THE US TELEVISION show Outback Jack is a strange twist on the modern obsession with "reality". Jack, a rustic Aussie bloke – complete with bush hat, long heavy knife and bad T-shirt – is dumped in the West Australian Kimberley region alongside a dozen quick-make-me-an-overnight-celebrity-type American sheilas. Simple mission for our neo-Crocodile Dundee – round up the girls, keep 'em alive and decide which one most fits his Linda Kozlowski fancy.
Because the story of an Aussie bushman who scores the gorgeous Yankee sophisticate is a proven formula, why suffer the intrusion of "actual" reality? Never mind that Jack's rough veneer hides a pampered upbringing or that his country credentials are a little urbane.
To escape from a home in one of Melbourne's wealthiest inner-city suburbs, "Jack" (usually known by his real name, Vadim Dale) spent his youth at Geelong Grammar, one of Australia's elite private boarding schools. He suffered the trauma of an abortive modelling career before making the transition to bush-hardened jackaroo, TV-style. Rather than scouring B&S balls to find a genuine country lad, the show's US-based producers manufactured the bucolic image; the audience assumed that he fitted the outback stereotype. And why not? Solid ratings and advertising dollars rolled in.
This exaggerated conversion of a prep-school, urban metrosexual into a hardy, dinkum cobber points toward some larger questions. Can anybody put on a pair of chino dungarees and become authentic country? Do most Australians view country life as a never-ending episode of McLeod's Daughters? Beyond geography, is it helpful to draw a distinction between country Australians and city Australians?
Dale's TV-inspired transformation is actually a familiar political ritual. A couple of times a year, the Prime Minister will stomp off into the countryside, surrounded by more journalists than blowflies and tailed by his tuckerbox dog – known, with mild affection, as "National Party". Safely outfitted in a Drizabone coat, moleskins, that mandatory true-blue Akubra and a shiny new pair of R.M. Williams boots, this is a re-branding craze enough to shock No Logo author and crusader against corporate culture Naomi Klein. The marketing of country cool.
(As an aside, the PM's Akubra is the style described as the "Pastoralist", which the company declares "will have great appeal for the grazier and stock and station agent and [is] most suited for women's casual wear".)
Our brave politician trudges around a dusty paddock somewhere and offers banal commentary: "I know that this is a particularly difficult part of the country because it's gone through long periods with very, very, low rainfall." Howard is not alone in this pilgrimage; both sides of politics pay intermittent homage to the bush. And their advice recalls the wisdom of those gone before, as in John O'Brien's iconic poem Said Hanrahan.
"If we don't get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."
Popular Australian history is replete with tales about the harsh outback, the unforgiving climate and the tough type of character needed to survive there. Michelle Grattan, long-time political observer with Melbourne's TheAge newspaper, recounts the making of this social mythology in her book, Back on the Wool Track (Vintage, 2004). She follows the trail of Charles Bean, the young journalist who travelled "West" in the early 20th century to explore the pastoral heart of the land built on the sheep's back. Bean later famously became the official historian recording the experiences of Australians in the First World War. His early stories in the Federation era, along with the bush ballads of Banjo Paterson, helped to fashion the legend of the outback.
"The Australian is a tall, spare man, clean and wiry," Bean wrote, "of a certain refined ascetic strength." He lived in the rough country, where "you would expect him tanned, but he is often fair". This required a certain fortitude, so "his character is the simplest imaginable. The key to it is just this – that he takes everything on its merits, and nothing on authority. Perhaps he goes further, and takes everything on its merits except for a bias against authority." This man, the ideal Australian whom Bean created, was a country soul because, as Grattan describes, "the flip side of Bean's elevation of bush virtues and people was his distrust of cities. He saw in big cities hectic cleverness and an 'almost unnatural sharpening of wits in the furious race for wealth', an 'itching for excitement and amusement and change for its own sake'." Bean, so enamoured of the country man, created the model of the Anzac in the same glorious image. He ignored the inconvenient fact that most of the soldiers who volunteered for the First World War had urban backgrounds.
Our modern political pilgrims hold similar reverence for life away from the city, though the contemporary story extends beyond the individual and emphasises the collective spirit of country life. For Howard, "what the heart and soul of rural and regional Australia is all about", is "that sense of community, that capacity to work together for the common good, to put aside differences, to pool the resources that you have as Australians to build a better local community." The country occupies a central role in the political theology that helps to bond all Australians. The sermon continues: "The Australian bush is part and parcel of the Australian story and the Australian achievement. Without the bush Australia wouldn't be recognisable as the country that I grew up in and love so very much ... the people of rural Australia have made a massive contribution to how we think of ourselves as Australians and how the rest of the world sees us as Australians."
But how well does this national story of tremendous hardship in a barren land serve Australia today? Few people, men or women, could ever wear the suit of the ideal Australian that Bean so exclusively tailored. As Jennifer Horsfield explains in her biography of one squatter's wife, Mary Cunningham – an Australian life(Ginninderra Press, 2004), this is "a version of Australian life that is gone forever". At best, most people get a vicarious taste of country life on a school camp or by catching a waft of animal dung on the rush to the rides at the annual show. Seven in every 10 Australians over 15 years old live in metropolitan areas. And beyond marketing for the tourist industry, this rustic reputation is hardly an accurate representation for Australia to carry in the world. The bush is part of our historic national identity, yet it is a romantic illusion that disguises an urban paradise, an Australia where we cling to the coastline, safe from the very outback that we glorify. What can the majority of Australians really say about the difference between city and country life?
The easy answer is to fall back on clichés and glib simplifications. The political stereotypes are familiar – the progressive people of the big smoke versus the slow-paced traditionalists. Two contrasting parables about city life and country living are among an excellent collection of essays, A Win and a Prayer (UNSW Press, 2004), examining the many micro-battles that made up the 2004 federal election. The first, by Peter Mares, reports on an "influential advocate of a more compassionate refugee policy". This general style of story is now well known, an activist frustrated with the Government's hardline approach to border protection seeking to change a rigid system. David Burchell, by contrast, describes the comfortable conservatism of those voters more interested in their local community than about "the horizons of society". Here is the escape from elitist angst and the cultural cringe.
Surely this must be a classic account of spoilt city latte-sippers contrasted with sensible salts of the earth? Our preconceived beliefs, it seems, are misleading. Mares is actually following the group Rural Australians for Refugees, which hopes to import "a new generation of pioneers who will work hard to build themselves a new life and help revitalise country towns at the same time". Pragmatists maybe, certainly not dreamers, but they hardly fit the expected form of the rural conservative. Burchell's focus is the city, in Sydney's west, where "the denizens of these suburbs are just as preoccupied with the obsessions du jour – interest rates, home renovation and the vaudeville villains of reality TV". A separate breed from the inner-city clique perhaps, but what is the city if not the suburbs, too?
COUNTRY POLITICS INCLUDE the unexpected, but the hard living still seems painfully obvious. To labour the point, last year a NSW rural priest warned that "the social fabric is collapsing" in the regions, where the ongoing drought has put unprecedented stress on farming families. The harsh climate tortures everything, even that laudable "sense of community", shown by the terminal decline of once powerful institutions like the Country Women's Association.
Any momentary relief soon attracts the pilgrims, like the PM again. "The rain has been very welcome and, of course, it's a reminder to those Australians like myself who have grown up in the cities of just how difficult and how precarious and how challenging life in the bush can really be." Yes, and never forget the danger of country life. Because when the rains inevitably stay too long – "I want to say how concerned I am about the impact of these floods on the lives of so many of our fellow Australians and it's just a reminder of what a hard life it is in the country."
And every creek and banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If this rain doesn't stop."
But the impression of never-ending hardship can be as misleading as political typecasting. Australia has no monopoly on the hazards of human civilisation – think bushfires in California, famine in Africa, tsunami in Asia. In fact, as Drew Radford shows in a friendly collection of quirky tales he gathered while motorcycling across Australia, Not All Ringers and Cowboys (ABC Books, 2005), country life can be charming.
He tells of an outback weather station: "I had expected the dwelling to be harsh, like the surrounding environment. It was a ludicrous expectation and a total contradiction of the reason I was out here: I wanted to find anything but cowboys and yet I was disappointed that everyone wasn't sleeping in swags." Instead, the usual creature comforts were evident – satellite TV, a billiard table, even a pool. Perhaps this is simply an urban oasis in the remote wilderness or maybe evidence of creeping regional gentrification. But in reality, this is nothing new – galleries, museums, amateur drama, antique collections and book clubs have long been nurtured in country life. Worldliness, is not confined to city.
It is important not to overstate this intersection of city and country. Regional Australians constantly remind the Government about the disparity between them and people in the metropolitan areas. Usually this reflects geographic challenges. The state of communication services is a habitual gripe, for instance, with the government seemingly beholden to the bush over the decision to sell the remaining share of Telstra. Regular grumbles also surface about transportation costs, a point often associated with inadequate spending on roads and railways.
Another striking difference is the labour market. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, three-quarters of Australia's wage and salary earners reside in metropolitan areas (5.58 million people), an urban consolidation that has increased over the past decade. In his travels around Victoria's north-west, Mares listens to one farmer's regret. "Our greatest export is our own children. We send them away to university and they never come home." The financial incentive for this migration is obvious – on average, city dwellers earn 18.5 per cent a year more than their counterparts in non-metropolitan areas. It seems the business community is missing an opportunity here. Before outsourcing to other countries, it might look to the country.
And yet people sometimes complain about those who make the transition from city to country, theSeaChange-style of living that draws people in an escape to the "quiet life". This has manifested recently in growing conflict within local communities about the impact of giant windmills for generating electricity. Country regions, especially the picturesque coastlines of Victoria and New South Wales, are attractive windswept sites for these colossi with their spinning blades that many people hope will be a key element in a clean, green future. More importantly, they are lucrative, with the annual rent paid to some farmers up to $15,000 for each windmill on their properties – a financial saviour for many struggling with drought. But the windmills are loud, ever-present, inescapably industrial and divisive. This protest might be the not-in-my-backyard syndrome of "weekend cowboys and hobby farmers", as one enthusiast for the windmills puts it, because Australians do overwhelmingly support the concept of wind-generated energy. Provided that a massive turbine isn't planted in the paddock right next door.
AFTER WHITE SETTLEMENT, Australians lost the battle against their own country. Grattan shows in her book how Bean invented a mythology of hardship that excused this failure: "the Australian was 'always fighting something'. In the bush it was 'drought, fires, unbroken horses, wild cattle; and not unfrequently strong men'." Australians held to the coast, worried over water supplies for lush lawns and cowered against the cool ocean. Contours of the land became impassable – "Goyder's Line" in South Australia, for example, was the scar of a scythe drawn east to west across the colony in the 1860s to divide safe agricultural land from those areas most likely to suffer devastating drought. Even in the good times, Australians feared the land.
"There'll be bush-fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."
Great agricultural success still came, enough to build a nation ranked among the wealthiest in the world. Graziers learnt that much of the country would never accept human occupation. The "army of conquest", as Deborah Bird Rose puts it in Reports from a Wild Country (UNSW Press, 2004), arrived in other forms: sheep and cattle, "four-legged soldiers", who, "through their own reproduction make possible the production of wealth on the frontier". It is a social paradox: "Country is conquered and fully occupied by settlers, while at the same time it is almost empty of human settlers."
Yet these old stories are not "the Australian story" anymore. As Grattan explains: "The modern 'wool track' has become a hard road for most in the industry, and this has taken its toll." Farming subsidies have diminished and people have adapted. The emerging "green grazier" that Rose describes is a good example; an Australian who works in collaboration with the land, rather than against it, trying to avoid the transitive risks of farming and make it a more permanent enterprise.
Too much focus on historic trauma will hold back this necessary future innovation. If the outback is seen as a place of ruin, it should come as no surprise that urban congestion is increasing, or that new migrants prefer Sydney to Swan Hill. On present trends, Australia might find itself parodied in a new TV series, something like Suburban Jack – a commuter's odyssey. Country life is rich and diverse, but not so far removed from the population centres that city Australians won't recognise themselves.