This morning the ever brilliant Possum Pollytics posted a graphical analysis of how each booth in Australia voted at the last federal election. Having grown up in the former National Party stronghold of New England, and lived here in Albury for over a decade now I was unsurprised to see a swath of Liberal blue across the inland regions of our country.
On further reflection though, I genuinely wondered why the Labor Party has such poor support outside of the capital cities and larger metropolitan areas. There really is a wholesale rejection of Labor that goes beyond mere political disagreement and is almost a cultural force. Acquaintances who know my political leanings are nevertheless shocked to see me wear a Kevin 07 t-shirt, or hear me speak about the pride I felt from the delivery of the apology to the stolen generation, it seems to challenge the status quo in a fashion that they simply cannot fathom.
In an area like Albury it’s even more surprising how poorly ALP candidates do. The Albury-Wodonga region was one of the growth centres instigated by the Whitlam government during its tenure. Although the government run development corporation hasn’t always been popular, due mainly to the uneven execution of its main role, the community at large has benefited greatly. The ATO and other government departments with offices here have helped to diversify the job market in our area, helping to reduce the impact of downturns in traditional regional markets. We also have a very strong industrial sector, which would usually mean a decent union presence, but it doesn’t seem to translate into support on polling day.
It is easy to understand why the Labor Party has such strong support in larger population centres, where the industrial roots of the party largely lay, but I find it harder to see the natural constituency on the conservative side of politics. In fact, to my eyes, it often seems that people who are voting for conservative candidates are doing so against their best interests and their own beliefs.
Rural communities pride themselves on their willingness to lend a hand to those in need, whether the need is money, time, or effort, there seems to be no shortage of people who want to share what they have to improve the quality of their community. Despite this strong collective streak, and the fact that the households outside the capital cities rely more on government handouts than their city brethren, rural areas continue to vote for parties who have traditionally been very hostile to the concepts of welfare and government social involvement.
Why is this? Are we so enamoured with the image of the resilient bushie that we would seek to deny out neighbours the support that they have asked for? Or are we simply unaware of the amount of government support that we receive? There is never a shortage of cries for extra services in the bush, so why have people demonised Labor for being the party of ‘tax and spend’? Household incomes are lower outside of the capital cities, so if anyone should be concerned about the effects of taxation it’s those who pay more of it, rather than those dependent on the spending half of the equation.
I think that there is still a very strong belief in an ethos of hard work in rural areas, and with it a feeling that any assistance rendered to our communities is somehow justified by that. Conservative politicians in Australia seem to be masters at convincing their constituents that government spending is only welfare if it’s going to some other group, and using that in a punitive manner to demonise other people. So low interest loans for farmers, drought assistance and excluding farm assets from means testing is seen as okay, but there is little tolerance for a single mother receiving a miserly pension. It’s the old argument of the ‘deserving poor’, it’s divisive and it has no place in modern discourse.
Another element that I think plays into rural conservatism is lack of exposure to different social or racial groups, making people vulnerable to fear based politics. It’s easy to be susceptible to prejudice when there is so little opportunity to see beyond the images that you are presented with. In more diverse populations people end up with first hand experience that they can use to weigh up the validity of stereotypes, but if you’ve never met a person from a particular religious or ethnic group, how can you make that judgement? We need look no further than the dog whistle politics of the Howard government and their willing allies in the right wing of the opinion sphere to see how this type of fear was whipped up and exploited for political gain.
I was lucky enough that where I grew up we did have a number of refugee families settled in the community, as well as prominent established migrant families in the mix. To me, the idea of asylum seekers being some external threat is just nonsensical, and that’s largely due to the fact that I went to school with ‘boat people’. It wasn’t until I moved more broadly in the world that I found my experiences were not universal, and it astonished me how closed minded people could be about groups they had never interacted with. I sometimes think that the old cliché “I’m not racist, but” has some measure of validity in the country, decent people who deal fairly and equitably with a range of people sometime have the strangest prejudices based on little more than an inflammatory comment by John Laws or Alan Jones, which is quickly dismissed once they get a chance to make their own judgements.
It will be interesting to see what effect the internet will have on younger voters in rural areas, whether improved communication will eliminate some of the ignorance that is born of isolation. Already younger voters seem to be abandoning the conservative parties, but they also seem to be abandoning rural areas for larger centres, so it may take some time to see their influence flow through to regional electorates.
I think that it will take a long time before we see widespread support for the ALP in rural areas, despite the remnants of the Nats being mopped up by conservative independents like Tony Windsor or replaced wholesale by the Liberal Party. However, in the long term I believe we are likely to see more and more rural seats going to pragmatic independents who will happily sit on the cross benches, undermining the existing conservative coalition. Conservative politics is alive and well in rural Australia, but I don’t think we’ll recognise it ten years from now, even if Labor remains a dirty word.