Discovering the real Toodyay

Toodyay, in the West Australian Wheatbelt and 85km north-east of Perth, was founded as Newcastle by European settlers with its name later changed and pronounced Too-dyay, as it is to this day, with the plum further into the mouth the higher one’s imagined social standing.

However, to the Ballardong Nyungar, in whose ancestral land it sits, it is Tudjii (u as in book, ii as in feet), sometimes written Duidgee. And not only to the Nyungar. Relatives of my parents’ generation who farmed at Moora also called it Tudjii, with a local rhyme to back them up:

Tudjii was Tudjii, when Northam was a pup;
And Tudjii will be Tudjii, when Northam’s buggered up.

So there.

A new tradition?

Crude I know, but it was spur of the moment.

IN LIGHT OF recent announcements by various members of the LNP Cabinet, and given Prime Minister Scott (How Good’s Volunteering) Morrison’s attitude to the catastrophic events unfolding throughout the country, perhaps we could look at reworking some old traditions that have faded into obscurity and at the same time celebrate the Pentecostal PM’s famous pledge.

The once anticipated Cracker Night, Empire Night, Guy Fawkes Night – the name varied State by State – and associated mayhem have been replaced by organised, multi-million dollar spectacles aimed more at swelling corporate coffers and earning votes for politicians than celebrating tradition. Halloween has replaced them to a certain extent, but it’s not the same. I doubt kids today get as much as satisfaction out of playing dress-ups and begging as we did in using a gumnut bomb to demolish the letterbox of a detested local dignity.

In my home State, Western Australia, preparations began weeks before “Guy Fawkes Night” on November 5th. Kids scrounged cardboard, wood and anything else combustible, stacking the spoils anywhere they thought they could get away with a bonfire. Old clothes were snaffled and stuffed with rags and grass – with a last-minute addition of Penny Bungers if you were more solvent – and turned into a “Guy”, an effigy of the plotter of whom it was once said that he was the only man ever to enter Parliament with the right intention.

For a couple of weeks or so before the big night, groups of kids dragged their Guy around the streets chanting “Penny for the Guy; Penny for the Guy, Mister,” paying particular attention to barber shops, pubs and shop fronts behind which they knew the SP bookies lurked. Those pennies purchased supplementary cracker supplies.

So, here’s my plan. To mitigate the dangers associated with pyrotechnics and summers that thanks to the climate crisis are beginning ever earlier, we could recognise the Winter Solstice as Scott Morrison Day or, if you’d prefer, Pentecostal Eve, combining the temporal and the holier-than-thou.

On this day, in towns all over Australia, effigies of our hopefully former PM could be set aflame to chants of “Throw another Big Aussie Barbie on the Fire”.

After all, he did say he would burn for Australia.

An ancient story retold

This is not an attempt to copy the joyous art I was privileged to see in the rock-shelter somewhere beyond the
Blue Mountains; that masterpiece is imbued with 60,000 years and more of knowledge and tradition and
is there to commemorate a momentous event, the breaking of a monstrous drought. If any of my Indigenous
friends and readers are offended, please tell me and I will take it down.

I first came across this wonderful legend in Mrs Eve Langloh-Parker‘s Australian Legendary Tales, first published in 1896. I have read and heard abbreviated versions and been shown sites associated with the legend. There are many stories connected to this drought, and various reasons for it. In some versions Tidda-link (the Frog) and Coola (the Koala) are named as two beings who stole the water, and many and various were the ruses by which they were tricked into returning it. In retelling this story, I have added snippets of what I heard. Mrs Parker’s transcript of the version she was given all those years ago is wonderful and worth reading. Despite the criticism she has received, I believe she had a genuine interest in the lore of the people she encountered in her daily life and treated their philosophy and artistry with far more respect than did some of the early reviewers of her work. Some of my Indigenous friends agree with me. You can decide for yourself.

Mulla-mulla photographed in the arid country around Menzies, Western Australia, where my maternal
great-grandparents settled when they came out from Wales.—Photo courtesy Brooke Collins

Drought is a fact of life in Australia and studies have shown that one such event, recent in geological terms, lasted for about 1000 years; this beautiful story from the central west of NSW no doubt recalls that time. Set in the time after the hero, Baiame (or Bayamii), had finished his work on Earth and returned with his wives to his home along the great river that we call the Milky Way, it speaks of the interconnection between all living things, the joy the Indigenous peoples find in flowers, and the importance of social cohesion. Our climate-denialist politicians need to listen to the wisdom in these ancient stories and learn the lessons they impart.

BAYAAMII’S LAST TASK on Earth had been to carve his mark on three giant gums, telling the Bagiin, the Clever Men, that the Bee people who lived among them were never to be raided for their sugar bag, the dark, thin, delicious honey so loved by his people. “No matter what,” he told them, “these are always for the Bees in times of need, for without them many of the flowers will never grow and a time may come when the Bees are needed.”

Bayaamii had gone, taking his wives with him. South-east wind, their earthly relative, missed her kinfolk and began to sulk, causing the rain-bearing winds to cease. As the country dried, so the flowers gradually disappeared until the Bees – sacred to Bayaamii – had only tree sap and the occasional blossom from which to make honey to store in their comibii, their bags.

As the generations passed, the young people became angry with their elders the Lawmen, and scoffed at their stories about a time when the south-easterly brought spring rains and the land was covered in flowers; stories about the delicious sugar bag that could be found in rock overhangs, tree hollows and, in exceptionally good seasons, even in cracks in high ground.

“You are lying,” they would say. “Prove it’s true by letting us raid Bayaamii’s trees for their sugar bag.”

“We must not,” their elders would say, “It is the Law.”

But as the long, bitter years passed, the younger generations became even less inclined to listen to advice and, fearing that the injunctions would be overturned, the Bagiin consulted the Yuurii, the little hairy people who have links to the secret Other World. Feeling the people’s plight and knowing the consequences of breaking Law, the Yuurii pleaded with Bayaamii who told them they could guide a group of Bagiin from every corner of the land up to his home on the great river where he would tell them what to do.

The Bagiin were led to the sacred mountain – where even today you can see the steps Bayaamii cut when he returned to his home – and up to the ancient, sacred Bora, the ceremonial ground, on its summit.

There, the Bagiin and Yuurii danced a great Borraa, driving away obstacles and preparing the path to Bayaamii’s home. As the dancing reached its peak, the men were dragged upward by a great wind, twisting and whirling, sucking them up to the great river. When they had recovered the courage to open their eyes, they found themselves standing on river flats covered in all manner of beautiful flowers stretching away as far as they could see.

Bayaamii’s great voice spoke to them from somewhere along the river: “Go now,” he thundered, “and gather all the flowers you can carry and I will send you with them back to your home in my country on Earth. When you get there, you must give them to the women, who will place them on the ground. Do not,” his voice grew louder, “stop the children in whatever they might do, for you know they are special to me and my wives.” The magic of Bayaamii entered the Bagiin and they collected flowers in huge bundles, enough to cover the land it seemed, but they kept at it until another giant buuli, a willy-willy, swept them and their precious cargo up, returning them to Earth, each to his own country.

Hakea near Menzies, WA —Courtesy Brooke Collins

Back on Earth, the women cried with joy to see the beauty the Bagiin had brought with them and dashed to and fro placing the flowers in great bunches all over the ground.

The children were amazed. Never before had they seen such colours, nor smelled such sweet scents. “It’s true,” they yelled, “what the Old Ones tell us must be true.” Filled with joy, the children leaped and danced and as they did so their feet kicked the bunches of flowers in all directions. So happy was the sound of the youngsters, that the South-East women caused the rain- bearing winds to blow steady and strong, bringing the warm, spring rains to the land. Wherever a particular flower lay, there its children grow to this day.

The dance of the children is remembered for what it returned to the land. Some people will tell you that if a grown-up has a pain in the binjii– a belly ache – it’s because they have been unkind to their children and Bayaamii’s wives are punishing them.

If you visit the sandstone country behind the Blue Mountains, there is a sacred mountain with huge steps cut in one side and with its summit flattened by Bayaamii’s Great Borraa. This is the place where the Bagiin were lifted into the sky.

In the same general area, there is a large rock overhang in which is painted a line of women, 15 or more metres long. Facing the viewer, they are holding hands and dancing with joy at the beauty of their world. Some of this country is in constant danger of disappearing into a great pit.

And last, but not least, all over Australia are old place names commemorating this great event. In the greater Sydney area and again near Tenterfield, NSW, there are localities named Girraween – the place where the flowers returned.

A birds’ war corroboree

We now know that birds, and bird song, originated in that part of Gondwana that is now Australia, which is why this continent and its neighbours are so richly endowed with species – the pigeon and parrot tribes, for example, reached their greatest diversity in this region.

I have admired birds ever since I can remember; the first – and only – request I ever made of Father Christmas was for a galah. All my life I have watched them, kept them, talked to them and marvelled at their diversity, their beauty and their intelligence. And during this, the time of endless burning, I weep for them.

Because I weep for them today, I want to remember the joy they have given me over the years, so I will share a magic interlude nearly forty years ago. It happened in and around a tamarisk tree growing outside a pickers’ hut on a dried-grape block in Coomealla district, New South Wales, near the town of Dareton and not far from where the Murray River is joined by the now imperilled Darling, and featured a tribe of Apostle birds (Struthidea cinerea) and a not-very-bright Collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).

A male Apostle bird —Wikipedia Commons/Benjamin Wild 444

Meet the Apostle bird, so named because a popular, though unfounded, belief has it that it is always found in groups of twelve. It is also known as lousy jack, happy jack, grey jumper, and CWA bird, this last a somewhat derogatory reference to its habit of constantly chattering, putting the less charitable in mind of a Country Women’s Association meeting. It is a mud-nest builder and, like so many of Australia’s birds, raises the young communally, a dominant pair breeding and the rest of the tribe helping to feed the offspring – a very useful strategy in Australia’s erratic climate. They are also solicitous of each other. Feeding a group of youngsters in my backyard one day – their babysitter was perched on the clothesline – I noticed that  if the smallest of the brood flapped its wings, its larger siblings would immediately offer food.

Youngsters in a Bourke backyard

They are, like most birds, very intelligent. They also have a sense of humour.

On that day at Coomealla, my then partner/fellow picker and I were sitting on the rickety bench outside the hut, when a tribe of Apostle birds came swaggering up to fossick under the Atholl pine, as tamarisks are called in those parts. They knew us well, so we were pretty much ignored apart from the occasional derogatory remark when a fierce stare failed to produce a handout.

They’d not long been there when a Collared sparrowhawk flew on to the scene, immediately diving into the thick cover of the tamarisk’s higher branches. Rather than flee, a likely fatal manoeuvre, the tribe went into what can only be described as a war dance. Spreading their wings above their backs, they stamped their feet, fluttered and bowed, and raised a cacophony of squawks, causing the sparrowhawk to shift uncomfortably on its perch and peer intently at the dancers as if to see which of this seemingly demented tribe posed the greatest threat.

While its gaze was fixed on the centre of the rowdy mob, the bird closest to the tree quietly slipped around to the other side of the trunk and slowly began to climb towards the hawk’s perch. The closer it got, the more frantic became the dancing. Reaching the enemy’s branch, the Apostle bird seemed to shrink, as a cat does when it goes into the final phase of a stalk. Creeping along till it couldn’t have been more than fifteen centimetres from the target, the Struthidean hero, shrieking like an enraged panther, leaped into the air and with wings flapping and feet forward hit the hawk fair in the back.

The result was dramatic. The hawk literally fell from the branch and for a second we thought it would hit the ground, but at the last minute it spread its wings and fled. Wings beating like the clappers and flying almost at ground level, it disappeared among the rows of sultanas.

And the Apsotle birds? When the warrior returned to the bosom of the family, they began a corroboree of celebration. They bobbed and bowed, flapped and flirted, exchange gentle pecks and, I swear, they laughed. Long and raucously, they laughed. There’s no other word for the noise they were making.

The old hut, scene of the Apostle birds’ victory dance

A Moral Verse for Quiet Australians

Hubble bubble, toil and trouble,
Turmoil in the Canberra bubble;
Angus Taylor, an MP,
Of note in Government Ministry,
Had pulled another little rort,
It seemed (at last) he had been caught.

But no, his tubby little frame,
Ablaze with Pentecostal flame,
The PM stood in Parliament,
His anger on the House to vent;
“This persecution has to stop,
“I’ve phoned my mate, New South’s top cop.

“And young Mick told me it’s a joke,
“That Angus is a bonzer bloke.
“And so, you Opposition jerks,
“Who claim he’s pulled a dozen perks,
“Ease up on Angus, that good man,
“Who likes his finger in the jam.”

How grand it is for us to be,
Living in democracy;
Where our national leader bold,
Has put our Parliament on hold;
And Coppers in another State,
Decide a Federal pollie’s fate.

So, whose culture is under attack in Australia?

“Ah white man, have you any sacred sites?”

Poems by Denis Kevans, Australia’s Poet Lorikeet. (1939–2005)

The announcement by the traditional owners and the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park Board that climbing Uluru (officially Uluru/Ayers Rock) will be officially prohibited from October 26th this year, has prompted a rush of tourists intent on climbing this globally recognised natural feature, sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu for at least 300 generations.

This isn’t surprising, given the wailing and gnashing of teeth rising from the ranks of Australians – latter day would-be Nazis among them – who are convinced that their “white culture” and “Christian beliefs” are under attack from everyone everywhere including, but not confined to, the United Nations, various halal certification boards, and a race of shape-shifting lizards of interplanetary origin who control the world financial system and appear to humans as Jews.

There have been reports of parents dragging small children with them as they attempted the climb – one couple even leaving an eight-year-old unattended at Uluru’s base while they did so – and rangers and others complain of people camping in prohibited areas and dumping rubbish and “black water” from campervan and caravan toilets and waste-water tanks all over the landscape.

Pauline Hanson, is vocal in her support of these culture warriors. And why wouldn’t she be? She has after all claimed that she is an Indigenous woman, having been born in Australia. Some might dispute her understanding of the term, but it is fairly obvious that dictionaries of any sort have never been high on her reading list. Her political party, such as it now is, has also expressed support, though thankfully its voice in our Parliaments is now more of a bleat than a loud croak.

As I said, none of this is surprising, but it is – or should be – a great source of shame to us as a nation; a shame amplified by the deafening silence emanating from the supposed leaders of the country. It would be a great thing if a Greta Thunberg, a Joan of the Rock, could rise to organise a sit-in at Uluru until the ban takes effect, or the nation comes to its senses. A thousand or so people assembled at the base of the climb chanting “shame, shame, shame” during daylight hours would be a wondrous thing, though it’s Sydney to the bush-On that the Northern Territory police would wade in. It was, you might remember, the NT government that boycotted the handback ceremony and vowed to rename the sacred feature “Ayers Rock” if and when the Territory attains statehood.

I’d probably be unable to attend such a sit-in – and I’m happy to explain why to anyone who cares – which distresses me a bit, but there is another great Australian tradition to which I can and will resort. In the days of our Colonial past, a swaggie named McQuade, for reasons now unknown, penned a curse on the Victorian town of Tallarook, and I’d like to invoke his spirit in the belief that being a self-professed Christian white person (usually male), doesn’t automatically endow some sort of Divine Right to trample on the beliefs and lives of others.

Over the ages, many cultures have developed forms of social punishment that don’t necessarily entail physical violence. The earliest Icelandic Althing (Parliament) once banished people from society for certain transgressions, cursing them as “far as an eagle may fly with a fair wind uplifting both wings” and “for as long as there are men to hunt wolves” according to one writer whose name now escapes me.

The English have long had transgressors “sent to Coventry“, imposing drastic social ostracism on individuals, a tradition so old that its origins are lost, and trade unionists’ hostility to scab labour sees the offenders and their families “blacked”, sometimes for generations. And there are some cultures that completely deny the existence of those who sin against them.

So, to all you sad, soul-less seekers of self-gratification, you arch-bastards who, through a misguided belief that your interests and personal ambitions including those as petty and meaningless as the need to upload a selfie, override all else, here’s a message:

When you come down from Uluru, that place which to you is just a rock put there for your enjoyment, think about what you have done. If you could hear, you might note the sound of distant weeping. If you could feel, you might sense the ancient earth, the red rust of mountains worn by time to sand and the keeping place for the bones of 2000 and more generations.

But you won’t hear or feel these things. There will never be a breeze gentle enough to cool you, nor a tree kind enough to shade you. No sunset will ever promise you a balmy night, no sunrise ever promise rain. The night skies will be dull to you and the glory of the universe closed to you. Birds will no longer sing for you; ravens and crows will not speak of you, and even Tjerit-tjerit, the Willy Wagtail, will spread no gossip of you.

The flowers will dull for you and no dew shall ever soften the summer grass through which you might wish to walk. The wind will never be at your back and all the paths before you will be stone.

You will exist only in your own mind and the world will have no memory of you, for you will never have been.

Photo credits
Top: Panorama of Uluru by Stuart Edwards/Wikipedia
People on Uluru: Uluru Climb by ennekapeapeon [Nathalie Kafurt]/Instagram

Australians have been betrayed

Note: This article was written for the Molong Express of June 13, 2019. Since it was published, the LNP Federal and Labor State government of Queensland have signed off on the Adani Carmichael coalmine and the consequent destruction of the Galilee Basin. This decision has sounded the death knell for the Great Barrier Reef and added another grave marker in the cemetery of dashed hopes of today’s youth. This coincides with the announcement that Norway’s “Oil Fund” is divesting itself of some $18 billion in fossil fuel investments.

Now that the election is over, we are being forced to face the fact that the winning side, bereft of many actual policies, snatched victory by riding a bandwagon of lies, half truths and the over-inflated ego of a self-proclaimed billionaire.

Some political commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that many of the government’s policy promises – and I use the word with caution – were laid as traps for an expected future Labor government.


The argument goes that on questions of border security and tax cuts, the Opposition would have to agree to many of the LNP’s promises for fear that it would be seen as “soft on security” and unsupportive of the “battler”, then, when elected, Labor would be faced with budget blowouts that the LNP could use as a cudgel with which to beat them.


Whether or not that is true has no bearing on this article, but what can’t be ignored is the simple fact that after years of growth, rising corporate profits and unprecedented expansion of the mining industry, Australia is no better off than it was prior to the boom years that began in about 2003.


During the recent election campaign, the LNP spent countless hours in trying to convince the voting public of their skill as economic managers, without any real evidence that they are. On the other side, Labor pointed to the fact that they steered the nation through the Global Financial Crisis, escaping with relatively few battle scars and little of the damage sustained by other countries.


Graphs by the score are trotted out to bolster the arguments of both sides but they all miss the point. They tell those who can read them how the economy fared over a given period of time but what they don’t tell us is how a nation’s people are feeling in themselves or, to borrow a marker from our cousins across the Tasman Sea, the wellbeing of the nation.


If we were brave enough to take a really close look at Australia and honest enough to describe what we were seeing, it’s a fair bet that we would describe ourselves as a nation in peril.


Governments ponder falling house prices and their effect on the economy, yet there is little discussion over a survey’s findings that in the whole of Australia, only two rental properties came within financial reach of someone on the Newstart allowance. Just two.


There is little concern expressed over reports showing that rents in Hobart are rapidly becoming the least affordable in the nation and that all over Australia the numbers of homeless people are growing, with mature-age women an increasing percentage of those numbers.


And perhaps that’s the trouble. This new generation of politicians sees the world in bottom lines, in spreadsheets and statistics, not as a living, breathing planet inhabited by people of all social backgrounds and capabilities, each as deserving of consideration as the next.


Using money and minerals as the yardstick, Australia is a rich country. From the first goldrushes to the diverse mineral extraction of the present, billions upon uncounted billions of dollars have been wrested from our ancient land to enrich the world’s industrialists.


Australian coal and iron have fuelled the phenomenal rise of China as an industrial power, just as our gold, wool and wheat enriched the masters of the British Empire.
Yet as a nation, are we any better off? Our public health system is under pressure, government schools are starved of funding, public housing stocks are the lowest in many, many years as homelessness rises and new apartments sit vacant, and wages are stagnant at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high.


Public assets are flogged off to corporations who then increase the charges to their new customers while the sale proceeds are spent on pork-barrel projects that return a fraction of the original value to the community. Meanwhile the government offers tax cuts then tells voters there is no money to “waste” on social projects. And all the time, the nation’s resources are dug from the ground and shipped overseas at no great benefit to the people as a whole.


What happened to the billions in royalties paid into the “future fund”? It was squandered on tax cuts and handouts, the benefits of which have since evaporated.
It is said that one in every four bulk ore carriers plying the world’s oceans is carrying the Pilbara’s iron ore. Why then is Western Australia begging for a greater slice of the GST take?


Why is the Queensland Labor Government offering royalty freezes for miners if they contribute to community funds, while a former Federal Minister in the Liberal government, speaking for the mining companies, says he welcomes the offer but the LNP has a more attractive plan. What could be more attractive than billions of tax-free dollars in return for a few million spent on footy fields and community halls?
In 2018, Australia’s take from gas exports was expected to be $600 million, the same as is raised by the beer tax, while for the same period Qatar would reap $26.6 billion. We will soon eclipse Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of gas.


According to one source, Australia’s effective tax rate on its gas resources is 21 per cent, while that on the reserves held by the North Sea nations (which include some Scandinavian countries, Germany and the Netherlands) is 35 per cent and more. What is more, our petroleum resource rent tax allows companies to offset the costs of exploration and claim tax credits for future decommissioning of plants.


While eastern States energy prices increase at about six times the rate of wage earner income, record amounts of LNG are shipped overseas to countries whose people pay less for the gas than we do. Interestingly, very little of that gas is reserved for the domestic market – it was all given away to the miners; those same miners who tell us that if they were allowed to extract gas by fracking priceless agricultural land, we would get our domestic supply much cheaper. To add insult to injury, tax and royalty arrangements “negotiated” by governments have ensured that it will be years before the country sees any benefit.


Both miners and politicians seem to forget that it is the nation’s gas and miners should pay for the privilege of extracting and marketing it.


In 2014–15, Australian exports of gold earned about $16 billion; royalties paid during that period were about $317 million. It’s hard not to conclude that governments have given the cake to the miners – and other interests – while the nation is left only the crumbs on the floor. All this is in stark contrast to the situation in Norway, a Scandinavian country of some 5.3 million inhabitants.


In 1990, Norway established the Government Pension Fund Global, popularly known as the Oil Fund and established to invest the surplus revenue from the petroleum sector, both State and privately owned, that exploits the Norwegian sector of the North Sea oilfields.


By 2018 it had about $AU1.5 trillion in assets – $AU280,000 per citizen – assets of which 1.3 per cent are held in global stocks and shares, making it the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and the largest single investor in European commerce.


The fund only invests in companies that it considers to be environmentally and ethically responsible; tobacco companies and those found to be environmentally irresponsible are not considered, for example. It regularly votes in meetings of stockholders, hoping to influence decisions around environmental and ethical issues.

The fund is kept aside against future eventualities and should not be confused with the Pension Fund. Set up in 1967, its investments are in Norwegian companies only and, as its name implies, is a State controlled superannuation fund.

I suppose it’s never too late to introduce a good idea, but I think the Australian horse has well and truly bolted. The miners – and other corporations – now have such a stranglehold on much of our Parliament that any legislation offering even the remotest perception of a threat to the privileged position that large corporations hold in this country would never see the light of day.

A small matter of water, and headless chooks

Grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) woodland, an increasingly scarce ecotype.
Photo Ecolink/Colleen Miller

THERE WAS a revealing interview on ABC Radio’s RN Drive recently. On Friday 24, May, presenter Patricia Karvelas spoke to James McTavish, the NSW Government’s Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator, about the deepening crisis facing towns throughout the State. Mr McTavish told those of us who don’t already know it that towns as far apart as Dubbo and Tenterfield, Bourke and Molong, are facing real problems as water supplies rapidly diminish and restrictions bite deeper.

He told listeners what some of the problems are – the drought figuring significantly – but unfortunately was a bit light on any long-term solutions. To be fair, he was fronting for a government and, generally speaking, state and federal governments have never been too keen on long-term planning that might affect their election prospects.

There was the usual mention of new dams and the sinking of bores to augment water supplies. Carting in water to some places was also mentioned, but as James McTavish pointed out, carting water to a place like Tenterfield would be inordinately expensive and at best a stop-gap measure.

Mr McTavish also reminded listeners that not only farmers and rural towns are affected; industries in the regions are also at risk. He cited the case of Cobar, a mining town that relies on water pumped from the Bogan River at Nyngan. The mines are the largest user of water in the town and both the mines and township will face severe downturns if the supply is restricted.

Strawberry growers around Stanthorpe, a town in the “Granite Belt” just north of Tenterfield and over the Queensland border, are facing financial hardship as water becomes scarcer. During a recent interview, one grower said a solution was to grow the berries hydroponically under cover, a method that uses, and wastes, less water. However, he noted that present returns on the crop don’t justify the expense of such infrastructure. “People will pay $6 for a Big Mac,” he said, “but if the price of a punnet of strawberries goes above $3, they won’t buy them.”

However, neither the grower nor the interviewer mentioned that the horticultural industry regularly ploughs-in or dumps hundreds, sometimes thousands of tonnes of crops if market prices are low.

Just days later, Sydney Water announced that the NSW capital’s water supply – or rather lack of it – was cause for concern.

Again, the bulk of the problem was laid at the feet of the drought. Of course, there is no denying that we are in drought, and for farmer and townie alike it is hard to see past the lack of rain when you are being forced to de-stock or your cherished garden is dying. But is it just the drought and are there solutions, long-term ones?

Drought has our attention because it’s an obvious factor, but there are other things driving the water shortages. Sinking bores to augment water supplies may bring immediate, temporary relief, but in the long term will cause more problems. Most groundwater sources require flooding rivers and good rainfall to replenish them, and they have always been scarce and unreliable commodities in Australia, a continent with the world’s most erratic climate. Groundwater used now may take decades – perhaps centuries – to replenish even if used sparingly. Given the now irrefutable effects of the worsening climate crisis, we have no guarantees either way.

River systems everywhere are suffering badly from misuse, over-extraction and downright mismanagement over the decades and the result is now plain for all to see. What floods do occur are mostly sudden and violent, but long, dry spells are becoming more the norm. The “Bradfield Scheme”, a much-discredited plan to dam tropical rivers and divert their waters into the deserts, is again getting air time – as are proposals to tap “fossil aquifers” in the tropical north.

The lush, sub-tropical north of NSW was in drought until recently, and over the Top End, this year’s monsoon was almost a non-event; This at a time when Darwin authorities are expressing concern over the depletion of groundwater supplies in parts of the city. Our “southern” monsoon has never been as reliable as the rains further north, and even those are now becoming more erratic. In fact, there are fears that changes in Himalaya ice cover and other factors will eventually lead to the failure of the northern monsoon, with catastrophic results for a sizeable chunk of the world’s population, not to mention the global economy and migratory pressures on other regions.

The pity is that the writing has been on the wall for decades, but those who tried to draw attention to it were at best ignored and at worst pilloried and ridiculed. If Australia – and the world – had begun action thirty years ago, then the task ahead would have been easier and the costs spread over a longer period, but that window has closed. Action is required now, and nations are going to have to cooperate as never before in human history. What can Australia do?

The irrigation industry obviously needs an overhaul, along with regulation of the crops grown. It his hard to argue a case for growing crops requiring vast amounts of water – crops such as almonds, wine grapes, cotton and rice – in marginal country on a continent that sits mainly in the Tropic Arid Zone. Yet we do, and in huge quantities. Sadly, the huge increases in plantings of almonds, and to a lesser extent, wine grapes, are, like the national obsession with coffee, in response to a created demand.

Irrigation on the scale at which it is now practiced is unsustainable in this country; dryland cropping and grazing are really the only viable alternatives when it comes to broadacre farming. Aided by scientific research and a growing acceptance of Indigenous land-management techniques, Australia’s farmers and graziers have made an enormous contribution to alleviating, and in some cases almost reversing, the damage done in the past.

Governments at all levels also need to step up; farmers cannot be expected to address the problems of over-clearing and land degradation alone. Reforestation is of vital importance to future drought management strategies and to combat the climate crisis. Remediation projects on an imaginative scale should be viewed as infrastructure projects that would employ many thousands of people. Rather than stigmatising such national efforts as “work for the dole” schemes, they should be promoted as works of national importance.

If we rely on our dryland farmers to produce exports and feed the nation, then insurance must be looked at. Insurance providers are already factoring in the climate crisis and governments must enter into dialogue to ensure our farmers are equitably treated. Funding to the CSIRO must be restored as a matter of national urgency, and the BOM must be adequately resourced.

 And while we wring our hands over dwindling water resources and the plight of farmers, governments continue to issue exploration permits for coal-seam gas exploration and other extractive industries that disrupt or render unusable the water resources on which our agricultural and pastoral industries rely. Political parties praise our “clean green” agriculturalists, weep crocodile tears over the “bush battlers” and “pray for rain” at every photo opportunity, then chide groups such as the Knitting Nannas and Lock The Gate Alliance for trying to protect the resources on which agriculture depends.

The water from town treatment plants needs to be utilised. Adelaide’s “Green Belt” has long been sustained by recycled water, and this is something that should be repeated all over Australia – and not only in the capitals. Smaller centres could be assisted in establishing combined aquaculture and horticulture enterprises based on waste water and other imaginative projects.

Politicians are now carping over the costs of mitigating the climate crisis: “We must reduce emissions but not at the expense of the economy”, is often repeated. If we don’t act now, all else becomes irrelevant. The crisis we are facing is far-reaching and real. Most politicians were silent about the costs of following the USA into Vietnam and Iraq – futile exercises of absolutely no benefit to anybody except perhaps the warlords who control the military-industrial complex – yet it seems that the climate crisis is of lesser importance than the whims of US Presidents.

What now of our future?

This was written for my weekly page in the Molong Express of 23rd May, 2019. It reflects my own views and not necessarily those of either the Molong Express or any other person associated with that paper

Lake Nanine, Western Australia. Once rich in fish and birdlife, the climate crisis and overuse have taken their toll on Nanine – and most of WA’s lakes

Well, the election is for the most part done and dusted and the country is awash with recriminations and back-slapping, with gloating and the gnashing of teeth. The most surprising thing about this election is that the outcome was in large part decided by three very rich, very selfish men whose views on the distribution of wealth just happened to coincide with those of their front man and now the elected Prime Minister. But there are no winners.

Clive Palmer may have achieved his goal of blocking a Labor victory and at the same time guaranteeing he will gain approval for a vast coalmine in Queensland, and the father-and-son team who have all but total control of Australia’s media may have once again proved to themselves and their hangers-on that they are among the world’s most powerful men and answerable to no-one, but they still find themselves in the same leaky boat to which they have likely condemned the rest of us.

Australia has been sentenced to another three years of inaction on the crisis now facing the world. Even if the new government goes to the polls early – over the past 25 years the average time between elections has been 27.5 months – time that could have been spent in mitigating some of the effects of global heating will have been wasted. Time we can ill afford.

The Coalition has already wasted six valuable years, six years spent in argument among its members. The Biblical brigade fought the more progressive bloc over same-sex marriage; members of all factions fought over the climate crisis; the coal at all costs Lignites argued against renewable energy while we experienced the hottest summers on record, rivers ran dry and ordinary citizens donated to farmers whose lives were being crushed by drought. And in the eight months leading up to the election, the People’s House sat for less than a month, largely so the government could avoid scrutiny according to many commentators.

And nothing has changed. The climate crisis has slipped back down the agenda – not that either of the two main parties were really serious about it in the first place – and the government will soon be back to blaming the “latté-sipping city dwellers” for alarming their beloved “battlers”. This conveniently ignores the fact that voters in most blue-ribbon seats would fall in the former category and the latter will continue to be denied penalty rates, meaningful training and, for the unemployed among them, an increase in the unemployment allowance – benefit is too generous a word.

Nationally, we must get our head out of the sand. All the legislation in the world becomes meaningless if the climate crisis is not addressed but this is unlikely to happen. The Coalition seems hell bent on following the lead of the USA in allowing a noisy minority of climate change deniers and born-again Christians, aided and abetted by the very forces that have pulled the rug out from under the “middle classes”, to dictate policy.

A US political commentator once said that when America doesn’t have a war it needs to start one, so great is the political influence of the military-industrialists. Donald Trump seems to be drooling at the prospect of a stoush with Iran, and if he plunges the US into yet another futile conflict, then it’s London to a brick-on that our government will follow him. And it’s not only the industrialists who will celebrate. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians all over the world, Australia included, would rejoice at the approaching “End Times”, the end-vision of Christian Dominionism made real.

If there is an invasion of Iran, there will be another exodus of refugees at a time when the world is awash with the displaced and desperate. Someone once said that communism flourishes where there are empty bellies. To this I’d add that terrorism flourishes where there is despair and injustice. When the ranks of those displaced by war are swollen by those uprooted by the climate crisis, it will be almost too late to act; governments may be all but powerless against the tide of human misery unless they all join in cooperation, and given the present mood, there seems little likelihood of that happening.

The climate crisis must be addressed now, yet already we see that the government cannot act on any of its election promises until the new financial year. Financial legislation will dominate Parliament for weeks or months after that and it will be another six months at best before our most pressing emergency is even mentioned.

We are in danger of alienating our young people even more than we already have. Worldwide they are demonstrating by their actions that they fear the future they are being left, and soon they will become angry.

And who could blame them?

An apology to Australia’s youth

About fifty per cent of Australia’s adults – if I dare call them that – have just sent you a message: they have told you that your future and the future of the planet on which you live are unimportant. They have told you that their concern for their own wellbeing and way of life overrides any concerns you might have about future employment, education, and a place to live.

They have told you that being able to spend their remaining years on the deck of a pleasure launch – assisted in part by a handout from taxpayers – is more important than contributing to your education and healthcare; more important than fighting to mend the earth you will inherit, an earth so badly damaged by previous generations that your very existence is threatened.

They have told you that education should be only for those who can afford it, as it has been for all but a few years of the last several centuries; that first-class health care is only for the wealthy, and that the environment doesn’t matter. They have told you that self-interest is more important than the good of the nation and the health of our beautiful, ancient land.

They have told you they believe they are more worthy than you.

In a few months’ time, I shall be 79 years old, an age that is beyond your imagining – I know this, because I remember what it was to be young – and I have seen and done a lot of things. Some things I am not proud of, but I don’t regret them; regrets are futile, mistakes are lessons. But one constant in my life has been my love of people and the love of my country.

I love people because they are human, and being human means that they are all different with a different story to tell. One of my grandfathers, a man named George Hamilton, once told me to “never look at the colour of someone’s skin”. That worried me until I was old enough to understand what he meant.

When I was growing up, Australia was a country frightened of difference. The indigenous peoples were different and, having at last become ashamed of our efforts to exterminate them, we tried to change them. We tried to make them whiter by regulating who they were allowed to marry, and when that didn’t work, we used other laws to regulate their lives. The general public just ignored them for the most part.

We were frightened of the Chinese who came to Australia during the great goldrushes and so passed into law the “White Australia” policy. We were frightened of the Italians and Greeks who came here in large numbers after World War II. We were frightened of the “Balts”, the peoples of Eastern Europe who were allowed in as refugees.

Did you know that before these migrants came to Australia, zucchinis, tomato paste, capsicums, egg plant, salami, and a thousand and one other now everyday foods were unheard of? That olive oil was sold in tiny bottles and used as a medicine? It’s true, I know; because it was in my lifetime.

But our country grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s and we became accustomed to different faces and customs. And we came to love different foods and new celebrations. We rejoiced in our diversity.

A Prime Minister named John Howard changed all that. In his time in office, he fought hard to send attitudes back to the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day and has now been reinforced. And like John Howard, many politicians hate the changes that have been made and want us to be frightened of everybody who is not “us”: they want us to demonise people born in Africa and Asia and to mistrust anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their ethnicity. They would prefer it if we were all white and Christian and certainly not gay or vegetarian.

Conservative governments have always used this fear of “the other” to divide us to their own advantage. But “the other” has broadened. It now includes the unemployed, the less wealthy and those people for whom life has never been easy. For a brief time, the “fair go” was an Australian certainty, it is now a myth.

When the Indigenous peoples indicated that they would like to see a First Nations committee set up to advise government on formulation of any policy affecting them, they were given a blunt refusal. It would, the government said, amount to another Chamber in Parliament. They had become “the other” again; more than 60,000 years occupation of this continent apparently doesn’t entitle them to a voice in government.

When next you attend an Anzac Day ceremony, bear in mind that the men and women whom politicians glorify as wonderful and heroic Australians – particularly those veterans of the two World Wars – are the same people whose votes gave us the benefits that conservative governments are now bent on taking away. Votes for women, health care, free education, pensions, and numberless other things we once took for granted but no longer can. They have become “privileges” not entitlements.

These same politicians are fond of telling you how much they “love Australia”, but what they are saying is that they love it for what they can get out of it, not what it does for them. They really have no concept of the land itself, that mysterious “thing” that sustains both their mental and physical health. They don’t feel its heartbeat through the soles of their feet, for they “have no time to grow; they have no time to waste”*. If they did, they would be in Parliament today and every day, addressing the biggest crisis to face this planet and all creatures that rely on it since the day a hominid first picked up a burning stick.

The people who voted against your future have benefited most from programs put in place by more enlightened governments and it seems those benefits have shortened their memories and made them selfish.

But there is hope. When brave young Greta Thunberg made her appearance on the world stage, my heart lifted; she is, or should be, an inspiration to us all. The door will only be open for a very short time before the processes our politicians ignore become irreversible, and because fifty per cent of your elders – and sadly it seems, some of your contemporaries – refused to put the interests of the nation ahead of their own, this huge burden is now on your shoulders.

Be strong.

My generation and the one just after seem to have forgotten that we took to the streets and stopped a war; we took to the streets and ended apartheid in South Africa; we took to the streets to help our Indigenous brothers and sisters in their fight for dignity. Young people were jailed – and in some countries, the USA among them, killed. But they won. In the end they won. And you can win this fight, you must win, there is no alternative worth contemplating. Fifty per cent of us will be behind you as best we can, but it will be your energy and determination that will save our planet and your future from the barbarians.

*From A B Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow