Penguin Random House
In 1996, Independent Peter Andren, a Bathurst newsreader who was seen as apolitical, shocked politics of the time by winning a seat in Calare, one of the few rural seats held by the Labour party. He was followed in 2001 by Tony Windsor, and then Rob Oakeshott in 2008, this time in Coalition seats. More recently, another Independent, Cathy McGowan, took a once safe seat from the Liberal party in Victoria in 2013. Now, Kerryn Phelps has shocked the nation once again, taking the seat of Wentworth from the Liberals with one of the biggest swings in history.
In Rusted Off, political correspondent Gabrielle Chan speaks to the heart of Australia’s increasing frustration with the political system. By looking to her own rural community, Chan seeks to understand why so many voters are becoming rusted off major political parties and turning to independents to vent their woes.
“Note to politicians” Chan advises, “the main street thinks of the Government with a capital G. The main street doesn’t care which level it is, they just need a contact and a response. They want signs that the government has listened and that government has responded.” Instead, voters are being faced with political parties that claim they will fix everything when they get into office, then deliver little, and do not put the time or energy into localised demands.
In her conversations with local residents on the main street of her town, Chan is struck by the lack of government understanding of place and its importance in rural areas. In the country, place has an intricate physical and psychological effect. Yet government policy is not taking this into account in their policy making. “One side fits all” policies simply aren’t acknowledging the intricacies and complexities of localised experience.
After Trumps shock election in 2016, many tried to explain his rise to power through the lens of the popular memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, a story of gripping poverty and the rural decline. The memoir spoke to three important facets of increasing frustration in America – rising income inequality, working class revolt and the increasing cultural divide. The culture expressed in Hillbilly Elegy struck readers for its foreign-ness, yet it is a story that stretches across many frustrated sectors of communities.
In the city we can be cushioned by our suburbs and surroundings. It is easy to ignore the gaps, comfortable in our inner city, middle class, liberal experience. But, as Chan writes, “a country town is like the ant farm, all dirt and ants pressed between two panes of glass. Life is on show.” This “life” is made up not only of varying socioeconomic gaps, but an increasing cultural divide that speaks to the heart of rural and urban division, a division that is extremely dangerous for future national cohesion.
What we saw with Trumps success and the shock support of Brexit last year speaks directly to this increasing rural/urban divide. What we are experiencing, Chan writes, is a class of people that have been historically ignored by their political representatives and are pissed off. They are biting back. But this class cannot necessarily be pigeon holed into a single socio-economic bracket.
“The thing about class is that its nebulous,” she says. “Class is about money, but it is also about other things. It’s status and a place in the economy. It’s education but not all the time. It is often intergenerational. Or sometimes not.”
This divide can be intricately wrapped up in ideas of immigration and fear. Rural communities in Australia have a statistically lower rate of migrants yet may be more hostile to rising immigration rates. But, Chan acknowledges, rural voters aren’t stereotypes. They are diverse in their experiences and beliefs. The common theme they share is a lack of trust in the political process, and the anger to make a stand about it.
With unique insight into two opposing worlds, Chan delves into the deep separation between the Parliament in Canberra, and what is going on in the minds of those living “out there” in Australia. Politics, she argues, is no longer reflecting the people it claims to serve. Voters are becoming rusted off, and it is going to be hard for politicians to build up fractured relationship again.
In the main street of Chan’s town, voting has become an act of hope. To vote is to hope for better things, for some sense of authenticity, of honesty, of trust. Rural voters are no longer trusting their traditional party base, and they know how to show it. Changing their votes.
Rusted Off is not only a unique insight into a frequently neglected constituent of voters, but a celebration of Chan’s town and Australia’s diversity.