EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
A new deal for rural Australia?
, September 4, 2010
At the time of writing, the final makeup of the next Parliament was unclear, as the allocation of the last House of Representatives seats was being determined by postal votes, and the distribution in the Senate was still to be made.
What is clear, however, is that Tony Abbott, leader of the Coalition parties, has secured a stunning reversal by bringing the Coalition back from the brink of irrelevance nine months ago, to the point where it has come close to achieving the near impossible, defeat of a one-term government.
What makes Abbott's achievement more remarkable is that he had to overcome the unvarnished hostility of much of the media because he is a social conservative, a Catholic, and is sceptical of the free-market fundamentalism which has become the received economic orthodoxy of our times.
He also undermined Labor's political fortunes, even at a time when Australia's economy has continued to grow through the global financial crisis (GFC), an economic outcome that Julia Gillard has claimed as Labor's greatest achievement in government.
What happened? Many Australian voters were disillusioned with Labor's extravagant waste and incompetence in administering big-spending schemes designed to avert the recession. They feared that Labor had pushed the Commonwealth Government deep into debt, from which it will take years to recover.
Labor also lost ground by embracing a costly emissions trading scheme (ETS) to address climate change, which former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described as "the greatest moral issue of our time". Last December, Rudd took over 100 staffers to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, which was a complete failure.
Rudd later abandoned the ETS altogether when Tony Abbott united the Opposition parties against it. Those who supported the ETS switched from Labor to the Greens, further eroding support for the Labor Government.
Additionally, there was widespread opposition, first to Rudd's 40 per cent resources super-profits tax (RSPT), and then even to Gillard's compromise 30 per cent mineral resources rent tax (MRRT). Either tax, by taxing coal and petroleum, would substantially increase fuel and electricity costs, flowing into the whole range of household goods, including necessities such as food and milk.
And finally, the toppling of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd by his colleagues last June eroded support for Labor in Rudd's home state, Queensland, which had been central to his 2007 election victory.
With the major parties having approximately equal numbers in the lower house, it was clear that the next government would be determined by Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, rural Independents from Queensland and New South Wales, and Tony Crook, an elected National Party member from rural Western Australia who has announced that he will be sitting on the cross-benches.
These four men will have the responsibility to determine which party will have a working majority in the House of Representatives in order to form government.
The leaders of the major parties are now courting their support. For the first time in years, the Coalition and Labor - which have been almost completely preoccupied with winning votes in the large cities where the majority of Australians now live - have turned their attention to rural Australia.
People living in rural Australia have paid the price for Australia's prosperity over the past 30 years.
In order to provide cheaper consumer goods, successive governments have maintained Australia's currency at levels which encourage imports and discourage exports, pushing many of our highly efficient primary industries to the brink of collapse. Supermarket shelves are now dominated by cheap food imported from abroad.
Trade policy has dictated the deregulation of most of Australia's agriculture, leading to collapsing prices for primary producers and increased foreign ownership of agribusiness.
To buy green votes in the cities, no major new reservoirs or dams have been built anywhere in Australia over the past 30 years, despite the rapidly growing populations in the cities. When drought struck, many of Australia's irrigation industries were crippled by inadequate water to keep plants and animals alive, or faced water bills which pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy.
Farmers are now severely circumscribed by how they can use their land. The timber industry has been crippled by restrictions on forestry, while large tracts of Australia's eucalypt forests revert to wilderness, making them tinder-boxes in the dry Australian summers, producing wildfires like that which killed over 170 people in February 2009.
The rural Independents have taken a stand against this, and are demanding equal treatment for those Australians living outside our capital cities. They passionately want a reversal of policies which have made the family farm unviable, leading to the depopulation of much of rural Australia and the growth of mega-cities in southern Australia.
The outcome of this struggle may determine the future of Australia for many years to come.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.