Last week’s episode of Q and A, filmed in Albury, saw a spirited discussion of the disparities between services and infrastructure in rural and metropolitan areas: deficiencies in healthcare, education and the availability of employment were discussed.
The discussion also demonstrated a persistent idealisation of rural life. A romantic view of the bush is often grounded in essentialism; witness the rhetoric which sees regional Australia as "authentic". The further one goes from the coastal cities where the majority of the population lives, the more real things apparently become. The "authenticity" of regional Australia and those who live there has achieved near-mythic status in public discourse.
The emphasis on this perceived distinction between rural and urban Australia may be seen as a coded way of discussing anxieties related to social class without addressing crucial issues of wealth or power: "real" Australians in the "heartland" and city-dwellers. This split — in which rural areas are often conflated with conservatism and urban Australia with progressives — fits within a broader narrative that sees those on the left of politics as elites.
The American writer Thomas Frank has interrogated the success of the Republican Party and its allies in linking progressives with snobbery and elitism. In his incisive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Frank notes that a repackaging of social class was effected in America using the notion of a "liberal elite". Such a notion, he argues, is "not intellectually robust", has "never been enunciated with anything approaching scholarly rigor" and falls apart "under any sort of systematic scrutiny". In both America and Australia however, the trope of the leftist elite endures.
It must be noted that progressives occasionally play into snooty stereotypes — and their opponents’ hands — by effectively characterising self-styled rural spokespeople as backward hayseeds. Pauline Hanson is an enduring case in point; recall Greens member Jeremy Buckingham’s dismissive quip following the recent NSW election that he was "locked in a ‘neck-and-redneck’ battle" with Hanson for a seat in the Legislative Council.
During last week’s episode of Q and A, one audience member asked how Australia could, "avoid the dominance of the populous coastal electorates and their values over the values of the regional and less populous electorates?" One could query the question’s latent essentialism: its assumption that rural and urban values are inherently different. What might "urban values" denote — perhaps the conservatives’ unholy trifecta of gay marriage, multiculturalism and environmentalism? The panel members, who included Independent MP Tony Windsor, Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean and director of the Tourism Board for North East Victoria Eliza Brown, did not scrutinise the question’s assumptions. Indeed, Sophie Mirabella’s response was striking in its reliance on the myth of rural authenticity. The Shadow Minister for Industry said:
"When we think about Australia and we celebrate our national days, like Australia Day and ANZAC Day, it’s always in the regional communities that you find the strongest and the most powerful qualities of community, of mateship, of volunteerism and there is a high rate of that in the country. So all those very important values that we hold onto and we put up on a pedestal as important to being Australian are alive — far more alive in the country."
The country thus represents a rosy, idealised past that modern cosmopolitan Australia is in danger of losing. Like all nostalgia, it expresses a longing for a time that never truly existed, when life was simpler and common sense values such as "mateship" prevailed.
Although both sides of politics seek to draw on and identify themselves with "Australian values", nostalgia for the past is generally more readily exploited by conservatives. Rural realness has proved particularly useful for those on the right of Australian politics: just look at Tony Abbott’s attempts to deflect criticism of Barnaby Joyce by describing the National Party senator as both "original and authentic" and, more recently as "the authentic voice of regional Australia".
Indeed, the focus on the "colour" provided by politicians such as Joyce and Independent MP Bob Katter has been cited by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner as demonstrating "the decline of serious political coverage". In his recent book ‘Sideshow: dumbing down democracy’, Tanner recalls that, when asked why she was profiling then-shadow finance minister Joyce instead of Tanner, Fairfax journalist Jane Cadzow replied "Lindsay’s too normal". Attempts to link oneself to the "heartland" have become part of the sideshow, with Akubra-hatted politicians making pilgrimages to regional areas, using the word "mate" as often as possible and trying to seem down to earth.
This kind of posturing can be amusing, but the concept of the regions as more authentically Australian than cities is problematic. Given that rural areas tend to be less diverse — the 2006 census showed (pdf) that "four fifths of Australia’s overseas-born population lived in capital cities" — what does the narrative of rural authenticity say about perceptions of who qualifies as "Australian"? Does a quiet wistfulness about the passing of white Australia lurk beneath the salt-of-the-earth romanticism?
As noted previously on New Matilda, the nostalgic glow that pervades discussion of country folk also contrasts markedly with political and media constructions of remote Aboriginal communities, which are more likely to be disparaged as "cultural museums" than as the authentic heart of the nation. Rather than being lauded for their realness and down-to-earth attributes, their residents are merely living "a remnant culture". That said, Indigenous people are in something of a lose-lose situation; while remote communities are classed as economically unsustainable products of a failed 1970s leftist ideology, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people resident in urban or suburban areas are prone to being dismissed as "not black enough".
The narrative of rural authenticity is hollow at its core. Ultimately it does not offer residents of regional Australia anything more than honeyed words. In particular, as was apparent on Q and A, there is a deep inconsistency between conservative appeals to "rural values" and the Coalition’s embrace of economic rationalism. When called upon to defend his decision to support the ALP following the 2010 election, Tony Windsor argued that it was important for rural members to be "prepared to deal with either side of the political equation and get the best deal for their people".
Windsor criticised the impact of neo-liberal ideology on country areas as well as the populist "vote buying" of modern elections. He noted that he had surveyed his electorate in 2007 and found that the majority had opposed tax cuts offered by both major parties, preferring money to be spent on health and other services. He then argued that it was "all very well for philosophies to develop and say give it back to the people and they will spend it in a better fashion than government. That doesn’t work in the delivery of services".
There are real and substantive issues affecting rural and regional Australia. Comforting stories and sepia-toned stereotypes do little to address the legitimate concerns of residents. It’s time to move beyond "authenticity" and look at reality.
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