When Annette Turner and her husband, Barry, moved to the bush with their baby son, Zane, in the 1970s, there no electricity, no phone and only 32-volt appliances run by diesel generator. “And the long-drop toilet out the back terrified me because of the snakes,” says Annette, now president of the Country Women’s Association
(CWA) of NSW.
After two years as state vice-president, Annette took over the reins in April 2016. She says the aims set down by the women who started the organisation in 1922 are as relevant now as they were then. “The women of that era were visionaries and well ahead of their time,” she says.
Born and raised in the mining town of Broken Hill in the 1950s, Annette met and married Barry Turner 43 years ago. Barry is a third-generation landowner at White Cliffs, a small outback town about 270km north-east of Broken Hill and 73km north of Wilcannia.
Today, the couple, both 64, run crossbreed sheep on their 26,500-hectare property, Polpah Station, near White Cliffs. Their son, Zane, and daughter-in-law, Louise, run the property next door, while their daughter, Denika, and her husband, Martin, live in China and their youngest son Kieran works in the mines at Broken Hill.
“It was a harsh and isolated place when I arrived,” Annette says. “Barry and his family had just come out of a seven-year drought. They’d lost all their stock. Some of the roads were still closed due to the floods.
“I had chronic hayfever and I remember we were standing knee-deep in thick vegetation. Barry had two-month-old Zane in one arm and me in the other, both of us crying.”
For Annette, the isolation was unimaginable.
“In the first two years, I only saw my mother-in-law, father-in-law and Barry’s older brother Danny for weeks on end. Fuel was precious, so I couldn’t just take the car and go for a drive. It was a very lonely time.”
A school friend of Barry’s, Peter Barlow, and his wife, Judy, lived on a property about a 40-minute drive away. Judy and Annette were the same age and their children were roughly the same ages and the two women quickly became friends. It was Judy who invited Annette to her first CWA meeting 38 years ago.
“There were about 12 women at that meeting and I was so grateful to meet all of them. I soon became the secretary of our branch and loved it. Our friend, Merrylyn, was president and Judy was the treasurer, because she worked at a bank,” says Annette.
“If you’ve ever lived in a remote area, you’d know how important these meetings were to women. We would get dressed up, put stockings and lipstick on. It was an escape from the isolation. And of, course, we were pretty good at getting things done.”
Today, Annette is still “pretty good at getting things done”. As well as its legendary catering, the CWA has quietly taken on many social causes over the decades. The group’s pragmatic and persistent style of lobbying has helped achieve a lot in surprising areas, much of which is now taken for granted, such as compulsory car seat belts, white lines on the side of the roads, flashing speed signs in school zones and free mobile breast-screening units.
CWA history is diverse and their involvement with social and political life has shifted since the 1920s.
“Lobbying government has always been a major part of the CWA’s mission and we continue to adapt to the issues of the day,” says Annette.
“Just recently, branches have lobbied for grandparents who take on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren to be recognised as family rather than foster carers. We have fought for a health campaign to educate people about Q fever, a disease that can be picked up from sheep and cattle. We are also lobbying government to legalise medicinal marijuana.”
“People don’t necessarily think of the CWA as an advocacy organisation, but we are non‑party political and that’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to change the ‘tea and scones’ image,” says Annette.
The CWA state conference in Armidale in May overwhelmingly endorsed a motion calling on the NSW government to take urgent action on a broader set of drought support measures and restructuring, and significantly increasing drought funding.
Did you know? CWA has 374 branches and 8,000 members.
Another thing the CWA does well is raise money for disaster and emergency relief funds and to support charities close to its members’ hearts, such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“During good and bad times, the CWA has worked to improve life for women and children living in rural and remote areas,” says Annette. And its future is looking rosy.
“We are now just starting to see membtership on the rise again and new branches starting up. Some of our older members are passing on, but younger women are beginning to get involved.”