LAST week we saw the Labor opposition selectively highlight demographics in an attempt to measure how representative the Abbott-Truss government is. But this does not serve to inform the public of anything substantial.
The commentary has focused on the lack of women in the Abbott-Truss ministry. But in terms of outcomes, gender is less important than geography.
Representatives with a broad range of experiences who are connected to constituents will result in real and effective change.
Aside from competence – a commodity lacking around the cabinet table for the past six years – individual experience informs the decision-making process more than gender, religion or race.
The Rudd-Gillard governments, in their various guises, suffered from a significant lack of regional experience in their ministries. At the low-water mark, there were no cabinet ministers who represented regional areas. This was evident in the decisions the government made that had disproportionately negative impacts on regional economies and communities – decisions such as bringing in the carbon tax, the mining tax and shutting down the live export trade, to name just a few.
The former government’s own figures showed that the carbon tax made electricity at least 10 per cent more expensive and gas bills at least 9 per cent more expensive, rising each year as the carbon tax increases. This hit families, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers in regional areas particularly hard.
One year after the implementation of the carbon tax, dairy farmers were experiencing an estimated cost increase of between $5500 and $7000 a year.
The ban on live exports was similarly disastrous for regional communities in Australia’s north. Indeed, Australia’s largest beef cattle producer, Australian Agricultural Company, blamed the suspension of live exports to Indonesia for a March-quarter loss of $46.5 million. The uncertainty has had serious effects on exporters’ livelihoods and consequently on their mental health.
Changing the eligibly rules for Youth Allowance, disproportionately disadvantaging rural and regional students, was another example of the former government’s contempt for rural Australia. Or perhaps there was simply no one at the cabinet room table who thought to ask, “How will this affect country kids?”
In 1999, National Party leader John Anderson said: “The sense of alienation, of being left behind, of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution to the nation being made, is deep and palpable in much of rural and regional Australia today.” That mood has been felt strongly in many regions during the past six years.
In stark contrast, more than 30 per cent of those in the Abbott-Truss ministry have direct and significant experience of regional Australia. Interestingly, they are not all farmers, neither are they all men, but each understands the crucial role local industry plays in underpinning the national economy. This understanding is more important than gender in making the strategic decisions necessary in government. Regional Australia has the most to lose from hasty, ill thought out political decisions and is often the first and worst hit in recessionary periods. It will also lead our economic recovery. This is the reason it needs adequate representation at the decision-making level of government. As the academic Jennifer Curtin has noted: “Rural representation provides us with a social perspective that is fluid but place-based. Without it we risk undermining the communicative and responsive dimensions of a representative democracy.”
That is why the Abbott-Truss ministry has prioritised rural and regional Australia.
It’s important that our political representatives have a range of personal experiences, so each member can, in the words of Edmund Burke, exercise their “unbiased opinion, mature judgment, enlightened conscience”. Our role is to represent our constituents, not to simply reflect the physical make-up of Australia’s population.
I am sure we would all like to see more women, fewer lawyers and union officials and a greater diversity of ages, backgrounds and cultures in our parliament and in senior government positions, to better reflect the population of modern Australia. This is something that will happen over time.
In the meantime though, geography is more important than demography in governing for all Australians.
Bridget McKenzie is a Nationals senator for Victoria.