Murray Bridge Safe: Meet the people working behind the scenes to better our city

Mayor Brenton Lewis speaks out about a secretive group which has achieved much over the past six years.

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It has the trappings of a classic conspiracy: agency representatives meeting behind closed doors, out of the spotlight, to plot the future of a city.

But this shadowy organisation is called Murray Bridge Safe.

Its mission: to protect local people from social problems of all kinds.

The name might not be familiar to many in the rural city, but its members have been active behind the scenes for almost six years now.

When a series of police raids in 2018 turned up families living in squalor, Murray Bridge Safe members were the ones who followed up with more than 40 households, making sure children were bathed and fed.

When the issue of domestic violence came to the fore, they reached out to local teenagers through “say no” events held at schools and sporting matches, and secured funding for crisis accommodation.

In response to the city’s illicit drug problems, infamously called out by politician Nick Xenophon, they campaigned for and secured a local trial of an Icelandic prevention program.

The group was the brainchild of Murray Bridge Mayor Brenton Lewis, pictured, whose 2014 election mantra was about making the city proud, safe and progressive.

He knocked on hundreds of doors in the lead-up to the vote.

“I had my own inner feelings about what I needed to take (to the election) as a mantra, but it really got reinforced when I did a lot of doorknocking,” he said.

“I always had that feeling we could be more proud than what we were – we've got a lot to be proud of.

“Progressive is a no-brainer.”

But he found people were most eager to talk when he asked whether they felt safe in their neighbourhoods.

“Some said yes, some no, some said ‘I don’t feel as safe as I used to’,” he said.

“A lot would say ‘down the end of my street there’s a drug dealer, around the corner there’s a drug dealer’.

“While I realised Murray Bridge had its drug problems like any other place, I didn’t know how many (problems there were).”

One of the first things he did after winning the election, then, was approach newly appointed SA Police Superintendent James Blandford, pictured below, to ask for his help.

“I can’t thank James enough,” Mr Lewis said.

“He said ‘what you want to do is necessary, and we can’t afford not to be a part of that’.

“We formed a group of people who had (relevant) interests.”

Conversations lead to collaboration – and more funding

Murray Bridge Safe now had about 20 members, Mr Lewis said.

Some represented non-profit organisations such as AC Care, Centacare, Uniting Communities, Headspace and the Victim Support Service; others government agencies or schools; some were from the council; Bridge Clinic was included; and so were MPs Adrian Pederick and Tony Pasin.

As well as drug and alcohol abuse – the root of so many problems, he said – and domestic violence, they focused on homelessness, mental health, child safety, elder abuse and public safety.

Conversations at the group’s quarterly meetings had led to data-sharing and collaboration that made members better able to serve the people of Murray Bridge, Mr Lewis said.

Agencies were usually funded to meet one specific need, he said, but the problems people experienced in the real world were often inter-related.

“The benefit of Murray Bridge Safe has been coming together, having a shared dialogue, exchanging information at a level that ... puts us in a much stronger position to advocate for our community,” he said.

“Everyone’s got needs, but do you know what they are?

“We know what ours are, and it helps us advocate (for funding).”

Networking also helped workers who were new to the region catch up on the big issues, and helped those who were moving away make sure their knowledge was not lost, he said.

That way they could move on from what had already been done and focus on the future.

Mental health was one area in which the mayor hoped more progress would be made over the next year.

“We’re working at the highest level to see what can be done in the community, including care,” he said.

“There have been some discussions occurring since mid-last year.

“We’re developing a strategy to get Murray Bridge recognised as a place of need.”

Decisions that changed Murray Bridge were made elsewhere

Mr Lewis, born in Murray Bridge in 1947, ultimately traced many of the city's problems to two state government decisions made in decades past.

One was the turnover of whole suburbs to public housing, without appropriate support, after the thousands of workers who were supposed to build Don Dunstan’s satellite city at Monarto never came.

The other was the construction of Mobilong Prison, which had created jobs but had also brought certain problems as well.

“A lot of things have been done to us as a community, not with us, not for us,” Mr Lewis said.

“Those two things that have impacted on us were totally out of our control.”

But Murray Bridge had changed from a sleepy riverside town into a bustling regional centre, and was changing still, he said – including by becoming prouder, more progressive and, yes, safer.

In that respect, the goals he set when he ran for mayor were being achieved.

“I think Murray Bridge is safer as a result of Murray Bridge Safe,” he said.

“I think our community could quite easily be a beacon for some bad statistics, but if you work as a community I think you can actually do something that makes a difference.

“Other than the odd really bad headline, we are a safer community than we would have been.”

Photos of Brenton Lewis and of James Blandford: Peri Strathearn. Photo of Don Dunstan: Bernice Mary Wenmouth/State Library of South Australia B64310/106.