Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up
by Gabrielle Chan
- Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia Pty Ltd
- ISBN: 9780143789284
- RRP: $34.99
Reviewed by Paul Henderson
The author of Rusted Off, Gabrielle Chan, has experienced to date a most interesting career. She and her husband have raised a family on a farm in a small country town of Harden-Murrumburrah in New South Wales, which is about 125 kilometres from Canberra. As well she has worked on and off as a political writer based in Canberra who reported on political events including federal elections. So her experiences in rural Australia and in a major metropolitan city put her in a position to write this book from two perspectives. There have been many Australian novels, short stories and poems based on rural areas, but not many non-fiction accounts. Rusted Off has been well worth waiting for.
This is a very clear account of the difficulties of rural towns and how, in many cases, politicians have not handled these problems at all well. Chan has interviewed a large number of people of all ages who live in the country areas and has listened very carefully in order to reflect those views. This is one of the good aspects of this book.
Another interesting feature is that she doesn’t number the chapters, but divides the book into a number of Lessons from which we can learn. It is a clever way of introducing different issues.
Early in her account she provides a very interesting insight into the differences between rural and metropolitan Australia. “In big cities hierarchies have postcards. In small towns hierarchies are in full view.” In rural areas everyone knows everything and there is nowhere to hide. Class differences are far more obvious than they are in a large metropolis.
Features of Rural Society
The overwhelming percentage of Australians live in large capital or metropolitan cities, having little real knowledge of life in country towns. Chan gives a fascinating insight into the characteristics of country life. They include the very important role of sporting teams, such as football and netball, in bringing and holding a town together. A race meeting has a similar effect. She frequently refers to the importance of the main street and the views of people who frequent there.
Residents have great pride in their local town. Everyone you meet has a story to tell, class is important and, generally, the towns are run by older people, who are on the boards and councils. She says there are divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and also between new and old money. Universally, residents feel neglected by the power brokers and decision makers who live in major cities.
Gabrielle Chan says that there is probably no more important issue for rural people than education. There is some concern that people who send their children to large metropolitan cities when they reach secondary level, that later these children will never return to their town.
Lack of connections with the cities and with not as much networking in rural areas makes it harder for teachers. The small number of students attending country schools, inevitably means that fewer subjects can be offered. Students, when interviewed, noted the number of hurdles they had to overcome. Some results were lower when compared with city schools. There are fewer people in rural areas with a bachelor degree.
On the other hand, the author notes many people after they completed their studies, have returned and made considerable contributions in rural Australia. Some universities now set aside a percentage of places for students from rural regions. However, in rural areas the problems are many and the solutions are less obvious.
Sometimes people who live in large cities think that people in rural areas are not that tolerant of indigenous Australians, have racist tendencies and oppose immigration to Australia. Chan, however, provides insight into these issues to suggest otherwise. She says that children in rural towns are made more aware than children in cities of Aboriginal culture and lifestyles as they live close to them. She states that “sharing values changes attitudes.”
Whilst some country people are wary of increased immigration and of 457 visas, many recognise that immigration into country areas is needed to boost the workforce. She mentions Nhill, a small country town in the Wimmera, Victoria, which has welcomed a number of refugees from Myanmar. Their arrival was carefully handled and the local economy has boomed. The building of a mosque in Young, NSW, likewise was completed with little resistance and, as a result, people have been attracted to the area. While initially many people were wary of the Mabo decision in the High Court, this fear has lessened over the years. However, overall, rural people generally are more sceptical of Muslim immigrants than city dwellers.
Two doctors, one from Kenya the other from Tanzania, were accepted and ran a very successful partnership in Harden-Murrumburrah. While the attempts over the years to establish satellite cities has not succeeded this will have more of a chance – if control of regional development is taken from the Commonwealth and handed over to the States and Territories.
Rural communities, which take the initiative on a range of other issues have also enjoyed success. When the Hume Highway bypassed Jugiong, locals took matters into their own hands, succeeded in having on and off ramps built to link up with the highway, took other initiatives and, as a result, the town has been rejuvenated.
Politics, Pol System, Pol Mistakes
Gabrielle Chan spent a good deal of her book, particularly the second half, looking at the lessons that can be learnt about the political system, the state of the parties and the attitudes of politicians and decision- makers about country Australia. While looking at these issues in general, she concentrates on politics and rural town communities. She handles all of this objectively.
She notes, like many other people, the alarming and increasing number of Australians who are qualified to vote but have not registered to vote. In addition, more and more people while registered to vote but don’t vote. In the 2016 Federal Election this figure was about 9 per cent, the highest number since compulsory voting was introduced in 1925. Also in 2016 a further 5 per cent voted informally. This is a real trend in Australia which political parties must note. More and more Australians for whatever reason don’t record a valid vote. In a survey in 2016 only 30 per cent said they took much interest in politics.
More and more people in recent by-elections turned away from the two major parties. 24 of the current 76 Senators are not members of the ALP or the Liberal Party-Nationals Coalition. To a lesser extent the same in happening in the House of Representatives. More and more seats, once classified as “safe” as now seen as “marginal.” This now includes more rural seats. Rural people see MPs coming from narrow occupations and careers, rather than having come from “real” jobs. She writes. “… The whole of rural society, top to bottom, is pretty much disappointed or angry at politics.”
People, not just in the country, are increasingly growing tried of leaked information, wrong doing by politicians (such as over entitlements), the constant flow of broken promises or changes to policies. People in the country interviewed by the author want “to be told as it is”. The parties seem to change positions on issues such as the funding schools, taxation, environmental issues. She says no one speaks the way politicians speak, while adding that rural voters have burnout about MPs.
Time and time again Chan shows that politicians made mistakes about the needs of rural communities and/or had no real idea of the effects these policies would have on rural towns. Examples include Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews regarding the changes to dole entitlements, Gough Whitlam’s temporary closure of TAFE colleges which led to fewer apprentices, Julia Gillard and her reaction to scandals in the live animal exports, Jeff Kennett (Victorian Premier) and his closure of numerous government schools and Mike Baird (NSW premier) and his reaction to the use of to live bait in the greyhound industry. Most of these policies were reversed but after a great deal of unnecessary hurt and uncertainty. In addition, rural people dislike the number of Acts of Parliament and regulations with which they are faced.
Likewise the Greens present changes which rural people see as harmful to their rural lifestyle. As a result of all of this Gabrielle Chan argues that rural communities are moving ahead of political parties. Rural people, and indeed probably many Australians, want active governments, rather than governments which cannot make decisions and won’t take the lead.
Rural people want MPs who understand their concerns. This may explain why voters in Indi elected an independent Cathie McGowan in both 2013 and 2016, because she campaigned on local issues.
Chan argues strongly that we can’t just leave country towns to develop ad hoc, and clearly much planning needs to be done. This appears to be happening. For instance, in the Victorian 2018 State Election it was suggested that people who agree to live in country towns for five years will be given favoured treatment in the granting of a visa and doctors would be offered subsidies and incentives to work in country areas. She strongly urges politicians and the media to pay more attention to rural Australia.
In conclusion, the author says. “What we need is to have two parts of one country, not two separate Australians.”
Gabrielle Chan’s book is a fine portrayal of a changing Australia. It is easy to read, thoroughly researched and written with passion. It is a high quality book that fills a vacuum. She may well turn her attention to another rapidly growing divide within Australia concerning the growing divide in major cities between those living in inner suburbs compared with those living in the rapidly expanding outer suburbs.