By KRIS WALL:
The cracked, broken earth of the bottom of the dried dam is a moonscape, the last sun scorched remnants of a season of profit. The landscape shimmers in the heat, while a lone figure looks on in despair at his unviable livelihood, tears forming in the hard edged lines of his broken face. A beautiful blond approaches telling him to, “Hold on for one more day, hold on for that first drop of rain.”
It’s a drought scene through a screen. A desperate YouTube call to arms from the granddaughter of former Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, to the national community for financial and community support to help the battling rural sector on which Australia was founded.
The question is will this campaign get a response? Will the message tug enough at the heart strings of people living in the concrete jungle, that they may feel driven to donate a bale of hay, if just to keep a meal on their own plates?
The people of the bush have historically faced a long, hard battle trying to deliver a message or plea which leads to some level of social or political action. Whether it is the inability for the sixty five year old bachelor, who’s been on the family farm his whole life, to articulate his feelings towards the future of the enterprise, or the single rural doctor who services the needs of thousands, somewhere there is a breakdown in communication between those in the bush, the city and Canberra.
Plagued by the constraints of geography, the issues of drought, job security, access to health services and education, are all so far removed from the mind sets of those in the city that tailoring a media or political campaign to gain recognition has historically proven to be one of the hardest tasks facing the leaders of rural Australia.
This failure can be attributed to several aspects of the regional landscape. The limitations of market driven media is one major concern. Major news rooms in metropolitan areas neglect regional issues, unless driven by a strong Federal political agenda. In 2014, the six o’clock news was awash with Prime Minister Tony Abbot, telling Australia “The determination of this government is to stand by Australia, in the good times and bad…. This is a natural disaster and both state and federal governments have programes in place to support people in times of disaster”.
In this instance the message is delivered by the nation’s leader and the response was a somewhat bipartisan decision to introduce a drought assistance package worth over $200 million dollars. What followed was a continuous stream of prime time rural assistance campaigns, painting in bright lights the plight of rural workers battling drought, suicide and other alarming mental health issues.
From a regional perspective there are a limited number of media voices producing content reflective of rural issues. Excluding the ABC, many news organisations have eradicated many rural journalists from their newsrooms, limiting the amount of opinions being voiced as well as the diversity of issues brought up for public scrutiny.
The commercial networks have an amazing ability to gloss the rural message away from the hard, life shattering context it is, placing it in the realms of an emotive, partly effective, soft news piece easily palatable for metro audiences.
Popular morning show Sunrise sent presenter, Andrew O’Keefe, with nine inner Sydney school children to stay on a farm in the western New South Wales town of Walgett. Juxtaposed against classic country music, the opening shots of the video show the kids speaking in classic clichés about where they think their food comes from. While they take the light approach to living on the land, the question of education is touched upon, with the potential for a learning divide to be bridged which creates an empathetic generation for the future.
“I don’t blame them for being ignorant. If you know nothing but the city how can I expect you to be any other way. We need to rebuild the link,” says New South Wales Member for Parliament, Adam Marshall. Not only is Mr Marshall one of the youngest MP’s in Parliament but he represents a distant light in Australian politics, the National Party.
Mr Marshall holds a new age hope for rural politics and its agenda. Tired of sitting in the shadow of their liberal counterparts, he sees the Nationals movement shifting away from an ideologically based party, to an organisation focussed on geography. He is calling for a stronger, unified message on rural living- expecting the National Party to only be for the people of the bush and not for the interests of metropolitan constituencies.
There is obviously a strong political question to be raised over the rural message. Preconceived ideas have formed due to the conservative nature of the National Party movement. A distinct image forms of old men and red necks dressed in their Sunday best, arguing for tree felling; an idea extremely far removed from the alternate stereotype of the holistic, left wing movement of the inner city.
In some respects Adam Marshall believes the success of the regional message comes from the old romantic notions of the bush, “standing by your dig” and not budging on an issue until it has truly been addressed. In this regard he believes there may be a slight breakdown in the strength of a cohesive, consistent message between the National Party at state and federal level; conflicting ideals based on geography which potentially dilute the purpose of both the party and the message trying to be portrayed.
The ABC’s political commentator, Annabel Crabb, believes the balancing act between servicing the constituency’s needs and the state and federal Coalition line is making rural lobbying increasingly difficult, with mavericks like the current Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, voicing a strong opinion at every turn but only winning at every second.
“Often the expectations of these two groups are very different. This is why the Nats are always vulnerable to threat from loud, populist third party groups, and rural independents,” she believes.
Miss Crabb believes some of the divide may even be the result of agriculture’s recent prominence on the federal score card over the past five years. Since the controversial hung Labor parliament, where two rural Independents, former Member for Lyne, Rob Oakshott, and Member for New England, Tony Windsor, held the balance of power, people in metropolitan areas had to sit back and observe as the issues of the regions.
The live cattle trade in particular took up lots of the political agenda during 2011, raising questions over the ethical motive of rural operations. The mass media created distinct battle lines, with the uninformed and animal liberationists forming one side, and the Coalition and agricultural sector on the other.
One media commentator said, “Those with little time to actually investigate the industry were only hearing consistent negative grabs from lobbyists; so how else were their opinions going to form.”
Underlying these issues is the overarching question of the political clout and unity of the rural lobby. There is a belief that the multitude of interest groups which operate within the sector often leads to weakening what they wish to achieve. These fears were partly addressed when two men brought the 43rd Australian Parliament to account, raising and addressing long standing issues within the bush, reaffirming the position of regional Australia when the Nationals had not been successful in doing so.
The former Independent, Tony Windsor, was one of these men and he agrees the power of the regional political message is lost in party politics joking, “Who’d want to be in a bloody party? I sure as hell don’t.”
Mr Windsor prescribes to a similar argument made by Adam Marshall. He calls on the regions to disband the stereotype of conservatism which has for so long seemed to hold back their plight, and campaign as a progressive people who are the forefront in their field. He believes the message which needs to be portrayed to those living in the city is one of strength and success, not of doom and gloom.
“We have the capacity to have an impact on not only the parliament but the wider public, more so than we previously had,” he says.
Coming from a man who had been in federal politics since 2001, it must be recognised that politics is about making a decision based on what’s best for the people of the time by putting an argument forward based on fact not party line.
Facts like over the past one hundred years the estimated number of people working in the agricultural sector has declined from 14 per cent, down to a low of three. The deregulation of markets, an increased expansion of mining in regional areas and a slide in infrastructure and investment in the regions, have all painted a picture of doom and gloom for the future of the sector.
The population distribution of people living in the bush compared to the city questions the value regional Australia plays in the modern landscape. For example Queensland is the only state where the rural population out weights its metropolitan partners by over one hundred and fifty thousand. Looking at the other eastern states, the numbers swing partially in the opposite direction with around two hundred and fifty thousand more people living in the city as appose to the country.
These figures being the case, Australian farmers still produce around ninety three percent of the nation’s food supply, however there is a growing fears amongst many economists over the potential for an international food and water shortage in the next fifty years. As these issues slowly make their way onto the agenda there is a fear among many if metropolitan businesses don’t recognise the importance of Australian investment in farming, a food shortage may be the reality a lot sooner.
With issues like food shortage, there can be no wonder why there is a unified message of misery being put forward by the press and politicians. For a young politician like Adam Marshall this marks one of the greatest threats the regional success.
“We need to campaign for the romantic aspects of the bush, that great success comes through adversity and development,” he says. The rural press plays an integral role here, while not having the reach of its commercial metropolitan cousin, rural newspapers and broadcasters are still able to capture the emotion generated within the bush, the subsequent water gate for action.
Coming from a young idealistic politician, the future success of the rural message comes from the creation of empathy; it starts with the cooperation of politicians, industry and media to educate the next generation at a grass roots level. Teach at school the young city dwellers that have never left their Redfern terrace houses, where their food comes from. Take them out of the city and on to the farm, allow them to play in the mud and get dirty, living and breathing what those in the bush potentially take for granted. The message becomes about sparking a personal relationship in their minds at a young age that there is a need and a value to those operating in the bush, so when droughts strike and help is needed, ears are open.
Politicians and the media account for a majority part of the success of the rural message. The beating of the drum must be loud and must create an immediate connection or face failure in the one place which support can come from.
In Tony Windsor’s valedictory speech to Parliament, he made comment about what he wished his legacy to be by saying, “My message is that the world is run by those that turn up. If you don’t turn up you live in a world designed by those that did.” These are the words that should echo across the Liverpool Plains, over the Nullarbor, into the Kimberly and under Bass Straight. The future success of Australia will be the result of East and West turning up together, and understanding one cannot exist without the efforts of the other.
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: COURTESY OF COTTON AUSTRALIA