Reporting of Rural Australia: fearless or fair?

Organised by the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism, seminar Armidale 9th October 2000

By Åsa Wahlquist.

The topic Reporting of rural Australia: fearless or fair? assumes there is reporting of country Australia to judge.

My real concern is the absence of any reporting on country Australia by the major metropolitan media that goes beyond colour and movement, the cliches that reinforce city dweller prejudices.

I should at the outset distinguish between metropolitan and national media. Generally speaking the national media at least acknowledges rural and regional Australia.

They understand it is integral not just to the national economy, but also to who we are.

But read most metropolitan papers, and you would never know that one third of the population lives outside the capital cities.

There is next-to-no-coverage of country social issues, of regional problems, or even the highly productive agriculture and mining industries, which despite being unfashionably old economy, still underpin the national economy.

In fact, were the metro media to look closely at those industries they would discover a sophistication that would shock the cotton socks off many city folk.

And talking about those cotton socks, even internet millionaires have to eat and wear clothes.

Nothing, not the internet, not the Nasdaq, nor even a harbour view, is more important than food, water, our land, the air, the environment we live in.

Over the past five years there have been a number of major issues that were rooted in country Australia.

Issues like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, native title, land clearing and salinity, and genetically modified food. Then there is the growing political importance of country Australia as regional voters learn to flex their muscles.

Most of these issues have been poorly handled by the city media.

In some cases they did not know what was happening, or they underestimated the forces at work. In other cases they simply failed to understand them.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the city media was the defeat of the Kennett government in Victoria last year. Yet the signs were there for those with a eye to reading them.

In the lead up to the Victorian election I did an analysis of the role of rural independents in state parliaments.

For the record, rural independents hold the balance of power in the South Australia government. They have held the balance of power in the Queensland government, and Premier Beattie with his margin of one, is mindful of the power of the current rural independents.

Three rural independents, including the local member for this area, Richard Torbay, hold a powerful position in the New South Wales government.

Another of those three, Tony Windsor, who held the balance of power in an earlier NSW coalition government, enjoys the largest vote in the country.

In Western Australia, former Labor member Ernie Bridge was voted in at the last election as an independent, and he is keen to rally rural independent forces for the next election.

In the lead up to the Victorian election I interviewed the Mildura rural independent Russell Savage. He had inflicted one of the few defeats the Kennett Government suffered in the previous election, winning their fourth safest Liberal seat.

Savage said country people were going to grasp the opportunity to make their local members more accountable, and warned the seats with the big safe margins were the most vulnerable.

Well, the Melbourne media might have been astonished that the bush bit back, and threw Kennett out, but as you can see, to have a state parliament where three rural independents hold the balance of power merely brought Victoria into line with the other eastern states.

Federally there is just one rural independent, Peter Andren from central NSW.

When Howard was voted into government in 1996, Australia voted like two nations: Inside the Sydney/Canberra/Melbourne triangle Labor won 30 of the 54 seats. Outside that triangle it won just 18 of the 94 seats.

The extent of Howard’s win surprised many city-based commentators.

Essentially, regional Australia delivered Howard his first term of government.

Then, angered by the Howard government’s refusal to acknowledge their electoral importance, and the continuing cuts to country services, the Howard Government’s huge majority was slashed in the last election.

Next election if just seven coalition seats swing to Labor, the Howard government is out of office.

There are 30 coalition seats with margins of less than five per cent, including 10 with margins of under one per cent. Labor needs a swing of just over 0.5 per cent to win government.

Guess where many of those marginal seats are? In country Australia.

Now, in the last Federal election, 937,000 votes were cast for One Nation.

That’s 8.3 per cent of the vote.

I think it’s fair to say that after the desertions of One Nation’s Queensland’s parliamentary representatives, the expulsion of their NSW parliamentarian David Oldfield, and the continuing air of betrayal, hysteria and catastrophe that surrounds the party, One Nation will not enjoy so much support next time.

The real question is: who will all those past supporters cast their votes for at the next election?

Expect to see considerable effort being put into wooing those voters, the vast majority of whom live in country Australia.

One Nation gave country people a voice: it secured some attention from the city media who had ignored the plight of rural people, and particularly people in marginal areas, in the past.

And now, having broken their traditional voting patterns, and experienced – if only fleetingly – some attention for doing so, many voters are looking around for a credible alternative.

Some of them might find that alternative in a rural independent.

The profile of the successful rural independent is, speaking broadly, someone who once belonged to one of the three major parties, but left. Most have served in local government, quite a few are former mayors. All are well known and respected in the local community.

Looking at their track record so far, you could not expect the city media to fully understand and report this move.

It is, in part, a question of sources. Most journalists gain their information from party head office, from both the formal public relations team, and from their own sources, relationships they have built up.

But no head office will be identifying these independent candidates. The only way to find out what is going on will be to talk to people who live in the regions, by talking to lots of people in lots of regions. This is something most metropolitan newspapers do not have the resources, even if they have to the will, to do.

Country Australia found its voice last year, to the point where some city media called it, rather disparagingly, the RARA or rural and regional Australia lobby. They were so noisy there was even a backlash against the RARA in some metropolitan newspapers, although I challenge those commentators to list what country Australia actually received, apart from some attention.

Personally I was astonished by the resentment directed at the rural lobby by some city commentators. I suppose they were angered that country Australia has not joined them in their warm embrace of the globalism that had so profited them.

One of the difficulties confronting rural Australia is there is not one lobby group that represents them. That task has fallen, by default to the National Farmers’ Federation.

But it only represents farmers, who are a minority even in country Australia.

And it doesn’t even represent all the nation’s farmers, just the estimated 60 to 70 per cent who belong to the member farm organisations. The NFF has been at variance with at least some of the nation’s farmers over globalisation, native title and the waterfront, to name a couple of key issues, although given the effectiveness of the NFF’s PR, most Canberra-based journalists would not realise that.

There is another difficulty facing the city journalist wanting to understand rural Australia.

In the same way that there are differences between Melbourne and Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, country Australia is home to a great diversity of experiences.

Coastal towns, for example, often face the problem of growing too quickly.

Irrigation areas generally speaking are thriving. For example, the town of Griffith in southern NSW has an employment problem: there are simply not enough people to fill the jobs.

But many towns in the wheat/sheep belt are dwindling, as farm profitability and employment falls and services are centralised in the so-called sponge towns. Those sponge towns are growing.

Remote towns and communities face another set of unique problems.

What is the reader of the metropolitan media likely to learn about country Australia?

You can forget about looking at the business pages, despite the multi-million dollar businesses that thrive in rural Australia.

Apart from the occasional story about a one horse town and its quaint inhabitants, it is too often only in the food pages that country Australia is mentioned.

This means you are more likely to read about boutique cheese production, than the extraordinarily efficient dairy sector, which is still being rationalised, although the latter has far more relevance to most of our lives.

Now these writers might understand what we put in our mouths, but they do not necessarily understand how it got to be so.

One food writer for a major metropolitan paper wrote that milk was one of the few natural products in our diet.

When I quizzed him about that statement, he said it hadn’t been subject to breeding, like say, wheat, has. In fact over the last fifty years or so, milk production per cow has increased 300 per cent – due to a highly scientific process of assessment and selection.

I mention this incident because it is typifies the lack of understanding most city people have about food, about food production and the long human history of altering food to suit us. Yet many food writer, including the one I mentioned, have been very opinionated on an area of vital importance to farming, genetically modified food.

I have read a number of letters to the editor complaining that food crops, genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, will result in farmers spraying herbicides.

Conventional farmers are already using herbicides. The herbicide-resistant varieties actually are designed to reduce herbicide use, that’s their attraction to the farmer.

Reporting on the GM debate has certainly been fearless, but fair doesn’t seem enter the equation. In fact I cannot recall a debate in which so much misinformation has been peddled, much of it, I suspect, by people like the letter writers who don’t know enough about modern agriculture to know they are wrong.

For their part, many farmers are frustrated that they can not have access

to lower chemical use plants, because city people object on environmental grounds.

There are a number of major issues that are based in the country, but being argued largely in the city.

Issues like native title. One of the widely-reported contentions in the metropolitan media was that state governments were about to freehold leasehold land thus giving the leaseholders not only exemption from native title, but also windfall financial gains.

That was wrong. Anybody familiar with the principles underlying pastoral leasehold land, would have known freeholding was highly unlikely. And it would only have taken a couple of phone calls to confirm it would not occur.

But it seemed the city media was more intent on villifying leaseholders than accurately reporting the situation.

The city media also assumed leaseholders were all white. In fact, 18 per cent of Cape York leases, where the Wik claim was made, are held by indigenous interests.

And most failed to understand there was a vast difference between states. In Queensland, which was most vocal in its objections, most Aboriginal people were moved away from pastoral land generations ago and sent to reserves. Many leaseholders in that state were farming in ignorance of the restrictions placed on leasehold land.

However in South Australia and the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people, and not just native title holders, have always enjoyed access to pastoral leasehold land for traditional pursuits. Leaseholders in those areas knew they were subject to environmental controls and restrictions on farming on their properties, as well as periodic reviews of their land management.

I think the most distressing outcome of the native title debate was the terrible damage it inflicted on reconciliation in the bush. It is one thing for middle class Australians, whose land title is securely theirs alone, who scarcely ever meet an indigenous person, to come out en masse in support of reconciliation. It is quite another to reconcile in a small town after generations of tension and even conflict.

It can be done, Moree in northern NSW is the shining example of a country town turning around, but it takes much, much more than a morning of goodwill.

I am not saying this to belittle the sincere desire of city people for reconciliation.

Reconciliation is vital to our future, and nowhere more so than in country Australia, where a strong and healthy future will only be secured if indigenous people share that future in partnership with non-indigenous people. But it is a very different task in conflicted rural areas, from that in the leafy suburbs.

Then there is the matter of land clearing. The city media, ignorant of the subtleties of the debate, has no doubts that not only is land clearing wrong, but it should be banned.

But, looking back at our history, there are many reports from early European explorers of travelling through open grassy woodland, areas where there was grass up to the horse’s stomachs, and trees dotted the countryside, and crowded along watercourses.

That attractive landscape had been moulded by Aboriginal fire management. A couple of generations after the dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants, the cessation of their land management and the imposition of European farming, much of that

grassland had become scrub. Large sections, particularly out west, were degraded by the explosion of native scrub, otherwise known as woody weeds.

Is it really so wrong to clear such land? It certainly would not be inconsistent with long past practices.

I have to admit some annoyance about the insistence with which city people, speaking through the metropolitan media, expect country people to act in accordance with their value system, even though those actions can cost land users productivity and profitability.

I wonder how the city media would respond to the government, in the interests of

reducing air pollution, restricting the number of kilometres each city household could drive each day.

I have no doubt many country people, who frequently express their horror to me at the pollution they confront in the city, would support such a move. And it would be in the national interest, after all.

As Russell Savage says, country people want local representation that doesn’t say ‘we know what is best for you’. But as long as country voices are still not being heard in the metropolitan media, how will urban Australia know what country Australians want?

There is no doubt much reporting on rural Australia has been fearless. But fair and informed? I am afraid not.

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