Bush farmers shielded by a sheila

A week in the Life Fran Rowe, Australian Rural Counsellor
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The Independent Online
FRAN ROWE is a new face in outback Australia. She is a rural counsellor, someone who helps rugged farmers handle crises. Before she came along, people like her did not exist. Farmers were Australia's unofficial aristocrats, the cattle kings and wool barons, who made fortunes selling their commodities to the world and basked in their status as "the man on the land".

A few years ago all that changed when a cruel combination of drought, soaring debt and falling prices turned the rural aristocrats into the new poor. Faced with foreclosure by banks and eviction from properties that had been in their families for generations, many men on the land could not cope. They turned to Fran Rowe for help.

Fran is hardly what most people would think of as a conventional counsellor. She has no psychology degree, and would not be seen dead in a business suit. She lives on a farm herself with Peter, her husband, west of Tottenham, a small town whose claim to fame is its location at the geographical centre of New South Wales.

Her working tools are a telephone, a four-wheel drive vehicle that enables her to drive vast distances between outback towns and farms, a sharp wit that can disarm bank managers and farmers alike and a persuasive personality that has turned her into something of a legend in country Australia. Few people come away from an encounter with Fran Rowe without feeling the force of this personality. When she recently met John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister, for talks on getting country women involved in government decision-making, she called him back as he was about to leave and said: "Prime Minister, I am a rural counsellor. I deal with banks. I never let a banker go until I have a commitment from him." A few days later, a letter from Mr Howad landed on her desk, asking her to send him her top four priorities for action.

To find Fran Rowe at work, I drove out of Tottenham down a long, unwinding road through red dust and flat grain fields. Take a wrong turn in this region, and you can drift off into the Never Never without knowing you've missed your destination. The drive was like a surreal scene from North By Northwest. Suddenly a light aircraft loomed above bushes in front of me, then dived downwards as if to crash before levelling out and releasing its white spray over the crops.

"Bombah", the Rowe farm, features an attractive, rambling homestead with verandas around every side. Fran had turned a large front room into her office. It had a desk, a computer, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and a sign on the wall that said, "Thank you for holding your breath while I smoke". On a shelf sat a trophy for the Ronald Anderson Memorial Award as Man of the Year in rural Australia. When Fran became the first woman to receive this prestigious, if chauvinist, award it was seen as an acknowledgement, at last, of the unsung strengths of many other rural women in a world whose outward image has been dominated by tough men.

Fran was on the telephone to a farmer in trouble. "Is the bank about to move on your property...? You have to put something to them... Try to make them let you keep your house... I'll draw up a proposal...How's your wife taking it?... Oh, well, that's pretty good."

At the height of Australia's rural economic crisis in the early Nineties, Fran's weekly life was consumed by such cases. She acted as a buffer between threatening banks and farmers who were bewildered as their worlds collapsed. Often, she found herself called in to patch up marriages, as well, and to talk ruined farmers out of shooting themselves, as rural suicides soared.

It put great strains on her own marriage and family life. Sometimes, she and Peter would see each other only as they passed on a country road at 4am, he heading out to work, she returning from an all-night mercy call.

But Fran could look the male farmers in the face as no city counsellor could. The Rowes had faced a life-and-death financial struggle themselves, and Fran's work bringing back from the brink them and some of their farming neighbours helped to spawn a network of rural counsellors who are now a permanent feature of country life.

She and others struck deals that saved many farmers from bankruptcy. But, as prosperity now returns, just as many farmers have packed up and gone, leaving the bush a changed place. The survivors, who once had only drought, floods and fires to battle, are now confronted with a raft of government regulations that tell them what they can grow, where they must grow it, how much water they can use and how many trees they can cut down.

As Fran explained it, farmers now resent their lives being ruled by what they see as city-driven agendas. "Disappointment abounds," she told me. "The old country ethos of individualism and being in charge of your own life has been taken away. They're not sure now what their place in the nation is, whereas once they were very sure."

The week I visited, Fran had returned from criss-crossing the state by road and light aircraft. First she had helped a group of farmers in the south to draw up a strategy plan to fight drought. Then she had gone to a meeting in the west over the hot issue of Aboriginal native title on "pastoral", or leasehold, farming land.

"At dinner that night, there were Aboriginal women and white pastoralist women at my table," she said. "The Aborigines talked a lot about their side of the story, but the white women stayed silent. They feared being tagged racists if they spoke their minds. So I became their spokesman as best I could.

"They watched my mouth, but still said nothing. In the end, both sides were talking to each other. What that showed me was that we rural women, black and white, have great power."

At 51, Fran Rowe has no plans to slow down. Can she ever see herself leaving her beloved, if frantic, outback life? "My dream is to retire right to the centre of the city," she said. "Where I can have cappuccino, read newspapers the day they're published, go to the opera - and have a toy boy. And Pete can have a floozie." And she let out a cheeky, throaty laugh.