December 17, 2011

Boyer Lectures

ABC Radio National


The Quiet Revolution

The Idea of Home

A Golden Age of Freedom

Boyer Lectures

Fair Australia: Social Justice and the Health Gap

Michael Marmot (1945): Medical Epidemiologist.

Indigenous People and the Resources Boom

Marcia Langton (1951): Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne.

  • The conceit of wilderness ideology, 9 December 2012.
    Tim Flannery:
    [Mining] often takes priority over nature protection.
    Even under Labor governments with a strong green bent, national parks are not always safe.
    In 2010, the Queensland Bligh government began the process of de-gazetting a large part of Mungkan Kaanju National Park on Cape York Peninsula, with a view to giving the land back to its traditional owners.
    (After the Future, Australia’s New Extinction Crisis, Quarterly Essay, Issue 48, November 2012)
    {[The traditional owners have renamed Mungkan Kaanju National Park as] Oyala Thumotan …
    How fitting that Flannery should insult the traditional owners and the memory of [John Koowarta of the Winychanam group of Cape York], on behalf of the conservation movement this year, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Koowarta … and twentieth anniversary of the Mabo [High Court cases.]}

    [First inference:]
    [That land] owned by an Aboriginal person or entity is less ‘safe’ from mining … than if it remains a national park.

    [Second inference:]
    [That] any title owned by an non-Aboriginal person is ‘safer’ than one owned by an Aboriginal person or entity. …
    [The] Crown has the power to de-gazette national parks and compulsorily acquire any title for any purpose. …
    [It] makes no difference at law if the title is a national park, freehold, pastoral lease or any other title. …

    Did Flannery intend in this statement to be provocative and racist – asserting wrongly that mining would automatically occur in this area because of the transfer of title to Aboriginal people – or has he succumbed unwittingly to the environmental campaign ideology that Australia’s first people are the enemies of nature? …
    Such an intelligent man and yet this is not the only instance of his misrepresentation of Aboriginal people in his published works. …

    There is no necessary racial implication in Flannery's statement about the degazetting of Oyala Thumotan National Park.
    If the prospective owners had been Jewish or Islamic, one would not the reflexively attribute Flannery's opposition to anti-semitic or anti-islamic prejudice.

    [Third inference:]
    [The] racist assumption in the [now repealed] Wild Rivers Act was that the rivers were unsafe from development while the banks and river basins were owned by Aboriginal people. …
    The idea of Aboriginal people as fundamentally polluting …
    [The] racist assumption [of] the green movement [over the last 40 years is that] Aboriginal people [are] the enemies of the wilderness …
    [The] presumption [is] that we Aboriginal people are the threat to nature. …
    Aboriginal land is targeted both by mining companies and conservation campaigners precisely because it is Aboriginal land.

    That is to say, all things being equal, miners and conservationists will preferentially 'target' Aboriginal over non-Aboriginal land.

    Timothy Neale [PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne]:

    What is the Act?

    [The] Wild Rivers Act (Qld) is relatively minor within the web of environmental legislation regulating Cape York Peninsula. …
    The Act itself does not regulate development proposals but is instead implemented through the Sustainable Planning Act (Qld). …
    [In 1992] the Federal Government committed … to produce a survey of Australia’s “near-pristine rivers”.
    By 1998, the project had transformed into a program to identify and collect information on “wild rivers” and their catchments.
    [In 2004, Peter] Beattie pledged to provide legislative protection for 19 “wild rivers” across Queensland. …
    [At the time of writing there were] twelve declared Wild Rivers areas in Queensland …

    Waves of opposition

    [The] first three … Cape York Peninsula Wild Rivers [declarations ‒ the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart ‒ were made in 2009.]
    [They] have since been heavily criticised by Indigenous stakeholders.
    [The fourth Cape York declaration, the Wenlock Basin, was made in 2010.]

    Outside parties

    [Some opponents of the scheme have alleged that the] declarations were [part of a Green preferences deal] brokered by the Wilderness Society [in 2004]. …

    [A less conspiratorial explanation is that, the] ALP’s ‘green’ [policies] have [wide support] in the urban south …
    [That being said,] the Cook electorate [did itself repeatedly re-elect] an ALP candidate during this period.

    [The other] significant player has been the mining company Cape Alumina whose Pisolite Hills project near Mapoon has been potentially rendered “unfeasible” by the Wenlock declaration.
    [This] bauxite project has a lifespan of 15 years.
    (The Wild Rivers Controversy, The Conversation, 2 March 2012)

    [The] legislation’s code indicates [that]
    New developments that do not impact the health of the river can still occur …
    but destructive activities such as mining cannot.
    [The] legislation explicitly has no effect on native title rights …

    [While Noel Pearson] famously derided the legislation as a “green foot” on the throats of Indigenous people, several traditional owners have stated that the legislation prevents no desired or anticipated development projects.
    {His criticisms have initiated choruses of support … from, for example, Marcia Langton …}

    In September 2010, several Cape York traditional owners travelled to Canberra to deliver the message that they supported Wild Rivers declarations … and that Pearson is “not our leader”. …

    Pisolite Hills and Wongai – participation in mining

    Former [Cape Alumina] CEO, Dr Paul Messenger, has stated that were the project abandoned it would be “felt most severely in the Aboriginal community of Mapoon”, as it potentially includes 250 direct and indirect jobs for the 15-year lifespan of the mine and tens of millions of dollars in an Indigenous Land Use Agreement.
    Presently mining dominates the Gross Regional Product (GRP) of the Cape but it remains one of its smallest direct employers of Indigenous or non-Indigenous workers. …
    Elsewhere, on the East Cape, the Wongai coal project has recently been granted “significant project status,” meaning its assessment will be fast-tracked. …

    While those who have opposed the Wild Rivers legislation reject suggestions that their position is linked to mining projects, it is an easy connection to make.
    (Whatever happened to Queensland’s Wild Rivers controversy?  The Conversation, 1 June 2012)

    Some traditional owners support the Wild Rivers legislation.
    If non-Aboriginals support it one cannot assume they are racists simply because that happen to be non-Aboriginal.
    If the quote from Flannery's Quarterly Essay and the history of the Koowarta land claim are the most convincing examples of misrepresentation and conspiracy Langton could find, they do not make for a strong case.
    Forceful and frequent assertion is no substitute for evidence.
    Loud and repeated accusations may make for inflammatory polemic but the unconverted will not find them persuasive.

    [Fourth inference:]
    [These] are not wilderness areas.
    They are Aboriginal homelands, shaped over millennia by Aboriginal people.

    The presumption by conservationists that these areas need to be rescued from Aboriginal people … is a strange twist on the racist fiction of terra nullius
    Our customary and traditional governance systems [have miraculously] survived colonisation and white settlement …
    [This] goes entirely unnoticed among the conservation campaigners and … the intellectuals of the movement like Tim Flannery.
    A Wild River (United States, Australia, & New Zealand) or Heritage River (Canada) is
    [A river or a river system designated by a government to be protected and kept] relatively untouched by development and are therefore in near natural condition, with all, or almost all, of their natural values intact.
    The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas categorizes areas across the world as Wilderness (IUCN Category 1b) protected areas if they are:
    Large [areas] of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea, retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.
    (7 March 2013)
    [Fifth inference:]
    Some conservationists and conservation groups have been complicit in political chicanery, racism and further expropriation of our homelands, and for 30 years have been to Aboriginal advancement. …
    The [Queensland] Government gazetted a number of national parks [including Oyala Thumotan] over the pastoral properties that Aboriginal peoples had expressed interest in buying, to prevent them from people legally purchasing the land.
    Even given this history of chicanery … and the conservationist deals with governments to colonise Aboriginal land under the Green flag, the plain fact is … Aboriginal people have dedicated their land to environmental and biodiversity conservation.
    The facts prove Flannery and his colleagues in the so-called wilderness movement wrong. …

    Conservationists have 'connived' with governments to deny Aboriginal claims.
    This is a conspiracy theory.

    On the face of it, this sequence of events, while reflecting poorly on the government, says nothing about the motives of environmentalists.
    Langton assumes racist rather than environmental intentions.
    Whether true or false, Langton does not present any direct evidence to support it.
    The impression given is that "if you are not with us, you are against us."

    1. The government are racists.
    2. The government oppose us.
    3. Environmentalists oppose us.


    1. Environmentalists are racists.
    2. There is a racist conspiracy.

    If follows then, that the only "true" or honorable environmentalists are those whose positions coincide with Aboriginal interests.
    Any divergence from Aboriginal goals strays into racist territory.

    [The True Conservationists:]
    Peter Cooke … worked with Wamut, and through four decades of living in the Aboriginal world, was able to provide Western skills of research and science, and enable others like him to forge the partnerships that have enabled this first Aboriginal carbon farming scheme.
    [And] the late Steve Szabo, a dedicated government officer who shepherded the Indigenous Protected Area scheme through the government corridors.
    These are the true conservationists who understand the complexity of our natural world, who are informed by science, be it Aboriginal traditional knowledge or Western science …
    [Then] there are the so-called wilderness campaigners who abuse the trust placed in them by a gullible public.
    While they treat us as the enemy, as brutish savages fit only to have our property confiscated, they are not friends of Aboriginal people.
    While they persist with their deformed understanding of nature, they are not friends of the earth.

    The logical structure of Langton's argument reduces to two sets of propositions:

    1. Conservationists oppose mining.
    2. Mining provides economic benefits to Aborigines.
    3. Opposition to mining = opposition to Aboriginal advancement.
    4. Those who obstruct Aboriginal advancement are racists.
    5. Conservationists are racists.

    1. Aborigines have a record of sustainable natural resource management going back tens of thousands of years.
    2. The idea that Aborigines are a threat to the environment is a racist myth.
    3. Some Aborigines in some communities support mining.
    4. Conservationists consider mining, and those who support it, to be threats to the environment.
    5. Conservationists are perpetuating a racist myth.

    Langton touts the historical record of sustainable land management by Aboriginal peoples while at the same time trumpeting the benefits of mining development for Aboriginal economic and social advancement.
    The issue of whether protecting the environment or addressing indigenous disadvantage should be given greater weight is a question of competing values.
    The trade-offs are, to a large extent, specific to the unique human and physical geography of any given location.

    Langton's solution, broadly speaking, is to cast environmentalists as obstacles to progress.
    Whether the benefit gained from garnering favour with mining interests (and their political fellow travelers) outweighs the costs in terms of alienating current and potential supporters among those sympathetic to the environment, is an open question.
    Whatever is the case, this polemic resonates with the current political fashion for polarisation and conflict over engagement and consensus.
    Confrontation, is generally speaking, not the optimal strategy when grappling with “wicked” problems.
    As it is as likely to frustrate as to facilitate their solution.

The Idea of Home

Geraldine Brooks (1955): Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2006.

  • Our Only Home, 20 November 2011.

    There is no longer any true wilderness left on Earth.
    The carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere has ensured that the hand of humanity now reaches into even the most pristine alpine crevice or remnant virgin forest. …
    Bill McKibben [American Writer and Activist]:
    Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence …
    [The] rain had become a subset of human activity.
    The rain bore a brand …
    [It] was a steer, not a deer.
    (The End of Nature, 1989)
    Today, twenty two years later, one of the easiest-to-grasp facts of climate change concerns its effect on rain.
    Warmer air simply holds more water vapor than cold.
    In dry places, like much of Australia, this means increasing evaporation and drought.
    In moist places, like New England, it means increasing downpours, more flooding.
    [In Australia, it] means the tropics are expanding, pushing the dry subtropics further south, further north.
    As this happens, our rain bearing Westerlies are going to drop their water over open ocean rather than on our thirsty cities and farms. …
    William Butler Yeats:
    The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.
    This is the current political predicament, most especially in the United States.
    There is no nationally effective Green movement there.
    There is no energy policy. …
    Climate change is an issue in the national political conversation only among Fox News bloviators who use climate scientists as piƱatas.

    In the US, without leadership, the potential for any kind of concerted national action is bleak..
    So in the land of rugged individuals, it falls to individuals to act. …

    And at this inflection point in human existence, I believe that what we can do, we must do. …
    Rabbi Nachman:
    If you believe it is possible to destroy, then believe it is possible to repair.
    (18th century, Bratslav)
    The Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, of each individual working to gather up and repair the shards of a fractured creation, is a metaphor that I think speaks eloquently to our present circumstance. …

    [We] are in it together.
    It is our core value as Australians.
    And at this moment in history, our core value happens to be the raw, aching truth of the human predicament.
    It may also be the only belief that can save us as a species.
    A species that will continue to find comfort and delight in the companionship of animals, the miracle of birds, the colors of corals and the majesty of forests.
    We are in it together, on this blue, spinning marble in the cold and silent void.
    And we must act on that belief, if we are going to be able to continue to live a good life here, in this beautiful and fragile country, on this lovely planet, our only home.

  • A Home on Bland Street, 27 November 2011.

    [In] 1972, something really odd happened:
    [After] 23 years of conservative government, someone my parents voted for actually got elected.
    It's Time, Gough Whitlam had said, and it seemed that it was time, at last.
    It was time to abolish the draft, revise a yes-man foreign policy, acknowledge Aboriginal land rights, give women equal pay, and end educational elitism by making uni tuition free. …

    Nowadays, when the brief Spring of the Whitlam era is discussed, the narrative is a predictable one.
    The era is generally portrayed as bringing needed social reform at the cost of near economic ruination.
    I'm sure it felt like that to the big end of town.
    [But, for many] of the people around me, especially the infirm and the elderly, [it] felt more prosperous because their pensions had become more generous. …

    When the Hawke government decided it wanted more Australians to participate in higher education, that was a worthy goal, for even now, we lag comparable countries like Canada by a wide margin in this metric.
    Forty-two per cent of Canadians participate in tertiary studies, while only 29 per cent of Australians do.
    But Hawke, unlike Whitlam, saw higher education as a private good, and not a public one.
    Since graduates stand to benefit from their education, he believed they should pay for it. …

    If a graduate earns more because of her degree, then she will pay more income tax and the society will be materially enriched.
    But her learning also enriches the entire society in non-material ways.
    An educated population is the medium in which creativity and innovation flourish, in which inspiration and prosperity are born. …

    It was my great good fortune to have come of age in an Australia that extended to its children the freedom to dream those large, unfettered dreams.
    Yet my generation seems to be okay with tying down our own children, binding them up in a web of future debt.
    I am aware of the statistical studies that show the introduction of schemes like [the Higher Education Contribution Scheme] and [the Higher Education Loan Programme] have had no discernable effect on the tertiary enrollment of high-school leavers from less economically advantaged backgrounds, and that's a great relief.
    But it would take a very sophisticated statistical analysis to discern the effect of these debts on people's dreams, ambitions and willingness to take risks on studies that aren't immediately or reliably remunerative, to become artists or activists, actors or environmentalists — the creators and caregivers that inspire and uplift a nation.

    [I feel a] certain shame at my generation's heedlessness — that those of us who had such opportunities haven't felt the political will to demand them for the ones who've come after us.
    It's not supposed to go that way, after all.
    The older generation is supposed to smooth the way for the younger.
    And we haven't done that.

  • At Home in the World, 4 December 2011.

    When my father died, an Australian flag draped the coffin at his funeral.
    My immigrant father loved that flag.
    As for me, I prefer to imagine the possibility of a future when we won’t require national flags at all.
    I glimpsed it for a moment, that night at the Sydney Olympics …
    That moment when we only needed one flag, bedecked with doves of light.

  • A Home in Fiction, 11 December 2011.

    In Israel, I interviewed, and later befriended, a 15-year-old Palestinian after he stoned my car on the road to Hebron.
    Not long after, his militancy landed him a five year sentence in an Israeli jail.
    Because he had told me he loved English books, I tried to bring him a copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, thinking the story and the spare language would be accessible to him.
    The jailers would not allow it.
    I thought of that boy when Major Michael Mori, the US Marine attorney for David Hicks, recounted how he had been barred from giving Hicks a copy of To Kill A Mocking Bird.
    He also noted that in the few letters Hicks was allowed to receive, the word 'love' had been redacted.

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