I’m greener’n you are
The Greens claim to the environmental high ground is objectionable to many conservative voters. Coming from a long relationship with the land and with marshalling limited resources many conservatives see the Greens as coopting and perverting their own core values.
There are a number of separate aspects to this and each requires its own adjustment to the presentation and implementation of Green policy.
Farmers resist being told what to do with their land. Greenies often cast the farmer as the bad guy, destroying the land in the name of profit. Farmers, in fact, have a long term view and generally attempt to “pass the land on” better than they inherited it.
To work with farmers Greens are going to have to learn some humility and listen to the stories the wisdom held by those who touch the land every day.
Wilderness is not a land use. Once you strip away the name calling and the miscommunication over terminology and timeframes, there are two fundamental differences between the redneck and the green views of the environment. One is the notion of fragility.
The protection of wilderness is almost an affront to many people’s sensibilities, especially where that wilderness is, in fact, a landscape modified and shaped by human activity. Locking up any but the most pristine landscape causes unpredictable and feral outcomes. Almost all land management scientists agree that the landscape has to be managed somehow. As long term land managers, farmers understand this implicitly.
The argument then comes down to which management approaches will work best and in whose interests are we managing it.
If Greens are going to work in regional communities to create a sustainable ecology we have to accept the importance of land management and get on with finding practical solutions.
This is hardly impossible, there are lots of great environmental outcomes put together by landcare groups modifying productive land use for better environmental outcomes that enhance the sustainability of both farm production and ecological health.
Production is not extraction. While farmers have a healthy respect for nature, they absolutely resist the notion that human activity is detrimental to it. Their very soul is imbued with the notion that we shepherd and husband nature and they loathe the accusation that their actions are harmful.
Further, we live on the food they produce. The famous counter to criticisms of rural water use, for example, is “Give a city dweller a litre of water and they’ll turn it into shit, give a farmer a litre of water and they’ll turn it into food.”
Farmers value productivity over biodiversity for good reason.
If Greens and farmers want to work together to change the nature of the government, Greens have to acknowledge and recognise that farmers are the last human agent in the food chain. We must farm to eat and so need to apply the principles of Fair Trade to our local food producers, as we willingly do for third world peasants.
I carry the economy
The notion that that nation rides on the sheep’s back is not new. The Roman Senate governed on the basis that wheat prices had to be low enough to prevent civil unrest and high enough to keep the farmers on the land. The main task of the Roman navy was to protect the wheat trade.
As the first human element in the food chain the farmer is squeezed by everyone upstream. This results in a strong cynicism regarding economic policy.
Agribusiness looks after me There is strong division in rural communities about the benefits of a global economy. The removal of tarrif and quarantine barriers in the name of free trade opens them to international competition. The deregulation of water, land purchases and financial institutions has favoured large companies over small players.
Despite this farmers are more likely to identify with an agribusiness conference than an ecological one. The global agribusiness companies have gone out of their way to make the farmer feel good about them, even when they are busy wiping out the traditional farm community and lifestyle. Efficient farming practice is often interpreted to mean industrial farming and so the farmer takes the side of the industrialist.
Farmers who are working hard to develop sustainable land practice, water management and pest management based on bio-diversity get almost no help or public support from Green and environmental groups.
To work with farmers, Greens have to take up the cause of sustainable land-use and back the farmers trying to build a sustainable future.
Rural communities are dying One relentless aspect of economic rationalism has been the elimination of the family farm and the “enthusiastic rustic” with an emotional connection to the land. As industrial practices become the norm, farm size has grown and rural communities have shrunk. This process becomes self perpetuating; as communities fail, more people leave.
A small number of farmers are actively working to keep farms smaller, so that communities can prosper, increasing the prospect that young people will wish to inherit the family farm.
The Greens economic plan must incorporate a rural strategy that builds community, restores local food processing and breaks the stranglehold of major corporations over the production, distribution and retailing of food.
Farmers distrust government. Governments are run from the cities in the interests of the bulk of the population – city dwellers. It was ever thus. Agriculture was created by kings to feed standing armies and has been driven by the needs of the State ever since.
Australian governments forced farmers to irrigate, by charging them for the infrastructure whether they used it or not. Now farmers feel they are being held responsible for the damage that irrigation has done to the environment.
For farmers to trust Greens, a long term program of cooperative and supportive policy development and grass-roots support has to be put in place now.
Sharp shocks and good manners
Pink Floyd juxtaposed Gilbert and Sullivan’s short, sharp shocks with good manners, as a coda for rugged, conservative, individualist morality. The raw nature of rural life tends to breed a tougher type of human than the effete, decadent city and the tension across that spectrum is apparent in cultural artefacts since history has been recorded.
To build bridges with rural communities the Greens have to deal with this divide.
I can stand on my own (two feet). The rugged individualism of the farmer is also the basis of communal strength. Rural communities do not wait for the police or ambulance to attend the scene of an accident, they look after it as best as they can themselves. They have to.
Local swimming pools are built by cake raffles rather than government grants and a good measure of hard work on the part of the locals themselves.
Rural communities see this individualism as the opposite of the ‘nanny state’ rules being proposed by Greens. In fact, on many levels it is closer to the principle of individual action at a community level that applies to most Greens grass roots activism and individual response to global issues such as climate chaos.
To inspire and lead rural communities Greens need to separate the need for an authorising moral framework, from the precepts of individual responsibility that sit naturally on the shoulders of rural communities.
Farmers are socially conservative and do not want a bunch of tree hugging poofs who care more about wilderness than farm income determining their economic future.
Despite the similarity between the basic principles of rural hospitality and the universal principles espoused by all good greens, this innate tension is real and palpable.
Given the challenges of dealing with the socially progressive agenda of the Greens, the two parties are going to have to simply put aside the social agenda and concentrate on promoting the values of responsibility, hospitality and a fair go.
Animal welfare issues came to a screaming head recently with the emotional discovery of cruelty in the live cattle trade. No-one endorses cruelty to animals but the live cattle trade has transformed Australia’s north economically improving the lot of many Aboriginal communities as well as farmers.
To resolve competing priorities between fundamental issues (such as animal welfare and economic well being) Greens need to develop big picture economic solutions that provide alternatives to stark choices between one approach or the other.
The largely negative media reaction to Christine Milne’s plan to reach out to rural and regional voters is understandable given the analysis above.
It is not that surprising, though. Three of the Greenest seats in the country are outside the major metropolitan areas. Franklin in Tasmania, Fairfax in Qld and Richmond in NSW are all rural seats that poll around 20% for the Greens.
In those seats, the work has begun. The National Party and The Greens have had a number of conversations at a variety of levels about different ways to work together to break the stranglehold of the financial sector over agricultural policy.
These discussions have generally found common ground on economic and land management issues as well as on basic moral approaches to governance. The recent battle over coal seam gas has only brought the two constituencies closer together.
On the other hand, the two groups have little in common on social policy. Greens invited to address party conferences of Nationals members have faced people walking out “refusing to sup with the devil”. Greens conferences have laughed “the idea that we would ever talk with those people” off the agenda.
There is even more loathing among the voters than the active membership. While the numbers do not identify the causes, the hate emails doing the rounds during the election campaigns spell it out simply enough.
This does not make it a bad idea. Both constituencies have strongholds where they can win seats in their own rights. Nationally the Greens have more voters, but the Nationals vote is more concentrated and they have more seats. In Queensland the Nationals outnumber the Greens, in NSW and Victoria, the opposite is true.
Taking the national vote from roughly ten percent to roughly twenty percent to gain a shaky alliance, though, would be political madness if it did not impact on the mainstream voter.
The real advantage of such an alliance is the message it sends to the broader community. To understand the dynamics of that message it is important to look at the make up of the swinging voter, as opposed to Katter’s 11 percent.