COMMUNITIES ON THE NORTH COAST OF NEW
Where the New State Movement missed its goal in Northern New South Wales, a new community movement is growing with a similar ethos of independence and freedom from big city control. At present it is a disjointed effort, with energy centres at Nimbin, Mullumbimby and Armidale, but some alternative culture people are talking about building a network of communities linked by trade, ritual, visitation, and media.
It is definitely a rootsy thing, not imposed from some central point an idea whose time has come. Like the New State Movement, it is anti-authoritarian, decentralist. The Nimbin experiment—an event unique in the world—tested whether small town and alternative cultures could coexist two cultures with more in common than appears on the surface. Awareness of shared values such as love of the land and dislike for city life in its present form may save the new intentional communities from abrasive rural resistance experienced in other parts of the world.
An after-festival oust-the-hippies movement failed to get much support in Nimbin because of the generally good impression left by the visitors, and there are today probably 300 counter culture people scattered throughout the area. There is a group of forty in Lillian Rock commune. and a fluctuating settlement of somewhere above this number at the 400 hectare Tuntable Valley Co-op six miles out of town. Families and combinations of families have moved out to many farms in the area.
Mullumbimby, towards the coast from Nimbin, is the other main gathering place for people sharing a life style which stresses a high degree of self-subsistance, freedom from the demands of an oppressive social order, and respect for the environment. MuIlum is just about ten kilometres over the steep hills from Nimbin, and there is talk of a horse trail through the forest to maintain contact, now frustrated by a 100 kilometre round-about drive on country roads. The Mullum community started at Main Arm, and there are settlements at the top of the valley at Wilson's Creek and at Coorabell, all about ten kilometres out of the centre of the town. North of Mullum is another prospective settling place, at Upper Burringbar.
All of these communities at Nimbin and Mullum are on narrow dead-end roads leading up to the outer side of a crater thirty-five kilometres in diameter, with Mount Warning jutting up abruptly in the centre the cone of the extinct volcano. The country has a sub-tropical beauty, is mountainous, and not far from the surf an attractive place for settlers willing to live with rainfalls of over three meters per year.
The people at Mullum are different in community structure from Nimbin. There is little communal living, although Colin Scattergood and others have made efforts in that direction. At one time weekly barters served as a uniting force, and a building was erected for this purpose at Coopers Lane, but the barter is just occasional now. Now the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant in town serves as a gathering place and information centre, as does the Rainbow Cafe at Nimbin.
There have been efforts at Main Arm, too, to move alternative people out of the area, and a 'Progress' Association of farmers was formed with this as a purpose. The use of dope by some 'heads' provided a convenient excuse to hassle the new settlers, and police have, on occasion, been heavy on suspects. Activists in the counter culture groups are sensitive to local feelings, however, and by a show of friendliness and cooperation have been able to break down resistance. When the Nimbin Progress Association sought to oust the 'undesirables', they found fifteen of them at their annual meeting. The Nimbin newcomers had decided to limit attendance so as not to antagonise. With enough votes to oust the president, they wisely didn't take advantage of their strength, but instead returned the president and elected Terry McGee, secretary of the Tuntable Co-op as tourist officer.
At Byron Bay, twenty kilometres south-east of Mullum, there is a surf-oriented community with a high proportion of Americans, and again, a vegetarian Whole Meal Restaurant. Nearby, at McKinnon's Three Trees Farm about thirty-five people, mostly surfers, live and do some gardening, arts, and crafts. Mostly, though, the surfer cult is in to passive recreation, whereas the good earth people are searching for self-development, creative activities and mystical or extrasensory experiences. A unifying force for the Byron Bay counter and surf culture groups was the Byron Bay Express run by Bob Chard of Cooper's Shoot. Displaying a zest unusual for country journals, it ran an expose of food prices and shut down after a lawsuit by a local store owner.
Between Mullum and Byron on the coast and Nimb in to the west is The Buttery—a unique institutio n set up in an unused butter factory at Binna Burra by John McKnight, an earnest, quietly-spoken lay worker sponsored by the Church of England. It seeks to serve as a residential and activity centre for people on the move who don't want to invest in land or settle permanently in a commune. Possible functions outlined by Mcknight are to serve as a resource unit for the area and provide an arts and crafts centre, free-school learning exchange, theatre in the round, and a variety of restaurants: barter, smorgasbord, join-in, or serve types. The plan is for the Buttery to accept overnight hitchhikers and people with crisis problems. There will be a small resident core group consisting of a medical doctor, plumber, carpenter, teacher, and others. The Buttery has the use of five farm houses and a banana farm in the area for small group retreats or people in search of a place of quiet.
Moving down the coast, in Ballina, Gordon Lang, peripatetic principal of the innovative Southern Cross Public School, has established what he expects to be the first of a series of learning centres, this one on the south side of the Richmond River, near the sea. These centres may become the focal point for new communities, either on or near the sites. Other centres are proposed for Tintenbar, Upper Burringbar, and Terania Creek.
Also on the educational scene, the University of New England's adult centre in Grafton is taking a role in community building and in facilitating the development of new settlements. With the help of the New South Wales Department of Decentralisation and Development, it organised the first coastal 'Our Town' project in 1971 enabling the citizens of Maclean to make an internal assessment of the nature of community life with assistance of Colin James, Sydney architect-planner as consultant. This project influenced James to suggest that the Australian Union of Students link the Aquarius Festival with a country town, Nimbin, and possibly help regenerate the declining town centre. Recent communes have been formed near Maclean and to the north on Warregah Island.
Coffs Harbour, with land values driven up by rapid growth and speculation, is not a favourable environment for counter culture communities, but inland to the south in the beautiful Bellingen Valley, pockets of people are settling, some along the river, some in mountain valley hamlets such as Kalang, Promised Land, and Never Never Land. Scattered people are into painting, weaving, copper work, furniture making, and the craft of subsistence living . Colin James and associates are planning a unique industry-based community in Bellingen for a Melbourne manufacturer. In this pioneering plan, people will be on a flexible work schedule, and instead of the monotony of a factory building will be able to do the work at home.
There is not much in the way of functioning communities south of Benin gen, except for a group of twelve who plan to retire from Sydney on to a valley farm property near John's River north of Taree. Unlike most of the new communities which need older members to balance their youth, the John's River group is looking for younger people. Individuals in nearby Kempsey and Port Mac quarie own land and would like to start communes.
Up on the Tablelands, Armidale is the scene of the Alternative Living Foundation, as well as two small communes several kilometres out of town on the Rockvale Road. The foundation was formed early in 1974 to systematically plan for a new community on the New England Tablelands and to promote and study alternative living. ALF's idea is to prepare people to move into a community and avoid the misadventures which the unsuspecting meet in a new-style living arrangement. ALF's first venture, with University of New England student and staff involvement, was a five day bush-living workshop at Duval Creek which left people asking, 'If a community can work this well, what are we waiting for?' People came from Sydney and other parts of the country to test not so much the physical part of getting together as the human component. A dynamic pair—Chris Power, of Nimbin, and Liz Maynes, of Sydney, did some strong co-counselling and body therapy things, and Phil Huggins, of Armidale, conducted intensive Transcendental Meditation inner awareness trips. The only sign of organisation was a bell which anyone could ring to call people together. Moderated anarchy can work if the human climate is right.
A significant development in women's communes is the establishment of a group in Tyringham, a small rural community in the mountains sixty-four kilometres inland from Coffs Harbour. Although only a group of six to eight people at the present time, it is possible that this could develop into a major centre and retreat for activists in the Women's Movement who seek to try a different life style without the economic and social pressures of a big city environment.
With all this potential for establishing people in the country, why do not the state and national governments give a boost to their decentralising activity? Are only 50,000-people 'growth centres' of the Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange type eligible for government assistance? On the part of the communiteers, there has not been much pressure for help, perhaps from suspicion that bureaucratic strings would be attached. Not so in New Zealand where the late Prime Minister Kirk announced early in 1974 that the government would assist the establishment of 'kibbutz-type' communities by supplying Crown Land at minimum or rebated rentals and providing temporary shelter, where requested. The land will not have to be developed in any specific way, nor is there an obligation to create an economic unit that is fully efficient in terms of normal agricultural development Kirk said the government wants to give people the chance to be self-sufficient and self-reliant, to live with as few rules and restrictions as possible, other than the laws that govern all New Zealanders.
For the smaller communes of ten to fifty people, the problems of getting started aren't so great, but the Tuntable Co-op's plan of perhaps 500 people in about ten hamlets presents a complex social and financial planning process. Much effort has gone in to raising (through $200 shares) the $110,000 needed for land purchase. Intricate planning is involve d in considerations of water storage andWaste-disposal-energy systems. Lack of jobs in the area and the government's refusal of welfare or unemployment benefits to anyone but mothers with children means starting with no income and no development capital.
There is the possibility that the Regional Advisory Council of the Department of Decentralisation and Development may help, but this group lacks statutory powers and has no funds. The state agency, itself, and the federal department of Urban and Regional Development could, by supplying a bit of general support, engage in unique nation building in rural areas. The idea of government-supported settlers moving into the good living country on the North Coast of New South Wales in large numbers and beginning to relieve pressure on city centres may be anathema to those who think no one should get a 'hand-out'. It is, however, an honourable tradition in Australia to support new settlers (soldiers or prisoners) under pioneering conditions. Business, too, gets handouts in New South Wales to entice it to the country. Farmers also are subsidised. A national negative-income tax would be a means of giving people a start who want an alternative to the urban prison. A $3000 per year guaranteed income would be enough for optimal self-subsistence living conditions for those who are now settling in this region. Such an investment in people could be the least expensive way to open up new parts of Australia to settlement.
Small intentional communities planned by the people who are to live in them could be a better base for growth centre cities than the Canberra-style new-town approach which, while reasonably efficient, has provided no major breakthroughs in social organisation. The seeds of a new society are still viable in the mixed plots up here, as the Spirit of Nimbin struggles to survive in the face of government indifference, if not hostility, and under living conditions that would discourage less hardy pioneers.