It’s a pleasure to be here, I have been asked today to deliver the keynote address at the Bridging the Border conference hosted by the Murray River Group of Councils, which presupposes so much.
What I want you to know is that I am not a water expert, I am not a resident of any Murray River Group of Councils and I am not a farmer, but I am a resident of regional Victoria – the granddaughter of a high country cattleman and the daughter of a small business man. I am passionate about regional life and am the only Senator in federal parliament unashamedly focussed on regional Victoria, apologies to the New South Welshman and South Australians in the room.
Born and raised in country Victoria, I have lived in many regional towns thanks to a nomadic father following business opportunities, and know firsthand just how diverse regional areas are. But let’s be honest (and the research bears us out) if you have lived in one country town you could have lived in them all. There are common features across Katamatite and Korumburra – cultural similarities, rules unspoken, clear values, commitment to one another and a spirit of volunteerism.
Now with my caveats and conflicts on the table, I would like to open the Murray River Group of Councils conference for 2012, where over the coming two days you will be discussing the future of regional life along the 1500 km of shared border of the Murray River.
Your topics will include the billion dollar agriculture food production and processing industry, water, tourism, skills needs, infrastructure, regional wellbeing and population.
This speech is delivered on the Murray, a river of many functions – a method of transport, giver of life, source of economic wealth, leisure space and border with many bridges.
Since prior to federation and beyond, the river, who uses it and how have been a source of constant consternation and debate. In fact without the Corowa Plan, the very federation we are a part of would not have existed as NSW, Victoria and South Australia argued over the river. Each has their own way of regulating the river and their communities along it.
And so, locals deal daily with the realities of living in a cross jurisdictional minefield. This is something our local councils deal with on a day to day basis. What bureaucrats and politicians in far flung Spring Street or Canberra don’t realise is that regional life continues through common sense approach and collaboration, while they argue and negotiate. When centralised policy makers in Sydney or Melbourne decide to change laws, wages there can be significant implications here.
The building of infrastructure (and I will steer clear of the bridge) presents challenges but as the local group of council’s have made clear through their regional approach, can also provide significant opportunities.
Local government solves the problems and deals with the reality of living in border towns. State governments have still, 112 years later, not gotten over federation. The continued deep desire to centralise power of federal governments of either persuasion, despite moves over the past half century for specific decentralisation policies, has resulted in unintended consequences.
As a consequence, there is a lack of local input into Federal Government policy decisions.
In order to address these issues of dealing with three tiers of government, we can change the structures around distribution of decision making and resource allocation.
One possible solution is to have a regional level of government – a policy long championed by prime minister (for three days) Dr Earle Page. I am sure those who live and work on the border would find this type of common sense approach to serving communities attractive. Essentially, discussion around distribution of power and resources such as these go to the heart of what a social contract is.
A social contract formulates the relationship between citizen and state.
What freedoms are we prepared to give up to the state in exchange for what security?
The social contract was enunciated by Jean Jacques Rousseau and is one we struggle to fulfil in modern Australia for those of us living in the regions.
The historical social contract, that has underpinned our way of life, has recognised the importance of regional life and industries to our national life and economic wellbeing. These were self evident facts that are now less sure. The policy agendas that drove government to invest in irrigation infrastructure, in telecommunications, in soldier settlements, in rail projects no longer exist.
The modern Australian social contract between government and citizen needs to recognise the 30 percent of Australians who do not reside in urban cities and deserve to have meaningful input into governance.
Today I want to briefly touch on those factors that influence our life and how we live in the regions from an historical perspective, where the only constant is change.
Change is a function of life. As people who grew up in the country, there is a natural affinity for nature, an understanding of the natural order, of growth and decay, of transience. Farmers understand this, scientists too, and from a philosophical perspective (not necessarily political) so do conservatives.
So change is something we intuitively understand. Think about the local changes over time on the Murray – paddle steamers, farming practices have changed as a result of technological advancements, as a result of environmental impacts, as a result of government policy, as a result of war, as a result of international integration.
Given the number of you who are from the country – I assume that you are here as advocates – the fact that you are hear at all suggests you live in the regions and your job involves supporting, representing or deriving an income from the regions. Whether it be in the public sphere, private enterprise or as elected representatives, irrespective of the job title or political persuasion, you are here as an advocate for the regions. You fundamentally believe this is a worthwhile place to live, that it has an x factor, and that is exactly what we need.
People who are prepared to be leaders within their sphere of influence – not to preserve our way of life, that has connotations of mothballs and way too much salt (something we have had enough of up here) – but as a way of ensuring that what we hold dear about regional life will still be a part of the Australian identity and experience.
The social contract that began with our pioneering forefathers (and mothers) is one that needs to continue. The variables are changing, notions of freedom from what, to do what? Ideas of security, from what or whom, and we are going through a contractual renegotiation at present as we are an increasingly urbanised nation.
Where the weight of democracy, personal experience and perspectives determine the focus and priorities of any organisation (particularly government) the contract must remain in place. Strong advocacy is required to ensure its maintenance. It is difficult work, as the value of what we do is not valued as it used to be. Under the current framework, the assumption that regional communities should be profitable and vibrant needs to be reaffirmed.
The concepts underpinning our federation are that citizens are entitled, as part of the social contract, to have access to basic services across the sparsely populated nation. Whilst there has been erosion over time, there is still evidence of government’s contractual commitment through such mechanisms as the universal service agreements to balance the privatisation of telecommunication services, horizontal fiscal equalisation of the GST equation, and the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act, 1995 which sought to equalise revenue sharing.
There is a tension, which is increasing over time and has become a challenge for governments, when considering smaller rural and regional towns, especially in a user-pays framework. How should all levels of government deal with using urban dollar on regional infrastructure, on our schools, in our telecommunications?
In order to facilitate the social contract, Australia has developed a plethora of mechanisms to measure demography, geography and economic drivers, regional priorities. The unintended consequences of mechanisms splitting regional areas into inner, outer, using arbitrary definitions, do not take into account the realities of life on the ground at the local level. I think about the youth allowance debate – lines on a map or borders create more problems than they solve.
It seems the passion we have for local communities for all that is good and great about country life makes each of us in this room advocates for not only the local immediate space but for that quintessential x factor that keeps us championing regional communities generally.
The good story is that people have been talking about the decline of regional towns for a long time, there’s literature that goes back prior to World War 1 saying pack up your swag and go back to the city. There have been some positive indicators of population shift, which is really encouraging because we are flexible, resilient and we’re all here.
To understand the Murray River is to come to terms with Australia.
Without water there is no regional life – it sustains communities whether you are in Erica or Echuca.
Lao Tzu, a Chinese Philosopher traditionally considered the founder of philosophical
Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water, yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcomes the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful.
It seems to me that this ancient Chinese philosopher had it right: regional life needs water to sustain it and support it economically, socially and environmentally.
Regional life requires flexibility to tackle the natural environment. Droughts, whether it be the Federation drought that heralded in the Royal Commission of 1906 or the latest decade of drought resulting in the Water Act in 2007.
Similarly floods are part of the reality of regional life, thinking of Rochester, the Moira Shire. There is a story of Billie and Les Mitchell, who grew up in Echuca’s Shinbone Alley in the 1930’s an area inhabited by itinerant workers, timber cutters and other tradespeople. As the floodwaters rose, Billie’s father had to hang the family’s furniture on hooks attached to the ceiling. The doors and windows were left open to let the water flow freely through the house and the family would move into rented accommodation until the flood waters receded.
We live with the environment as Billie’s dad did, or by managing and mitigating its effects on human settlement such as the dams we’ve built. We have needed to be flexible with our industries. You only need to look at the changes which have visited local communities over the last 160 years.
Regional life requires strong local economies that change over time. A great local example is food production and processing. Also broad acreage, dairy and horticulture, flexibility and optimism are how to make a dollar form the resources available.
We have been flexible with our social structures, as country towns have embraced immigrants and soldier settlers, as women have taken up roles within representative structures, as young people have moved away either to go to war, or to study, or to find themselves.
And like the quote from Lao Tzu suggests, like water, when we stand together, none can withstand.
Communities, local government, industry are now standing up and hopefully none can withstand them as they seek to maintain the precious resource of water in local communities to sustain life.
The interconnectedness that we take for granted, that sometimes gets up our noses because everyone knows our business, has become a great attraction in a disconnected, globalised society. We see this with the sea and tree changers, the relocation of young couples with children arrive to give their children that x factor of regional living.
Our social life in the regions historically has been built on family and religious connections. Our social fabric, once revolved around collecting in local halls for dances, now it’s online – wider that our immediate physical context – and yet we are physical beings.
There’s nothing better than the local kindergarten trivia night, participating in the football netball games being played in every town this past weekend, or volunteering in many of our service organisations. We just do it, partly expectation, partly ingrained, partly a subconscious understanding that united we will survive.
One thing that has not changed is the conversation on water and who gets to do what with how much?
The variables have changed. We are not arguing about navigation rules as we were 150 years ago, the debate at federation threatened to derail federation itself – that is powerful stuff!
There was considerable public and political support for the development of irrigation and close settlement in regional towns such as Echuca, Swan Hill, Cohuna, and an almost boundless optimism in the future of agriculture industries. This was also supported by the building of other infrastructure such as railways.
Stuart Murray, head of the state rivers and water supply commission here in Victoria, predicted in 1908 that irrigation and closer settlement in Australia would eventually support a population of 180 million people.
It’s an interesting question for discussions on regional life- we can’t even get agreement on 32 million!
This is what makes the current debate difficult, it’s portrayed as a nil sum game where the Venn diagram does not allow for union of two seeming opposing ideas.
I stand here as a regional Victorian, along with many of you here, who does not see wanting a healthy river and profitable regional communities as two mutually exclusive ideas. One can be a proponent of irrigated agriculture and the communities and life it sustains, and be concerned about the environment. Farmers are the front line conservationists.
I am tired of the word and the emotions it conveys as it is hijacked by those who are new to the debate, who do not know what is good for our land, our river and our towns.
Currently the state of the river and its future, along with the regional life in the towns along it, is being negotiated between state ministers of basin states.
From my perspective, we want a plan but not one that decimates our communities or our river, we want regional life to thrive, not die.
I don’t want a plan that seeks to find water through buybacks.
The constitutional forces that were put in place over 100 years ago are being tested at the moment, but we must seize this opportunity for a rich future for our region, for our industries and for our environment, not at its expense.
The great paradox for our river, and for the regions it underpins, is unless the river is running a ‘banker’ it remains largely hidden behind the flat landscape of the Murray Basin.
Not anymore, because as water runs against formidable opposition, and with the advocacy of the Murray River Group of Councils communities, none will withstand it.
So in summary, a regional life is a rich life. Each one of us here in our work, ou