When Billy Hughes was chivvied for having joined every political outfit except the Country Party, he famously remarked “I had to draw the line somewhere”. Since its formation after World War I, the Country — now National — Party has been the exceptional party within the Australian system. Every other group has, or pretends to have, a universal message, even if they have only a partial social base. Only the CP/NP has been cheerfully willing to claim special conditions for white rural Australia, and damn the rest. That used to be statist buying-up of agricultural product; now it is ever larger social subsidies as the automation of farming and mining has hollowed out rural life.
The party’s strength lay in the fact that it would never form government; formed only a few years after the city/country balance shifted in favour of the former (in 1910), the party’s justification for its purely sectional approach was that the forces arrayed for urban classes were so strong that they needed to be uncompromising jerks on whatever ensemble of policies benefited certain parts of rural Australia (mining areas were Labor and Communist until the early 1960s).
But what’s happened now has stood that logic on its head. The now-National Party’s purview has shrunk. As former primary-produce centre towns have been filled out with new economic sectors — education, medical services, meth — Labor became more competitive. In turn, Labor became more attentive to rural needs, i.e. unwilling to push back against rural special treatment. And now the Libs have one eye to winning three-cornered contests.
The result has been decades of extending to rural Australia subsidies and special treatment denied to low-income urban Australians. It doesn’t look that way to rural Australians, but that’s only because the independent viability of whole regions has been collapsing faster than they can be supported by the state.
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This kludgy political arrangement has been put under strain by the long-term, possibly permanent, shift in local climate conditions, currently labelled “the drought”. So far, this has run on the usual lines: the farming sector simultaneously bemoans the humbling of proud, independent Aussies, salt of the etc, while also asking for an ad-hoc subsidy to continue the decades of state subsidies that allowed this proud independence to exist. But now, with the post-quantitative easing (QE) global slowdown (i.e. a return to the stagnation post the 2008 crash, before QE inflated the tyres), wage power decline, wage theft as de facto income policy, and the penury of Newstart, etc, questions are starting to be asked.
With half-a-billion going to farmers to soften failure in the private market due to inherent conditions — i.e. the possibility of drought — Australia’s urban poor are missing out because they have no “Country Party” and Labor has stopped representing them. The gap has now yawned so wide that it’s the Nats who can see it represents a political danger: hence Barnaby Beetroot’s sudden conversion to a Newstart rise, and his remark that some farmers should maybe get out of farming.
The “drought” is also shifting climate change denialism on the right; they now realise that they can’t get a really big payout if they keep insisting this is merely cyclical. So now the National Farmers’ Federation is talking about “the permanent shift” in rural conditions. It’s an ill wind, I guess.
What would be really needed now is a bolder plan for rural Australia, sold with a bit of very tough love. Whole sections of rural Australia are simply a failed state scheme, and creating a viable “next rural Australia” requires a comprehensive triage. It’s clear that hundreds, maybe thousands of farms should be bought up by the state — these will often be grace payments for farms of no worth — and rewilded. Some sets of small dying country towns should be consolidated, with some towns abandoned (if it’s good for rural black people to have their communities remade so, why not for benefits-dependent rural white people?)
Cotton and wet rice, the thirst industries, need to be rationalised, and the rivers reflown. Farmer supplementary income support should be supplied through cashless welfare cards, so they can’t upgrade the Mercedes or pay boarding school fees with them. The deal has to be matched with a proportionally equal package for low-income urban Australia, and remote Indigenous communities. And so on.
Who could get this done politically? Well, no one, but it could initially be driven by the Greens, whose small rural base is usually in viable areas such as New England, and who could then gain greater urban support by becoming a visible champion of the urban poor. That would demand a leap, as the party is filling up with left neoliberals. The country needs a Party of the Poor, to put it simply — a left populist outfit, with a limited remit, no grand programs, but to self-represent the unrepresented. Such an outfit would only need to grab a couple of Senate seats to wield some real clout.
No easy ask, but the concurrence of “the drought” and the next recession suggests we need a complete do-over of relations between Australian sectors, and we have to draw the line somewhere.