The Bonfire of the Insanities 2- the EU’s Biomass Dilemma

The Biomass Greenwash revisited

I believe in Santa, fairies, leprechauns and unicorns; I believe that politicians don’t lie, that the Pope is infallible, and that capitalism provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number

But I don’t buy the biofuel greenwash!

As Abe Lincoln, said, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and most of the people most of the time. And yet, never underestimate the capacity and willingness of some people to swallow bullshit for decades. Probably became they NEED to believe that something is being done about climate change and carbon emissions, and the boosters of biomass promise clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power. As some wits might ask, what’s the point of having a big brain if we insist on not using it?

In an earlier article, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the Biomass Greenwash, we described how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself.

We revealed how a deliberate accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

Since the widespread distribution of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance’s hard hitting film  BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again power plants like Drax near Selby, Yorkshire, the world’s biggest and hungriest, and our own Redbank in the Hunter Valley (more on that later), are now there for all the world to see. And they are not green.

A backlash against this greenwash is growing apace in Europe and the USA. But not in Australia, it would appear. Government and industry are enchanted by the lure of biomass with its carbon credit rewards and the prospect of creating a dependent, profitable domestic supply chain.

“We, the people” have yet to cotton on to the biofuel industry’s corporate jiggerypokery and semantic sleight of hand. In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

While we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, something wicked this way comes. There is little community awareness of what is looming, and state and federal politicians chose to keep quiet about it.

Our State government has started implementing its plan for 70-80% of renewable electricity in our region to be generated by burning trees. As we’ve seen in our own Tarkeeth State Forest, biomass extraction is a shockingly destructive practice, and it is one which is destroying environments and communities all over the world.

Biomass extraction in Tarkeeth Forest, Bellingen Shire

In this grave new world, whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped in the power station, as at Vales Point on NSW’s Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” hypnotism. Or else, the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, woodchip or whole trees.

It is a new industry for our own Bellingen Shire which is now supplying biomass to Cape Byron Power’s co-generation plant at Broadwater south of Byron Bay, the north coast tourist mecca and real estate hot zone.

The plan for our region is for 70-80% of renewable energy to be generated from forest biomass. By the middle of the year the former coal-fired Redbank Power Station at Singleton in the Hunter Valley, will be rebooted and burning 100% biomass, most of it to be sourced from forests up the 400km away. Redbank will be one of the largest wood burning electricity generators in the world. At 151 megawats, it five times bigger than either Broadwater or Condong,

Paul Hemphill © 2021

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash; The Return of the Forest Wars and If You Go Down to the Woods Today 

In a brief statement and a powerful interview on Bellingen Community Radio 2BBB, Bellingen academic Dr Tim Cadman makes the global  and local case against  burning trees for electricity. and here, you can watch his short FaceBook video about the Tarkeeth biomass and Broadwater power station here: ttps://fb.watch/v/3Is1JLwio/.  Follow the truck from forest to furnace

Tim Cadman: the truth about Biomass ‘Green Power’

My name is Tim Cadman, I am a Research Fellow in the Law Futures Centre at Griffith University,  specializing in environmental policy, governance, sustainability, natural resource management including  forestry, and climate change. I am a ‘pracademic’ and spend a lot of my time working in developing countries in practical on-the-ground action-based research, including Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian Amazon.

I have been following, and attending the international climate change negotiations since 2001, when I exposed how forestry companies were clearing ancient rainforest on behalf of energy companies to create plantations for ‘carbon credits.’ Sadly, over twenty years later, this same problem is still besetting meaningful action on climate change.

I want to address so-called bio-energy, or biomass energy, and how it has become central to the destruction of forests in developed countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Europe, all in the name of ‘green’ power.

In the early days of the international climate negotiations an unintentional ‘loophole’ was created in discussions around what was termed ‘land use, land-use change and forestry’ (LULUCF). In the debate around how to count emissions from land use for agriculture, policymakers made a decision that all crops were the same, and as they were planted, harvested, and grew back, these emissions did not need to be counted. This included forestry, and this decision made its way into the Kyoto Protocol, and carbon ‘offsets’.

It doesn’t make sense for forests, which are not crops, are full of biodiversity, regulate climate, filter water, and provide a range of what are called ecosystem services that a field of carrots do not. This same problem, now admitted as such by many policy makers, has been repeated in the new Paris Agreement.

The consequence is that forests have now become a major source of electricity in Europe, the UK, and elsewhere.

As much forest as is grown across the UK every year is now burnt in just one power station, Drax, and is imported from the forests of the South east of the US, and the inland ancient temperate rainforests of Canada.

This same problem is being repeated here. In the mid north coast of NSW, under the guise of making use of what are called forest ‘residues’, large areas of forests are being cleared and converted to hardwood plantations. As with wood-chipping for pulp and paper, which originally was designed to make use of branches, such activities become a driver of deforestation, and the processing of ‘waste’ becomes the tail that wags the dog.

To make matters worse, there are now two converted sugar mills in the region that are  burning this wood for so-called ‘green’ energy and feeding it into the national grid. In short, our renewable energy is  contaminated.

And finally, to things even more dire, burning forests for power is worse than coal. The wood is wet, it is transported often up to two hundred kilometres in huge trucks, the source forest is burnt as part of forestry management. Capturing these emissions is just not possible.

This is the danger facing the forests of NSW. Forests are worth so much more, and in this period of unprecedented climate change, we need forests standing tall, not sent up the chimney.

Dr Tim Cadman © 2021

Tim Cadman BA (Hons) MA (Cantab), PhD (Tasmania), Grad. Cert. Theol. (Charles Sturt) Senior Research Fellow, Earth Systems Governance Project. Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. Griffith University

The road to hell is paved with flawed intentions

We republish below the full text of an article that appeared in The Financial Times on 1st July. As the debate ramps up here in New South Wales, it is a timely and informative wake-up call for environmentalists and governments alike.

Like BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, it reveals how dirty fuel and dodgy mathematics, a generous subsidies system and stringent climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without adequate safeguards. It will require “large-scale logging  of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch. And yet, current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production.

Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year. And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments. It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030. The politics of all this is perverse, says a former White House climate adviser.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says. However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners.

A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit environmental organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Oh yeah!

The EU’s Biomass Dilemma – can burning trees ever be green?

Camilla Hodgson, Financial Times ,1 July 2021

In May, a billboard appeared outside the EU parliament in Brussels playing a video that showed sparse, deforested woodland, spliced together with footage of the bloc’s top climate official, and the words “the EU burns forests as fuel”.

The protest formed part of a campaign by green groups to force Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the EU’s green deal, to strip forest biomass — combustible pellets burnt for energy — from the list of energy sources classified in Europe as renewable. The argument goes beyond definitions. Weeks earlier, nervous about the growing pressure on policymakers to change the rules, ministers from 10 European countries wrote to Timmermans to stress the “crucial role” played by bioenergy fuels, such as pellets, in helping member states meet the EU’s climate goals.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments.

It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030.

The fact that biomass pellets are produced from carbon-absorbing trees makes them controversial Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year.

But what producers use to make pellets — carbon-absorbing trees, which governments and companies are turning to as part of the solution to runaway climate change — makes them highly controversial.

EU policymakers are now debating changes to the treatment of wood-burning energy as part of a wide-ranging package of measures to cut emissions, due to be published on July 14 — revisions that could wreak havoc with the bloc’s renewable energy target and commitment to more than halve emissions by 2030.

“Without relying heavily on wood biomass,” many member states “will find it very difficult to meet their future commitments, be it emissions reductions or renewable energy commitments,” says Jorgen Henningsen, former EU commission director responsible for climate change.

Climate Capital

Any changes could also call into question the legitimacy of EU countries having used the fuel to cut emissions up to now, and narrow the options for further decarbonising the power industry and other sectors.

“The politics of it is so perverse,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser. The idea that national targets might determine the future for biomass, rather than its true environmental impact, is “absurd”.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

A heavily subsidised sector

The multibillion-dollar market for pellets — the modern iteration of a centuries-old fuel — took off in 2009, after the EU classified biomass, at the time little used, as a renewable energy source alongside solar and wind. That incentivised countries with clean energy targets to adopt the fuel, and made the industry eligible for subsidies. In 2018 — the most recent year for which figures are available — EU countries handed out €10.3bn in support for the biomass sector.

Growth over the past decade “has been tremendous”, says Thomas Meth, executive vice-president of sales and marketing at Enviva, a major US-based pellet producer. The EU’s 2009 move was “certainly one of the catalysts”.

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Much of the millions of tonnes of pellets used globally is made and exported from expansive forests across the US south-east. The US, Vietnam and Canada were the largest exporters of wood pellets by volume in 2019, according to UN data.

And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

UK power company Drax,a major user and supplier of pellets, says the market will be driven by “increasingly ambitious global decarbonisation targets”.

The industry insists swelling demand for these small, cylindrical chips can be met sustainably, and that responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral since the emissions generated by burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees.

Green groups challenge the neutrality argument, and warn that increasing production puts natural forests in jeopardy. Using more biomass will require “large-scale logging . . . of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch.

Drax power station in Yorkshire. The industry insists responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral, as emissions from burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees © Alamy ‘We need the right biomass’

The debate in the EU is coming to a head over possible changes to the bloc’s renewable energy framework — one of many pieces of legislation being updated to align with the region’s ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

“We are expecting an almighty fight,” says BirdLife’s Brunner. “There’s a very powerful bloc of European governments completely enslaved to the agricultural and forest lobby.”

A person familiar with the discussions in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the biomass question is “one of the most politically sensitive files” in the climate package. It has divided agencies, with the commission’s environment department wanting tougher biomass rules and the energy department pushing back.

But if European lawmakers strip “bio-based energy” from the renewables framework, “Europe will not meet any of its goals”, says Enviva’s Meth. Drastic changes are not “realistic”, he adds.

Timmermans himself has said that without biomass the EU will be unable to achieve its clean energy goals. “We need biomass in the mix, but we need the right biomass . . . I hate the images ofwhole forests being cut down to be put in an incinerator,” he told the Euractiv website in May.

Current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production, though say this should be “minimised”. Critics say the rules are too lax, and that the combination of subsidies and climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without sufficient safeguards.

Under UN guidance, emissions from biomass are reported by countries in the land, rather than the energy, sector. As a result, importing nations can enjoy lower domestic emissions and rely on pellet-producing countries to count the carbon.

Although the rules should deter producing countries from over harvesting, counting land sector emissions accurately is notoriously difficult — a view disputed by some in the industry. “The level of accuracy and transparency with which different countries measure and report land use emissions varies,” says Claire Fyson, policy analyst at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organisation. The risk is of “importing biomass that hasn’t been sustainably produced, or whose emissions from harvesting haven’t been accurately measured”, she adds.
Incentives for ‘burning wood’

The backdrop to the political jostling is a longstanding argument between scientists, campaigners and the industry about whether biomass is carbon neutral.

In February, more than 500 scientists wrote to the European Commission and European Council presidents, urging them “not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees”. They added: “Governments must end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says.

The complex calculation of whether carbon measures are “stable or increasing” is done at a “landscape” level — vast areas surrounding pellet mills that can span millions of hectares. Enviva and Drax say assessments of the US forests they source from are done roughly every five years using the country’s Forest Service data, in addition to other monitoring.

However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners. A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

Broad landscape assessments can also obscure the effects on forests of pellet production as opposed to other uses of the wood such as making furniture or paper, says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. If forests are managed so that “they have no net growth, that’s negative for climate change”, he adds. Preventing additional growth is “so obviously wrong. Why does [the industry’s argument] take people in?”

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.

“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture  or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Net zero emission plans around the world map out an increasing use of biomass as countries race to dump fossil fuel energy. The IEA’s latest decarbonisation report estimates that the amount of land dedicated to bioenergy production could rise from 330m hectares in 2020 to 410m in 2050 — an increase roughly equivalent to the size of Turkey — if bioenergy use jumps as expected Stressing the need to proceed carefully, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this year that most EU countries’ energy and climate plans did not “include an adequate assessment of the potential impacts of expanding forest bioenergy”. Only one out of the 24 woody biomass scenarios it modelled was likely to pose no risk to biodiversity and deliver short-term climate benefits, it concluded.

How the fuel is used may also change. Some strategies for reaching net zero talk about coupling biomass with nascent carbon capture and storage technology, which advocates say will generate “negative emissions”, in effect removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Critics say the technology is unproven at scale, and that negative emissions are only achievable if the biomass fuel is definitely carbon neutral. Without guarantees that it is, “we should certainly not be going full steam ahead” with the technology, says Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer at think-tank Ember Climate. “In theory, it can work,” he adds. But “you have to get things precisely correct along a complex supply chain.”

In its 2020 emissions inventory, the EU said the “very strong increase in the use of biomass for energy” had reduced carbon pollution across the region, though did not say by how much. will pay? Europe’s bold plan on emissions risks political blowback A lobbyist familiar with the discussions in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, says changes beyond those outlined in the leaked document are likely, and that efforts are under way to limit which types of forest biomass are eligible for subsidies. “The challenge” for lawmakers is partly how drastic changes will be seen, he adds: the EU may have to “stand up in public and [say] what we have been doing . . . hasn’t worked”.

Martin Pigeon, from environmental campaign group Fern, says the  commission is “really split internally”, and there is “a serious fight going on” between the energy and environment departments. “Timmermans and [commission president Ursula] von der Leyen seem to be trying to broker a compromise,” he adds. But the risk is that the commission continues to “tinker at the edges of current sustainability criteria . . . without [producing] anything of substance”. In the US, green groups are hoping the Biden administration steers clear of biomass as it works towards its new goal of halving emissions by 2030.

The controversy in the EU over how biomass has been classified and used — including the subsidy system that incentivises its use — should be a “cautionary tale”, says Laura Haight, US policy director at the PFPI. “It’s essential that we define our policies carefully so that we don’t have the outcome that [they have] had.

Broadwater power station NSW

Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime

… 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
Solid Rock, Goanna 1982

The Great Australian Silence

Archaeologist WEH Stanner wrote in 1968 of “the great Australian silence – it was almost as if there was a “cult of forgetfulness”. And indeed, 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: – Martin Sparrow’s Blues:

“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”. 

At Bellingen’s  Readers and Writers Festival in July 2019, we attended a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton. Reynolds reminded us that these wars raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals.

In August 2019, in a piece called The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, I wrote:

“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”.

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.

‘A sorry place’

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest which lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers in Bellingen Shire the mid north coast of New South Wales. Traversing the ridge just north of us is the east-west Fernmount Range Trail. In the days gone by, it was an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track and Trade Route  which linked 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 for fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

We have been told that the Gumbaynggirr regarded Bellingen and its environs as a “sorry place”, one of discrimination, expulsion and worse. But Bellingen Shire is just one of many places that have a dark history of which most  residents are unaware.

Three historic massacre sites committed against Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people of the Coffs Clarence region have been recorded on the Aboriginal massacres map, created by University of Newcastle researchers. have been listed near Bellingen, modern day Coutts Crossing and near Seelands and Ramornie. [See below]

The scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the coast is a drive we never get tired of as it winds along riverside meadowlands and climbs through world heritage rainforests to the Dorrigo Plateau with its windswept escarpments, clear creeks, and just off the beaten track, magnificent waterfalls, landmarks like Cathedral Rock, and stunning views. But, in the words of activist and academic and Ambēyang man Callum Clayton-Dixon, this highway conceals signposts to a bloody past. [We republish his article below]

One of these signposts points the way to north of Point Lookout on the New England Tableland, where, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point.

Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people. Through her poetry, and especially in her later histories, Wright sought to confront the violence in Australian settler history and to re-imagine it through the eyes of the first Australians. Her words breathed sorrow and compassion into the early encounters between settlers and Indigenous people, evoking the tragedy of the Australian frontier. Her love of the New England highlands was bound to a creeping uneasiness about its past. As Billy Griffiths wrote in in his story of archaeologist Isabel McBryde, she lived in “haunted country.” In an early poem, Bora Ring(1946), she mourned the passing of a dynamic world:

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

She lived on New England  tablelands and camped at Point Lookout with her father, as he had with his mother. “She remembered being mesmerized by the splendour of the cliffs, the mystery of the thickly forested valley and the “the great blue sweep of the view from the Point to the sea.” But she saw a darkness here, too. To the north of Point Lookout, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point. It is just north of Ebor and the scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the Coast via Dorrigo and Bellingen.

Wright’s father told her the story of how it got its name: how, “long ago,” a group of Aboriginal people were driven over those cliffs by white settlers as reprisal for spearing cattle. Their sickening plunge was re-imagined in one of Wright’s early poems, “Nigger’s Leap, New England”, published in her first collection The Moving Image (1946). The story was later revealed to be an “abstracted and ahistoricised” account of a documented event. It was, in fact, August 1852, that scores of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge of a cliff, shot and pushed over. Some in this day and age may be offended by the use of what is now a forbidden word – but Wright chose it specifically for its shock effect, commemorating as it does what was then a forgotten crime. “Did we not know”, she asks, “their blood channelled our rivers, and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?”

In her short story, On Reading Nigger’s Leap, Teacher and writer Anne Vince asks her class – and  us, her readers – to imagine what Wright did describe in words words:

‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember … How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’  [We republish Vince’s story below]

© Paul Hemphill 2021 All rights reserved

Nigger’s Leap, New England

The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
Nights runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
and beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
against this sheer and limelit granite head.
Swallow the spine of range; be dark. O lonely air.
Make a cold quilt  across the bone and skull
that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
and then were silent, waiting for the flies.

Here is the symbol, and climbing dark
a time for synthesis. Night buoys no warning
over the rocks that wait our keels; no bells
sound for the mariners. Now must we measure
our days by nights, our tropics by their poles,
love by its end and all our speech by silence.
See in the gulfs, how small the light of home.

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tidied up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us.
And there they lie that were ourselves writ strange.

Never from earth again the coolamon
or thin black children dancing like the shadows
of saplings in the wind. Night lips the harsh
scarp of the tableland and cools its granite.
Night floods us suddenly as history
that has sunk many islands in its good time.

‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ by Anne Vince

Judith Wright knifes the scab off an old, unhealed wound.

In the classroom I explain that this poem is set in their own backyard – at the local falls – where three generations ago white men, squatters and landowners alike, regularly went ‘hunting’ and it wasn’t for kangaroos.

A snarl sweeps across the pig-shooter’s son.  ‘Supposedly,’ he interjects.

I’m stunned. Not because it’s the first time I’ve heard four consecutive syllables from this boy – it’s the ferocity of the denial. There’s a history here, a hint of blood knowledge.

Under this remark I can hear the lazy slam of a fly screen door, the indignant scrape of a chair rasped over cracked, worn lino.

‘Yeah…’ drawls another student. Then another. The heat in the room builds. Even the incessant flies hesitate. ‘Well…?’

A sea of sun-scorched faces, eyes ready to pass judgment, stare.

To gather my thoughts, I glance outside. Massive cumulus clouds the colour of dark bruises roil and tumble over each other, mocking the scrubby horizon, piling higher and higher in the expectant sky.

I have to be careful. These are children well versed in suspicion. I know anything I say will make it back to shoddy verandahs and the town’s single, stainy-tiled bar.

I want to tell them their disbelief makes them complicit but that would mean slipping a fingernail under that lino, scraping at the decades of dirty reasoning and the trampled effort of surviving in a place like this.

The class waits – a collective held breath willing the relief of a reply.

I look at their hands. Some of them are men’s hands, thick-knuckled from weekend labour or cutting horses in low rent rodeos. Most of these students are already helping shoulder the burden of overgrazed, drought-stricken farms, riddled with dieback. They are tough kids from decent families who believe they’ve been given the whole country for their own.

‘No,’ I finally say. ‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…’

There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember.

‘How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’ This is what I tell them.

I don’t tell them that swimming one afternoon in the dark pools of the falls, just as the sun slanted shadows through saplings at the water’s edge, I met those shrill, anguished spirits. I don’t tell them of the high-pitched keening and tortured wailing that filled my ears each time I dived, or of the roaring bush silence that greeted me when I emerged, clean-skinned and gutted. I don’t tell them how I choked, sick with sudden comprehension as I lay on the hard granite, resisting the pull of those blood channelled ghosts to join their sway and wander in the waters far under.

Now, Slessor they will understand. White man’s words. White man’s war.

They are excused by the bell.

To me it is the sound of alarm

Myall Creek, New England

At Myall Creek Station near Inverell, in 1838, twelve armed and mounted stockmen rounded up 28 unarmed Wirrayaraay people – largely women and children – and, without provocation, hacked them to death. This story, the Myall Creek massacre, is relatively well known because of John Plunkett’s heroic prosecution of the stockmen – several were hanged for murder – but numerous other, similar incidents in the area are less well known. These include the follow-up murder of thirty or so remaining Wirrayaraay men and killings of sometimes hundreds of people at sites such as Slaughterhouse Creek, Waterloo Creek and Terrible Creek.

Few locals know that Dangar Falls in Dorrego,  Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the atrocity, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial.

We recently republished extracts for William Lines’ Taming of the Great South Land regarding the eradication koala and other wildlife in the earthy twentieth century. Here is what he had to say about Myall Creek and other massacres.

The Myall Creek Massacre

Most squatters abhorred the Aborigines. They resented their “wandering propensities”, their independence, their pride and their unwillingness to accept the hierarchical authority Europeans equated with enlightenment. For 50 years Aborigines the civilisation Europeans

had sought to impose on Australia, Their inclination towards independence of action and refusal to accept the values of the invaders invaders greatly exasperated the British. Their disdain for European habits marked them as barbarians and supplied the Europeans with an antithesis – civilisation versus barbarism – highly useful as a rationalisation for aggression. To counter aboriginal resistance, the squatters appealed to the government to clear the land. When the colonial authorities equivocated,  the squatters adopted at their own solutions.

At mile Creek, 650 km north of Sydney, shortly before sundown one day in June 1838, a group of mounted stockmen with muskets, swords and pistols, rounded up 30 or 40 aboriginals encamped at a sheep station. The Horseman roped the men, women and most of the children together and force them to march 4 kilometres into the bush. The untied children, crying, followed their mothers, who carried those too young to walk. One of the stockmen snatched up an untied boy of about seven ( a favourite of his), placed in behind a tree and told him to remain there until later. The child, however, ran back, crying “no, I will go with my mammy”. He was then fastened with rope to the adults.

A few days later the station manager became curious as to the whereabouts of the Aborigines previously camped in the area. The hovering at Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey, directed him to a spot where he discovered the mangled and half burnt remains at least 28 people. For the most part, heads was separated from bodies, and fire marks appeared on the disjointed limbs. Charcoal and burnt logs indicated an attempt to efface all evidence. The manager, however, recognise 10 to 12 small heads he took to those of children, and a large body which he believed belonged to “Daddy”, an Aborigine know for his remarkably large frame.

When the government laid murder charges against the men responsible, squatters and the press screamed in outage at the absurdity of indicting civilised man for the deaths of creatures on the lowest rung of creation. A few of those associated with squatting have not killed aboriginals and they continued to declare their right to clear the land of an inferior race. One squatter boasted that he “would shoot a Blackfellow whenever he met him as he would a mad dog. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Once juror explained:

“I look to the blacks as a set of monkeys and I think the earlier they are exterminated, the better. I know well [the accused] are guilty of murder, but I, for one, would never consent to see a white man suffer for shooting black one”.

The government eventually obtained a conviction at a second trial. Before their execution , the seven condemned men acknowledged their guilt but stated in their defence “that in destroying the Aborigines, they were not aware that they had violated the law, or that it would take cognizance of their having done so, as it had been so frequently done in the colonies before”.

The Myall Creek massacre became notorious, , Not because of the murder of the aboriginals but because of the conviction and punishment to the murderous. It was only the second and the last time in Australian history that Europeans were executed for the murder of aborigines. Henceforward squatters acted with impunity; the Myall C Creek trial only encouraged them to be more secretive and thorough. One recommended that, where the firearms failed or became too obvious, poison in the form of strychnine or arsenic mixed with flour be given to the aborigines.

Squatters believed that the £10 license fee and entitled them to the exclusive one of their use of the runs – a right which justified the violent expulsion of the original residents. In February 1840 the Whyte  brothers took up their Kooning-wootong run in the Western District. A month later they hunted down an aboriginal group suspected of stealing 127 sheep and killed between 20 and 30 of them. Although the Whytes admitted to the killings, the government failed to prosecute, and a month later the brothers pursued and killed members of another group of aborigines. In 1841 a party of seven settlers shot dead 51 aborigines on the banks of the Glenelg River near the South Australia-Victoria border, for abducting 50 sheep. Long after, according to a local squatter, the bones of the men and sheep lay mingled together bleaching in the sun at the Fighting Hills.

Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, William J Lines (Allen and Unwin 1991) p78-79

What to do with  signposts to New England’s bloody past?

View at Medium.com

By Callum Clayton-Dixon: The names of various creeks, streets, parks, and pastoral properties across the Tableland hark back to New England’s violent colonial origins. In this unprecedented time of truth-telling, is taking down these symbols of past injustices enough?

Majors Creek, near the village of Ebor, named for squatter Major Edward Parke.

Travelling along Waterfall Way, not far from the village of Ebor, you’ll drive across Major’s Creek, and nearby there’s a signpost for Major’s Point Road which takes you towards Major’s Point bluff. These places were named after Major Edward Parke, who took up Guy Fawkes Station in the mid-1840s. Ebor itself has a Major Street, and a Parke Street. Parke, an ex-military man, acquired a reputation for his brutal treatment of local Aboriginal people. A profile of the New England district published by the Singleton Argus in 1883 referred to how Parke “established such a reign of terror…that for twenty-five years no Aboriginal would approach his run, although through it ran their favourite and most prolific fishing streams”.

“The name of the gentleman in question is held in awe by the darkeys till the present day, and to mention it is sufficient to induce any stray Aboriginal to make back tracks to the nearest shelter.” — Singleton Argus, 12/12/1883, p2

The Darkie Point Massacre illustrated by Narmi Collins-Widders

Just east of Major’s Point is Darkie Point. According to the well-known pastoralist P.A. Wright of Wallamumbi Station, this particular bluff was the site of a massacre —in August 1852, a large group of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge, shot and pushed over. An article about the history of the Dorrigo Plateau printed in the Dungog Chronicle in 1932 talked of Edward Parke’s involvement in this atrocity: “A great number of them were shot by Major Parke and other residents of the district who had joined the chase”. It’s likely that Michael Clogher of Bostobrick Station, a former convict and constable with the New England Border Police, was involved in the Darkie Point massacre as well. That same month, Clogher led a posse of settlers “in pursuit of the natives” on the Aberfoyle run, and “followed them to Paddy’s Land, where they shot down as many as they could”. Joshua Scholes’ account of this incident appeared in a 1923 issue of the Uralla Times; Scholes was a long-time resident of the Tableland “with a wealth of knowledge of the early days”. I suspect Clogher’s Creek at Nymboida is named after Michael Clogher, who was also notorious for terrorizing Aboriginal people; he would ride into camps brandishing his cavalry sword, and apparently didn’t hesitate to use his pistol or carbine.

“The name [Terrible Vale] was derived from one of the men working on the place in the early days and known as ‘Terrible Billy’, being a terror to the blacks.” —Uralla Times, 03/05/1923, p2

Terrible Vale, south of Uralla, took its name from William ‘Terrible Billy’ Stephenson, the head stockman during the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Gardner’s history of the Station documents a story “passed down through some people who worked on the station…that a large number of Aborigines were killed near the creek on Terrible Vale”, and it was Terrible Billy who shot a great many Aboriginal people there. Then there’s Macdonald Park in Armidale, which is named after the district’s first Crown Lands Commissioner George James Macdonald. Commissioner Macdonald commanded the New England Border Police, and over the course of two days of skirmishing on the Beardie Plains in March 1840, his troopers shot dead nine Aboriginal warriors and wounded a tenth. In reporting this to his superiors, Macdonald justified the slaughter, claiming that it had been “absolutely necessary…to check the boldness and daring of their attacks”.

Dangar Falls, Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the infamous 1838 Myall Creek Massacre, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial. On the Macdonald River run — named after Henry Macdonald, Station manager there in the mid-1830s — colonists poisoned local Aboriginal people by giving them milk containing arsenic. This is, in all likelihood, why a waterway on the outskirts of Bendemeer is called Poison Swamp Creek.

Most New Englanders would be completely oblivious of the horrific history to which these signpost names point. Why? Wilful ignorance in some cases. Complete denial in others. Most have no idea because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn about it. But the thick fog of the great conspiracy of silence is lifting as the push for truth-telling advances. Bolstered by the global Black Lives Matter movement, calls for the removal of statues and place names honouring those who contributed to the violent colonization of Aboriginal lands and lives are gaining momentum. However, there are a whole raft of questions and issues that arise from this crucial conversation.

What, if anything, should replace these symbols of past injustices? Plaques acknowledging the atrocities committed by the likes of Major Parke? Memorials recognizing the pain and suffering endured by Aboriginal people at the hands of the New England colonial project? Or monuments to the warriors who laid down their lives to protect kin and country? After all, the massacres, the poisonings, and the campaigns of terror were often carried out in response to our ancestors’ fierce resistance to the invasion. Their courage and sacrifice must also be remembered.

And what shall replace names like ‘Macdonald Park’ and ‘Dangar Falls’? One of the most common suggestions has been to use words from the local Aboriginal language (Anēwan) for this purpose, thus paying respect to the traditional owners, and contributing to the revival of our ancestral tongue. But symbolic acts alone aren’t enough, nowhere near in fact. Symbolism has to be, in my view, accompanied by commitments to real change, tangible change.

The savagery of Parke, Clogher, Terrible Billy, and their ilk was foundational to the development of New England as a thriving pastoral district. So were government agents like Commissioner Macdonald, overseeing ruthless police repression, and administering the carving up of the Tableland into hundreds of stations. We have to go beyond statues and signposts to conversations about redress for the protracted dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal communities. Substantial reforms to the education system are, of course, a given. Let’s talk about the return of stolen lands. Let’s talk about reparations. And it’s vital that these conversations (and the actions they give rise to) take place locally, as well as at the state and national level. Truth and justice, from the ground up — a shattering of the colonial status quo, not a tinkering.

Callum Clayton-Dixon is an Ambēyang Aboriginal man whose people come from the southern end of the New England Tableland in New South Wales. He is the author of Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse (2019), and a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, working to develop a dictionary and grammar of his ancestral language.

The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map

The Coffs Coast Advocate reported  in November 2019, how stage one of the project has recorded 172 incidents across Eastern Australia between 1788 and 1872.  About 97% of people killed in these massacres were Aboriginal men, women and children Massacres became more violent, systematic and calculated over time. The average number of Indigenous deaths increased over time, before declining in the 1900s, but massacres continued up to 1928.  At least 65 massacres of Indigenous people were in retaliation for the killing or theft of livestock, or theft of property

Darkie Point, Bellinger River, near Ebor  

Ten people were killed at Darkie Point on the Bellingen River in May, 1841 with settlers and stockmen using firearms and muskets to attack a local Baanbay Aboriginal tribe in an act of reprisal. The narrative by the Colonial Frontier Massacres research team reads.  “Following the brutal murder of three shepherds on Eldershaw’s outstation in the north eastern part of New England and the taking of 2000 sheep by Bundjalung, Eldershaw organised a ‘pursuing party’ of ten men (including Eldershaw, three neighbours and six stockmen) … ‘Well mounted and accoutred’ and set off with ten days provisions for the south branch of the Clarence. According to Eldershaw they shot the entire group – ‘a great number’ in daylight.’

Orara River, near Seelands and Ramornie

More than 20 people were killed on the Orara River, near Sealands between April 1, 1841 and April 30, 1841. The attackers included colonisers, a government official and settlers and stockmen. “In response to stock theft, from Ramornie station, CLC Oakes of Clarence PD swore in stockmen as special constables to surround a Bundjalung (Ngarabal? speakers) camp at night and at daybreak charged and killed indiscriminately Aboriginal men, women and children.” A man named Lynch was later charged with the stock theft.

Kangaroo Creek, near today’s Coutts Crossing

An estimated 23 Gumabynggnir people were killed on November 29, 1847. “In February 1848, Crown Lands Commissioner, Oliver Fry, was told by a stockman and an Aboriginal man at Grafton that squatter Thomas Coutts had poisoned 23 Aboriginal people by offering them flour laced with arsenic at his station at Kangaroo Creek.” Fry set off for Kangaroo Creek Station to investigate. He found human remains, but they were too decomposed for analysis. Coutts was arrested and taken to Sydney where he was bailed for 1,000 pounds, but was discharged in May for lack of evidence.

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.

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).

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

 

 

 

 

Clear and present danger – Australia’s unfolding bushfire drama

As wild fires rage across the world, from California to Australia, the Amazon to Africa, igniting intense political infighting here and in the USA, and in Lebanon, contributing to actual unrest on the streets, think of those affected by them, the wildlife destroyed, and the fire-fighters who battle them.

Here on the east coast of Australia, there are bush fires to the north, south and west of us. Ten kilometres to our east is the Pacific Ocean, but there have been spot-fires between us and the coast too which could potentially  cut our escape route.  We in the bush are implementing our bush fire survival plans, and many people have lost homes and loved ones in what has been described as one of the greatest wildfire emergencies in New South Wales’ history. Things are also pretty dire in Queensland, and to a lesser extent, Western Australia. The loss of flora and fauna, including rare and endangered species, and thousands of our iconic koalas, is incalculable.

The largest, to the west and northwest, formed by the merging of several big fires which have been burning for over two months, is less than fifty km away at the nearest point with an uncontrolled fire front of over a thousand kilometres. The whole area is full of smoke – and has been so for well several weeks now. The sky is brown and a red sun casts an orange light that renders the forest surrounding us a spooky, almost iridescent green and gold. The wind has been very strong and so the greatest danger for us is from spot fires from burning embers. Indeed, there have been spot-fires between us and the sea (our only exit route if it all goes to custard).

It could always be worse; some friends have lost their homes already and others have been in midst of the fires and on evacuation alert for weeks. But if the fires on the plateau get into the valley, which is heavily forested with flammable eucalyptus, dry, and carpeted with inches of leaf litter, and into the plantations that surround the town, we will be well and true rooted.

Last Tuesday was expected to be a nightmare with high temperatures and strong winds threatening to expand fires that we already out of control. But through a fortuitous combination of less extreme weather and the courage and resilience of the fire-fighters, we missed the proverbial bullet. But the danger has not passed – we remain on high alert. It is only November and our customary “fire season” has not begun. We are in for a long, hot, dry, and potentially dangerous summer. But it has been a serious and sobering dress-rehearsal. Roll on December, January, February and March: the fun has only just begun!

Hillville, NSW

Whilst the community spirit is as always in times of crisis strong, positive and compassionate, hyper-partisan political games play on around us, amplified by blovating and opportunistic politicians and divisive and ill-informed social media. Some blame the state and federal governments for a refusal to take action with respect to climate change and years of under-funding and under-resourcing our rural fire services and emergency services generally – there are tales of exhausted and overextended “firies” (nearly all of them volunteers) fueling their utes and tenders out of their own pockets. Others blame “greenies” for opposing back-burning hazard reduction – which is bull-dust because the actual Greens party has little political influence. as a country and community have seen this coming for a long time and unfortunately, have elected governments that have failed, through lack of will, wit and wisdom to do anything about it. The National Party leader declared “we don’t don’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies” (those whom News Corp opinionistas universally call “the Green Left”), whilst his perennially embarrassing predecessor observed: “There’s the oscillation of the seasons. There’s a change in the magnetic field of the sun.” He said it. Yes he did! And he even referred to two of the people killed in the bush-fires as “Greens voters”, though Gods only knows why,  followed by an assurance that he was not going to attack them.

On 16th November, veteran journalist Laura Tingle summed up a widespread 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”.

Such is the quality of much public debate that 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.

The reality is that we are in a drought that has lasted for ever, and drier conditions with higher fire danger are preventing agencies from conducting the back-burning we need – it is often either too wet (when we get infrequent rain), too dry and windy, or the terrain too difficult and the fuel load too heavy to burn safely. Retired fire and emergency service chiefs have spoken out on how a climate change is super-charging our preexisting and indeed, perennial natural disaster risks.

In truth, we are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and whilst “thoughts and prayers” might save our souls for the hereafter, they don’t suffice in the here and now to save lives and livelihoods.

 © Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

See also, in In That Howling Infinite: Loosing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Thoughts and Prayers. David Rowe

Old Bar, NSW

An apt if geographically and chronologically inapplicable image of the eviction of British “travellers” from their camp at Dale Farm in 2011

 

Paradise Regained – back to nature in Queensland

Good news come in twos.

Last November, The Brisbane Times reported a landmark $3.5 million  agreement by a conservation group, Noosa Shire Council and the Queensland government to buy out almost 2400 hectares of koala habitat has been saved from a pine plantation near Tewantin (read the full story below),

The Queensland government is now considering a radical proposal to cease logging pine plantations across 21,000ha of Imbil State Forest on the Sunshine Coast so they can regenerate as rainforest.  The plan would restore the first extensive reserves of subtropical lowland rainforest, giving plants and animals that struggle to survive in its dwindling remnants a second chance. It would be the first time in Australia that commercial timber plantations were converted on a large scale to native forest.

From time to time, I republish articles by News Ltd commentators that I believe worth sharing with those who cannot scale the News paywall. This is one such. it reports on a project that state and local government and environment groups ought to take good note of.

Botanists, ecologists and zoologists are backing the proposal. The timber industry is predictably lukewarm, but open to discussion, yet environmentalists are divided.

Some argue that native forest once cleared and reforested as plantation cannot cannot develop a forest ecology and life-cycle that can attract and sustain the flora and flora that once inhabited them. According to conventional wisdom, native wildlife is not supposed to inhabit monoculture plantations, comprising a single tree species. Such places are considered environmental wastelands, not far removed from cotton farms or inner-city suburbia, and that once an area is modified by either farmland or plantation, it has no potential for providing environmental solutions, and therefore, is not worth defending or protecting.

The concept behind the Inbal initiative is not new.  In New South Wales, scores of landholders are replanting rainforest in parts of what was known as the Big Scrub; 99 per cent of the 75,000ha rainforest was cleared for dairying at the end of the 19th century. These measures will retain or restore, at best, small patches, mostly less than 100ha.

Converting large areas of the Imbil hoop pine plantation to rainforest, however is a much more ambitious project. and it could set an important precedent . If the rainforest is restored, it could be added to the adjoining 35,658ha Conondale National Park, increasing its size by more than 50 per cent. Furthermore, it could be a model for other areas in other states.

It demonstrates that protecting endangered plants and animals and restoring habitat does not necessarily require locking up vast areas as national park or wilderness.

Hoop pine is particularly suited to such rainforest regeneration. It is a native and one of the dominant trees in natural lowland rainforest. If hoop pine plantations are left unlogged, they are quickly invaded by native vines, palms and other plants from adjoining remnant forest patches. The plantations soon resemble rainforest. Wildlife, such as the masked owl and many mammals and reptiles will inhabit them. In time the plantations would revert to what they once were: subtropical lowland rainforest.

Leading Queensland zoologist Glen Ingram describes the destruction of subtropical lowland rainforest as a being an environmental disaster. “It was a mindless series of mistakes and the impact on our flora and fauna was devastating,. The return of the Imbil forests would be an important step towards rectifying those mistakes.”

Author’s Note

The featured picture shows the famous hoop pines at Twin Pines in the Tarkeeth Forest. There are many small hoop pines close to their parents, and larger ones eastwards along the road towards the new bridge over the Kalang, and on private property on the south side of the Fernmount Range. Nature never sleeps. see A Tale of Twin Pines. Hoop Pines grow well in Bellingen Shire. There is a stand of very large trees at the riverside end of Church Street, the town’s cafe strip, casting their seeds far and wide

See other matters environmental  in In That Howling Infinite:

Getting back to nature

Greg Roberts, The Weekend Australian 17th August 2019

BirdLife Australia Sunshine Coast convener Ken Cross, centre, with James Lee and Alicia France in Imbil State Forest. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen

BirdLife Australia Sunshine Coast’s Ken Cross, w James Lee & Alicia France in Imbil State Forest

A still winter night in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland is shattered by an unearthly, raspy scream. It’s the call of a masked owl as it feasts on a small possum it has caught. A rare and secretive bird, the owl is not in a forest or woodland, as might be expected, but deep inside a plantation of pine trees in Imbil State Forest.

According to conventional wisdom, native wildlife is not supposed to inhabit monocultural plantations, comprising a single tree species. Such places are considered environmental wastelands, not far removed from cotton farms or inner-city suburbia.

Try telling that to the masked owls and a host of native plants and animals that are thriving in the hoop pine plantations of Imbil.

The plantations grow on what was once subtropical lowland rainforest, which in its natural state is unparalleled in Australia as a habitat for its rich biodiversity. The rainforest once occurred across a large area extending from Maryborough in Queensland south to Grafton in NSW.

Most of the forest was bulldozed in the 19th century for agriculture. Large areas in Queensland later were cleared for hoop pine plantations.

Today just tiny fragments of the forest remain; subtropical lowland rainforest was listed federally in 2011 as critically endangered. No other native vegetation type in Australia has been depleted so comprehensively.

That could now change. The Queensland government is considering a radical proposal to stop logging pine plantations across 21,000ha of Imbil State Forest so the plantations can regenerate as rainforest. Similar moves could follow in other areas.

The plan would create the first extensive reserves of subtropical lowland rainforest, giving the many plants and animals that struggle to survive in its dwindling remnants a second chance.

It would be the first time in Australia that commercial timber plantations were converted on a large scale to native forest. Botanists, ecologists and zoologists are backing the proposal.

The timber industry is lukewarm, though open to discussion. Environmentalists are divided, with some arguing that plantations are man-made and therefore not worthy of protection.

The proposal submitted to the Palaszczuk Labor government this week argues that human modification of the landscape should not be a barrier to environmental protection.

Protecting endangered plants and animals does not necessarily require locking up vast areas as national park or wilderness.

Logging hoop pine in Imbil State Forest.
Logging hoop pine in Imbil State Forest

The Imbil plan requires a simple change of leasehold tenure in a relatively well-populated part of the country to secure solutions to what ecologists have long described as an environmental catastrophe. A key problem in the country’s environmental decision-making processes is a misplaced view that once natural landscapes have been altered substantially by human intervention, they are beyond redemption.

For some rainforest inhabitants, it is too late. The brightly coloured Coxen’s fig-parrot once nested in the Imbil area; flocks were seen in many parts of southeast Queensland and northeast NSW. The bird has not been recorded reliably since the 1980s and is likely extinct — the second bird species on mainland Australia (the other is the paradise parrot) to meet this fate.

Many endangered plants and animals, such as the giant barred frog and the black-breasted buttonquail, struggle to survive in the small lowland rainforest patches that remain.

In Queensland, land care groups work tirelessly to try to stop the forest remnants being overrun by vines and other weeds introduced from overseas.

In NSW, scores of landholders are replanting rainforest in parts of what was known as the Big Scrub; 99 per cent of the 75,000ha rainforest was cleared for dairying at the end of the 19th century.

These worthy measures will retain or restore, at best, small patches, mostly less than 100ha. Converting large areas of hoop pine plantation to rainforest is a much more ambitious project.

Much of the surviving rainforest in Queensland is on steep slopes or in gullies wedged between hoop pine plantations in places such as Imbil.

Hoop pine is a native plant and one of the dominant trees in natural lowland rainforest. If plantations are left unlogged, they are quickly invaded by native vines, palms and other plants from adjoining remnant forest patches.

The plantations soon resemble rainforest. Wildlife, such as the masked owl and many mammals and reptiles, will inhabit them. In time the plantations would revert to what they once were: subtropical lowland rainforest.

Queensland botanist Michael Olsen has no doubt the plantations would readily regenerate as rainforest if left alone. “The plantations have increasing biodiversity with age after being planted or logged,” says Olsen, an environmental consultant. “This is most apparent where they are located on former rainforest sites embedded in, or contiguous to, remnant rainforest. This is the case with the Imbil plantations … The protection of such a depleted biodiverse community should be a priority.”

Peter Stanton, a highly regarded landscape ecologist, agrees. “This is a great idea and its aims are quite achievable.”

Large areas of rainforest are protected in reserves such as Lamington National Park in Queensland and Border Ranges National Park in NSW. However, this is highland rainforest, quite unlike the threatened lowland forest and with a much less diverse range of plants and animals.

Conservationists have been content to secure these highland rainforest reserves while believing that little can be done to bring back lowland rainforest. Pine plantations, managed intensively as a commercial resource, previously have not been considered as having any potential to provide environmental solutions.

Not far from Imbil, governments did nothing to prevent the Yandina Creek Wetland on the Sunshine Coast being drained in 2015 because it was not considered to be suitably “natural”. The Yandina Creek area was natural wetland before being drained for sugar cane farms in the 1920s. Farming stopped at the start of this century when a sugar mill closed. Cane land was inundated when farm floodgates collapsed and the wetland returned. The restored wetland became a waterbird sanctuary of international significance but was drained again to allow it to be replanted with cane.

The general view was that since the area was modified for farmland, it wasn’t worth protecting. However, following intervention by BirdLife Australia and others, and coverage by The Weekend Australian, the land was acquired by Unitywater, a statutory authority. It is being restored again as a thriving wetland, and surveys this week confirmed that large numbers of waterbirds have returned.

The proposal to stop logging at Imbil involves declaring the state forest a conservation park and scrapping grazing leases, as well as a government buyback or cancellation of logging leases.

Herds of cattle are trampling the remnant rainforest patches as a consequence of a decision by the former Campbell Newman-led Liberal National government to open up state forests to grazing, which Labor has declined to reverse in government.

The Imbil plantations were the first to be established in Queensland, in the early 1900s. They are logged by HQ Plantations, comprising a small proportion of the 330,000ha of pine plantation in Queensland under lease to the company. (Unlike hoop pine, most commercial plantations in Australia consist of introduced pine trees of no environmental value.)

Losing logging access to less than 5 per cent of Queensland’s state forests would have little impact commercially and could be compensated for by enhanced opportunities for eco-tourism.

Imbil State Forest is an important recreational attraction. It includes Charlie Moreland, the most popular bush camping ground in the Sunshine Coast region. The surrounding area is a mosaic of pine plantation, rainforest remnants and eucalypt forest typical of the state forest more broadly.

It has long been regarded as one of eastern Australia’s primary wildlife-viewing hot spots.

David West, group manager stewardships with HQ Plantations, says the company is open to discussion but needs further information. West declines to put a value on the Imbil leases or speculate on whether the company would welcome a buyback of leases. Timber Queensland, the state’s peak timber industry body, declined to comment.

If the rainforest is restored, the area could be added to the adjoining 35,658ha Conondale National Park, increasing its size by more than 50 per cent.

But conservationists are divided, with some believing that only pristine forests should be protected. Several groups are campaigning for another plan that would link Conondale National Park to Wrattens National Park by adding 20,000ha of natural forest patches to create a newly named Yabba National Park; no pine plantations would be included.

Sunshine Coast Hinterland Bush Links co-ordinator Susie Duncan says plantations in Imbil and other state forests were traded off against natural forests that were earmarked to become national park under an agreement disbanded by the former Liberal National government.

“Given the complexity of a buyback of HQ Plantation leases, we don’t want to throw that into the mix of the Yabba proposal and risk losing the traction we have to date,” Duncan says.

But BirdLife Australia Sunshine Coast convener Ken Cross is enthusiastic about the plantation plan. “We have lost too much of this habitat already and it may not be good enough in the long term just to protect the area that is left,” Cross says.

Former Queensland environment minister Pat Comben also backs the proposal. Comben was largely responsible for the doubling of the state’s national park area by the Goss Labor government in the early 1990s. “We protected areas such as the Mitchell Grass Downs and mulga lands,” he says. “Now the challenge is to ensure the biodiversity of southeast Queensland is similarly protected before it is too late.”

Leading Queensland zoologist Glen Ingram describes the destruction of subtropical lowland rainforest as a being an environmental disaster. “It was a mindless series of mistakes and the impact on our flora and fauna was devastating,” Ingram says. “The return of the Imbil forests would be an important step towards rectifying those mistakes.”

Greg Roberts is a Sunshine Coast-based journalist and naturalist who authored a submission to the Queensland government on the Imbil State Forest

Sunshine Coast koala habitat protected in $3.5 million land buy

It is a progressive move in a week where serious questions were asked about the viability of shifting koalas for development. In this move near Tewantin, koalas are invited back to their own forests.

Volunteer conservation group Noosa Parks Association, Noosa Shire Council and the Queensland government each contributed $1.2 million to buy out Hancock’s HQ pine plantation behind Tewantin. Overall, the three groups bought out the pine plantation and remaining forest near Ringtail National Park.

Michael Gloster's 20-year dream to turn a pine plantation into a park to protect koalas is being realised.

Michael Gloster’s dream of turning pine plantation into park to protect koalas is being realised

When the pine plantation stops in five years and is replanted it will mean a huge corridor of natural forest between Noosa and Cooloola National Park.

The man with the 20-year dream to build a new national park from forestry land is long-serving Noosa Parks Association president Michael Gloster.  He first raised his dream with then-Beattie government environment minister Rod Welford in 1998.

Plantation timber near Tewantin.

Plantation timber near Tewantin

On Wednesday, he signed an agreement marking the start of a five-year wind-up of Hancock’s 99-year lease on the land with current Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch. “In order for us to be able to conserve these pine plantations and turn them into national park, we had to buy out their assets … Hancock’s said if you pay us $3.5 million we will happily leave these forests.”

Mr Gloster said the forests, which were home to 25 threatened and three nearly-threatened species including the Mary River cod, the giant barred frog and the Richmond birdwing butterfly, still contained viable populations of koalas.

“The state government’s research shows that this area from Tewantin through to Coolum was key before it was chopped up for pine plantations … We are confident they will eventually come back into pockets of it. If koalas are going to survive in the south-east Queensland area, this is probably their best bet.”

Noosa mayor Tony Wellington said the move would establish a “scientific sink” for south-east Queensland. “Not just in terms of measuring our conservation efforts, but also in terms of providing a very, very large area which can be used for a range of scientific purposes and research,” he said.

Ms Enoch praised the local conservationists who were “making history” on Wednesday: “We have seen a group of local people absolutely committing themselves to this over decades,”

She said Queensland’s conservation efforts would learn a lot from the Tewantin efforts, before it was used as a readymade model for action. “I think we need to find out how this works first, before others might join in on this new movement across Queensland.”

Ms Enoch said questions posed this week about the survival of koalas relocated to allow for the Coomera Town Centre to be developed were now being investigated.  “That is a really good question and an important one today, I expect that the new Koala Council that is developing the new koala conservation strategy will look closely at the issues of koala relocation. We will see some results from that.”

Hancock’s Timber plantation general manager Michael Robinson said there were no jobs lost and natural timber productivity had been boosted at other plantations around Queensland: “We will more than offset the loss of long-term productivity on this land here.”

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