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The great Australian rural city divide

By Russ Grayson - posted Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Farmers, it seems, are feeling badly done by. City people simply do not understand them. If this refrain seems familiar, it should be. It is the same story that has gone the rounds these past couple decades if not longer. Now, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) wants to rectify the supposedly negative view of farmers with a protracted campaign to change public perception.

You have to admit that there is some truth in the NFF's assertion - urban populations are, by and large, ignorant of life on the land and of the farming practices that produce their food. But in the interest of balance this should be put in its proper context by acknowledging farmers are equally ignorant of the priorities, challenges and benefits of city life. Ignorance is not a property of city people alone: it is a two-way phenomenon.

There is little doubt that improving urban perceptions of rural life would be beneficial, however if comments made in the press about the NFF's proposed public education campaign are any indication, any educational value is likely to be overridden by antagonism. Rather than education, we could end up with yet another bun fight in the media.


Comments made by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson do not presage a promising start to the campaign. They smack of the wedge politics more common to his Liberal masters. Instead of adopting an inclusive, conciliatory voice and building empathy among city people, Anderson resorts to unsubstantiated stereotyping. He asserts, to The Courier-Mail journalist Nicollette Burke, it is unidentified "ideologically driven green extremists [and] very thinly disguised propaganda" that is behind the supposedly-negative image of farmers. He cites - also unidentified -"environmental vandals" that have been presenting - also-undisclosed - negative material to school children.
We all know that there are dogmatic and unthinking environmentalists. Griffith University sociology academic, Bill Metcalf, calls them "eco-zealots". But who are these "green extremists" Anderson alludes to? Unfortunately, he does not identify them, and to do so would call for the presentation of factual information, something politicians are not necessarily all that good at. Is it the Australian Conservation Foundation, which has tried to work with farmers in addressing environmental issues? Is it the rural environmentalists participating in Landcare programs? Is it soil conservationists and scientists who warn against inappropriate and damaging farming practices?

To call someone an extremist today is a serious assertion and a politically useful framing technique to discredit them. To have any credibility, the assertion should be backed up with specifics. Anderson’s inflammatory statement provides none. He would do well to think about the great number of urban people who identify as conservationists and environmentalists, and rather than antagonise them, consider how they could be an asset to farmers. His name-calling is an unfortunate disservice to farmers that is likely only to reinforce negative ideas about them. Let's hope the NFF's "education" campaign takes a less-confrontationist line.

And this is the fear. Will the proposed campaign be genuinely educational or will we see the NFF trot out a bunch of spin doctors to promote their line to a public that’s tired of being a market audience?

Acknowledge errors

Farmers have a lot of work ahead of them and mounting an antagonistic or defensive campaign without acknowledging the impact of agriculture on the Australian landscape will do little for their credibility. Past errors must be acknowledged but contemporary farmers cannot be blamed for them. However, now that we know how things went wrong on the land, we can do something about it. The NFF should be seeking city support for this remedial action.

The Courier-Mail interview mentions farmers being blamed for "using all the water, getting all the handouts [and] causing all the salinity". There is undeniable evidence that agriculture is responsible for land degradation. Bob Beale, one-time Sydney Morning Herald science and environment editor and co-author of the recent book, Going Native, told an audience at the Byron Bay Writer's Festival in August this year: "Agriculture has had the biggest single impact on Australia. It is just ruining the country ... It used 70 per cent of our water. Issues such as the logging of Tasmania's Tarkine forest are small beer in comparison."

Despite this, Beale is no doom-and-gloom merchant or enemy of farmers. He is ready with praise for those on the land who are trying new approaches that are more in tune with Australia's soils and hydrologic cycle. Instead of looking for scapegoats in the environment movement, Anderson would do better to highlight the work of these innovative farmers.


Beale told the story of such a group near the West Australian town of Narragun. There, farmers have formed a co-operative and are planting tens of thousands of blue mallee, a small tree - the clearing of which contributed to the region's severe salinity. Not only will this initiative help reduce salinity, says Beale, but the farmers will reap the benefit of sales of eucalyptus oil, which is marketable as a powerful industrial solvent as well as a pharmaceutical. The burning of the coppiced branches will be used to generate electrical energy and to produce charcoal used to purify water. The project would attract carbon credit investment from the Japanese.

Indulging in mythology

John Anderson really should focus on initiatives like farmers doing something positive rather than engaging in another tiring bout of wedge politics. Unfortunately, his comments in The Courier-Mail article are not encouraging as he indulges in yet another favourite media tactic of the spin doctor: allusion to mythology.

After blaming the present population drift to the cities (in part because of the decline in rural livelihoods due to economic change) and increased immigration, Anderson goes on to tell Ms Burke "we're rapidly losing touch with our cultural roots … [This] has caused a disconnection with the traditional relationship Australians have with the land."

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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