Many changes are occurring in the bush — changes greatly exacerbated by a drought which continues unabated in many parts of Australia. For farmers and pastoralists, talk about the weather these days goes beyond comparisons of the latest rain gauge readings; it includes anguished discussion about ominous predictions of climate change and land viability.

Sadly, for no small number of people on the land, years of hard earned gains, dreams of family succession and an easier life in retirement, are being mercilessly eroded and swept away like topsoil by a hot summer wind.

There is an almost palpable grief and sense of powerlessness out there. A generation of children are moving away to seek a future no longer available on the land. With a trend for more sustainable larger landholdings, populations and services are diminishing; corporate buyers are merging properties with little regard for the family histories they represent, with dwellings often abandoned and left to ruin because they are surplus to requirements.

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Yet people on the land are mostly stoical and pragmatic; it is not they but city folk that are enamoured of sentimental notions of the bush. Ironically, it is this sentimentality deficient in substance and big on ostentation — conspicuous compassion (a term coined by Patrick West) that adds insult to injury for country people.

Despite their unremitting sense of powerlessness, silently and uncomplainingly most persevere in hope of better times. Yet government (and sometimes non-government organisations) drought response efforts have often contributed to this powerlessness — through the very measures they have deemed to be caring and responsive.

Exceptional Circumstances and other forms of assistance have often been administered in a way that have caused much distress and confusion — so much so, that many people, despite being eligible for EC, have chosen to struggle on without it. The manner in which material assistance (like food hampers) has sometimes been distributed has caused embarrassment and indignity for recipients who have had little option but to politely acquiesce to public displays of charity.

Programs like Mental Health First Aid, promoted to rural communities as training for knowing how to preserve their mental health, turned out instead to focus on mental illness; leaving some of these communities feeling pathologised and singled out as ‘not coping’.

Drought Helplines have sometimes served merely to refer people on into a labyrinthine confusion of questionably helpful or available “support services.” As for the fleeting visits of “caring” and promise laden agency representatives and reconnoitring politicians, one begins to wonder whose interests are really being served.

All these “good works” appear periodically in the mass media as evidence of how much government and other agencies really care. But could this be a case of appearing good and having us all feel good, without actually doing much good at all? Is this just an exhibition of conspicuous compassion — which has the appearance of altruism and caring, yet which is essentially disingenuous and self-serving?

The acid test of assistance initiatives (if they are to be deemed caring and responsive) is the authenticity with which intended recipients are consulted in their formulation, implementation, and effects. In the case of rural communities this could also mean greater economy, because rural people are adept at improvisation and finding creative solutions; they are also good at making a little go a long way.

Rural people themselves have argued that financial assistance should be more carefully targeted, and informed by a realistic long range view of how land use can be made viable, and in what form communities can be made sustainable.

Rural people value any efforts to help them sustain and take care of their mental health; they understand that prevention is better than waiting for illness to occur — a distinction government mental health services appear not to grasp.

Perhaps most fundamentally — and beyond the present drought, rural people need governments and other agencies to work with them and support them in what they know to be inevitable and unavoidable: the radical reshaping of their lives, their communities, and their futures.

Dr Ashfield has more than 20 years clinical and program management experience in rural mental health.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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