Beating the Bush Blues

Constructive Compassion

Tony Abbott

The "bush" has long held a fascination for Australians regardless of where they live. Although Sydney was the first---and always by far the largest---settlement in the new colony, its economy was completely dependent on the seals and whales of the south coast or the stock runs of the inland. As late as the 1950s, it was still a truism that the prosperity of every Australian "rides on the sheep's back".

Eventually, Australia's cities came to serve a wide variety of rural industries. They developed their own manufacturing base. More recently, they have spawned exports such as education and financial services which owe nothing to our traditional areas of comparative economic advantage. For many country communities, however, diversification has not been a viable option and they remain dependent on one or two major commodities at the mercy of overseas price-fixers. Boarding schools don't generally reduce their fees when the wool price falls and bank directors don't generally want branches in towns where the main customer has closed. Then there are the perils of drought, fire and flood which most city people only experience on TV.

These characteristics have given the bush its special place in the Australian psyche. It takes strength, adaptability and stoicism to live off the land or to depend on those who do. In rural communities people know each other's names. Traditional qualities of loyalty, honour, respect, faith and endurance are still taken seriously. Generations of Australians, reciting Banjo Paterson, have dreamt about swapping with the mythical Clancy, imagining "the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know".

Meanwhile, urban life has become more comfortable. The "foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city" has been cleaned up thanks to better environment laws. The dreary "round eternal of the cash book and the journal" is now handled by computers. What haven't changed, however, are the vagaries of nature and markets which have added a new sense of heightened obligation to urban Australia's long-standing fascination with bush life. As an admirer of the late BA Santamaria (whose pamphlet "The Earth, Our Mother" famously celebrated the value of rural small-holdings), I regard myself as for the land even if not of it.

Exposure to the tyranny of markets and distance from the services which others have long enjoyed mean that there are some generic disadvantages to bush living which every Australian government since Federation has struggled to address. In 1997, the mean taxable income of rural Australians was just over $28,000 or more than $4000 a year less than the average income of Australians living in urban areas. Lower average incomes do not necessarily indicate poorer quality of life but they place the "bush" at a definite economic disadvantage in obtaining the goods and services which nearly everyone wants.

Unemployment is generally higher in rural and regional Australia. Last December, for instance, Sydney's unemployment averaged 4.4 per cent compared to 8.4 per cent for the rest of NSW. The Parliamentary Library's index of relative socio-economic disadvantage (based on variables including low income, low educational attainment, unskilled occupations, unemployment, one parent families and renter households) ranks three rural and regional electorates in the worst ten. The index of education and occupation puts four predominantly regional and rural electorates in the worst ten. And the index of economic resources has seven country electorates in the worst ten.

Between 1900 and 1970, the proportion of Australians living outside capital cities fell substantially from over 60 per cent to under 40 per cent. Although urban drift has actually gone into reverse since then (with the percentage of Australians living in large cities falling from 58 to 53 per cent), inland areas have continued to lose people to the coast. In addition, small inland towns have lost their banks, schools, businesses and government offices to large "sponge" centres like Wagga, Dubbo and Albury. Although areas such as the NSW north and south coast have been among the fastest growing in Australia, much of it has been "welfare migration" by low income earners. Compared to Sydney, average household income on the north coast of NSW has dropped significantly in the past two decades. There's a sense in which these areas have become the victims of their own strengths. Governments cannot stop people on low incomes moving to places where prices are affordable and the living is comparatively easy---but have a heavy obligation to help these areas cope with the impact of change.

On South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, for instance, the average family farm in 1960 was just over 1000 hectares, supported 11 family members and employed four full-time and six part-time workers. Today, the average family farm has doubled in size, supports 12 family members and employs just two full-time and six part-time workers. Fewer farms and farmers generally mean country towns with boarded up shops---despite the Peninsula's considerable efforts to diversify into tourism, mining and aquaculture.

Country people have less access to health services and make less use of them than people living in the city. Parliamentary Library figures show that the ten electorates attracting least in per capita Medicare benefits are all in non metropolitan areas. There are nearly 1500 country Victorians to each resident doctor compared to just under 1000 residents for each Melbourne GP. On the other hand, the Federal Government is now pledged to spend an extra $43 million over the next four years to attract more doctors to country towns.

At 63 per cent, the rural year 12 retention rate is not far below the 67 per cent achieved in city schools. However, the retention rate for the 2.5 per cent of school students classified as remote is just 54 per cent---hence special Federal Government assistance through the Isolated Children scheme. The more familiar relationships possible in small country schools can hardly compensate for limited access to specialist courses and equipment. Access to higher education has improved since the days when the University of New England was the only non-metropolitan campus but higher education expenditure per head in capital cities is still more than double that in country areas.

Although some urban areas, particularly on the metropolitan fringes, are as badly off as "adjustment affected" rural and regional areas, these tend to be pockets of deprivation among general prosperity. Only four (out of 46) statistical local areas in Sydney have unemployment above the national average---compared to nearly 60 (out of about 140) in country NSW.

Whenever governments target rural and regional areas for help, there is a temptation to complain about "pork-barrelling in the bush". In fact, all of us are enhanced by programmes which build a stronger and more cohesive nation. The case for addressing the city-country divide is now at least as strong as the case used to be for addressing the gulf between capital and labour. It's where the front line now rests in the perennial struggle to address the issue of "haves" and "have-nots". The argument in favour of redressing the balance between rural and regional Australia, on the one hand, and metropolitan areas on the other, is akin to the argument for progressive taxation. It's necessary lest new divisions emerge between city and country no less destructive than the old class war between bosses and workers which is only now being addressed by the rise of shareholder democracy.

A key difference between those times and these, is that government no longer believes that Canberra-based bureaucrats are best placed to judge what's happening in the main streets of our cities and towns. These days, intelligent governments try to respond to local initiatives rather than create and direct them. In the past, too many government programmes had the unintended effect of breaking communities up and removing the social glue between individuals by stripping them of their sense of personal responsibility and substituting government help for self-help. This is what Noel Pearson meant when he described "sit-down money" as the poison which kills isolated communities. Government will always have to drive big-picture initiatives, such as the Darwin to Alice Springs railway and the Networking the Nation telecommunications project. But safer neighbourhoods, happier households and more creative businesses cannot be put together by central planning. These require what's been described as "social capital" and have to involve government as a partner and facilitator rather than leader or "owner".

The Job Network and Work for the Dole are good examples of how the new politics can create social enterprise rather than government enterprise. The Job Network replaced a 50 year old bureaucratic monolith working to a public sector rule book with more than 200 private, community-based and charitable organisations with a mandate to do whatever they thought was necessary to get people into work. Not a single Work for the Dole project can go ahead without the sponsorship of a community partner organisation. Both programmes work on the principle that people respond better to other locals than to the representatives of distant authority and, so far at least, this philosophy has been validated by the superior results achieved by both programmes.

Job Network members seem to have concluded that the most effective strategies for creating new workers involve dealing with job seekers and employers face-to-face as often as possible. The most successful Job Network members tend to want a large number of small offices rather than a small number of large ones. And, as things have turned out, Job Network sites in non-metropolitan Australia have nearly doubled.

The Regional Assistance Programme (also run through the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business) is designed to tap the economic creativity of regional Australia. This is a far cry from the "rural socialism" of political legend. It's not about big ticket projects to rectify major infrastructure gaps or to transform at a stroke the economic viability of whole regions. Instead, it's about small seeding grants (from a national fund of some $20 million a year) at the grass roots of economic activity: for instance, helping to change a derelict public building into a heritage shopping precinct; converting a disused railway line to a regional tourist attraction; or encouraging local farmers to switch from uneconomic to viable crops. The programme is not micro-credit of last resort for high risk business. Rather, it funds the things that need to be done before potential businesses can be set up. Every grant is made on the recommendation of a local committee of business and community leaders. The usual requirement of substantial "partnership funding" is designed to ensure that local communities (as well as Canberra) have an investment in success.

Along with the Job Network and Work for the Dole (but on a smaller scale and with an explicit regional emphasis), this is not a "Canberra knows best" programme but one designed to make resources available to the local people best placed to judge spending priorities. The Federal Government has no preconceived ideas about how this money should be spent as long as local people have proven their commitment to particular projects which can reasonably be expected to generate employment outcomes. Rather than create a sense of dependence on central government, it's a programme designed to encourage stronger and more reliant communities. It's about building "social entrepreneurship" because it completely depends upon the initiative of local communities.

Perhaps the most successful recent regional assistance grant was $29,000 provided in 1997 to a Bendigo Council research project on the viability of local call centres. Since then, two call centres have been established employing 160 people. A $50,000 grant to the Hervey Bay fishing industry enabled two major game fishing competitions to be run and led to the establishment of a training school for deck hands now employing 15 local people. $23,000 provided to the Yaraandoo Environmental Interpretive Centre (developed from an old forestry camp near Armidale) has enabled it to expand into providing conference accommodation and to employ an additional 11 people.

These programmes are qualitatively different from those of the past because of the faith they place in the commitment and creativity of community groups. They rely on dynamic individuals operating in cohesive communities. In this context, some advocates for the bush need to rethink the subtext of their persistent opposition to policies such as privatisation and de-regulation. There are plenty of economic opportunities in rural and regional Australia which profit-making business will be eager to exploit. The best guarantee of service delivery is not public ownership (as decades of experience shows) but state of the art technology and strong, enforceable service charters backed by the threat of competition.

This is the can-do conservatism of a government which mistrusts social engineering but accepts its responsibilities to help build a better life for individuals and communities. Constructive compassion for rural Australia's difficulties does not begin with the assumption that Australians west of the "sandstone curtain" can't cope with change. These are the people, after all, who have developed and run some of the world's most efficient farms and mines---which is why we should see rural Australians as demanding a level playing field rather than a head start.

The Government wants to give rural Australians the reassurances they are entitled to about their economic importance and contribution to our distinctive national values. This is the leadership rural Australia needs if understandably anxious people and communities are to be ready for the struggles we can't avoid and the adjustments that are ultimately for our own good. The true friends of rural Australia are confident that country people turning challenges into opportunities are no less representative than the communities under stress which the media likes to exploit.

I am indebted to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Regional Australia Summit for these examples of success against the perceived odds: In 1991 in Booringa Shire in western Queensland, an action group was formed to address the problems caused by the downturn in the wool industry. Council created a four person economic development team backed by a community reference group with the task of developing existing and new businesses around the concept of the great artesian spa. Since then tourism has increased by 25 per cent a year while council rates have been kept at 1992 levels. When Tom O'Toole took over the Beechworth Bakery in 1984 he had the building restored to heritage specifications and began training his workers in tourism marketing. The bakery has grown from an owner with two part-time staff to a $3 million a year business with 64 employees and 250 different food products. Elsewhere in northern Victoria, innovative businesses are turning the problem of salinity into an opportunity to produce commercial salt.

Country Australia is full of people with deep worries about the future of their communities but who wouldn't live anywhere else. One of the perennials of a Catholic education used to be Monsignor Hartigan's "Around the Boree Log". Its best known poem featured a post-Mass discussion based on the refrain: "we'll all be rooned, said Hanrahan, before the year is out". "Roonism"---the assumption that things invariably turn out for the worst---is also a persistent strain in the Australian psyche. This has helped to generate a healthy scepticism about unnecessary change but can also spill over into unreasonable suspicion of anything that's different.

Twenty years ago, Australians were entitled to feel some concern about our economic prospects. The old policy of "protection all round" had never worked for export industries. Super-efficient farms and mines had to support heavily protected manufacturing industry and a highly regulated service sector. Almost for the first time since 1788, Australians had begun to worry that they might pass a worse life on to their children. We had begun to fear that we were no longer a rich country getting richer but a rich country standing still or even getting poorer because we could no longer compete with our neighbours. After two decades of hard-won economic reform and nearly a decade of strong economic growth, Australia can regard itself as one of the "tiger economies" of the region if not the world. "Competition all round" has meant that inflation is low and growth is high. These days, a quarter of a per cent rise in interest rates is big news. The total tax burden is coming down. Even unemployment is responding slowly but steadily. Importantly, real wages for low paid workers have risen 10 per cent in the past four years---after falling five per cent in the previous 13. Economic reform was an act of faith two decades ago. Now, Australians know it works.

Twenty years ago, the impetus for reform came largely from the National Farmers Federation whose members were tired of subsidising inefficiency. Rural Australia can claim much of the credit for the prosperity Australia as a whole now enjoys. It's right that the economy generally should now benefit from the type of competition which has strengthened country industries. For their part, it's only fair that country people should now have access to a greater share of the services and opportunities that city people take for granted.


The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, Free Trade or Protectionism, Background Paper No 16 1996-97

Hogan et al, Regional Australia, Australian Commodities vol 6 no 4 December 1999

Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Small Area Labour Markets, December Quarter 1999

Parliamentary Library, Socio-Economic Indexes for Electoral Divisions, Current Issues Brief No 4 1998-99

Monash Regional Australia Project, Why the Bush is Hurting, January 2000

Parliamentary Library, Higher Education in Regional Australia, Research Note Number 21 1999-2000

Newton and Bell, Mobility and Change in Australia, AGPS

Productivity Commission, Impact of Competition Policy Reforms on Rural and Regional Australia, Report No 8 September 1999

Hilton Trigg, Regional rural revival, Outlook 98

Various unpublished documents prepared by the Parliamentary Library---to whose research staff, particularly Peter Hicks, I am much indebted.