CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Bush tells Canberra it won't be cajoled
, February 26, 2000
Both the Government and the ALP know the value of the bush vote at the next election. Maintaining support in regional Australia was the reason for Prime Minister Howard's recent whistle-stop tour. It is clear, however, that except for a little policy window-dressing neither party can give the bush what it needs.
Prime Minister John Howard's post-Christmas bush tour appears to have had the exact opposite result than was intended with pollsters recording a dramatic slump in the Coalition Government's standing. Yet the Government remains baffled as to what went wrong.
For the first time, perhaps since World War II, the battleground for the next Federal election will be fought in rural and regional Australia. Only seven Coalition seats have to fall for there to be a change of Government in Canberra. Six out of 10 of Labor's most marginal seats are outside the major capital cities, while eight out of 10 of the Coalition's most marginal seats are in the bush. The National Party is in serious decline and independents and Labor (in theory at least) are capable of picking up a swag of non-city seats.
So it was not surprising to see Mr Howard start the year donning his cockies' hat and pressing the flesh in regional towns and centres. On face value, it appeared to be smart politics to steal the initiative from the Opposition.
After the Victorian and Queensland state elections, Labor believes it has a real chance of winning previously unwinnable seats.
What was surprising was the ineptitude of the trip and Mr Howard's apparent failure to understand the root causes of the resentment in the bush. He also broke the cardinal rule of bush politics treating country people like mugs - not well-informed about current affairs, economics and politics when they are actually better versed in these areas than the average city voter.
Mr Howard's first mistake was to promise no further government cuts to services - which was simply rattling a stick in a hornet's nest. Like another famous promise to eliminate child poverty it will be impossible to keep. Governments simply cannot keep agencies and services in towns which have no people.
But the claim also begged the questions: why did the bush have to be singled out for cuts in the first place? What had prompted a sudden cut-off point apart from a desire for votes? And why can't some services be restored?
Everyone in declining rural towns also knows that the reasons for dying towns are deeper and more complicated.
Once a bank, hospital, school, Post Office, Telstra depot, or stock and station agency is closed, jobs and families are lost and this puts added pressure on the viability of other private and government employers in the community.
The causes of the decline of rural Australia are extremely complex and involve such diverse factors as changes to technology to falling commodity prices, demographics, and Australia's love affair with the coastline, to the desire of young people to live in the cities.
The closure of bank branches, for example, is partly a result of changes in technology which enable people to bank where they like.
Also, to be fair, not everyone in the bush is doing it tough with some larger centres thriving at the same time small towns are in terminal decline; some rural industries are doing well while others are being scorched.
However, many of the problems being faced by the bush are caused directly by governments, and a cascading effect of the past two decades of dubious economic policies. Competition policy
To take one important example - the great dogma of National Competition Policy has done very little for country people. For instance:
Council road contracts which once went to local businesses employing local people and services now go to national city-based companies who can undercut locals and import short-term labor.
Deregulated electricity is more unreliable the further from the city you are with more black-outs and brown-outs.
Competition among phone companies is not going to happen in the bush because there is no financial benefit to run phone lines into isolated and thinly-populated areas.
Country people are therefore virtually stuck with Telstra.
Conveyancing companies (introduced to make solicitors more competitive) also have not found it worthwhile to set up in the bush so fees can still cost country people hundreds of dollars more than in the city.
Mr Howard's second big mistake was to hold up the sale of Telstra as the ransom note for more help for the bush. Last year's New South Wales election result proved beyond doubt that, in spite of the biggest electoral bribe in history, voters did not want their electricity industry sold off.
Similarly, private and public polling suggests that rural voters believe hanging on to majority ownership of Telstra is their only hope of extracting a fair deal out of the telecommunications giant.
After missing out on most of the benefits of the boom, they believe they deserve special treatment anyway without selling off more of the farm.
They are not interested in whether or not Telstra is commercially 'free' enough to pursue internet companies or to take part in exciting global 'dot.com' possibilities.
Put simply, they don't buy the Prime Minister's argument.
The National Party promised country people for 13 years things would be different if they got rid of Labor.
They have, things are worse.
The pace of change and the effects of government policies are accelerating. Mr Howard has two choices - either level with country people and massage the change, or begin a radical policy rethink.