BY BEN HABIB, with MARTIN DICKENS, LISA TUCK, LEA MACLAUGHLIN, KRYSTLE BROWN, JESSICA LOVE & ALICIA PETERS.
Event: ABC TV’s ‘Q&A goes to Albury-Wodonga—Panel on Regional Australia’
Monday 2nd May 2011
Albury Entertainment Centre
Personally I have soured on Q&A in recent times. The great promise offered by the show’s format often goes unfulfilled because of panels featuring politicians playing party-line ping pong. As if we are not subject to enough political spin already! So it was with a curious intrigue tempered by low expectations that I attended the first venture by qanda, as it’s known by the Twitterati, to a regional centre here in Albury-Wodonga.
The Television Spectacle
Like everyone else in attendance, I was caught up in the excitement of being part of the spectacle of a live television broadcast. Over 700 people attended the show, the largest ever audience for Q&A. While prepping the audience before the show, Tony Jones described Q&A as an “open democracy experiment” that was “rare in the world”.
While I would not wax lyrical about the show in precisely those terms, the Albury Q&A experience did prove to be educational in a number of respects. Encouragingly for a political scientists like myself, the theme to emerge from the night was the need for country people to engage more aggressively in the public policy process and be more strategic in our political decision-making. In the context of our region’s adaptation to multiple global crises and combustible national politics, it has never been more important for country people to step up and take a leadership role in the national political discourse.
I would like to publicly congratulate all of the young people who were part of the audience. There is an often accurate perception that our youth are apathetic about the world around them and are disinterested in their democratic responsibilities as Australian citizens. The young people who participated in the Q&A audience proved this perception wrong, demonstrating that local youth do care about their community and country.
On the flipside, the at times superficial discussion was a frustration, owing to the number of issues crammed into a one-hour timeslot and the unwarranted insertion of Osama bin Laden as a discussion topic.
It was unfortunate that the Q&A crew chose to waste ten minutes of a one-hour show ostensibly devoted to regional Australia on an issue of such minimal importance to country people. One wonders why they considered this appropriate when every other news program in the Western world was leading with this story. The panellists were not qualified to contribute anything of value to such a complex foreign affairs topic, nor should we have expected them to be, given the focus of the show.
When the discussion moved back to its original focus on regional Australia, a number of issues were raised including the urban-rural divide, the role of the independent MP’s in the hung parliament, the National Broadband Network (NBN), and the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Not surprisingly, the politicians received the lion’s share of the questioning although the local panellists made their mark to varying degrees.
Conspicuous by its absence from the discussion was climate change and the carbon tax, which is mystifying given that one, climate change is the seminal problem of our times and two, the carbon tax is the most contentious issue in contemporary Australian politics with clear ramifications for country Australia. Its omission from the discussion was a major disappointment.
Voting Strategically: The Unfulfilled Potential of Country Voters
For me, the best performer of the evening was independent MP Tony Windsor. A questioner from the floor sarcastically asked Tony Windsor to come clean about becoming a member of the ALP after selling out to the Gillard government. This comment epitomises the lack of political savvy of many voters in regional areas. They are quite happy to whinge ad nauseum about inequitable service provision yet continue to vote for the same parties that have done so little for them election after election. Continually repeating a strategy that doesn’t work is the definition of stupidity. It appears that many country voters would prefer philosophical fidelity to conservative parties at the expense of their real economic and social interests.
What Windsor proposed is for country people to manipulate the political system to their advantage by voting strategically. The changed nature of the hung parliament has changed the goalposts for regional Australia, giving country people far greater leverage in the political system than they have previously been used to. For Windsor, the lesson from the hung parliament is that country voters should vote strategically for independent members who are in a position to negotiate with either side of politics to get the best deal for their constituents. Indeed, as I stated on this blog immediately after the federal election, this exactly what they should be doing.
Windsor stated two corollaries to his position. First, strategic voting requires country people to become more involved in the political process. As he stated, “the world is run by those who turn up.” A person will find it difficult to vote strategically in defence of their interests if they are not well informed and actively engaged in the civic debate to influence public policy. This is a message that I repeatedly convey to my first year Australian politics students.
Windsor’s second corollary is that while demanding better services from the government, country voters need to resist the appeals to their narrow self-interest presented to them at election time. According to Windsor, health is always the number one issue for country people, so it makes strategic sense that they should hammer this home by rejecting vote-buying pork barrelling in other areas. For example, he argued that the government should not forgo revenue in favour of tax cuts, but should instead invest that revenue in service provision for regional Australia. He lambasted the ideological argument that the money people save from tax cuts benefits the country as it gets cycled through the economy as doing nothing to improve service provision.
The Urban-Rural Divide
Alana Johnson stress the need for country people to participate more in civic engagement and demand equity, describing access to services as a “human rights issue” across regional Australia. If we are going to start talking about human rights in regional Australia however, we inevitably come to issues beyond access to services such as unemployment and related socio-economic disparities, as well as the plight of indigenous people in our community. These are topics which many members of our community will be uncomfortable discussing. While that obviously exceeds the bounds of the point Johnson was trying to make, such issues are integral to painting a full picture the disparities across the urban-rural divide.
Cattle farmer and 2010 Victorian Rural Woman of Year Alana Johnson asked qanda’s urban viewers to remember that much of Australia’s wealth and prosperity comes from regional areas. Memorably, she talked about the many problems of urban living in the cities and wonders why more people don’t move to regional centres. This statement was no doubt meant as a positive affirmation of regional lifestyles as well as the business case for achieving economies of scale.
Charles Sturt University’s Dean of Science, Nick Klomp, came out strongly on regional Australia’s lack of access to health services, citing a statistic that 4,500 people die in regional Australia every year that otherwise wouldn’t if there was no disparity in health service provision between the cities and the bush.
Big Infrastructure for Regional Australia: The National Broadband Network
Simon Crean introduced his argument in favour of the NBN by making the point that training people locally in regional centres makes it more likely that they will stay there. In some sectors, like health and education, this is largely true. However, as one audience member pointed out, there are often insufficient jobs available for newly-trained professionals, forcing them to leave for larger population centres where employment opportunities are more plentiful. Crean offered hope in this regard in the field of information technology, spruiking the NBN as the most important piece of infrastructure for the economic development of regional Australia. However, he sensibly warned that because of the scale of the project, we should be realistic about how long the roll-out will take (he estimated approximately ten years to completion).
Alana Johnson described broadband internet access as the “lifeblood of regional Australia” was bullish on the possibilities available to regional businesses for online commerce. Nick Klomp was similarly enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by the NBN for distance education. Whilst I share Klomp’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of high speed broadband on our higher education institutions in regional centres, I am also cautious of education institutions using internet technology to educate on the cheap in the absence of bricks and mortar investments to facilitate face-to-face delivery. We in regional Australia must demand the best service available and be careful that advances in information technology do not give public and private service providers an excuse to deliver an inferior product.
Tony Windsor saw the NBN as “too big an opportunity for country people to miss” and could not understand why country members argue against it. In his opinion, the NBN is the one infrastructure project that can reverse the city-centric trend of centralised living and service provision.
Shadow Industry Minister Sophie Mirabella and local winemaker Eliza Brown were critical of aspects of the NBN roll-out. Brown expressed disappointment that the NBN is not currently scheduled for roll-out in small centres like Wahgunyah and Milawa, where here businesses are located. Similarly, Mirabella lamented that not only will some areas within her electorate miss out on the NBN roll-out, but do not even enjoy a basic internet service today. Clearly the patchwork telecommunications service in regional Australia has long been a problem for the telecommunications sector, which she rightly points out. From the Tony Windsor perspective, this failure could be construed as an indictment on the performance of the incumbent member of over a decade.
Appraising the Politicians
Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tony Windsor talk candidly and rationally about complicated public policy problems, free from the restrictions of party discipline and the festering cancer of political spin. One could not say the same thing for his parliamentary colleagues on the panel, Shadow Industry Minister and local member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella, and Federal Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean.
In her public persona, Mirabella often employs combative rhetorical devices based on cheap shots and redneck dog whistles. Disappointingly, her contributions to the qanda panel were laced with numerous barbs attacking the ALP on issues unrelated to the topic at hand (I yawn when ALP politicians do this too). She rightly valorised country centres for having strong values of community, a sentiment for which I have much sympathy, but earned jeers from the floor when she urged politicians to avoid a confrontationist political discourse, a delicious irony not lost on the audience.
Federal Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean, who drew the biggest cheer of the night from the crowd when he announced $65 million in funding for the Albury cancer centre, to be tabled in coming budget. Unfortunately, he couched his announcement in some long-winded waffle about the ALP’s commitment to regions and its responsiveness to local needs. It is a continuing frustration that in Australian political discourse we have to wade through a sea of partisan rubbish to arrive at small islands of policy substance.
Crean challenged people in regional Australia to develop agendas for community development and service provision in relation to the broader national goals defined by the government. He declared that regional people need to understand their strengths and identify the obstacles they face, and then work through national objectives as the framework for our service provision and public policy demands. The problem with this point is that the broad national goals articulated by successive governments have tended to be city-centric. While I understand the bureaucratic logic of tailoring development plans and grant applications to suit the objectives of funding bodies, it seems disingenuous for country people to structure their public policy requests around government priorities that are often biased toward large urban centres or voters in marginal seats.
I remain cynical about Q&A as a forum for democratic engagement. The questions vetted for inclusion in the show were tame and superficial. The show is heavily stage managed made-for-TV spectacle, not a real public forum. Looking at the broader picture, however, the exercise was a success for Albury-Wodonga, if not for regional Australia as a whole, despite the limitations of the format, the unnecessary sidebar on Osama bin Laden and the limelight-hogging of the politicians. While perhaps not the grand experiment in democratic participation promised by Tony Jones in his introductory remarks to the live audience, I need only look at the enthusiasm the qanda road show generated among my Australian politics students. For them, seeing some big names in person and getting involved in the cut and thrust of the political debate was an exhilarating experience. Here’s what some of them had to say…
“Albury-Wodonga residents were afforded the opportunity to attend a Q&A session held in the Albury Performing Arts Centre on Monday 2nd March. As local university students and political enthusiasts, this event was a major highlight of our year. It was refreshing to see a program of this calibre come to the border region and furthermore, to see many young faces in the audience. However, the issues covered in the program failed to address some of the key local and regional issues concerning the Farrer and Indi electorates.
At the commencement of the live forum, the opening topic relating to the recent death of Osama bin Laden greatly overshadowed issues relative to education and transport. These issues are of central concern to local residents and are representative of key inequalities between rural and urban communities. As rural university students, education access and resource availability is already at remarkably low rates. For the North East region alone, tertiary enrolment compared to other regions ranks significantly low. From personal experience, the underlining cause behind this result is primarily a lack of trained teachers and access to internet. By not having these essential resources, students are unable to perform academically and in turn, gain the necessary grades and requirements to attain entry to university. For those who are successful in qualifying for their course however, the lack of federal government funding and support for regional tertiary institutions results in students relocating to major cities. These students unfortunately are unlikely to return to regional areas, an effect which has created the current skills shortage for our region.
In contrast to education however, the issue of health appeared to dominate the night with Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean assuring local citizens that funding for a new cancer centre would be catered for in the next federal budget. This centre is a key investment for the region, with many cancer patients having to travel to either Melbourne or Sydney for treatment.
Overall, from the perspective of young university students, the night was slightly disappointing. Although it was pleasing to see the ABC host this week’s Q&A segment on the border, topics addressed failed to gain a consensus on important regional issues.”
Martin Dickens & Lisa Tuck
2nd year politics students, President and Vice-President of the Politics Awareness Club at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.
“Q&A live in Albury Wodonga gave the area a great opportunity to promote political awareness in the community and I felt that the questions that were asked raised a good range of topics. I was amused by Simon Crean’s announcement of the funding for the local Cancer Centre on the program, which he knew would guarantee him a big round of applause, and I thought that his point, which was taken up by other members of the panel, of country people needing to become more active in the lobbying for the change they want to see in their areas was a valid one. Q&A in Albury, a fun and informative night out!”
1st year politics student, La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.
“I thought Q&A’s show in Albury/Wodonga was a raging success and was a huge step for regional areas across the country. Although I am not originally from this area, I did grow up in a regional area and a lot of the issues raised last night were also relevant to my hometown. Albury-Wodonga citizens need to take into consideration what Simon Crean said about regional areas coming up with proposals for government initiatives, rather than just requesting them. After witnessing Q&A’s effort to come down to Albury-Wodonga, I believe we now have a great opportunity to start to close the gap between country and city. The ball is now in our court and it us up to us as rurals to get it moving.”
1st year politics student, La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.
“I was interested in the difference between regions and metro areas, particularly in health. The health system here is shocking, I can’t believe the thirty percent difference between city and country as to whether you live or die. Why shouldn’t we enjoy the same services as city residents? In the city there are more opportunities, more jobs, more health services, better infrastructure, whereas we are limited here. Simon Crean was quite good, got respect from the crowd for his cancer centre announcement.
I liked the message that country people should get more involved in politics. A lot of country people see political engagement as extra work and so they don’t really think about it, unless they really care about an issue. They often don’t know what to do and don’t think they can do anything about it as individuals.”
2nd year politics student and founding member of the Politics Awareness Club at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.
“Q&A being held in Albury was a positive experience for the border region, as it acknowledges, validates and reconnects the area to politics and issues that are too often forgotten. I believe that it is important that regional Australia takes advantage of this opportunity to hold politicians to account, and continue highlighting the focus on inequity that was presented in the forum. For this reason I was disappointed with the lack of focus on Murray Darling Basin Project. I firmly believe that the lack of equality and rural issues are important, and are constantly overlooked.”
2nd year politics student and secretary of the Politics Awareness Club at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.