Beating the Bush Blues
The Rural Revolt
The Hon. Philip R. Davis, MLC
Recent developments in politics at both a Federal and State level have
indicated disillusionment with governments across the electorate as a whole,
particularly in rural electorates. Important factors in this situation are
declining terms of trade for rural industries, and the trend towards globalisation.
Rural citizens believe that they are being left behind because economy
of scale inevitably means that smaller and isolated communities are not
afforded the same access to services as major cities.
Voting patterns over the last couple of decades indicate a loss of support
for major political parties and increasing support for minor parties and
This became very evident at the 1999 State Election in Victoria, when
three independents were returned in Legislative Assembly seats---a result
not seen for 40 years.
The Productivity Commission October 1999 Report, "Impact of Competition
Policy Reforms on Rural & Regional Australia", highlights some
of the issues which have affected the perceptions of rural constituents:
- Growth in coastal communities compared with a population decline inland
and associated with declining industries.
- Provincial cities (or "sponge cities") growing at the cost
of smaller towns and farms in the region.
- Country people have lower incomes relative to those in the cities,
and the difference appears to be increasing.
- Educational attainment is lower and the unemployment rate is higher
in country Australia.
Broad long-term economic forces which are
beyond the control or influence of governments have been key drivers of
the economic and social changes of particular relevance to country Australia.
changing technology and increasing productivity; rising incomes and
changing lifestyles; and declining world agricultural and mineral commodity
Victoria's 1999 election was decided in rural and regional seats---eight
of eleven seats lost by the Liberal Party were outside Melbourne. The biggest
swings were in the non-Melbourne seats, including the two Gippsland seats---Gippsland
East 22.9 per cent and Gippsland West 16.6 per cent (compared with 1996
The National Party sustained an average swing against it of 10.4 per
cent compared with the average swing of 5.4 per cent against the Liberal
Party in the country.
Prior to the election there was an overwhelming
impression that the Kennett Government would be easily returned. For example
Nicholas Economou from Monash University concluded that "The Kennett
era in Victorian Politics looks set to continue for some time yet".(2)
Problems and Opportunities in Rural
Rural Victoria faces the same issues now as have been evident for many
years: declining terms of trade for primary producers, and declining real
incomes for many rural towns, leading to declining populations and the collapse
of community infrastructure. Against this, it was evident that rural Victoria
has significant unstated advantages. Rural towns and provincial cities offer
a quality of life which compares favourably with large cities. Proximity
to education and health services, lower accommodation costs, and compactness
for access to day-to-day needs are just some of the advantages enjoyed in
Numerous opportunities exist for economic development in rural Victoria,
especially now that commerce is increasingly reliant on information technology
rather than person-to-person communication.
There are significant economic development opportunities for communities
as a consequence of the development of information technology. No longer
is it necessary for many businesses to be located in the CBD of Melbourne.
They may locate in surroundings which have advantages arising from the choice
of lifestyle, and/or lower costs of operation resulting from lower rents
For rural communities to take advantage of the IT age, telecommunications
infrastructure needs to be improved in many areas. Points of access are
inadequate and this disadvantages rural communities both socially and economically.
Although there is widespread low self-esteem in rural areas, or a poor
perception about the inherent properties of lifestyle, service, and infrastructure
across rural Victoria, in fact there are many advantages that are not recognised.
One example is the opportunity to enhance the lifestyles of aging citizens
by making use of the often very well-integrated and closely meshed community
services, aged care and health sectors in rural communities, which afford
high standards of assistance with very easy access to services, particularly
when compared with the suburbs of large cities.
The cost of doing business in rural Victoria is often perceived to be
an impediment, but in fact it can be shown that there are cost advantages
for both residential and commercial accommodation costs, including land
values, property values, local government rates and other infrastructure
costs. There are also advantages from the stability of the workforce. Providing
that transport and communication infrastructure is adequate, there can be
high levels of potential benefit from investments in rural communities.
Common infrastructure in rural Victoria is often underutilised. For example,
low levels of enrolments in schools, and low utilisation rates for hospitals
compared with Melbourne.
There is a high degree of criticism in rural Victoria with regard to
the lack of information about Government policy and programmes. This criticism
is often levelled at Government Departments, local Members of Parliament
There is a significant perception that rural infrastructure is run down.
Revised accounting principles for Local Government, which require making
allowance for depreciation, have magnified the perception that the rural
road and bridge network is under threat. This accounting change is providing
transparency in long-term depreciation of local infrastructure. Municipalities
require some assistance to deal with these challenges.
There is considerable community concern over the benefits of local government
reform. This revolves principally around implementation of compulsory competitive
The fuel pricing disparity between the city and the country prices remains
contentious and difficult.
Rural commodity prices, particularly for beef and wool, are having a
significantly depressing effect on rural communities. Negative perceptions
are developing in the dairy industry as a consequence of comparative lower
real values for dairy output. Throughout areas where wool growing was the
predominant agricultural activity, not only were there negative perceptions
but in fact there was significant economic despair. It should be acknowledged,
however, that the Government has limited ability to influence events such
Some of the most common criticisms, Statewide, relate to water policy.
Criticisms were based on competition between users of a limited resource,
with little overall understanding of a vision for resource management. For
example: northeastern Victorian agriculturalists sought to utilise waters
in upper catchments while the irrigators in the Goulburn Murray districts
sought to protect bulk entitlements. There was a view in Gippsland that
waters stored in the Thomson Dam should be available to Gippsland irrigators
in time of drought; not retained for the residents of Melbourne. Groundwater
users were concerned by moratoriums imposed by rural water authorities in
respect of, and approval for, further draw-down on aquifers. Concern was
also expressed over community and environmental values associated with an
improved environmental flow in the Snowy River versus the benefits arising
to irrigators in northern Victoria and New South Wales and through the Snowy
Hydro water diversions. Concern was also expressed over the application
of tariffs and the role of catchment management authorities.
Leadership and Communities
"Big government's policy towards rural
Australia has been devastating. If the profitable third of our farmers
were able to represent the industry and set the agenda for debate we would
hear a rural voice with constructive ideas for market access, natural resource
management, macro-economic policy, market perceptions and quality assurance.
Instead, the debate is driven by the unprofitable rump---some might
say agrarian socialists---who yearn for an outdated past despite a future
that holds out promise. Some producers consider they have a right to farm
where they were born without looking to the responsibility of supporting
their own lifestyle. It would be more realistic if they filed a land claim.
The third of broadacre farms generating 70% of the output and 100% of
the profits have a positive attitude to change, access to information and
sound management skills. Farmers require these skills to make a profitable
industry. Managing the change from being a heritage issue to a vibrant,
profitable industry is the challenge.
Make no mistake about it: government can't allocate resources effectively.
Rural people have the ability, the resources and the ingenuity to be
profitable and passionate about the food and fibre they produce---without
Effective local action requires effective local leadership; the growth
of rural and regional Victoria is dependent on developing the potential
of people so they can create and drive future opportunities.
Leadership can be fostered by:
- Ensuring that training, skills and development opportunities are available
at all levels of the community; and
- Developing networks where local leaders can share their ideas and experience
and promote opportunities across Victoria.
There is a wealth of skills and experience in rural Victoria. What we
need are policies which will help provide the confidence for those communities
to influence their own destinies.
Regions must foster an economic climate which will reinforce the potential,
scope and advantage of rural and regional Victoria as a place to do business.
Such an approach would support existing businesses as they grow, create
sustainable employment opportunities and attract investment for existing
and emerging industries. This needs to be combined with committed communities,
supportive Local and State Governments, the efficient delivery of Government
services and targeted infrastructure development.
Efficient information and communications technology is fundamental to
the future development of country Australia. Technology enables international
access to people and information and provides the key to encouraging communities
to adapt to change in a global economy.
Government and communities have complementary roles in this field. Government
initiatives must encourage demand for technologies and electronic service
delivery so that carriers will develop viable support networks and infrastructure
in country Victoria. To ensure this outcome, communities must accept and
encourage those initiatives and create new opportunities for service expansion.
There is a need for young Victorians to appreciate that they have a worthwhile
role in the development of their regions. Regions must recognise that role
and encourage it by creating partnerships with industry, business and the
community to assist young people to develop skills which benefit them personally
and the community generally.
Politics: Perceptions and Realities
Politics is all about perceptions---not necessarily about actions and
In East Gippsland, in 1998, after some of the most disastrous floods
in recorded history in that region, the State Government implemented a timely
and effective recovery programme which resulted in the expenditure of $62.1
million, including an innovative farm buy-back programme to assist rural
landholders hit by successive years of drought and then flood.
Despite this expenditure and the extensive presence of the Government
in the region, the vote for Coalition candidates in the 1999 election plummeted
by up to 23 per cent.
The perception in Gippsland, and clearly across much of Victoria, was
that rural areas were not receiving their fair share of Government funding
And yet the facts were that in the area of health 36 per cent of capital
works projects allocated in the State Budget were located in rural and regional
In Education the figure was also 36 per cent, while 33 per cent of road
expenditure and 34 per cent of the Government's recurrent expenditure was
incurred in rural and regional areas. Yet these areas comprise just 28 per
cent of the population.
These figures prove that the Kennett Government had its sights firmly
fixed on development and the provision of essential services across the
State. It did not focus its attention disproportionately on metropolitan
Melbourne, although the metropolis has 72 per cent of the State's population.
And many projects of necessity located in or close to Melbourne provide
benefits for residents throughout the State.
One example is the $175 million Hallam Bypass, which will benefit primary
producers, the transport industry and residents throughout Gippsland when
they access Melbourne. It will also make Gippsland more accessible to the
Multi-million dollar capital works programmes to provide improved services
at the Royal Dental Hospital, Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Royal Women's
Hospital will expand specialist facilities that can only be located in a
city, but which are of benefit to all Victorians.
Investments facilitated by the Government in rural and regional Victoria
between October 1992 and June 1998 totalled more than $2.2 billion, creating
6,700 jobs and generating more than $1.1 billion in exports. The overall
result was that rural and regional Victoria attracted 35 per cent of all
investment facilitated by the government---even though it comprises 28 per
cent of the population.
The Labor Party's election campaign in 1999 put forward little in the
way of new policies. It concentrated on hospitals and education, areas in
which the Kennett Government had introduced substantial reforms.
These factors will restrict implementation of important reforms for rural
Australia. For instance, it is evidenced by the vigorous opposition to telecommunications
reform. Given the increasing relevance of this sector to businesses, education
and social interface in the regions, this is a huge threat to overcoming
the inertia in creating jobs in rural Australia.
Commission, "Impact of Competition Policy Reforms on Rural & Regional
Australia", October 1999.
2. This in an
analysis of the period January to June 1999 published in Australian Journal
of Politics and History, December 1999.
3. This is an
extract from an article by Celie Moar, a grain farmer at Swan Hill, Victoria,
who was the 1995 ABC Victorian Rural Women of the Year, published in Australian
Farm Journal, October 1998 (originally published in the Australian
Financial Review, July 7, 1998).