Such grand plans for us

FORTY years ago today, Albury and Wodonga learnt they were going to become a whopping centre for at least 300,000 people by the year 2000.

About 30,000 folk then lived in Albury and fewer than 14,000 in Wodonga shire.

It was both a grand vision and an imposs ible dream of then prime minister Gough Whitlam to make Albury-Wodonga the nation’s second-largest inland city after Canberra.

Today Albury-Wodonga has between 85,000 and 90,000 residents, or 105,000 if you add nearby commuter towns such as Beechworth and Jindera.

So what went wrong with the dream revealed on January 25, 1973, by Mr Whitlam, colleague Tom Uren and the prem- iers of NSW and Victoria, Bob Askin and Dick Hamer?

Well, it’s probably true to say “it wasn’t our fault” as locals.

The dream came only partly true because of a lack of commitment by politicians and big-city bureaucracies and it became a nightmare in resolving some cross-border issues.

Nevertheless, thousands of newcomers were enticed by the “city in the country” lifestyle and relatively cheap housing, including many from overseas.

After the rhetoric of 1973, the commitment of the three governments wore off pretty quickly, faltering first under the Whitlam government.

Mistake No.1 was not creating a legal entity called Albury-Wodonga — or “Whitlamabad” as the great man himself often joked.

As a result, it was divided by a state border with different laws, traditions and rules.

Add good helpings of parochialism, rivalry and jealousy and you had a recipe for disaster.

But the centre was far from a total disaster as it left Albury-Wodonga with tangible benefits.

The development corporation did more than just create 6000 homes, six industrial estates and forests of native trees.

It facilitated two university campuses, two TAFE campuses and many commercial uses — from the Springdale Heights and Kinross Woolshed pubs to the Wodonga home of The Border Mail.

It also sold land for several schools, retirement villages and a jet-ski circuit, since closed, and in recent years handed over vast swaths of land for parks and open space to local or state government.

And then there were the equestrian centre at Thurgoona, community and shopping centres and bicycle tracks and numerous community cultural groups that had generous corporation handouts.

Mr Whitlam’s strategy shared with his colleague Mr Uren was, of course, much bigger than Albury-Wodonga.

It was all about curbing the rapid growth of capital cities, especially Sydney, by decentralising industry and government departments, and in doing so making urban life better for all.

Albury-Wodonga was already attracting major industries, such as Uncle Ben’s (now Mars Petcare) and BTR (now DSI) and both NSW and Victoria were trying to stimulate growth here.

But when Mr Whitlam chose to act on a 1969 promise to make it Australia’s second-largest inland city (after Canberra), the action got serious.

After the Cities Commission did the groundwork, the corporation began in 1974 under an able chairman, Gordon Craig, aka Mr Albury-Wodonga.

Mr Craig and his team set out to buy 48,000 hectares but only bought 24,000 hectares when the project was trimmed.

Historian Bruce Pennay tells the official story in his 387-page book, Making a City in the Country 1973-2003, though amazingly the corporation is still “winding down” as it has been since 1989.

We know, thanks to cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule, that ministers and public servants wrangled a lot in 1973-75 over the Albury-Wodonga dream.

Public servants based in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne were horrified at the idea of being forced to move to Albury-Wodonga.

However, the people-shifters did manage some big wins: the army’s Latchford Barracks, principally the army apprentices school, shifted from Balcombe; a national trade union college in Wodonga named for Clyde Cameron; and a large tax office in Albury with over 600 jobs.

It’s debatable how many industries the corporation actually gained but certainly they included the newsprint mill at Ettamogah and industries such as Wilson Transformers and Moore Paragon.

Mr Whitlam wanted an Albury-Wodonga university, with Judge John Nagle as chancellor, but this was deferred by his own government in September 1975, and then axed by the Fraser government.

I recall him saying years later that it was “mad” to create two university campuses of Charles Sturt and La Trobe.

After Mr Craig was shown the door in 1989, the corporation under Ron Dennis continued to promote and enhance the two cities but planning powers went back to the councils.

Gradually the corporation, which once employed 130, grew smaller and smaller and now has only five staff.

But considering its “final wind-up” began in 2005, it’s remarkable it still has 1500 hectares left and a little work to do — with the closing date assumed to be June 30, 2015 — or some time later.

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