Indigenous Australians knew how to look after the land


If we attempt to compare Aboriginal land use with those of the early settlers, we should broaden the meaning of ‘land use’. We should move away from the narrow European notion of agriculture and horticulture, to one which includes religious and cultural associations with the land, and one which allows the skills and the bounty of hunting and gathering to enter the picture.

Another difficulty is that the indigenous Australians, although sharing the same continent, and some cultural traditions, were not all alike. Regional differences in a land so large were bound to be great, though identification with, and care for, the land seems to have been practically universal. With that in mind, Aboriginal attitudes to their land will be seen as roughly uniform.

The common misconception about life in Australia prior to the arrival of the whites, and one which dates back to the time of Captain Cook, is of a race of hungry nomads, constantly ranging over an inhospitable land in search of game, victims of their own lack of industry, and incidentally unfit to lay claim to the land.

This view is now under constant attack, as evidence mounts to show the active participation of the Aboriginal Australians, not only in the management of their own survival, but as agents for change in the greater environment.

As the white arrivals would eventually do, the original inhabitants had built up an economic system which delivered regular surpluses, and allowed the population to grow, albeit at a sustainable rate. ‘They exploited the resources available to them, making the continent into a gigantic farm, but a farm which they worked with an eye to the future.’ (Bolton 1981, p. 8)

Using fire

Fire is the most versatile and important tool that a society of hunter gatherers can use. The original Australians used fire extensively, and as well as flushing out game which sought shelter in scrub, the fire served the purpose of thinning the bush, burning off the old feed, and promoting new growth. This new growth attracted more game next season. Different fire regimes were used throughout the country, with adaptations made for the needs of each locality. (Flood 1983)

Fire was not only used for flushing and attracting game, however. It transformed the landscape, though there is debate as to how much forethought went into that transformation. Major Mitchell, an early explorer, suggested that the Aborigines worked on their ‘runs’, which happened to carry kangaroos and other native species, in much the same way that the later pastoralists would clear ground, and improve pasture for their stock. (Bolton 1981)

The Aborigines actively used fire to promote the growth of ‘crops’ for their own consumption. (Kirk 1981) They also used it to extend the range of, for instance, cycad nuts, by clearing competing vegetation. (Flood 1983)

What did they live on?

The Aborigines did not depend on meat alone to feed them. In a normal year the population in most regions obtained at least half of its energy needs from plant foods. (Blainey 1982)

The methods they used to sustain life were adapted to the ecology of the region in which they lived. These ranged from hunting fat moths in the mountains to catching seals on the coast, from trapping eels in Victoria to cycad harvesting in the north.

They were gifted hunter gatherers. They manipulated their environment so ingeniously that they were able to lead a semi-sedentary life, with regular tribal gatherings and religious festivals. (Flood 1983) It is a long way from the picture of starving wretches stalking kangaroos, for their very survival.

They knew their land intimately, and all that it produced. Their knowledge had been accumulated over sixty thousand years, and their knowledge of botany was arguably their most refined. This may explain how they were able to survive in such a seemingly hostile environment with such aplomb. (Blainey 1982)

A common criticism of their culture decries the ‘fact’ that they never developed formal agriculture. A counter to that criticism is that they were so well-off that they had no need to increase the yield of their foods; nor did they need to store it.

This goes some way toward explaining the feelings that Aborigines have toward their land. They were provided with bounty, as long as they did their duty to the land. For the great unifying theme in Aboriginal Australian life was religion, and the core of that religion was man’s close, symbiotic relationship with the land. As Blainey so eloquently states,

‘Their knowledge of the land and all which it grew was supplemented by a spiritual belief that the earth would not continue to be productive unless they obeyed its rules and its deities. One aim of their religious ceremonies and many of their taboos was to maintain the fertility of the land and its creatures.’ (Blainey 1983, p. 202)

What did white land use look like?

The members of the First Fleet and those who followed them had no such tenderness for the land, or indeed for its original inhabitants. As the Aborigines followed the dictates of their religion, so could the Europeans be seen to be following theirs. As the Bible exhorted them to go forth and multiply, it also provided them with an attitude which separated them from nature, and made them masters of the natural world.

They were the products of a society which held the belief that it was man’s duty to enhance the productivity of the soil. In fact, the notion of the right to own property was inextricably linked to the end use to which that property was put. (Butcher & Turnbull 1988) This served a dual purpose-it legitimised their own exploitation of the land, and it robbed the Aborigines of any claim they might have made to the land, because the imprint of a black hand on the landscape was so subtle.

With legal and moral matters of ownership of the land apparently sorted out, the white invaders then proceeded to ‘farm’ the continent. They were not conspicuously successful to begin with. The Administration at Sydney Cove was sorely pressed to feed all the mouths in the colony. The problem was exacerbated by the urban background of most of the convicts, and of the guards.

They were poor overseers of the land, often because they lacked adequate financial resources and more importantly, they lacked even the most rudimentary rural skills. They had no prospect of learning them either, except by trial and error. Happily the destruction of the environment was limited by their technology. If they did possess any farming experience, it was mostly irrelevant or misleading under local conditions.

They did not realise that the Aborigines’ knowledge and exploitative methods were geared precisely to local conditions, and were the result of thousands of years of study. The land, though seeming to conform to their vision of benign nature, tamed for man’s use, appeared so by virtue of careful husbandry and sustainable use. (Bolton 1981)

The profit motive was present from the beginning, and once mere survival was assured, the principles of capitalist farming were applied. Though they were not ecologically disastrous when used in Britain, Australia’s older soils and specialised flora were no match for the rapacious appetites of 19th century capitalists.

The introduction of cattle and sheep was the beginning of catastrophe for the Australian environment. The first and most significant change was in the texture of the soil. The cloven hooves of the whites’ livestock destroyed the mulch of aeons in a decade. (Rolls 1981)

The vegetation changed, with the native grasses, used to the gentler feeding of the macropods, being destroyed by the different feeding habits of the sheep, especially. Men responded with ‘pasture improvement’, ploughing out the native grasses, using fertiliser and sowing inappropriate exotics. (Rolls 1981)

The trees were the next to go. They were seen as a nuisance by the first settlers, fit only to be cleared, and used for building or farming. Until the gold rushes of the 1850s the destruction was confined to the coastal valleys of New South Wales, but demand for building timbers increased greatly. Improving transport opened up the export for hardwoods, but from the 1860s pastoralists began ring-barking on an unprecedented scale. By 1892 clearance for farms and ring-barking for grazing were the major causes of deforestation. The bush was re-shaped irrevocably to accommodate the interests of graziers and their stock.

The native fauna was also profoundly affected. A quarter of a century after the arrival of the white man, many species faced extinction. Others prospered unnaturally – the balance was upset. The introduction of the domestic dog and cat was calamitous, as was the introduction of goats, pigs, brumbies, foxes and last, but not least, the ubiquitous rabbit.

It is unnecessary to describe the degradation of the environment around towns and cities, but it was at least as complete as that affected by the pastoralists. The gold-fields were even worse, creating waste-lands for miles around. All in all, the impact of the whites on the environment was catastrophic, with most of the damage still with us.

19th century white settlers were not wilful or wanton destroyers of the land. Most of the ecological damage occurred as a result of ignorance, and as a by-product of unthinking agrarian capitalism. There was a mistaken belief that the land was so bountiful as to be inexhaustible.

By contrast the original inhabitants had known all along that the ecology was a delicate thing, which had finite limits. They were not perfect custodians, but their reign of sixty thousand plus years was solicitous and successful. In just over two centuries we have undone much of that good work, and we appear not to be learning anything.

Scomo wrote us a letter of regret – you wish


Why did he write the letter?

I dreamed that Scott Morrison woke up one day, very recently, and was filled with regret. He was so overcome with regret that he wrote a letter of apology to the people of Australia. The gist of his imaginary letter went something like this:

It is clear that the country needs to be re-set. We have at last done something right, and I feel a sense of pride, and achievement, as I have never felt before. We have flattened the curve of the virus. The people have banded together, and helped us through this turbulent time. They are chafing at the bit now, but we are confident we have done the best we could.

There are many areas that, on reflection, I should work on, though. Firstly, I need to stop thinking like my great friends, Donald and Boris. They both took a holiday when the virus arrived, and look where that took them. Thousands of unnecessary deaths.

I remember my own holiday. It did not turn out well. It seems that this is a full-time job. And I DO hold a hose, if required.

Education often appears, alongside health, as the biggest issue in people’s minds. I must remember that! My education was provided to me by the state. It was free, and secular. It was excellent, and I cannot imagine why I persist in funding wealthy private schools more generously than the state sector schools. It seems so counter-intuitive, to give taxpayers’ funds to people who choose to sequester their children, away from the common herd. Sydney High had it all, though. Free, but selective. Elitism, without the price. Anyway, I must have a word to Dan (Tehan). Maybe we can try to govern for all in the future.

I actually have a science degree, with honours. So the ‘daggy dad’ persona is a crock, or to put it in more seemly terms, a construct. I do feel great shame about the position my Government takes on climate change, because I know I have further enabled the terrible degradation of this beautiful country, and even its international reputation.

My area of expertise is in economic geography, but a science degree is built on the scientific method, and I know that I can, and I should, trust the scientists, when they tell us we are wrecking the planet. It is just that once I tasted success, and power, I lost my head. I felt that if I did the right thing, it might cost me the big job, but it is not too late. I must sack Angus, and put someone else in the job; someone who actually wants to help us save the earth.

Of course there are the refugees. Wow. What was I thinking? To demonise a thousand people, and to then torture them for years. I can’t even remember what it was I was trying to fix. I do remember saying something about keeping the sugar off the table. That was a reference to gaining entry to Australia through Indonesia. Considering my own family’s arrival here, it was really lacking in insight. But, it’s never too late to change. I sometimes look back on statements like that, and I cringe.

It can’t have been to save lives at sea, by ruining lives on land. That sounds like a false equivalence. What would my tutor in Economic Geography think? Perhaps it was to save money? But then, look at the money I wasted on ‘sports rorts’. We could have slung some of that money at the refugees. We could have put them up at the Hilton for the last seven years, and saved plenty.

Not to mention what Paladin has made from us over the journey. We don’t even check their invoices, so you know they have made a motza. Which brings me to Pete (Dutton). I keep buying him off, by increasing his powers, but nothing works. He craves more, and more. I never sanction him, I allow him to run his own line on Foreign Affairs.

He insults Lebanese-Australians by suggesting that they are more prone to committing crimes. He believes there is a criminal gene, I suppose. Doesn’t he even know that my great great grandfather was on the First Fleet, a convicted criminal. He might as well accuse me of having the same criminal gene. I think it is time I stopped Pete’s reign of terror, and put someone in who likes people. I will probably dismantle his department, while I think of it. It is one of Malcolm’s dopiest errors, and then I made it worse, by keeping Pete on.

I really need to apologise for that statement “A fair go for those who have a go”, which even I know is one of the most divisive phrases ever uttered in Australian history. I know better now that I am in this position. It is not a contest. We’re all in this together. Life is not a game, with winners and losers.

If I am going to stop Pete torturing refugees, I must stop torturing the poor. I want to ‘man up’, swallow the fact that I was wrong all along, and acknowledge that Newstart was degradingly low, and that the majority of Australians support it being substantially raised, permanently. So when the time comes to reduce it, I will remember that I serve the people. And I will leave it where it is.

That would not only make moral sense, but it would serve as a continuing economic stimulus. And while I am here, I would like to unreservedly apologise for ‘robodebt‘, which we know was unlawful and unenforceable for years. Again, what were we thinking? It has been suggested that that scheme may have caused between 800, and 2000 deaths.

Wow, deaths caused by a Government’s deliberate cruelty. Again, while I am seeking redemption, perhaps we could abolish the dreaded ‘cashless card’ for those who are already struggling. That is the one where we assumed that everyone on Newstart was buying grog, cigarettes and maybe even porn with their $290 a week. Now that it has been temporarily doubled, I can only hope that their lives have been improved. After all, that is supposed to be my main aim.

I am beginning to see the benefits of confession. It really does lighten the load. With such a brilliant population to work with, we can actually do anything. I think the extra $60 billion that Josh just ‘found’ could come in handy. I know, I will include the visa holders, and the artists, the performers, the casuals and anyone else excluded from JobKeeper. Let’s actually treat them with dignity, rather than sending them to food-banks. Food-banks, in Australia! What were we thinking?

Then I woke up.

The IPA has captured our government


The name of the organisation is preposterous in itself. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) was originally set up in 1943, as a response to the rise of Social Democratic parties in general, and the Australian Labor Party in particular. The founders included Rupert Murdoch’s father, and G.J. Coles. There is a reason it is so against the interests of ordinary citizens.

The history of the IPA is curious. Many of the key players in its early years are either still around, or their children are. Its ideas haven’t really evolved much, but if you want to characterise them, they are crudely elitist, ideologically stunted, narrow minded, science-phobic, greedy and in most cases, fully imported. For a charity which pays no tax, they have very few clients in need.

The only reason they are of any interest to anyone is that they have captured the Federal Government, by stealth, and their inane policies are the reason this country is so conspicuously under-achieving.

There is not one thinker of note amongst its membership. Some of the current members appear to be the offspring of former members; a sort of self-replicating supply of not-so-bright apparatchiks. If you are searching for the reason behind the diminishing sense of pride attached to being Australian, the IPA is to blame.

Current or ex-members in Parliament

For a roll-call, these are some of the current members of the IPA, or their affiliates; Institute for Progress (AIP), Australian Taxation Alliance (ATA), who are current, or recent members of the current Parliament: Abetz, Birmingham, Cash, Christensen, Cormann, Evans, Fletcher, Frydenberg, Hawke, Hunt, McGrath, Morrison, Paterson, Porter, Roberts, Ryan, Stoker, Dean Smith, Tony Smith, Tehan, Tudge, and Tim Wilson.

All part of the Global Atlas Network. That would be where we get the passion for no minimum wage, and no health care. Past members include Abbott, Howard, and let usnever forget that our current PM is a fervent member.

They have been effectively bought by a handful of robber barons, who pay no taxes, and have no commitment to what was, twenty years ago, a democracy to be proud of.

They gaslight the entire community, with double-speak which would make George Orwell blush. As an example, in 2003 John Howard hired a conservative think tank (the IPA) to investigate NGO influence on some government agencies. The circularity of that sentence is dazzling.

“NGOs are becoming very influential today – they sit on various committees and are seen to influence governments and big business. As global players they need to be more transparent,” says Mike Nahan, executive director of the IPA. The lack of self-awareness in that statement is also noteworthy. Like appointing Mr Fox to investigate security at the chicken coop. 

“IPA is unfit to conduct the study due to its demonstrated bias and ongoing vilification of organisations that campaign for human rights, corporate social responsibility and environmental protection,” Oxfam said in a media release.

Who better than an NGO on the lunatic right (IPA) to investigate the NGOs represented by such bodies as Oxfam and Catholic Health Australia?

When dealing with the IPA one is assailed by the extreme seriousness with which they promote their truly stupid, and truly callous policies.

Some of their policies

They do not like welfare. They have a history of being supported by Big Tobacco. They want to sell the ABC, possibly to Rupert, at a discount. They want to lower the tax rate to companies and millionaires, as they starve the unemployed, and continue to dismantle the NDIS.

They caused the destruction of the Aged Care System, and they continue to support the fossil fuel industry while paying lip service to climate change action. They wanted us to abandon the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but were momentarily shamed into making some concessions in Glasgow. Matt Canavan might be the most honest member of the coalition, in that even he admits their commitment to saving the planet is nonsense.

They want the Racial Discrimination Act to remove the ban on offensive speech. They want the Fair Work Act repealed, which means the ten minimum employment standards will disappear. Who knows, maybe we can get to see adult Australians working for $7 per hour, plus tips.

They also have absolutely no plans for a national integrity commission. There is a lot of speculation about the reasons for this position, but the history of rorts and inappropriate ‘jobs for the boys’, the slipping of millions of our dollars into dodgy land and water deals, all add up. A proper integrity commission could send many government members either into retirement, or even jail.

What does this ragbag of policies remind you of? Donald Trump’s America is the right answer. Of course they also want to abolish Medicare, probably because it reminds them of Obamacare. Their policies are imported. Considering most of the current Cabinet are members, how sincere can they be in governing for the good of all Australians?

So why would Australia want such policies?

The people in the IPA, and their affiliates, all think in Social Darwinism terms. So they think society is not meant to be inclusive, and caring for the least among us, but a contest.

The Tim Wilsons and James Patersons of this world actually think that if we were all transported to an unruly savannah, crawling with sabre-toothed tigers and snarling hyenas, that they would prosper. Reflecting on the personnel, my money is on the sabre-toothed tigers.

IPA types are secretly longing for the Call of the Wild. It is an adolescent fantasy, where if the going gets tough, the tough get going. Many of these intellectual giants wield real power in our federal parliament. All I can say is, be afraid. Be very afraid!

As John Roskam recently said: To control a virus that as yet has infected 5000 Australians, the response of doctors and politicians to this serious health crisis was to create also a humanitarian and an economic crisis. In the years to come Australians will quite rightly question whether there could have been a better way.” Sometimes you need to let libertarians speak freely. They do a better job of exposing themselves as empty vessels than any commentator could.

Lincoln Steffens studied corruption and malfeasance in American states in the 1890s. His unwavering opinion was that it was not the fault of the crooked politicians, nor the business people who corrupted them, but the apathy and the supine nature of the citizens.

As citizens of a once great democracy, we need to be vigilant, and to take care of what they are trying to unravel – our unique, caring society, free of Christian right wing nut jobs, with no knowledge of something known as social justice. Exercise your rights, before you lose them. Vote them out.

Morrison needs to finish one job at least


Scott Morrison has, in many ways, been ‘saved’ by the coronavirus. At the end of February and heading into March, his public standing was at rock-bottom. Scotty from Marketing was jeered at every time he went out in public, and journalists were daily questioning his honesty, and his competence.

What went wrong for Morrison?

He had abandoned Australia during the bush-fires while he went on holiday. He eventually came back, and proceeded to further damage his reputation with badly managed photo opportunities, and his attempts to relate to victims of the bush-fires were ill-timed and clumsy. He exhibited a complete inability to read people.

Even his physical bulk was seen as intrusive, and his casual, friendly manner was widely distrusted, because it looked phony. Every day was a desperate attempt to make up lost ground, and it felt like it. I found myself wincing when I saw him on television.

The ‘sports rorts’ affair followed on from the bush-fires. It began slowly, but it had quickly gotten out of hand, with almost daily revelations of, if not outright corruption, then a flexible reading of the guidelines. It displayed a cynical disregard for honesty, and accountability. And don’t forget this was at the very last moment before, and possibly after, the government moved into ‘caretaker mode’.

It seemed he might have won the election by buying it. And it’s not as if the recipients of his largesse were struggling sports clubs. They were more often than not well-endowed clubs, in the heart of prosperous areas, represented almost exclusively by Coalition members of Parliament. This exposed his contempt for rural and regional Australians. The unkindest cut of all was that he used a National Party minister as a stooge.

At the exact time that this was unfolding, Angus Taylor was running his own side-show. Every day in Question Time he ducked and weaved, and blustered about “vile smears” and “bizarre vendettas” against him.

He had been caught out, implying Sydney City Council were hypocrites. He accused them of wasting buckets of money, flying around the world needlessly, while trying to cut greenhouse emissions. His accusation had mysteriously made its way to the Daily Telegraph. The problem was that it was demonstrably not true.

The tragedy was that he either made up the whole story, or somebody had duped him. He had transformed $6,000 into $15.9 million ($1.7m on international travel and $14.2m on domestic travel”). So he is not great with numbers, either. No wonder he thinks our greenhouse emissions are going down – he can’t count.

Morrison should be open and transparent

So Scott Morrison spent most of his time before the virus either ducking questions about what he knew about the sports rorts affair, or why he had not sacked his Energy Minister. Excellent questions. But from the moment the virus struck, Morrison reverted to an old trick. He had used a similar technique during the bush-fires, where if he was questioned about anything other than the bush-fire emergency, he accused the questioner of bringing up politics.

That is a strange response from someone who is in the public eye for one reason, and one reason only. He is not famous for his wit, or his skill with a whip, or because he hypnotises chickens. He lives and breathes politics, and that is why we even know his name. Anyway, the virus provided him with timely cover.

I have written elsewhere about his response to the Covid-19 response, see here https://askbucko.com/2020/04/15/morrison-handles-the-crisis/ I think it has been more than adequate, as it should have been. That is why we entrusted him with the job. Protect Australians when they are in danger. He only did what the majority of world leaders did, although he acted more quickly than many others, to his credit.

That does not change the facts. He was facing an escalating problem concerning his own, and his Government’s honesty. He leads a Government made up of opportunists and narrow idealogues, and even now he keeps most of the Ministry hidden. He obviously learnt a valuable lesson during the last election campaign. Be the front man, and if you must use your ministers, keep it to a minimum. And instead of pursuing political advantage in every television appearance, share the praise, and the thank yous, around. The Premiers have certainly grown in stature, and built on their reputations, following the disastrous summer.

Remember it is a health emergency

Lately Morrison has been pushing the opening of the schools. He believes this will unlock the economy. So his emphasis is shifting, from a health crisis, to an economic catastrophe. With the shift in emphasis, his tone is hardening. He is speaking of limiting support for those who have lost their jobs, and he refuses to expand the eligibility criteria for welfare payments.

At times like this he can sound like the bursar at a local church, disappointed with the takings from the collection plate. Welfare at times like this can mean food on the table, and a heater on for a cold night. Or heaven forbid, a roof over your head. These things keep people alive, and we need to provide them, to all who need them.

Winter is coming, and thousands are still living in tents, because of the other calamity in this country – a bush-fire season like no other, three months ago. So don’t pull out the old story about what we can afford. We can afford whatever it takes.

So let us see if you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Do your job. You have more than one. Get the admin done. Release the money that still hasn’t reached the bush-fire victims. Allow the Premiers to continue doing their terrific jobs. And treat Australians, all of them, as if they are all equally worthy of our care and support.

Ignore those who whisper about herd immunity, or possible years of economic recovery. Ignore the economic dries in your party. Listen to experts, and the people. Many are angry and frustrated about the lock-down, but no-one wants to follow the United States down their deranged path.