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Government has some bigger roles in the Bush

By Nick Ferrett - posted Thursday, 15 April 1999

It is widely accepted that rural Australia faces serious problems. Economic and social difficulties have serious impacts on the quality of life across rural Australia. Eventually, they permeate the whole community. Obviously, there is a responsibility for government to address these problems. Attempts have been made but unfortunately, they’ve failed.

I don’t have the qualifications to deliver comprehensive plans, but with the benefit of suggestions of experienced people and drawing from some of the material recently published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, I make the following comments on two rather diverse areas. One is a symptom of the problems in rural Australia – health care. The other is an available solution to a significant number of difficulties in rural Australia - the adoption of new information technology.

Health Care

It is no secret that rural health care is perennially in crisis. Famously, there is an under-supply of medical practitioners. For whatever reason, doctors are not, for the most part, attracted to the idea of long-term careers in the bush.


Less famously, there is a crisis in the supply of mental health services. According to a 1993 report, mental health services are almost non-existent in rural areas.

When you think about it, it is incredible. A sector of the community that has the highest unemployment rates, massive rates of youth suicide, fracturing communities and desertion by essential commercial institutions is almost ignored in terms of mental health care.

Those of us in metropolitan areas are also largely unaware of the major substance abuse problems that dog rural communities. The impression we have of drugs is one shaped by television, the movies and other media of popular culture to the effect that hard drugs are a city thing. We think of crack houses in New York, junkies in dark alleys and cocaine being snorted by stockbrokers at expensive parties. For most of the more metropolitan of us, drugs are just part of that urban decadence thing that, to some at least, seems slightly chic.

The reality is quite different. Drug abuse and alcohol abuse are serious problems for rural Australia.

The symptoms will always be manifested in human beings and a large part of that manifestation will be emotional distress and mental illness. It is, therefore, essential that we make major improvements to rural mental health infrastructure – and soon.

Rural Australians need a commitment from government to find ways of providing services to support family structures, to deal with depression, to deal with substance abuse and to deal with the terrible rate of youth suicide in non-metropolitan areas.



At the other end of the scale are the economic problems that face rural Australia. Economics in the last twenty years of the century have been about improving efficiency. At the farm level, this has been an absolute necessity as they cope with long-term drought and the deprivation that brings. Accordingly, popular wisdom suggests that Australian farmers, in the absence of the protection afforded to major competitors, are amongst the most efficient in the world.

However, one area of efficiency that remains significantly ignored in terms of rural Australia is investment in technology. The problem ranges from investment in technology for rural manufacturing and processing businesses like abattoirs to electronic service delivery by government to fast, reliable access to the Internet.

We are often told, because it is true, that information technology is the way of the future. One way of categorizing people in the new millennium will be the information rich and the information poor. That divide will be one whose threshold is access to information technology.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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