In part 16 of Croakey’s election series, Gordon Gregory of the National Rural Health Alliance, draws our attention to an overlooked chunk of the electorate.
And he also says that, while we’ve been hearing a lot of negative commentary on the media’s performance during the election, Tony Eastley and ABC’s AM program deserve credit.
Gordon Gregory writes:
Whoever wins the election tomorrow, as Prime Minister they will have a lot of explaining to do to the 32 per cent of people who live in rural, regional and remote Australia about why we have been virtually ignored during the campaign.
It is understood that to manage Australia for the next three years one needs to win the election – and this is why the emphasis has been on the marginal seats. But why oh why did neither side find the time to give a major speech or to announce some visionary initiatives for the businesses and families outside the major cities!
Discussions within the NRHA, such as will be held at our annual face-to-face meeting of Council next week, almost always end up focusing on the broad range of issues summed up in the term ‘sustainable rural communities’.
People in the bush don’t need health experts to tell them that it is the social and economic determinants – not the health system – which largely influence health, wellbeing and longevity. So although we are a health alliance, much of our time is spent on issues like employment and regional development policies, the availability and use of water, climate change, public transport within and between country towns, the availability and cost of housing in fast-growing areas, the cost and availability of fresh food in remote communities, broadband and connectivity, and access to tertiary education for kids from country areas.
It would have been nice – as well as politically valuable – to have had the major parties show their understanding of these issues and combine it all into some integrated strategy for the future of country areas. It’s not as if the people of Rooty Hill (wherever on earth that is) would have minded if both leaders turned to us, metaphorically and in the flesh, for a brief time and gave us a nod of recognition and understanding.
Which is where Tony Eastley and the ABC’s ‘AM’ comes into the picture.
Eastley and his crew (including Michael Edwards, David Mark, and Alan Arthur) have provided a wonderful snapshot of the issues that do matter in the bush with their 15 minute segments on ‘AM’ over the past three weeks. They’ve reminded their listeners, in what surely has been the best example of the consistent analysis of issues and policy in the campaign, about what it’s like to be an Australian in the town camps of the Northern Territory, a ‘blockie’ in the Riverland, and a resident of Tingha in New England, like Colleen, for whom the issues are: “health, health and more health”.
Many of the contributions on these ‘AM’ segments have reminded us of the importance of local issues: local government amalgamations, aged care, water supply, patients’ transport and schooling.
Never mind that responsibility for these issues rests largely with local and state governments: the opportunity for the Federal government is to show that they understand the importance of such issues and have a plan for integrating them into national policy. For people on the ground it’s quality of life, infrastructure and services that count – not which government delivers them. This is why policies for sustainable rural communities were the number one issue in the top 10 for the Rural Health Alliance during the election campaign.
Whoever wins national government, they will need to accommodate this inseparability and be seen to deliver on the unwavering and universal thirst for local control of local services – including through health reform activities. The work on the fundamentals of the health system of the last three years must not be halted – and the incoming Federal government must be closely involved to ensure that both Local Hospital Networks and Medicare Locals do not end up looking like the States’ middle-sized Area Health Services of the past. The Commonwealth will need to drive this localisation and will find they have very substantial support from country people for it. The man may have gone, but his rhetoric remains critical: “funded nationally but run locally”.
And both the LHNs and the MLs will count for little unless they recognise the cross-jurisdictional border flows of patients and the irrelevance of State and Territory borders to communities of interest. (I ought to know: I work in the ACT but play cricket for Queanbeyan in NSW.) When the general manager at Deniliquin fell off his ladder he went to Shepparton to have his leg mended: “We never intentionally go to Griffith,” he rather uncharitably reported. And the people of Finley look to Cobram across the river in Victoria, not to Albury in New South Wales.
Having heard Tony Windsor and Bob Katter interviewed on Late Line this week, there is a bit of me that wishes Tony could be Prime Minister with Bob as his Treasurer. This would certainly provide much more colour – with the Treasurer working on what he described as “the paradigm of developmentalism and vision that this country has lost”.
Certainly it will do the independents in the lower house no harm at all if the major parties continue to ignore rural and remote Australia, its industries and communities. And although steady state economists and environmentalists might argue on ecological grounds with Bob Katter’s vision, at least there would be no shortage of attention given to what it takes to deliver to the people of rural and remote areas equivalent health outcomes and reasonable local services.
To see the previous posts in the Croakey election series: