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Fergus Dale

The disregarded identity of regional Australia

By Fergus Dale, Caulfield Grammar, 2017 Victorian Winner

The middle of nowhere.

It's fascinating how often I hear that term used to refer to my home in North-East Victoria, the small locality of Indigo Valley; between the towns of Barnawartha and Yackandandah, a short distance from Tangambalanga and Mudgegonga, and at the foothills of mountains Baranduda and Murramurragbong.

There is no malice in city people stating this, nor their naive question of ‘do you ride a kangaroo to school every day in the country?’ These unassuming stereotypes are experienced by many boarding school students, usually characterised by frequent reference to tractors or farming.

People are not trying to be dismissive, it's just as if they have never really even contemplated the apparent vacuum of nothingness that stretches across nearly all the continent, aside from the odd kangaroo or strange place name.

But whilst these questions are meant as innocent, they stem from a wider societal disregard of rural areas that has led to devastating ramifications for regional communities.

Appearing on Sunrise in May, Malcolm Turnbull used the phrase ‘marvellous Melbourne’ to sum up his love of the entire Victorian state. And whilst this aphorism recognises the brilliance of this city we live in, it fails to even remember the 30% of Victorians living outside this urban sprawl.

Often, we are simply disregarded and stereotyped as stoic farmers, with the necessary hardiness to endure the wild conditions of the Australian ‘outback’, and hence not needing the support of their urban counterparts.

Yet contrary to this belief, regional Australians have proven to be able to empower their own communities, transcending the misconstrued identities bestowed on them by people from the city.

The stories from my closest town of Yackandandah, for example, reverse the stereotypes that are so commonly used to refer to rural Australians. The people of Yackandandah started a community owned and run petrol station when the old one closed down, have a vibrant artistic community, established an annual folk music festival, and recently developed ambitious target of making the entire town powered by renewable energy by 2022. These are just some examples of how crude and undeveloped the stereotypes of rural Australians really are compared to reality.

The introduction of refugees and different cultures to our region has also given it greater cultural depth, with Nepalese now becoming the fourth-most spoken language in my federal electorate of Indi, and the Bhutanese community generously raising over $3,500 for towns affected in the wake of Black Saturday bushfires, months after arriving in Australia themselves.

It's sad that when I mention names such as Yackandandah to my friends from the city, they only recognise a bunch of garbled syllables rather than these incredible stories lying within, stories which embody our Australian values and identities.

Yet I consider myself lucky to be a part of a town such as Yackandandah. Other regional towns, also inhabited by motivated individuals and with a strong sense of community, are unable to flourish simply due to the lack of consideration given by the majority of Australian society.

Communities such as these are inhibited by lack of mobile phone coverage, or unreliable public transport, shoddy infrastructure, sub-par health care and education, or lack of youth engagement. These issues affect nearly all regional citizens to some degree, particularly those living outside of larger towns on farms or properties.

For them, it is depressing, having to travel many hours to the city to access things that should be granted to them already, on a train that has not been updated for decades, and is more often than not delayed or cancelled. It is frustrating, having their conversation with a loved one cut short by a 'black spot' of no mobile phone reception. It is confusing, living on the border of two states, each with different rules and laws, and with no standard solutions for cross-border issues. It is worrying, watching young people in rural towns be disengaged from their ability to act politically or locally.

And the perception seems to be, that rural Australians are so inured and accustomed to the harshness of their environment, that these concerns are simply trivial. Yet these issues dominate the lives of rural people. The stoic idea that they should just deal with it and move on is subtly pervading regional society and even leading to mental health difficulties. Recent studies show that men in regional and remote areas were 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to end their life by suicide than those in urban areas. The perpetual internalisation of these grievances is ingrained in our culture and only now are the catastrophic effects coming to the surface.

While these issues are important to many people in urban environments, many have failed to ever consider this impact on regional communities and it is this lack of regard or recognition that has caused these problems to become widespread.

We should be embracing our regional communities. They represent the literal and figurative heart of our Australian continent, and within them are some of the greatest cases of human compassion and empowerment I have witnessed.

The land is also one of great beauty, which many urban Australians have never witnessed firsthand. My home in the Indigo Valley is so named for the indigo tinge of the eucalyptus-forest covered hills at dusk, and from this place I have formed a strong connection with the land where I grew up. The connection regional people have to the Australian bush and the landscape surrounding them goes beyond the few snapshots of the land urban people see on tourist brochures: it is an intimate and intangible connection, and it’s what informs our respect for this country.

Yet our 'sunburnt country' has been left to burn and smoke without the recognition or admiration of the 85% of Australians that live within 50 kilometres of the coast.

There must be a societal shift within our country. The federal government needs to focus its attention on regional Australia, which although it does not contain the majority of our population, is the crux of the Australian identity and values. We must acknowledge this identity, or it will be lost forever. The announcement of a Federal Inquiry into Regional Development on Monday shows that this is possible, and that regional politicians have attempted to change the political landscape to recognise the incredible heart of our country. But this is not enough; we need action on the problems that make it impossible for regional Australians to succeed.

We need a shift within the public consciousness, to stop seeing regional Australia as merely an add-on to our populous urban areas, and to start seeing it as a solution to the problems that plague our cities. Our country has become so dependent on its urban areas that urbanisation has begun to choke the arteries of our cities, with congestion of roads and traffic becoming the norm. Regional Australia could act as a solution to this unequal distribution of population, as well as other problems created due to overdependence on urban areas, such as employment, housing affordability, and generating renewable or other forms of energy for our urban populations into the future. This would not only support regional towns to thrive, but relieve the burden on our cities created by our population.

Regional Australia could be the solution this country needs, but we need to start seeing it as such; indeed, we need to start recognising it at all. By paying attention to rural areas, and addressing the disparities among their communities, Australia will regain a sense of cohesiveness and pride as opposed to our current fragmentary landscape.

You, too, should experience regional Australia firsthand. Although I'm sure many of you have before, don't be afraid to venture out into what you may see as the 'great unknown' of Australia's rural areas. You may find the people aren’t what you expected, with incredible stories who just need the chance to flourish. You’ll see beautiful landscapes, inspiring communities, you might even find solutions. Who knows? You might just find that 'the middle of nowhere' is, in fact, somewhere.