On the outskirts of Tamworth is a small timber mill which has been there for 60 years.
Steve Brown, 31, has only worked there for the past 10 but, he says — looking up from the buzz-saw — this year is the worst year he can remember.
“And the one before it wasn’t that great, either,” Brown tells Business Insider.
There’s lumber everywhere, ready to be cut and shipped to farms and local hardware stores, right across the agricultural tablelands of northern New South Wales.
Across the road, there’s an irrigation supplier; next door, a tyre yard. All these business rely on the region’s farms, but have been struggling as their customers have been squeezed for cash.
“Instead of putting a whole new paling fence up, they’re coming and replacing five palings.
“They can’t afford a new one.”
For decades Australian agriculture’s contribution to the overall economy has been in decline. There are fewer farmers, and larger farms. It is one of the most trade-exposed sectors of Australia’s economy. The high dollar of recent years hasn’t helped Australian farmers with their exports have been less competitive and food being cheaper to import. Voters in the electorate of New England are calling on their politicians to look after the so-called “food bowl”.
Brown also works three nights a week at a local printing press, running off advertising inserts for newspapers.
Every day Steve sees, up close, the struggles of two once-mighty Australian economic sectors: agriculture and print publishing.
“Even I read the news on my phone now,” he says. “It’s right there in my pocket, and it’s instant.”
Independent MP for New England Tony Windsor is retiring at the election, and The National’s Barnaby Joyce looks set to replace him.
Before Windsor was elected in 2001, this was National Party heartland. And if there was ever a time in Australia’s rural voters needed a “country party”, it’s now.
“They need to make things cheaper and easier for all the little people,” says Brown, leaning against a stack of wood that towers over his head.
“A lot of people don’t have any spare money.”
Asked if he has higher hopes for a coalition government, tipped by the polls to oust Labor come September 7, he says: “Well, they can’t do any worse.
“I’m a Liberal voter, I’m going to vote for them anyway, but they just cannot do any worse.”
Ben Collins is on a road trip from opposition leader Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah in Sydney to prime minister Kevin Rudd’s electorate of Griffith in Brisbane ahead of the federal election on September 7. He’ll be speaking to voters and business leaders about their concerns and what they hope to see happen in the coming three years.
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