Travels of a country independent in a land where dreams fade and hopes rise

by Guy Rundle
Out in the Mallee, in between places of something and nothingness, a former Cohuna dairy farmer throws her hat in the ring.

The salt is a frozen waste
In a place too hot for its own good

— “Pillars of Salt”, John Kinsella

Ozzie: Those people down there look like ants!
Daryl: They are ants. We haven’t taken off yet!
— Hey Hey It’s Saturday Morning

Out beyond Nhill, going from Horsham towards the South Australian border, the landscape comes apart, the long and flat but neat order of the middle Mallee giving way to scrub and lost roads. Here, the towns are now a few houses gathered round empty shops and stores, their roofs sagging Dali-like into the verandah, the whole place slowly giving up.

Beyond here, the real vastness begins. Here was where the Australian project had stopped, or one idea of it anyway, and the fantasies had begun, of inland seas and great canals, of cracking rock with bombs for, well, anything other than the land’s refusal of anything more than it would give. The white scrub cross-hatches white sky; Fred Williams becomes a photorealist. Perception itself seems to dissolve. The world is like a colouring book.

I’m on a V/Line bus going from nowhere to nowhere, the last candidates forum done, the last walk-around walked. Three-dollar earpiece, tinny AM radio coming in and out — could be 1976. Junior reporters are yelling at Anthony Albanese on the orders of their bosses, arrogant and arsehole, like Gauleiters at a beerhall. The whole thing is coming apart like the landscape. 

* * *

Like a big TV set, the rectangular stage and overhead of Horsham Town Hall. Bare, white, art deco, the parquet floor shining before it, the wedding cake stucco. Yes, we’ve done this before, but man, this one is big. They really went all out on this one. After the great war, soldier settlers flooding the place, opening up the Wimmera, the Mallee, terrible things happening in the past, and some in the then-present. The city was to be the capital of a region, this huge town hall was a downpayment on that. Never happened, and now the stage, the space dwarfs us and swallows up the speakers.

Certainly looks like it’s swallowing up Sophie Baldwin, the independent I’m following, a compact woman in jeans and a wilderness top of sorts, who is putting in a dutiful performance yet not sparking it. There’s a confident and chunky Green who can fill the space, and UAP and Citizens Party blokes who bring the energetic crazy. But Sophie’s not making it. I’ve given her (and all the candidates; the ’80s wedding singer MC in a thin black tie and FM radio promo jacket is strict on this) a Dixer — “What would you do that the local member hasn’t bothered to?”) — but she can’t really rise to it, burn the air. 

“Well, I think we need no more buy-backs, but I support environmental water and the plan, we need childcare and better housing…’

Come on, Soph. Tear the Nats a new one!

* * *

I wonder if I’m seeing my first candidate fade, someone who stepped up to the bizarre process of running as an independent, the mixture of pretence and hope, the no-money and the small meetings, the reaction and the great beyond, the no-space of not knowing whether anyone knows about you at all. I think I’m seeing it now, her getting stuck on it. Sophie gets the call to respond to a question and she comes to the mic. It’s like a school spelling bee; she wants it to be over and back in her chair. There’s no love for those two minutes, to try something out, to take a cheap crack or get an audience reaction. 

* * *

Truth is, I thought Sophie had faded suddenly, on the road back from Warracknabeal to Horsham, she behind the wheel, me scribbling, she talking about river bank silage and almond farms, and suddenly a little oomph went out of her, some loss of zip. The glorious flatlands of the middle Wimmera are being peeled open by our car, the green big land, grey big sky, a farm here and there, not too many. Could it have been that? Nah. We’re Australians, this is nothing by way of wilderness, just a stroll, a little too farmhousey.

More likely it’s been the talking, the talktalktalking, the hours of it to me about herself weeks before — country girl, grew up on a dairy farm, then got a dairy farm and a family.

“What’s it like running a dairy farm?”

“Well, you get very close to the cows.”

“What I mean is the routine every morning?”

“And every evening too.”

“You like it, it’s…”

“All those udders…”

“One hundred and fifty each morning and each evening…” 

Twenty years of it, three farms, a terrible workplace accident on one, a divorce, got a gig with the rural press, took her everywhere, north of here mostly, round the Murray and triathlons.

“Triathlons?”

“Iron Man ones. Run, swim, bike a 100kms.”

“After 20 years on a dairy farm?”

She gives me the slightest look over, a farmer’s livestock inspection. “Anyone can do it.” I’ve already had a sausage roll, a strawberry donut and a banana Big M in her sight this morning.

“Is it even worth going tonight?” she says.

“It’s always worth going.”

If you chose a life of farming and you chose it in the Mallee, and when it was all over, you chose to pull yourself together by getting into triathlons, then you’re someone who likes the silence. Few people can do a full day’s political gabbing. Some can barely make half. I’m one of them. I have to lie quietly on a motel bed for a couple of hours between half days. 

We’d gabbed all the way up to Warracknabeal, then we’d spent hours round a table at the Pharmacino — a cafe in the side part of the town’s sole, big pharmacy — talking about all the things that made Sophie decide to run: the river system stuff-up, the housing disaster, the healthcare disaster, the childcare disaster, and over it all what seems to many the utter indifference of the National Party to what is happening in rural Australia, its strange, paralysed non-response to the slow crisis of Australian rural life, its seeming willingness to let it all just die and blow away at the margins…

* * *

Mallee would have to be the strangest division of all. It’s the smallest of the nine inland core divisions (Grey in SA, O’Connor and Durack in WA, Lingiari in NT, Maranoa and Kennedy in QLD, Parkes and Farrer in NSW) that together take up around 80% of our land space. But all these others have vast emptinesses, and a handful of population centres. Mallee — the Mallee and the Wimmera — is a nation unto itself, relic of a time when we thought we might be a really big country: scattered with towns and cities, with century-plus histories and regions of its own, and even those regions have regions. The place is the size of Portugal, and the regions know each other not.

“I’d barely been down here,” Sophie says. “I was born in Cohuna, farmed there.” Green, bucolic country. “It’s impossible to campaign here,” she said at one point. We’d driven all day and barely moved a bit up and down in the middle of the middle of it. When you think you’re at the end of it there are bits still to come, out west and northwest, where the towns thin but don’t cease, and the scrub pushes inward on cleared land, and the very idea of place seems to be slowly wearing away.

When the Indy revolution hit Indi in 2013, and consolidated in 2016 and 2019, people there looked in all directions, to Nicholls, round Shepparton, to the Riverina, for new possibilities. But Mallee was too hard, for all the reasons above, the second safest Coalition seat on a 66% two-party-preferred. In 2019 Ray Kingston — the tall, Kelly-bearded, almost impossibly dashing Mayor of Yarriambiack Shire (round Rupanyup and Murtoa; no, of course you’ve never heard of them) — gave the new Nationals candidate Anne Webster (her predecessor resigned after going on hookup sites while in Hong Kong) a shot across the bows, with 10% from a standing start. 

Voices for Mallee (VFM) formed afterwards, but then COVID hit and everything slowed, especially in a place like this. VFM couldn’t do the “Indi process” — kitchen table conversations and then a report on the region and then candidates — in time, and in the end Sophie stepped into a vacuum. 

But there’s no point pretending that her candidacy is without sectional interests.

“Water is the key issue I got into it, which makes this area a little tricky cause it’s dryland farming down here. I’m for the implementation of the Murray-Darling plan, but against more buy-backs. Because we need riverine reconstruction, at the moment we’ve got inundation…”

Short tutorial on the Murray-Darling: the Gillard government put a plan in place in 2012 to manage this essential, indeed constitutional feature of the eastern half of the continent. Coalition governments then trashed it and separated water rights from water use — anyone could buy up water rights, not just farmers, and the value vastly inflated. This steered farming along the western section towards high-price crops like almonds — which draw in a vast amount of water and threaten to suck up the whole region.

As the river system dried up, the whole region looked fit to die, and as state governments attacked the feds, a plan was put in based on the common agreement that things could not go on as they were. But here, campaigners began to divide. The Greens and other activists want a commitment to the full buy-backs of water rights, with the water then not used and reflowing in the river.

Sophie, the dairy farmers who support her, and other smaller farmers argue that excessive buy-backs are killing small farming, and also damaging an already damaged riverland structure with excessive flow. “They’re breaking down banks to seven metres in, and inundating land,” she says, like I should know what any of this means, like any of us should. Which we should. 

* * *

I came through here 40, 45 years ago with my dad, an accountant who did country pubs, spending a day in the closed dining room with tins of hand-written receipts and 51 column money books. They gave you a ring-pull can of lemonade and a pack of Colvin’s chips, and you wandered through these vast behemoth hotels, with their red-and-green carpet full of figures, their wheezing plumbing, iron lamps and writing desks. Some still in use, some shut down for 20 years for the breeze-block motel down the road. That’s where you stayed, breakfast serving hatches and tick-box menus (“Juice: orange ☐; tomato ☐; prune ☐), burnt-orange bedspreads and lime carpet, black-and-white country TV. And each morning, more road, more land, more sky, more wideness, the place opening out for ever. 

* * *

There’s less talk of water at the cafe conversation in Pharmacino, where eight or ten people come through for the table conversation, and Ray Kingston swings through to lend support. For everyone it’s housing and for the women childcare, childcare and childcare, the absolute state of collapse of its mostly user-pays system that lies at the centre of everything.

“We have a shortage of nurses but we have that shortage because they can’t get childcare to come back to work.” “And they can’t afford it, when they can get it.” “Mortuary attendants get more than nurses, the gardener at the hospital gets more than nurses.” “When you do get a nurse or a doctor, there’s no housing for them.” 

“So the big question is,” I say, “the Country Party used to deliver for the country, in a way. Now the National Party doesn’t. So why do these places keep voting them in?”

Ray has an answer: “There’s a tradition of self-reliance in the country, that’s very valuable and that I care about very much. But I’ve come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that it’s being used by government to stop people from demanding the things they need, from government.”

Tracey, a farmer (“How many hectares?” “We don’t talk about those things here!”) and community activist, adds: “Yes, I think about all the talk about resilience, all the resilience training at school. It’s become a way to make you just accept.”

* * *

After the cafe table conversation, Sophie, Ray and I walk down the main street. Sophie should be glad-handing, giving out leaflets, but we’re talking very complex water policy. To be fair, doing anything here feels like a drop on a saltplain, but still it’s the job. We talk to a farmer, who looks about 60% like me or my dad, or Clive James, who starts with, “I don’t want to sound communist, but we’ve got to end this user-pays system or the whole region is damned…”

We pass the volunteer small department store, started up by the Woodbine charity after Target closed down and the town was without some pretty basic supplies. The future of country Australia is post-capitalist. To keep more of what it makes, to return some farms to direct local production for use, not commodity, and to get its taxes back as support for volunteer networks for a rich way of life. The edges of this place will be radical long before the centre is, and will be radical by drawing on its most conservative traditions. 

“It’s all great,” I say to Ray, about the volunteer shops, and the art projects, and the extraordinary heritage boards in which the history of past shops, their proprietors, lost local specialities — the sugary milk blocks from the vanished milk bar — have been lovingly detailed. “But eggghhh, what was it like when towns like this were full, and every shop was bustling, and there was one of everything?”

“The country needs a reinvention, real work poured in… it hasn’t really been tried yet.”

* * *

My dad didn’t really need these gigs, I realised much later. He was following his own dad, an auctioneer and SP bookie who’d dragged his knocked-up wife and only son the length of Victoria’s vast rail system, when you could go from anywhere to anywhere, places where there were no roads, the stop a wheat-field siding, and find a hotel and a room and a place where people wanted a bet. When they split up finally in Geelong, mother and son stayed there, as the Depression played out. My never-met granddad kept roaming the rails. His history on Trove is a series of court appearances, unpaid bills and common-law wives. That farmer was probably my cousin. 

* * *

The day’s broken a little. We end up in Wheatlands, a vast collectibles store that has been organised on a voluntary basis run by the local history society, and unlike most such collectible-junk stores, it is dehiggledy-piggleded. Eight rooms and everything is sorted. There is an aisle of alarm clocks here, wooden to bakelite to plastic, 100 of them, beside the island of magazine racks, a hundred of them. Plates, glasses, board games, squash rackets, easy chairs, armchairs, tyre levers, dial phones, eggcups, macrame pictures, oven gloves, table lamps, steel bakelite plastic wool maroon cyan mission brown royal purple beige salmon pink, room after room, dust motes turning in the still air. 

The effect is like an explosion in your head of every memory spreading outwards, hitting the walls. It is a moment in a Murray Bail novel, it is Borges’ Aleph, it is everything loved, lost and left behind by one bunch of people in one place on this endless plain in the past 70 years. These were all the things we had stared up at as children when they were bigger than us, now tamed, catalogued, domesticated for purchase, for spiriting away, and they silenced us. 

“Well, we were allowed to come in during COVID because it’s a voluntary activity,” said one of the white-haired ladies at the counter, in non-Edna Edna glasses. “And we just got it all done.”

We had come to do a quick pitch, thought there might be a few Sophie voters, and then we just wandered in silence for minutes and more minutes, all present purpose, all will suddenly stilled in this vast memorium.

Back at the car. “Is it worth even going tonight?” says Sophie of the forum. “Anne won’t be there, the Labor candidate won’t be there.”

“It’s always worth doing,” says Ray, gently. “Turning up is most of this.” 

* * *

My father’s mother prodded and trained him into a scholarship to a good school and he got a good life and I got a life where you get to do whatever you want, and here this is. A few years before she died, she changed nursing homes, and the new one took her off doping pills and out of her came memories wonderful and terrible, of a country childhood on a flowing river and steamboats, the full bit, and of the talk about “the hunting parties”, and one extraordinary moment, of walking home from work in the Geelong woollen mills, steam rising in the night, and her thinking, “I will never get the life I want.” No no no, Jesus, you don’t want to hear that, remember it. Stay in the junk shop, in the bakelite. Our lives are the dreams those who came before us barely dared to have. 

* * *

Turning up, as it turns out, is most of it. With Nats and Labor absent, it really comes down to Sophie and a very competent and gutsy Green, Sam McColl on one side — “I’d like to end with a quote from Greta Thunberg,” he said to this Wimmera audience, and the vast room felt like an icy vacuum had billowed out — and the UAP and Citizens Party on the other, which promised everything from abolishing net zero and lower taxes to the return of passenger rail to the whole vast region — and, due to a mix-up, ended up supporting the “return” of capital punishment to schools.

Sophie did her best. With the majors absent, a really barnstorming performance would have aced it. She won’t be the next member for Mallee, unless the rural revolution’s started early. But she wouldn’t have been even if she’d been a saltpan Cesar Chavez. No one else turned up, and she did, and she came with who she was, and no one can ask more than that. 

* * *

The day after the Mallee I’d been intending to go to Darwin, to tell the other side of this story, of a place where the Indigenous population is big enough to have heft, to make its history known. But hours before the flight, my stomach ulcer finally rebelled and cut me in half, and a four-hour plane trip was out of the question. So that is missing from what should have been a diptych of sorts, of something. I don’t know. 

* * *

Out across the border, emptiness emptying into emptiness. This is what I came back for in the end from away, not the desert, but this mid-space, this interzone between place and nothingness. You can’t choose your history, but nor can you deny it. In the Wimmera, in the Mallee, in the old halls, the memory of ancient meetings, of town hall dances, of the local newspaper on the doorstep, as I listen on the radio to a corrupted press corps acting for a corrupted government, some great salt out of capital and power, out here, you can think of the worst of us, and the best of us, a country of no-place trying to make one, of the stone workers walking off for the eight-hour day, of feminist organisers in the Queensland cane fields, of Wave Hill and Green bans, of this great struggle for that simple thing, a place where everyone can live a life worth living — the place we were going to, and may, the world willing, after a decade lost in the great nowhere, be on the road to again.