Regional issues beyond the mad hatter's tea party


'Rural and Regional Australians' by Chris Johnston'Hasn't the country had its fair share, and destroyed the country, and given us a desperado in a big hat in the process?'

This was Don Watson's characteristically provocative opening to an interview with Judith Brett, author of the most recent Quarterly Essay, Fair Share: Country and City in Australia, at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

Notwithstanding the current high profile of rural independents Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and the prominence of issues such as the NBN rollout, live cattle exports, and the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin, flippancy and apathy are frequent features of any debate where Australia's pronounced country/city divide comes to the fore.

When Q&A's largest-ever studio audience filled the Albury Entertainment Centre in May, Liberal senator Eric Abetz's concerns about leftist bias received almost as much press publicity as the event itself.

In contrast with the studio audience, the TV audience for the Albury Q&A was down on the weekly average, and the Twitter stream filled with disparagement from bored Fitzroy and Surry Hills pundits switching off their TVs.

Metropolitan columnists from Catherine Deveny to Miranda Devine regularly fill column inches by hating on the bucolically backward.

On the other hand, agrarian socialist rants from the likes of Katter don't help the stereotyping, and it's easy to paint the book burners at last year's Murray-Darling Basin protests as no more than ignorant, self-interested environmental vandals.

Enter Brett with Fair Share, and finally there's a voice in the debate that resists resorting to the crude dichotomies and sweeping condescension that so often dominate perceptions on both sides, and conveys the importance of Australians in the cities taking an interest in the fate of the country.

30 per cent of the Australian population, 70 per cent of the Indigenous population, large numbers of the nation's long-term unemployed and increasing numbers of recent humanitarian refugees call rural areas home. An interest in rural Australia's future is therefore imperative for anyone interested in the future of the nation as a whole. 

Some aspects of rural life at present are dire: 2010 Rural Woman of the Year and Albury Q&A panellist, Alana Johnson, went as far as to term the state of rural health a 'human rights issue'.

As an audience member noted, those in the country are 30 per cent more likely to die from a heart attack than those in urban areas.

It's also clear that in some areas, ways of life that have survived for several generations are unlikely to be sustainable for much longer.

Take the wine industry in the Murray Valley. Brett argues that the policies of governments and business are at least as much at fault as the affected communities and individuals. 

It's easy to contend that many of those who planted vines during the boom in the late '80s and '90s were naive opportunists, and that the free market has given them their just desserts for having commandeered precious water in order to flood it with the ocean of goon in which the nation's wine industry is now drowning.

But this argument ignores the role played by tax incentives and outside investment, and the huge encouragement larger companies — who should have known better — offered smaller growers in the form of lucrative, long-term supply contracts.

The wine industry is just one small part of the rural economy, but its current predicament illustrates the impact that decisions made in the cities have upon country people.

When 75 per cent of funding for agricultural science research and development is spent in capital cities, as Charles Sturt University Science Dean Nick Klomp noted on Q&A, it's hardly surprising that such decisions aren't always wise.

As Brett establishes, it's not all doom and gloom in the country. Many larger regional centres in the eastern states are thriving, the mining boom is fuelling exponential growth in parts of WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland, and almost half of the Australian tourist dollar — a bigger part of the nation's economy even than mining — is made outside capital cities.

But if we are to aim for the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities to citizens regardless of geographic location, policies must be developed through partnerships between city and country.

Brett's essay should be mandatory reading for every politician, public servant or business person whose conduct has a very real bearing on the everyday lives of rural Australians.

As she contends, it won't do to abandon 'all but the coastal fringe and a few regional towns' to blackberries, feral animals, and Bradley John Murdoch.

Rachel BaxendaleRachel Baxendale is from a wine-producing family in North-East Victoria. She co-edited the Melbourne University student newspaper Farrago in 2010, is currently completing honours in English Literature, and tweets as @rachelbaxendale. 

Topic tags: Rachel Baxendale, Judith Brett, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor, Murray Darling Basin, NBN, Albury, QandA



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Existing comments

Rural residents still have to pay dearly for the “privilege” of living in rural and remote areas. Many people may work in the mining industry, but in reality, their disposable income is not necessarily higher than the disposable income of people living in capital cities. For example, there is practical no quality secondary education and no tertiary education available anywhere in the bush. Parents must send their children away to boarding school when their children turn 13 or 14 years old. The full cost of sending a child to boarding school for the vital 6 years before matriculation is at least $100 000.00. In most cases parents earn “too much” to get any Government subsidies for their children’s education. The cost for rural parents does not end when the children finish their secondary education. The parents have to fully fund the cost of the rentals, food, transport etc. Until the children turn 25 years old. Again the cost has to be full carried by their “rich” parents. If parents want their children to gain a good education and future, they have to be ready to pay often well over $200 000.00 per child more than their City counter parts. Many parents leave their jobs in mining towns and remote areas and move to cities. It is often far cheaper to earn a lot less and to enable their children to get Austudy. Residents in rural and remote areas also find themselves in another dilemma. The average age in rural and remote areas in increasing, at the same time more and more rural hospitals and health services are removed for the sake of rationalisation. We have already large areas of Australia with health services similar to third world countries. The lack of medical facilities forced the Government to close detention centres in places like Woomera and Port Augusta. Local residents understood that the current health services were good enough for them but not good enough for asylum seekers.
Beat Odermatt | 04 July 2011

Surely, one at least of the main points of Katter and the other rural independents is correct: the established "rural party" should keep itself free from habitual coalition with the Liberals so as to be able to form coalitions with either side of politics or none, and retain a constant strong voice and almost constant balance in the Senate for rural interests. The current Liberal/National coalition construct surrenders the political power of rural/country people needlessly and counter-productively.
Eugene | 04 July 2011

I was waiting to finish reading Judith Brett's essay before commenting, but by then, the apathy would have closed discussion on Rachel's article. Apathy because most of us, busy with our own lives, haven't the time to involve ourselves in matters we believe don't affect us. For almost 70% of the population, that includes rural Australia. Without secure water resources, our geography almost prevents establishment of regional centres throughout the country. Without regional cities, we don't have the attractions of comfort, education opportunities, ready access to medical and other services which are so much a part of modern living. And we don't have centres of industry and commerce large enough to provide employment, and thereby support, for large regional cities - a two-way problem. Recently in Karratha, I saw a growing city but, lacking facilities, not attractive enough for many who work in the local industry to live there. Fly in/fly out employment contracts in the mining industry militate against development of the inland by slowing the growth of cities around the dominant industry. Meanwhile exporting live stock reduces the contribution of the inland pastoral industry to development of regional centres. I support Eugene's comments about the National Party. Without an active rural-based party to put the rural argument in all Australian parliaments, rural Australia will decline to the status of a fly in/fly out destination for work or tourism. Because there are no easy solutions, urban Australia must take rural voices seriously in a necessarily inclusive discussion about where to from here for our nation.
Ian Fraser | 05 July 2011

I acknowledge Bob K's style attracts plenty of urban jokes ,so having had a long association with him,his delightful wife Susie & their talented children . Our children & theirs shared the same High School in Charters Towers ,ours as boarders & theirs " day bugs ".Most of our sons were holding hands with their beautiful daughters while our youngest son Joe was young Robbie's best mate ,excluding the hand holding . My closest contact with Bob himself was during his State Ministry days when we constantly discussed his planned " Grant of Deeds in Trust "legislation which gave some form of tenure to communitie's local Councils for the first time .I believe even our friend Father Frank B would conseed it was a visionary forerunner to Native Title .Bob hoped it would lead to individuals eventually obtaining sufficient personal tenure to use as colateral to negotiate bank loans to build their own homes .Sadly Sparks & Joh forced Bob to present it to parliament most unethically -Three readings in the one night ( I believe believe Frank was the sole person present in the gallery ).While protocols demand a bill is tabled for 32 sitting days of Parliament.
John Kersh | 05 July 2011


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