Australia: The regions remain Australia's ideas wellspring

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Aug 22 13:53:31 UTC 2007

The regions remain Australia's ideas wellspring

Rupert Myer
August 22, 2007

THERE can be little argument that Australia has been defined clearly
by its rural rather than its urban life. Our nation's strongest myths
and legends come from what some still refer to as "the bush", but
which is now more often described as the less poetic, regional
Australia. In the first century of European settlement and the second
and now the third, it has been a place of awesome challenges and
outstanding opportunity. It was a place celebrated and mythologised,
by our writers and painters. We are all familiar with the works of
Henry Lawson and the iconic images created by artists such as Tom
Roberts and Arthur Streeton.

If anyone thought of an image of Australia, it was not the reality of
its predominantly urban and coastal settlement that was conjured up,
but a scene of rural Australia. The themes that captured our artists'
attention were those characterised by the Heidelberg School in
paintings that speak of a new beginning, of people toiling to build a
new nation, images often of heroism, determination, tragedy and
despair. Today, Australia is even more urbanised and the economy is
highly diversified. Even so, the resources and rural sectors remain
fundamentally important in driving our economy.

This regional dominance occurs even though there would be many
Australians who have never ventured beyond the fringes of the big

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey,
recently released figures showing that regional Australia is
continuing to benefit from strong economic and labour market
conditions, and that regional unemployment was declining.

Western Victoria surprised many with an 8.9 per cent growth in jobs,
outstripping many of the gains in resource-based areas.

Also in recent days, in an address at the University of Canberra, Dr
Anne Garnett spoke about her recent study "Labour Market Adjustment in
Rural Australia". Dr Garnett mentioned the fall in rural unemployment
to 3.4 per cent. However, she argued that the main reason was net
migration to coastal and metropolitan centres, which was reflected in
dwindling services.

She predicted there would be insufficient labour to meet requirements
following the ending of the drought, which caused job losses of about
100,000 in the agricultural sector. In the five years to 2005, more
than 440,000 people had left rural areas.

Dr Garnett urged the highly contentious piloting of a scheme to bring
temporary guest workers from the Pacific to cope with drastic labour

High demand for employment, transient and seasonal workers, labour and
skills shortages, labour mobility, unyielding levels of youth
unemployment and the debate about guest workers are clear examples of
issues born from regional Australia that become significant issues of
public policy affecting the whole country.

Many of the threshold issues for Australia's social harmony and
economic prosperity are being worked through by people living in
regional Australia.

It is in the small and medium-sized cities and towns that the issues
have to be faced head-on and practical solutions found. While the same
issues exist in pockets of the capital cites, they can remain
invisible to the general population.

The people of metropolitan Australia may share these concerns, but
there is not the same opportunity for engagement, and certainly less
of a sense of urgency because the problems are obscured by myriad
distractions and insularity of big-city living.

The experience gained as regional communities become more creative and
resourceful in managing our society and economy will increasingly
influence and inform national policy.

The intergenerational issues that the country is presently considering
and debating are more focused on Maningrida and the Murray-Darling
Basin than they are on Moonie Ponds and Mascot.

Very current in that discussion is the unanimous desire, but
enormously challenging task, of removing once and for all barriers
that prevent indigenous Australians from enjoying the same health,
education and employment opportunities as other Australians.
Indigenous unemployment is many multiples higher than the present
national levels. The 17-year gap in life expectancy between indigenous
and other Australians is a hugely significant issue of public policy.
There has been much coverage given to the Northern Territory's report
"Our Children are Sacred" and, as a consequence, there is now feverish
discussion about the appropriate policy responses.

This discussion is spilling over to all parts of Australia, indigenous
and non-indigenous. There is already broad discussion about welfare
reform and whether welfare should be conditional to everyone. Should
government benefits continue to be paid if your children are not
attending school or are malnourished or are being abused? It is the
Cairns-based Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership that has
been leading the research and debate on many of these issues.

Our whole approach to welfare may be hugely influenced by whether the
pilot welfare reform project works well in regional Australia.

In Shepparton, which is said to have the largest concentration of
indigenous people in Australia, the development of organisations like
Gambina, Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, Rumbalara Football and
Netball Club, Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships and projects like
Mission Australia's Regional Environment and Employment Program
confirm that it is regional Australia that is developing the
considered responses to one of Australia's most urgent social issues.

These models are offering specific outcomes on health, housing,
training, employment and improved economic prospects. They are also
influencing government policy and attracting funding.

Another big issue affecting regional Australia is the settlement of
refugee and other migrant groups into long established communities.
Since the end of the Second World War, more than 650,000 refugees have
settled in Australia. Greater Shepparton, for example, has a highly
multicultural resident population, many of whom arrived in Australia
as refugees.

Victorian Government figures reveal that in 2001, the largest language
groups in the Shepparton district after English are Italian, Arabic,
Turkish, Greek and Macedonian. There are now 40 different nationality
groups in the region as a result of immigration, with each decade
since the 1970s bringing new groups from Turkey, the Philippines,
South-East Asia, the former Yugoslavia, and more recently Iraq,
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East to add to the earlier
European migrant settlers.

The learnings and local experiences about the need for greater local
support in settlement are finding broader audiences in regional
centres like this. In areas such as environment and climate change,
the discussion and debate is at full volume in regional Australia.
What gets agreed there will have profound consequences for
metropolitan Australia. Issues around water and the rivers are the
most prominent, but there are also discussions about sustainable
development more generally.

There is hardly a part of regional Australia that does not get drawn
into present discussions and debates about long-term environmental
change, and much of the research and policy development is occurring
here. In the area of cultural development, regional Australia is not
just at the heart of the nation's creative endeavour, it is also at
the heart of the discussion of how best to create and use our cultural

Only a few weeks ago, we observed the National Gallery of Australia
purchase of Clifford Possum's painting, Warlugulong. This work was
produced in a remote, impoverished part of the country, yet the NGA
considers it absolutely central to our cultural values and an object
that ought to be held in trust for the public in perpetuity. Next
year, we will be bombarded with images of Baz Luhrman's new film
Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, being filmed in
the sweeping landscape of the Kimberleys.

In both these cases, and as in the past, it is regional imagery that
will again impact our national psyche.

There are plenty of other areas where regional Australia is impacting
on future policy, including education and the role of regional
universities as well as places like Djarragun College in Cairns and
their inspiring principal, Jean Illingworth.

There are also examples of regional communities leading in training
for financial literacy and inclusion, transportation hubs, access to
health care and the development of improved communications and
broadband access.

Regional Australia should make the most of this moment before the
pendulum returns to the issues that more often directly affect the
big-city dwellers. Some things are crucial for regional Australians:

■Seek every opportunity to expose and amplify the things that work,
encouraging policymakers and opinion leaders to come and discuss what
is being done.

■Consider the possibilities of replicating and propagating the
successful models, actions and policies that emerge from your own

■Acknowledge that local support for projects can lead to national
policy ― good practical solutions in themselves compel our politicians
to adopt them.

■Measure outcomes all the time so that policies can be pursued with
evidence-based knowledge and certainty.

■Encourage new generations and broader groups to participate in the
establishment of rural and regional philanthropic trusts and

Much of the clever public policy to come is being developed right now
in regional Australia. Let's hope that the smart ideas get a good run
and are adopted more broadly.

Rupert Myer is chairman of the National Gallery of Australia and
Mission Australia's Youth Strategy and Advocacy Group and a board
member of Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships.

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