Daily Archives: 8 June 2011

Quarterly Essay on the country and the city

Judith Brett, Fair Share: Country and city in Australia (Quarterly Essay 42)

Judith Brett has an admirable capacity for seeing beyond the surface of ugly or bizarre utterances to the valid concerns or at least genuine pain that has given rise to them. In this essay, for example, she resists (or perhaps doesn’t even feel) the pull to mock or repudiate Bob Katter’s extreme language when he’s arguing for his constituency. And she doesn’t indulge in the city dweller’s revulsion from book-burning when she discusses the farmers who burned copies of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan last year – no snide comment about people who condemn and burn documents they haven’t had time to read.  That is to say, she side-steps the kind of point-scoring that tends to pass for debate in the press these days. Instead, she addresses her subject seriously and respectfully. Even as she argues that ‘economic rationalism’ brought havoc to rural Australia, charts the rise and fall of the Country/National Party, or notes the impact of Pauline Hanson, she avoids cheap shots.

It’s an excellent, thoughtful essay. This paragraph comes close to encapsulating its argument :

City and country in Australia share a history, a long history both of interdependence and of watchful suspicion. The understanding of that interdependence was strong in the first two centuries of Australia’s European settlement, and the attempt to build a vibrant and self-sustaining countryside was a major political preoccupation. The country made claims on the city for support, and by and large the city attempted to meet them as part of a compact in which Australians shared the cost of living in a big country. This understanding has waned rapidly since the neoliberal 1980s. Since then the country has seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis: dying towns, depressed and ageing farmers, unproductive farms carrying too much debt, environmentally unsustainable irrigation schemes, droughts and flooding rains, crisis-ridden marketing schemes like the wool stockpile and the Australian Wheat Board, and so on. The picture is of irreversible decline. Yet, as Tony Windsor reminds us, over 30 per cent of Australians live outside the big cities. What is their role in the nation? And what are we to do with all that land beyond the ranges and the thinly settled coastal strip?

My two cents worth: read it – you’ll see the world a little better!

As usual, this Quarterly Essay includes correspondence about the previous issue. The contributors here are all but unanimous in their appreciation of David Malouf’s The Happy Life, calling it variously ‘beguiling’, ‘characteristically delicate’, ‘elegant and humane’, ‘thoughtful and courteous’. They are also all but unanimous in finding that he didn’t say anything definitive about happiness. A Russian scholar argues that his reading of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is simplistic an uninformed. A psychiatrist invokes the academic literature about happiness. Several others push their respective barrows with varying degrees of elegance and insight.

David Malouf does not rejoin the conversation. I read his silence as signifying that he’s perfectly happy for other people to have their say, to correct him where needed, to have their own crack at the subject. After all his piece differed from most Quarterly Essays by being in the tradition of the essay as a crack at a subject rather than a tightly argued thesis. Sometimes the appropriate response to an essay is not to argue with it. Maybe Marieke Hardy got it right on the First Tuesday Book Club last night. She said she felt as she was reading The Happy Life that she was sitting on David Malouf’s lap resting her cheeks on his bald head and letting him read to her.