In the slanting early morning light the gentle prettiness of the settled rolling hills and the mist rising from the green pastures of the New South Wales Northern Tablelands made for a bucolic vision.
It reminded me of Tasmania. Then came the moldering country towns, with ‘For Sale’ signs on too many empty houses and defunct businesses. That too reminded me of Tasmania.
The New England region may be 1000 kilometres away from my home state but it is by no means a world away. My fellow Tasmanians and the two hundred thousand New Englanders actually inhabit the same world. It’s a place called Regional Australia, well beyond the backblocks of affluence where too many people are down on their luck in the lucky country.
In the 12th biggest economy in the world, the thirty percent of Australians who live outside a handful of thriving coastal cities endure the nation’s longest hospital queues and the worst outcomes in all medical categories and also have the highest unemployment and the lowest wages, the lowest high school retention rates and the highest adult illiteracy.
The above litany of so-called ‘adverse socio-economic indicators’ goes on. I won’t depress you further with it and besides what is the point? In this column I fear I am only preaching to the converted. Here, the worst affected of our people, the fifty percent of Tasmanians who are the so-called ‘functionally illiterate’ won’t even be able to read it.
So let’s just keep between our selves, the shocking reality that the other half of us are mired in generational ignorance and futility and no one seems to know the way out.
But still, this is the headline I would love to see;
THE SHOCKING STORY HALF OF YOU CAN’T READ.
So I’m on a road trip through New England. I could be blissfully as ignorant as a tourist, about the grim social under-currents beneath the pleasant landscape. Except that my travelling companion, the man behind the wheel, keeps telling me about it. His name is Barnaby Joyce and what he tells me about his place, is what I already know about my place.
In New England some people are travelling well. Prices are high for sheep and beef. Orchards, grain and chickpeas are going great. In towns like Tamworth and Armidale the traders are faring well too, not so much on the sheep’s back as on the Federal taxpayers.
“There’s a huge cash reservoir of social welfare payments”, Barnaby tells me. “Funding a large and growing underclass who have moved into the bush, living in cheap, run down properties and doing well enough not to have any incentive to improve themselves.”
Sounds familiar? That’s our problem too. If the indigent don’t care, why should anyone else? Business confidence surveys suggest in New England as in Tasmania that there is hope in the air. Of course only the elites respond to those surveys. If you don’t have a business and you can’t read or write, then your level of optimism might go unrecorded. Leaving only one equivocal measure of joy on Struggle Street; the millions of dollars going through the pokies every month in our most disadvantaged suburbs.
Driving through charmingly ramshackle New England villages, Barnaby, the man who is now the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, points out the real-estate bargains. “A young couple needs almost a million dollars in Sydney to buy an average-priced home. Look what you can get here for $150,000.”
In the charming town of Nundal, an old timber and brick Federation gold town down on its luck, I felt like moving in right away. But what would I do for a living? That’s the same question you might ask in Levendale or Cressy or Derby back in Tassie. If you were not on welfare, and not a farmer, what would you do? Grow drugs or go into politics? And which would be the more stupefying?
While I was touring Barnaby’s sprawling 60,000 square kilometer, Federal Electorate of New England, the population of Australia hit 24 million. Yet never has there been a time when a smaller percentage of us live in what used to be called ‘the bush’, now just called ‘the regions’. Here we are outnumbered almost 4:1 by urban Australia. In our parliaments our voice is drowned out by the big city clamor.
I can happily report that our new Deputy Prime Minister is passionate about the regions. He has a first-hand grasp of the problems but with the National Party subsumed in a power sharing embrace with the urban Liberals it remains to be seen what he can achieve for us forgotten Australians. He laughed, but didn’t demur, when I reminded him that he once said, “I hate the Liberals. The Liberals’ view of Australia is the view from Sydney Harbour.”
I’m a sucker for humble origins, coming from that part of the world myself. Barnaby showed me the modest cottage of his childhood now in a less than charming state of disrepair. In the decaying town of Woolbrook, we visited the tiny school where he first rose above his peers, to become the school captain.
Though, there wasn’t much competition. “I remember one of the guys was already smoking and another was having a little trouble with the law so I was the one left standing,” Barnaby recalls. “But it’s a great thing, I think, that a kid can start in the bush without any advantages and go from a little clap-board school in a place called Woolbrook and get to University. And then to end up as Deputy Prime Minister of Australia! That’s not a bad thing.”
I can’t disagree.
• The New Daily: Electorate warns ‘disturbing’ mine could cause Joyce’s downfall Residents in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate warn he could lose his seat at the election for doing “absolutely nothing” to stop a $1.2 billion mining project in New England. The claims came as former independent member for New England, Tony Windsor (above), was expected to announce on Thursday he would run against Mr Joyce at the upcoming national poll (STOP PRESS: He has). In August 2015, CFMEU polling showed Mr Windsor would come “very close” to winning the New England electorate from Mr Joyce if an election was held, Queensland Times reported …