Over the last few months rural issues have been prominent in the national debate — and the discussion is long overdue. Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, Bob Katter’s new "party", the live exports ban — one thing after another has refocused the city’s attention on the country and its unique challenges. It’s also prompted the realisation that there aren’t any comprehensive solutions on offer to solve the problem of integrating the disparate rural and urban communities that constitute the nation.
One of the barriers to reform Brett identifies in Fair Share is the moribund National Party, and its inability to grapple with the complex nature of rural life in the 21st Century. Despite having been presented as a wild card in the past, Bridget McKenzie, the 41-year-old incoming National Party Senator and former Monash University lecturer, is unlikely to buck the trend.
When McKenzie ran for the seat of McMillan in 2004 against both Labor and Liberal candidates, she told The Age that she was against Telstra privatisation, because it would do little to help the bush. "We need similar access to telecommunications to the city and that is a long way off," McKenzie said at the time.
Cut to 2010, as the country grappled with the National Broadband Network, the most significant telecommunications upgrade envisaged in Australia’s history, McKenzie issued a party-line media release with Tony Abbott’s now-mythical "$5000 per home" statistic, claiming that it offered "no guarantee of improved broadband services".
For the Nats to maintain that position on the NBN must be tortuous when even the interim satellite service for rural areas will reach 6 megabits/second, a good solution for all those Australians who cannot access ADSL, and are still chugging along on dial-up.
This is astoundingly blinkered policymaking. Opposition to Telstra’s privatisation based on a reduction in service delivery followed up years later by a "no thanks" when the services finally might arrive? It’s no wonder the Nationals hate Windsor and Oakeshott, who, free from the shackles of an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, were able to make their own decisions. Even Katter got to make his own mind up, a luxury McKenzie doesn’t have.
Likewise Brett criticises the Nationals for their slow uptake of environmental stewardship, and in this regard, McKenzie doesn’t disappoint. After the carbon tax announcement she posted on her Facebook page that it "is going to hurt small business and its going to hurt regional Australia the most. It’s going to limit our ability to be competitive. Our jobs will go offshore where labour costs are less and world pollution will continue to increase. Think India, China, Korea."
What she doesn’t mention is the Indigenous groups, sustainable energy businesses and conservationists, all from rural areas, lining up to praise the certainty offered by the new legislation. The Kimberley Land Council in particular is happy with the opportunities offered under the tax to "stay on country, to utilise our knowledge of looking after the environment", saying it is a new means of economic independence for Indigenous Australians.
Even the permanent exemption of agriculture, concessions on agricultural fuel and $400 million invested into carbon mitigation hasn’t been enough to satisfy rural Australia, as seen through the Nationals’ lens.
McKenzie was a mature-age student at Deakin University and in 2003 was President of the Students’ Association there. In her reply to the 2003 inquiry into higher education funding and regulatory legislation, McKenzie recommended the Senate abolish all full fee places, refuse to endorse user-pays principles, reject voluntary student unionism, and reject legislation that provided a financial incentive for deregulation in the area of the humanities.
The Nats’ education policy is the exact opposite: reintroduce full-fee places to "enable universities to grow", oppose the reintroduction of a student services fee, and support deregulation.
Sure, student unions are known for being hotbeds of left-wing sentiment, but McKenzie was running the show, so it’s hard to dismiss the gulf between what she thought then and what she’ll be made to sell now. One wonders whether this is, or will be, her experience as she enters the Senate.
Senator McKenzie was contacted for interview but didn’t answer the phone before deadline. She does however, have a great, informal voicemail message: "Hi! Bridget here!"
Want more independent media? New Matilda stays online thanks to reader donations. To become a financial supporter, click here.