Connecting the regions to politics
By Mark Swivel
The bush has changed. Our perception of regional Australia needs a serious update. In Young I’ve met dozens of Lycra clad cyclists downing macchiatos on a Saturday morning. In Albury my mate coaches a teenage soccer team whose stars are Bhutanese refugees. In Byron Bay another mate’s travel business sends thousands of retirees overseas every week.
The politicians in the city don’t understand us. Perhaps they’re too busy being busy to know what’s happening outside. They might have a weekend in Orange, but that’s to switch off not to understand how new cultures are sprouting across Australia. The Nationals used to own country seats. They spoke for farming communities and backed protectionism to support them. But since we globalized and scrapped subsidies, the Nationals shifted from farmers to mining. People have noticed. Farmers have migrated to the Shooters, independents and even the Greens.
In the regions it feels like no one is really listening to us. No one talks our language. From hard core economic issues to cultural ones. I live in Mullumbimby, near Byron Bay. I moved here in 2012, from Sydney and you could not find a more urban person than me. Yet here I have never felt so at home because it reminds me of the Sydney I grew up in. Today I see the very real challenges but also huge untapped opportunities.
So much of regional Australia is just like the city. The corrugated tin roof has given way to the project home. Suburbs are springing up all over Australia, with home theatres and Netflix, a pool in the backyard. Our culture is the same in Wagga Wagga as it is in Penrith. Community experience, identities and politics are converging with those of the city. And politics hasn’t caught up.
In my community business is thriving. Flow Hive – which make kegs that pour honey - started in Lismore garage and now exports to the world. Trip a Deal began in a modest office on Byron Bay’s industrial estate, employs over 100 people and features on the AFR’s Fast 100 list. Local powerhouse Enova Energy is leading the transition to renewables as Australia’s first community owned electricity retailer. Every region has stories like this. We need to provide innovation and entrepreneurship with better government support.
People work hard in the regions but way too many don’t have a job or enough work. Government must provide more incentives for regional investment and job creation. More public service departments can be located in the regions now technology has enabled de-centralization. Scarce public funds should be directed into seed capital to expand new small business. But the starting point is honesty: we are in denial about unemployment in the regions. In the hot spots of the mid north coast of New South Wales and regional Queensland, a quarter of our young people have no job!
Farming remains the lifeblood of our regions. Big agriculture still dominates our discussion of farming - that’s where the money and the jobs are. But small agriculture – with its new methods – is a key part of the future. Thousands of family farms still survive and they are hurting. Small scale farming is also important to our long-term food security. Boutique produce has real export potential – from buffalo mozzarella to macadamias. Farming and land use are also central to any successful response to climate change. The National Farmers Federation know that, but Canberra is not really listening.
We have a full blown crisis on the driest habitable continent on the planet. People understand why we created markets: to put a value on water and allocate it efficiently. But most people, particularly those in the country most affected by it, think the system has failed. As the rivers start to die and fish kills become normal, people see beyond the market. Water’s value is greater than its price and community needs are not being met. Buy backs can work but a bolder approach is required. Vested interests have set the terms of the market and people have been shut out. A better balance needs to be struck, one that puts communities rather than rights holders first. The 2007 Water Act is inadequate. We need to pause the Murray-Darling Basin Water Plan and rethink how water works, for our communities.
Today’s bush likes coffee as much as beer, Thai food as well as sausages. Government must confront the challenges and opportunities of the regions. We must take urgent action to fix our water crisis and take climate change seriously. Now. And we must seize the opportunities that our regional communities offer us. We should move more government functions in our regional towns and cities. We need to acknowledge that country folk are inventive and enterprising, they generate jobs and export dollars. The regions are ready to get on with the job – and Canberra needs to start listening. And acting.
Mark Swivel is a lawyer, playwright, comedian and singer. He is standing for the Australian Senate in NSW for The Together Party.