Left out in the world's most urban nation

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The Independent Online

Robert Firns is sitting cross-legged in the corner of a paddock, polishing the blade of his axe to gleaming perfection. It is a humid day, and a bead of sweat glistens on his upper lip. A few yards away, a dozen brawny men in white singlets are hacking furiously at solid blocks of silvertop ash.

The woodchopping championships, a display of stamina, precision and brute strength, have been a major draw-card of Sydney's Royal Easter Show for more than a century. In the early days, competitors were often so drunk that they could barely stand upright.

Nowadays the contest is approached with the utmost sobriety by the likes of Mr Firns, a 26-year-old Tasmanian cattle farmer with forearms as thick as a woman's thighs.

Woodchopping is still a crowd-pleaser, but only as a colourful spectacle, not as a celebration of a traditional country skill. "City folk," says Mr Firns, his voice heavy with contempt. "They haven't got a clue. They buy a steak from the supermarket and they don't know where it comes from. They don't give a stuff about the bush."

The annual agricultural show, a hugely popular event that attracts 1.3 million patrons over a fortnight, brings together the city and the bush in a great cross-section of Australian life. It serves as a powerful reminder that there are two Australias. One is urban, prosperous, progressive and ethnically mixed; the other is rural, conservative and overwhelmingly white, eking out an increasingly precarious existence on the land.

The gap between the two has never been wider in Australia, the world's most urbanised nation.

Just 14 per cent of people live in the countryside. Once the backbone of the economy, rural Australians have failed to share the benefits of a decade of economic growth. Buffeted by low commodity prices, depopulation and dwindling rural services, they feel alienated and profoundly dispirited.

It has been a giddy decline from the heyday of the 1950s, the era when Australia "rode the sheep's back", when wool fetched a pound sterling for a pound weight of fleece and the wool barons lived in grand outback mansions and sent away their children to expensive boarding schools.

Nowadays, says Ethel Stephenson, hauling out a prize-winning English Leicester ewe from the judging ring in the sheep pavilion at the Sydney show, the income from wool is so pitiful that it hardly pays a shearer's wages. "We might as well throw the fleeces out," says Mrs Stephenson, a neat, silver-haired 73-year-old who runs a stud in Goorambat in Victoria. "We only carry on for the love of the breed."

Twisting the navy and gold champion's ribbon between her fingers, she says: "There is a strong feeling that the bush has been passed over, that we've been left behind. Farmers are asking, 'Is there a future on the land? Is it fair to expect our children to stay?'

"Family farms can't support the next generation. A lot of people are selling up and leaving."

You hear similar tales of woe in Britain and elsewhere. But Australian farmers feel particularly hard done by, citing the modest subsidies that they receive compared with their European and American counterparts. Farming on the vast arid plains of central Australia is, without doubt, a harsh life, punctuated by drought, bush fires, floods, intense heat and flies. With some properties hundreds of miles from their neighbours, distance adds to the sense of isolation.

Rural voters may be a numerical minority, but they wield considerable political influence. Their brief dalliance with Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation party in Queensland sent shudders through the political mainstream. More recently, in Victoria, they dispatched the right-wing government of Jeff Kennett, who had ruled the state for seven years. Their opposition to an Australian republic was central to the defeat of last year's constitutional referendum.

No one is more aware of the importance of the bush vote than the conservative Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, who governs Australia thanks to razor-thin majorities in six rural constituencies.

Mr Howard's hardline stance on Aboriginal issues - his refusal to apologise for past injustices, and his denial of a generation of indigenous children "stolen" from their families - makes liberal-minded city folk tear their hair out. But it is well received in country Australia, where there is deep resentment of the way that the chattering classes of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra dominate political debate.

"Stolen generation? Shit no. Only 10 per cent were taken, and they were a sight better off than the ones left behind," says Matthew Stratton, a 30-year-old dairy farmer from Queensland, shovelling manure into a wheelbarrow in the cattle pavilion at the Sydney showground.

"It's all been blown out of proportion," he adds. "Thousands of years ago you probably had the Celts stolen by the Romans, but no one goes on about a stolen generation in Britain."

Perhaps the most painful reality for rural dwellers to stomach is their peripheral place in modern Australia. It was their ancestors, the early pioneers, who settled the inhospitable interior, playing a pivotal role in the nation'sdevelopment.

"Our whole psyche was forged in rural Australia," says Roger Perkins, chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society, which founded the show in 1823. "It was values such as mateship, frankness, common sense and shaking hands on a deal that built Australia, and it is those that we are in danger of losing."