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Country and City

Melbourne has long been the dominant partner in the relationship between city and country, and in the early 21st century the city so commands its hinterland that the entire state may be regarded as a tributary of the metropolis. For much of the last century and a half, however, the country was a source of distinctive ideals and ways of life, and the lives and livelihoods of Melburnians were strongly influenced by currents of population, trade and culture from rural and provincial Victoria.

Colonial Australians, including many city-dwellers, were disturbed by the apparently unnatural imbalance between country and city. They were accustomed to the denser sprinkle of villages, towns and provincial cities in Europe and hoped that Melbourne's dominance was an infantile stage of development that would be quickly outgrown. Already, on the eve of the gold rush, Melbourne claimed 38% of Victoria's population. The squatting runs of the interior required only a small seasonal labour force and the few inland towns were small and widely spread. The gold rush temporarily reversed this pattern, drawing large numbers of miners to the rivers and reefs where the main deposits were concentrated and stimulating the growth of cities and towns. By 1861 Melbourne's share of the colony's population had fallen to 23%. The main gold centres, Ballarat and Bendigo, became Australia's largest inland towns, a position they held until after World War II, when Canberra overtook them. They developed a vigorous and confident urban culture, with their own secondary industries, educational institutions and festivals, like Ballarat's South Street Eisteddfod and Bendigo's Easter Fair. However, gold was an ever-declining resource and, after the best reefs were worked out in the 1870s, Melbourne increased its share of the Victorian population from 26% in 1871 to 41% in 1891.

Democrats, disturbed by the dominance of the squatters, hoped that unlocking their lands through free selection would create a prosperous Australian peasantry, raising their families on small farms and forming new communities. Once the state had broken the squatters' monopoly, they assumed, villages and towns would grow of their own accord. From the Free Selection Acts of the 1860s through the closer settlement schemes of the early 20th century down to the Soldier Settlement Acts after each of the World Wars, Victorians have sought to foster small-scale agriculture, partly in order to offset the excessive concentration of population in the metropolis. In practice, these settlements seldom prospered of their own accord and it was only by state provision of railways, irrigation, schools, hospitals and other forms of economic and social infrastructure that small farming was able to gain a precarious toehold in the Victorian economy, especially in intensive forms of agriculture such as dairying, fruit-growing, horticulture, poultry-growing and, more recently, viticulture.

From the 1880s, as the railways extended into the hinterland, country Victorians raised their voices in protest. In 1885 traders in the declining goldfields town of Castlemaine formed a Decentralisation League to lobby for measures to stem the outward flow of commerce to Melbourne. There was not much that rural politicians could do, however, to reverse the trend beyond lobbying for preferential railway tariffs and the establishment of gaols, lunatic asylums, hospitals and other state-supported institutions to swell the local employment base. On the eve of the Great War the Parliament of Victoria established a select committee to investigate what it called, ominously, 'the drift of population' to the metropolis. 'A spirit of restlessness is abroad, the "townward tendency" being manifest in all parts', it reported. The government statist, Arthur Laughton, identified old mining areas as the main sources of the exodus, offset to some extent by closer settlement in dairying and irrigation areas. The migrants, he believed, were drawn by the advantages of city life, better wages, more regular employment, more regular hours of labour and more social advantages, including opportunities for educating children and starting them in life. Other witnesses added to the list of causes: droughts, high tariffs, technological changes in agriculture and high transport costs.

Many Victorians feared that the drift of population to the cities presaged a decline of the nation itself. 'The aggregation of cities is like a wen, which draws an injurious sustenance at the expense of the general vitality', warned the Victorian rural paper the Leader in 1918. Country life was healthier, both physically and morally, than that of the great cities. Sustaining rural communities was therefore a national goal that transcended market forces and drew support from many city-dwellers as well as from the country itself. Within the national consensus that Paul Kelly has called 'The Australian Settlement', rural Australians were entitled to a form of social protection analogous to that afforded to urban workers through the arbitration system. This social compact - the set of attitudes that political scientist Don Aitkin calls 'countrymindedness' - should include measures to make country living more attractive to the farmer's wife and children as well as more remunerative to the farmer himself. Progressive Melburnians were impressed by the example of American President Theodore Roosevelt's Commission on Country Life (1909). They believed that modern transport and communications, medical care, rural education services and community centres could break down the monotony and isolation of country life. Medico Sir James Barrett, who led movements to save the children of Melbourne's slums, also mounted campaigns to provide nurses and hospitals for the people of the bush. By the 1930s the new Country Party, often in partnership with urban progressives, had secured a number of concessions including closer settlement schemes, subsidised railway freight rates, bounties and grants for agricultural products as well as improved roads and telephone services in rural areas.

Despite these measures, the drift to the metropolis continued unabated. Between 1911 and 1947 Melbourne increased its share of the State's population from 45 to 60%, and country to city migration now contributed as much to Melbourne's growth as natural increase, and far more than immigration from abroad. Some of those migrants were 'forced' off the land as tractors, silos and superphosphate improved the productivity, and reduced the labour requirements, of the traditional family farm. The coming of the motor car was a blessing to farm families, but like the railway half a century before it spelt disaster to many country storekeepers and compounded the effects of mechanisation on the farm itself. Some country youths were lured away by the ease of city life, compared with the privations of farm life. 'One reason why young people leave home is that their parents treat them like children', one observer explained. 'They have to milk first thing in the morning, do a day's work around the place, set to and milk again at night; they are not to go anywhere. They get no money or wages.'

Although the divide between the interests of city and country seemed wide, the personal and family links between country and city people often remained close. Many, perhaps most, Melbourne families had country cousins. Professionals - teachers, bankers, policemen, clergy - often served a country apprenticeship before moving back to the city for their children's education. Beginning on the goldfields in the early 1920s, country towns began to organise 'Back-tos' - weekend festivals when the émigrés, or 'comebacks' as they were known, could join the locals in a nostalgic celebration of country life. And once a year the country came to town for the Royal Agricultural Society Show. As they walked through the cattle pavilion or watched the show jumping, city folk caught a brief glimpse of rural life and paid their own tribute to the skills and ideals that sustained it.

In the 1940s many Victorians shared the hope that State policies of decentralisation could slow, perhaps, even reverse, the drift to the city. They believed that new forms of power - brown coal and hydro-electricity - might stimulate the growth of regional industries in places like Gippsland's Latrobe Valley, while State-supported irrigation would support more intensive forms of agriculture in the Goulburn Valley or along the Murray. The wool and wheat booms of the 1950s brought a short season of prosperity to the Western District, Wimmera and Mallee. Melbourne continued to grow vigorously too, but foreign immigration rather than the rural exodus was now, overwhelmingly, the main source of new population.

Between 1947 and 1961 Melbourne increased its share of the State's population from 60 to 65%. While the farm population remained stationary, non-metropolitan towns enjoyed a period of modest growth. In the 1970s and 1980s a new pattern began to emerge: the wheat and wool towns began to decline, growth in the Latrobe Valley peaked and began to decline and even the main provincial towns grew only slowly. Only the coastal towns and 'exurbs' - towns on the fringes of Melbourne - grew as strongly as the metropolis itself. By 1991 71% of the state's population dwelt in Melbourne, but many other Victorians now lived in centres that were essentially economic and recreational offshoots of the metropolis. Those rural industries that have defied the downward trend - vineyards, cheese-making, olive-groves and lavender farms - were often the creation of city-dwellers seeking rural retirement and tax breaks. On the Mornington Peninsula, along the Great Ocean Road, and in the picturesque towns in the foothills of the Dividing Range a new kind of settlement was emerging. Retirees, vacationers, refugees from the urban rat-race, they were coming, not to exploit the land, but to enjoy the scenery. The towns they created, in places like Daylesford, Castlemaine, Beechworth and Port Fairy, are as much a transplantation of city ways as an adoption of country ones. It's no longer the smell of sheep dip and horse manure that you notice, but the aroma of fresh-cooked 'country-style' bread and Italian coffee.

Graeme Davison