycle of poverty and criminality is notable in Wellington and exacerbates its drug problem.
He warned that the issues go beyond the conventional role of law enforcement.
“People often see police as the panacea for all society’s problems. We can and do intervene where appropriate but there are some other underlying issues,” he said.
The unemployment rate in Wellington is about 14 per cent, double the nationwide figure. About 40 per cent of its adult residents have not finished high school. The median weekly household income is $796, compared to $1203 across Australia.
Like Assistant Commissioner McKechnie, Mr Nolan ties the town’s drug and crime troubles to an entrenched lack of economic opportunity.
Wellington’s residents are determined to see the town stage a comeback.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
While the local region has experienced a surge of investment and economic activity, with two renewable energy projects and two prisons being built nearby, locals fear Wellington is not benefiting from the upswing.
“Jobs change people’s lives in this town. People want to work, and it’s just having the opportunity to do that,” Mr Nolan said.
A lot of commercial premises in the town are unoccupied and people have to travel to nearby Dubbo for a lot of basic goods and services. Locals point to the town’s reputation for crime as a deterrent against business investment.
Wellington entrepreneurs told the Herald the town was sometimes a challenging place to run a business but backed it as a place to live and work, saying the negative perception of the town was unfair.
“I think it’s moving ahead these days. I think the public’s definitely had enough of prior years with the drugs that have affected a lot of families,” said publican Jesse Dawson, who runs the Lion of Waterloo Tavern.
Joshua Fisk, who owns Central Butchery on the town’s main street, said Wellington was generally a relaxed place and business was steady.
“It gets a bit of a bad rap but I personally don’t think it’s that bad. Like every town’s got its troubles. Drugs are probably its main problem but you go to Dubbo and it’s no better. I guess a lot of country towns aren’t much better,” he said.
Local Wiradjuri entrepreneur Herb Smith has experienced major success with his snack food company Dreamtime Tuka, which uses native Australian ingredients and has secured contracts with Qantas, NSW train services and BP service stations.
There are other success stories. Mr Nolan says the town has benefited from a well-designed work for the dole program that has provided people with training and skills. He also sees promise in programs that help young people reconnect with Wiradjuri cultural practices.
Following the latest deaths, local leaders are renewing their demands for change. A community meeting next week is set to discuss how the town can turn things around.
“We are in mourning, we are terrified,” said Aunty Myrene. “Enough’s enough. We want our beautiful little town back.”
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