The Politics of a Country Culture

State of Mind or State of Being?

How to Cite

Richardson, C. (2000). The Politics of a Country Culture: State of Mind or State of Being?. M/C Journal, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1841
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01
Articles

Traditionally, the country way of life, the country worldview -- the country culture -- has been understood differently to the city way of life. Notions of rural have been represented in terms such as 'Eden', 'Arcadia', 'Golden Age', and associated with beauty, fertility, moral uprightness and authenticity. In contrast, notions of urban have been characterised by pollution, sterility, degeneration and artificiality. In Australia, the culture of the first white settlers developed out of this tradition, but with its own distinctive characteristics. The harshness and indomitability of the landscape became the means by which unique character, unifying myths of belonging and societal significance were constructed and asserted. In contrast to the communities of the country's original inhabitants, which were perceived as passive, unproductive and disconnected, the new culture was characterised by notions of 'land', 'masculinity', 'white', 'productive', 'homogenous' and 'nationalistic' (Moore 54; Turner 6; Ward; White 16ff.).

Defining the country worldview in contemporary Australia, however, is problematic. Question marks hang over the continued significance, even existence, of a specifically country culture. Post-war Australia has witnessed enormous economic and social changes, wrought by improved transport and communication networks, a shrinking rural population, and the decreasing importance of the agricultural industries. The steady decline in grass roots support for the National Party of Australia, traditional defender of the country way of life, suggests that the voting population no longer views the upholding of specifically pro-country policies as necessary to the well-being of the nation. Australia is now recognised as the most urbanised, sub-urbanised and multi-cultural of the western industrialised nations. Globalisation of the mass communications media has blurred the boundaries between rural, urban, state and national. Consequently, many argue that the differences between the country and city are now insignificant (for example, Aitkin 34-41).

Yet notions of country that are distinct, even definitive, continue to be represented in various urban-based communications industries, cultural policies, and the discourses of environmental politics and nationalism. Examples include John Laws's very popular Across Australia radio talk-back programme which celebrates the outback, the farmer and 'battler', and the 'True Blue' music of country artist John Williamson; the push by the Green movement to separate and protect wilderness areas of 'natural' bushland from the corrupting influences of human cultivation; and the continued significance of the 'bush' and 'bushman' in divers constructions of national cultural identity. Share and Lawrence argue that such representations are a state of mind rather than a state of being, "in the imagination of the cosmopolis" only (Share & Lawrence 101). Imagined or otherwise, however, the evidence suggests that they are representations which are nevertheless there -- albeit constructed in varying ways, with varying emphases, and in a variety of settings.

Tamworth: Country at Heart

Jacka argues that it is the 'local', constructed by a specific set of forces and circumstances and operating within a particular time frame and place, that provides the best or most 'authentic' means of analysing notions of the 'country' (qtd. in Share & Lawrence 102). Tamworth, situated in North Western New South Wales, approximately four hundred kilometres from Sydney, is one such 'authentic' locality.

The city of Tamworth and its surrounding hinterland is populated by some 55,000 people. Timber and farmland constitute 95% of its land use. Agricultural production generates the bulk of its net income. The Tamworth electoral district has been designated 'country' by the State Electoral Office. Promotional billboards erected by the Tamworth City Council and situated on all major highways into the city describe Tamworth as 'the heart of country'. Tamworth is renowned as 'the Country Music Capital of Australasia' and celebrates 'country' values annually through a highly successful Country Music Festival. Clearly, notions of country are significant in the shaping of how Tamworth is perceived as a community locally and nationally. These notions are an important component of the process of meaning generation, circulation and exchange inTamworth -- indeed, they are an important component of the essential fabric that constitutes the Tamworth culture.

Analysis

The Tamworth worldview was studied through an analysis of the coverage of the local NSW state election campaigns of 1995 and 1999 by Tamworth's only regional daily newspaper, the Northern Daily Leader. Regional daily newspapers are a useful means of analysing the major preoccupations of a culture. They contribute significantly to the construction and representation of the communities they serve: they are moulded by the specific needs of their communities; they are prominent influences of the norms, values and processes of these communities; they are the product of a community that is connected by common and local interests and knowledge, written with and by the people of this community (Mules et al. 242). The coverage of the 1995 and 1999 election campaigns represented a discrete sample of texts with a common focus. An important aspect of this focus was Mr Tony Windsor, Independent State Member for Tamworth.

Windsor's Independent status was significant to the study. Firstly, it suggests that he was elected to office on his own merits or on the merits of his policies, as against any particular party affiliation. Papadakis and Bean argue that a vote for an Independent most often represents a protest vote against the dominant players in the political system rather than any systemic approval of the policy positions or other qualities of the recipient (109). This may well have been the case for Windsor's initial victory in 1991. However, in the 1995 election he won an unprecedented 83% of the primary vote, representing voters from right across the political spectrum. He further increased his majority in the 1999 election. Windsor's extraordinary popularity suggests that his appeal cut across the political boundaries into the social and cultural realms. As such, Windsor embodies a singular means of analysing the socio-politico-cultural preoccupations of those he represents.

The study tracked story frequency and space, and analysed pictorial, headline and lead texts in terms of story focus, personal and thematic associations, and candidate agency. It was found that the Leader markedly privileged Windsor over his opponents in regards to story frequency and space. The pictorial and key word analyses identified Windsor's public persona as more active and more person-oriented than those of his opponents, and as associated more often with exterior settings, particularly those in or connected with 'bush' locations. This stood in contrast to the representations of his major ALP opponents. In both elections they were female, associated more with interior settings, and represented as speaking more than doing, passive more than active, and concerned more with their emotions and states of being than was Windsor.

Overall, the Leader's representation of Windsor was found to comprise the six notions noted above as being characteristic of the traditional country worldview. Windsor's connections with and concerns for the land and country issues were significant. The construction of male and female gender roles was masculinist in nature. The absence of any signifiers associated with notions of 'Aboriginality', 'ethnicity', even 'diversity', indicated the existence of naturalised discourses of 'white' and 'homogeneity'. Notions of productivity were evident through Windsor's preoccupation with the business and industry. Nationalism was implied through Windsor's association with characteristics that epitomise traditional understandings of what it is to be an Australian.

Two additional characteristics were also identified. The first of these was named 'Independent', as indicated through the significance placed upon Windsor's politically Independent status. It was defined by the traditional understandings of the country worldview and ideas of integrity, 'a fair go' for the country, and of giving power back to the people. In contrast, the major political parties, ALP and National Party, were associated with the city, corruption, interference, lack of democracy, the undermining of country values by city values, and a subordination of the country to the city. The second characteristic was named 'community'. It was indicated through ideas of belonging and like-mindedness, andWindsor's representation as friendly, person-oriented and concerned with the active provision of services for the people.

Implications

The Tamworth culture is characterised by the notions of 'land', 'masculinity', 'white', 'productive', 'homogenous', 'nationalistic', 'Independent' and 'community'. This very characterisation, however, is one that gives rise to a number of questions. What drove the Leader to construct and represent the Tamworth culture in this way? How did and does this particular characterisation serve the needs of the Tamworth people? How and why are these needs different to the needs of city people -- or even people in other rural communities?

Perhaps the best answer lies with the demonstrated longevity of the essential nature of the Tamworth worldview. Traditional notions of country have remained distinctive, even definitive, despite Australia's urbanisation, suburbanisation, multiculturalism; despite the enormous economic and social changes that have been wrought by globalisation; despite the consequent blurring of boundaries between rural, urban, state and national. This traditional nature, it seems, is resistant to change.

Yet there is also evidence that a blurring of boundaries, even change, has occurred in Tamworth. Examples include the fact that the combined income generated by secondary and tertiary industries in the Tamworth district is now greater than that generated by agriculture; Windsor, with whom the Leader so closely associates the land and other notions traditionally associated with the country, also holds a university degree in economics; the annual Country Music Festival is celebrated largely from within the confines of the city of Tamworth itself; Tamworth City Council and Country Music Festival both have sites on the World Wide Web, thereby connecting them with the very globalisation that the Leader would have them resisting.

Although this may suggest that the country has actually appropriated, even assimilated many of the notions that are most often associated with change in today's society, it also seems that this assimilation is one that is on the country's terms only. Notions of the city are subordinated to notions of the country. Change is appropriated, but in a way that maintains the status quo -- that perpetuates the essential country worldview, both locally and nationally.

Such evidence of change may also suggest that the Leader's representation of Windsor, of Tamworth, is perhaps a state of mind rather than a state of being. It is a representation that taps into the imagination of the people rather than their everyday existence. In so doing, it worked to position over 85% of the population into voting a particular way in the 1995 and 1999 NSW State elections. It may also work to draw the many people from around Australia who bring their tourist dollars into Tamworth each year to celebrate country values through the Country Music Festival. The Tamworth culture may well uphold a construction of Australian identity that is outside the direct experience of those who live on the coastal fringes, yet it provides an attractive, even desirable holiday destination for many.

Perhaps this is because people, country and city alike, continue to see the country as a place that offers them a simple solution to tensions and conflicts that are otherwise unresolvable. Change produces anxiety -- especially a postmodern change in which all semblances of certainty have been removed. On the other hand, the study suggests that the country worldview represents that which does not change. Its definitive nature stands in contrast and provides an alternative to the relativism of the city. Notions of country represent a surety in a world that is otherwise uncertain.

Author Biography

Catherine Richardson

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