The quiet persuader

Country campaigner: Tanya Cameron, president of the NSW Country Women’s Association. Photo: Nick MoirMrs Tanya Cameron, president of the NSW Country Women’s Association, pines for the horizon when she comes to Sydney. ”I can’t see the sunrise, I can’t see the sunset,” she says, ”and I miss that a lot.”

Cameron lives in Rowena, a ”very small village” in the state’s north-west, with three streets and perhaps 20 residents. They have a pub (the Village Inn), a post office, and a primary school with about 20 pupils, most of them from nearby properties.

There’s no public transport. The Greyhound doesn’t stop there any more, and the railway is freight-only. The closest medical centre is an hour’s drive east at Collarenebri (pop 478). The nearest good-sized town is Narrabri, 133 kilometres to the west of Rowena.

There are only ”two or three” children in the preschool, and two classes in the primary school. All of Cameron’s three children boarded at Toowoomba in their high school years. Her eldest son left Rowena at the end of year 5 because ”he had no one his age in the last couple of years of school, not even a girl”, Cameron says. ”When he knew he was going to be on his own in year 6, he asked if he could go away a year early. We always knew they’d have to go away – you psyche yourself into it – but it was very sad when I was filling in the form, putting his age down, putting down what year he was going into. I cried for about two hours.”

Cameron is in Potts Point for a state executive meeting of the NSW CWA. She has been president only since May, although she’d previously served on the executive for six years. The NSW branch has almost 10,000 members, the largest group of whom, says Cameron, are ”the over-60s and over-70s”. There are younger members, but they tend not to be its ”face”.

She is wearing her committee badge, on which she’s styled ”Mrs Tanya Cameron”. While in committee, executive members address each other as Mrs, Miss or Ms.

Are there many who call themselves ”Ms”?

”No,” Cameron says. ”We have a couple, but they’re certainly not in the majority. But, in the past – in my time, in the last 20 years – I would’ve been ‘Mrs Jeff Cameron’, not Mrs Tanya Cameron.”

Cameron seeks to gently modernise her organisation.

”During all of my time in the CWA, I’ve battled against the pace at which things happen,” she says. ”We’ve had an old-fashioned way of doing things. It’s taken a little while to move into the computer age. Everything’s emailed now, but we still have members who’d be lucky to have a fax.”

For Cameron, the importance of the CWA is its voice to government and the platform it offers to lobby for country people. She says the conditions of country life limit the kind of people who can live in places like Rowena. If you’re disabled or can’t drive, you simply can’t get around. Sixty years ago, life was different: the last NSW CWA president from the Barwon River area travelled the entire state by train in the 1950s.

Public transport is one campaigning issue for the organisation and, although they rarely attend demonstrations, members turned out for the Protect Our Land and Water Rally in Martin Place last year, to protest against coal-seam gas mining. Mostly, however, they try not to shout about things.

”We’ve made lots of progress in the past few years in modernising the association’s processes,” she says, ”but not necessarily our image or how we approach things, because sometimes that’s where the respect for CWA comes from – our sensible approach.” They make their points by using personal stories to show how policies affect people ”where we come from”.

But it’s not always easier for quiet people to attract attention.

”We’re not very good at telling people what we’ve done, what we do and how we do it,” Cameron says. ”A lot of people tell us how well respected we are, but it’s not always easy to get in to see politicians. Female politicians sometimes are easier, or if they’ve met with us before and know we’re not going to come in and harangue or harass them. A lot of our members think we should be a bit more vocal and a bit more out there. Traditionally, it’s not how we’ve operated and, hopefully, it’s served us well.

”But,” she admits, ”by the same token, nobody knows about us.”

We eat at Maggie’s, which is both a fine CWA name and a German restaurant in Kings Cross. Cameron has been here before, as it’s just around the corner from the CWA Residential Club, where members pay an astonishing $45 a night for the cheapest room. If Cameron were to dine out in Rowena, she would choose breaded lamb chops at the Village Inn, since it’s the only venue within 60 kilometres.

”It’s got a good atmosphere,” she says. ”We had a fund-raising event where people took in either their wool brands or their stock brands. We had a fire, and the walls are lined with timber, so those brands are now marked in the wall around the pub.”

The Cameron wool brand is two Cs – one large and one small – for Tanya’s husband’s grandfather, Colin Cameron, who bought their farm in 1925.

The walls at Maggie’s are decorated with Alpine tableaus, and a mounted stag’s head lends the room a hunting-lodge ambience which is belied by a rather incongruous counter-top Buddha. Nearly everything on the menu comes with spatzle or rosti, apart from the cabbage rolls ”like Mutti used to make”.

Cameron would like to order an entree as a main, but somehow ends up choosing the pork medallions with ham, cheese, pepper sauce, rosti and vegetables. I ask for the chicken schnitzel with gypsy sauce.

Cameron tells me she was born in Inverell and grew up around Moree.

”I remember the clear mornings – especially the spring mornings,” she says. ”And going to school at a little school in the middle of nowhere. The only thing there was the school building. There were properties around it, but you couldn’t see any houses.

”Because we lived out of town, we didn’t go to sport,” she says.

”It wasn’t an easy thing to go down the street and see friends, or go to a movie.”

She went to boarding school in Armidale, which she loved. ”I loved playing hockey. I loved everything. Even the food wasn’t that bad. I realised I’d been missing something perhaps without realising it – as in, having so many people around that you can choose friends.”

She left school to work as a motel receptionist, then took a job in Westpac in Narrabri, where she was working when she got together with her husband (whom she first met at a ”cordial party”, a bush dance in a woolshed). She moved onto his family property, where they run 200 to 300 head of cattle.

”Before the drought, we probably had 400 breeders. We’ve started building our numbers up but we don’t want to get too many. Conditions aren’t great. Things are drying up again.”

When my schnitzel arrives, it is at least as large as my face. And it’s shaped oddly like a map of Greater Germany, although I suspect this is coincidence rather than political design.

Cameron frets the servings are very large, ”particularly for a midday meal”.

She tells me her three children, aged from 22 and 27, have all moved back to Rowena and live together in their grandparents’ former home, 100 metres across the paddock from their parents. Cameron doesn’t do their washing, but she has them around for dinner every night when she’s at home.

”The stove in their kitchen is a bit dodgy,” she says, a little weakly – but she admits she likes to have the family together at the end of the day.

She does use the CWA’s famous recipe books but ”not all the time”.

”I’ve bought them for all of my children,” she says, ”and maybe they’ll cook out of them too.”

Once they get a stove.

The CWA continues to run its famous baking competitions, at local, state and national level. These are hard fought and tightly regulated. The Queensland CWA has introduced a ”packet-cake” category in its cookery competition, which has proved highly controversial. Even though it’s a Queensland state issue, the matter was raised at the NSW conference. While some members hold any cake to be a challenge, hard-line bake-from-scratch cooks are sceptical. For the record, Cameron believes there’s ”still a little bit of skill involved”.

We’ve been eating for about 15 minutes and Cameron has barely made an incursion into her food, while I, like the Red Army, have chopped my way from East Prussia to Upper Silesia.

”You’re doing very well,” she says.

That’s because I’m always hungry.

”I used to be,” she says. ”I actually had surgery to reduce the size of my stomach. So now I don’t eat very big servings at all.”

She had her stomach shrunk in 2010, and shed 30 kilograms. Previously, she was overweight, her cholesterol was rising, her knees were hurting and she had thyroid problems. Now she is fine, but she says she has always had issues with weight.

”Some of it’s just eating when you’re bored,” she says. ”Also, my dad was old school – ‘women don’t work on the farm’ – so we very rarely went out with him actually doing anything, whereas our kids have all grown up to drive tractors and muster stock, and my daughter’s as capable as the boys.”

The surgery itself wasn’t painful. She had ”a good cocktail of drugs and five days in hospital”, but it was a challenge to get used to eating again. She had to start on protein shakes, water and some juice, move on to thick soups, then salads and finally solid, cooked food. She has to be careful not to overeat. ”A mouthful of food can make the difference between being full and being really uncomfortable,” she says.

She looks down at her plate. ”I certainly wouldn’t eat all of this,” she says. ”In some respects, it’s a waste of money when you go out.”

In the end, although she says the food is ”beautiful”, she’s defeated by the serving size. At the counter, she urges me not tell the newspaper she couldn’t finish her lunch.

After all, nobody should order more food than they can eat. It’s not the CWA’s way.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.