As the major parties scramble over marginal seats and woo undecided voters, most Victorians’ political views are set – they are conservative or Labor. In the first of a twopart series, Karen Kissane profiles the safest conservative seat in the state, Lowan.
THEY were childhood sweethearts, the Easticks.
Christine and Robert went to school together in the little Wimmera town of Nhill. They started dating when they were in year 8 and year 9 respectively. They went their own way for a bit but ended up back together and married when she was 19 and he was 21. It wasn’t unusual back then, not in the country anyway. “A lot of people in this area were the same,” says Chris.
That was 28 years ago, a time when young people did not have to leave town to find a job, or to find a life partner; a time when it was possible to thrive by living pretty much as your parents had done. Until this year that approach has worked well for the Easticks, both from local farming families, who now have four daughters and work 4500 acres (1820 hectares). Farmers talk about distances in kilometres and fuel in litres but they size up their precious land in acres, the way their fathers did.
Some things are best done the traditional way.
Like voting, for instance. Rob Eastick votes National Party and always has.
He sees voting conservatively as part of the natural order for country people. “I don’t know a farmer who votes Labor,” he says. “Here, you’re born with it in your blood.”
Christine says she knows little about politics so she simply votes the way her husband and her father do. “We’ve just always been National Party. I don’t go looking at Labor’s ideas because I probably wouldn’t understand it very well, and I’m happy to vote how farmers like to vote. That’s really all I go by.”
Times are changing. Forty years ago, 23 per cent of Australians said they had no strong identification with any political party. Now, it is looser, with about 35 per cent saying they have no party loyalty. But the vast majority still vote steadily in one direction. Their politics is part of their identity and their way of seeing the world, whether they think of themselves as “political” or not.
In Victoria, there are 26 seats outside the Melbourne area but probably only 13 could truly be called “rural”.
Generally, farmers vote conservatively, although a couple of rural seats – Narracan and Ripon – swung to Labor in the rural backlash election that ousted Jeff Kennett.
The Easticks are, politically speaking, typical of the seat in which they live. Nhill is in Lowan, the largest and the most conservative electoral district in the state. It stretches from the Big Desert to within 10 kilometres of the coast and includes the wheat-growing area of the Wimmera, the wool-growing western district, and the towns of Horsham and Hamilton. Its population is one of the oldest and most Anglo in Victoria; Lowan has almost no residents from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
Nhill has 2000 residents and sits on the Adelaide-Melbourne highway.
Its shire, Hindmarsh, produces 90 per cent of Victoria’s ducks and 10 per cent of the state’s grain and oilseeds.
Labor would need a swing of 17.09 per cent to win Lowan, which has always been staunchly right wing, moving only from Liberal to National in their various incarnations.”
When you walk down the street of a country town, you realise that regional Victoria doesn’t look all that different to how it looked in the 1950s, in terms of faces on the street,” says Brian Costar, professor of Victorian state parliamentary democracy at Swinburne University. “The immediate thing that hits you is the lack of ethnic diversity.
And, therefore, issues that have moved people in the cities don’t always move people in the bush. There has also been a youth exodus from the country, so it is left with a really skewed older age group, and the aged are more politically conservative than the young.”
And finally, he says, there is the fact that social networks in rural areas, despite the distances involved, are tight: “The effect of what’s called in the jargon ‘voter contagion’ – that is, friends and neighbours – is very powerful.”
Locals call Nhill and surrounds “the bush” but there is little greenery. Trees are sparse, planted like straggling sentinels on roadsides or around the rim of paddocks. The land is flat and brown.
Many country towns are dominated by a big church on a hill; in Nhill, the biggest buildings are the fat silver silos that hold the grain. Across the baking heat of the main street wafts the smell of real baking – the toasted muesli that is a mainstay of one of the big local factories, Lowan Whole Foods, which runs three shifts a day. Nhill is keeping afloat despite almost a decade of drought partly because of jobs at Lowan, Luv-A-Duck and other “valueadding” industries in the area.
The Eastick property, a wide white house sitting in the middle of a stand of box and gum trees, is about 10 kilometres from Nhill. Politics is not much of a topic for discussion in the Eastick home, they all agree; it is a very distant hum in the background of their lives.
Rob, a genial man with a dry sense of humour, keeps up; he listens to John Laws and Richard Stubbs on the radio while he is out on his tractor. Christine, who is quieter but whose questions are sharp, has no interest in politics. She worked at a bank before having children but is now busy running the family and the local junior tennis and is treasurer of the district tennis association.
Danielle, 16, has started watching the nightly news because she recently had a work-experience stint at a Melbourne television station but says the issues just kind of wash over her. Breanna, 14, says of politics, “I don’t get them, and I don’t like them. They’re boring.”
The principal of Nhill College, Neville Trotman, says locals generally don’t talk politics much: “I think for country people it’s work and play. You work hard, and then you try and enjoy yourself.”
Christine Eastick has always worked at home, for the sake of the children, but she thinks she might have to get a job outside the farm if things don’t improve soon. This is a time of year where Rob usually takes pleasure in strolling through his wheat crops and letting his hands brush the heads of the laden stalks; when his canola is so high that he has to walk on tip-toe through the fields to be able to see over it.
Not this year. This year he will take nothing to the silo. What little grain he gets will be kept for seed for next year in the hope rain will come then. He has a barley paddock with no heads on the stalks; an oat field that is a sea of dirt; a wheat crop that should be topping the fence but which sits at a stunted 10 centimetres. The canola that should be head-high is barely off the ground.
It has cost him $450,000 to sow these crops – $100 an acre. “It’s an enormous loss,” he says, shaking his head.”
Enormous. We live for next year now.
This year’s gone. What else can we do?
Go to the casino?” He grins. “No. We’ve already gambled our money.”
It’s a joke, of course. The Easticks are careful people, like most farmers. Their property is big by the standards of the area but their comfortable house is modest when compared with, say, the grandiosity of McMansions in suburban Melbourne. In the good years they have done what farmers have done for millenniums: bought more land.
More recently, sizeable crops in 2001 and 2003 allowed them to stash a bit of money into farm management deposits.
Rob says, “It’s about being lean in the good years so you can be comfortable in the bad years. But we won’t be comfortable. I’ve never had a loss like we will have this year.”
Along with thrift, self-reliance is a key value in the bush. Rob Eastick is captain of the local CFA. When locals rolled a car up the road recently, it was he and his team who turned out to rescue them.
It is these beliefs – being careful with resources, taking responsibility and giving back to the community – that underpin Rob’s political views and, therefore, his family’s.”
Labor always seem to have plenty to spend,” he says critically. “They’re not conservative. Farmers are conservative people. They have to be.”
Look what happened in the Cain-Kirner years. They got the state in all sorts of trouble; debt. Kennett came in, yo, bang, ran a profit, got heaps of money in the kitty. And I think Labor is spending Jeff Kennett’s money still ¿ They’ve just found another $800 million they didn’t know they had.” He smiles.”
I don’t know who their accountant is.”
SO THE fact that Nhill boasts a new 32-bed hospital, and a new fire station and police station, and that his daughters’ state school has been dramatically rebuilt and expanded – well, that cuts no ice with Rob Eastick. He cannot imagine ever voting Labor. He concedes that “the Labor Government’s probably been good for the town”, and he likes Steve Bracks, but he thinks a conservative government could be better relied upon to “put a few dollars away”.
Rob Eastick votes for men whom he believes share his experience of life. “(Local Nationals member) Hugh (Delahunty) is an ex-farmer, and Bill McGrath before him was a farmer. Jim McCabe before him was a Liberal politician and a farmer. They understand.”
But he admits that he is not happy with the state Liberal Party. “Ted Baillieu is the new fella on the block, isn’t he? They don’t seem to have ¿” he pauses, searching for the words.
His wife supplies them: “A decent leader.” Rob nods and says, “You need to have a charismatic type. Like Paul Keating. He was just a good bloke on the wrong side. I think for a political party to be very successful they need a great leader, and the opposition here haven’t had one since Jeff Kennett ¿ He could have still been there if he hadn’t been so damn arrogant.”
The Easticks’ two younger daughters listen intently from across the big kitchen table, never interrupting to put their own views or ask a question. Their two older sisters have moved out of home: Lisa, 21, is at university in Warrnambool, and Jenna, 19, has qualified as a personal trainer in Melbourne.
Sixteen-year-old daughter Danielle, asked about her likely preferences, smiles shyly and says she will probably vote the way her parents do. “They know what’s right; you know, what’s best for us.”
The influence of parents’ political views is a stronger factor in how people vote than either income or gender, according to John Armitage of Auspoll.”
US research has shown that in normal times, about two-thirds of people will inherit their political values from their parents,” he says.
This is how it works in families like the Easticks, where both parents share political views. Where parents are divided, it becomes more interesting.”
If the parents are split and they are upfront about it with their kids, the daughter will follow the father and the son will follow the mother,” says Costar.”
No one knows why.”
There is a strong sense of the country- city divide in Nhill. Farmers you chat to almost invariably give you a lecture on how city folk are too extravagant with water. There is also a sense, when talking to the Easticks and other Nhill locals, that country people feel they don’t rate high on government handout lists.
During the week the media are full of new announcements of money for drought relief. Is there a contradiction between the Easticks’ dislike of big-spending governments, and the fact that farmers need buckets of government money to back them up in hard times?
Rob Eastick looks at his wife. “Have you seen any in our bank account?” he asks drily.
Says Christine, “No, but I suppose we haven’t applied for any. There wouldn’t be too many around this area that have had any.”
Rob chuckles. “You have to pass ‘exceptional circumstances’ criteria, although after this drought that will be easier to do. But so far, it’s been hard.
My brother-in-law is up in the Mallee and they’ve had a lot worse ¿ and they couldn’t get it either. It comes down to assets. But you can’t eat assets, you can only borrow against them.”
The biggeset worry on Rob Eastick’s mind is one that he knows no government can help with. He spends a lot of time thinking about succession. His family have worked the area since the 1890s, and now he is the only male Eastick in his generation. He would hate to think his family’s generations of work will end in strangers’ hands.
But local farms are having trouble not just with water but with their young, whom they are losing to the cities.
Rob Eastick has told his daughters that whoever keeps her surname after marriage can have the farm. He has encouraged his youngest, Breanna, to think about whether she would like to take it on. Breanna loves the outdoors and harvested a load of wheat when she was still in primary school. “I like being on the farm,” Breanna agrees.”
But I don’t know yet whether I’ll still like it when I’m older.”
Says Rob, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than for one of these kids to perhaps marry a nice young local fella but even the local boys aren’t stopping.”
Earlier, his wife Chris mentioned that they might sell up completely if all the girls move away. Rob had dived in to say he couldn’t bear that prospect: “I could sell the land I’ve bought, but I don’t think I could sell this piece where we’re sitting now. It’s where I was brought up, where I was born, it’s the original Eastick property.”
Now, it is again Chris who prods him about unwanted change: “If we’re talking a long-term drought, and there’s no money in farming, would you still feel that way then? Would you want your daughter to take it on?” His answer is out almost before she has finished asking: “No.”
SITTING MEMBER Hugh Delanhunty (National Party)
SWING REQUIRED 17.1%
MEDIAN FAMILY INCOME $700-$799
– 26.5% employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing (Victorian average is 3.5%).
– Lowest population density in the state, with just 1.5 people per square kilometre.
– 17.2% are aged over 65 (Victorian average is 12.7%).
– Just 2% were born in non-English-speaking countries (Victorian average 16.8%).
First published in The Age.