Myf Warhurst on the TV experiment in one of our ‘whitest’ towns

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Myf Warhurst might have made her home in the city – first in Melbourne and now, in Brisbane – but the Spicks and Specks panellist is a country girl at heart. Having grown up in Red Cliffs in Victoria’s Mallee region, where she recently returned for her high school reunion, she retains a soft spot for the slower pace of life.

So it was with great enthusiasm she agreed to host SBS and Blackfella Films’ Meet the Neighbours, a social experiment in which eight households from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds move from their city homes to Maryborough, in regional Victoria, in the hope of reinvigorating the township.

Myf Warhurst jumped at the chance to host Meet the Neighbours because she believes country towns need more support.

“I loved the idea,” says Warhurst. “A lot of small towns are struggling at the moment and I truly believe that we need solutions to some of the issues that they face, which is not just isolation.

“It’s under-investment in services. There’s not enough accommodation. I loved life growing up in a small country town. It would be devastating if we lost that, for many, many people.”

In the three-part series, Warhurst describes the Gold Rush town with an ageing population of 8000, as, “one of the whitest and most disadvantaged towns in Australia”. Into this environment for a three-month trial arrive city-dwelling migrants who are all people of colour.

A snapshot includes aged care worker Claire and her delivery driver husband Renee, who are from the Philippines; Estela, a disability worker, and Eduardo, a cleaner and cook, from El Salvador and Chile; Indians Navtej, a truck driver, and Navdeep, an aspiring caterer, with their teenage sons Indreshwar and Jageshwar.

Warhurst says she admires Akon, a former gang member, who was embraced by the Maryborough cricket club.

Warhurst will not be drawn on issues of race, and is reluctant to discuss any potentially negative aspects of the exercise, other than to comment on the difficult time the boys had integrating at the local high school.

“To be honest, they struggled. It was just hard,” says Warhurst. “Some kids just don’t want to move to a country town, or another place. They’ve got their friends. I would have been exactly the same … They were trying hard, but it was really tough.”

She was impressed by South Sudanese cricketer Akon, a former member of the Apex crime gang who received a noncustodial sentence for armed robbery, who strived to connect with locals.

“Akon wants people to know that he has changed,” says Warhurst. “He was a teenager caught up in something that was perhaps beyond his control, and he has worked really hard to show he wants a better life for himself, and also the perception of his community.

“So I admired Akon, and I loved getting to know him. He’s got real heart and has an inner strength … He was embraced by the local cricket club – they loved him. As far as he let me know, he had a really good time in Maryborough.”

Warhurst connected most closely with journalist Prealene, originally from Mumbai, who took up a cadet position with the Maryborough District Advertiser newspaper.

“I came from a country town to the city as a late teenager, and I remember being out of my depth,” says Warhurst. “She’s come from the city life and moved to the country, taken a job as a young journo, and that takes a lot of guts. She’s out on the ground straight away and she embraced it wholeheartedly. I loved watching her thrive. She was all in and I really appreciate that.”

The series aims to generate conversation around the plight of regional Australia, as well as multiculturalism. “In this country, we are not good at talking about these things, and frankly, the way things are going, the divide between the city and country is getting deeper and deeper,” says Warhurst.

“That makes me incredibly sad … Australia is a multicultural society and there is a need to incorporate that in all our places of residence, not just in the city. These beautiful small towns need more people to come into them in order to survive.”

Meet the Neighbours premieres on Wednesday, November 1, at 7.30pm on SBS.

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