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Boundless Plains to Share

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill on August 29, 2018 in News

Thirsty sheep in the Riverina, South West NSW, by Dusty Plains

Although we live in Sydney, we are all impacted by what occurs in rural Australia. Right now, at least 90 per cent of country NSW is drought affected. Here in the Eastern Suburbs most of us are only just becoming aware of this unfolding tragedy as the national media, a little belatedly, brings our attention to the plight of rural Australians. The economic, social and emotional implications for those on the land should be a real concern for all of us, and this is shown by the growing number of city-siders donating to the drought relief charities. Suicide rates in rural areas are consistently and tragically 40 per cent higher than in metropolitan areas, according to Sane Australia.

Aside from what is hopefully a genuine universal desire to assist and care about our brothers and sisters on the land, we should also be deeply concerned about the plight of rural Australia for reasons which affect us all directly no matter where we live across this dry continent. What happens in the country has obvious implications for those living in large metropolitan areas including rising household costs for commodities produced by our fellow Aussies out in the bush.

Despite declining relative to other sectors of the economy, rural Australia plays a vital role in determining our nation’s economic wellbeing. Agriculture alone still accounts for about 15 per cent
of all our exports. The price we pay for rural products is the most obvious and immediate economic implication of the drought for those of us in the cities. At the same time, though, our trade balance, foreign debt levels, dividends paid into our super funds and even the price we pay for a takeaway coffee are all ultimately influenced by how well or poorly we are doing in rural production and exports. Put simply, the welfare of the bush has always been and always will be vitally important to the wealth of our nation.

While it is important that our attention is focused right now on the fate of rural Australians, I am quite convinced that our lives in the Eastern Suburbs would be greatly enhanced if we held this concern on a continuing basis, not just during the worst droughts or trade slumps. It is odd that despite our romantic notions of the ‘outback’, even as we profess to love a sunburnt country most of us prefer the coast, rarely visit the bush and spend almost no time checking on how our country cousins are faring.

Yet rural Australia is important to our lives in so many ways. We are deeply connected and our
fates are intertwined. Consider how we feel about inappropriate and excessive development, traffic jams, ridiculous property and rental costs, and diminishing green spaces, when at precisely the same time our country towns wither and die. Inland dams run dry, farming families suffer and kids from the bush – the next generation – pack up and leave for the economic greener pastures of our increasingly less green big cities.

We might reasonably enquire: What is government doing to encourage the development of sustainable rural communities, help our salt-of-the-earth farming families, boost water supplies and keep people from migrating away from the bush? Not much. In fact, the current Sydney-centric funding of infrastructure is liter- ally draining rural and regional New South Wales dry. Smaller and more remote towns have been begging for relatively small investments to bring their hospitals and schools up to scratch, or to ensure public libraries remain free for everyone to use.

With a reduction in funding to our regional towns, populations from these regions are forced to move to the city for work, thus placing increasing pressure on our urban cities, forcing more infrastructure. And so the vortex continues.

But there is an obvious solution, and it’s not that difficult to work out in policy terms when you stop to think about the implications of mass centralisation and urbanisation. The current NSW state and federal governments don’t have any appetite for it I’m afraid, but it’s called decentralisation – spreading our growing population out across the nation, not just jamming us all into the big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

It wasn’t that long ago that train lines stretched across NSW and linked our cities to our regional towns and those towns to one another. Now many regional air routes have shut down, post offices and banks have closed their doors and the cross subsidisation from the city to the bush of phone, postal and other services – made possible because government owned those businesses – is impossible with privatisation everywhere we look.

We love the narrative – the idea of the Jolly Swagman, the jumbucks and the rolling plains – but we allow our governments to neglect our towns and it is in places like the Eastern Suburbs that we pay the price. Let’s give decentralisation a go. On a very basic level, surely, we should insist on country towns being properly funded through infrastructure projects that ensure our rural communities have access to work. After all, as the famous song says, we’ve boundless plains to share.

Dr Marjorie O’Neill is a Waverley Councillor. The views expressed here are her own, although we generally agree with them. To donate to the Red Cross drought relief fund, visit www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/drr-drought.

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