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The country within a country

30 July 2011 1,019 views No Comment

IN Fair Share, Judith Brett, professor of politics at La Trobe University, examines the changing relationship between country and city in contemporary Australia. It is an important essay.

Brett points out the advent of “economic rationalism” in the 1980s saw previously accepted claims that country people contributed mightily to the nation “dismissed by policymakers as so much special pleading”. As a result, “subsidies provided for rural life were whittled away”, leaving many people outside Sydney and Melbourne “feeling abandoned and betrayed”.

Because the 2010 federal election campaign centred on marginal seats in capital cities, little notice was taken of country Australia. That was until the fate of the government rested on the decisions of three regional independents: Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. For the first time since the Australian Country Party changed its name in 1982 to the National Party of Australia, non-urban needs were on centre stage.

Katter, who represents the sprawling North Queensland seat of Kennedy, put the situation well. Rural Australia had not been taken into consideration under previous governments, with the party system serving “the big city interests, the big corporate interests, but . . . not the interests of ordinary people, 30 per cent of us, [who] live outside of the major capital cities”.

After much argy bargy, an undertaking was given by Julia Gillard that regional and rural Australia would get its fair share. For the first time in decades, the problems of the country were seen as problems for the nation. This is one reason why, in my opinion, Katter’s recently formed Australia Party will, at least in Queensland, attract voters who once supported Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Fair Share offers an unalloyed expose of the plight of those who live in the countryside. It also encourages vital debate about the optimum size of Australia’s population and, importantly, about how to encourage people to settle away from the capital cities. Indeed part of a new compact between city and country should involve a redistribution of population and infrastructure spending in favour of regional and rural Australia.

Michael Thornton’s engaging and energetic memoir Jackaroo demonstrates just how tough it was working on the land in the 1960s and early 70s. Mustering cattle on horseback is formidable work which, he explains, requires “concentration and forethought because when things go awry, they do so quickly and in a big way”. Yet, then, jackaroos such as Thornton were paid a mere $9 a week, plus all they could eat.

Jackaroo is often harrowing. In March 1963, when Thornton was 13, his emotionally distant mother – who had played tennis at Wimbledon in 1938 – rang the boarding school to tell her only son that his alcoholic father had died after falling over the balcony of the George Hotel in St Kilda.

As a teenager, Thornton was a highly sensitive yet sometimes stubborn outsider and a choirboy to boot. His experiences as a jackaroo from 17 onwards were meant to be, his mother said, a “chance of a lifetime” to toughen him up and prove himself as a person, which ultimately he did.

The highlight of Thornton’s life as a jackaroo was the “wonderful year” in 1971 when, aged 21, he worked at Malcolm Fraser’s property Nareen in Victoria’s west. Fraser was a quintessential farmer-politician, who treated Thornton with respect and, what’s more, paid him well.

It was gruelling work but Thornton emerged from it a capable adult, ready to take on the world. As he muses, if only his father were alive – and sober – to have witnessed his ascent into manhood, and his ability to write about it so movingly as well.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 34 books.

Fair Share: Country and City in Australia
By Judith Brett
Quarterly Essay 42
Black Inc, 96pp, $19.95
Jackaroo: A Memoir
By Michael Thornton
Viking, 288pp, $29.95

The Weekend Australian July 30 -31 , 2011