Transcript

17 Jun 2011

Fair share

Judith Brett
Email: j.brett@latrobe.edu.au

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

At one time the country believed itself to be the true face of Australia. Sunburnt men and capable women, raising crops and children, enduring isolation and a fickle environment carrying the nation on their sturdy backs. Is that the case now? Does this city need the country? Does the Australia rely on the country for it's national image?

I'm Matt Smith and this is the La Trobe University podcast.

Judith Brett is professor of politics at La Trobe University and an award-winning author. In issue 42 of the quarterly essay, she looked at the relationship between country and city in Australia.

Judith Brett:

In the past, probably up until Second World War, the country was really important for Australia's idea of itself and it was important for supporting the Australian economy. And because of that, the country had a really important place in all Australian's understanding of what the Australian nation was.

And I think there was three reasons for this. One was Australia rode on the sheep's back. That is, most of our exporting come was earned from wool. And that made the Australian economy a very prosperous economy in the 19th century and into the 20th century. And a lot of the jobs in the city depended in fact on the exporting of that wool to the world.

The second reason was that we had this big empty continent and we needed to make good our claim to be a nation for a continent and we wanted to fill it up with people. So the government had lots of schemes to make people live in the countryside, to get them out of the cities and into the country where they could be healthy and strong and independent.

And the third reason is that when Australia thought about what is it about us that makes us different as a nation, they thought it's our environment or in those days I would've said it's the land and it's the people who are on the land who are in many ways the people who've been made what they are by Australia, by the Australian environment. And so, the country became really important culturally to give us images of what it was to be an Australian rather than say, New Zealand, or an American or most importantly an Englishman.

Matt Smith:

So that shows a country that's very reliant on the country and on the image it provides and on the resources that it has. Is that still the case today?

Judith Brett:

No it isn't. And I think that's been a really huge change over the last half a century and it really sped up in the 1980s. I think if you look now, agriculture, not just wool. I mean wool has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk as part of our export income. But agriculture is now about 15% of our export income whereas in the 19th century, it was 90%.

The country has been losing population relative to the city for a long time until about the 1970s. It's reversed a little bit but a lot of the people living outside of the capital cities have gone to the coastal fringes, Queensland, New South Wales. So they're not living in the capital cities but they're not exactly living in rural, agricultural areas.

And thirdly I think Australian cities have become more confident that there's something distinctively Australian about our Australian cities. What used to be the case the people would say, look the cities the same the world over. Sydney, Melbourne, just provincial cities not enormously different from Birmingham or Manchester or Chicago.

But now Australian cities particularly Melbourne and Sydney are really confident. They say there's something distinctive about our multicultural mix and there's something about that, that's Australian in the way in which we've brought people from the four corners of the world and we've created a sort of cosmopolitan Australianess.

And the country is by contrast seen as full of sort of backward people. Not all of them obviously but you know the Pauline Hanson phenomenon came along in One Nation. You saw a lot of this imagery if the country is full of sort of red necks and racist and they were homophobic. They were xenophobic. So Australian cities are now much more confident. And the country's being sort of treated as if it's a bit backward.

Matt Smith:

During the election in 2010, the balance of powers held by three independents who were based in country areas, how did that bring the country debate and country issues back to the forefront?

Judith Brett:

Well I think it did because all of a sudden people were really interested in Tony Windsor, Bob Katter, and Rob Oakeshott. Normally the independents don't get much air play. All of a sudden, they were on our televisions, on our radios, all the time and they were giving the arguments about the country. They were giving a country viewpoint about the way the country sort itself. I mean the city hadn't really heard the country arguing its case on primetime television for a long time.

And it was actually when I was watching that that I forgot the idea to write this quarterly essay because I was listening to them. And because I'm a historian, I sort of recognize the arguments, you know, their arguments had been, being put in various forms for the last hundred years.

But I was very aware when I read the commentary that other people the journalists, the commentators didn't really know where this was coming from. It didn't have a sense of the history of the country. And the way it's always felt a bit aggrieved, it's always felt that if it doesn't stand up for itself, the people in the city and the politicians who are city based will just ignore it.

Matt Smith:

But they're right there though aren't they?

Judith Brett:

They will just ignore it. That's right. They are right. And they feel that they've been ignored particularly after the 1980s when what we call in Australia economic rationalism. When economic rationalism came along, it was very much user pays. All the different parts of the nation have to pay their way. No more cross-subsidies. And the country has always relied on cross-subsidies. So all of a sudden, people living in the country felt abandoned. They saw this services disappearing. They felt that government wasn't interested in them. It was very hard for farmers at that stage for a number of reasons.

So there was a sense of grievance and out of that I guess you know comes a sense of frustration.

Matt Smith:

What was the outcome of the election from the country's standpoint? And do they have their needs addressed?

Judith Brett:

Yes. They did pretty well. There was an agreement with regional Australia or an Agreement on Regional Australia, can't remember what it's called now. In which regional issues, which is what rural issues are now called. The country is now called regional Australia. They were put high on the government's agenda, they would give them priority, they're given their own ministers, as Simon Crean is the minister for regional development. And for example in the last budget, regional education did well and got money and money waiting to the university that's in Tony Windsor's electoral.

They got National Broadband Network, didn't they? The National Broadband Network is very much the government saying, here we are Regional Australia, this is something for you. For Tony Windsor that was a really, really high priority. And for the country generally, telecommunications or communication system have always been a really high priority because the sort of big problem for the country in Australia is, it's a small population spread across huge distances.

So access to good communication makes a really big difference to the quality of life of the people outside of the capital cities. In that sense, they did get listened to.

Matt Smith:

You just said then it's point that I think has been made before that most of Australia's population is living on the coast on the outer fringes.

Judith Brett:

Most of it lives in the capital cities.

Matt Smith:

Yeah. And it's, it's 30% that are living in the country area, is it that, that, that's the amount used...

Judith Brett:

30% that are living outside of the capital cities. Some, a lot of that, that would still be living on the coast.

Matt Smith:

So should we be maintaining the country image and the country areas? And should we be giving this amount of resources and attention?

Judith Brett:

Well that's a good question. There are two arguments. I think that historically have been put about why we should be maintaining the levels of resources.

The first is that Australia has always, since federation, had a commitment to regional equality, to the idea that wherever you lived as an Australian citizen, there should be access to uniformity of provision. That you should have some access as a citizen to healthcare, to education services, to communication services. And that's been a really important part of Australia's tradition of egalitarianism. That people in the country should have a fair share.

Secondly, we are a nation for a continent whether we like it or not. Now it so happens that the continent we've got is a pretty hard, arid continent. It's a pretty hard continent to inhabit. But we have claimed it and we have to think quite hard about, not just it's sort of usefulness to us but our responsibility if you like to that land. And the other thing is we have people living in these places. They live there. They feel they're Australians. They feel they've made a contribution to the nation. The people in the city, so the city-based politicians can't just sort of turn their backs and say, well change their mind.

Matt Smith:

Is the traditional view of the country way of life still a valid stereotype? Do we still cling to that archetype?

Judith Brett:

Look I think there's a bit of variation. There's still quite a lot of sympathy in the city for farmers and people living in the country. The thing is the country is quite varied. When we talk about the country, which we don't do very much anymore, but when I was growing up we did a lot, we're really thinking about the settled agricultural lands, the dry sheep wheatbelt, the horticultural areas, the big country towns.

There's big differences, there's the one growing areas of Adelaide, the Barossa Valley in South Australia, there's far North Queensland, there's the dry sheep wheatbelt running through New South Wales and Queensland, there's a coastal strip. There's quite a lot of difference. But there's still the problem of distance. Now in some of these cases, the distances are huge.

So there is in a way the whole outback area. Now clearly the outback has become probably more important over the last 20 or 30 years for Australia's image of itself than the old settled agricultural countryside has. So the people living in our springs or the cattlemen are more iconic of Australia than say, somebody who's growing cabbages in Werribee.

Matt Smith:

Those living in the cities today in Australia generally have little attachment or connection to country Australia. One of the things that came out during the election is that people living in the country generally have the perception that they're the lucky ones, that we're the people who are missing out. Is anybody going to win the debate like that? Who do you think are the real winners in Australia, the country or the city?

Judith Brett:

Well I suppose I don't think it's really a matter of winners and losers. They win and lose on different things. People in the country, there is a sort of defensive pride. They will say, you know, we wouldn't live anywhere else and look at all you people all overcrowded in the city.

But what I, I suppose was wanting to bring out was that there's a long debate in western culture between the country and the city as which is the best place to live? And there are pluses and minuses if you like the both. The country can be seen as the place that's closer to nature, that's simpler, that's more relaxing, that's more healthy, where you are more independent or it can be seen as a place that's backward where you're isolated full of sort of you know, hay seeds and rural idiots.

The city can be seen as a place which is more sophisticated, more modern, more interesting, more tolerant, or it can be seen as negatively as overcrowded. The image now would be, you know, too much traffic, crime, drugs, violence. The things is they're about a bit of a mixed of both but there's a conversation that goes on inside of Australia about country and city, and there's a political struggle over resources because for example with the National Broadband Network. Probably going to be of a lot of benefit to people in the country.

But people in the city could get access to those services a hell of a lot cheaper. There's a degree of cross subsidy going on and the people in the city think well, what are we paying for? Why should we subsidized those people and the people in the country say, well you should subsidize us because we're Australians too and we have a place in the nation.

Matt Smith:

Professor Judith Brett thank you for your time today.

Judith Brett:

OK.

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