What happens when diverse city folk move to one of our ‘whitest, most disadvantaged’ towns

Filling job vacancies at the local restaurants and takeaway food outlets.

Filling job vacancies at the local restaurants and takeaway food outlets. Photo: SBS

With nothing to lose, and hopefully everything to gain, eight diverse city households from culturally diverse backgrounds have taken a giant leap of faith bring one of Australia’s “whitest, most disadvantaged” towns back to life.

“It’s going down the gurgler,” one elderly resident says in SBS’s latest social experiment, Meet the Neighbours.

He’s referring to the town of Maryborough in western Victoria, once one of the richest gold mining towns in Australia in the 1800s with a population of 50,000 at its peak and proudly multicultural.

We’re introduced to Filipino delivery driver Renee and his aged-care worker wife Claire, Prealene from Mumbai, who has jumped at the opportunity to begin her journalism career at the The Maryborough District Advertiser, and Eduardo and Estela, who arrived from Chile and El Salvador 35 years ago.

They’re among eight households leaving their big-city lives – with hospitals, employment and plenty of infrastructure – to move almost 200 kilometres north-west of Melbourne to a dying town with only 7000 residents.


Meet the Neighbours follows an innovative pilot program [Welcome to Central Goldfields] set up by Maryborough Council with support from peak body, AMES, whose job it is attract migrant settlement in regional Australia.

“Having recently relocated from India and being entirely new to country living, it felt like an uncertain path for me but before I knew it, my bags were packed and I was getting directions to Maryborough,” Prealene, 24, tells The New Daily.

“I was just curious to see how I’d go … that’s why I took the leap and made the move – looking back, I’m better for it.”

Series producer and writer for the three-part docu-series produced by Blackfella Films, Jacob Hickey, says “there’s been much talk for many years about decentralisation, government initiatives and special programs, to sell and realise the goal of life beyond our capital cities”.

“But the reality is, numbers don’t lie,” he said.

“In many regional areas, retirees now outnumber children … predominantly white, Anglo and growing older.

“This is in stark contrast to the burgeoning, multicultural capital cities, where economies and populations have been supercharged by the arrival of overseas migrants.”

Myf Warhurst explores her personal connection to regional Australia, checks in on the progress of the new residents, and investigates what the big solutions might be to invigorate towns like Maryborough. Photo: SBS

Narrated by TV and radio host Myf Warhurst, who describes Maryborough as one of the whitest, most disadvantaged towns in Australia in the teaser trailer, Meet the Neighbours is an experiment to see if these people can save the town.

“What surprised me was the difficulties that many regional towns are currently facing (not just Maryborough) at the moment. Before this project, I wasn’t as aware as I should be,” she tells The New Daily.

“Many towns are struggling, with ageing populations, a lack of infrastructure and services, lack of housing for skilled workers, to name a few things.

“As someone who grew up in regional towns and loved the experience, I was really interested in this project because it’s actively exploring ways in which to help revitalise these places by bringing new folk in.

“If people can understand what these towns are facing, then it might open up the conversation and hopefully offer some solutions to ensure their future survival.”

Estela and Eduardo took up the challenge. Photo: SBS

What’s the problem?

Melbourne has been home to Eduardo and Estela for nearly 40 years and they are pillars of the city’s thriving Latin American community.

Estela is going to take a job in disability services in Maryborough while Eduardo is taking a break from his cleaning job, giving him time to bring a special Latin and salsa night to the town.

Canberra-based demographer, author and senior lecture at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Dr Liz Allen tells TND the future prosperity of these towns is contingent on the arrival of new migrants.

“Australia’s demography could be characterised as uneven.

“If you move beyond the capital cities, you get a flavour of a different physical and human geography. It’s not a secret where you live in Australia determines much of your life.

“In fact, your postcode has a lot to do with determining your life expectancy at birth … where you live determines your access to services, access to opportunities including education and employment.

Allen said some industries – including farming – which have “lost popularity” also see a “pronounced” ageing population, which, in turn, has lead to towns “literally dying”.

“Young people move to areas where education and employment are maximised … and that’s concentrated in the major cities.

She said Maryborough was one of those towns that reflected “much of regional Australia” with its lack of diversity, including economic and social decline and that hadn’t found an opportunity for renewal.

Ghost towns.

Claire and Renee. Photo: SBS

What’s the solution?

The eight diverse households from the city bring a range of skills, expertise, and talent to the town, from healthcare professionals to a teacher, a journalist, a chef, a truck driver, and a star cricket player.

Some are planning to set up their own businesses.

Claire will be taking up a critical position in aged care, her first full-time job since arriving in Australia from the Philippines six years ago.

But with English as her second language, she’s concerned about communicating with the staff and residents.

Husband Renee will be working as a delivery driver.

Any pushback from the locals?

“Certain nationalities cause a lot of trouble,” says one elderly female resident, while a group of men at the local pub voice their concerns.

“I love other cultures, but only if they want to become Australians.”

“People are friendly but not always accepting of something different,” says another.

Prealene, 24, has no regrets in taking part in the three-month experiment. Photo: SBS

Prealene says she didn’t experience any pushback from the community.

“However, I did stand out,” she said.

“There weren’t many people of colour around me which in the beginning wasn’t necessarily the most reassuring.

“It also meant that sometimes I’d be faced with remarks such as  “oh, you’re so exotic” or “how is your English so good?” from certain people and I think while they weren’t trying to be malicious … these comments may have stemmed from their limited exposure to people from diverse cultures.”

The Singh family. Photo: SBS

Do the residents breathe new life into the town?

The new residents send their children to the local school, support and join community groups, and even bring some night-time entertainment to the town.

“The intention of Meet the Neighbours is to shine a light on what is a divided, two-speed and unequal Australia, and what some solutions to this disparity might be,” Hickey said.

“What really caught me off guard was that within a couple of weeks of moving to Maryborough, I experienced an internal shift,” Prealene reveals.

“I think it started after I began walking home from work – something I never did in the city because I’d be lining up to take an overcrowded train instead.

“But during those walks, I discovered a deep appreciation for the peacefulness of Maryborough, and the silence of the town had a unique way of helping me connect with my thoughts and feelings.

“When you’re living in the city, it’s easy to get lost in the noise, so I was amazed at how living in the country helped me find my way back.”

Meet the Neighbours premieres on Wednesday, November 1 on SBS On Demand and airs weekly at 7.30pm on SBS

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