The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

The Crown – the view from Down Under

Having luxuriated in series one to three of The Crown, the fourth is deliciously seditious – particularly if one is a republican – and an Australian republican at that. 

Pheasants and peasants, dead trout and salmon, trekking the wilds in tweeds and wellies, and the stalking of a wounded stag. When Uncle Dickie gets blown to smithereens, it feels like some karmic comeuppance. This is even before we get to witnessing the making and breaking of “the people’s princess” in what transpired to be a fractured fairytale. 

There was plenty for us antipodeans to enjoy in an episode ironically titled Terra Nullius, a phrase that is particularly potent in our ongoing “history wars”. The Australian scenes were actually filmed in Spain, but never mind. There was Richard ”Cleaver Green” Roxburgh as our larrikin Prime Minister, the late Bob Hawke, remarking that Princess Di had set back the republican movement for decades. The “silver bodgie” is cast as as an impatient republican, but in reality, he did not forcefully agitate for a republic during his early years in office.

On matters Australian, series four offered up a couple more events that have contemporary echoes. 

During the royal couple’s trip to Australia in 1983, Diana tried and failed to scale our iconic Uluru – it was called Ayers Rock in those days, the site of the tragically famous “a dingo are my baby” saga. Our government has only recently conceded to the wish of the traditional owners that climbing the sacred megalith be forbidden – to the chagrin of many, and the joy of many more. 

There is also the presence of Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. Though long gone to his maker, and retired well before his fictional appearance, his name and reputation have been brought into critical review with revelations of the role he played in our Governor General’s dismissal of Labour Prime  Minister Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975 – an event that resonates still nearly half a century on. Whilst it has been shown that Queen Elizabeth did not have foreknowledge, it has also come to light that Prince Charles gave retrospective encouragement to Sir John Kerr, who was enthusiastically pushing for the Crown Prince succeed him as Governor General.

It is said that Australians’ affection for Wills and Kate has an impact on republican sentiment DownUnder similar to that of Princess Diana – though The Crown’s unflattering portrayal of Prince Charles, fresh on the heels of the release of “the Palace Letters” might lead folk to contemplate that when Her Maj goes to meet the saints, will we Aussies might declare that “it’s time!”?

For further reading on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see; Down Under and The Frontier Wars – Austrtalias Heart of Darkness

Call yourself a Republican?  Then why are you bingeing The Crown?

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November 20207

The television show The Crown presents a unique dilemma for republicans. How can we maintain our disdain for the monarchy, our assurance of its irrelevance, while we are bingeing on its depiction, lapping up every detail of its costume, marvelling at the strong hairline of Princess Margaret and delighting in Diana? Even the corgis who have walk-on parts compel us with the sureness of their stride.

As a friend of mine put it in our defence: I don’t like murderers, but I like watching shows about serial killers. Tolstoy knew how interesting unhappy families were, and there is plenty of personal misery in the fourth and latest season of The Crown, even though the only person the creators give us any sympathy for is Diana, Princess of Wales.

The power of her celebrity, two decades after her death, defies gravity. We only really want to watch the show because of her – the scenes which just feature the self-absorbed, self-pitying Prince Charles are the only ones that drag.

This mirrors the central problem of Charles’ life – the public was never very interested in him. What he doesn’t understand, at least according to the show (yes, I know, I know, it’s fiction), is that nobody is actually obliged to find him interesting.Advertisement

The Real Life Charles is reportedly very cross at the characterisation of him as a cruel husband who moons around Highgrove enunciating his pretentious gardening philosophy (“There will be no straight lines, Mummy,” he tells the Queen when she comes to visit).

I find myself straining to care when I read articles where “sources close to the prince” tell us such-and-such an event never happened that way, or that the depiction of Charles as smug and insecure is mean. So what? Fiction portrays truth far better than documentary, and that is the genius of the show.

Illustration: Reg Lynch
Besides, the most outlandish parts of the story are all true – the fact that two of the Queen’s first cousins were locked away in an institution for life because their disability might have caused people to believe the royal bloodline was “tainted”. The fact that a princess was so unhappy before her wedding that she tried to disappear herself through the misery of bulimia. The fact that the Queen’s children have to make appointments to see her.

I remember reading a defence of Kate Middleton – who was accused of not welcoming her sister-in-law Meghan Markle into the royal family – in which it was indignantly stated that Kate had even invited Meghan to her home once. This sort of weirdness is the second-generation iteration of Diana’s loneliness – in the show, the breeding mare/child bride Diana (she was 20) has been chosen to provide an heir, then locked in a palace to learn the rules. 

She is the key to the monarchy’s survival, yet when she rings the Queen, and her fiance, over and over, neither will take her call.

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Denis Thatcher (STEPHEN BOXER) and Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Rothiemurchus, Scotland Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher in season 4 of The Crown.

In a recent essay on the pandemic, British novelist Zadie Smith writes that “suffering is not relative; it is absolute … it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.”

This sums up the Diana dynamic perfectly, and explains why millions of people loved her, or thought they did, for her vulnerability and her sadness, even though it was attended by servants and played out on the plump couches of Kensington Palace.

Here is another partial defence for republican viewers: the locations. Who is not dreaming of salmon-fishing in the Icelandic wilderness, walking the beach sadly in Mustique, a la Princess Margaret, or roaming the highlands of Scotland on a jolly hunting party (maybe minus the animal suffering)?Advertisement

The scenes of Balmoral, when Margaret Thatcher comes to stay with her husband Denis, are a fascinating portrayal of the clash between the low-born, broom-sweeping neo-liberalism of Thatcherism, and the fusty conservatism of Establishment Britain.

The Windsors look down on the shopkeeper’s daughter who doesn’t know how to dress properly for hunting. Seen through Thatcher’s eyes, the royal family are a ridiculous tribe with funny costumes and arcane habits.

Thatcher’s partially-sympathetic portrayal should be more controversial than Charles’ unsympathetic one. The bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain is shown but not focused on, and the only victim of her recession we see is Michael Fagan, the intruder who famously broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982. Fagan tells Liz “the system” is broken and complains about PM Maggie. The Queen is sympathetic and they have a moment together before he is whisked off by security.

Emma Corin as Princess Diana  in an episode of The Crown  about Charles and Diana's tour of Australia.
                                                         Emma Corin as Princess Diana

But nothing happens, because the monarchy can’t make a material difference to any of its subjects’ lives, not that many of its members have shown an inclination to do so.Advertisement

Then there are the sons – Charles is self-pitying, Edward is a bullied boy turned bully, Andrew is charming but spoiled (perhaps a future series will explore the protection racket the royal family ran for the prince who refuses to answer police questions about his pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein).

The Queen’s children, Diana, and even the Queen herself, all desperately need the validation of popularity, usually via the medium of the press, because it’s too sticky to get involved with one’s subjects personally. They are all jealous of the attention the others are getting. They all believe their misery to be worse than others’.

That, finally, is what the show brings out – how needy the royals are, and perhaps that’s the best republican take on The Crown.

That the act of divesting ourselves of the monarchy, when it eventually happens, will feel less like unshackling from a colonial power, and more like shaking off a clingy partner: the relief that comes with the end of a relationship you have simply grown out of.

Arguments of Monumental Proportions


Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind

The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.

With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.

Fallen Idols

There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousands never made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.

Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him. 

Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels 

As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long running monuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry. 

It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skating  they are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors  – but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.

Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past. 

There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.

Oliver Cromwell, Parliament Square

A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.

The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protests in  2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.  

Cecil Rhodes, Cambridge University
Winston Churchill gets a paint-job

I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousands  of locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew – during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin! 

Richard the Lionhearted

Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.

Dark deeds in a sunny land

In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land, William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.

There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines. 

The captain, his chopsticks and his lunch.
James Cook, Whitby, Yorks
Lachlan Macquarie, Hyde Park,Sydney

Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and  commentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down. 

But not for long, perhaps.

All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.

For more on our Aussie worthies, see, for example, from The Guardian, on Australia, Statues are not history, and regarding former Soviet monuments, Poles Apart – the bitter conflict over a nation’s history.

And, in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, and America’s Confederate legacy, Rebel Yell 

Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid

Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. And then, it’s all over. Calm is restored as summer winds down, the kids return to school, and the working year starts in earnest – until the next national shibboleth lumbers into view – Anzac Day in late April. 

This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we are too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words.

The fires have dominated the media space, with harrowing photographs and video footage of their impact on people, property, and wildlife, stories of heroism and resilience, and circular debates and divisions, political posturing and finger-pointing. They have crowded out others news and reportage from around Australia and overseas where much is happening, be it the US’ assassination of Iran’s foremost general, ongoing protests in Beirut and Baghdad, the continued pounding on tons and villages in Syria’s beleaguered Idlib province, devastating floods in Indonesia, and volcano eruptions in the Philippines and and Zealand – and, less catastrophic but infinitely entertaining, Britain’s imminent retreat from Europe, and Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the royal family.

The fires have also crowded out the predictable argy-bargy over our national identity. It’s as if the partisans and opinionistas right across our political spectrum have holstered their weapons in deference to our collective pyro-purgatory.

There is one piece, however, that I deem worthy of republishing in In That Howling Infinite insofar as it encapsulates perfectly a cognitive and cultural dissonance at the heart of our national identity that I touched upon recently in How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo.

Sydney journalist Elizabeth Farrelly is always worth reading for her perspective on our identity, our culture and our natural and built environment. On this Australia Day 2020, she asks the perennial rhetorical question: what does it mean to be Australian? Her observations are illuminating. Here is my summary – you can read it in full below.

“As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up …

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite.

Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over. Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable, exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and  set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognized for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better … God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponized it. We’ll show this country who’s boss. 

Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. 

This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology”.

See also: We got them Australia Day Blues;  and Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Survival-by-respect or death-by-stupid: your choice Straya

Elizabeth Farrrelly, Sydney Morning Herald 26th January 2020

It’s invasion day again only, this time, the eyes of the world are upon us. Under headlines like “Australia shows us the road to hell“, the world is wondering if our economy isn’t every bit as fragile as the landscape it routinely exploits. It’s wondering about our tourism, with massive cancellations already from China and a US travel warning putting Australia on par with Gaza and PNG. It’s asking how long Australia will be habitable. But beneath those questions lies another. What, at this crossroads, does it mean to be Australian?

The first three are questions of both fact and perception. As such they may be partly addressed by Scott Morrison’s $76m commitment to beef-up Australia as a brand. But the last is a question for us. Who are we, as a nation, and who do we wish to be going forward? 

Australia Bushfires: Tourism fire effects

The tourism industry has lost some $4.5 billion as overseas visitors cancel trips over bushfires.

As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can dust off our angel wings and smarten up.

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite. 

 

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

And sure, to some extent, that’s just colonialism. Colonialism is inherently macho, and inherently denialist. But it should be transitional. Now, as the NY Times argues, our political denialism is “scarier than the fires”. Smarten up? It’s time we grew up.

This is Australia’s moment of reckoning. It’s time we lost the attitude. Time we made a clear, rational and collective choice between survival-by-respect and death-by-stupid.

On top of Auckland’s Maungakiekie, the volcanic Māori pa also known as One Tree Hill, stands an obelisk. The land was bequeathed to the city in the mid-19th century by the beloved Scot Sir John Logan Campbell, who designed the obelisk as a permanent record “of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people”. That was then – now, New Zealand has Jacinda. And yes, these dots are connected.

Australia has shown no such reverence. Indeed, unable even to express genuine remorse for our repeated attempts at genocide and erasure-by-other-means, we’re still doing arrogant displacement. And we, as a result, have Scott Morrison, who must live with the disparaging epithet concocted by the lads at the Betoota Advocate – Scotty from marketing – because many Australians believe there is a ring of truth to it.

Morrison who responds to bushfires by wanting to clear more land. Who thinks hazard reduction is climate action and more advertising can persuade them back to a charred continent. Death by stupid.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better. Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over.

Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s filthy foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable (Alice had 55 days above 40 degrees last yearand recorded street-surface temperatures between 61 and 68 degrees celsius), exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.  

As if that very ancestry, those very records, hadn’t been, for two centuries, the subject of our energetic erasure. As if being Indigenous had always yielded some special right to speak, instead of the precise opposite. As if the speaker’s genetic makeup validated or invalidated his speech. What?

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilisers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. That’ll show them. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognised for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers cheat – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. 

God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponised it. By golly we’ll show this country who’s boss. Then if things get really rough, we’ll pop to heaven. Let’s hear it. A recent street poster picturing Morrison declaring Pentecostals for a Warmer Planet! may seem extreme, but Meritus Professor of Religious Thought, Philip C. Almond, explains why Morrison’s faith meansreducing carbon emissions … may have little intellectual purchase with the PM” – because world’s end means the second coming and, for the chosen, salvation. It’s also why Morrison’s beloved Hillsong church can happily advertise its coming conference, called Breathe Again, with Bishop T D Jakes saying “it’s amazing how God can strike a match in Australia and the whole world catches on fire”. As if the fires were God given.

That’s choice A, Scott Morrison’s choice. Business as usual but with extra cheesy advertising. Choice B, survival-by-respect, recognizes that even cheese can’t sell a pile of ash.

Survival-by-respect means just that: respect for Indigenous peoples, for nature and for women. It means knowing that listening is no weakness, but a path to greater strength.

On the ground, the shift would be dramatic but not impossible. Zero carbon cities would become an immediate priority: solar vehicles, green roads, every surface productive of food or energy. It would mean ending coal production. Investing in renewables. Creating whole new industries. 

This would mean listening to people who’ve spent 60,000 years here. Not copying, necessarily, listening. And listening, above all, to nature, heeding the fires’ overwhelming lesson. Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology. 

Sure, we can stick with lazy old Plan A. We can bow to Brand Australia and trust our grandchildren’s futures to the Rapture Hypothesis. Good luck with that, and happy Straya Day!

Bare Dinkum

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

Small Stories – the schools of the Tarkeeth

Remember the days of the old schoolyard
We used to laugh a lot, oh don’t you
Remember the days of the old schoolyard
When we had imaginings and we had
All kinds of things and we laughed
And needed love…yes, I do
Oh and I remember you
Cat Stevens

Prologue

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, in Bellingen Shire and some ten kilometers west of the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers on either side of the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the waterways and wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track. It led from the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range to fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest therefore contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

As I wrote, two years ago, when retelling the story of the Fells Family and Twin Pines, “One of the pleasures of moving to the Australian bush and living in Bellingen Shire is discovering its often overlooked history”. Here then is another tale  of the Tarkeeth, and an echo from it’s past.

Bellinger beginnings

This is a copy of Hodgkinson’s “Aboriginals spearing fish on the Bellinger” from his 1845 book. The original  watercolour is believed to be in the National Library

Let’s begin at the beginning – the white man’s beginning, that is. The Gumbaynggirr have been travelling through these lands for centuries. Europeans entered what was to become Bellingen Shire in 1840 when stock-man William Miles led a party into the Bellinger Valley to ascertain the abundance of much prized, avidly sought (and rapidly depleted) Red Cedar in the area. They came on foot, all the way from Kempsey – a trek of some one hundred kilometres through virgin bush. Such was abundance of the “red gold” that Macleay Valley government surveyor Clement Hodgkinson financed and supplied Miles to take him there the following year to see for himself.

Arriving at the estuary of a large river, they headed west along that very ridge walked by the Gumbaynggirr for untold centuries.  Following a stream that descended southwards from the ridge, they encountered another large river that the Gumbaynggirr called the Odalberrie. Ascending the ridge once more, close to present day Tarkeeth, they descended the northern flank of the range through dense red cedar-rich forest to another large river that had cut a steep and deep course through forest meadows of swamp mahogany.

Further exploration revealed that the Odalberrie was the southern arm of this larger river, named the Bellinger – derived from the Gumbaynggirr name for the spotted quoll, a totemic and now endangered marsupial. It’s southern sister was unimaginatively christened The South Arm. A draftsman’s transcription error led to Boat Harbour, the settlement established on the Bellinger River during the 1860s, being renamed Bellingen. In subsequent decades, the deep and wide Bellinger River was navigable as far as Bellingen although one wouldn’t know it from today’s wide, shallow and gravelled-up successor.

Back in the day, there was no road along the northern bank of The South Arm. Access to the farms that were established along the river was by small jetties. Farmers and their families would travel by boat to visit the estuarine port of Urunga and to visit each other. In the late 19th century, Moses Lacey, the first selector, ran a store on the river bank.

.

Tarkeeth’s mighty Odalberrie – Kalang

A quarry was established at Tarkeeth in 1892 to supply stone for the construction of the breakwater at Urunga. The stone was loaded onto lighters at Tarkeeth and carried down the South Arm to the harbour at Urunga. South Arm Road was constructed primarily to serve the quarry. Whilst the river became the Kalang, after the Gumbaynggirri “galanga” – the native tree known as white beech, now uncommon although we have reintroduced scores of them on our property – the road kept its name, just one of many South Arm Roads on our north coast. [On a side note, we traveled right to the end of the nearest if these just this week, into the heart of the Dunggir (koala in Gumbaynggirri) National Park, to visit a friend whose house was miraculously saved during the recent and devastating Kian Road bushfires. His land, sheds, and machinery were destroyed, but he and his dogs and chooks were spared. Others weren’t so lucky – eleven nearby homes were lost  and a neighbour perished when his ute rolled over a long drop]

South Arm Road by the Kalang and the Tarkeeth Forest

The Quarry was abandoned in 1901, and new one opened across the river on the north side of Pickett Hill (about 250 metres past the junction of the old Pacific Highway – now Giinagay Way, “welcome” in Gumbaynggirr) – and Martells Road. You can still visit the Tarkeeth Quarry – it’s just west of the junction of South Arm Road and Fells Road – if you’re game – it is overgrown with treacherous pits and venomous residents.

And this is where our story of the schools of the South Arm begins.

Loading stone onto the Steam Drogher Matilda from the South Arm Quarry  for the Urunga breakwater (c.1900). From With Luck and a Fair Wind – Bellinger Shipping 1843 to 1933, Garry Barnett, Bellinger Valley Historical Society


Tarkeeth quarry blacksmith shop c.1900. Charles Thompson, 2nd from left ;Daniel Thompson,5th from left. Daniel was foreman. He died in 1905 in an explosion at the quarry (Scott Thompson)

Remember the days of the old schoolyard

In the late 19th Century, it was customary in remote areas for quarry management to establish a school for the children of its employees, and when a quarry was worked out, or outlived its usefulness, it was closed down and operations moved to a new location. The school would close move also. And so it was with the Tarkeeth Quarry.

To facilitate clear-felling and plantation re-establishment of the Tarkeeth Forest at Twin Pines, the Forestry Corporation of NSW cut a a new forest road linking the old Twin Pines Trail with Eringtons Trail, and called it Old School Road. By design or happenstance, some planner or surveyor sounded a historical echo.

As with most history where there are no longer any traces left on the ground, there is conjecture.  Col Sutton of the Bellingen Valley Historical Society advised me that it refers to the Barrieton School – named for the contractor who worked the old Tarkeeth Quarry between 1892 and 1901. . Ian O’Hearn, who like Col, has a deep knowledge of our local history, has reported that the Old School Road refers to the first Brierfield School called Fernmount South, and that the road connected up to the Old Brierfield Road which crosses the Fernmount  Range and joins Waterfall Way between Fernmount and Bellingen at Marx Hill. This school was relocated to the southern side of the river in 1906.

Barrieton School

Barrieton School  c. 1895. Scott Thompson:“William Thompson 2nd from right later became a school teacher at Bellinger Heads; my grandfather Charlie Thompson, 6th from right resided in Urunga his whole life.

The Barrieton Provisional School was established on 2nd April, 1896 and it closed in 1901 when the quarry was closed down. But another school called Nessville was opened on the south side of the river, off Martell’s Road, and near the quarry at Pickett’s Hill. People still remember the old Nessville school, some referring to it as “the rainbow house”. After the school closed, the property was owned by a well known local affectionately called Brad the Donkey Man. Frances Wit recalls: “My best friend lived there for years. He painted the house all different colours in the late 1990s  and had donkeys named Eeyore and Kinoki. He’d walk to town with his donkey and grocery-shop then walk back”.

The “rainbow house”, site of the old Nessville School, Giinagay Way

We would imagine that although the Barrieton School was established for the quarry-men’s youngsters, other children of the South Arm would have attended also; and it would have have been a mighty inconvenience when the school closed and they now had to walk or ride to Fernmount, Brierfield, Nessville or Urunga.

There was, therefore, considerable local pressure to establish the Tarkeeth School in the nineteen twenties. The folk of the Lower South Arm had to crawl over broken glass and put their hands in the pockets to get that. They petitioned the Inspector of Schools in distant Kempsey on the need for another school in Tarkeeth:

“To ensure an education for the children … both Brierfield and Nessvikke schools are a considerable distance” claimed the parents of twenty two children of school age. “Some of the children on the west end attend Brierfield, the Kruckows in the centre attend Fernmount, and the Dallaways on the extreme east attend Nessville. Those pupils attend badly, arriving at 11 o’clock, leaving early,  and missing generally two or three days a week. The children therefore practically receive little schooling” (from The Bellinger Valley Historical Society’s  The History of the Tarkeeth School).

And so it came to pass: delayed at first, due to a lack of government funds, the Tarkeeth School was built a little further down South Arm, opening in 1923 as South Arm Road Provisional School. By 1923, some twenty to thirty pupils were in attendance, and on January 1st 1927, it was deemed to be permanent school and gazetted as a public school. Not long afterwards, the education department asked the parents to come up with a more distinctive name for the school – its location was often confused with the South Arm Roads on the Bellinger and Nambucca rivers – and  at a public meeting, they settled on Tarkeeth School.

Small country schools never had it easy. Public funds were forever hard to come by, and improvements to buildings and amenities rare and hard-fought for, often through parents’ own efforts. Tarkeeth School’s requests for an all-weather shelter to protect the children from the heat and cold and the wind and rain were continually rejected by the education department, as was a proposal to build a tennis court out the back. The locals held fundraisers to get these done. But as the years passed, the department was more forthcoming. When the shelter’s roof was blown off by a severe gale, it stumped up the cash. When the water tank was deemed unfit to drink, the department found money; it paid for repairs and maintenance over the years, and as world war approached in 1939, even had air-raid shelters constructed.

Numbers fluctuated over the years, and the school’s status was therefore perennially tenuous, but the Parents and Citizens were a determined bunch and continually lobbied to keep it open. The history records how card parties were held at the Fells’ home, and bonfires and other entertainments were held in the school grounds.

And so the school endured for fifty years. That’s almost two generations. Many, many children passed through and moved on. Quite a few still live in the Shire and fondly recall their “days in the old school yard”. Until, at last, it closed in May 1972 when declining school numbers made it unviable.

Tarkeeth School – the class of ’68

The school was sold to an Erik Johannsen who lived there for many years with a collection of animals. Tragically, he ended his own life after setting fire to the school.

The school building is no more, and few recall its actual location. Adèle and went exploring and door-knocking, and rediscovered it. There is now an ageing weatherboard house on the site. But some of the old outhouses stand still. The children’s outdoors shelter survives, albeit somewhat worse for wear with white ant damage, as does the adjoining chuck shed and the girls’ lavatory. All that is left of the boys’ toilets are an old stone urinal trough which is in remarkably good condition. And you can still see where there was a small tennis court to the east of the school building.

The house now where the Tarkeeth School stood

Formerly, the school’s tennis court

The stone ‘trough’ of from the boy’s toilets

The remains of the weather shelter and girls’ toilets

The forest to the north of the school grounds

Schools of the Shire

The first public school in the valley was opened at Boat Harbour late in 1870 and as settlers spread further west along the river the village developed in the 1880’s when stores, a hotel, and churches were established, and by the turn of the century Bellingen had become the main town in the valley. The postal name Boat Harbour had preceded Bellingen and continued to be used until 1890 when the official postal address was changed to Bellingen.

Over the years, many schools large and small were established in the Bellinger Valley. local Kay Saunders has listed the following: Bellingen 1870, Fernmount 1871, East Raleigh (Repton), 1879, South Bellingen (Quinn’s, Fernmount South), 1883, Raleigh 1887, Urunga 1889, Thora (Beattie’s) late 1890s, Barrieton (South Arm Quarry) mid 1890s, Baradoc (Joyce’s) late 1890s, Nessville 1901, Hyde’s Creek, 1914, South Arm Road/Tarkeeth 1923, Thora 1923. Between 1900 and 1969, schools were established at Orama, Three Bridges, Best’s (Scotchman Kalang), Gordonville, Glennifer, Pine Creek, Snarebrook and Valery. The featured photograph is believed to be of Best’s in Kalang, in the early 1900s.

References and acknowledgements

  • For the story of Twin Pines and also, the Tarkeeth School, Small Stories  – a Tale of Twin Pines
  • Read more about our farm in The Country Life
  • Read the full story of Twin Pines here in Lloyd Fell’s small but captivating book.
  • Here is the The History of the Tarkeeth School – 923-1972. It can be obtained from the Bellingen Museum.
  •  John Lean’s The Settlers of South Bellingen and the Lower South Arm, for the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • Photographs: Best’s School, John Gibson; Barrieton School, Ian O’Heane: Tarkeeth School Class of 68,Beverley Ferguson Crompton. Pictures of Tarkeeth and Nessvile Schools today, Paul Hemphill.
  • Read read more about ‘Bello’ on wikipedia.
  • Lean about the Gumbaynggirr language hereOur local indigenous language is still spoken  from the Nambucca river, up along the Nymboida to the west and along the Clarence river.
  • Many thanks to present and former Tarkeeth residents, to  alumni of Tarkeeth School who shared stories of the So You Are From Bellingen FaceBook page, and, Col Sutton, Ian O’Hearne, Lloyd Fell, and the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: The Odyssey of Assid Corban, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.
  • No Bull! a true though somewhat overwrought local saga of battling bovines – set in Bonville, not far north of us.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Postscript – About Bellingen

We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. Bellingen, the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and more recently, as a popular tourist spot between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, to the east, with their sand, surf and sun.

Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.

Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancies. In the old days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease fractionally election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers’ kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired together, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism now plays a vital role. Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. A Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old – from lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. A cultural mecca with many cafes, live music, craft and artisan shops, and music and writers’ festivals.

Two years ago, the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.

This is the marketing spin hyped up by the council, the chamber of commerce, and real estate and B&B interests. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility – in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidenced by high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are  pretty poor. Rising property values and high rents price low-income families and singles out of the market. Decreasing profit margins have forced many of those attractive cafes and coffee shops to close.

Nor is the clean, green, sustainable shire as picture perfect as the brochures portray It. There is environmental degradation with clear-felling and land-clearing, and flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen – a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers. There is generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths. And there the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms,

But on the right side of the ledger, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature. The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.

Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …


 

How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo

A simple explanation  of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air. 

And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist  Jacqueline Maley nailed it:

“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”

We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?

Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.

“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.”

Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little­ good governance’.

“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.

The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.

On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

On the same day, the Herald’s  political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:

“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”

Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.


For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under

Bare Dinkum

A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny

Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the ­storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the ­storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.

In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring­ the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.

And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of ­Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a ­courageous and challenging crit­ique of Australia’s capabilities.

In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and ­wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequen­ces, and the capacity to bend it.

The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom­, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integ­ral part of the ­national lexicon, so too ­“tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the ­potency of their thinking remains very alive.

In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden­ for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British ­antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by ­second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curios­ity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper explor­ation and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.

Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of ­distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.

Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national­ and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.

A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.

Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ­ambition and outcomes but they are the ­exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social ­unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.

Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more ­reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant ­strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insou­ciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.

We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the ­distance to full connectedness and acceptance.

On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have ­national policies on how to optim­ally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, clim­ate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.

A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone de­livery, of even modest ­infrastructure.

Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and ineffic­iency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.

We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, ­disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.

Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech ­declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated­ and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal ­responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.

We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.

A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past ­reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to preven­t new sins.

After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has ­become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a ­nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.

Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of econo­mic and military security, and despite­ all the economic and cultur­al up­sides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse­ populations in the world, with ­almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not ­buried latent racism, inequal­ity and bigotry.

Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers­ were demonised, their ­religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and ­demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.

The Cold War 1960s and “yellow­ peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural ­resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.

We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact­ our longest-standing allies and alliances­. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South ­Pacific, few ­Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.

Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning ­nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals­ about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science­ and reason; opportunist­ically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial ­engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.

The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater ­because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.

So much “government”, so little­ good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.

Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, con­sumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.

There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.

If we do not better see and ­respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will ­become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.

Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).

Living off the sheep’s back

 

 

 

 

The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness

Pemulwuy

It was recently announced that Phillip Noyce, Director of the award winning Rabbit-Proof Fence, is to bring to our screens the story of Bidjigal warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy who lived near present day Botany Bay and who united local tribes in a twelve year guerrilla war against the British invaders of what we now call New South Wales.

As is always often the case with such fearless but forlorn intifadat, Pemuluy came to a sad, bad end. Shot down in a a totally one-sided firefight, his pickled head was sent by Governor Philip King to renowned botanist Joseph Banks in England, a grisly souvenir of Britain’s self-ordained, and, to many in power, god-given, mission civilatrice. 

And thus began Australia’s frontier wars. 

White historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.  

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’ 

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

No ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties

At Bellingen’s recent Readers and Writers Festival, it was our pleasure and privilege to attend a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton (and, by fortunate serendipity, to share a meal with them at the Federal Hotel afterwards). One of many discussion points was that old conundrum: are those who rebel against authority and resist oppression and dispossession terrorists or freedom fighters? The festival event’s tight schedule precluded what was shaping up to be a very lively question time. 

Australia’s frontier wars, Reynolds reminded us, raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals. 

Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. 

The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. 

There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference. 

Reynolds observed how we as a nation celebrate war and warriors, but do not recognize, and indeed, forget our foundational wars of martial conquest. We commenced our national journey with a declaration that our land  was terra nullius, an empty land that was “ceded and  conquered”. There is still no proper explanation at law of how sovereignty passed from the indigenous people to Britain and thence the Australian State. 

Waterloo Creek Massacre, January 1838

Until the momentous Mabo decision of 1992 when the High Court held that the doctrine of terra nullius, which imported all laws of England to a new land, did not apply in circumstances where there were already inhabitants present – even if those inhabitants had been regarded at the time as “uncivilized”, and that as such, any indigenous land rights which had not been extinguished by subsequent grants by the Crown continued to exist in Australia. The concept of indigenous land title was thus born.

And today, at public gatherings and meetings, at carnivals and ceremonials, at conferences and conventions, many of us now recognize and acknowledge our first peoples as the traditional owners of this land and acknowledge elders past, present and future. 

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet.

There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t  take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story. 

© Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

Read also:

                            Solid Rock
They were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
’cause somewhere, someone lied
And now you’re standing on olid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

We oughtn’t fear an Indigenous Voice – but we do

They were standing on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
‘cause somewhere, someone had lied
And now you’re standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Goanna

Journalist Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald  on17th November 2019:

“The Uluru Statement From the Heart, with its reasoned call for constitutional recognition, has become such a politicised issue that it is easy to forget what a beautiful piece of writing it is. It is not even 500 words, but within it is a world: the struggle, tragedy and dignity of one of the world’s oldest living cultures. It discusses the ancestral ties of First Nations peoples to the land, unextinguished by colonisation. It talks about children stolen and incarcerated. “This is the torment of our powerlessness,” it reads “.

You’d have thought that the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our constitution would be a no-brainer, and that their participation as stakeholders and advisers in matters of government policy affecting them, much as many other bodies and institutions do, would be a reasonable and worthwhile proposition. It would, one might’ve thought, be simply the right thing to do.

But you’d be disappointed. Not in today’s Australia, it would seem. The things that divide us are greater than those which unite us.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney has written a clear and concise response to the naysayers, fear-mongers and purveyors of misinformation. It ought to be required reading, but as it is behind News Ltd’s paywall, I republish it here.

It is followed by an opinion piece by one time journalist and now academic, Stan Grant, on why the plan for a referendum proposed by our new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, may be a forlorn hope (both Grant and Wyatt are indigenous Australians); and after this, an informative article by conservative columnist Chris Kenny.

Kenny is normally a caustic and predictable member of News Corp’s right wing  comments racy, but here, he provides a good analysis of the obstacles facing Wyatt and the ambivalent PM Scott Morrison.

“There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate – indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations – mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options … (for) constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood. Everyone wants to parade their view … but are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate”.

Malcolm Harrison, an old friend of mine, makes the following observations”:

”The liberal, progressive left, identity politics movement seems to have met some severe headwinds of late, and the growing apprehension about some of its more extreme aspects may halt it for the forseeable future. Various forms of conservatism are definitely gaining ground at least in the short term. The voices of oppressed indigenous peoples, and those colonised like India, are growing louder, and demands for financial compensation are becoming more common. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a very real issue. If I were the government of Australia, I would be making secure deals with what’s left of the indigenous peoples, while I still could. Excluding them from the constitution only strengthens their future case. From the perspective of identity politics, if I were an aboriginal I would be righteously aware that from a human rights perspective, I had a lot to complain about. And sooner or later, the conscience of my society might be forced to acknowledge this in practical ways that at present it is not prepared to countenance or even consider. But, as I imply in the first paragraph, we may not get there in the short term, and indeed we may never get there at all. Indeed, if some of the extreme ideas being privately discussed among our present neoliberal aristocratic elites come to fruition, many more of us might be joining our indigenous brothers on the fringes, beyond the pale”.

There is a darkness at the heart of democracy in the new world “settler colonial” countries like Australia and New Zealand, America and Canada, where for almost all of our history, we’ve confronted the gulf between the ideal of political equality and the reality of indigenous dispossession and exclusion. To a greater or lesser extent, with greater or lessers success, we’ve laboured to close the gap. It’s a slow train coming.

Also, in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Postscript

two month’s on, and it would appear that positions have hardened. More like ossified, I would say.

Delivering the 19th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in early August, Ken Wyatt made explicit, in the strongest terms since becoming Minister for Indigenous Australians, that the Morrison government has decided to dismiss the call for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “The question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire, and that is an enshrined voice to the Parliament –  these two matters [constitutional recognition and a Voice to parliament], whilst related, need to be treated separately.”

Whilst carefully choosing how it tackles the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the government’s tactic may be to appear to be doing something, while doing nothing at all.

If the government legislates the Voice without constitutionally enshrining it, it will not only ignore the Uluru Statement and the unprecedented consensus that made it, ii will be setting it up to fail. A First Nations Voice established by an act of parliament alone and not protected by the constitution will one day be diminished or repealed at the whim of a future parliament as has been the fate of all national Indigenous representative bodies. Moreover, Indigenous people do not support mere symbolic constitutional recognition and have dismissed it in regional constitutional dialogues. Those who are to be recognised need to be able determine how they are recognised.

22nd August 2019

See also in In That Howling Infinite:

Fright-monsters keen to deny voice a fair go

Anne Twomey, The Australian, 13th July 2019

The most remarkable thing about a proposal for an indigenous voice to parliament is how moderate and reasonable it is. It is not a demand to dictate laws. There is no insistence upon a power of veto. There is simply a cry to be recognized — to be listened to with respect.

It means no more than that indigenous views can be channeled into the parliament by a formal mechanism so that they can be taken into account and parliament can be better informed when making laws that affect indigenous Australians.

How many people would prefer that the parliament be poorly informed? Who thinks it is a good idea for parliament to waste money on ineffective programs that achieve nothing?

The proposal is so very reasonable that it has shocked people into imagining hidden conspiracies and conjuring up fright-monsters, because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a proposed change could actually be good.

The best way to dispel fright-monsters is to expose them. The first is the claim that any indigenous voice that could channel its views and advice into the parliament would be a “third house of parliament”.

To state the obvious, it would be a third house only if it was given the power to initiate bills, pass and veto them, and be defined as a constituent part of the parliament in section 1 of the Constitution.

The only people suggesting this are those who are opposing it, so we can strike this off the list of problems.

If the suggestion is that any person or body that formally advises parliament in relation to bills or policies is a third house, then we would have a parliament of very many houses indeed.

Take, for example, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, whose role is to provide independent oversight of national security legislation and make recommendations about it, which are tabled in parliament. The monitor is currently conducting an inquiry into laws that terminate the citizenship of people involved with terrorism. Does this make the monitor a “third house of parliament”?

If so, the monitor would join the Auditor-General, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the many other bodies and people whose job it is to ensure that the parliament is better informed about particular subject matters.

All of these bodies and officers have influence, and should be listened to with respect because of their experience and expertise, but that does not mean they dictate legislation and government policies.

Governments have to take into account broader issues as well, such as the budgetary position and the general wellbeing of the entire country.

There is no greater threat in having an indigenous body advise and influence the parliament than there is in relation to any of these other bodies. Instead, there is a benefit in having a better informed parliament and hopefully better targeted laws and policies.

The next argument is that if this indigenous voice is enshrined in the Constitution, the High Court will get involved and every time indigenous advice is not followed there will be litigation and the High Court will force the parliament to give effect to that advice. This view is misguided. It is part of the principle of the separation of powers that the courts do not intervene in the internal deliberations of the parliament.

The High Court has held that it will not enforce constitutional provisions, such as sections 53 and 54 regarding money bills, because they concern the internal proceedings of the houses. As long as the constitutional provisions concerning an indigenous voice were drafted to make it clear that consideration of its advice was part of the internal proceedings of the houses, the matter would not be one that could be brought before, or enforced by, the courts.

The third argument concerns equality. Some have argued that there is a fundamental principle of equality in the Constitution and that division on the basis of race should not be brought into the Constitution.

First, there is no general provision of equality in the Constitution. For example, Tasmanians have, per head of population, far greater representation in the federal parliament than voters from NSW.

Members of parliament might also be aware by now that section 44 disqualifies them if they are dual nationals.

Second, the Constitution has always provided for distinctions based upon race. From 1901 to 1967 section 127 provided that for certain purposes “aboriginal natives” were not counted in the population.

This did not mean that they weren’t counted in the census. Every census, from the very first, has included detailed information about indigenous Australians. But it did mean that when determining the population for the purpose of calculating how many seats a state had in parliament, indigenous Australians were excluded from the statistics until this provision was repealed in the 1967 referendum.

Section 25 continues to provide that if a state excludes people from voting on the basis of race, it is punished by having its population reduced for the purposes of its representation in the federal parliament. Section 51 (xxvi) continues to allow the federal parliament to make laws with respect to the “people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

There are good reasons today to remove sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) from the Constitution, but there will still be a need to include some kind of power to make laws with respect to indigenous Australians.

This is not because of race. It is because of indigeneity.

Only indigenous Australians have legal rights that preceded British settlement and continue to apply today.

Only indigenous Australians have a history and culture unique to Australia.

It is not racist, divisive or a breach of principles of equality to enact laws that deal with native title rights or protect indigenous cultural heritage.

Nor is it racist, divisive or in breach of principles of equality to allow the only group about whom special laws are made to be heard about the making of these laws. Indeed, it is only fair, and fairness is a fundamental principle that Australians respect.

Anne Twomey is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

Ken Wyatt, a man in the cross-hairs of history

Stan Grant, Sydney Morning Herald, 13th July 2019

Ken Wyatt is a man of history. He has defied a history of Indigenous children stolen from their families. He has defied a history that locked Indigenous people out of Australian political life, that for too many years denied Aboriginal people full citizenship. This week he made history, speaking at the National Press Club as the first Aboriginal person to be a cabinet minister in a federal government – an Aboriginal person leading the portfolio for Indigenous Australians.

His moment in history ... Ken Wyatt, the Miniser for Indigenous Australians.                        Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians (Alex Ellinghaussen)

But when it comes to constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, history is against him. There have been 44 referendums put to the Australian people and only eight carried. It has been more than 40 years since the last yes vote. We set a high bar: change requires a majority of voters in a majority of states. Fifty per cent of the national population plus one is not enough.

The numbers are against him: Indigenous people are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population seeking to win over 97 per cent. Politics is against him: he is in the wrong party; more than half of all referendums have been put by the ALP. Right now, Ken Wyatt cannot even count on the full support of his own side of politics.

If a referendum won’t succeed, there will be no vote, he says. He’s hoping for consensus, bringing together political opposition including influential politicians such as Pauline Hanson. He wants a conversation with the Australian people around barbecues and dinner tables. His hardest conversation will be with Indigenous people.

Black Australia has already spoken. The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains the clearest expression of the aspirations of Indigenous people, emerging out of an exhaustive and emotional process of negotiation and consultation. It is itself a compromise, a conservative position, achieved in spite of understandable hostility from some Indigenous people who have no faith in Australian politics. Now they are being asked to compromise again.

What was all of that for? Where is the trust? The previous Turnbull government rejected the key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, that there be a constitutionally enshrined “voice” – a representative body allowing Indigenous people to advise and inform government policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among many who called it a “third chamber” of Parliament. He reportedly has not shifted from that view.

Wyatt has already framed future negotiations by indicating that he may prefer some symbolic words of recognition in the constitution and a legislated statutory voice. He is testing the resolve and agility of Indigenous leadership. Will they walk back their demand for a constitutional voice? Can they accept symbolism? He’s already sought to recast constitutional recognition as the preserve of urban Indigenous elites, disconnected from impoverished remote black communities.

Ken Wyatt is also on a collision course with the Labor opposition. Senior Indigenous ALP figures Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson have reasserted their commitment to the spirit of the Uluru Statement and full constitutional recognition. It sets up a divisive political battle, which would scuttle any hope of a successful referendum.

Constitutional lawyer George Williams knows how difficult referendums are. He has previously laid out a roadmap to a yes vote. It requires political bipartisanship and popular ownership.  It cannot be perceived as political self-interest. The public must know what they are voting for, so it requires popular education. Referendums, Williams warns, are a minefield of misinformation.

And there must be a sound and sensible proposal.

Professor Williams has cautioned that the referendum process itself may be out of date – not suited to contemporary Australia. He says referendums should be expected to fail if there is political opposition or if the people feel confused or left out of the process.

On that basis, as it stands right now, an Indigenous constitutional voice looks a forlorn prospect.

But there is a glimmer of hope and it comes from our history. In 1967, Australians voted in overwhelming numbers – more than 90 per cent, the most resounding yes vote ever – to count Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Parliament to make laws for First Peoples.

Ken Wyatt is invoking the spirit of ’67, but he also knows its lesson: it was a victory of fairness over difference. Australians are wary of difference, suspicious of questions of rights. Australia has no bill of rights; our constitution is a rule book, not a rights manifesto. Australia is a triumph of liberalism where people are not defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. Australia is a place where migrants are encouraged to leave their histories and old enmities behind. Nationally we are more comfortable mythologizing our own history than probing its darkest corners.

Indigenous people live with their history; they carry its scars; it defines them. In a country founded on terra nullius – empty land – where the rights of the First Peoples were extinguished, where no treaties have been signed, this – as the Uluru Statement says – is the torment of their powerlessness.

When it comes to Indigenous recognition – symbolism or substance – black and white Australia speak with a very different voice.

Ken Wyatt, a man of history, is now in the cross-hairs of history.

Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.

The key to an indigenous voice’s success – it must be practical

Chris Kenny, The Australian, 13th July 2019

For all their best intentions, it might have been a mistake for Ken Wyatt and Scott Morrison to put indigenous constitutional recognition back on the agenda and commit to getting it done in this term of government. There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate — indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations — mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options, and groups as diverse and seemingly irrelevant as national sporting organisations and major businesses running jingoistic campaigns supporting constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood.

Everyone wants to parade their view and, yes, signal their virtue, but they are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate.

Completely lost in the debate is the genesis of the “voice” proposal as a compromise proffered by conservative thinkers looking to deliver a meaningful outcome for indigenous Australians while preserving the integrity of the Constitution. This concept, first devised by indigenous leader Noel Pearson building on work by now Liberal MP Julian Leeser, conser­vative philosopher Damien Free­man and others, was assiduously workshopped and then explained and promoted to politicians, commentators and activists.

At the heart of this proposal, and a key to understanding this debate, is the desire to ensure constitutional recognition provides more than a cursory or symbolic mention of Aboriginal people in our nation’s founding document but delivers a practical outcome for indigenous advancement. This would be done by guaranteeing indigenous input into decision-making over their affairs — something that happens informally now but under the plan would be genuinely representative and underpinned in the Constitution.

In return, the Constitution would be protected from more radical change and a statement of national values would make more poetic exclamations about the shared indigenous, British and immigrant strands of our national bounty, outside of the Constitution. Incredibly, all the work devising this approach occurred outside the official channels such as the expert panel and select committee inquiries.

Initially its prospects seemed likely to match those of a snowflake at Uluru. It was attacked as a sop by the activists on the left who argued for a racial non-discrimination clause to be inserted into the Constitution as well as an indigenous affairs power and recognition clause that looked like a broad-ranging, de facto bill of rights. The right branded this voice approach as a divisive attempt to give additional rights and representation to indigenous Australians — an attempt to inject race into the Constitution.

Never mind that race is already embedded in our Constitution and that whatever happens on recognition the detailed constitutional changes are likely to remove those redundant race-based clauses. Never mind that by dint of legislation such as the Native Title Act there already are very specific measures that fall under the constitutional responsibility of the federal government that demand special consideration for indigenous people. And never mind that successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had informal bodies to provide advice from Aboriginal people on these issues.

Somehow, mainly because of the power of the ideas but also thanks to the persuasiveness of Pearson and his team, the thrust of these ideas was embraced by a summit of indigenous community leaders at Uluru in May 2017. It was a monumental achievement but the grandiloquence of the “Statement from the Heart” would always frighten many horses.

Talk of “first sovereign nations” and spiritual links to the land was anathema to calculated, clinical constitutional change. Having invested some time in comprehending this process, I recall being immediately dismayed by the emotive words of the Uluru statement because I foresaw the political resistance they would trigger. It is a beautiful statement in many ways, and certainly encapsulates a wise position, but constitutional change is no place for emotionalism. Still, at its core are two proposals: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” and “a Maka­rrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

This is now characterized as indigenous people asking too much of their non-indigenous compatriots. It is actually the opposite; these proposals can be seen as a generous offer of compromise from Aboriginal Australia to try to advance reconciliation in a practical but meaningful way.

Instead of demanding a racial non-discrimination clause and direct recognition of their rights in the Constitution, indigenous Australia is merely looking to have a guaranteed, advisory and non-binding input into legislation that affects them. And instead of demanding a treaty, they have come up with a regionally based process of agreements and truth-telling under the Yolngu (Arnhem Land) word of Makarrata, which encompasses conflict resolution but helps to avoid divisive arguments over treaties.

Conservative politicians as different as Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have dismissed the entire voice proposal as a “third chamber” that is too radical to contemplate. This has made the voice a third rail in the debate.

This is disappointing and ultimately dishonest because there are so many options available to arrange the representation and functions of a voice that if anyone has concerns it might be directly elected and wield some kind of informal veto power over parliament then a way to deal with the issue is to propose an acceptable format rather than just create fears over a third chamber. Otherwise, are they really suggesting the Aboriginal advisory councils reporting to Labor and Liberal governments over past decades have operated as third chambers of parliament?

Not all the blame for the emptiness of this debate rests with the conservatives — let me remind you, conservative thinkers were at the genesis of this proposal. The sloganeering on the progressive side has probably created more concern in the community than the scare campaigns from the Right.

People like Marcia Langton have been so aggressive towards their perceived ideological enemies that they burn goodwill faster than others can create it. And when big business and big sport start pushing loosely formed ideas about Recognition or a Voice onto customers and supporters — out of context and without formal proposals even being in existence — they raise the suspicions of voters, if not their hackles.

The most likely avenue for compromise now is for Morrison to prevail, as hinted at in Wyatt’s speech, and have a voice formalised through legislation but not mandated in the Constitution. This will disappoint many indigenous people but might fly.

Another idea worth consideration to assuage the doubters might be some sort of sunset provision. There is a legitimate argument to be made that one race-based grouping should not have separate consideration in our political processes. For reasons I have outlined previously (mainly recognizing historical disadvantage and accepting special status under native title rights), I think an exception should be made for indigenous Australians. But perhaps in the spirit of the Closing the Gap initiative, any changes could recognize that once those crucial gaps in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous are closed, then special representation might no longer be required.

That will be a long way off. But it might provide extra emphasis on the need to focus on practical outcomes rather than mere symbolism. Let us see where the debate takes us in coming months. Success for Wyatt would be success for the nation. But he and Morrison need to be wise enough to walk away from their self-imposed time frame if necessary.

This will be worthwhile only if it delivers something practical that can help indigenous advancement and provide closure to decades of debate. A trite phrase dropped into a preamble to make the majority feel good about themselves won’t be worth the effort and could create more trouble than it is worth.

Read also: Walk with me, Australia: Ken Wyatt’s historic pledge for Indigenous recognition

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015