2020 Australia Day Address: Grace Brennan
Your excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AO QC Governor of NSW, the Honourable Gladys Berejiklian, Premier of NSW, Chair and Members of the Australia Day Council of NSW, distinguished guests, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone who travelled down from Warren, I’m honoured to be speaking to you today. Honoured because as a self-employed Mum who lives on a farm in western NSW I get to contribute to a national conversation that I have felt so remote from.
Our community of Warren is a long way from anywhere. And, as most mothers of small children will relate to, the kitchen table can often feel a long way from a board room table. It is easy to feel like all the important things, the things that really matter, happen elsewhere. Out there somewhere!
Yet, last year, I sat at my kitchen table at Warren and created an Instagram account called @buyfromthebush and I am very proud to say it has had a real impact.
One of the first requests that came through after I accepted the invitation to talk today was for a ‘brief bio’.
Among the distinguished guests in the room, I imagine writing a ‘brief bio’ comes naturally. You can probably write a paragraph or two in an email without much thought or trepidation.
For me, it inevitably results in a pause. And then a sigh. Short reflection about what on earth I have been doing with my life. And a desire to write something like: Grace Brennan: still finding her feet.
I wonder, across the country, how many women working part time or running small businesses, coordinating childcare schedules and managing household budgets, volunteering in school canteens, organising fundraisers, being unofficial carers, good friends, loyal partners, might also pause at a request for a bio.
How to find the inspiring in the ordinary? How to find the value in unpaid work? How to find the credentials in a lifetime of career decisions based more around sacrifices than aspirations?
For me, the deviation from lofty career ambition started with an egg hurtling towards me in the dark on Halloween, when I was 14.
After a childhood of backyard cricket, I clasped my hands together and took the catch with a soft follow-through that Dad had taught me would take the sting out of a fast-moving cricket ball. Miraculously, I landed it and threw it back in to the darkness only to hear an expletive seconds later as Jack copped an egg to the elbow.
It was enough to fall in love at 14.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was falling in love with a farmer. At 14, Jack already knew he was destined for a life on the land.
Like so many others who grow up the children of farmers, it was in his blood.
Even at that age, it was clear to me when we visited the farm that he was his happiest and his most alive in the sweet, dry air of the western plains of NSW.
Fortunately, I loved the bush. And I knew it quite well.
I read Banjo Patterson, I listened to Slim Dusty, watched The Man from Snowy River. What else was there to know?
After all, the country life was a simple life. A healthy, balanced life.
Within weeks of starting my new life in the bush, these simple preconceptions were challenged in every way. We experienced consecutive floods, rising debt levels, the impacts of severe mental illness and intense family stress. I learned about physical isolation, loneliness and exhaustion. I witnessed hard work under extreme conditions. Through the lens of a city girl’s eye I saw mateship, love, devotion and resilience like I had never seen it before.
Living in a small rural community presented a much bigger culture shock than I had anticipated. I had to let go of the anonymity I enjoyed in Sydney. There was no ducking in to a supermarket with my head down, on a mission. In the bush, the mission is interrupted. By questions. Connections. Invitations.
I had to accept that we could be in the biggest rush in the world – take for example, me being in labour and living two hours from the hospital - but if we ran into a neighbour on the road, we would stop and chat. We’d chew the fat. About the weather, the crop, a good yarn. “It’s important,” Jack would say. “We can’t be rude.”
I learned that when you live in the bush and something goes wrong, you fix it yourself. If you don’t know how, you get on the phone to a neighbour. You work it out. Through trial and error and inconvenience.
But then you know for next time.
This self-reliance empowers rural communities to solve their own problems. No doubt, this same self-reliance was the very essence of local indigenous communities long before the white fella went inland. When the early explorers did come, I can only imagine the ingenuity and determination it took to carve a life in the bush. Qualities built upon by veterans returning from war and being awarded soldier settlements, immigrant hawkers crossing the mountains and walking miles to sell their wares, gold miners and others.
Country towns have been built on what I would call a foundation of 'doers'.
On any given day, an Australian farmer is an amateur scientist, vet, builder or mechanic. They often manage multi-million-dollar assets. They might trade commodities before lunch and genetically test their sheep flock after lunch.
Our local bus driver, a mother of three, is also an aged care worker and fire fighter. Farmer’s wives might feed their stock or do an irrigation run in the morning and then go to work as teachers, fashion designers, agronomists, researchers, online business owners or lawyers.
Yet so often when we talk about the bush the rhetoric is around the ‘battler’. I have searched for the Aussie bush battler. And I can tell you, I haven’t found her yet.
As Australians we need to start telling a different story about the bush. And about drought. Images of emaciated sheep, dry dams, defeated men, poor buggers. They sit nicely in a media reel of ‘the year that was’. But is that the story of drought?
In my community, drought crept in. Great seasons turned to lean ones. Prepared farmers started to feed out stored grain. Profits turned to losses. Contractors lose their contracts. Farm employees get laid off. People stop going to town quite so much. Shopping lists contract. School fundraisers are cancelled because people aren’t buying tickets.
Women return to work from maternity leave early because their husbands are out of work. It’s easier to get in for a haircut because the local hairdresser says things are very slow. The odd farm gets put on the market. Young couples move away.
The new café that was going to open gets put on hold for a while till things pick up. The boutique owner lets her casual staff go and works longer hours. She doesn’t go to the trade fair to buy new wares.
We get together and talk about dust. Because it’s easier than talking about depression.
Banks keep calling. About machinery loans. About overdrafts. Local businesses with credit outstanding start to call their clients (their friends and neighbours) asking for debt to be repaid.
Men start to wander in search of work. They travel thousands of kilometres to work on machinery, to acquire new clients, to earn a wage.
Women work harder. Roles shift. Supplementary income becomes the only income.
And always there is innovation. Efficiencies. Savings. Learning.
But there is great suffering too.
The lack of control and uncertainty brings fear and tension. The pride gained from solving a problem and getting the job done can no longer be relied upon.
Debt hangs low like a heavy cloud over the kitchen table.
When asked recently what one image summed up the drought for me it is a woman at her kitchen table in tears.
Fear of loss. Fear of isolation. Fear of suicide. And stress. Lots and lots of stress.
So drought is the dry creek bed, the poor sheep. But there is more to tell. So much more.
One day in October of last year I listened to an interview with the Prime Minister. The journalist was pressing the Prime Minister on his drought relief efforts and stressing the exceptional nature of the current drought and the urgency with which a response was required.
The Prime Minister led with statements about various funding packages. Dollar figures equating to action.
As it got heated, more ‘packages’ were cited. Something inside me was activated.
I so appreciated the journalist’s tenacity and recognition of the urgency of a great national disaster.
I understood the Prime Minister’s line of defence. “They were doing something. Just look at the numbers”.
But they were missing something. Something critical.
This conversation wasn’t communicating why ALL Australians should care about this drought. The fact that if, in this exceptional and relentless drought, farming businesses fold en masse, so too might our rural communities. And what an enormous loss that would be for Australia.
I believe rural communities are a treasure worth protecting. Not for their contribution to GDP but for something much more valuable. Their contribution to Australian identity and the Australian story.
In my mind, the bush narrative needs an update and the story of drought needs to be captured in a different way. One that engages community and allows them to feel connected to the bush.
Not out of pity. Out of pride, curiosity and desire.
So, in October last year, @buyfromthebush was born.
Perhaps, to many, a social media account seems an unlikely response to a great national disaster.
But I had a background in community development and had seen the power of community-driven change.
More recently, while working in a startup, I had learned to define the problem (the need) and develop a solution (the product).
I had long been obsessed with the beautiful boutiques in communities like Walgett, Coonamble, Warren, Trangie, Narromine. Stylish and enterprising locals cleverly curating collections of fashion, gifts and homewares that allowed bush women feel a little less out of the loop. I had friends creating innovative online platforms, painting artwork, designing jewellery. Their businesses were unique and incredibly worthy. Yet they were limited. Reliant on cashflow from farming communities that weren’t spending.
There was a very clear need. The need to attract cashflow to declining communities. The need to create work. To inject dollars and also hope. To allow people to feel visible and valued. The need for both symbolic and real support from the city to the bush.
Social media provided the solution.
It is, after all, a story-telling mechanism, a connector and a great enabler. It allows a direct path between consumer and supplier. And importantly, it invites a simple action. See it, like it, buy it.
Very quickly, the #buyfromthebush campaign took flight. In the first six weeks $2.6 million of revenue was generated for businesses featured on our social pages. In that period, 25 jobs were created in rural communities facing drought because of increased sales. More than $320,000 was spent at local Australia Post franchises benefitting small businesses in small towns. Businesses reported an average revenue increase of 660% on the same period last year and an average increase in visits to their websites of over 1,000%. All of this was achieved before we even reached the busy Christmas period of December.
We then launched our website and had 54,000 unique visitors in the first eight days. ‘Buy from the bush’ was the highest-ranking search term in NSW and the second highest ranking nationally. Australia Post reported a 40% increase in parcel postage in regional areas.
Beyond the 240 businesses featured on our page, the #buyfromthebush hashtag has had a broader impact.
All businesses need to do is add a hashtag to their social media posts and they connect with consumers wanting to support bush business.
To date, the hashtag has been used 63,000 times.
Currently there are over 400,000 people following our campaign on social media. That’s 400,000 potential customers ‘buying in’ to bush business.
And that is important.
Buy From The Bush is less about crisis relief and more about sustainable support for rural communities in the long term. It is not about charity. It is about investment.
At Christmas time, proud gift-givers gushed over gorgeous baskets they’d found in Bogan Gate, hand-made cricket bats from Guyra, a children’s book from outback South Australia, a ham straight from a farm in Barham or rugs designed by Central Desert artists and sold in a gallery in Moree.
Beautiful, impressive things from the Aussie bush found their way to Christmas trees in Melbourne, Perth, London, New York and across Australia.
This was not about pity. It was about joy.
The joy of giving beautiful things with a precious story of origin.
To really achieve long term impact, this ‘bush brand’ needs to be developed, marketed and celebrated within the context of a global trend toward meaningful consumption. And I’m not talking about retail. There is a wealth of services and remote skillsets to be tapped in to in the bush also.
As a fashion designer in Boorowa put it, “Our community won’t survive on charity. It will survive on good business.”
Yet the goodwill that has been shown to rural communities throughout the campaign is worth celebrating.
We recently held a pop-up market in Martin Place (as you saw). A stallholder from Hay in NSW jumped in an uber to make his way to town. When the driver asked what he was in town for and he told him he was there for the Buy From The Bush market. The driver stopped the meter and said, “This one’s on me.”
A nursery owner from Dubbo recently got a call from a Melbourne supplier who had followed Buy From The Bush and realised what the drought was doing to small business. They asked her, “What can we do to help?” then sent her free stock to sell in her shop.
The connection between strangers has been striking. Both for its sentiment and for its substance. Hand written notes of gratitude accompanied parcels while phone orders often ended in tears and laughter. The “tyranny of distance” was overcome.
I heard from a wife of a harvest contractor whose annual income had been one quarter of their usual income owing to the drought. On day two of a very limited harvest season, their harvester caught fire and was destroyed. In the midst of this she launched a fashion line, was featured on our page and sold out within a matter of days. Minutes after being featured, she stood crying at her kitchen bench, relief and gratitude overwhelming her. It was enough to keep the mortgage paid, the lights on, food on the table and water in the tank.
A boutique owner wrote, “You have saved my business. I was on the verge of closing my doors but can now keep going.” I asked her would she mind if I shared that message with our followers. “Please don’t,” she said. “I don’t want my family knowing I was on the brink of closure.”
An artist who had never had the confidence to hustle for her art before was inundated with commissions including a corporate Christmas card order sent to clients across the globe.
The benefits have flowed on through local communities, summarised best by Jill Kelly, a local area vet based in Coonamble NSW.
In her day job, Jill works on the front line of the drought. She carries out autopsies in dust storms and fields phone calls from farmers at their wits’ end. In her spare time, Jill creates watercolours and Christmas cards.
After being featured on Buy From The Bush, Jill sent me a message:
“Yesterday I processed 66 sales in a day. Normally I wouldn’t make 66 online sales in a year. I sold $2000 worth of greeting cards in a day! And although I’m exhausted, I’m over the moon. This morning I spent $160 at the post office, I bought myself breakfast because I felt so rich and with the orders still rolling in I have decided to hire the local painter to paint my spare room (a job I’ve been putting off for ages) and take the local window covering business up on their quote for new blinds in my house. Thanks from me, the post office, the café, the painter, the blind business and all our town.”
At a time when much is made of the divide between city and country, between the left and right, between big business and small business, the strength of a united community (albeit an online community) has achieved real change.
It has opened conversations, lifted spirits, created jobs and undoubtedly saved businesses.
The devastation seen by fires over the last few months has been unsettling for Australians. It has felt almost too much to bear. Yet bear it we have. Firefighters, volunteers, businesses, communities and our elected representatives.
We witnessed tremendous fear, loss, inspiring courage and great generosity.
However, there has also been a noisy community outrage. The same social media channels that carried such useful positivity through the Buy From The Bush campaign have seemed heavy with angst, resentment and anger.
In many instances, the outrage is fuelled by genuine concern and disappointment. People feel they have been ignored and now vindicated in the worst possible way.
In less than subtle language they say, “We told you so”. They draw a firm line between “them and us”. They lay blame.
But I think blame tends to isolate; it does not empower.
To me, it’s not what the Australian spirit calls us to do.
The very foundation of Australian identity, so present in the bush, is about doing. It’s about helping. Solving problems. It’s a modest, practical kindness. “Getting stuck in”.
In the wake of the fires, people shared stories of the extraordinary bravery of firefighters. Of home cooked meals being offered to stranded evacuees.
Of neighbours saving neighbours.
Of shop owners opening their stores in the wake of enormous personal loss to ensure that others had what they need.
The theme for this address is “everyone, every story”. As Australians, when faced with great fear about our future, and a desire for positive change, I would urge us to think about the story we tell. Because a good story has great power.
Let’s tell a truthful one. One that acknowledges our flaws but in equal measure celebrates our enormous successes.
A story that is not shaped by our divisions but instead weaves a narrative all the more interesting for our differences. A story that inspires progress, not perfection.
The story of Buy From The Bush and the incredible community response to our bushfires depicts an Australia where the city and the bush feel connected as one community.
We are a country of people who want to help each other. What a triumph that is.
That ordinary people, with pretty ordinary bios, can have extraordinary impact. An even greater triumph!
These are the very foundations of our society. Buy From The Bush shows that they’re not just Australian ideals but Australian reality. That is the story it tells.
It is up to all of us as Australians to continue our story. To actively listen. To allow for dramatic pause. For disagreement. To tell a story that talks more about “us” and less about “them”. A story that honours the grit of the bush and the flair of the city.
Let’s, each of us, all of us, tell a good yarn.