Since Steele Rudd, the creator of "Dad and Dave", described the conditions of
the rural poor in his book On Our Selection, the hardships faced by those in the
the bush have rarely been far from the surface of Australia’s collective
consciousness. Australia’s rich social and economic history drips in stories of rural
isolation and disadvantage.
It is surprising, then, that the content of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities
Commission (HREOC) interim Bush Talks report should raise any eyebrows. But it
does, because it couches rural disadvantage not in the traditional terms of drought and
flooding rain, but in the language of Human Rights. It also comes at a time when the rural
constituency has thrust itself back to the forefront of the political debate for the first
time in decades.
There is no question that the challenges facing the bush extend even further than those
that faced Dad and Dave. Added to isolation and extremes of weather has been the uneven
impact of economic change and persistently low commodities prices. While some regions have
benefited from change, many rural areas are still doing it tough. Really tough. Many areas
in "the bush" are yet to see the benefits of the so-called computer age. But has
there been a systematic denial of Human Rights?
The language of human rights does not sit easily with the challenges facing the bush.
Rural communities still have access to those fundamental rights like universal suffrage,
free speech, right to life, free assembly and so on. Ultimately every person in the bush
can exercise another fundamental right- the freedom to move, as was so sardonically
pointed out by The Australian’s editorial the day after the Bush Talks
report was released (although many rural families find themselves trapped in rural
The disadvantage faced in the bush is not so much an abuse of fundamental rights but a
consequence of two things. Firstly, the burden of geography and secondly, the side effects
of an economy that is in constant, but inevitable change.
Ultimately, some of the issues facing the bush may never be overcome - the
‘tyranny of distance’ in the bush will always preclude access to the same level
of services and human interaction that is enjoyed by those in the city. It is simply
unrealistic to expect that a community of 500 people spread over thousands of square miles
can access services in the same way as an urban community. Perhaps the real issue is the
degree to which the differences between rural lifestyle and urban lifestyle have widened.
The city has enjoyed the benefits of technological revolution more than bush has - and
people in the bush know it. While the city surfs the information super highway, some in
the bush can’t access a fax machine.
It is hardly coincidental that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
commenced its Bush Talks at the height of Hansonism. The success of Hansonism was
symptomatic of the social and economic dislocation of some communities from the remainder
of Australia. The Hanson message was embraced widely (but not exclusively) in rural
communities. The spotlight was thrown on the difficulties of rural life simultaneously
with the revolt against ‘political correctness’ and the political power of
minority lobbies. Perhaps more than any other body, the HREOC was identified with those
minority lobby groups, and it needed to demonstrate its relevance to a wider constituency.
When it was released, very few media commentators picked up that the Bush Talks
report was not a report to the community, nor to government. It was a report to itself.
The aim of the Bush Talks programme was to guide the Commission on its own future
activities. Chris Sidoti, the Human Rights Commissioner, was not necessarily criticizing
the Government. He was trying to be relevant.
The motivation for Bush Talks is questionable because it serves a narrow agenda.
However, the Government has recognized its importance as another dialogue with the bush.
At its inception, the Bush Talks programme was welcomed by the Attorney-General for
the HREOC’s attempt to seek relevance. Following the report’s release it was
welcomed by the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government on the
basis that any constructive discussion about issues in rural and regional Australia was
Ironically, rural communities embrace the Bush Talks forums at the same time as
they continue to flirt with One Nation or like "rump parties". Sidoti’s
report is laced with reference to United Nations treaties and conventions, yet One Nation
is about isolationism and repudiating all things transnational. No single body received as
much criticism from the Hansonites as the United Nations and multinational corporations.
However, rural communities where Hansonism flourished also participated strongly in forums
underpinned by the language of the UN.
Like One Nation, the HREOC did not provide any meaningful solutions to address the
issues affecting the bush. Neither did the report acknowledge the many steps taken by the
Federal Government to overcome the shortfall of services that some communities face. Its
lack of balance is not surprising - as Hansonism showed us, the problems are far easier to
identify than the solutions.
To Sidoti’s credit he identified what Hanson would not, that some communities had
prospered from change. That only supports the proposition that the problems in the bush
are structural rather than indicative of any systematic human rights abuse.