NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Rural Australia, heartland of the nation
, June 9, 2012
Most Australians have their lives narrowly defined by the five conurbations on the coast, but most of the nation’s wealth is created by the one-third of the population that lives in the bush.
And, as WA Nationals’ leader Brendon Grylls has shown with his Royalties for Regions policy, discontent in the bush can be electoral dynamite.
The Nationals’ Royalties for Regions scheme earmarks 25 per cent of WA’s income from mining and petroleum royalties for use in regions outside of WA’s major centres, in particular Perth.
The Royalties for Regions scheme was the price the Nationals extracted for supporting the Liberal government led by Colin Barnett. It has proved to be a runaway success, and has almost single-handedly rescued the WA Nationals from electoral oblivion. When the bush asserts itself, it can have a powerful political voice.
According to recent polling released by Roy Morgan Research in its presentation, State of the Nation — Focus on Rural Australia (May 18, 2012), rural people tend to be more conservative in their social values and take social values more seriously than urban populations.
In response to the statement, “Homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children”, 55.2 per cent of urban people agreed, while 47.8 per cent of rural respondents agreed — a gap of more than 7 per cent. Similar results were found on other issues. Country people are consistently more conservative.
Due to the nature of country towns, actions which might have a relatively minor effect on a city the size of Melbourne or Brisbane can have a devastating impact on a country town.
Take technical and further education, for example. A TAFE college is a business. The director has to balance the books.
A TAFE college not only employs lecturers, but also educates students who will add to the skill level of the local economy. It also employs subcontractors and suppliers, from cleaners and maintenance personnel to suppliers of textbooks and other course requirements. A TAFE college is an institution that generates a lot business activity in a country town, far beyond its educational mission.
Educational institutions can also hold young people in rural areas. Many young people leave rural areas to seek better employment or education. According to Census data, both young people under 20 and older people over 50 are over-represented in the rural population.
Young people tend to leave for the educational and employment opportunities that are available in the cities and return to the country later in life. The trend to leave when young and to return when old accelerated between 2001 and 2006.
Rural areas tend to be populated far more by “old Aussies” than are urban areas. Just on 84 per cent of people in rural areas were born in Australia, compared to 63 per cent in cities. Just over 2 per cent of the population in rural areas was born in Asia, compared to 14 per cent in the cities. Similar, though smaller, imbalances existed for people born in the UK and Ireland, Europe and New Zealand.
One thing that city and country folk agree on is that foreign ownership of farmland is undesirable. Some 74 per cent of respondents in both rural and urban areas say foreign ownership of farmland is not good for Australia. This has the potential to become a very big issue.
Foreign ownership of farmland is the number one political issue in New Zealand. New Zealand has about the same area and population as Victoria and is much more dependent on agriculture, in particular dairying, than is Australia.
There is no easy way to tell what percentage of farmland is owned by foreigners. One educated guess — and that is all it is — is that foreign interests own 11 per cent of Australia’s farmland. To keep track of just who owns what, it has been mooted that Australia should maintain a register of foreign-owned land, but so far nothing has resulted.
China, in particular, is pushing hard for improved access to Australian land and businesses. The current Australia-China free-trade talks are stuck on the issue of access to these by Chinese state-owned companies. China has demanded that Australia treat Chinese government-owned companies the same as private ones.
“We bought fortune to the Australians,” Chinese Academy of International Trade and Cooperation researcher Mei Xinyu said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review (May 24, 2012): “However, they treat us like an enemy. The investment environment in Australia is not good at all.
“It is not good for Australia to have so many restrictions on mining investment. They will change their attitude after a big drop in foreign investment.
“We shouldn’t encourage Chinese enterprises to invest in Australia because of the unfavourable investment environment there.
“Australia will have a right attitude towards their client when they face a bearish commodity market in a few years.”