Introduction: Stanner on Preservation and Development
I thank the Berndt Foundation for affording me the privilege of presenting this year’s lecture in honour of Ronald and Catherine Berndt. I acknowledge the Noongar people of Perth and bring greetings from my people in Cape York Peninsula. I wish to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples of this city, of Western Australia, and I thank you all for your attendance this evening.
I have had the great fortune of working with some of the renowned ethnographers of Indigenous Australia, a number of whom became dear friends and important collaborators in our work in Cape York Peninsula. I was especially privileged to work with Dr Peter Sutton, whose 2001 lecture ‘The Politics of Suffering’ was an important milestone in indigenous affairs in the new century. I worked with Peter on my first land claim for the Cape Melville and Flinders Islands of the east coast of Cape York, and subsequently in the Wik Native Title claim. I also enjoyed the friendship and intellectual camaraderie of Dr John Von Sturmer. Cape York generally and the Wik in particular were blessed to host these two talented people: the Glimmer Twins of 1970s anthropology. John and Peter were part of that generation after the Berndts. Another researcher responsible for sponsoring later generations of researchers and linguists in Cape York was Professor Bruce Rigsby, with whom I also shared a warm friendship. I regret his recent debilitation from stroke and am sure those who know him will share anguish at the remorseless march of time on the mortal bodies of those to whom we feel a great sense of debt – as I do to these good friends of Cape York.
I mention Bruce because it was he who sent me some unpublished writings of the late Professor W.E.H. Stanner that struck me. I was especially taken with a note Stanner wrote entitled ‘Aboriginal Law and its Possible Recognition’ where he concluded:
“The social situation of many Aborigines will change with rapidity over the next decade. Many will die wealthy, in possession of money or other assets for which their traditional law provides no disposal-procedure.
There will be conflicts of interest between Aborigines which may be insoluble unless their own doctrine of what I have termed rights, duties, liabilities and immunities can be developed. The ‘Aboriginal problem’ thus goes beyond the ‘retention of their traditional lifestyle’: there is a problem of development as well as one of preservation.”
What struck me about this was here was an Australian anthropologist looking to the future and not the past. Stanner was anticipating what Aboriginal people needed to succeed in the new times.
In this lecture I want to talk about the development challenge facing Indigenous Australians and I want to talk about the preservation challenge. These two challenges have been seen as antithetical to each other. One side of the philosophical and policy debate has been concerned with preservation and the other with development. The sides are often seen to be at grievous odds and there is a long history of dissension between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous protagonists in these camps. The debates have been highly ideological and greatly charged.
It is hard to say which side of this great dialectical struggle is ascendant. There have been times when one side has been dominant in policy thinking and public lore, but there has been no sense that there may be a synthesis between these two conflicting views of Indigenous peoples, the past and future.
I have long held the view that our development challenge is not sui generis to indigenous peoples. The imperatives for development and what is needed to succeed in the post-colonial world are not unique to indigenous peoples. The imperatives are universal. The answers for development are not specific to the situation of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous Australians now live in a world dominated by liberal capitalism. There is nowhere to escape it. It has penetrated the remotest corners of the planet. No society, however traditional, is not today affected by it. In Australia, this condition is now comprehensive. There is no longer any splendid isolation of traditional societies from the gravitational pull and inexorable pressures of liberal capitalism. Even in the remotest places where its only presence is provisioning by the Welfare State, redistributive welfare is obviously part of the same paradigm.
How peoples prosper or fail in this new condition is not necessarily a question that Anthropology can answer or illuminate. The imperatives of how humans survive and do well in liberal capitalist societies and when faced by its seductive charms and liabilities, is now a question that Indigenous Australians share with all societies and peoples around the planet, particularly traditional societies that have had to contend with this same confrontation in the not too distant past.
Even highly developed western and eastern societies contended with the demands of liberal capitalism in recent centuries.
My view is the rules for advancement and pauperisation are best understood via reference to the established traditions of liberalism and social democratic thought. Indigenous peoples are after all human and subject to similar basic motivations to other humans. Of course our culture and traditions are not without influence here and the ingrained and long held influence of our inherited culture cannot be ignored or wished away. But it is my argument that the imperatives of liberal capitalism are unavoidable and powerful because they are culture blind at their essence. Whether you be European, Chinese, Indian, African, Pacific Islander or Australian Aboriginal, it makes broadly the same demands upon everyone. It is equally ruthless in relegating the peoples of the world in that great remorseless pyramid of advantage and disadvantage; happiness and suffering; justice and injustice. The allocation of winning and losing positions in this pyramid is now subject to forces and phenomena beyond the ken of traditional societies. There are now currents at play and forces to contend with that have no precedent in our traditional past. Strong forces impede peoples from advancement and make their social progress in this competitive and often merciless world a real challenge.
In our work in Cape York Peninsula, we have sought to understand how peoples across the planet prosper and advance. We are driven not because we desire all of the opulent material advantages of successful peoples in the wider world. We are not driven by a blindness to the richness of the things we already have in our society and in the things bequeathed us by our ancestors (indeed our anxiety is to keep these good things). Rather we are driven by the clear evidence that the degree of our social misery and increasing cultural pauperisation necessitates us learning the rules of advancement in this new world. If we don’t understand these rules, we won’t even hold our present position, indeed there is evidence that our societies can crumble. I am primarily motivated by a conviction that the Hope Vale of today is socially and culturally weaker than the Hope Vale of my father’s day. Whilst materially there has been a revolution largely driven by the redistribution effects of the Australian Welfare State, there has been a corresponding breakdown and many important things have been fractured and weakened in these past decades. Peter Sutton’s 2001 lecture and subsequent book set out this story starkly.
It is not possible to come to grips with the development challenges facing Indigenous Australian societies in the absence of the lessons afforded by the development experience across the globe. There is much to be learned from looking at the international development experience. I am loathe to make indigenous peoples an exception to the lessons to be drawn from this experience. I am open to the nuances of the indigenous experience and particularly hunter gatherer societies like ours, but at the same time there has been a history of two centuries and the story has moved forward to a new place. We are no longer talking about splendidly isolated tribes. We are dealing with the aftermath of a devastating and complicated history.
It may be trite to say but it must be said that indigenous peoples in contemporary times have material needs. They have desires that are very much influenced by and tangled up in this new world. Indeed opportunities for sustenance in our traditional economy are limited and can only ever be partial and increasingly marginal part of our economies. I understand Jon Altman’s point about the so called “hybrid economy” of remote communities, but it’s important to realise the economy described in Altman’s doctoral dissertation is one that has very much evolved since that time. Patently, the chief development in that story has been the increased role of welfare transfers to these communities.
My views about the effect of this economic change on the social and cultural resilience of our societies are well known and I will not repeat them here. Suffice to say the contours of my analysis and convictions in respect of the deleterious role played by the passive receipt of welfare transfers from the state are still strongly held and unrevised.
(Australian) Anthropology has had relatively little to say about our development challenge and what Aboriginal societies might do in response to our contemporary predicaments. There is no framework for understanding our current condition and future policy. There is no intellectual theory emanating from Anthropology as far as I can see that can illuminate the path forward. Anthropology assists greatly in identifying the dilemmas and reminding us of the realities of our inheritance, including the degree to which that inheritance militates against our development plans. I say this not as an indictment of the discipline but to make the point that many of the challenges facing indigenous peoples are now questions of citizenship within a liberal democracy and participants in the welfare trenches of the wider liberal capitalist economy.
My own thinking about how we contend with development and how we will succeed in rebuilding coherence within our society draws on universal insights. The writings of Adam Smith and Karl Marx are as germane to our situation as they are to other situations around the world. For one thing, liberal self-interest is as much pertinent to Aboriginal people as it is to other peoples in the economy in which we are now located. And the dynamics of class stratification are just as pertinent.
The new green terra nullius
On 3 June 1992 the High Court brought to an end the long reign of terra nullius. The racism that underpinned that assumption was finally exposed and rejected. It enabled a belated recognition of the native title of Indigenous Australian tribes under the common law.
It is 22 years since the Mabo decision and my view is a new incarnation of terra nullius has now emerged, a green terra nullius: the assumption that whilst the indigenes have symbolic title, these homelands are foremost the conservation heritage of the nation, and of the planet. These homelands may in name belong to their traditional owners, but are in fact part of Australia’s conservation estate. Decisions about its future are not the prerogative of its putative owners, but lie in the hands of green organisations and bureaucrats, enshrined in laws that limit the rights of landowners to simply keeping the lands as part of the so-called ‘national reserve system’.
Whilst more than 20 per cent of the continent is held under various forms of Aboriginal title, a vast and ever-increasing proportion of these lands are being locked away under conservation agreements, covenants and regimes.
These green tentacles have made extraordinary headway in two directions: over the lands already restored to traditional ownership through land rights claims, purchases and other means over the past four decades. They have also made headway in respect of lands yet to be restored to traditional owners through unresolved claims. When title to these lands is eventually settled, they are already subject to conservation caveats and limitations. Indeed, like development interests, conservation interests are asserted prior to the settlement of land claims in order to make it a condition of such settlements. If tribes do not agree to these conservation arrangements, they don’t get settlement of their claims.
Therefore not only do traditional owners have to concede the lands already lost to their possession under the two hundred year reign of the old terra nullius, they have to make concessions in respect of any remnant lands. They get the leftover land, but subject to the limitations demanded by green groups and governments that see giving away Aboriginal land as without cost, and electorally convenient for them. Aboriginal land is a cheap giveaway for electioneering political parties.
We saw this with Bob Carr in New South Wales. Carr is credited with the establishment of a vast network of new wilderness areas in that state, resoundingly applauded by green groups and gazetted with great public acclamation driving a succession of electoral victories. All of this was at the expense of indigenous land rights. What should have been the restoration of the land rights of the Aboriginal tribes of New South Wales in a post-Mabo world, in fact was a continuation of the old dispossession under a green blanket.
We also saw this with Peter Beattie and his successor, Anna Bligh, in Queensland. In exchange for green support in elections, these Labor governments gave away Aboriginal lands to conservation without the knowledge or consent of their traditional owners. Lands owned under inalienable freehold title by Aboriginal groups in Cape York Peninsula were given away in election deals between Labor governments and green groups. There are two ways the support of green votes can be arranged for the benefit of venal governments. Firstly, they can organise direct preferences from Greens party candidates. Secondly, they can organise preferences from independent, green-minded candidates over which they have influence, or they can directly campaign in favour of particular Labor candidates or the Labor Party in general. Sometimes green groups will still assist candidates where the Greens party itself has decided not to preference the local Labor candidate. The Greens party and conservation groups sometimes work separately according to their own agendas, but for the most part they are an extraordinarily sophisticated tandem team.
What must be understood about the extraordinary power they have wielded in electoral politics these past two to three decades, is that when it comes to marginal seats, their ability to influence a few per cent of the vote is decisive. They can make or break candidates in particular seats, and can thereby make or break governments.
The current predicament of Premier Campbell Newman in his leafy-green middle class seat of Ashgrove, in the inner-city of Brisbane, is testament to this green influence. Whilst at times when the big swing is on, there is no stopping the tide
– as in the last election when Newman’s Liberal National Party belatedly stormed into power – in times like now, the importance of green votes becomes crucial. Newman is in trouble, and short of jumping to a safer seat, is vulnerable. And the green groups are extraordinarily adept at taking advantage of these margins.
The Pew Foundation’s new Modern Outback
The apotheosis of the new terra nullius emerged recently when the American environmental organisation, probably the wealthiest green organisation operating in Australia, the Pew Charitable Trust, launched its series of Outback Papers, a first instalment of which was published in The Australian newspaper. Barry Traill, an Australian environmental scientist and brother of former Macquarie Bank executive and founder of Social Ventures Australia, Michael Traill, is the director of Pew’s Outback to Oceans Program.
Pew are the most quietly influential force in the green movement in Australia today. It has been extraordinarily successful in its campaigns to limit commercial fishing in the Coral Sea and was probably the most influential driver of Queensland’s Wild Rivers, against which we were pitted. Whilst The Wilderness Society took a higher profile in these campaigns, it was clear Pew was the bankroller.
Their deep pockets mean they have been instrumental in getting Aboriginal groups to sign up to conservation regimes, particularly Indigenous Protected Areas. Pew’s money comes from American oil which they now ironically use to fund their environmental campaigns in Australia. Money is their leverage, and the American money dwarfs Australian environmental campaigning budgets and gives Pew immense power.
Whilst in America Pew is accused of running right-wing campaigns against pension fund entitlements of workers in the name of fiscal sustainability – their work in Australia appears to be in the form of an American version of wilderness advocacy: not all that removed from the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy.
Traill defines 70 per cent of the Australian continent as constituting the Outback, 40 per cent of the total of which is in Western Australia. Only the southwestern corner falls outside. I have not read or made a calculation but looking at the map published with Traill’s treatise, nearly 100 per cent of the Aboriginal owned estates of the country fall within his Outback.
Traill’s future vision for this Outback abjures industrial development but talks positively about repopulating country, and all manner of sustainable, job-creating opportunities for the future. From the scant details of this first introduction it is a vision that starts from the proposition that an approach to the Outback that continues to see industrial resource extraction and agricultural development, is the wrong choice – it should be replaced with greener and more sustainable alternatives.
This great chimeric vision for 70 per cent of the outback and nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal land is an American conservation group’s prescription for the future of remote Australia. I can think of no greater threat to Aboriginal landowners than the implications of this vision for the future possibilities of our people.
Because it is premised upon locking Aboriginal people out of development.
Divide and Rule
Through my reading of societies riven with conflict I keep seeing the neo- colonial hand in the frame, inciting and promoting division.
There is the role of resource companies seeking to exploit natural resources, and generating and fuelling conflict. There is the role of individual crusaders who believe in the rightness of a certain side of an argument. And they take sides with a blind and careless zeal.
Tribal people are particularly susceptible to outsiders causing intra-ethnic division and conflict. Communally organised societies are so easily divided. The challenges associated with adjusting such societies to changed economic and political circumstances are immense. That there are people who would seek to create and exploit fractures within these societies is a great problem.
The predecessor of Rio Tinto, the old Conzinc Rio Tinto, was notoriously subject to accusations of fomenting intra-tribal conflicts across the world. It was to the credit of former chief executive Leon Davis that Rio Tinto ameliorated its once-vicious corporate reputation.
While resource companies continue to disrupt indigenous communities with such colonial manipulations, I have come to see how in Australia environmental groups have crossed the line and engaging in similar practices.
The shift in the ruthlessness of green campaigning to exploit and promote divisions within indigenous communities is as profound as when the United States political Right adopted the ‘Southern Strategy’ under Richard Nixon.
In 2007 the Kimberley Land Council released a joint statement with a range of environmental groups concerning the potential establishment by Woodside of a liquefied natural gas facility in the Kimberley.
The statement called on governments to ensure comprehensive natural and cultural heritage assessments were undertaken. This was desired by Aboriginal groups and environmentalists. The statement called for a single hub, rather than a series of them along the Kimberley coast.
The statement called for proper benefits to accrue to the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley.
The relevant assessments were undertaken, and later the then federal Environment Minister Tony Burke attended a ceremony announcing the declaration of large areas of the Kimberley on the National Heritage register.
As a sponsor of this outcome, the KLC was part of the celebrations, along with the cheering environmentalists.
That was fine. A good outcome for those concerned with cultural and environmental sustainability of this magnificent region.
However, then the story changed. Having secured the support of Aboriginal groups and the KLC to National Heritage listing, the green groups then renounced support for any gas hub in the Kimberley – and a long and bitter fight ensued pitting the KLC and traditional owners against green groups and other breakaway traditional owners.
The tactics now being employed by environmentalists in different parts of the country are now clear. Exploiting divisions within traditional owner groups, they are not principled enough to say: "Well, the majority of the tribe have given their consent now under a proper process set out under law and supervised by the courts. Yes, there are dissenters within the tribe, but their position has not been upheld, so we should respect the outcome and leave them to settle their differences."
Instead they exploit the internal differences.
Aboriginal communities convulsed by arguments such as this endure much psychological and spiritual hurt. Indeed, it physically sickens and kills people. It tears families apart and ruptures kin relationships.
Why would outsiders be so unscrupulous as to play a hand in provoking and exacerbating these internal conflicts? Some environmental groups and the deep greens seek to drive wedges within Aboriginal groups. They peel off individuals and subgroups, often through blandishments such as organising environmental funding from government agencies over which they have influence.
They are not interested in sustainability; they do not want development, full stop.
This ruthless behavior is no different to what the old CRA was notorious for doing to indigenous peoples throughout the world, and for which Glencore is criticized by indigenous, environmental and human rights organisations around the world today.
History is replete with examples of how resource companies left Third World countries mired in intra-ethnic and intra-tribal fighting – indeed war – because of their ‘divide and rule’ methods. By dividing they rule.
Green groups in Australia have adopted these same methods with no discernible compunction. Indeed those groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation who understand the ruthless methods employed by groups like The Wilderness Society, nevertheless are able to suppress their misgivings because The Wilderness Society’s tactics get the result. They stand blithely by, disowning the means, but happy to own the ends.
How Land Management is usurping Land Rights
The Land Rights gains of the past 40 years, in relation to which two generations of Australian anthropologists played such a central role through land claims, are now under grave threat. The ancient principle of Aboriginal land law – that Bubu Gujin should have the say over their inherited estates – is being systematically trashed by the new green terra nullius. Virtual national parks are being created out of Aboriginal lands. Private lands owned by traditional owners are treated by governments as if they are Crown lands and placed under restrictions that only apply minimally to other non-indigenous private landowners.
The chief mechanism to get past laws prohibiting racial discrimination is to place conservation regimes like Wild Rivers chiefly over Aboriginal lands, and only in a minimal and least controversial way over non-Aboriginal lands. In this way governments and green groups can discriminate against Aboriginal landowners without technically falling foul of the law. This fig leaf covers the discrimination that is invariably involved.
And traditional owners and their representative organisations do not realise the tentacles to which they are surrendering their hard won gains. They are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.
The chief difficulty for Aboriginal people is we have not understood how the concept of “Land [and Natural Resource] Management” [LNRM] has come to take over “Land Rights” [LR]. The Trojan Horse of LNRM is now in the city of Troy and the enemy have well and truly jumped out of the box and is now cutting our throats.
There are several parts to this difficulty:
Firstly, non-indigenous people who are often sceptical, indifferent or even latently affronted by the old LR, naturally warm to the new LNRM. And they have congregated around Aboriginal organisations like blowflies on fresh Brahman excrement in a Cape York stockyard. This is a reflexive rather than thoughtful leftist and environmentalist scene. Unlike the old LR the LNRM scene is more palatable to more of these kinds of people, who have never even considered the basic principles of Land Rights, and the basis upon which past battles were fought and the local sovereignty that attaches to the Bubu Gujin relationship to land.
Secondly, these LNRM people you find running almost every Land Trust and in the ear of local and regional leaders of organisations, purvey a kind of politics that superficially resonates with Aboriginal political traditions. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Green-Left style politics from indigenous politics. Partly because we don’t really interrogate whether the constant affirmation of “respect” for traditional ownership and “recognition” of the “sovereignty” of Aboriginal peoples, and the primacy of “social justice” and “self determination”, actually stands up when you ask whether they uphold these principles in the face of green agendas and priorities. Too much of what passes for indigenous political philosophy are actually reheated versions of socialism and green leftism, and we are terribly confused with what exactly Land Rights is supposed to be about.
Who said Land Rights was only the power to say “No?” and not “Yes” to development? Of course it is the greens who have infiltrated the Land Rights scene through the Trojan Horse of Land Management.
A third difficulty, is that Land and Natural Resource Management is actually a true priority for traditional owners. There is a desperate need for it – I understand this, and indeed I have worked to support our people to manage the cultural and natural resources of their country. So when I point out the dangers of what LNRM has become, I do not mean to be taken to be against it per se. I am against LNRM when it is not subject to and anchored in Land Rights.
LNRM is just a function, it is not the principle. The foundation principle that is utmost is Land Rights. And what we have to wake up to is how Land Management is displacing Land Rights when it comes to dealing with conservation and conservation organisations.
The cadre of environmentalists who now play crucial roles in Aboriginal landholding and land management organisations are only one group in a network of people working on the same agenda. The second are those in conservation groups. They work together. They know each other. They share the same politics and ideology. The ones working in the organisations almost invariably used to work in a green group. They are one and the same in terms of their aspirations and agendas – and where they want to lead the Aboriginal organisations they control.
Point me to such a one and ask what connection they have with a green group. And try to prove me wrong.
The third group is the green activists who occupy positions in the bureaucracy. Always in those agencies that regulate land and resource management. Green activism has changed in recent decades. Whereas environmental activists used to operate out of non-government organisations [NGOs], seeking to influence government from the outside, today they are on the inside and the outside. They first entered as advisors to politicians, and then they started entering the public service and receiving sinecures from their political friends (after all, they too have mortgages and lifestyles, and want to travel the world et cetera). This infiltration is now profoundly entrenched. The presence of environmentalists in government agencies is not affected by a change of government. Whereas conservative governments might target well-known people in the public service, the fact is activists can be found in the lower reaches of the bureaucracy: they can never be purged. It’s as hopeless to try to eradicate bufo marinus.
Whereas Muslim or African public servants working in immigration or Aboriginal public servants working in land tenure will readily be found out if they don’t observe the strict proprieties and impartialities of the Public Service – green activists in public service drag, are quite indistinguishable from the great grey mass of the bureaucracy. I am reminded of Lleyton Hewitt’s perspicacious complaint against the African-American linesman in the 2001 US Open who was for obvious reasons biased in favour of his black comrade James Blake.
Just you try to get a licence, permit or approval from the AO5 in the department of water resources who loves the fact that he can pursue his environmental beliefs and still get all of the perks and privileges of stable, well-paid government employment. He (as indeed she) has a vast array of hoops that he can make you jump through even before you face the next hurdle. If there need be a thousand cuts to your proposal, they have at their ready disposal, a thousand knives.
When at the height of our representations about the impact of Wild Rivers in Cape York, I had the opportunity to meet the senior bureaucrat in charge of the program in the Premier’s department, I was gasping for words and ended up saying: “Adrian, mate the last time we met you were running the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society. And now I have to try to convince you about how bad Wild Rivers is for our mob?”
By the time these three groups work in concert in pursuit of their just-under-the- radar goals, they are near impossible to beat. You combine this infiltration of indigenous organisations on the ground and the Public Service, with the leverage green activists have over politicians in marginal seats: you then understand why the weakest people end up shouldering the costs of environmentalists using Aboriginal land as if it’s their own estate.
This is how Aboriginal groups end up surrendering their lands to environmental regimes that close off future opportunities for their people. Environmental groups work with their counterparts in the bureaucracy to use government program funding for LNRM, to get traditional owner organisations to sign up their lands to cheap deals. The Indigenous Protected Area agreements lauded by Barry Traill are the most egregious. The processes undertaken to obtain proper consent from traditional owners are not followed. IPAs in Cape York Peninsula are not authorised by Indigenous Land Use Agreements. This is because ILUAs demand a more rigorous consultation and negotiation process than the Commonwealth department of environment bureaucrats and their counterparts in the green organisations (and those embedded in the landowning group itself) are prepared to contemplate. The largest IPA in Cape York has been concluded with just a sub-group leader who happens to be a champion of the green groups, rather than with all of the members of the landowning group and their representative land title-holding organisation.
The Commonwealth’s green bureaucrats and the conservation groups like The Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Pew Foundation, are able to nevertheless get these IPAs concluded because they are able to use Commonwealth Government program funding to get the mob to sign up. The mobs are desperate for the program money and the greens know this.
Thus the green groups use public funds to hold Aboriginal landowners over the barrel, and extract from them all manner of concessions.
The sheer injustice of what has happened and continues to happen is astounding. As Barry Traill says, more than 50 million hectares has been made subject to IPAs. The injustice can be indicated when you consider the per hectare prices of the deals that have been done: they are a pittance. It is further indicated when many of the deals involve the acceptance of permanent diminution of control over land in return for time-limited budget commitments. All of these deals are subject to government funding programs: there is no long-term guarantee of funding for LNRM on these lands.
And what about the much vaunted future carbon economy? These green regimes, by locking up Aboriginal land pre-emptively through vegetation clearing prohibitions and other means, have already stripped Aboriginal landowners of the one asset they might have to trade in a future carbon market.
More than 98 per cent of Cape York retains its native vegetation. It is probably the region’s largest economic resource. Its greatest value could possibly lie in its long-term preservation. But this value is being destroyed by the pre-emptive (and completely uncompensated) lock-up by governments urged by green groups.
Contrast the traditional owner in Cape York with the white pastoralist in Central Queensland. The lands in Cape York have hardly been cleared. The pastoral properties in the mulga country meanwhile were cleared by ball and chain sometime over the previous century. The pastoralist enjoyed the returns from the old, dirty economy of the past.
Now in the new carbon economy, the traditional owner in Cape York has no entry point – other than marginal returns from tentative fire management regimes – into the new economy because their land is already locked up. In the Kyoto ledger, Aboriginal land in Cape York has already helped Australian targets
– completely for free.
Whereas the pastoralist who clear-felled his land has prospects of what Traill calls “carbon farming” in the new, green economy. Those who profited from the past, will profit in the future. Those who had no foothold in the past, have no foothold in the future.
Not since Manhatten Island was sold for beads and trinkets has so much land been traded for so little. I well understand why, what one colleague calls “a six pack” of Rangers funded by some Commonwealth Government program, is hard to refuse. But the deals that are being done are unconscionable for their cheapness, for the uncertainties that attach to the traditional owners compared to the guarantees given to the conservationists – one can hardly believe that we are in the 21st century.
This whole miserable scenario has played out, and continues to play out, in a post-Mabo world of Land Rights recognition.
Conclusion: An old racism and a new hypocrisy
I have long suspected the wilderness movement that came out of Tasmania, particularly following the successful campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River in the early 1980s, is rooted in the landscape of that state and the Tasmanian Genocide. There is a pronounced sightlessness to the Aboriginal memory in the environment and ownership of the land. I detected a hardness of heart in the Tasmanian conservation campaigners I met in my time, different from those the mainland. Yes, of course they express the same pieties about indigenous people and justice and so on, but there is no mistaking their vision of the bush is one that is born out of the removal of its real (as opposed to its mythic) Aboriginal owners.
Having reflected on this history in my recent Quarterly Essay my view in this regard has firmed. The wilderness of which Australia’s environmental campaigners dream is one based on Tasmania, the place where terra nullius was not the product of legal theory but genocidal fact. The Wilderness Society itself is the product of this heritage, and even as disquiet around the idea of wilderness has grown in the mainland Australian context, they continue to purvey a concept of wilderness in the face of Aboriginal ownership. They overcome the dissonance here by diminishing the nature of the Aboriginal presence and ownership of the land. They have to define the traditional owner in those terms that fit their conception of wilderness. The resulting caricature is just a mascot for environmentalism, a debasement of the dignity of self-determining owners of rights. Useful only when they say “No” to development but held in a green cage for all other purposes. Fed on millenarian dreams of the new green economy, but in the meantime some blandishments from the latest LNRM program.
Whether you call it wilderness or what Barry Traill and the Pew Foundation call the new Modern Outback, this is an old racism. Rooted in the country’s colonial past, it is a racism that seeks to re-establish itself in new guise. There is one respect in which Traill does not speak of modernity in his Modern Outback: it is in the modernity of the Aboriginal people and the modernity of their rights.
Traill refuses to recognise that Indigenous Australians are possessed of modern rights and they have modern expectations and modern demands. Colonialism in new clothes won’t wash. It does not wash with me.
This old racism is accompanied by a new hypocrisy. As the real and genuine problems of environmental decay continue to threaten the future, the costs of maintaining biological diversity and confronting climate change are sought to be pushed to the weakest stakeholders. Those that cannot resist this shifting of the cost burden, and those that can least afford to bear it. Whereas the advantaged can continue to enjoy their advantages whilst “off-setting” their impacts onto others. This story is of course writ large in the international arena and explains much of the gridlock around genuine action confronting climate change – and it plays out within our own country. Aboriginal landowners are being compelled to carry the costs on behalf of the rest of the country.
I recently watched Barry Traill’s TED x Sydney presentation of April 2014, on YouTube. He stepped into the red circle with his aluminium water bottle which he ostentatiously placed on the floor in front of him. Dressed in his Paddy Palin gear, I would not have batted an eyelid had he worn a pith helmet from the nineteenth century.
Seeking to conjure the spirit of that greatest green rhetorician, Bob Brown, like the prose in his treatise in The Australian, Traill’s prose is more purple than green. And the arrogance and presumption is just breathtaking. Traill betrayed where is coming from in the following passage:
“The connection between people and these ferals varies across the landscape. In some areas there is effective control, at least of the larger animals such as water buffalo.
In others, ferals reign uncontrolled. In deserts, hunting by Aboriginal people of feral animals for food would have assisted in keeping numbers down. Feral cats, in particular, were a favourite food of desert people, and are relatively easy to track and run down in the sandy country.”
Not since a certain “great [French] princess” is reported to have said of the masses starving for bread: “Let them eat cake”, has a more explicit indication been given of where characters like Traill come from when it concerns indigenous livelihoods in their new Modern Outback: “Let them eat feral cat”.
There is a class basis to this arrogance and presumption. Traill comes from a new class of an ecologically proper elite, advantaged, fundamentally unwilling to disavow their advantages in favour of the poverty they seek to keep other people in, and treating the wonders of the natural world as the inheritance of their sole privilege.
None of these people would abandon the advantages they and their children enjoy, whilst they seek a different prescription for those who don’t share their advantage. My class argument here may be said to betray envy, but it is the hypocrisy that galls me. I don’t care that this class delights in the natural wonders of the world as a result of their advantages, what I care about is whether or not they prevent other people from being able to have access to the same advantages.