When I was on the ABC’s Q&A panel in April I said, “whoever gets in at the next election, we need to see some investment [in regional Australia] because we’re on life support out here.”
For too long, rural and regional Australia has been forgotten – out of sight and out of mind for both state and federal Governments. I’ve seen the continual decline as services are torn out of regional centres and experienced the devastating effect that natural disasters have had on our people and communities.
That’s why, when Australia voted for change at the federal election in May, I was hopeful it might coincide with a change of luck for regional communities. When I returned to my home in western NSW, however, I found that many didn’t share my sense of hope. In fact, for many, the fear was palpable.
We often hear about the city/country divide in Australia, but what I’ve noticed over recent weeks is a country/ALP divide.
Despite a few independents running strong campaigns, the regionally focused National Party managed to retain all their seats.
The Liberal Party also fared quite well in the country, largely retaining their regional seats, while suffering significant losses in and around capital cities.
Labor, on the other hand, performed very well around the capital cities, but barely managed to hold onto their regional NT seat of Lingiari, suffering a 4.5% swing against them.
It is worth considering why, after years spent neglecting rural communities, the coalition remains relatively popular in regional Australia.
Some might say it’s a result of Labor’s more ambitious climate targets, but I would argue against this.
Recent Australia Institute research showed that 78% of regional Aussies believe we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. The idea that country folk don’t recognise the need for climate action has been pushed by conservative politicians with particular agendas, but it’s far from reality.
So why didn’t rural Australia turn red, like the cities? For much of the campaign Labor were tight-lipped on big issues that affect rural areas like a drought strategy, live exports, and Murray Darling water recovery.
The few regionally focused commitments that were made received scant media attention. This approach, combined with a prolonged fear campaign from the coalition, created angst and uncertainty about what a Labor government means for the regions.
Labor now has a choice: they can work with people in the country and prove to us that they’re seeking ‘a better future’ for both city and regional Australians, or they can deepen the current divide.
Murray Watt, the new Agriculture Minister, has said climate action will be an opportunity for Labor to connect with the bush and I couldn’t agree more. But we have many more problems to address than climate change.
Labor would do well to progress their election commitments around digital connectivity, aged care and regional telehealth as soon as possible. But that, too, won’t be enough in isolation.
David Littleproud, the new leader of the National Party, also has a choice to make: he can act as a conduit between Parliament House and regional Australia by working constructively with Labor to ensure our voices are heard in Canberra. Or he can lead a party that will spend the next three years fanning the flames of fear that are currently simmering in the bush.
His predecessors may have struggled to put politics aside, but I hope he will choose the former and do what’s best for those of us in the country’s heartland.
It’s undeniable that, when it comes to winning the trust of regional voters, all political parties have their work cut out for them. I just hope, whatever choices they make, they consider the part of Australia that has already been on life support for far too long.
Kate McBride is a fifth-generation farmer and Anne Kantor Fellow at independent think tank The Australia Institute.