Can Australia avoid America's bane: the rural-urban divide
The polarisation of US society along an essentially rural-urban divide has been highlighted by the recent Presidential election. This is one of the most important challenges the United States faces and it is not yet clear how it will be met, if at all. In Australia many of the factors driving this divide in US are present. However Australia is not yet experiencing a divide of the severity that is evident in the US. Australia must recognise this difference and work to ensure we do not follow the US down the path of bitter rural-urban division.
The most talked about feature of the US presidential election was the demographic and spatial divides long suspected but suddenly very clearly in view. David Taylor in his article Republican White Guys Don’t Jump (The Australian 22 January) highlights that only 690 of more than 3000 counties on the US went Obama’s way on election night, meaning essentially that the cities – younger, more ethnically diverse and more educated – chose Mr Obama. The rural areas – older, whiter, less educated – went for Mr Romney.
A glance at Australia suggests that we have the same issues in play. The heavily divided and often bitter political debate is a reality. Our sparsely populated rural areas continue to favour the conservative side of politics while the inner city votes progressive. Regional areas are also less culturally diverse, less educated and ageing faster than our metropolitan areas.
All the ingredients are there for the urban-rural divide to grow and prosper in Australia. A sense of this sometimes enters national discussion, particularly in the recent policy debates over water and climate change which have been characterised by some as the urban pushing an agenda on the regional.
However I would argue that despite these ingredients for the US problem, Australia doesn’t have it yet.
Firstly, our politics is much more complicated. Despite being more urbanised that the US, Australia has rural representatives deeply involved in the current government and also fiercely putting alternative views as members of the opposition or cross benches. Our national debate is taking place as much or more often between people from the regions as it is between the bush and the city.
The Greens current priority of developing support in rural areas is also an interesting feature of the Australian political landscape. Successful or not, this is evidence that the political and ideological divisions between rural and urban areas in the US are not currently as clear cut in Australia.
The central role that regional Australia plays in our economy and society despite our urbanisation is also crucial. Regional industries such as mining and agriculture remain as driving forces for our economy and can grow to meet Asian opportunities. These industries are drawing some city people to regional areas (even if only on a fly-in, fly-out basis) and also providing a valuable source of city based employment and business while other sections of the economy adjust and find pathways for renewed growth.
But this does not change the inherent dangers of the situation or mean we can rest on our laurels.
To avoid the fate of the US we must have an inclusive national debate on policy that draws the regions in to the national narrative rather than pushing regional issues and perspectives further to the sidelines.
Urban areas also need to recognise that mining developments and other economic changes which we expect will benefit the country as a whole can be traumatic and difficult for small regional communities. This doesn’t mean that regions need to be paid off or seen as victims. Rather, we need policy settings and a public capable of responding to differences in the needs and experience of communities and where appropriate devolving power and resources so that regions can have greater control of their own destiny.
Regions also need to take responsibility for their future. This means developing the confidence to step up and demonstrate that the easy stereotypes of ‘backwards’ and resistant to change are not true. Regional areas can change and adapt just as fast and successfully as many urban areas but they may not naturally do so. Dynamism occurs in pockets within regional Australia right now, but this is not sufficient. This change must come from regions themselves – the city cannot help us if we do not act to help ourselves.
I would argue strongly that there is no need for rural and urban Australia to be pitted against one another as they are in the US. Ultimately both sides will lose when we can least afford to. Australia has avoided this trap so far and we need to make sure that we continue to do so.
By Jack Archer, General Manager Research and Policy
Published on The Punch, 6 February 2013