In Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed UpGabrielle Chan delves deep into the experiences of the inhabitants of her home, the small rural town of Harden-Murrumburrah, to gain insight into the wider Australian political situation. Chan offers a rich analysis of the challenges faced by struggling rural communities, writes John Tomaney, which moves beyond desiccated economics to tell a human story. 

Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Gabrielle Chan. Penguin Books Australia. 2019.

The 2019 Australian Federal Election can be added to the list of political shocks sweeping western democracies. Defying a long series of opinion polls, the Australian Labor Party failed to wrest power from the ruling Liberal-National Coalition. A chaotic, divided and gaffe-prone government slightly increased its number of seats in the House of Representatives. Political scientists will long ponder precisely what happened. But the Coalition’s victory was narrow in vote share, supporting suggestions that Australia is marked by deep political fault lines of class, generation and educational attainment. Notably, working-class voters failed to heed Labor’s call. The preference-based electoral system meant votes for populists and independents played a key role in the outcome, leading some in the commentariat to consider whether this is Australia’s Trump or Brexit moment.

A striking feature of the election was its geography. While inner-city Sydney and Melbourne saw swings to Labor, the outer suburbs and, notably, ‘regional Australia’ voters swung toward the Coalition. The term ‘regional Australia’ refers to a political space beyond the populous cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (‘Metropolitan Australia’ or the ‘Capital Cities’) – typically the sparsely populated ‘Bush’. (Beyond lies the remoteness of the ‘Outback’.) Regional Australia contains only 30-40% of the national population, but most of the country’s agricultural and mining production, which generates a large component of Australia’s export earnings.

Gabrielle Chan’s Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up, although published before the election, helps to make at least partial sense of its outcome. Chan draws on her unusual experience of being brought up in cosmopolitan inner Sydney, marrying a farmer and moving to rural New South Wales (NSW), as well as working as a lobby correspondent in the Federal parliament in Canberra, to offer insights into the political economy of struggling communities. She delves deeply into the experience of her home, the small town of Harden-Murrumburrah, a four-hour drive west of Sydney and 90 minutes north-west of Canberra. Using her journalistic skills, she tells her story mainly through the voices of the town’s inhabitants.

Image Credit: (James Cridland CC BY 2.0)

The common narrative of regional Australia is one of rise and decline. Chan chronicles the particular development of Harden-Murrumburrah from early European settlement on the back of sheep and wheat farming and the Gold Rush of the 1850s. The population grew when it developed into a railway town and became a centre for agricultural services, food processing and small manufacturing. For most of the twentieth century these industries provided well-paid, unionised jobs and the town thrived as a retail and social centre. But this prosperity has vanished. The railway jobs have gone, factories have closed and the knock-on effects mean the closure of banks and shops in the town and pressure on public services. Agriculture is still important, and some farmers have automated, scaled up and prospered, but the workforce has withered, and the industry is tied to the vagaries of global commodity markets. All this means that a ‘neglected class’ has emerged in rural towns.

The book is strong on the perverse local consequences of misguided, centrally designed government policy and offers some telling examples. Chan claims that government policies are founded upon a ‘disregard of place’ (45) that fuels distrust in government. She tells the story of ‘Dougo’, the local pharmacist, who is full of insight into the community’s health problems, especially the growing dependence on prescription opioids, but is frustrated about his inability to effect change. Another story concerns how the government stimulus package in the aftermath of the global financial crisis led to the building of unwanted school halls across rural Australia.

Politically, the focus is on the need to improve the representation of regional Australia in the Federal parliament. Chan registers the failures of the National Party, which dominates politics in rural NSW and Queensland and is the junior Coalition partner, but shows little concern for the ‘neglected class’. Although the Labor Party originated in the Bush, notably as a result of the 1891 Shearer’s Strike, it is now the party of the affluent inner cities. Chan charts the growing political volatility in regional Australia and invests hope in the rise of the independents, while acknowledging that, typically, like pyrotechnics, they burst into life and burn brightly before running out of energy. In parts of regional Australia, notably mining areas, populist, xenophobic parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party have gained a foothold.

Chan stops short of proposing a programme of action for Regional Australia. (Those interested in what one might look like should consult the work of the Regional Australia Institute.) Chan is clear that strategies of ‘jobs and growth’ are largely irrelevant in small-town Australia and some of her thinking chimes with emerging debates about the ‘foundational economy’ that move beyond a focus on tradable industries to prioritise the rebuilding of community infrastructure and public goods. Chan pays little attention, however, to building institutional capacity as a component of possible solutions. The focus on Federal-level politics overlooks the role of state governments, which are important players in the provision of services and infrastructure, or Australian local government which remains very weak and under-resourced by international standards. The latter seems a significant absence. Many of Chan’s interviewees appear to want more room locally to fashion better tailored solutions to the town’s problems and potential. In addition, a high-handed merger of local government in the region by the NSW government is a source of political disillusion in the town and interpreted by residents as an attack on their identity.

One of the most compelling themes in the book concerns Chan’s treatment of identity and belonging which is expressed in a ‘heartfelt emotional connection to place’ (34). She describes Harden-Murrumburrah as ‘the place in which I first understood a sense of belonging, of community and the impulses to protect it’ (1). Place and identity are intertwined, albeit in complex ways. Local identity is neither static nor monolithic, but mutable and multi-faceted. She highlights the surprising social and cultural diversity in small-town Australia and tells the fascinating tale of how the local history society set about recovering the town’s Aboriginal history and using the exercise to promote reconciliation with the land’s original owners. The Australian political class is ill-equipped to understand and respond to this and this, perhaps, is the root of the problem.

This is a book primarily about Australia, but it resonates strongly with recent literature on the electoral turn to Donald Trump in the US Rustbelt, the discontented France périphérique and ‘left-behind places’ in the UK.  Written in an engagingly distinctive Australian-English, Chan offers a rich analysis of the challenges facing her community but one which moves beyond desiccated economics to tell a human story.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.

Note: This review and interview gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

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