Country Victoria made front page news today, for the first time in a while, with ruminations about the potential for Portland's Alcoa smelter to shut down.
One of the reasons I left journalism after six years at The Age was that big rural stories that I were putting up were being rejected, or stuffed so far back in the book that they were seen by only the lonely. I pushed forward stories on water, on small town disadvantage and a range of other matters, both positive and negative, but it was just the colour stories that they wanted. The old footy player. The giant stick shed. The quirky street stall. I liked those stories, and snagged colour stories on page 3 and 5 frequently enough, but the serious matters of the bush fell on deaf ears. Because, we all need another crime story. And what stunt did our political leaders pull today?
About six months after I left, Jeff Kennett was rolled largely because of a revolt from the bush. The government change that no one had seen coming had been hinted at in the copy that sat unread on the spike and in the long dark Edinburgh evenings while I worked half a world away at the Scotsman, I wondered if the arbiters of public discourse would allow a yarn in from beyond the metro boundaries every so often.
A couple of decades later, a few more stories have snuck in, but they are almost always bad. Drought, road death, floods, industry shut downs. Oh and the occasional murder that is grisly enough to warrant heading out of the comfort of the court precinct and into the sticks.
When we started a project with Rural Councils Victoria at the end of last year, developing an evidence-based campaign which would encourage city people to move to the country, we started by asking city folk why they didnt move and what would make them do it.
Our research, which is supported by other studies, indicated that there is a major perception problem about rural Australia. Large scale surveys indicated a high degree of negative sentiment from some groups towards country living and after rounds of focus groups, one of the key causes of this disdain was? you guessed it, the media. If you hear about the country, then it's pretty likely something is going wrong.
Of course, it's important that people know, care and act when things do go wrong, so as a nation we can support a strong agriculture sector and thriving, attractive rural towns. But the public doesnt see the positive stories and perceptions are not just negative - they are often completely wrong.
We have recently completed some independent research looking at the attitude of millenials, examining who will move and why, but the primary challenge is not creating jobs (there are already thousands unfilled) or proving that houses are cheap (every one knows they are cheap, but far fewer think they are good value). The challenge is overcoming negative and too often incorrect assumptions about the country, including the perception that it's not a place you can thrive.
Portland is facing a genuine problem, which has reared its head after years of whispers about limitations on the future of the smelter. But if the smelter goes, its still got Victoria's oldest houses in a heritage CBD, a port which will still be busy shipping resources, absolutely stunning beaches including nearby Cape Bridgewater, and many other attractions which make it a great place to live.
Regional and rural Victoria need help to begin to turn around perceptions and kill of the myths about the country being dull/jobless/unwelcoming. It's simply not true. You'll never find that on the front page though.