When I sat down with a few old school mates in Sydney recently I was not expecting any surprises. We had known each other for decades, in some cases since the age of 10, and we had been meeting regularly for the past six years so any possibility that circumstances might have driven us apart would already have been revealed. When one of them complained his aching bones had made it hard to wash his car the day before, the others were astounded by my comment that in the Northern Tablelands it was now illegal to wash one’s car, apart from sluicing the windscreen for safety reasons.
“We’re on Level Four water restrictions,” I said. “The drought, you see, remember the drought.”
Yes, they’d all heard of the drought, they’d all seen screen footage of barren earth and bony cattle, but, by some strange quirk of perception, it didn’t mean anything until someone sitting opposite in a Sydney bar, brought it home to them.
“Level Four; what’s that?” one asked. I explained — no hoses, not even hand-held; no buckets of water surreptitiously poured onto a precious sapling; this, my friends, is fair dinkum.
“And what’s Level Five, then?” one queried. A bit annoyed that after two or three years of high-powered coverage of The Big Dry none of it had sunk in, I added, reverting to my natural facetiousness, “Oh, that’s when the cops bust you for wasting water by spitting.”
I thought a lot about this conversation on my way back north through devastated regional New South Wales and wondered why such a catastrophe could have gained no traction at all in our great cities, and asked myself, would there ever be a tipping point when city folk might wake up to what is going on in their own backyards.
On reflection, it was hard not to ignore the housing boom in Sydney and Melbourne, which had turned modest suburbanites into (paper) millionaires, coupled with dark storm clouds in the world economy, as the likely impetus for an attitude which, at its best, could only be described as self-absorbed. But such musings also caused me to question regional Australia itself, to ask whether we had failed to inform our city cousins as to how bad things really are out here.
The truth is that regional Australia has been in steady decline since the late-1980s when a succession of governments decided that the days of a regulated society in which everyone got a reasonably fair shake were no longer sustainable and hence were over. End of story!
However, what happened next, such as the withering of regional universities and the near-extinction of the family farm, bedrocks on which modern Australia was largely built, either went under the radar or became spectator sport — and as a news reporter, I remember covering the National Party wars of the early-’90s as ‘great copy’ without exercising any grey matter as to what they might really signify — after all, those rows didn’t happen because a few politicos had a rush of blood caused, say, by an unexpected eclipse of the moon.
But, also, I don’t remember anyone of note — like a prime minister, the shepherd of the flock — saying that this is a watershed moment, which will require us to face a few unpalatable facts, about how exposed the driest continent in the world will be when forced to compete with societies so desperate that any standard of living, however meagre, would be acceptable. Instead, we were given a diet of simplistic slogans as comfort food, ranging from the fatuous in ‘The Clever Country’ to the banal in ‘How Good are the Sharks’. Meanwhile, the unrelenting asset-stripping of our productive capacity has been concealed by a welter of debt, designed to schmooze us into believing that all remains pretty much as it always was.
As I said, I wondered what the tipping point might be. Because we were given a fair warning in the global financial crisis of 2007-09 that debt as national policy has a definite use-by date, but we ignored that. Now Mother Nature has given us a huge wake-up call, because it is the export industries, cotton, wheat and beef, the ones for which all the little domestic producers were sacrificed in those National Party wars of the early-’90s, who are going to cop it in the ear. With what impact on the rest of Australia, who can tell.
Meanwhile, we and our neighbours in regional Australia, are organising bucket brigades of grey water, we’re restricting our best meals to special occasions, we’re listening in long-suffering silence to our politicians who have (very) belatedly discovered that there is a fundamental link between decimating local jobs and people starving on NewStart and the prosperity of local economies. The thing that bothers me most and leaves me fearing whether we can ever address such an existential issue, is the definite increase in detachment, rudeness and indifference to the suffering of others that I see around me, a manifestation that my late parents remembered as a nasty by-product of the Great Depression.
If I had any doubt as to the social stress and strain eating into the heart of regional Australia, I had a sobering reminder the other day when Grace and I were walking back to the car with our shopping — and a very, very careful shop it was, I assure you. We passed a shuffling man, clearly not an addict, pushing his few personal effects in a shopping trolley. This, of course, is not new to people who have spent many hours providing food to the homeless; but what was new was that his footwear consisted of a shoe’s sole taped to the underside of his socks, and the look on his face when he made eye-contact — one can only tell it as it is — was one of unadulterated hatred. We have a problem!