Rural voters shouting into a tin ear

Katie McRobert

If Canberra-based MPs had a book club, it’s easy to guess what would top their current reading list.

In Rusted Off, former press gallery journalist Gabrielle Chan holds a Harden-ed country town lens up to national politics and brings into sharp focus the reasons formerly rusted-on country voters are deserting major parties.

Her suggestions are supported by polls and electoral incidents of the past five years which reflect a an increasingly vocal dissonance between grass-roots concerns and federal policy. In fact, one could easily replace ‘rusted’ in the book’s title with a less family-friendly adjective.

In short, the divide in this case is not between city and country but between voters on the ground and their representatives encased in the ‘Canberra bubble’.

Dr Tim Battin from the University of New England noted a distinction between political apathy and disengagement after the 2013 federal election.

A study conducted by the Australian National University and the Social Research Centre in 2014 found that almost 20% of eligible voters effectively opted out by not enrolling, not showing up to vote or by voting informally. In response to the study, Dr Battin said these people tended to be younger, poorer, outer-metropolitan and rural – but not apathetic.

‘To be disenchanted with political options is not to be apathetic, it's to take a conscious decision that the system is failing,’ Dr Battin told the ABC.

This disconnect has often played out in issues of great import to agriculture. Labor’s tin ear on live exports is matched by the Coalition’s confusion on the National Energy Guarantee.

The divide between the rural sector and the ruling sector is exemplified by the climate change debate. Despite very strong consensus amongst climate expert scientists [1] that the current rate of climate change is anthropogenic and a groundswell of regional concern on the issue, the Coalition remains mystifyingly ambiguous on related policy.

Ousted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said emissions and climate policy have the same problem within the government: ‘bitterly entrenched views that are … more ideological views than views based in engineering and economics’, let alone reflective of community concerns.

Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack has said: ‘I’m a believer that the climate is always changing, and it’s been changing since Moses was a boy.’[2] Prime Minister and Liberal leader Scott Morrison – who as Treasurer brought a lump of coal into Parliament to mock the Opposition’s stance on coal-fired power – recently disregarded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's call for the international community to phase out coal by 2050 in order to contain temperature rises.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has bucked the Coalition trend to concur that the climate is changing, and that agriculture needs to be on the front foot.

When ministers and representatives from Australia and New Zealand met in Brisbane this April for the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum led by Mr Littleproud, they agreed to develop a nationally coordinated approach to support the agriculture sector to adapt to climate change [3].

But perhaps this speaks more to backing a trend than bucking one.

Spurred by a growing frustration with the pace of progress on climate action in Australia, a group of producers formed the Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) group in mid-2015. In just three years the organisation has expanded from ‘a few hundred farmers’ to more than 25,000 supporters. FCA recently called on all Australian governments to commit to a long-term National Strategy for Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Security.

In the foreword for the recently-released Rural Futures Report [4], FCA Chair Lucinda Corrigan wrote: ‘With a dearth of political leadership at the highest levels, this report seeks to stimulate debate about the type of future regional Australia wants to see.’

Ms Chan also reported recently in The Guardian about a ‘nascent political movement’ in NSW called Anyone But Nats funded by businessman Charles Tym, who said the National Party’s position (or lack thereof) on climate change tipped him over the edge. ‘(They) turn their backs when a lot of rural people are very concerned about climate change … and it’s just not good enough,’ he said.

This heightened level of dissatisfaction and absence of ideology in government are not merely fodder for smoko chats or pub debates. Ms Chan notes that when the parliament fails to reflect the people it serves, it is bound to increase the actual and perceived divide between served and serving.

The Australian political landscape now hosts a permanent campaign [5], in which participants continuously utilise the mechanisms of politics for the goal of re-election, rather than seeking election as the means of achieving political goals. This divide – evident in the lack of leadership or long-term thinking on drought policy – degrades our democracy and is already leading to the implementation of policies and allocation of resources contrary to the wishes of the electorate.

How can this be addressed? Responsibility to listen must lie with the elected representatives, but power to create change lies with the electorate. As Ms Chan writes in Rusted Off: ‘Country voters are one fright away from determining governments.’