How To Take Regional Australia Seriously

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Tensions between city and country Australia generally fester quietly, but occasionally come to a head: the new Katter’s Australian Party expresses a longstanding rural frustration. Its website takes aim at "the Coles/Woolworths duopoly", free trade and the sale of state assets, as well as having a dig at "noisy minority green groups and overly controlling governments".

Regional issues are currently enjoying unusual prominence. Federal Labor is reliant on rural MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to govern, there is an ongoing debate as to the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin and live cattle exports have recently dominated the headlines. Political scientist Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, Fair Share, is a timely analysis of the divisions — economic, cultural and political — between country and city Australia. It explores historical continuities, noting that in the 2010 election, "old fissures in the federation re-emerged, fault-lines of difference in identity and economic interest".

The divisions are not just between states, but within them: residents of Weipa, New England or the Kimberley may find Brisbane, Sydney and Perth almost as remote as Canberra.

The concept of fairness and of the fair go have long resonated in Australia, being used to articulate both labour movement goals and rural grievances; Katter’s Australian Party promotes policies of "fair food": "fair grocery prices, fair farm gate prices and opportunity for owner operators". As Brett notes, the concept of the fair share implies "the presence of an adjudicator … to decide what is fair", and in Australia the government has long assumed this role. Brett argues that although historically "workers and country people" were at odds over the role of unionised labour, they were "united in the belief that the state should ensure that they all received their fair share of the country’s wealth"’.

This consensus — a belief in what Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty termed "state paternalism" — ended when Hawke and Keating embraced deregulation, with the Liberal Party following suit. Brett’s analysis of this recent history assists in making sense of current political players: Bob Katter emerges not simply as the cartoonish figure beloved of political commentators seeking comic relief, but as an old-style Country Party man who was mugged by the 1980s shift to economic rationalism and is still hurting. He’s not alone in this regard.

Throughout the first century of Federation, Australians engaged in extensive debates as to the direction of the new nation. Brett suggests that the tone of the conversation shifted fundamentally in the 1980s. Previously the debate about tariffs and protection had not been "primarily about economics, but about what sort of society Australia was to be". The compact between city and country dissolved as "neoliberalism treated farms as businesses, and farmers as business owners and entrepreneurs".

Brett notes that in 1992, the National Drought Policy redefined drought from "a natural disaster to a risk which requires appropriate risk-management strategies". Thus, drought-stricken farmers went from being perceived as "heroic victims of fickle nature" to "merely bad risk managers". Little wonder, Brett reflects, that so many farmers suicided.

Fair Share is not a lament for the lost days of industry and agricultural protection — indeed Brett argues that by the 1980s "it was evident that the dual structure of the Australian economy was becoming unsustainable". Turning back the political clock is not a possibility. Instead, Brett argues that city and country need to come to a new agreement. One possibility she explores centres on ecological services, although Australia lags far behind Europe and the US in this regard, due both to the harsh natural environment and other factors; Brett notes that "the National Party has shown little interest in promoting environmental stewardship as a way of supplementing farmers’ incomes".

The National Party, with its vote "at around 5 per cent … just a little more than the proportion of farmers and farm workers in the workforce" comes in for some well-deserved criticism in the essay. Regional Australia is not homogenous, and Brett argues that the party "is no longer able to represent the complex interests of the many other Australians who live outside the capitals and major regional cities".

Brett also notes that during the shift to economic rationalism, the Nationals were "saved from political irrelevance by Indigenous politics" — campaigning against land rights and native title gave the Nationals a purpose and distracted from the neoliberal policies pursued by their Coalition partner. This strategy couldn’t last forever, and the Nationals’ vote declined. Outside of mavericks like Barnaby Joyce, the party is barely visible in mainstream political reportage.

The bitter disputes over native title — recall former leader Tim Fischer’s call for "buckets of extinguishment" — led many to overlook the common interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in regional areas with their non-indigenous neighbours. Brett argues that "any new comprehensive compact between city and country must include Indigenous owners" and calls for "a new kind of politics that brings city environmentalists together with those who inhabit and work so much of the land … to find solutions".

Brett notes that urban reactions to "sporadic eruptions of rural anger" tend to range from "sympathy through to indifference, bemusement, condescension and contemptuous dismissal". Her essay is valuable for its refusal to adhere to either of the two opposing approaches which tend to define debate about rural/urban divisions: she does not dismiss rural concerns as special pleading or mere whingeing; nor does she indulge in comforting myths about the inherent goodness of country folk. Rather, the essay does what political commentators rarely do: it takes regional Australia seriously.

At a deeper level, Fair Share invites us to reassess our understanding of ourselves. If Australians are prepared to critique the myth of the bush hero, then we need to be equally critical of other such comforting stories. The myth of an economically rationalist society populated by self-reliant entrepreneurs is equally open to scrutiny, in particular given the nation’s ongoing attachment to middle-class welfare. Heroic narratives about the mining industry’s rugged independence have also been subjected to some well-deserved analysis. If the bush hero is a myth, then so perhaps is the self-made man.

In concluding, Brett takes stock of the benefits that the country offers, including agriculture, tourism and — less directly — identity. She notes that recent research indicates that the images associated with Australianness include "the country, sport, the great outdoors, mateship … natural icons like Ayers Rock (sic) and Australian plants and animals". It seems that when we ask what makes us distinctive, "the country still supplies much of the answer". It would be instructive to explore why, in an age of increasing urbanisation, this is so.

The latter sections of the essay are somewhat unsettling in their embrace of a robust and seemingly uncritical nationalism: Brett concludes that we bear "obligations of nationhood" and that Australians must "rediscover the sense of obligation of our federation forebears, who believed they had to make good the claim and inhabit and use the land". The essay also provides little sense of what the "new national compact" it proposes might look like.

To expect solutions would however be unreasonable — instead, the essay equips readers with valuable historical context, incisive analysis and a set of questions for the future.

 

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