OPINION: WHEN Young Liberal National Party immediate past-president Ben Riley was suspended from his party for six months for purloining a pair of display RM Williams boots after a boozy convention last week, the incident had more significance than first appeared.
It's part of a sartorial puzzle that echoes Australia's own confused nation-image and the uncertainty over our economic future.
Why is it real farmers wear $40 boots from Rivers, and conservative politicians and fund managers wear $450 RM Williams boots?
With the purchase of RM Williams by luxury brand Louis Vuitton earlier this year, it seems the days of wholesome, well-shod young farmers are over.
For those who missed it, here's a summary of the incident. High-spirited Ben Riley, a rising LNP star, "borrowed" a pair of oversize RM Williams boots at a swish LNP do in Brisbane last week, slopped beer on them, then in deepest remorse, offered to pay for the battered boots the next day.
The LNP executive was not impressed and suspended the poor bloke from the party for six months.
A bit harsh, you say?
When you are crutching a sheep or standing at the trough at a B&S, you've got to be ruthless about footwear.
According to our rural fashion source, there are many ways you can pick a hobby farmer from the increasingly endangered "real farmer".
First, real farmers buy their check shirts from Rivers for $19.95 because they are cheap and tough, despite being made in Bangladesh.
A real farmer only wears an Akubra on good occasions because they are as hot as buggery in summer.
Real farmers offload their dud kelpies on "tree changers" as quickly as possible before the failed cattle dog disrupts the working dogs. And some real farmers prefer a fleet of VW Amarok utes to Toyota Land Cruisers which are "too big, too heavy and too bloody expensive", according to our source.
So if you see someone dressed in RM Williams, wearing an Akubra, driving a Range Rover with a demented kelpie hanging out the window, it's either a faux farmer or a politician.
"Bootgate" has turned the spotlight on the widening gap between the city and the country. The University of New England held a conference in May, with a session called "If food is so sexy, why isn't anyone growing it", which revealed the dire future for the farming sector, in which the average age of a primary producer is 51, and less than 10 per cent of existing properties are expected to be passed on within the family.
Some agricultural insiders say finding farm labourers is almost impossible, while there are 8000 positions for agriculture graduates when fewer than 800 agriculture students graduated last year.
Some employers are so desperate for bright young farm managers they will offer packages of more than $70,000 a year to graduates.
Justin Bell, a 64-year-old farmer, runs a successful beef genetics business with 35 research and development staff, whose skills range from pathology to commercial law to dealing with beef semen and embryo exports.
The business is going so well Bell was able to pay each of his staff a share of the profits last year. Now that's a sexy business.
As with many agribusinesses, the real money seems to be in the technology and the intellectual property, so farmers are now looking to employ scientists and geneticists, not just jackaroos and labourers to fix fences.
But Bell's adult children have gone on to their own careers, and he has gone outside the family to appoint a female chief executive for the cattle operations and a managing director for the day-to-day operations.
It's a reminder of the bright young country people who leave the family farm forever for the bright lights of Brisbane, Sydney or Hong Kong to become financial advisers while their ageing parents lie awake at night wondering who will take over the family business.
For policymakers on the cusp of election day, Bootgate should be a wake-up call. The next generation of young farmers needs to see it is financially worthwhile to stay on the farm, so that they too can don a pair of RM Williams Comfort Craftsman boots with yearling upper leathers (RRP $425).