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Trying to Understand the Country Vote

This post is adapted from one of my comments to a thread about Australian politics. It was inspired by an interactive map that plotted the majority political opinions in the various federal districts around Australia. One thing that really stuck out was the polarisation of opinions between urban and rural areas, especially in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

One big hot-button issue these past few years has been the matter of taxation reform for the mining industry. Now, what you need to understand about this topic is that land ownership in Australia works a lot differently to that of other parts of the world, most notably the US.

The main difference is that under right of capture, land ownership in the US also includes ownership of any minerals or natural resources buried in that land. This is easy to understand and what most people naturally assume is the case. After all, Jed Clampett became a millionaire after striking oil on his otherwise worthless swamp.

However, in Australia, things are more complicated. It turns out that if you own land, you technically have a freehold, which means you can use that land for most normal purposes (farming, building etc.) but the minerals underneath it don’t belong to you – they belong to the people collectively.

If you want to extract wealth from the ground, be oil, gas, metals etc., you need a special permit allowing you to do so. Sometimes, these permits allow you to extract the resources that sit under land held by other people in freehold or leasehold. More often than not these people are farmers and none too happy being forced by the government to give you access to their land.

In return for the right to mine resources, the system up until a few years ago had you pay a set fee for every tonne of stuff you dug out of the ground. This was a great policy in the early part of the 20th century, when mineral prices were low and mining labour-intensive. It gave the government a stable source of revenue. In recent years, with the high mineral prices and extensive automation of the industry, you had a situation wherein a smaller and smaller proportion of the profits generated by mines were being recirculated in either the communities that serviced them or by the Australian people at large.

Cue the Mining Profits Super Tax, a policy designed to redress this failing and reform the system. Unfortunately for proponents of the measure, it was introduced poorly and politically mishandled, prompting a very loud and very public campaign against this “Mining Tax” by the mining lobby. The government then, fresh off the narrowest reelection margins in living memory, thanks in large part to this campaign, de-fanged the proposal and pushed it through in a watered down form.

People in the cities were broadly supportive of the proposal. It meant that mining companies, Australia’s biggest and wealthiest, would finally pay their fair share. People in rural areas, however, were broadly against the proposal, as it represented a threat to their own pockets.

The economic policies favoured by the country then, are basically the result of people voting to preserve their livelihoods and develop their own communities economically. Queensland and Western Australia both have vast swathes of land where people living there have very few options when it comes to earning a living.

Another big issue on which city and country were divided was on the issue of refugees, and, more broadly, the topic of multiculturalism itself, with its various sub-controversies, such as the recognition of Indigenous/Aboriginal Australians in the constitution and recognition of their rights in general. Opinions on all these topics seem to be broadly aligned. That is, if you hold one opinion, you’re more likely than not to hold others. That is to say that someone who is against Australia accepting new refugees that arrive in the country by boat is far less likely to agree that Aboriginal Australians should be singled out for special recognition in the constitution.

Needless to say, the latter views are far more prevalent in rural areas and these correlate strongly with conservative economic attitudes.

The anti asylum seeker and anti Aboriginal attitudes of rural voters are, I believe, borne out of the isolation and homogeneity of their communities, as well as the fact that the general population in these areas have less education than the cities. We’re talking about the whitest, least educated areas in Australia, which narrows people’s worldviews somewhat, to the point where their preferred solutions to policy problems don’t involve abstractions like social justice or depend so much on stuff like statistical analysis, but are pragmatic and concrete, here-and-now fixes.

A farmer or grazier sees him or herself as a steward of their own land. After all, the farmer who fails to look after their own land exhausts it quickly and bankrupts their business, failing to pass it on to their own kids. This is why they resent these big city greenies (i.e. environmentalists) who come in and tell them that because of aggregate overuse of the fresh water supply, everyone suffers and desertification and salination are taking place.

The farmer resents this because to them, it’s as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face that the fastest way to get desertification and salination happening on their own land is to stop using water on it. What does this greenie know about farming?

It’s the same attitudes that shape views, among white rural Australians, of the welfare state and the services it provides. As far as they’re concerned, welfare is for the lazy and services are for the cities. In the here and the now, they don’t see the intangible benefits of having a healthy welfare state, not in their own lives nor in those of their friends. As far as they’re concerned, their hard earned tax dollars are being unfairly siphoned out of their own pockets and being given to the undeserving or to the cities.

This leads into the prevalence of anti Aboriginal attitudes. In the cities, Aboriginal people have more educational and employment opportunities, more support and more hope, so urban exposure to the social problems facing their communities is somewhat lessened. In the country, and especially in more isolated places, these factors don’t come into play, so a white country person’s exposure to Aboriginal people can often be far less positive.

Perhaps on account of the isolation intrinsic to life as a farmer, people in rural areas tend to rate self-reliance as much higher on the list of virtues than a city person would. This attitude leads people to see one’s success or failure in the face of adversity to be a reflection on one’s own moral character. This means that they’re a hardy and tenaceous lot out there. The trap here, however, is the inability to see the historical and systemic forces that perpetuate the problems in Aboriginal communities and instead see these problems as the culmination of a thousand individual moral failures of the affected Aboriginal people themselves.

Why should we give any special rights or even recognition, they reason, to a bunch of drunken, violent layabouts? They have every chance, they think, to lift themselves out of their situation, clean themselves up and get a job, but they fail to do so consistently. Nope, the thinking goes, they haven’t earned the right to even be treated like equals.

Asylum seekers get it even worse, because not only are they coming and taking up tax dollars, but they’re also foreign, which means they could be bringing problems into the country that haven’t even been dreamed of yet.

I, as a city dweller and big believer in Keynesian economics, the value of using the latest science to inform policy-making and in progressive social policy, am almost the polar opposite of the rural electorate. I am also far removed from their problems and concerns. This does not, however, mean that I shouldn’t make an effort to understand them.

Too often, I see dismissal, mocking and outright contempt for these voters from others whose opinions skew to the left side of Australian politics. The thing is, they’re part of this country too, and their opinions, regardless of how heinous you may find them, matter.

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