A FRIEND of mine recently had dinner with some elderly women in Sydney who were friendly with his in-laws. Over the meal he explained how tough he and his entire community were doing it in the ongoing and now unprecedented drought.
The women he spoke with were genuinely concerned and a little shocked that they had no idea how bad things were and the degree of social and economic disruption the entire community was enduring not only on the farm, beyond the farm gate too.
In a similar way I was recently talking to a well-educated and politically aware woman recently. We were discussing issues of public policy affecting rural and regional business and communities. I highlighted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as a great example of dumb and needlessly destructive policy. Since its inception it had cost an estimated 16,000 jobs and $4 billion in lost productivity for basin communities.
Her jaw dropped, literally. She said, how is it possible that we have not heard about this? If it happened anywhere else it would be headline news.
“Her question is at the core of the problem facing rural and regional Australia”
Her question is at the core of the problem facing rural and regional Australia. We are losing the battle of public opinion.
Recently, Warren Truss reached an impressive milestone serving 25 years in the Federal Parliament. Mr Truss is the leader of the Nationals Parliamentary Party and by virtue of the Coalition agreement is also the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
Mr Truss should be our loudest and most ardent advocate using his public position and profile to educate the broader community about the real situation facing rural and regional Australians. For many Australians, Mr Truss is just invisible.
“Making a difference politically is about influencing the sentiment of the broader voting public”
For many years I have listened to incumbent party hacks tell me that you need to be part of a major party able to form government to make any real political difference. In fact Bruce Scott said almost exactly this in a television interview a few weeks ago as he dismissed the role of minor parties in the political landscape.
The problem I have is that these men sit in high public office and despite their service rural and regional Australia is enduring a steady and unabated decline. We have seen public policy implemented on their watch that has eroded financial resilience and severely undermined the social fabric of rural Australia.
The reality is that making a difference politically is about influencing the sentiment of the broader voting public. The key to influencing politicians is influencing the people who vote for those politicians. Following this logic, it is critical to be visible to the broader community and to use any public office as a platform to advocate for your constituency.
“Key advocacy for critical rural issues is increasingly emanating from outside the traditional Nationals path”
I am intrigued that key advocacy for critical rural issues is increasingly emanating from outside the traditional Nationals path. For example, Glenn Lazarus has taken a key and keen interest in the impacts of the coal seam gas industry. John Madigan has become one of the few champions of communities buckling under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The work of these two men who now sit as independent crossbenchers in the Federal Senate highlights the inadequacy of the National Party as a genuine advocate for rural and regional people.
The reality is that the National Party is politically compromised by the Coalition so that there is no political will within the Party to fight for and on behalf of there so called constituents. We see it in state and federal attitudes to giving mining precedence over agriculture, and similarly in the way rural communities have been sacrificed in the basin plan.
The problem facing rural Australia is becoming critical. Now more than ever we need people advocating on our behalf at every level of government and community.
We simply can’t afford people who are not absolutely committed to recognising, articulating and resolving the challenges facing our sector occupying public offices.
“Rural and regional communities are always going to be disadvantaged in our political system”
It is true in this instance that people who are not part of the solution to our problems are probably part of our problem. With due respect, I look to likes of Warren Truss and Bruce Scott and in spite of their years of service, I cannot see how they are contributing to the solutions we so desperately need. Furthermore, their extended tenure may well have precluded the participation of others better equipped to deliver the kind of advocacy and leadership our sector needs.
Rural and regional communities are always going to be disadvantaged in our political system by a sheer weight of numbers. We desperately need politicians who can relate to non rural people and advocate passionately and convincingly on our behalf.
There is great sympathy for rural communities, but less understanding of them and we need to bridge this gap to ensure we get better outcomes for our future.