Opinion | Coupledom erased from our modern social mindset

RURAL DECAY: Australia is turning its back on its rural heartlands, those places that gave it its wealth and its soul in favour of a life of urban sprawl.
RURAL DECAY: Australia is turning its back on its rural heartlands, those places that gave it its wealth and its soul in favour of a life of urban sprawl.

Again, as if you need telling, the federal and state budgets contain little for Australia’s regions, and only scraps for the Hunter.

Two hundred years ago Governor Lachlan Macquarie was hard at the task of bringing civilised British life to the New South Wales colony. 

Last week a friend at the Brisbane meeting of the Institute of Australian Geographers I attended called Macquarie’s dream ‘Coupledom’ -- the idea that a man and a woman in a farm house, productive in tilling the land and having children, could be the basis for occupying the continent.

Coupledom underpinned the way Australian governments supported the bush, the nation’s vast non-metropolitan spaces, well into the 1960s.

Sure, suburban families outnumbered their country cousins in a growing post-WW2 nation, but the soul of Australia was still firmly lodged away from the city. Up country was where authenticity could be found, where integrity, mateship and stoicism stared down drought, floods and bushfire.

In the 1960s, during school holidays, we city kids rode trains past flour mills, canneries and abattoirs to family farms where an uncle and an aunt and their thriving children showed us the good life. We saw little country schools, wooden churches with half a dozen pews, and we giggled as we eavesdropped on the conversations of the local community via the party-line telephone on the wall of the farmhouse hallway.

Politicians in Canberra and Macquarie Street had no choice except to fund the roads, hospitals, schools, telecommunications, dams and airports that underpinned the landscape of Coupledom.

In the past 50 years, however, Coupledom has crumbled. The family farm has struggled in competition with corporate agriculture and a focus on big export markets. Kids are sent off to schools in the city.

Get big or get out approaches to grain and meat production mean the end of the local stock and station agent, the produce store and machinery dealer, and the teams of experts from water, soil, forestry and agricultural departments.

The mills, canneries and abattoirs are closed. So are the local police stations and hospitals.

The railway lines are quiet. High speed roads by-pass towns and shops are empty. Coupledom from farms and townships alike is drifting away.

Meanwhile, long histories of domestic violence and suicide are uncovered. Rural life was never idyllic for everyone.

In many places the chequerboard landscape is bulldozed for new forms of production. In our valleys gigantic pits are cut for easy access to coal.

Workers drive-in and drive-out, bunking in newly-empty homesteads, their families nestled in suburban homes down by the coast.

Then, in the big city, new ways of making a living are evolving around the hipster, the creative, the professional services worker, the start-up entrepreneur. These folk campaign against coal, against intensive animal farming practices, against greenhouse gas emissions that turn the weather map of the continent blood red every summer evening.

And a new politics away from Coupledom has emerged. The mythical soul of the nation is re-locating. The inner city is the place to be. It has the ear of government. And to it the riches flow.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University