The sight of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull embracing a distraught woman trying to make sense of drought, reminded me of a line from an old song A Pub with No Beer, made famous last century by Slim Dusty.
There’s a dog on the verandah, for his master he waits, but the boss is inside, drinking wine with his mates. He hurries for cover, and cringes with fear; it’s no place for a dog, round a pub with no beer. (Songwriter: Gordon Noel Parsons).
If a rural publican offered a Penfolds Grange Hermitage or a schooner of Reschs, Malcolm Turnbull would probably choose the former. And here is the dilemma. Public houses and other small businesses trading across rural and regional Australia can barely afford to stock and sell much of anything, let alone beer and wine. And there is nothing the bosses can do about it.
Neither market forces, innovative business techniques, trickle-down economics nor individual determination can withstand drought. No matter what the marketeers throw at it, nothing can make it rain, and a failure to develop public policies which accept the forces of nature, will likely see off this current crop of right-wing nongs.
Speaking of nongs, when Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man in 1989, conservatives around the globe punched the air, claiming they were right all along. The Soviet Union had collapsed, communism had failed, and liberal democracy fuelled by unfettered capitalism, ascendant.
In the year Fukuyama published his drivel, Malcolm Turnbull turned 35. The great dust storm of 1983 which denuded the Mallee and Wimmera, and the Ash Wednesday bushfires which killed 70 people, had begun to fade from the national memory. But like a beaten, cowering dog, the bush remembers, and it is this stark reality which deflates the logic of right ideology, namely market forces will solve our problems.
What the bush needs more than ever are far sighted, well-financed state and federal government policies. And those who work the land need to face the fact Australia is an arid continent which cannot sustain water-hungry crops such as cotton and rice, or graze cloven-hoofed bovines or sheep.
Malcolm Turnbull is now 64. And during his lifetime communist China has become the world’s largest economy, Russia is run by a master spy graduate of the KGB, England is facing the fact its fate has been entwined with Europe since Julius Caesar, and the President of the United States looks and acts like an episode of the Sopranos.
And drought, as articulated by Dorothea Mackellar, remains an undisputed Australian truth; beyond climate change, beyond coal, and beyond the prognostications of the Institute of Public Affairs.
So there he stood; the Last Man, swallowed by an endless, wizened landscape, wearing an ill-fitting Akubra hat. Skilfully placed beside him the distraught woman, dressed in expensive R.M. Williams clobber, and as far from the image of Russel Drysdale’s The Drovers Wife, as I could imagine. She nodded dutifully as the PM said her $12,000 relief cheque must be used for household expenditures and that only and the states are responsible for funding stock feed.
Not once did the PM mention the travails of Indigenous Australians who do the bulk of hard yakka on the big country stations, nor the need to develop innovative methods to till and graze this arid land.
Instead the PM paid lip service to the drongos of the National Party, or whatever the so-called Coalition partner is called, and reminded us of the resilience of rural people. Perhaps he should have channelled the words of Dan Sheehan, the bush poet who inspired A Pub with No Beer …
The cowards become brave and the weak become strong, the dour and the grumpy burst forth into song, if there’s aught to resemble high heaven down here, ‘tis the place of joy where they ladle out beer.
Henry Johnston is a Sydney based author. His book, Best and Fairest is available at Valentine Press.