Tarneit church loses faith

Graham Rogers. Photo by Oscar Perri
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A church in Tarneit says double the amount of charity work in the area would only scratch the surface. Oscar Perri reports.

Next door to a real estate agency with “sold” stickers on all but four of the houses in its window, and across the road from the newly renovated Werribee Plaza, is the Werribee Baptist church (WBC). It was founded in a living room by a group of locals in the outer western suburbs, before congregants bought land in Hoppers Crossing. As the west rapidly grew, so did the number of extra chairs needed for service on Sundays.

“That was 49 years ago,” says Graham Rogers, the church’s community outreach manager, who joined WBC in 1981. These days Rogers uses an original church building to run the community service program, called “the bridge”. The new building, which opened three years ago, is used for services as well as school assemblies for the new Heathdale Christian College next door.  Rogers says the church reflects the demographic changes in Tarneit – people from 40 countries worship at the church now – as well as the expansion, due to the growing population.

When Rogers left for a stint overseas in 1990 he says the population of the Wyndham City Council area was around 30,000. Since then it has grown by over 200,000. But he says there is “undoubtedly” not enough infrastructure to support the population, which is projected to increase four-fold over the next 20-25 years.

Rogers says the biggest problem facing Tarneit is the lack of good local employment. “You’ve got the higher educated people at one end who can’t find a job, and then at the other end they can’t even get the education to get a job, and if they do they can’t find work anyway.” He says this has created a community whose members are forced to commute a long way to work.

“I’ve been in business most of my life, apart from when I was a minister, and what really aggravates me is the sense of complacency… and that’s caused by a lot of things. The majority of people move out to go to work, come back to live in their house, but I’m not sure if ‘live’ is even the right word. When you spend three hours driving into the city and back, you don’t necessarily want to be involved in the community, you just want to put your feet up, have a drink and relax.”

The National Growth Areas Alliance (NGAA) is an organisation that represents 21 councils, from capital cities that have population growth over double the national average, including Wyndham City Council, which covers the Tarneit electorate. NGAA executive officer Bronwen Clarke welcomes the Victorian government’s response to growth areas, saying “they have acknowledged that the fast-growing suburbs of Melbourne present some real challenges and they’re trying to address them. However the challenges cross over all layers and levels of government. [Their strategy] needs to cover planning, roads, health, education and every aspect, and focus … on the challenges of the outer suburbs.”

Rogers has less confidence in Labor’s attentiveness to the needs of its Tarneit stronghold, as it has been a constant in the area since the 80s. “It’s always been a strong Labor seat and it’s almost a part of the problem. It’s such a safe seat that they could almost get away with anything.” Labor has held the area since 1979, receiving 47 per cent of the first preference vote at the last election. Rogers says that this has led to a belief from the community that there is little chance of any change in Tarneit coming from the government.

“People [in Tarneit] just lack hope, they lack this feeling of ever being able to get out of this hole that they’re in. then they hit the bottle and drugs to kind of give them a sense of hope, rather than try and work their way out of it, because they don’t see much of a chance for themselves.”

Demand for WBC’s food relief service has increased by 40 per cent over that last year, with nearly three quarters of the demand coming from Tarneit’s large migrant population. Rogers believes that the local community and government have given a poor reception to this community which has caused significant problems for Tarneit. “A high level of integration that needs to take place, the immigrants integrating but also us wanting to allow them to integrate into the community, and providing some things for them to do it,” he says.

The NGAA is also concerned with the way new Australians are received in growth areas. “When new migrants and in particular refugees settle into a new community there is a whole series of resources and things they need for it to work.”

Rogers says the lack of state government investment in local jobs and education has led to a crisis with youth in the area, especially in the migrant community; more than 35 per cent of Tarneit’s population is under 20. “[Tarneit has] young people who feel their families are alienated, they get together with people who are like-minded”, which Rogers says has led to the widely sensationalised “‘African gangs’ crisis”.  He says that the real culprit is residents not wanting to accept their new neighbours. Tarneit now has the two most multicultural postcodes in Australia, and nearly half of the population was born overseas.

“I spent a lot of years travelling into Africa, so I know some of the issues that these kids come from over there. And when they come here it’s totally foreign to them, a lot of them come from warring communities, and if they haven’t come from that, if they were born here, the history is still there.  Over there if they needed something they were often forced to fight for it, so that translates into their lives in Australia.”

Rogers says that although Tarneit might not look too bad from the outside, it is in desperate need. “I’m delivering some bikes to a family that have two boys who walk at least 10km to school, but you’d look around these streets and think these houses are nice, they’re all new, they’ve all got good cars in the driveway. But it’s what goes on behind the walls that we just don’t know about.”

Wyndham City Council and Victorian Minister for Suburban Development Lily D’Ambrosio declined to comment for this article.