Gabrielle Chan is a writer for the Guardian who used to maintain the live political blog reporting the daily happenings in the Australian parliament.
In her book Rusted Off, she looks at the way Australian politics affects the people of her community, and by extension other country communities within Australia.
City based politics easily overlooks or misunderstands the needs of regional areas in communities that have a different life experience to the larger (majority) populations of the major cities.
As someone who moved to a country town about 12 years ago, I’ve seen both sides of the picture and from the moment I heard about this book I was interested in reading what Chan had to say. She also moved from city to country, but about a decade before my move, and as a political correspondent reporting directly from parliament, her personal and work experience give her a broad insight into the political process and it’s relationship with rural Australia.
My desire to read her book increased when I found out she lives on a farm outside the small country town(s) of Harden-Murrumburrah in Western New South Wales.
It’s a place I know quite well. I drive through it regularly and I’ve stopped off on many occasions for coffee, to view it’s Australian Light Horse Memorials, and to look through the shelves of a second hand book shop (now unfortunately closed).
One particular issue that hit a personal chord of recognition related to the availability of opportunity. It’s not something restricted to regional Australia, but away from cities the logistical practicalities prevent many opportunities from being accessible. For example, in a country High School with a senior year of 10 or less students, there won’t be the same subject options available to a city school with a final year of 100.
That restriction of opportunity isn’t then limited to the practical. Chan writes of a family’s support for their son. They did what they could to aid his success, but
“They had no lived experience of what he would be facing, or the opportunities that may present, so while they were proud, they didn’t know what to do with it. ‘It’s very hard to have aspirations for your child if you yourself don’t know that part of the world'”.
That is something I can relate to myself. My family was shaped by a background of mining in a semi-rural area of England. While we moved to an Australian city just as I entered my teens, that family experience and background continued to have its effect. No one in my wider family had ever been to university, and possibly because of that the idea of further study after High School was never considered. Instead the goal was to get a job, find a wife, have a family, and repeat the path taken by my parents, grand parents, and aunts and uncles. There was no thought of “career paths” or aiming for work that meant more than merely earning a livable wage to buy a house and support a wife and kids.
It was a decade or so later, after that family dream hadn’t worked out as planned, that the possibility of other opportunities arose and I eventually thought of University, an option that was more viable at the time because I lived in a city with a significant University presence (and it’s major employer at the time).
But what about those communities that don’t have such easy access to a University Campus where tertiary education requires moving away from home and family?
Chan addresses many other issues differentiating country from city and that seeing those differences through ill-informed stereotypes is counterproductive.
A case in point is perceiving country people as one particular type, overlooking the variety of people groups that make up a regional community; that not everyone’s concerns and interests are the same. Country communities are made up of people across a wide spectrum, including wealthy (and not so wealthy) landowners, business people, labourers, tradies, and the unemployed. The question is, to what extent does the political system give representation to that wide cross section of people.
She writes of a “neglected class”, a group she identifies as comprising of:
the people who service the farms, look after the very young and the very old, keep the schools going, keep the hospitals running, do the council work (in the streets as opposed to sitting as councillors), stock the supermarket shelves. The neglected class are the very foundation of country towns, and you don’t hear about them from most rural MPs.
The neglected class feel they have no sway over governments or politicians, and they feel inadequately represented by the media…
… if you consider the agenda of the major parties, the neglected class are mostly disregarded…
The neglected class are breaking away from the majors because they feel taken for granted by the conservatives and ignored by Labor.
I regularly follow the political commentary on the Guardian news website, and there are common reader comments criticising farmers and country residents for voting in National Party MPs who represent a party that has often supported policies and philosophies (eg climate change denial) contrary to the interests of rural areas.
However as a resident of a country town I recognise the dilemma faced when voting.
Do you vote for the known, respected, local person standing for a party that is not as representative as it ought to be?
Or do you vote for an unknown candidate about whom you know nothing, put forward as a token representative with little publicity, representing a party who ought to be a better political fit?
The option increasingly taken is to look elsewhere, and the outcome is an increased vote for independents and minor parties, as seen in recent State by-elections.