Brazil is a country of the future, and it always will be.
— Georges Clemenceau
Down at an Albury pre-poll centre — an old showroom, all glass; tractor parts? maternity? I forget — they’re having a whale of a time, yukking it up. There’s Sussan Ley, the miniature Liberal in a blue skivvy, and Kevin Mack, the independent in teal (well, more a cobalt really, teal’s hard to source outside the capitals). The Greens have set up one of those gazebo tents, a roof but no sides, and the rest are sheltering under it as the rain starts in: the Greens and the banana-yellow, mildly pitiable United Australia Party chap.
Even the One Nation spruiker gets let in. He’s a tall gawky kid with a beginner’s beard, and a slight pall of shame across his face, as if he’d agreed to this against his better judgement and now wanted out.
There’s another gazebo, bright orange, for Voice For Indi. There’s three or four volunteers inside. That’s more than any other group, though this isn’t a main booth for them; Albury’s in Farrer, the neighbouring seat to Indi. But it’s training, and Voices is all about the training.
“Look, look, see, aha!” At the kerb, Labor candidate Kieran Drabsch is wielding a retractable tape measure and making some point about where the no-spruiking boundary lies. “Gotcha.”
In a bright red v-neck sweater, a Driza-Bone and Akubra, he’s chatty and hyperactive. He sees me hanging with the Indi crowd and bounds up.
“Are you going to do a story on me?”
“Labor’s not going to win Farrer.”
“We might.” (Actually they could, given the three-way race it’s become).
“So where did you get this outfit, designed in the Labor Party skunkworks basement?”
He straightens in mock outrage.
“These are my work clothes!”
“Theme park attendant? Snowy River World?”
“Geography teacher. This is for field trips,” he adds, a little forlornly.
Well, everyone’s having fun. But it’s slim pickings. A voter every 10 minutes or so, pounced on. I follow a woman in brown-knit as she comes back out; she had regarded the spruikers like a flock of river gulls going for her chips.
“What influenced your vote today?”
“Oooooh, I just wanted it to be over,” she said, touch of a Scots’ brogue, old inland Australia. The frenzy continues.
When the new nation of Australia shambled together in 1901, its founders looked for an inland capital, they built a giant ‘burb on two hills and a river. The founders were idiots. There was already an inland capital, Albury, and if they had put a capital territory border ’round it and Wodonga, the Victorian-NSW rivalry would have been solved. It would now be a twin city with a historic core, on a broad river, a safe distance from the tsar’s naval guns.
That didn’t happen, and the city fell behind as the coastal capitals boomed. In 1972 the Whitlam government, seeking to build on the nation-building vision of the Chifley government, proposed regional resetting.
The pole star of this was the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, but it never really got started and spluttered to its demise some years later. After that, it was all over for city-country balance. A few billion then could have changed the shape of the country; now NSW and Victoria are heading for 75% capital-population by 2050, an insane ratio.
The permanent decentring of rural Australia is a slow moving social disaster, decades in the making. As Gabrielle Chan’s Rusted Off records, and half-a-dozen conversations in the main street prove, the dominant feeling of the country is that of being slighted, blindsided, ignored and taken-for-granted.
“They do what they want in the city, and then just tell us how it’s going to be,” a woman says, sitting outside the Early Bird, a chi-chi cafe in Albury’s main drag. The street is part-bougie, part-hipster, part-country; stripped wood table joints, alternating with white lace curtain cafes and frock shops.
That sense that “life is elsewhere” helped elect Cathy McGowan in Indi, and it may create a similar revolution in Farrer, the seat to the west of which Albury is the eastern corner. Independent Kevin Mack — ex-cop, ex-mayor — is running to take down Sussan Ley, the Liberal member who’s been sitting on 56% primary for years. Polling suggests that is now as low as 35%, with Mack on 15-20%. His candidacy, like McGowan’s six years ago, snuck up on everyone except those who were on the ground seeing it happen.
The issue, of course, is water. As that dried up, so did Ley’s support.
“This probably really started happening three years ago,” Di Thomas tells me. We’re in a standard cosy/awful schmicked up rural pub, soft couches and eight TV screens blaring at you. “The Liberal and National branches started crumbling. They just fell away. A lot of people — not always publicly — have come over to us.”
Di is Mack’s campaign manager, a former Border Mail journalist and editor — “I loved that paper, but it was gutted”. Today, Mack is out west, near the seat’s heartland, ’round Deniliquin. Irrigation country. It’s there that the anger is greatest, first and foremost over the gutting of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, which had been put in by Labor to end a decade of water wars.
But as with so much of Rudd/Gillard’s left neoliberalism, the agreement, by entirely abstracting water rights, left open the possibility that these could be entirely, well, floated. Urban voters are getting flashes of it with stories of rights buybacks through Cayman Island companies and conflicts of interest, but the full tangle of water politics is complex. The local complaints are about water rights sell-offs first and foremost, but also about the amount of water taken out for environmental use. There’s not going to be a great green-blue alliance on these issues of any duration.
“The basic simple principle for the moment,” Di says, “is that water rights should be attached to actual use, to land.”
“Where does this water go? Who gets it?”
“Well who knows? That’s the question.”
“Why did Ley’s support erode so quickly?”‘
“People gave up on her. They felt like they gave her a chance, and she didn’t stand up for the region.”
“Is that fair?”
“Not entirely. She lost power in the government, but you’ve got to be a local member ’round here, like Sharman Stone was in Murray [which is now Nicholls].”
“So, be a maverick; fight within the government…”
“That’s right. People felt she was just laying down the law.”
Cathy McGowan comes back from the bar with a round of drinks, having spent five minutes lobbying the young bartender — short hair and a long beard that’s either hipster or keep-your-embalmed-mother’s-body-in-the-old-farmhouse, hard to tell which — to turn up and vote and get involved.
“Really,” I say, expostulating on what they already know, having drained the hip flask some hours earlier, and now levelling off with beers, “this is a revolution that could do undo the whole National Party structure from here right up to the Darling Downs in Queensland. The contradictions yawn wide, the party is an extractors’ lobby and client, in a living region. The country and capitalism only ever had a tenuous relationship, and now that’s ending altogether.”
There is a silence.
“Yeah, well we have to win it. We really have to win it for any of that to happen,” says McGowan.
We talk about water politics more. Cathy gives a deeper analysis. Whatever she was like before she got into this, she has the bearing of a political leader now: focused, insistent, always campaigning, instantly clarifying the forces at hand.
“With irrigation,” she says, “ageing communities, the basin plan, all this has to be sorted out, and at the moment it’s not clear where the authority lies to do that, who its up to say what starts and stops.”
The country of the future, and it always will be.
They’re packing up at the pre-poll. It’s hard yards, this stuff, low volume, voters getting it over with. Drabsch is still ebullient. “I wish he’d shut up,” someone says through their teeth. The One Nation kid is putting his stuff in a bucket. “Hi Mrs Thomas,” he says to Di, like his maths teacher had just caught him smoking. Someone else sidles up and says, “all this Kevin Mack, Kevin Mack! You ask 10 people down this street what they think of Kevin Mack, ask them! You’ll see.”
So I do. Three haven’t heard of him, two think he’s alright but can’t name an initiative, a guy in the pizza parlour says “he’s that cop isn’t he, I don’t like cops”, and the Indian family who run two motels near the station — that magnificent station, what a gateway that would have been to the capital — don’t want to speak. I’d stayed at one of these motels years ago, when it was run by an ex-military type. He gave me a hospitality map which showed only the place’s service clubs, RSL etc.
“You’ll be able to get a good steak there,” he said.
“I’ll probably get some Thai,” I said.
He was not shocked, but uncomprehending. How could anyone not want to eat at a service club? He looked at me as if I was the terrible future. Everywhere, in modernity, is the everywhere of the future, and it always will be, and we watch for the revolution in Farrer.