A changing climate and declining populations are being keenly felt in country Australia. Recent months have seen state government MPs periodically put their constituencies before party, but can regional communities find a voice in the long run?
My (late) Pa played in Red Hill’s 1947 premiership side. Back then, the town had its own team. By the time he went home to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their win, Red Hill had amalgamated with another club to ensure it had the numbers for a team. The Club is now Brinkworth-Spalding-Red Hill (BSR). Country Australia, vast by nature, is shrinking. Populations are shrinking. Economies are shrinking. Effective political representation, too, appears to be shrinking.
It is a challenging time to be living in the country. Always open to the vagaries of the seasons, a rapidly changing climate has increased the regularity and severity of incidents that threaten livelihoods and lives. With dwindling populations, country Australia lacks the economies of scale to interest the private sector. With fewer voters, there is also less investment from government. Less investment means less infrastructure, fewer services, and more reasons for young people to move to the city.
The country is a largely uncontested political landscape, with the exception of the occasional independent insurrection, which leaves the task of representing rural interests to one party. In spite of the personal travails of Barnaby Joyce and the internal political undulation of Michael McCormack, the Nationals held their 10 seats at the recent Federal election, and increased their share of the vote.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, with its promise of another day in government, those two leaders could not resist a touch of hubris. “When so many in the media, when all the trolls and the lefties said we’d never do it, we proved them wrong,” Nationals leader McCormack said. Hubris was even more evident in the words of former leader Joyce, who invited Labor to “wake up and take a reality pill”, labelled them “clowns” and suggested “you could have been in government tonight, ya fools”.
Winners can do as they please. But it is difficult to see how the Nationals, the junior party in the Coalition, can meet the vast challenges facing country Australia. The chasm that separates rural interests from the dominant economic thinking of the Liberal Party is too vast. We have seen this in South Australia, when representatives of country constituencies crossed the floor to vote against the Mining Act, which they believed favoured the interests of miners over those of farmers. But such isolated incidents are less important than the deeper divide on economic policy.
When philosophically inclined to rationalist economic policies preferencing the role of the private sector over that of government to protect the greater good) the interests of those living in the country will be compromised. This was evident in the recent decision by WIN News to close commercial television news rooms in Wagga Wagga, Albury, Orange and Bundaberg because of the lack of “commercial viability of funding news in these areas”. The belief in smaller government also impacts the capacity of the national public broadcaster to produce rural content. Faith in small governments and the market does little for communities on the land.
This rationalist tendency also impacts investment in infrastructure to enhance services and connectivity in rural areas. The per capita costs of infrastructure for schools, hospitals, transport and communications is relatively high, but these services are important to maintain the fabric of our nation. For those whose decisions are informed by market principles, such higher costs are difficult to justify. This core Coalition principle appears inconsistent with the best interests of rural constituencies.
One would think that those whose livelihoods depend on the natural environment would gravitate to those who wish to honour and preserve it. The impacts of climate change are often more keenly felt by our farmers and the communities that support agricultural production, but this is not reflected in the policies of those elected to represent rural communities. Is it time for an alternative that responds to the economic and environmental realities of country Australia to contest these representatives who do little to champion the interests of these constituents?
Many believe that the social conservatism of those who live in the country would make it difficult for Labor. On election night, speaking to Senator Penny Wong who was part of election evening coverage on the ABC, Joyce suggested her “form of politics does not work in these areas”. But he also accused Labor of walking away from its “blue collar base”. It had “left Barcaldine behind, left the Tree of Knowledge behind, wandered down, got themselves a kaftan and incense sticks”. This caricature betrays a deeper fear: that Labor’s historic economic policy instincts are far more aligned with the interests of his constituents that he would care to (publicly) admit.
The last time I was in Red Hill, for a funeral, I had a beer with Pa at the watering hole, the Eureka. I talked a little about politics with a few of the local, who voted conservative because “that’s what we do up here”. Not all country towns will survive in perpetuity, but the removal of schools, police stations and hospitals feels like a managed decline devoid of an alternative vision for the future. The Eureka closed around three years ago.