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Beyond the Great Divide: moving imaginary mountains in Australia’s political landscape

By Miriam Lyons - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

Here’s the rhetoric: Australia is divided by more than mountains. A cultural dividing range splits this country in two. To the west – struggling Aussie battlers who are doing the thankless job of carrying this country forward on the sheep’s back. To the east – latte sipping urbanites who wouldn’t know a sheep dip if they fell into it. These people know nothing about life on the other side but insist on making life difficult for the battlers (all of whom are white, male, work on farms or down mines and wear driza bone), by whinging about land rights and the environment.

Here’s the reality: rural and regional Australians have been sold down the saline river by the very people who are supposed to be representing their interests. And they’re starting to notice.

There was a time when the Country party was just that – a party to represent the interests of people living in non-metropolitan Australia. But after one name change and decades of coalition, it has become very hard to recognize the Nationals as the party that began, believe it or not, with an agrarian-socialist agenda. Looking at the bar graphs and pie charts which represented the distilled political will of Australian voters after last year’s election, I was impressed by how powerful a position the National Party occupied. Without them, the Liberals would have no majority. If they decided to dissolve the Coalition and shack up with Labor for a while they could dominate Australia’s political landscape.


Of course they did no such thing, because they lost the ability to imagine life outside the Coalition a long time ago. Instead they did what they’ve been doing for years and accepted the loss of another front bench position like so many lambs. Or sheep. Which on the surface seems reasonable enough – their voting numbers, and therefore the proportion of National MPs compared to the Liberals, have been going down for years. Dropping, in fact, almost as fast as the population of what the Australian Bureau of Statistics defines as ‘remote Australia’ (down by 4.6 per cent between 1986 & 1996).

The main reason for the shrinking size of remote communities? Unregulated free market policies and cuts to public investment supported by the National party. And the Liberals. And Labor for that matter. In fact it seems that every major political force in Australia takes ‘don’t touch the free market or it might break’ mantra as a divinely ordained mandate. And they view anyone attempting to propose alternatives as unruly bulls entering their rather expensive china shop. Freaked out by the increasing numbers of rural and regional Australians voting against the system by supporting minor parties and independents, they’ve all made token efforts at reconciliation.

The Labor party ran Country Labor candidates in the last election. The former deputy Coalition leader, Tim Fischer, talked about establishing a ‘human dimension, a jobs dimension’ (what, the economy hadn’t featured humans or jobs before?) and assured country Australia that ‘your government shares some of your concerns that competition policy has not had enough regard to "public interest." But the multifaceted problems facing rural and regional Australia will not be solved by throwing pots of money at marginal seats. And the charge of an enraged constituency cannot be held off forever with the red flag of race-based policies.

There is a reason that the political game the Liberals have perfected over several years is called wedge politics. The phrase was coined to describe the tactics of the Reagan years in the US, where the Republicans managed to split the Democrat vote by convincing blue-collar voters that their falling quality of life was the fault of bleeding-heart liberals who wanted to give all their taxes to blacks, gays and single mothers. If this tactic sounds familiar, it might be because the Coalition employed Reagan-era advisors in their 1996 campaign.

The idea behind it is very simple – split the country in half successfully, and you get to pick the bigger half. It’s quite clever really. A stroke of mathematical brilliance. The top 10 per cent of income units in Australia owned 48 per cent of the country’s wealth in 1998, compared to 43.5 per cent in 1993. On the other hand, the bottom 40 per cent of Australian wage earners experienced a drop in real wages between 1990 and 1998. To put it in clichéd terms, the rich and very rich are getting richer while the poor and poor-ish are getting poorer. How to distract voters from this blinding truth? Convince most of the bottom 40 per cent that their plight is really the fault of the bottom 5 per cent. Make the losers fight over scraps from the table in an attempt to obscure the feast going on up top. Win an election by promising to shift one billion dollars cut from spending on migrants and the unemployed to ‘battler’ families with jobs who are wondering why they’re working so bloody hard for bugger all.

Clever trick. The Coalition uses it, the Labor party uses it, logging and mining companies use it, big agribusiness companies use it. A lot of journalists use it by default because they’ve forgotten how to write stories that don’t involve two titanic opposing forces. It’s all about the creation of dichotomies – bludgers vs battlers, city vs bush, greenies vs logging towns, greenies vs farmers, greenies vs jobs.


It’s a trick used so often and so effectively that it can be hard to remember that environmentalists and struggling rural communities have more in common with each other than they do with talking heads in Canberra. They have in common a distrust of established authority, of the major political parties, and of globalisation in its current form. Perhaps most importantly, they share the desire for long-term economic and political solutions that allow rural and regional Australians to remain in rural and regional Australia. And whether you want to call it globalisation, economic rationalism, neo-liberalism, or the free market, the fact is that our current global economic system is proving increasingly incapable of providing those solutions.

Globalisation is an inherently urbanizing process. It has also exhibited a historical tendency to redistribute wealth and power from people like farmers and food processors to food distribution and retailing companies that, due to a wave of mergers, have been steadily increasing their purchasing power and therefore their ability to drive the price of produce down. The same can be said of the mining and forestry industries.

This puts the National party in a bit of a quandary. Their position in the Coalition depends on continued support for the economic status quo. This support puts them at odds with the interests of their constituency (unless that constituency is to be reduced to the managers and shareholders of mining, logging and agribusiness companies, in which case they’ll do just fine). This opens up an opportunity for Australia’s rural and green communities to engage in a little creative thinking. How can we pool our resources, energy, and political power to create mutually beneficial solutions?

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About the Author

Miriam Lyons is Director of the Centre for Policy Development

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