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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Farmers can engage meaningfully with urban elites

Farmers often express regret that their interests are not given sufficient weight in urban electorates and feel left out of the national debate. You see it especially, now, on Twitter. If you didn't see it before it's probably because you're a resident of a metropolitan area and you don't read any of the newspapers that are written for - and purchased by - farmers. Those newspapers tell you a story. But even if you did read them you might be unnerved by some of the opinions they contain. Newspapers are not objective, that's an unarguable fact of modern life (it used to be worse but changes in standards that took place initially at the beginning of the 20th century made objectivity an aspiration - if not always a reality - of the news process). If you are an educated urban dweller and you read a paper online like The Land or the Weekly Times, you will come away feeling as though your interests, too, are being ignored. But you won't care because those views do not substantially alter the national debate, so you just go back to bemoaning the dominance of ignorant News Limited tabloids and ignore the virulent hatred of the Labor Party, for example, reflected in the pages of the rural press.

But the only hope for farmers, if they want to exercise more control over the national debate, is to engage with such educated urban residents. Even if these people vote Green or Labor. The uneducated urban resident will never give a hoot what farmers think - they are too busy worrying about their favourite football team. The Liberal urban voter thinks he doesn't have to worry about farmers because farmers overwhelmingly vote National and the Nats are slaves to Liberal policies. But in fact the outlook for farmers, politically speaking, has never been better than it is, now, with a minority Labor government that is beholden to the three rural independents, the Greens, and a Tasmanian independent.

A good place to start working out how farmers can better get along with the Greens and the Labor Party is to read Judith Brett's recent Quarterly Essay, 'Fair Share: Country and City in Australia'. It tells us, from the standpoint of an Australian historian, how the dependence of farmers on government largesse has become overshadowed by the more recent dependence of the National Party on the largesse of the Liberals. Under the Lib-Nat regime, farmers have actually gotten worse off because the neo-liberal imperative that drives the Liberal Party goes against farmers' most basic interests. It's a big country and user-pays can never work, mate. Those Lib wonks are all about opening up markets, productivity, and improving profits. It's got nothing to do with giving farmers a fair go. And the fact that we've got such popular rural independents demonstrates that many who are involved in rural politics realise that the Lib-Nat structure does not reflect rural interests, in a material sense.

Culturally, it's another issue altogether. I remember when the ABC's Q and A was held in Albury, the border town in northern Victoria. There was a middle-aged woman in the audience who stood up to pose a question. When, she asked, will the seabord urban majority stop imposing its values on rural Australia? I don't remember the answer but it struck me that this is how many rural residents must see the current situation. Socially, rural residents are conservative, and hence their support of the Lib-Nat alliance. Economically, however, they are closer to the Labor-Greens side of politics. They want conservative social values to dominate in the societal arena but they need softer, more communitarian values to dominate in the economic arena. It's a pickle.

On the one hand, rural voters need to attract the attention of the educated urbanite because he or she is the only urban dweller who will put aside time to give a fart about their issues. On the other, rural residents are wedded to conservative social values embodied in the policies and statements of the Lib-Nat alliance, which are anathema to the educated urban dweller. I think that rural residents need to think about what they really want from the political process. It might be time to make a choice between earning a good living and remaining faithful to outmoded values that are going to be overtaken by liberal urban values regardless.

There are many points of common interest for farmers and urban elites. One is carbon pricing. Instead of just sucking up the garbage produced by rural newspapers who are relentlessly anti carbon pricing, farmers should ask for more information and start entering into the debate in a meaningful way. The educated urban elites will start to pay attention if farmers start talking sense instead of just recycling tired objections. Another point of common interest is the dominance of the two major supermarket chains. Urban elites are passionate about authenticity and many of them grow veges in their backyards. They buy honey from urban beekeepers and think it's manna from heaven. They care about the environment but they also need to eat food and farmers' markets are catering to these people in growing numbers in cities around Australia. So what about talking to them about soft agricultural options that farmers take seriously because they are serious about stewardship of their main asset - their land? It's an option. And then urban elites love road trips - especially when there are music festivals attached to the end of them - and when they get out into the countryside they're the ones stopping to buy five-kilo sacks of off-farm potatoes to take back to their inner city apartments where they will talk about the value, the freshness, and the friendly farmer who sold it to them.

There are many options for farmers who want to engage more thoroughly with urban dwellers.

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