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excerpt from Max Bourke’s presentation at the ‘Bush Futures? Forum’

‘Bourke, M. 'Revaluing the Bush’, insites; newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Autumn 1999

Images of the bush battler lie deep in the Australian psyche. They are reinforced endlessly by country folk museums and radio programmes like Macca's Australia All Over. They seek to capture an era that has passed and in so doing create a culture that resists change celebrates adversity.

Well-run agricultural operations of sufficient scale are profitable and some very profitable. The problem is that we live under a welter of media stories, many of them self-inflicted, that show how impoverished the bush is and how 'crook things are in Tallarook'. As someone who chairs a company which establishes large and I think, well-run, rural enterprises, we have to suffer the consequences of the image of the 'bush battler'. The bad news has got through, the so-called smart money does not want to touch country investments in the main.

One hundred and nine billion dollars of Australian capital investment earns 1.3% return and it is all on Australian farms. In rural Australia there is a huge capital sum tied up earning so little. The solution lies in new forms of economic growth and development of the civil society, a rich vein that has languished to some extent.

Producers that deliver products onto world markets have to respond to complex international price forces. Only one in five broadacre producers deliver products for the domestic market, and only one in ten in the cotton industry. The rest grow for export. There are now better genetic materials, crop and animal protection, harvesting and storage products resulting in huge efficiency gains. The downside is that countries are very happy to distort markets by subsidising over-production and making our highly efficient growers push down their prices.

It is a truism that the current returns and the current overcapitalisation of the Australian farm directly affects the quality of life, not only of farmers and graziers, but also of the communities in which they live.

The year before last we pulled off one of the largest wheat harvests in record time. We operated headers with 30 feet cutter bars, loading into 8-double trailers, pulling 30 tonnes of wheat at 100km an hour. The wheat was delivered to silos which now operate 18 hours or more a day, due to changes in work practices.

Only forty years ago we were putting wheat into bags, hand sewing them, loading them on to trucks hauling 5 tonnes at 40km an hour to storage that operated from nine to five. No wonder there are less people living and working in small towns. Farm employees have and are being replaced by machinery, as has occurred in the rest of the industrialised world. Ask a modern farmer if he or she would rather go back to lumping wheat bags and you know the response.

Ask the same farmers, men and women, if they would prefer to drive their cars at 50km per hour over unsealed roads to the small local town, rather than the extra hour at 110km per hour, to a large air conditioned shopping mall in a regional centre just like their city cousins. Stop and think about these issues and you will see why small towns are dying, and it is not necessarily some amorphous thing called "the Government" which is at fault. We have changed in what we do and what we aspire to.

We do not have to rehearse the reasons for our attachment to the bush. We don't need to examine whether the attachments still exist between city and country. I sometimes hear rural people lamenting that "city people do not care about the bush". Who wants sympathy for a choice of lifestyle or occupation? I would rather have respect for a job well done.

As someone who briefly managed the Office of Multicultural Affairs, I know there will be someone tonight of Vietnamese or Bosnian background, living in inner western Sydney, trying to bring up kids without a partner, say, working her guts out to keep the family together and to pay the bills. Her life experiences, including the imperative for migration, may well have been horrendous. Her struggle to support and nurture a family in tough economic times will he every bit as alienating, lonely and fraught with hardship as anyone in rural Australia.

In truth she will not think about people in the bush any more than they think about her. This is not 'heartlessness' or lack of interest, it is just a matter of getting on with their lives as best as they can. Their kids are also likely to be unemployed, their community services and commercial services are contracting and they are fearful themselves of economic hardship. Perhaps they run a small food shop that is being swamped by the big shopping mall or the franchise food chain down the road. They too want to work and have fulfilling lives and careers for their kids.

This century has seen the greatest explosion of museum and gallery building and collecting, of heritage laws and national parks, ever seen in the history of humans. There does not seem to be the funds to look after national parks or historic buildings in perpetuity. Most heritage and conservation Ministers are happy to argue the case for conservation of the built or natural heritage up to a point where they think they can carry their Cabinet colleagues and the electorate. If that observation is accurate then they are perceiving that there is less need for support services in these fields than there was a decade ago. They believe that less resources are what the overall community expects.

There is less support for the things you care about than there appeared to be some time ago. I would hazard a guess that it would be impossible to stitch together today that absolutely extraordinary social alliance brought together in the Green Bans era. To my mind, as a student of human behaviour, the image of Jack Mundey linking arms with the matrons of the National Trust to protect historic buildings was extraordinary. It attracted not only our attention but world wide attention. So I would cite an effort to encourage 'civic engagement' as crucial to defending bush lives and central to creating bush futures.

There is a strong future in rural Australia which includes protected cultural and natural heritage sites. There might become a lot more cultural heritage sites in need of protection as enterprises and lifestyles change. Clever people though will find ways to use that cultural heritage either directly for their present livelihoods or as an interest to visitors and tourists.


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