End the city-country mythmaking

We need to spend less time talking about a divide and spend more time telling our stories

RECENTLY the ABC Q&A program featured a ‘City Meets The Bush’ episode. Congratulations to the ABC, the Royal Agricultural Society, Fiona Nash, Joel Fitzgibbon and all the panelists on bringing to life some of the many issues of real significance, particularly to many living in rural, regional and remote Australia.

There’s no doubt that the program had the Twitter feed alive with engagement from people right across Australia. However, there is a lingering assumption that this sort of ‘special’ focus is not of broader interest to urban Australia.

There's no denying the importance of the link between city and bush, and there is certainly no denying they are often framed dichotomously.

But they needn’t be.

So, in terms of these column inches, I'm going to focus on the people of the bush and how a change in our thinking is part of the answer.

Why? Because in my experience, the oft-used (and at times overused) term 'city-country divide' is largely a construct in our minds. We can either perpetuate the myth or seek to understand what's really going on and work together in reaching out to our city cousins in ways that mean something to them.

The city-country divide mantra appears largely based on an assumption that people in cities either don't understand the bush, or, worse still, that they are somehow against 'us'. I fully accept we have a problem when city kids think yoghurt grows on trees, but this represents a lack of understanding rather than a lack of empathy or goodwill towards the country.

In fact, I have previously been involved with reputable studies that demonstrate that there are relatively high levels of empathy from urban Australians towards those living in regional and remote areas.

Taken to the level of specific country towns and the impacts of decisions on families and individuals, such empathy can extend towards real support for the bush. Think the turnaround on issues such as the live export suspension, when stories about impacts on people were aired, or the fact that farmers continue to rate highly among trusted professions.

There are many other sources, from industry bodies to consumer research, through the major supermarkets, that support the general notion of high levels of empathy, general goodwill and, at times, genuine support for the bush and those living outside our cities. This support can be damaged when stories break about poor practices, however, there remains a sound base to build from.

So what is the problem and what do we do about it?

The first thing is to stop saying we have a problem. What we have is a lack of understanding - but general empathy - between city and bush.

The bigger problem is I don't hear enough from people in the bush about trying to better understand their city cousins. In the worst cases there is a sense that the city owes us something, that 'they'd be buggered without us' and that we should 'stop feeding and clothing them and see how they’d feel then'.

This type of thinking will surely spark a divide where one doesn't currently exist and is contra to the type of thinking that will bring us closer together.

Secondly, while the aim should always be a respectful, symbiotic relationship between city and bush, right now I contend that we need them more than they need us.

Most Australians live in cities and as such, so do most votes. We must start by better understanding them, what they value and what means something to them. This gives us a sound starting point for connection and ultimately understanding.

Attempts to bring this knowledge together have fallen flat, which brings me to my third point - if we try to bridge knowledge gaps only through a piece-by-piece, industry-by-industry, community-by-community approach, we will not get there.

We need collective action and collective investment. We are aware of this and know what needs to be done, but have not been able to bridge vested interests. Previous attempts have tried and failed, but these setbacks must be overcome if we are to succeed.

These efforts should be co-ordinated with existing work around embedding agriculture in the national curriculum for schools and ensuring kids learn about the opportunities to live and work in rural, regional and remote Australia.

We need to spend less time talking about a divide and spend more time telling our stories - there are so many ways and mediums through which to do this and platforms such as the social media allow individuals to do real good should they choose to.

If these individuals and groups could connect their stories to a larger collective initiative - heck, why not call it ‘Bush meets City’ - then we will see real movement in bridging the understanding gap and make connections that build the reservoir of goodwill between city and country.

The city-country divide is in our minds. Building meaningful bridges is in our hands.

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Matt Linnegar

Matt Linnegar

is the chief executive of the Australian Rural leadership Foundation
Twitter: @mattlinnegar
Leading questionsAustralian Rural Leadership Foundation CEO Matt Linnegar looks at the issues impacting the ag sector.

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