Comment to Quarterly Essay 42: Fair Share – Country and City in Australia

by ericknight

In the last Quarterly Essay, the Australian historian Judith Brett took on the topic of our country’s regional politics. Her essay was called Fair Share: Country and City in Australia. It was a well written narrative, describing the changing geography of the Australian economy from life off the sheep’s back to a set of urban metropolises.

I wrote a comment to her essay, which was published in the current Quarterly Essay by Robert Manne. In the comment, I raise two points. One: Brett’s essay is tinged with nostalgia for a time when bank managers ran country towns and were the patrons of their local golf clubs. Now, she says, economic rationalization means that local country communities have been replaced by the cold, hard parsimony of ATM machines.

I am close to Brett’s sentimental attachment to country life. My grandfather and great –grandfather were both bank managers at the Commonwealth Bank. But her essay begs a question: would we be better off with a world without ATM machines? Brett blames economic rationalization, but when is this just progress. Getting the measure of this difference is important if we are to find the right way forward.

My second point is that Brett misses the full measure of what’s happening in regional Australia. True, country towns are fading. But the regions are being lit up by another kind of politics: mining. Far from being dead, regional politics is rapidly changing from agrarian power to mining power.

There are important implications which flow from this, not least the responsibility which mining conglomerates owe to local communities. This politics underpins a number of headline issues:  Chinese foreign ownership of regional mines, the encroachment of mining tenements on to prime agricultural land, amongst others. These debates can be dressed up as xenophobia, food security, or protectionism. In the end, though, I think they represent an uncertainty in the electorate with the rapid changes afoot in the economy.

To read more of my comment, buy at copy of the Quarterly Essay, subscribe online here, or get in touch with me.

I have included an extract of the opening below:

Comment by Eric Knight to Quarterly Essay #42

 In 2006, I visited a little indigenous region called Utopia on the edge of the Central Desert, NT. I hadn’t travelled to Australia’s center before but there, as I looked out on what stretched as far as the eye could see, I began to realize how empty our land really is. Utopia was desperately poor. Dogs scratched around the township looking for food, and old ladies lay in the shade of concrete dugouts to shield themselves from the sun. There was a corner shop, a few houses, and a dusty sports field. Had Utopia once been paradise? Or was it named with the hope that one day its fortunes would change? I don’t know the answer, but I did know the problem with Utopia: it was geography.

            At the time I had just finished reading Momahad Yunus’s Banker to the poor. The Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Laureate had found a way to alleviate his people from poverty by offering them microfinance. Yunus’ scheme worked because Bangladeshis were poor for lack of credit. Before his Grameen Bank, the only resources they had to start a business were what they found in their pockets. The inability to borrow condemned them to poverty, and Yunus’ intervention broke this cycle of poverty.

            As I travelled across the Northern Territory (I was there to help the Central Land Council negotiate pastoral leases), I was less sure that microfinance would work in regional Australia. Distance was our tyranny, not lack of credit. It would take hours to travel between these communities – Yuendumu, Ali Carung, Tennant Creek. Sometimes we would fly by plane, other times we would drive and camp out in a swag overnight. This was cattle country, and local people were held in employment by a piece of paper bounding the pastoralist to his local workers. Without the cattle trade, these places were lost. But with microfinance, these places were not necessarily made better.

            Fair Share: country and city in Australia forces us to confront an important reality: not all of Australia is equal. No matter how industrious we are, or how resilient, nature prevents some communities from being self-sustaining. The afflicted communities change over time: sometimes they are driven to the brink by drought and flood, other times by the flow of economic history. Brett’s essay focuses on the latter. She returns to the great promise of federation – a nation for a continent – and inspires us to our own Manifest Destiny. Her essay reflects two deep traditions within Australian political consciousness. One is conservative – the instinct to nurture local communities and protect what we have etched through history. The other is liberal – the desire to give these communities the skills and resources they need to live the life they value.

            But, at times, Brett takes these two traditions and arrives at strange, almost romantic, conclusions. At the end, she advocates for subsidizing the country and mounts a number of justifications for why – food security, aesthetic pleasure, and nation-building. “The nation needs to confront the possibility that rural and regional Australia might always need a fair degree of subsidization,” she writes “that it will always be more expensive to deliver services to many parts of the Australia than to the city….and that we do all need to share the cost”.

            These are all excellent reasons for why we must do something. But whether the answer is simply to subsidies the country, I am less sure. There is much to consider here. Perhaps I am wrong on microfinance and it would be a good option. Others have argued that we must rescue the best and brightest of regional Australia and send them to metropolitan schools on scholarships. This might create a generation of people like Charlie Perkins, but perhaps it does not solve the problem of those who are left behind.

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