In 2006 I visited an indigenous town called Utopia on the edge of the Tanami Desert, in the Northern Territory. As I looked out on what stretched as far as the eye could see, I began to realise how empty our land really is. Utopia was desperately poor. Dogs scratched around the township looking for food, and old women lay in the shade of concrete dugouts. Had Utopia once been paradise? Or was it named in the hope that one day its fortunes would change? I don’t know the answer, but I did know the problem with Utopia: geography.
The Bangladeshi economist and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus found a way to alleviate his people’s poverty by offering them microfinance. Yunus’ scheme worked because Bangladeshis were poor for lack of credit. Their inability to borrow condemned them to poverty, and Yunus’ intervention broke this cycle.
As I travelled across the Northern Territory, I was less sure that microfinance would work in regional Australia. Distance was the outback’s tyranny, not lack of credit. It took hours to travel between these communities – Yuendumu, Ali Curung, Tennant Creek. This was cattle country, and local people were held in employment by a piece of paper binding the pastoralist to his local workers. Without the cattle trade, these places were lost. It led me to a sad conclusion: perhaps some parts of regional Australia could never be rescued.
Judith Brett’s Fair Share forces us to confront an important reality: not all of Australia is equal. No matter how industrious we are, nature prevents some communities from being self-sustaining. The afflicted communities change over time: sometimes they are driven to the brink by drought and flood, at others by the flow of economic history. Brett’s essay focuses on the latter. She returns to the great promise of federation – a nation for a continent – and inspires us to our own Manifest Destiny. Her essay reflects two deep traditions in Australian political consciousness. One is conservative – the instinct to nurture local communities and protect what we have made. The other is liberal – the desire to give these communities the skills and resources they need to live the life they value.
But at times Brett takes these two traditions and arrives at strange, almost romantic, conclusions. She advocates for subsidising the country and mounts a number of justifications for why – food security, aesthetic pleasure and nation-building. “Rural and regional Australia might always need a fair degree of subsidisation,” she writes, and “we do all need to share the cost.”
These are all excellent reasons for why we must do something. But whether the answer is simply to subsidise the country – that I am less sure of.
Judith Brett seems to suggest that the answers do not reside in a neoliberal state. It is not always clear what she means by this term. Certainly, it is hard to justify a system which lacks support for the underprivileged or a sense of decency towards our culture and history. But is that really what characterised the two and a half decades of government from 1983 onwards? Throughout the essay Brett is biting: “Neoliberalism treated farms as businesses, and farmers as business owners and entrepreneurs.” Her words ring with disapproval. She argues that the promise of “adjustment” between city and country was not fulfilled. Instead of conserving the old splendour of country towns, proud families and institutions were ripped apart. Banks were replaced with ATMs, and institutions like Australia Post corporatised. It hardly sounds appealing, but it begs the question: would we be better off without ATMs?
We will always struggle to find the right balance between change and conservation. Perhaps we would be better off without ATMs because that would preserve banks as meeting places in regional towns. But at times Brett rails against “neoliberalism” when she is really talking about “economics,” against change when she is describing progress.
When you look at the economic changes afoot in regional Australia, perhaps things are not as dead as Brett suggests. Mining is flourishing, yet the mining sector – the modern heart of rural Australia both economically and politically – gets only a brief hearing in the essay. It features almost as an apology, a concession to the fact that our grand vision for Australia’s economic prosperity fell short. Fashioning a modern industrialised economy was the Hawke–Keating dream, but Brett is decisive in her judgment: “although it achieved a good deal, we now know that in essence it failed.”
The changing political landscape of regional Australia is one of the most interesting stories in contemporary politics. Power is moving from agricultural wealth to mining wealth. Both fortunes are closely tied to geography. Agriculture depends on the soil and weather, mining on natural deposits. But the two constituencies wield power differently. Farmers are independent entrepreneurs, each one able (to some extent) to shape their economic future. Miners, by contrast, are often agglomerations of power: union and corporate. Regional towns such as Karratha and Dampier are not necessarily shaped by local residents. They are shaped by individual companies or, in the case of Andrew Forrest, by individual mining magnates. This story is missing from Brett’s essay, but it is important to any understanding of what is happening in the regions.
In the mid-nineteenth century, another mining boom – the gold rush – brought immense wealth to regional Australia. Prospectors’ discoveries turned quiet agricultural settlements like Ballarat and Bendigo into boom towns. The populations of these places grew, infrastructure was built, and they became prosperous, self-sustaining regional hubs.
Today’s challenge is to convert the present mining boom into something similar, but the answers are often more subtle than mere subsidy. When it was recently reported that a Chinese mining company had bought agricultural land in Gunnedah, the community was outraged. It was said to be a crisis of sovereignty, with the Chinese taking control of our food and land. But foreigners have owned equity in our country for over a century. The real issue was the complex question of securing the community’s long-term prosperity. Mines have a habit of expiring, and gravel pits can seldom be returned to prime agriculture. A better answer may be to encourage activity like mining on the condition that the long-term economic interests of the community are considered. Companies might be asked to invest in country Australia by building the schools, roads, rails and houses which will sustain these areas for more than a generation. Mining may not be a glamorous business, but it may be a vehicle for encouraging employment, delivering skills and building the hardware of the future economy.
At times Brett seems eager to insulate the romantic Australian bush legend from the grime of commerce. But it was commerce that first brought farming families to the land. They were enticed by the promise of profiting from the sheep’s back and the fecundity of our pastures. To celebrate the economic forces which installed nineteenth-century society but regret those of modern times seems a little one-eyed. In the end, our goal is not to preserve these places as museum pieces of Australian history. It is to find the best way to enable these people to lead lives which are rich, courageous and free.
Eric Knight is a former Rhodes scholar who has worked as an economics consultant to the OECD, the UN Environment Program Finance Initiative and the World Bank. He works for Boston Consulting Group and is a research associate at the ANU Centre for Climate Economics and Policy. His first book will be published in early 2012.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY