Life in Australia is changing. None of us can avoid it, whether we live in the inner city, remote Australia, in the suburbs or a regional town.
The challenge is to make that change equitable, to grasp the opportunities it offers. Change is coming from a number of sources, from globalisation, from government, from business, and changed social expectations. Our ability to respond to these pressures varies. Sometimes all we can control is our attitude. And that is not to be dismissed.
Against globalisation, things like world prices for wheat, wool and coal, our choices are limited mainly to producing as efficiently as possible, and to smart marketing.
We can, within some parameters, change government, and its policies. And here we are seeing some interesting changes in rural Australia. Over the last decade, country Australians have made it clear their vote cannot be taken for granted. I'm not just talking about the passing phase of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, but about the rise of well-respected rural independents, who have been significant players in the NSW, Tasmanian, Queensland, South Australian and now Victorian state parliaments.
Some commentators are surprised at the anger from the bush. Let me list a number of reasons.
Rural and regional Australians are, by every significant measure, disadvantaged. Country people die younger, and receive less medical attention. They have lower levels of education and higher unemployment. They have more accidents, suffer worse health, and rural youth has a shockingly high suicide rate.
Country people are also likely to be poorer. Of the 40 poorest federal electorates, 36 are rural or provincial, while only two of the 40 wealthiest electorates, Kalgoorlie and Bowral, are in the country.
In the decade ending in 1996, at least 30,000 jobs were cut in country NSW: jobs that put over one billion dollars into the regional economy. Over 19,500 of those jobs had been cut by State Governments, coalition and Labor.
Between 1996 and 1998 I estimate over 28,500 country jobs were lost nationally, in areas like banking, abattoirs, Telstra, mining and manufacturing.
The question is, what can we realistically expect government to do?
Country people are telling me there are two things government can, indeed must, do. The first is to provide access to data quality telephony, at costs that reflect the current technology, not the historic model which severely disadvantages country people.
High quality telephony is important because, as services are withdrawn from country areas, people can turn to the internet for provision of educational, banking, counselling and even some medical services. Through the internet country people can be part of larger communities.
This is an edited transcript of her presentation to the Regional Australia Summit.