August 25th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Cloning: time for PM to take a stand

LAW: AFA joins High Court action over IVF

CANBERRA OBSERVED: 2001 Census: strange role of Bureau of Statistics

National Affairs: New business and agriculture lobby launched (FABA)

Agriculture: Apple import decision to be reviewed

Straws in the Wind

Trade: Minister's equanimity as US lamb exports get the chop

Government is committed to manufacturing: Senator Minchin

Historical Feature: Rural movement has message for today

Comment: Bendigo puts the 'bank' back into rural and regional Australia

Health: The bottom line and medical ethics clash

MEDIA: Vanishing trick; Abbott: the latest round

BOOKS: 'PC, MD' by Sally Satel - Political correctness in the medical profession

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Historical Feature: Rural movement has message for today

by Richard Doig

News Weekly, August 25, 2001
In researching the history of the old National Catholic Rural Movement, Richard Doig discovered an organisation that presaged many developments in agriculture and whose guiding philosophy on economics and rural life still has relevance today.

The National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) has long since faded from public view and for most is probably only remembered for its connection with B. A. Santamaria (its founding National Secretary). Yet between WWII and the mid-1950s, the NCRM occupied a significant place in Australian society and in the history of social movements generally, achieving great controversy at the time of the Labor Party split in 1954-56.

Founded by the Australian Catholic bishops as a branch of Catholic Action in 1939, it had spread rapidly to include every Australian state and a financial membership of some four to five thousand. Although it has since come to an organisational end, the movement's message remains relevant today.

For some 200 years the Church had been locked in a life and death struggle with the thought of the Enlightenment. Throughout the 18th Century Europe had experienced a general decline in faith whilst thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau articulated a new philosophy which rejected Christianity and argued the supremacy of the rights of the individual. They assumed the intrinsic goodness of Man whilst rejecting the idea of original sin and formal religion.

Although referred to more generally as the "Enlightenment", the movement could be more accurately described as individualism. It resulted in two revolutions which altered the social, political, religious and economic landscape of the West.

The first and most dramatic was the French. The other, just as far-reaching, involved the application of individualism to economics. It saw the rise of a new system of economic thought known as laissez-faire, or what we in Australia refer to as economic rationalism.

People came to be regarded as mere units of production to be used for the individual's private gain free from restraint. Old systems which had protected the weak were abandoned and attempts to resurrect them were met with imprisonment and exile. Laissez-faire's bitter harvest was found in the slums and labour conditions portrayed in Dickens' famous novels.

Ozanam, von Ketteler, Windthorst, Ripon, Manning and scores of others sought to develop and apply Christian social principles to the economic system, and in so doing, created the great Catholic social movement.

By the end of the 19th Century many of the initiatives that had improved the lot of workers (regulation, co-operatives, social insurance, etc.) can be largely attributed to the work of this movement. Its ideas were finally recognised by the release of the papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.

With the industrial revolution, people were wrenched from their traditional communities. Socially atomised they were shaped by the individualism and consumerism of urban capitalist society.

To counter this, Catholics were called upon to use their individual and organised efforts to change the social institutions and culture of modern civilisation.

Catholics responded world-wide. A multitude of movements arose in Europe such as the Boerenbond, and Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOCs or YCW). America saw, among others, the rise of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and the Catholic Worker and Antigonish movements. In French Canada, the Canadiennes commenced the project to counter the individualist and industrial culture of Anglo-Saxon America.

In Australia, Catholic Action had to wait until various influences converged to stimulate an intellectual awakening in the 1930s. The shattered confidence of many in the wake of World War One, the rise of Communism, the collapse of Wall Street, and the onset of the Great Depression convinced young Catholic minds of the crisis facing Western civilisation. Pope Pius XI's repeated calls for Catholic Action and his great social encyclical of 1931, Quadragesimo Anno, demanded some kind of action.

In Adelaide, Paul McGuire (a novelist and future adviser to Prime Minister Menzies) together with other students founded the Adelaide Catholic Social Studies Guild. The guild spoke to large crowds trying to spread its message among non-Catholics especially.

Most importantly for the future of Australian Catholicism was the foundation of the Campion Society in Melbourne 1931. Gathered around the self-effacing Jesuit Fr Hackett were young men such as Frank Maher, Denys Jackson, and B.A. Santamaria. In time, the group would spread to include others such as Ray Triado, Ted Hennessy and the famous war cinematographer, Damien Parer. Their reading lists included the papal encyclicals, Maritain, Belloc, Chesterton, Hollis, Keynes, Fanfani, Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker, and the work of the American John Ryan and the Southern Agrarians.

Together, these students and young graduates discovered a "new consciousness". All had been touched in some way by the crises of the 20th Century ( McGuire had lost four brothers in World War I) and the Great Depression was impacting deeply. Australia had been forced to accept the humiliating Premier's Plan which called for the balancing of budgets so as to maintain debt repayments to the United Kingdom. In plain terms it meant widespread unemployment and the reduction of pay and social services.

In their search for an improved social order, Campions turned to the works of the contemporary intellectual revival. They concluded that whilst their threat was real, the totalitarian ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism should be seen as reactions to the evils of capitalism. If they were to be avoided, then the root cause - individualism and its incarnation, industrial capitalism - had to be challenged.

The Campion response was influenced by the English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) who contended that the West faced a crisis in which the ideals of democracy, progress, humanism and Christianity were at stake.

He attributed the crisis to the rise of individualism, which had replaced the religious principle in the personal, economic and national spheres. By nature, it could not provide a unifying principle for the West as it entailed the creation of an economic view of life which regarded money as the equivalent of satisfaction. That is, all life was subordinated to the principles of mass production and the pursuit of wealth both individually and nationally.

Dawson's work suggested that for any civilisation to survive it must maintain its relationship with two sources. "Every culture," he said, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual."

Dawson's ideas found a resonance with many intellectuals throughout the Western world, including non-Catholics. There arose back-to the land movements which sought to reject modern materialism and the capitalism that had so obviously failed.

America especially, developed a strong school of agrarian thought. In 1930 at the onset of the Depression, a number of writers from the Old South released I'll Take My Stand. It amounted to a powerful indictment of the capitalist system and spawned a growing body of agrarian thinkers. Whilst there were disagreements, they were essentially agreed on two points:

  • Economics had to be subjected to morality.
  • Rural life which emphasised man's contact with nature and the primacy of family, moral, and cultural values whilst not materially better, was definitely spiritually higher than that of industrialism.

The contributors to I'll Take My Stand were joined by more specifically Catholic organisations such as the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day and Pierre Maurin, which sought through the creation of rural communes to establish a new Christian civilisation. On a more conventional level, there was the work of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in the United States, which sought through co-operation with President Roosevelt and the New Deal to remake America in a rural image.

Catholic agrarians were in the forefront of rural reform - advocating organic farming, the application of conservation techniques and the regulation of prices and production to bring the long rural depression to an end. Their programs advocated decentralisation and the spread of electrification to enable people to settle on the land with cultural and physical amenities.

Central to this was the principle of the "independent farm" which taught that the family on the land should be as self-sufficient as possible. It made a clear distinction between agribusiness which produced as a commercial enterprise for the market and farming for independence.

Whilst it did not advocate the end of commercial farming, it did point out that its reliance on overseas markets and its tendency to overproduction and destruction of the soil in the interests of economies of production made it an unfit basis for rural settlement.

The foundation of the NCRM

The Campion movement had been in close contact with American thought from as early as 1931. The decision by the Australian Catholic bishops in 1937 to establish a National Secretariat for Catholic Action gave an opportunity to apply these principles to Australian conditions.

In studying the rural problem in Australia, B.A. Santamaria reached conclusions identical with those of Dawson and America thinkers.

Firstly, there was the question of population: the major cities were consuming the human capital of the regional areas. With a birth rate only one-third of many rural areas; Sydney was not replacing itself.

Secondly, it was obvious that rural and regional Australia was in crisis. The 1935 Royal Commission into the Wheat Industry revealed that the total debt of wheat growers was £151,000,000 whilst their total assets were valued at only £136,000,000. Unable to leave their farms, many families had become, in effect, serfs.

Various experts claimed that the root causes of the crisis lay in inefficient farming or the unsuitability of the Australian climate.

Professor Sam Wadham of Melbourne University and the major trading banks argued for larger holdings and greater efficiency of production.

For others, such as Paul McGuire, the real problem was not physical but philosophical. They argued that the disintegration of rural life in Australia "was endemic in the foundation of Australian agriculture". The problem was commercial farming which "regarded the soil as something to be used, exploited for a money return from which the necessities of living might be purchased".

Obsession with the need to export had led to a vicious cycle of increasing production and falling returns - culminating in the disastrous bumper harvest of 1931 which bankrupted many farmers. That system had sacrificed the small holder and had damaged the soil's natural fertility. The need for immediate survival in a climate of overproduction precluded any long term planning or conservation.


Santamaria argued that the question must be tackled on both individual and social levels.

In a startlingly bold policy, the NCRM argued from as early as 1940 that Australia's future lay not with the Britain but in Asia. It pleaded for expanded immigration and an end to the White Australia policy. Critics claimed that the NCRM desired a return to medieval society. It answered this by saying:

"No one who stands for rural revival is proposing to set up anything resembling the peasantry of past ages, or that existing in Europe today. The way of life which we desire to see grow up in our own countryside is thoroughly modern. This does not involve the rejection of any of the real benefits of the machine or of modern science, but simply a practical recognition that the only sane object of man's instruments is the achievement of the ‘good life'."

The first objective was to create a mental revolution in the farming home - to imbue family members with a sense of the dignity of their work and a sense of how to improve their situation.

In the minds of its leaders, the NCRM should apply the three central tenets of Catholic Action: see, judge and act. The crisis called for realistic solutions.

Its various initiatives included the promotion of co-operatives, independent farming, dissemination of conservation and organic farming, spread and encouragement of rural culture and the revival of the rural home.

The response of the Catholic farming population was immediate. For years they had been told to increase production in spite of this having led to increasing poverty and the depopulation of farming areas. Added to this was their betrayal at the hands of various political representatives as happened when two Country Party senators from Western Australia had voted against the Scullin Wheat Bill in 1931 (the Bill had promised to deliver good wheat prices for the first time in many years).

The NCRM grew quickly especially in the wheat/sheep belt of NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

After only three years of operation the NCRM was being hailed in American publications as the most perfect form of Catholic Action in the world and was highly regarded for its practicality and level of participation.

In addition to the publication of works such as The Earth Our Mother, the newspaper Rural Life and numerous other works, the NCRM pioneered much of the early credit union movement in Victoria and promoted the co-operative ideal in machinery and purchasing pools. One such initiative - the "calf scheme" - assisted numerous families in their efforts to settle on the land and eventually provided the inspiration for a similar program in the Philippines.

Conservation and diversified farming were also important features and members did much to promote the "keyline method" of sustainable farming.

In other ways, the NCRM attempted to influence the major decisions of the day. It tried desperately to persuade the Rural Reconstruction Commission to recommend its ideas on rural development to the Australian Government.

It promoted large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Snowy River Scheme and irrigation to enable decentralisation and further rural development. Members also played key roles in lobby groups such as the Murray Valley Development League and the Free State movements.

The NCRM failed to win the debate at the Rural Reconstruction Commission. The Commission's head, Professor Wadham, was far too wedded to the principles of laissez-faire to listen to the NCRM. But if the NCRM failed in its submission, so did Wadham himself. Whilst the Chifley Government rejected the NCRM's plan for a rural Australia (choosing instead, increasing industrialisation and urbanisation), it also condemned Wadham's plan which would have seen the continuation of many of the principles that had led to the Great Depression.

The decision by the Chifley Government to shift the focus to industrialisation rather than decentralisation and ‘ruralisation' meant that the NCRM faced an uphill battle in any attempt to influence national policy after the war. Whilst Santamaria saw with the apparent defeat of Communism in the trade union movement in 1949, fresh opportunities to influence government, the Labor Party split in the 1950s ended these.

Ultimately the rural movement went into decline. The increasing affluence of post-war years led to a decline in social idealism. More importantly, the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s saw the resurgence of individualism.

Yet today, the rural movement's message is particularly opportune. Social and cultural disintegration is now far more advanced than the 1930s. In spite of Mr John Anderson's recent claims of ‘beautiful figures', there is little correlation between the fate of rural communities and the graphs showing increased production or sales.

The rural exodus continues, as does the cultural and social impoverishment of those areas unable to share in the prosperity of the "new economy".

In the end, the NCRM's major message is that the answers are not to be found in balance sheets or simply increased efficiencies of production.

Cultural and national survival will only come with the rejection of individualism and the re-organisation of social, and economic life according to moral principles.

This is an edited version of Richard Doig's keynote address to the Thomas More Centre Winter School held in Ballarat on 4-5 August 2001

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