Cambridge University Press, 2001 ISBN 0521002273 (pbk) 17.95 [pounds sterling]: ISBN 0521807530 (hbk) 47.50 [pounds sterling]
There has been a dearth of critical scholarship on contemporary rural political economy in Australia. This is notwithstanding the considerable energy expended in (re-)writing the history of indigenous Australians which in many instances has required some attention being given to rural Australia.
This must be regarded as something of a paradox because the state of the Australian economy continues to be very closely tied to the fortunes of rural based export industries, especially mining and the pastoral industry. Just as importantly, the rural lobby continues to play a pivotal role in Australian politics, underscoring the conservative hold on federal government linked to the Liberal Party's coalition with the National Party (formerly the Country Party of Australia). This conservatism is also manifest in working class politics; rural worker organisations have historically exhibited a conservative bent, especially through the dominance of the Australian Workers Union, the most significant of the trade unions covering workers employed in rural occupations.
It makes a lot of sense to consider the lack of a critical engagement with the rural political economy as being reflective of the historical impotence of the left in affecting any significant sway among rural workers and small farmers. The necessity for more solid critical analysis of rural Australia is all the more prescient given the dramatic transformations of the rural landscape that have occurred in recent times. The demise of the small family farm, the ascendancy of broad acre farming and large scale irrigated farming and the continued dominance of concentrated pastoral capital alongside the importance of mining as a rural industry, are the most evident examples of the extraordinary restructuring of the rural political economy. The pace of this restructuring has continued unabated since the end of the long boom. The restructuring gathered new momentum with federal and State governments shutting down a whole range of rural and regionally-based services, including agricultural cooperatives and price support schemes, and as banks withdrew services from country towns. The marked polarisation of income across rural and regional communities is the most obvious material manifestation of the inexorable transformation in class relations that has occurred with this restructuring.
Environmental degradation associated with agricultural and pastoral practices has compounded the rural crisis. The intensive and broad-acre modes of farming have left the land and river systems irreparably scarred. This has served to exacerbate the desperate economic position of many living in rural and regional Australia.
The import of the restructuring of agriculture and pastoral industry and the hold of conservatism in rural Australia has been sharpened by shifts in the political representation of rural communities, especially as this has been organised institutionally. The supplanting of the Country Party by the National Party enhanced the political representation of large-scale rural capital, most notably pastoral capital, mining capital and large-scale agricultural capital, at the expense of small farmers. The rise of the National Farmers Federation as a political force, representing the interests of the aforementioned pastoral and agricultural capital, reinforced this shift in the political landscape. The political voice of many rural Australians has in effect been dramatically dissipated.
Yet, in more recent times, there have been some important subtle, and certainly understudied, political developments. Perhaps the most intriguing have been the recent successes of Labor in winning government in every State in Australia. This is in large...