Category Archives: History essays

As if we needed another crazed dictator to emerge


The most disturbing feature of the war in Ukraine is the currency of the action, the actual real-time evidence of the destruction, and the sheer number of civilian deaths.

If you have read history, especially the history of the Second World War, you will have seen pictures of dead bodies on streets, and concrete buildings reduced to rubble. Mostly in black and white, they are frozen in time. They are real, and the people are really dead.

The images speak of the unenlightened ‘then’, before mankind’s embrace of globalism, the European Union, the United Nations, trading blocs and global co-operation. Even Russia is a member of the United Nations, and until the February 2022 invasion Russia was seen as a global citizen, paying some of its share, and enjoying a limited post-Soviet rehabilitation.

It was a false dawn. Putin has been building his own version of the Gulag, and his experience as a member of the KGB has informed the structuring of an efficient police state. He has also continued in the bloody tradition of the czars, and the later communist leaders of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Chechnya was ready for post-Soviet life. So was Ukraine. But the new Russia was not. It would attempt to hold on to its past geopolitical primacy, and the battle for Ukraine is yet another episode in Russia’s attempt to recapture lost territory.

If we want to see the dress rehearsal for the war against Ukraine, we need only go back to Boris Yeltsin’s First Chechen War, where for the period 1994 – 1996 Russia ignored the will of the Chechens, and in the process destroyed Grozny and the surrounding countryside.

The reason the West was taken by surprise when Putin invaded Ukraine was that the international media treated the Chechen Wars as internal affairs, rather than attacks on a sovereign state, by another sovereign state, looking to retain territory they had lost, due to a treaty.

Chechen public opinion in 1991 was strongly for independence from Russia. With a turnout of 72%, 90.1% voted for the Chechen leader, Dudayev. Russia began a campaign of harassment and supplied Russian separatists with money, weapons and troops.

It was never anything but the pursuit of territory by force, although the Chechens had voted overwhelmingly for separation. By 1994 President Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all warring factions in Chechnya, ordering them to disarm and surrender. When the government in Grozny refused, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to “restore constitutional order” by force.

When the Russians besieged the Chechen capital, thousands of civilians died from a week-long series of air raids and artillery bombardments in the heaviest bombing campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden. Williams, Bryan Glyn (2001)

Fast forward to Ukraine. Similar tactics, similar disregard of humanitarian principles, similar spurious reasons given for the invasion.

There is one crucial difference, however. Putin’s rigid control of state media in Russia, and his rock solid use of a punitive police presence has kept the Russian public’s support for the war high.

The barrage of misinformation has seen a weakening in the West’s resolve. Hungary has made a virtue of not criticising Russia’s war, and the Republicans, led by Trump, have questioned the general moral outrage.

It is lucky that summer is coming to Europe, otherwise Russia’s gas supplies would have been a necessity for many European countries. The reality appears to be that Russia and Putin will not be shamed into a withdrawal, and we might be stuck with a highly dangerous situation for years to come.

It can safely be said that whenever a dictator is supplied with the means for war, and the requisite power, that the fate of the rest of us depends on our being prepared for the worst, because it can sometimes be as simple as a madman’s whim which causes the boat to capsize.

The Russians will not thank him for destroying their economy, the Russian troops’ parents and families will not thank him for killing their sons, and the Ukrainian people will never accept the reason for the invasion, or its apparent objective: The subjugation of its identity and status as a sovereign nation. The death and destruction means there will never be reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine.

Putin’s war is a grave mistake, and hundreds of thousands will pay the price. The greatest threat comes from Putin, and his absolute hold on power. He, if cornered, might pull out all the stops, and attempt to bluff the Unites States and Europe with the threat of nuclear war.

The possibility is there, and it looks to be Putin’s last card.

1921 – a short visit


1921 is now a hundred years ago. Have we learned anything in the meantime? Have those who aspire to power or wealth learned anything? Has science improved our lives, or do we make the same selfish and stupid mistakes? Are the poor better off? Were there practices and customs which have stood the test of time, and which we still embrace?

The Great War ended in 1918, with all its suffering, privation and loss of life. It caused over 20 million deaths directly, and some consider World War Two as the inevitable continuation of that awful war. Conditions during 1914-1918 included hunger, disease, destruction of vital infrastructure, and civilian dislocation. It also killed off, or maimed, a generation of young men.

When the Spanish Flu arrived, Europe was vulnerable. Its people were exhausted by four years of war. Food production had not recovered. So the flu was virulent, the people were weakened, and the world was opening up for international travel. These were perfect conditions for the storm which hit humanity in the immediate years between 1918 – 1921.

In Berlin in 1921, one quarter of all the children in the city were found to be either suffering from disease, or from malnutrition. At the same time the German Government announced plans to build the world’s largest submarine. Albert Einstein stunned the scientific community by suggesting that the universe could be measured, and later in the year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In Paris the Allies announced that the German Nation owed them 10 billion (British) pounds, in reparations, payable over 42 years. This decision, and the threats made to enforce the payments, contributed to German political instability, and a sense of grievance which would only grow.

In March, British, French and Belgian troops occupied parts of Germany, which had failed to respond to the demand for reparations in time. Coincidentally both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini consolidated their political power, by taking control of their respective ‘personal’ political parties.

In other parts of Europe the year presented much to consider. In France the first tuberculosis vaccine was made, and given, and the first helicopter flew successfully. Sweden abolished the death penalty, while Finland’s Paavo Nurmi set a new 10,000m world record.

In Italy, the Fascist Party won 29 seats in the Italian general election. Spain was defeated by Moroccan rebels in a major early battle of the Rif War. The Rif War lasted until 1926, and the Spanish would later call in the French to assist in putting down the rebellion.

In January British tanks rolled into Dublin’s city streets, while the Irish War of Independence raged on. A truce was declared in July 1921. Partition between the North (Ulster) and the South (Irish Free State) would be completed by 1922.

Greece and Turkey continued their own side war, from 1919-1922, due to the Allies’ partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, through David Lloyd George, made secret territorial promises to the Greeks, which were all nullified by the time of the cease-fire. There was much loss of life on both sides. This conflict saw the emergence of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who would go on to lead Turkey until 1938, as President.

Many reports from the United States for this year were either to do with women and their dress, or their behaviour. In Chicago, women found to be wearing short skirts, or showing bare arms, were liable to fines from $10 – $100. In Utah they could be jailed. New York appointed a State Commissioner who had the power to censor dances he thought were indecent. Washington fined women for smoking, although men were permitted.

Race was the other flash-point for Americans that year. At the end of May a black shoe-shine employee tripped, and while falling forward, grabbed the arm of a white female elevator operator. The incident was witnessed by an onlooker, who called the police.

The young woman was not injured, and she did not want to press charges. Clearly it was an accident, and definitely not an attempted rape. He was taken off and jailed, while rumours spread that he was going to be lynched. A white crowd surrounded the jail, and was met by a smaller, but determined group of black men, intent on stopping any lynching.

Violence erupted, with white crowds swamping Greenwood, the prosperous black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rioting involved burning and looting, over 35 city blocks, and was eventually wound down by the National Guard. No reliable estimate of deaths was produced, with estimates ranging from less than 50, to up to 300. As many as 6,000 Blacks were interned in the aftermath.

Many left the city, but of those who stayed, both black and white residents kept silent. It was not until 75 years later, in 1996, that a Commission was set up to establish the truth of the matter.

In better news for the year, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting discovered insulin, which would revolutionise the treatment of diabetes, amongst other maladies.

In Australia in 1921, there was trouble at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory. The manager of the property, Tom Cahill, decided that he would ask his brother, Paddy Cahill, for help with the local Indigenous people, who were accused of killing cattle. Paddy Cahill shot over 30 ‘bush people’ by way of solving his brother’s cattle problem. He was ‘punished’ with an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, as a ‘Protector of Aborigines’.

Daisy Bates reported (falsely) that cannibalism was prevalent in Central Australia amongst the Indigenous people. In the same year, Prime Minister Billy Hughes banned flogging in New Guinea. Several junior officers were found to have committed the offence, but they were never charged.

It appears that Australia’s position on race was, and still is, confused. On a more positive note, Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian Legislative Assembly. She was our first female parliamentarian.

Considering what was making news a hundred years ago, we seem to be plagued with the same issues. Race, wars, gender inequality, pandemics; self interest still seems to drive those in power, and although we have learned to use weasel words to hide our real intent, we are not improving much.

Why we need a welfare state in Australia


Welfare state, a concept of government in which the state … plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. Read more here https://www.britannica.com/topic/welfare-state

An ancient idea

The welfare state as an idea has been around for thousands of years. The Romans, as an example, developed an ad hoc system for providing grain to the people when there were shortages. By the 2nd century CE it had been formalised, to include bread and other essentials, as the population became too great to be fed from local sources. The state imported the food, through the use of hundreds of ships, mainly from North Africa. They then distributed it. The program was never an afterthought. With a large and feisty population, it was considered essential to the maintenance of civic peace, and it lasted until at least the fall of the Western Empire.

In modern times

The modern version of the welfare state is generally attributed to an unlikely leader – Otto von Bismarck. In the 1880s, as the political leader of the relatively new German Empire, he passed social welfare legislation, which he described as “practical Christianity”. His programs included old-age pensions, accident insurance and employee health insurance. Many were borrowed directly from the Prussian model. Bismarck himself was from Prussia, where they had proved popular, and had underpinned a strong and cohesive society.

He was not motivated by a soft heart however, but by political opportunism. He saw that by providing social programs he could achieve several aims. He would counteract the rising appeal of the Social Democrat Party, he could make staying in Germany more attractive to those considering leaving for America, and he would vie for the allegiance of German Catholics, who were torn by divided loyalties, between Germany and the Vatican.

Other European countries followed his lead. The times were changing; Victorian England’s rapidly developing middle classes were appalled by the social inequality around them. As wealth expanded throughout North America the Progressive Era was spawned. Many in the developing Western democracies realised that private philanthropy and religiously inspired charity was ill-equipped to deal with the scope of the problem, of a newly created industrial working class.

The 1880s have gained a reputation for a change in attitude, wherein poverty was re-discovered, and individualism was finished. Poverty was identified as more of a social evil than a failure of character. The poor had been blamed for their own misery, but some early social researchers discovered that poverty was not caused by a lack of moral fibre, or even degeneracy, but more by the stranglehold of the upper classes on opportunity. Old age and sickness were especially dreaded by the poor, because they were seen as being particularly merciless, inevitably miserable, and impossible to mitigate. They were by then either too sick, or too old, to work.

Self-help had been seen as an essential element of living a life of some dignity, but it was finally accepted that governments were the only mechanism for lifting the people out of their grinding poverty. These attitudes were again driven by the middle class, who were discovering the power of their vote, and politicians were aware that sooner or later the poor would themselves obtain that right (to vote).

Legislation for pensions and social insurance began to be passed, in most of the industrialising countries. America was shocked by the problems associated with industrialisation, urbanisation, immigration and political corruption, and responded with social activism and reforming zeal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Era

World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II have been identified as important events, which expedited expansions of the welfare state(s). That was the defining nature of the rise of the Welfare State. It was managed differently, according to local circumstances, in many countries. There were also a multitude of reasons for its emergence and growth as a political and economic choice.

Labour aligned, or social democratic governments were more likely to institute versions of the Welfare State, due to a belief in progressive ideals. These included equality, the removal of poverty, and a general commitment to humanitarian values.

But it was also seen as a way to build national cohesion, and to promote social and civic harmony, where it might not otherwise exist. A surprising footnote from the Fascist era is the reliance of both Hitler and Mussolini, on generous social payments to their citizens. They were consciously buying industrial peace, and forging national cohesion.

Australia’s introduction to the Welfare State

While John Curtin is best remembered as a war-time Prime Minister, his work, alongside that of his Treasurer, Ben Chifley, was crucial in establishing a Welfare State on Australian lines, designed for Australian conditions. Curtin was influenced by the economic theories of Keynes, and had long wanted to transform life for Australians.

He had seen the damage caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and took the opportunity offered by wartime conditions to transform the nation. In 1942 he imposed uniform taxation on the states, which changed the financial relationship between the two levels of government forever. It also allowed him to increase revenue. The removal of the states’ right to levy their own income taxes was to be compensated by the Commonwealth ‘picking up’ their liability for social programs.

With a uniform income tax he was then in a position to expand his vision of a socially activist Commonwealth Government. The states, especially New South Wales and Victoria, had been adding elements of a social safety net since the beginning of the century. He and Chifley, between them, completed it. Early examples were the Widow’s Pension Act, and the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act.

By the end of that same year (1942) he had set up a Department of Postwar Reconstruction, which laid the groundwork for establishing a Commonwealth Housing Commission, the postwar Rural Reconstruction Commission, the Secondary Industries Commission and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Many of these programs were designed to assist in re-building Australia, after the war ended.

In 1944 he set up the Department of Immigration which was to be responsible for organising postwar immigration to Australia. These changes were the basis for the enormous growth of the Australian economy in the postwar years.

John Curtin was a believer and a doer. He was lucky to be succeeded in the Prime Mininstership by another committed to the dynamic re-construction of Australia, post-war. Curtin and Chifley both maintained that the key principle of a successful re-construction was full employment.

Robert Menzies was of a similar mind. He defeated Chifley in the election of 1949, and won seven elections in a row, on a platform which included full employment. In 1961, he was lucky to be re-elected, because the unemployment rate had ‘blown out’ to 2.1%. He won that election by just one seat.

The Welfare State in Australia is under constant threat, by both sides of parliament. This is counter to the wishes of the population, and is driven by a political class who look after only themselves. They rely on the apathy of the people, who do not inspect governments closely, and who are disengaged from the political process. Politics and society are of no interest to most voters.

The Liberal Party has been infiltrated by many IPA-type neo-liberals, whose political mantra can be simplified to a “survival of the fittest” trope. The Labor Party, although not equally infested with IPA members, is slightly less crass, paying lip service to an egalitarian motif, while rubber-stamping much neo-liberal legislation. It leaves voters stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Where to from here?

In the Age of Coronavirus, with widespread economic devastation, we need action similar to that which re-constructed Australia in the period immediately after World War 11. We need to accept that we need massive stimulation, and we need to spend our way out of the coming Depression. We need Australians to be protected from hardship, because, hopefully, they will demand it.

Scott Morrison is a man shackled to his party, by his own ideology, and his heedless ambition. He needs to form a National Government, including at least the Opposition Leader, and to govern for the whole country, and all the people. You can see that he is torn between being a small-time political hack, and a real leader. He could really lead us out of this particular disaster. It just takes character, and a commitment to everyone’s welfare. That is why we call it the Commonwealth of Australia.

Catastrophes need drastic remedies and lots of cash


Australia has been through four natural disasters this year; the drought, the bushfires, the pandemic and the global climate catastrophe . Each of them has provided us with varying degrees of physical exposure, but if you were not directly and personally exposed to any of them, your mental health was probably affected.

Big government is an idea which allows governments the capacity to respond to natural phenomena such as economic depressions, recessions, wars, cyclones, fires, floods and pandemics. It utilises elements of Keynes’ theory that governments have a role to play when markets are not enough, such as times when catastrophes occur. It generally means government investment replaces private investment, if the market is unable, or unwilling, to invest. 

Notable examples of governmental intervention are Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped to end the Great Depression, and the Marshall Plan, which re-constructed Europe after World War 11. The rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy is a notable local example.   

At times like this we are often sustained by our families and friends, by our communities, and even by the kindness of strangers. But there is a level of assistance that we are unable to provide for ourselves. That is provided by the mechanisms and the solidity of our governments. 

We often speak disparagingly of our being over-governed. We complain about paying taxes, about regulations, about the nanny state. In Australia we have so many layers of officialdom it can feel stifling. But during such times as these, that infrastructure can be comforting. It is why we all quietly blubber when we see the kids singing “We are Australian”. 

We survived the bushfires 

The bushfires of 2019 were devastating and terrifying. Although it impacted mostly in regional areas we all had some form of connection. It might have been through a visit to Mallacoota, or Broadford’s near-miss in 2009, or as a survivor of the Ash Wednesday fires … You might be a volunteer firefighter, or your niece is. We were all affected, because Australians are way too familiar with bushfires. 

We would not have come through so well if not for all of our governments acting on our behalf. Of course there were stuff-ups and mistakes, some of which are still causing people to be living in tents seven months later, but the governments responded, with the defence force, with firefighters, with evacuations and food drops. Our kindergartens and shire halls were available, and there was shelter provided. Our citizens are resourceful, but we can’t have a navy ship waiting off the coast, or supply helicopters. The hospitals were open and staffed, and no-one was counting the cost. We as a society would accept nothing less.

The drought is breaking (maybe) 

2019 was very dry. By July, a climatologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology stated that the drought was now officially the worst on record in the Murray–Darling Basin, and “had now exceeded the Federation Drought, the WWII drought and the Millennium drought in terms of its severity through the MDB”. Drought in Australia

This year (2020) much of the drought stricken country has had, or expects, above average rainfall for the winter months. This is wonderful news. It will not immediately rescue those whose incomes have been slashed, or those whose mental health has suffered. It will not comfort those whose loved ones have taken their own lives, because of the stress and the perceived hopelessness of their situation. Many farmers have had to sell or shoot stock, or go into more debt to buy feed, or lost the opportunity to sow crops because of the intense drought. 

During the worst of it the public has participated in charity drives to buy and send hay for livestock. Many have donated funds to struggling rural families. Food parcels have been delivered to farmers who have thus far lived proudly independent lives. All of us know where our food comes from, and many of us want to be a part of any push to help.

Thankfully we also have a Government which has had the wherewithal to assist. These were trying times, and once again federal and state governments stepped into the breach. Of course the situation is only going to repeat, as climate change continues its inexorable march. 

“Every federal budget and update since 2002-03, when the millennium drought was just starting to affect parts of the country, has been forced to set aside money for drought relief.” The cost of drought – and it’s just going to grow  This obviates the need for governments which do not allow markets to determine outcomes. Farmers, like their families, and the communities which service them, operate as crucial elements of our society; we prefer to stand as one. 

The pandemic rolls on

As Victoria teeters on the edge of a second wave, Australia is having to look seriously at a  second, perhaps total, lockdown. As we concentrate on the physical health of the nation, some are demanding a re-opening of the economy. As if the idiocy of the Trump response is not enough, we are debating if we can afford to continue the stimulus packages in place. It is not a matter of choice. We do not allow people to starve in a country brim full of food. We do not have people thrown out into the winter streets, when we have thousands of empty houses.

We have constructed a society which has withstood the worst that nature can bring, and we have stood united. We do not treat the national accounts like a grocery list, striking out what we think might be a luxury. We look after our own, and if the Government needs to go into debt, we should be fine with that.  

The continuing saga of climate change stupidity

Climate change underlies the bushfires and the drought’s severity. It continues to be an open wound in our society. If there is an issue which has unified our young people, this is it. It is also the Morrison Government’s most notable failure. This week, in the midst of the pandemic, we hear that Craig Kelly is ‘investigating’ whether the Bureau of Meteorology is fudging temperature data for nefarious, presumably ‘green’, propaganda purposes. 

Angus Taylor continues to assert that black is indeed white, and our renewables industry battles manfully, while facing the headwinds of Taylor’s bluster. 

Scott Morrison has managed to overturn his disdain for science by largely following medical scientists’ advice on the Covid-19 pandemic. We can only hope that he decides to put Australia’s needs before his own, by changing his course on climate change. Choosing his personnel better would send a message that he believes in a society which wants to pull together. He needs to lead.

We need to stick together

The continuing argument between the left and right in politics seems to be one which boils down to whether or not we believe in the power of big government to cushion the blows of nature, and to maintain our social fabric, in the face of steep odds. 

It is a moot point, as Morrison, through the power he holds, will eventually decide which way we jump. He needs to step away from his ideological straight jacket, and study some history. Great leaders, such as Clement Attlee of the U.K. and our own John Curtin, consciously set out to build inclusive societies in their respective countries, after the damage done by World War 11. 

We have been agreeably surprised with Morrison’s seeming acceptance of Keynes’ roadmap for recovery. Let us hope it continues. It is the only credible way forward. As the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, an opponent of Keynes, admitted in 2008: “I guess everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole.”

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.

Recent reports of the state of the environment are alarming. Messages are often contradictory. On the one hand lots of hand – wringing from governments intent on demonstrating their environmental bona-fides, clash with draconian laws which criminalise protesters who dare to question logging and land clearing.

It is getting close to midnight when we look at how degraded our country has become, and both sides of politics appear to be in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry. It is an excellent time to actually recognise the need for action, and to end the hypocrisy. Again, “poor fellow my country” needs our collective help.

This article has been updated, as of August 11, 2022