As Judith Brett points out, the nation is quick to embrace rural iconography when we present ourselves to the world through advertising and in the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics (with the yellow Driza-Bones of the 1988 Seoul Olympics perhaps best forgotten). We also buy into much of the agrarian belief in the essential virtue of farming as a way of life and the “special needs” of rural folk. We are concerned about finding marriage partners for farmers, but we have not yet seen The Plumber Wants a Wife. Television programs such as A Country Practice, Blue Heelers and McLeod’s Daughters play to our ideas of the unsophisticated, quirky rural inhabitants with hearts of gold winning over jaded and cynical city types. The television quiz show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? had a special farmers edition in mid-2005 and after the last farmer departed with $32,000, the Channel Nine website reported that, “Over the past weeks, a total of $205,000 has been won by the farmers, easing some of their strain as they continue to battle the poor conditions.”
However, this broad sympathy is rarely informed by the relevant policy debates, which take place among a relatively small group. While many people remember the privatisation debates concerning Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra, few were aware of the lengthy debate over the privatisation of the Australian Wheat Board in the mid-1990s. That privatisation ended with the retention of an export monopoly in the hands of a private company, AWB Limited, with a rather peculiar share structure that privileged one group of shareholders over another. Media attention did not focus on the wheat exporter until it became embroiled in the Oil-for-Food scandal, and then reports provided an ahistorical and uninformed analysis of the international grain trade. The reporting was superficial and made basic errors about the nature of AWB Limited’s role and structure – even politicians at the time seemed to forget that AWB Limited was a private company, slipping into the old terminology and referring to the company as the Australian Wheat Board when that body had ceased to exist nearly a decade before the 2005–06 Cole Inquiry.
Farmers are not necessarily the losers from the low level of public scrutiny of rural policy. In the lead-up to the Commonwealth budget in May 2005, there was public debate over limiting IVF treatments for women aged over forty-two in order to save $14 million per year. Around this time the agriculture minister put out a media release which included the information that the Commonwealth government was spending $4 million each week on drought relief. Although not strictly comparable, there was no suggestion that $14 million could be saved in the area of drought relief rather than by restricting IVF services. During the drought at the beginning of this century, a “Farmhand” appeal was set up to raise money for farmers affected by severe drought, even though farmers in these areas were receiving welfare payments on a far more generous basis than other welfare recipients. By May 2005 farmers on drought relief could earn more than twice as much per fortnight as an unemployed person before losing any income support.
The attitude towards the bush could perhaps be summed up as benign indifference. The city pays attention only when issues like the live cattle trade to Indonesia make the headlines or the drought comes to town, as it did in the most recent dry spell. Normally drought happens “out there” and does not manifest itself in the cities except in the form of tight water restrictions. One suspects that the only reason the AWB scandal received such attention was that the media and the Opposition saw an opportunity, not realised of course, to claim a ministerial scalp. AWB Limited’s extraordinary delaying tactics, which led to the Inquiry’s running for the best part of a year, added to the newsworthiness of the scandal. And it should be remembered that the Inquiry took place in Sydney, so that reporters did not need to get their boots dirty or cope without a decent latte while reporting the story.
There are clearly cultural differences between country and city Australia. Country towns are different from the suburbs. The National Party, One Nation and independents have capitalised on these differences and, although the Nationals have been largely ineffectual in achieving major policy wins for the country in recent Coalition governments, their mere existence appears to provide comfort and earn them support. Apart from the National Party, and more recently the newly influential rural independents, politicians and opinion leaders have not related well to the bush. This is surprising for a multicultural country which has become sensitised to cultural difference based on race and religion, but which seems incapable of showing similar respect for different cultures within Anglo Australia.
I attended three of the ill-fated Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) meetings in late 2010 and was struck by an apparent lack of respect for rural Australians in general, and for farmers in particular. Doubtless unintentionally, the meetings consisted of suits on stage, talking down to the rural folk. It was death by PowerPoint, with presentations continuing for seventy minutes and no questions being taken until they were done. When questions became challenging, the presenters hid behind the legislation. There seemed to be a lack of sensitivity for the profound impact the plan was likely to have on communities and how it appeared to be a fundamental attack on rural development and a repudiation of previous government support for nation-building irrigation schemes. A key thread running through agrarian ideology is suspicion of the expert and scepticism about the person who works with their head and not their hands. In one meeting we heard a farmer talk about the “university of life” – he clearly regarded his knowledge of his land as equal if not superior to the science being presented by the MDBA. A greater understanding of the culture of rural Australia would have assisted the MDBA in its preparation and possibly resulted in more light and less heat around the draft plan.
The result of the 2010 election drew attention to the needs and demands of rural Australia. Although media commentators in the cities have voiced concern that the influence of the rural independents will result in rent-seeking and sectional subsidies, the public appears to be generally relaxed about the situation. Until the next scandal breaks and TV news and current affairs have some good (or horrifying) footage to run, rural concerns are likely to remain at best second-order issues for the majority of Australians.
Linda Botterill is professor of Australian public policy at the University of Canberra. She has co-edited books on drought policy and the National Party and is writing a book on the life and death of collective wheat marketing in Australia.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY