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Playground stimulus

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 29 April 2011

My wife and I spent the long weekend in the NSW Central West. The air was crisp, the sun shining, and the autumn leaves glowed in all shades of orange. However, even in this picture-perfect idyll of countryside Australia, you are never far from government folly.

On Easter Sunday we visited Carcoar. A heritage listed village, guidebooks describe Carcoar as one of the historic gems of the area. Rightly so: three old churches, a few former bank buildings and an Italian style courthouse remind tourists of Carcoar’s proud past. Today, however, they look grossly out of proportion in a village of 218 people.

The world probably only became aware of Carcoar’s existence when a double axe murder happened there in September 1893. The other highlights in the village’s history were the shutdown of the Carcoar Chronicle in 1943, the closure of the court in the 1950s, and the discontinuation of the railway station in 1974.

By all accounts, Carcoar is not so much a dying village as it is a dead village. Indeed, that’s what makes it such as charming place to visit – it is frozen in a time long gone by. But one thing most certainly it is not: a thriving, developing settlement.

The Australian government does not agree with this assessment. At the edge of Carcoar, in front of a small playground (without any children in sight) are two big signs. One reads ‘Nation Building – Economic Stimulus Plan supporting jobs and building our infrastructure for the future.’ The other explains that the junior swing, the small slide, and the little rocker were ‘funded through the Australian Government’s Community Infrastructure Program.’

As it turns out, the Carcoar playground was one of five ‘stimulus’ projects undertaken by Blayney Shire Council, which cost a total of $289,000. The last census counted only 34 children in Carcoar. The village’s median age in 2006 was 50 – higher than Japan’s. And Carcoar is shrinking further as local house prices under $150,000 demonstrate.

How a new playground in a fossilised village can amount to ‘nation building’ is a government secret. They could have just as well repainted the disused railway station or installed a new dock in the closed courthouse.

In two weeks’ time, Treasurer Wayne Swan will present a budget that is already foreshadowed as ‘tough’ and a deficit that will look frighteningly high for times of near full employment. For a government engaging in nation building in dead villages, this should not surprise anyone.

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