Is there a prosperous future for the Australian Bush?

Have we killed the legacy of John Flynn?

Out where the sun goes down, the people of the bush call him “Flynn of the Inland”. He was the man who, in the first half of the Twentieth Century, made a valiant attempt to create a “Mantle of Safety” across the remoteness of the continent by building hospitals and hostels in places like Birdsville, Innamincka, Oodnadatta and Halls Creek, creating the Pedal Radio and establishing the Flying Doctor Service so that ordinary Australians could make a new life in the Outback and feel secure.

He also enlisted a team of Padres who ministered to people in areas covering countless square miles — marrying, baptising, counseling and burying them — no matter what their faith or lack of it. By any standards, his life’s work was a notable achievement which will be honoured by historians for generations to come.

Now, sixty years after his death, we should be honest enough to admit that we have not built on the solid foundation created by his extraordinary endeavours.

Bush towns are dying, miners won’t live out there because they want to fly in and out, and we haven’t even attempted to solve the water problems, nor the tyranny of distance that makes the Inland uncompetitive.

We have lost the spirit of nation building and have reached a point where we need to take stock of our negligence and revive the vision that Flynn had of a great and prosperous society spread across the entire continent.

Let’s look at the challenges — water first.

Flynn lamented the droughts that ravaged the countryside every decade and brought great hardship to the people whom he regarded as his ‘flock’, often advocating the drought-proofing of the continent. But, he was a clergyman with no money, and so politicians and economists told him to concentrate on the Bible.

Nevertheless, he could see how the countryside became a swathe of green within days of enjoying some drought-breaking rain. All that those vast black soil plains needed to become great areas of food production was a steady and reliable source of water.

Flynn backed Dr Bradfield, builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when he advocated the so-called Bradfield Scheme of diverting water inland from tropical rivers. Few others did, so the grand plan died.

The Country Party, now the National Party, ignored the challenge to their eternal disgrace, but they now have an opportunity to come good and change the face of Australia if they have the guts and vision to look after the people whom they were established to represent.

This comment does not absolve from blame either the ALP or the Liberals, who rarely look beyond suburbia.

The reality is that Australia, by itself, can feed the rapidly-growing middle class of Asia, now numbering a billion people, with the quality of food that they want. And those who grow it out there in the neglected plains of the north and west should be able to live in pleasant rural communities that can be created by enlightened initiatives of progressive governments, complete with good facilities for health, education and culture that will recreate for them the mantle of safety that is Flynn’s legacy.

Poor transport is as great an economic and social killer as a lack of water.

Flynn drove over non-existent roads in an old Dodge, and often watched people die as he tried to get them to hospital at a maximum speed of about 10 miles an hour. He saw how the cost of getting rural produce to a port was greater than the cost of getting it on to Europe and America. Still is.

Relative to the general reduction of world transport costs, Australia is now falling further behind.

We need heavy-duty freight railways where trains can run at the same speed as trucks: Not even on the radar — never has been.

Instead of investing in the bush to make it competitive, governments have allowed people to drift from the Inland to overcrowded cities, leaving 80 per cent of the continent almost without population: Shocking planning — no sense of balanced development.

Flynn understood the ingrained negativity of metropolitan voters who never drove beyond the outer suburbs, and so he stayed away from his base office in Sydney as often as he could. He reckoned that capital cities were not part of the real Australia.

I can affirm that he was right, having been born and bred in the bush where I attended a school that had only 11 pupils. They were the happiest days of my life.

Then there is mining.

Except for a few places like Mount Isa, Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie, the development of mines has not caused growth in rural communities.

The minerals are extracted by people who come in and out every few days and, when the resource is exhausted, they leave nothing but empty landscape and a lot of big holes: No nation building whatsoever.

It is not difficult to understand why people prefer to live on the coast and commute, but little effort has been made to develop liveable mining communities, thus the families left behind at the coast become dysfunctional with one parent always missing.

There has to be a better way to do it. As John Flynn often said: “People have to experience a real sense of community if they want to have a good life.”

Often forgotten is Indigenous Australia.

Flynn reckoned that Aboriginal Stockmen were the best in the world, and he was right. Their wives also were important members of the household staff of cattle stations, and Flynn had a great relationship with Aboriginal communities everywhere.

It was fortunate that he did not live to see the disintegration of community life on cattle stations when legislation relating to equal pay was implemented by the Whitlam Government.

Despite the fundamental justice intended by that legislation, it destroyed the great contribution that indigenous people made to the cattle industry, and greatly diminished the sense of family that existed between blacks and whites out there in the “Never Never”.

Trucks, helicopters and machinery took over the work of the stockmen, whose very heritage had created within them a love and respect for the land. It simply proved that reconciliation still has a long way to go before indigenous people have a genuine partnership with other Australians.

The health problems that Flynn tried to solve are still the greatest defect of life in the bush.

The Flying Doctor is going strong and communications are better, but doctors don’t want to live in the bush. Much could be achieved if bush nurses are given more responsibility, although doctors will always strongly defend their medical territory even though they don’t want to go bush.

The new Tele-Health — medicine by the Internet — which is being pioneered in places like Armidale, has real potential, but needs greater investment. The tragedy is that most of Flynn’s hospitals are now historical ruins. They could easily be restored as general medical centres staffed mainly by nurses with computers.

Doing business with the outside world is still a major problem that the people in the bush have to cope with.

The NBN will help. People in remote communities will be able to start online businesses and communication costs will drop. If housing, education and cultural activities improve, some remote communities could become attractive places to live, offering an interesting change of lifestyle.

Our greatest failure is that we don’t have genuine bush universities that can become powerhouses of research and development focussing the unique needs and opportunities that abound in the Inland. At present, we have some city-type universities that have a few country campuses, but the potential of the bush has never been genuinely tested in the entire history of Australia.

When the tumult and the shouting has died and the captains and the kings have departed, in a moment of honesty and objectivity, we will be able to acknowledge that we have a continent of enormous potential, but have developed about 20 per cent of it — a matter about which we should hang our heads in shame.

And I am one who is guilty. I have just studied my investment portfolio and found that too much of it is in companies that ignore the bush. I will progressively change it.

However, I do have shares in the company that is advancing the construction of inland railways. The Surat Basin Railway will be the first cab off the rank in the second half of next year.

The fundamental issue is that we won’t get anywhere until Australia finds a few more visionary doers in the mould of John Flynn.

However, it’s not likely, as we give no encouragement to courageous men like Flynn of the Inland.

Just before he died, Flynn was awarded the Order of the British Empire. The same day, the Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club was given a knighthood. Tells you where the national psyche has descended to.

Sad though that is, the old timers of the bush haven’t forgotten Flynn. I met a retired clergyman some years back who had been a minister in a city church. One day, an old bushman who was visiting the city got into a bit of strife and came to see him to ask for help with his problems.

Wanting to find out how much of a Christian this guy was, the minister asked him if he believed in God.

“My bloody oath” came the reply. “I met him a few years back — his name was John Flynn.”