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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia



The genesis of ‘countrymindedness’ is also my real genesis as an academic. At the end of 1958 I had won one of the new Commonwealth postgraduate scholarships at the University of New England, where I had completed an honours degree in history. I was to undertake an MA, with Russel Ward as my supervisor. What should my thesis be on? I wanted to explore, if not my contemporary world (hardly a respectable study for historians), then its immediate antecedents. The University’s only resource for this purpose was newspapers, especially the local newspaper, which had been established in the middle of the nineteenth century. My other preference was for the political rather than the social. Why not study a political notable? The University’s Chancellor was the Right Honourable Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page CH, MP, former Prime Minister and Treasurer, arguably one of the half-dozen most important Australian politicians of the twentieth century. Why not do his biography? Too hard, too big for an MA, said Russel. But he liked the idea in principle. What about the recently retired Leader of the NSW Country Party, an eminent politician also from the New England area, Sir Michael Bruxner. Bruxner ought to have papers (for a historian, the ultimate test of worth). Why not do his biography, or some part of it?

I set off in the train for Sydney, where Bruxner lived, met him at Parliament House, and talked my way into being his biographer. Before the day was out, I had a suitcase full of papers, mostly books of press cuttings. That night I returned to Armidale on the train, and discovered that Sir Michael had organised that I should have the top bunk in his sleeping compartment, a trick that a former Minister for Transport could apparently arrange without difficulty. We talked most of that night, and much of the next morning. I arrived at the University in triumph, a biographer with papers and the cooperation of the subject.

What caught my attention, in reading through Bruxner’s papers and the very few books that were relevant, was the extraordinary and decisive electoral sweep of the emerging Country Party. Bruxner had first won election in 1920 as one of the three members for Northern Tableland. He had only just returned from the war, was well known in only one part of the large electorate, and his party had only just come into existence. Yet, he and his running mates polled well virtually everywhere, and in some smaller polling booths won every vote. The electoral returns reported the votes cast at every polling booth in the electorate, even those with half a dozen voters. I knew the Northern Tableland electorate passably well, and began to chart where Bruxner had done best: in the northeast, where he had been born and grew up, in Tenterfield, in the north of the electorate, where he had been a stock and station agent before the war. But he had also been well supported, I saw, in very small polling places, wherever they were. I knew some of these places. They were in isolated areas and had not even the dignity of being in a village – these polling places were just small schools serving at most a dozen families, or isolated church halls. The Country Party broke into electoral politics by capturing the votes of practically every farmer and his wife, and of many rural workers and their wives as well. And it had done that very quickly, and decisively. What was the cause?

That question was the beginning of my continuing analysis of farmers and their politics. I was to spend much of the next ten years studying them, through two theses and two books, one of them the delayed Bruxner biography. That work gave me a reputation both as a productive researcher and as someone who could find something interesting to say about the Country Party, then dismissed by scholars as only ‘half a party’ – just the rural rump of the Liberals.

Simple electoral mapping led me quickly to a more statistical treatment, in which I arranged polling booths by their size, and compared the Country Party’s proportion of the vote in each category. My hunch was confirmed: by and large, the smaller the booth, the higher the Country Party proportion. The new party did less well in the townships of a thousand or so people, and least well in the big towns. I then applied the same techniques to the whole state of New South Wales. The rule worked again! So I applied the techniques forward – to the election of 1922, then to 1925, then to 1927. By now I was doing almost nothing other than adding figures and taking percentages. As I came forward in time, I noticed another phenomenon: the proportions of voters who used the small polling booths were in steady decline, which meant that the Country Party was losing the sources of its strength.

The obsession with numbers may sound arid. That was not the way I felt. On the contrary, I was intensely excited. There was a moment – in the lovely old Library of the New South Wales Parliament, where I obtained most of the official papers I needed – when I suddenly saw the import of what I was doing. I knew why the Country Party had started so strongly, and I knew why it was doomed. And I was the only person in the world who knew it! And I had the evidence – beautiful, incontrovertible evidence! And I had done it myself, through inspiration and through months of patient and impatient work! It was one of the most profound moments of my life, and I knew then with certainty that I had found something that I was genuinely good at. That ‘Eureka!’ feeling has been experienced by tens of thousands of researchers, in all disciplines, and has its counterpart in art and musical composition. It is the creative moment, and to have experienced it, and to have had one’s achievement recognised by others, is the central privilege of the creative life.

I poured all this on to paper and showed it to Russel. He was both excited and alarmed. History it really wasn’t. No historian could take seriously a series of tables that contained hundreds of numbers. Where were the documents? Where was the reconstruction? At the same time, he knew that I was on to something. But was it really original? I learned of a set of theses held in the Department of Government at the University of Sydney which covered most of the elections I was interested in, and went back to Sydney to consult them. I needed official permission, I discovered, and the only one of the permitters who was about was a senior lecturer called Henry Mayer. Mayer was a large, untidy man with wild black hair, black clothes, and a marked European accent. I had never seen or heard anyone quite like him. Why did I want to read the theses? he demanded. I told him why. Had I written anything yet? I showed him my paper. He ordered me to hand it over. Reluctantly I did so, and he shooed me out of his room. Perplexed, I thought I would assume that I had the precious permission, and went off to read the theses. Two days later I got my paper back from the office; it was covered with almost indecipherable writing, vigorous underlining, and occasional words like ‘Rubbish’ and ‘Nonsense’.

I was appalled. Mayer called me in, and proved to be softer in speech than in writing. To my surprise, he told me that it was a bold and interesting paper, but I would have to junk it completely and start again. I was even more appalled, since several months’ work had gone on getting me this far. A cooler re-reading of his comments revealed many sensible suggestions and loads of practical editorial work. I went back to Armidale and showed the comments to Russel, who was miffed and pleased in about equal proportion. He did not think much of political scientists, but at least his gut feeling had been confirmed. Armed with the Mayer improvements I sat down to write my thesis. Bruxner hardly appeared in it; I was developing an argument about the nature and sources of electoral support for the Country Party. Though I knew it not, I had moved from history into mainstream political science, and when examiners were chosen one of them was a young New Zealand political scientist at the Australian National University, Dr Bruce Graham, who had written an important doctoral thesis on the Country Party, which I discovered towards the end of my work. Luckily, it complemented rather than duplicated my own research. The examiners liked my thesis and in 1961 I was awarded the Master of Arts with First Class Honours, the first such award in my discipline and one of the two first such awards for the University. One outcome was that the ANU offered me a doctoral scholarship to work in political science, and I moved out of my formal relationship with Clio. I discovered, however, that I was a somewhat unusual political scientist, someone who had a firm background in history but loved to count.

My creative work turned out to have three emphases. The first was farmers and their politics, and that occupied me from 1959 to about 1968. The second was political behaviour, which grew out of the first emphasis and continued until the early 1980s. The third was policy, which grew out of my becoming senior in my field and thereby involved in administration – of research, of universities and of higher education. It was in the early 1980s that Barry Smith and Sam Goldberg asked me to distil my work on the Country Party into a paper to be given at their seminar on ideas, in particular ‘the serious but commonly unexamined ideas that Australians have projected about themselves, their communities, their nation, and have embodied in their institutions’ (Goldberg and Smith 1988 p. 3). Although at that time I had the view that I no longer had anything to say about rural politics, I found the exercise a neat way to wrap up ten years’ work – and greatly enjoyed doing it. To return to the topic some 25 years later still is quite unexpected! What would I say now?

First, I am tempted to use the Mark Twain line about my report of the Country Party’s future death being ‘greatly exaggerated’. It certainly suffered two changes of name, first to the National Country Party in 1975, and then to the National Party in 1982. The Party’s own advertising now often refers to it as ‘The Nationals’. I don’t put too much store on name changes, though it is worth noting that the present Liberal Party held the name ‘National Party’ in the 1920s. But there the old Country Party is, hanging on to power in the Federal Coalition under John Anderson, and now Mark Vaile, in much the same fashion that it did under Tim Fischer in the 1990s, under Doug Anthony in the 1970s and 1980s, under Sir John McEwen in the 1960s and under Sir Arthur Fadden in the 1950s. Its Leader is still the Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition. It holds its seats in much the same areas, and tries to secure the ministries of greatest relevance to country people. You could say that things are much as they were.

But second, things simply aren’t what they were. Yes, the Nationals still hold on to much of their traditional territory – but not to all of it. In New South Wales, the State I know best from having driven all over it in the last fifty years, the old Anthony stronghold of Richmond, in the far northeast, has gone to Labor. An Independent holds New England, probably the heartland of the old Country Party. Another holds Calare, in the central west. Much more important, the number of National seats in the House of Representatives is 12, but they are 12 seats of 150 in total. After the 1958 elections, the first at which, as a 21 year-old, I could cast my first vote, the Country Party held 19 of the then 122 seats in the House of Representatives. I like percentages, and the comparison is instructive. In 1958 the Party won 9.3 per cent of the vote and gained 15.6 per cent of the seats; in 2004 its 5.9 per cent of the vote secured in just 8 per cent of the seats. The Party may not be dying, but it is certainly wasting away. In fact, the endurance of the Coalition is a tribute to habit as much as to anything. Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals could have governed on their own after the elections of 1975 and 1977, and John Howard could have done so after those of 1996. He could almost do it now. Malcolm Fraser is said to have invoked the rule that it is better to have unnecessary allies within the tent and facing out rather than outside the tent and facing in. The rule probably still applies.

What has happened to rural Australia is well known to anyone who has lived through the second half of the twentieth century. In brief, Australia increased its population by some two and half times, but the cities, not the rural areas, were the principal beneficiaries. Economically, Australia widened its dependence on the pastoral and agricultural industries first to include manufacturing, then mining, and then services. In the early 1950s, primary production represented about one-fifth of gross domestic product; it is now a little over three per cent. This year, Australia will earn more from exporting ‘education’ than by exporting wool and wheat. Other countries have had their green revolutions, so that foodstuffs are generally in plentiful supply. Wool has become an expensive staple, and most people don’t wear it. The protected dairy industry has gone. The thriving parts of the rural economy involve high value-added activities like growing grapes and making wine, and food specialities of all kinds.

None of them needs much land, although they all need much water. So to drive through the old Country Party territories is to be reminded of how things have changed. The larger country towns managed to get colleges of advanced education in the 1960s and 1970s. They are now doing very well. Armidale, which had both a college and a university, now benefits from the $170 million annual expenditure of the large (17,000 students) University of New England. Across Australia the regional centres have roughly doubled their 1950 populations – not as much as the cities, but enough to have enabled them to catch the general prosperity. The same cannot be said for the smaller towns and villages, especially inland (the coastal areas have benefited from holidays and retirements). Technological improvements of all kinds have reduced the need for unskilled and semi-skilled labour. The drift to the cities continues, and it is easy to see abandoned farm houses. Many have not been vandalised. Why? No one comes out this way any more.

The astonishing Australian boom in education over those fifty years has been a mixed blessing for the towns and regions without their own university close by. Yes, every town of any size now has a high school, but since about six in every ten students in Year 12 expect to go on to higher education, the young ones leave. Once they have their degrees they mostly cannot come back – there is simply little appropriate work in the rural areas for those with university degrees. In consequence, the age profile of many rural areas is lopsided, with a higher ratio of elderly to young than is true of the cities. What is worse, older people need skilled health care, and that, too, is not available in the smaller centres. The prognosis is more decline.

What, then, has happened to ‘countrymindedness’? It’s still there in the bush. You will hear country people in New South Wales today talk contemptuously of ‘NSW’ actually standing for ‘Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong’, quite unaware that this was a New State Movement slogan of the 1920s. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party arose from nowhere in 1998 to pull more than one million votes for its Senate candidates and rather fewer for its House of Representatives candidates. The National Party won just over half a million at the same time. One Nation did very well in the rural areas and in Queensland, and though it faded from prominence quickly, its rise demonstrated to many (myself included) that there is a strong vein of rural protest throughout Australia.

To some degree, it is the same kind of protest that launched the Country Party a hundred years ago, with one key difference. Country people always feel removed from the centres of power, and they are sometimes the last to hear about decisions that will affect them directly. No one finds this acceptable. They often have pleasant houses in pleasant settings, but they are not worth very much in today’s market. So they feel trapped as well. Those who are on the land worry about water and interest rates and export prices, as they have always done. But there are now fewer of them, they are not rich (not in contemporary terms, anyway) and they are not held in the same respect as they once were. For we no longer depend on the farmer and the grazier, and they know it. They don’t know quite what to do about it, and that makes them testy.

For the rest of us, urban Australians, the decline in the importance of the bush has occurred without much notice on our part. To some extent, the cause is the emergence of ‘the economy’ as a daily actor in our televised-news lives. Very little of what that actor does now seems to have a direct link to wool or wheat or to the old countryside. When there is a link, it is sometimes about rural squabbles over water, in which farmers are pictured as exploiters of a natural resource and even, in a perverse kind of way, as somehow responsible for the evils of drought. There is little recognition of the role that farmers and country people have played in Landcare programs. The main cities have their water problems too, but they are in relatively benign environments that have reasonably predictable rainfall. The notion of an interdependence between the City and the Country seems to have passed altogether. In consequence, the shared ‘countrymindedness’ of my youth, and even of the 1960s and 1970s, has also passed.

But the passing of an old valuing of the bush seems to have led to a new form of romanticising it. One of today’s most successful clothing firms is Country Road, and its message is reiterated by half a dozen magazines that portray life in rural Australia as a stylish retreat from the frenetic rat race of the contemporary city. So Greg and Prue leave merchant banking and advertising, buy a run-down 1880s mansion ‘with good bones’, construct a fabulous garden, and provide their small children with dogs, cats and a horse to ride. They now run Shetland ponies, or perhaps they have put in a few hectares of grapes, ‘some unusual varieties’.

These are enjoyable stories, beautifully photographed. But there is another story that you rarely read: how the property was first settled in the 1840s; the oldest house a slab hut, now gone; the present house started in the 1860s and given the extra storey in the 1880s when the wool boom was on; nothing much after that except slow decline, most of the land sold off, and the original family leaving through wars, economic depression and death sometime between the 1930s and the 1960s; the house going to someone who didn’t have the money to keep it in good shape; a few years of total neglect. Then renaissance and revival, with a new injection of money from the city. It is the present story of rural Australia.

Is anyone writing it?


Goldberg, SL; Smith, FB, editors. Australian Cultural History. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press; 1988.

Cite this article as: Aitkin, Don. ‘Afterword: return to “countrymindedness”’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 11.1–11.6.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie