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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


In an age of economic rationalism, when everything has its price, it is hard to know how much value Australians attach to the fate of their countryside. According to a recent economic study, agriculture now employs only four per cent of the Australian workforce and produces a similar proportion of the country’s economic output. It is a far cry from the time, less than a century ago, when farming was the largest single sector of the economy, comprising over a quarter of the country’s output, and contributing 80 per cent of its exports (Productivity Commission 2005 p. xvii–xviii). Drought, low commodity prices, rising debt and environmental stress have driven many rural communities close to the point of extinction. Soon, if the government does not come to their aid, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson recently warned, Australia could actually run out of farmers.1 He was touching a sensitive nerve in the Australian psyche, for long after Australia has ceased to ride, economically, on the sheep’s back, it still seems to ride, spiritually, with the stockmen and drovers, squatters and farmers of the rural frontier. The images of the ‘Man from Snowy River’ invoked by Victorian mountain cattlemen in their recent battle with that state’s government over national park grazing restrictions, capitalised on this continuing resonance. In this vision, an Australia without farmers and bushmen would be like a country without a soul.

Yet, while Australians may still identify with the heroes of their rural past, they are often less interested in the real lives of their descendants. Most city-dwellers now view the bush as landscape, a place of aesthetic pleasure and spiritual refreshment, rather than as countryside, a place where people live and work. It is the glorious heritage of the Bush, rather than its troubled present, that lures tourists up the highway from Sydney and Melbourne. Even country people themselves often prefer to relive their glory days rather than trace their recent history of decline and decay. In his acute study of the Victorian gold-mining town of Beechworth, Tom Griffiths observes a puzzling asymmetry in the writing of local and regional history.

Histories of Australian towns and regions have tended to dwell on the first years of settlement and have often tailed off in their accounts of the twentieth century community. It is a natural habit of looking back to give these early years a special importance. But the imbalance also occurs because, in many parts of Australia, the hubbub of European civilization contracted within a few years of its boisterous foundation. Historians have given little attention to the consequences of the retreat. The intervening years constitute an embarrassment, a hiatus, a gap in the town’s history. The processes of growth have frequently been studied, but the experience of decline has been largely ignored. History, like memory, often erases the painful and negative things (Griffiths 1987 p. 2).

The first academic histories of Australia’s rural regions, which appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, followed a similar pattern, concentrating on the pioneering era of the mid-nineteenth century, but hastening to a conclusion as the century drew to a close. Margaret Kiddle’s epic history of Victoria’s Western District concludes in the 1890s, with the passing of the district’s pioneers. ‘It was fitting that the lives of the original colonizers should have ended before the last decade of the nineteenth century’, she wrote. ‘The depression of that time was far-reaching in its effects, and the society that emerged from it was not that which they had known.’ But this transition was not just a local one. ‘The story of the Western District,’ she adds, ‘is in many ways that of eastern Australia in microcosm and the passing of the first generation of pioneers marked the end of the first era of Australian history’ (Kiddle 1961 pp. 498, 511). The histories of other more recently settled regions assumed a similar shape. ‘By the turn of the century’, Duncan Waterson concludes his history of Queensland’s Darling Downs, ‘the classic period of agricultural settlement was over. The period of grand, decisive change had ended. It was time to develop and conserve what had been won’ (Waterson 1968 p. 277). In his history of North Queensland, Geoffrey Bolton pushed the pioneering era another twenty years forward before concluding: ‘From 1920 the story of North Queensland merges increasingly with that of Queensland as a whole. It is at that point, with proof of the climate’s viability for white Australians established, and the experimental stage of pioneering at an end, that this narrative concludes’ (Bolton 1963 pp. xi, 339).

It is natural for historians, as their energies or interest flag, or a deadline approaches, to bring their story to a close. But the retreat of historians from the recent history of regional Australia was surely more than a matter of convenience. The metropolitan concentration of the universities and the preoccupation of the profession with international, rather than local, styles and standards of research may have played a part. In the 1970s, the new frontier of historical research was the city, and many Australian historians, including one of us, were seeking to redress what they saw as an over-emphasis on the Bush as the only begetter of Australian identity (Davison 1978). Thirty years later the country is probably the neglected theme in Australian history (Darian-Smith 2002 p. 92).

Even those who seek to revive interest in rural and regional history, however, give only sparing attention to the last century. A recent social and cultural history of rural Australia, Richard Waterhouse’s Vision Splendid (Waterhouse 2005), devotes 193 pages to the period before 1914 but only 77 to the next 90 years. Rob Linn’s Battling the Land: 200 Years of Rural Australia (Linn 1999) gives 108 pages to the first century of Australian history, but only 63 to the next 110 years. Each book offers valuable insights and evidence but both treat the twentieth century as a postlude to the pioneering era.

This imbalance in national history-writing is a measure of the enduring force of one of our most powerful national myths, ‘the pioneer legend’. In an influential essay on its origin and influence, John Hirst noted its democratic, yet conservative, implications. The pioneers won their heroic status through their valiant, and ultimately successful, battle with the land. They secured the admiration of the later generations who inherited the fruits of their labour. The late-nineteenth-century writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, who did most to give the legend voice, believed that the pioneering era was already almost over. ‘As well as being an affirmation [of the rural virtues]’, Hirst concluded, ‘[the] work [of the bush nationalists] marked also a retreat: the nation was no longer yet to be, it had arrived, and, more amazing still, its best days were already passed’ (Hirst 1978 p. 330). By proclaiming the end of the pioneering era, the bush writers, like the historians who followed them, had unintentionally weakened its hold on the next generation. In the twentieth century Australians continued to ‘battle the land’, but it was no longer clear exactly what they were fighting for.

Increasingly, it seemed, the struggle was not to win new victories, but to hold onto what had already been won. In the early twentieth century the pioneer legend became linked, as Hirst notes, to a defensive struggle to maintain the physical and mental vigour, the racial strength and purity, of a White Nation in a hostile world (Hirst 1978 p. 332). Often the battle was unavailing. The episodes of twentieth-century rural history that have drawn most attention from historians have been stories of adversity and failure, often told in a tragic vein. Marilyn Lake’s history of soldier settlement in Victoria, Limits of Hope, concludes by pronouncing the ‘end of the Australian attempt to establish a yeomanry’ (Lake 1987, p. 238). Geoffrey Bolton’s study of the Great Depression in rural Western Australia, A Fine Country to Starve In, ends a little more optimistically – in the 1940s, he writes, ‘the old faith in the land was a strong as ever’ – but with the future of the countryside still in doubt (Bolton 1972 pp. 266, 268).

Now at the end of this century of struggle, rural Australia has become, according to the title of one study, a ‘land of discontent’ (Pritchard and McManus 2000). The recent past falls, perhaps too easily, into the shape of inevitable and continuous decline. Our economic future now depends on tourism and educational exports more than it does on wool or wheat. The aggregation of rural holdings, mechanisation and improved strains of grain and stock mean that fewer people are needed to service the agricultural sector. Drought, soil degradation and the loss of protected markets for agricultural products like fruit and sugar have compounded the farmers’ difficulties. The family farm, which a century ago may have employed sons and even grandsons, has now become all but obsolete. Farming, once an occupation for strong young men and horses, is increasingly an occupation for older men in four-wheel drives and air-conditioned tractors. Meanwhile the country towns, which serviced the sheep and wheat belts, have slowly withered and died. Some picturesque towns in the old mining regions or along the coast close to the capital cities have been rejuvenated by an influx of city-dwellers seeking refuge from the urban rat-race. But while this may help to sustain the region it only accelerates the demise of a distinctive pattern of country life.

The pioneer legend saw settlement as a battle to win the land, in which humans were evenly pitted against nature. But now, all too often, rural Australians are caught in a vice between large impersonal forces – technological change, global markets and climate change – all pushing inexorably in the same direction. In the early twentieth century, advocates of ‘Country Life’ had often welcomed new technologies, like cars, telephones and radios, as helping to civilise the Bush; only in retrospect did they recognise that they had undermined the viability of local institutions (Davison 2003). In her chapter here on the ‘dying town syndrome’ in western Victoria, Monica Keneley argues that there was an inevitability in the process of development of small country towns that ensured that the economic and technological forces that brought them into being would also ultimately ordain their decline. Friends of rural Australia are often reluctant to embrace this hard logic, arguing, as earlier generations often did, that human ingenuity and collective will could help at least to ameliorate their effects.

Our vision of the past depends, in large part, on our present standpoint. The anguished debates provoked by the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party reflected a widespread belief that rural Australia was in crisis, but academic commentary on the crisis was often strangely disconnected from an understanding of the longer course of Australian rural history (Lawrence 1987; Gray and Lawrence 2001; Pritchard and McManus 2000; compare Davison 2005 pp. 38–39). In a recent article calling for renewed attention to the history of Australia’s rural communities, Kate Darian-Smith asks: ‘How can historians contribute to an understanding of the contemporary manifestations of rurality in Australia, and the complex web of cultural and social relations that have the potential to fuel a reactionary politics of marginalization and discontent?’ (Darian-Smith 2002 p. 92). As her question implies, the present disjunction between history and public policy has had some unfortunate effects. It offers a fertile breeding ground for the creation of myths and conspiracies. It has produced an exaggerated emphasis on the novelty of current environmental and social problems. It has robbed students of the rural crisis of the rich insights of those who have previously examined rural life in the past. The preoccupation of Australian historians with the heroic period of pioneering, and their selective approach to the study of twentieth century rural history, have left us with inadequate benchmarks for understanding the historical roots of the present rural crisis.

Within the overall contours of change in twentieth-century rural history there have been significant ups and downs and regional variations. While rural employment has fallen as a proportion of the Australian workforce at every census since 1901, the number of rural workers actually rose slightly from around 389,000 in 1901 to a peak of 545,000 in 1933 before declining to 375,000 in 2005. The number of farms remained fairly stable over the twentieth century before tumbling over the past two decades by around 20 per cent (Productivity Commission 2005). Within that broad trend, there were also some notable fluctuations and regional variations. Between 1890 and 1925, for example, the number of Victorian farms increased from 36,000 to over 80,000 and in Western Australia the numbers of farms grew from 5,577 to 19,000 (Vamplew 1987 p. 72; Productivity Commission 2005). But it was only in the midst of the 1950s wool and wheat boom, as Joy McCann points out in her chapter, that Australians in many farming areas enjoyed the prosperity that was later remembered as the ‘natural’ state of these regions of the Bush. Of the hopes and dreams that sustained rural Australians through the first half of the twentieth century, some were doomed to failure, while others were not, at least in the short-term. (In the long-term, as John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, we are all dead).

A key challenge for present-day historians of rural Australia is to develop a framework of interpretation that transcends the tunnel histories of economic, geographical, social and political change and the constricting perspective of the pioneer legend. This book of essays is a modest contribution to that task. Its title, ‘Struggle Country’, reflects the harsh economic and environmental realities that governed the fortunes of rural Australians in the pioneer postlude. It also alludes to another struggle, the intense intellectual and political struggle among successive generations of Australians to bring rural ideals into line with the circumstances of a modern capitalist society located on a dry continent. Several essays in this volume return to the distinctive blend of scientific aspiration and romantic nostalgia that governed Australians’ attitudes to the countryside during this period.

Scholars in other disciplines have already told important aspects of the story. Historical geographers, notably Dennis Jeans, Les Heathcote, Michael Williams and Joe Powell, have led the way in plotting the process of rural development and examining the ideologies that governed it (Jeans 1972; Jeans 1987; Heathcote 1965; Williams 1974; Powell 1987; Powell 1989). A continuing theme in their work, and of more recent environmental historians, is the slow and difficult learning process by which farmers, scientists, and bureaucrats brought the high hopes of ‘Australia Unlimited’ into line with environmental realities, a theme that connects them fruitfully with earlier students of the Australian environment like the geographer Griffith Taylor and the agricultural scientist Samuel Wadham. English-trained geographers, more attuned to international patterns of rural settlement and more interested in the down-to-earth realities of soil composition, water supply and crop-yields, often seem to have been better equipped than nationalist historians to grasp the distinctive features of Australian rural development in the twentieth century. Economic historians have also added important dimensions of the story, such as the impact of technological change on the economics of agriculture (Callaghan and Millington 1956; Dingle 1984; Dunsdorf 1956; Frost 1997). Political scientists have traced the development of the political ideologies and organisations that emerged to represent rural Australians early in the twentieth century but, until recently, their lead was seldom followed by other historians (Aitkin 1972; Aitkin 1985; Costar and Woodward 1985; Graham 1963). Richard Waterhouse’s recent book Vision Splendid is a welcome attempt to delineate the ‘social and cultural history’ of rural Australia, but its angle of vision, which explicitly excludes economic and political aspects of the subject, is narrower than it might have been (Waterhouse 2005).

If the Australians of the early Commonwealth had been asked to predict how the history of rural Australia would be told a hundred years hence, it would surely have been a happier tale than the one historians now relate. Despite the disappointments and sufferings of the 1890s depression and a long drought, they were confident that irrigation, technology, and scientific agriculture would create a more populous, prosperous and culturally vibrant countryside. The rise of new towns in inland Australia would correct the unhealthy crowding of the population in the coastal cities. ‘Country Life’, as Graeme Davison explains in Chapter 1, was the slogan of an interesting group of early-twentieth-century thinkers, often influenced by their American contemporaries, who believed that modern science – including political and social science – would enable Australia to preserve rural values while enabling country people to share the prosperity and civilised life of their city cousins. Even in an age of global communications, the hope remains strong that technology – in the shape of computers, mobile phones and communications satellites – will enable country people to preserve their way of life, though as Davison argues, its effect was often to erode both their independence and their distinctiveness.

Within the outlook of early twentieth-century Australians, and striking a chord with most of their generation, was a set of beliefs in rural life which the political scientist Don Aitkin sought to bring together as the ideology of ‘countrymindedness’ (Aitkin 1985). Its cardinal doctrines, according to Aitkin, were:

1. Australia depends on its primary producers for its high standard of living, for only those who produce a physical good add to the country’s wealth.

2. Therefore all Australians, from city and country alike, should in their own interest support policies aimed at improving the position of the primary industries.

3. Farming and grazing, and rural pursuits generally, are virtuous, ennobling and co-operative; they bring out the best in people.

4. In contrast, city life is competitive and nasty, as well as parasitical.

5. The characteristic Australian is a countryman, and the core elements of national character come from the struggles of country people to tame their environment and make it productive. City people are much the same the world over.

6. For all these reasons, and others like defence, people should be encouraged to settle in the country, not in the city.

7. But power resides in the city, where politics is trapped in a sterile debate about classes. There has to be a separate political party for country people to articulate the true voice of the nation.

‘Countrymindedness’, in Aitkin’s description, drew on the moral credit of the pioneers to support the task of building a modern rural country. By 1985, when he sought to define it in detail, Aitkin believed that ‘countrymindedness’ was almost finished as an ideology. Another twenty years of rural depopulation, neo-liberal economic reform and environmental crisis has further undermined its rationale, although, as Aitkin argues in a concluding essay in this volume, such views have been more resilient than he had originally anticipated.

By the early twentieth century, commemorations of the pioneer legend had begun to give more prominence to the role of women pioneers. In promoting ‘country life’, progressive reformers also awarded a special role to women. As Kate Murphy argues in Chapter 2, they ‘embellished’ the idea of the bronzed pioneer woman, exemplified by Henry Lawson’s ‘Drover’s Wife’, to create a softer, more maternal figure, in line with the fecundity that they saw as the sustaining attribute of rural life. Preserving the purity of rural womanhood, and stemming the drift of young girls to the metropolis, were tasks integral to the efficiency and fitness of the nation as a whole. Women were important, too, as carriers of the message of rural improvement and reconstruction, as Megan Blair suggests in her study of radio dramas of rural life in the 1940s (Chapter 7). The nostalgic evocations of pioneer life in ‘Dad and Dave’, she suggests, were a foil for the modernising message of Gwen Meredith’s long-running radio serials, ‘The Lawsons’ and ‘Blue Hills’.

Nostalgia within the rural ideal is also central to Marc Brodie’s chapter, but with a political edge. He argues that recognising a shift in interwar Australia towards the idealisation of an English rural idyll may offer us a more complex reading of what ‘countrymindedness’ meant, particularly to those in country towns. This can then change how we view the early rise of support for the Country Party, especially in the towns, and the reasons for the comparative decline of a specific rural political force in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Placing rural decline within its historical context is a central aim of this book. A critical dimension of this task is to examine the relationship between this decline and the varied ‘dreams’ people had about the Bush in the twentieth century, including their visions of the past. Helen Doyle’s chapter encompasses these themes, in examining how a number of country towns in the early twentieth century, in response to fears of decline, utilised their own history and heritage to create new dreams for their future.

Here, as elsewhere, there was always a tension between the idea of ‘Country Life’, with its emphasis on modernisation, comfort and civilisation and an implied reliance on state intervention, and the ‘pioneer legend’, which continued to celebrate the courage of the settlers in their lone battle with the elements. Many patriots, including the most influential spokesman of the Anzac legend, Charles Bean, traced the best qualities of Australia’s fighting men to the frontier virtues of the pioneers. Too much mollycoddling by the state, some feared, would undermine the very qualities that they most admired. The most successful methods of settlement, wrote one, Frederick Eggleston, must ‘resemble the process of throwing the puppy into the water and letting him swim’ (Eggleston 1932 p. 71).

The pioneer idea long outlived its heyday. Its innings was longest in the ‘frontier states’, like Queensland and Western Australia, where ‘empty lands’ were ‘waiting’ to be settled. As David Cameron shows in his contribution to this volume, the ‘yeoman ideal’ was a strong component in the political rhetoric and policies of Queensland governments for over a century, from the 1860s to the 1960s. Its durability probably owed something to the propensity of Queenslanders to define themselves in contrast to the urban and industrial values of the ‘Southern States’. Over that long period, as he explains, the idea was nevertheless reshaped to accommodate changing political circumstances, from the liberalism of the free selector era to the rural socialism of Labor’s long reign in the 1920s and 1930s to the more conservative pastoralism of the Country/National Party in the 1950s and 1960s. But the incompatability between this ideal and environmental conditions led to many failures throughout the twentieth century, a situation which is only starting to be solved in more recent years by a better adaptation of dreams to reality.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the last of the pioneers were tackling the dry, infertile margins of settlement, like Victoria’s Little Desert and Western Australia’s Rocky Gully, the subject of Jaime Phillips’s essay. She shows that the pioneer idea, in pitting settlers against the land was not only fruitless, in leading to the ruin of the settlers, but self-defeating in ultimately ruining the land itself. The heroic effort to bring science and technology to the aid of the settler was sometimes equally fruitless. Jill Tacon’s chapter shows how attempts by state authorities and local settlers, and competition between towns to exploit the waters of the Wimmera River, led to its ultimate demise as a healthy river system. On a small-scale it illustrates what Australians are at last beginning to recognise as perhaps our most pressing national challenge, the need to conserve our shrinking water resources.

For more than a century, the history of rural Australia has been written in opposition to the history of the cities. Urban history, once conceived as redressing an over-emphasis on the Bush, reinforced this historiographical divide. But the current debate over the conservation of water is only the most recent and vivid illustration of the artificiality of such distinctions. The same water that irrigates the crops and pastures of the countryside also waters the gardens, fills the baths and cooks the country-grown vegetables of millions of city-dwellers along the coast. But water, as these essays show, was not the only resource to flow between city and country. People, money, technology and information were all implicated in the complex traffic between rural and urban Australia. In this book we have sought to direct attention at a neglected facet of the national past. The next challenge will be to re-unite the artificially divided histories of the city and the bush.

Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie, Editors, July 2005


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Cite this chapter as: Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. ‘Introduction’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. ix–xvi.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie