Conservatives in the country

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.

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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.

19 thoughts on “Conservatives in the country

  1. Dave, I think the conservatism you refer to stems back through my generation to my parents who were breeding at the end of, and just after, World War II. These folk had endured the ‘gret depression’ and lost family members in the Great War. They were a tormented lot.

    The majority of the ageing population vote the way they do because they have always done so as had their parents. The conservative ideology feared that unionism > communism > loss of personal freedom. All they wanted was stability to raise their families.

    It is our children, (now those of your generation), who were first educated in universities – a concept made possible by Gough Whitlam where independent thought was encouraged. Before Gough, kids were raised to be the fodder of industry and armies. It was only the sons (and a few of the daughters) of the elite who attended university.

    As my generation dies off and Buster Boy’s generation comes of age, I think you will find tht the traditional conservatism will be relegated to history. I have no idea what will replace it but it will not be the politics of fear of my generation.

  2. Greg, I think that the evolution of conservative politics will be a traumatic event, not just here in Australia, but throughout the western world. You are right in suggesting that traditional conservatism is reaching the end of its life, education and changing life experiences will see to that, but what will replace it?

    In the US right now the Republican party is heading towards extremism, that’s not politically sustainable, but how do you turf out the guys with the guns? The NSW Liberal party has been going down that road for the last decade, expelling anyone not ideologically pure enough and making themselves unelectable, even against Morris Iemma.

    Perhaps environmental collapse or a decent oil shock will bring the Greens into a stronger position, leaving our present day ‘Left” parties as the new ‘Right’?

    However it plays out, I don’t think that we’re going to see or understand the changes until they are well and truly behind us.

  3. I think it’s as simple as this:

    People in rural & regional areas have mainly been brought up in more conservative families & settings. Even the towns are more conservative (i.e. behind the times, less infrastructure, old world, etc).

    Country folk don’t take a lot of risks and they value the old principles. The pace of life is much slower, even in ‘big’ regional centres like Albury, which is still ultra-conservative compared to Melbourne.

    And, because they’re brought up and live in a conservative environment, they vote for conservative politicians. This even happens at local council level. Try getting a ‘radical’ elected to your rural city council – no way. Yet some radicals & weirdos do pretty well at council elections in the city, particularly inner-city.

    Having lived most of my life in Melbourne I noticed the conservatism as soon as I moved here. It is ingrained in them and it rubs off – but not on me!

    Country people are dorks and they vote for conservative dorks. No surprises there.

  4. Agreed – thanks Dave for giving me something to think about. I want to add to the conversation, but I don’t know what.

    Hmm…. I’ve always felt that rural communities have an innate distrust of larger urban areas. I was born and grew up in Tallangatta – and even after 12 years of living in the city, I’m still convinced that Government (State and Fed) only govern and make policy to suit the city. Why else a decrepit railway between Melbourne & Albury, why else the North-South pipeline etc etc etc… It’s a REAL country mindset, and I don’t think I’ll ever shake it.

    So you could say this mindset comes about because a) More voters in the cities makes it more politically useful to cater to their whims; and b) If rural areas vote conservatively then a Labor g’ment is not losing any votes by ignoring them.

    So if a rural political mindset is already one of “Us against Them”, the few against the many, then a sense of community becomes very important. A community combined is a stronger force than a bunch of disparate persons. And a community tends to be more conservative than an individual, yes?

    Follow on from that then, I would posit that welfare that is given to ALL of the community for the benefit of ALL the community is more beneficial and more easily accepted than welfare given to SOME of the people. Giving, say, extra money to single mothers creates divisions within the community, because we don’t all benefit from that. We are a community, and we must guard our unity because it’s the only strength we have, therefore strangers have to prove themselves to be one of us, before we let them in. To outsiders, yes, it seems like we’re a closed conservative circle.

    Yet as odd as it sounds, I sometimes reckon that a rural community is far more socialist in the way it works than urban areas are. And you’ll get far more community support in the country than you ever will in an urban area.

    And Ray – it’s hard to learn how to be small-l liberal in the country when the G’ment of whatever colour don’t bother to provide you with avenues to explore different experiences: y’know, stuff like public transport, Channel 10 and SBS, decent Internet, art, theatre, galleries, support services for migrant families, additional resources for LOTE teaching…… yet us rabid little left-wingers do manage to emerge.

  5. There’s also a fear in the country of city-centric politics. That is especially true in NSW where Sydney and the once heavily industrialised Woollongong and Newcastle dominate. The National party are supposed to represent the country people in such a way Labor and the Libs don’t, but Queensland aside (were at one stage half the population lived outside of Brisbane), the Nats have been a lame-duck in the Coalition. I can remember Greiner and co in power in NSW, but banks and services were still leaving the country.

    That’s why I thought the thin band of country Independents in New England, in Orange and Dubbo, were pointing to a new future of locals who are really working for the local country community and not major party nodding dogs. But Calare went back to the right, and I am no longer confident of Independents eventually taking over from Windsor or Torbay etc.

  6. And Bill Sykes, JR. And especially Tim Fischer. Where else but in rural areas could an ultra-conservative, jingoistic, akubra wearing beef farmer like Tim get elected to Government?

    But there’s no conundrum, 100F, and I’m not sure if it’s even a ‘problem’ that rural people vote rural/conservative. Isn’t that just to be expected?

    There seems to be a presumption in what you and Dave are saying that one of the reasons country people vote conservative is because they are ill-informed and lack access to more information & knowledge. I would suggest that’s a real reach. Country people live in the country by choice. And by choice they adopt a more laid back, peaceful and conservative lifestyle.

  7. I don’t think 100F and Dave are referring to people like you, Ray. You fall into the category of “tree changer”. They’re referring to people who have lived in the country all their lives, who were born there. I think they might outnumber the “tree changers” somewhat.

  8. That’s who I’m referring to also, JR. And their influence rubs off on ‘tree-changers’ (some, not all).

    And those who are born in the country are still there by choice and are still influenced by the choice of their ancestors to remove themselves from the cities for a more conservative lifestyle.

    And that’s got more to do with their political leanings than education and access to information, in my opinion.

    I really think the question of why country folk tend to vote conservative is a no-brainer.

  9. Except Ray, we’ve seen cases, as in Cowper, Page, Hume and Richmond (all NSW) where tree changers from Sydney have basically turned, or are turning, those seats from staunch conservative bastions into seats that Labor has a genuine chance in. So who is influencing who?

  10. It is a ‘chicken & egg’ argument, Dave. True, if there are enough tree changers and/or change in demographics it could alter the mix (as possibly is the case in James’ examples) but by & large country folk, the born ‘n bred type, are dyed in the (sheeps’) wool conservative.

  11. When I was first preselected for Indi (in one of my many previous attempts) I sat down at the kitchen table with my neighbour and asked her why she didn’t vote Labor.
    She said,”What would my father think?” (She was in her late forties).
    I asked her what it would take for her to vote Labor.
    “I’d have to believe they cared for the country,” she said.
    Further talk revealed that she genuinely thought that rural people subsidised the cities. When I pointed out that her taxes wouldn’t even pay for a kilometre of the bituminised road running to her farm, that Telstra (at that time) was making a dead loss of $700 per year on her phone service, etc, she was genuinely taken aback.
    It was one of the best conversations I’ve had politically, really opening my eyes to the mindset of the local people.
    Another factor is distrust of unions, which is the one of the main differences between the ALP and Nationals – I know many Nats who are really ALP at heart but can’t stomach unions.
    It’s also partly the fault of the ALP, I have to say. Seats are written off as unwinnable because they have been so for decades. Candidates are (as I was my first time) expected to be just a name on the paper (“Don’t run if you’re serious about politics” was the ALP’s advice to me in 1996) “…it’ll just damage your brand.” Virtually no campaign funds are put into these seats, and often senior party members are told not to campaign here.

  12. I think Zuvele’s comment partially confirms my view that conservatism is just ingrained in country folk. The anti-union aspect is very real too, particularly among farmers.

  13. Thanks for your input Zuvele. I think some of what you say does reinforce my point about a lack of information working to shape people’s beliefs. The effect of union links are also an interesting factor.

    I’ve thought for some time that the Nationals continued links to the Liberals has contributed a lot to their downfall and that we may end up seeing a new party of rural centrists aligning with the ALP and disposing the Nats. The Farmers’ Federations have also been losing their influence among the people they are supposed to represent and they have had to work very hard over the last decade to stop people forming competing farm lobby groups.

    Do you think that there’s still a bit of a Kennett factor in Victoria? For what is supposedly the jewel in the Liberal Party’s crown, Victoria shows no sign of letting them get hold of the treasury benches in Spring St.

  14. I had one VFF rep once very seriously suggest to me that all farm labourers’ (lowest paid workers in the country, I think) should be lowered, as this would lower prices and therefore wages across the board.
    I didn’t point out it would also lower the prices he received (I wimp out sometimes).
    The Kennett factor is an interesting explanation for something that’s puzzled me. I had a meeting with my SA Country Labor equivalent, who told me that, although SA Labor had an overwhelming majority, they held not one country seat, whereas we hold several in Vic.
    Kennett’s cuts did impact more on country people than those in the city – and calling the country ‘toenails’ was perhaps not a wise move!
    A friend of mine – who has since become a Labor regional MP – remembers going to a public meeting attended by McNamara and Tehan in ’98, where National Party members yelled out “Stop taking us for granted!” to loud applause.

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