Charles Sturt Oration: Peter Garrett

23 MAY 2003

President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and former lead singer of Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett, Peter Garrett, delievered the bi-annual Charles Sturt Oration on Friday 23 May on the Bathurst Campus.

President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and former lead singer of Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett, delievered the bi-annual Charles Sturt Oration on Friday 23 May on the Bathurst Campus. This is the full transcript of his address, Black Hole in the Settler's Dream': An exploration of the likelihood of a sustainable future for Australia.

Thank you for inviting me to give the 2003 Charles Sturt Oration. As Sturt explored the hinterland of Australia in the past so I want to examine the condition of the places he visited to see how they are faring today and on the way explore the hinterland of our current state of heart and mind.

I wish, as has become customary, to acknowledge both my forebears whose endeavours provided me with inspiration and meaning and the traditional owners of this place, the original Australians, who never ceded ownership of the land they once occupied.

Now I have announced a wish to explore; there's that word again, whether or not we can expect to inhabit a future where the quality of sustainable occupation is a foundational feature of the Australian 21st century.

For the purposes of the oration I define 'sustainable occupation' to mean ordering our affairs in such a way as to preserve the biological integrity of the natural world, so as to permit succeeding generations as many choices as the current generation have in their lives. There are other definitions for example; living off nature's interest not capital, but I'm sure you get the meaning.

Why sustainability? In short because the quality of our lives depends on it. It is a term that has become commonplace but only recently as a response to what has been seen as a global crisis in the health of the natural environment. 

Crashing fish stocks, critical shortages of water, endemic pollution, radioactive isotopes from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident appearing in the Antarctic ice shelf and so it goes on. Meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 nations of the world committed to addressing the problem and in limited ways action was begun.

Ten years later at Rio Plus 10 in Johannesburg the roll call of ecological woes was unabated but by now the agenda for free trade and growth, especially of the western countries, with an expectation that the raft of worldwide problems would be successfully managed, had inserted itself. 

The Australian Environment minister-a deputy sheriff's deputy we might say- at this conference, dutifully read the script so similar to Washington's rhetoric, and amazingly did not mention the "E" word at all. This despite the fact that in ecological terms Australia is without qualification a 'continent in reverse' ie we are going backwards on nearly every measure of environmental health; biodiversity, land degradation, water quality and use, greenhouse pollution. On a per head basis we are more wasteful, use more water, clear more land, produce as much or more garbage than any equivalent nation other than the US. Great at sport but not so good at conservation it seems.

The expression black hole usually refers to the large unidentified gaps that appear in our universe and which scientists believe harbour all manner of yet to be understood mysteriously dimensional energy fields. The black hole of this address is the place in political and economic life where the aims of a society are so at odds with the reality it inhabits that eventually it declines, or in extreme circumstances, collapses, under the weight of its own contradictions. 

When the national consensus is that we can and should have continuing economic growth as our primary goal without seriously addressing the biophysical constraints of the natural environment or when an NSW irrigator threatened by losing his allocation of water confidently proclaims, as I noticed on the news this week, that the Murray river has '…never been in better condition…"then we are heading on a black hole kind of journey.

At the same time the trip is always unpredictable. History's flux and the contrariness, idiocy and genius of humans, the rolling dice of human choice, driven by motivations good and bad means we can never gaze into the crystal ball confidently. As the ancient wisdom tells us, things will definitely change, that much and nothing more is certain.

Now where to start.

Well, when a majority of Victorians (read Australians) in a recent poll confessed that they preferred the English landscape and the view of an English landscape to the Australian, they were simply reinforcing how deep our adherence is to the idea that the country should be green, that water is plentiful, that there are well-ordered fields of crops and animals happily grazing around and about, that this is the ideal state for us, the settlers in Australia. This is the attachment to the European idyll. 

Charles Sturt, Burke & Wills and most of the early explorers had it and it remains with us, misplaced and now highly dangerous. For the adventurers of old such a yearning could be fatal, as the longed for inland seas and verdant river valleys failed to materialise after months of arduous slog across the driest inhabited continent on earth. But this transference of English dreams was paradoxically also a great motivator and provides some explanation for the quasi-heroic achievements they realised. 

A quick historical snapshot of continents and land use shows that the cedar groves of Lebanon from which the mighty carriage of King Solomon was fashioned, whilst now mostly gone, were a constant feature of the geography and cultural identity, and a source of wealth for that country for thousands of years. The same for the Black Forests of Europe, a constant presence for the tribes that became fiefdoms, that became states, in that region for just as long.

In Australia the great stands of mountain ash, which descended to the Victorian coast from the high country or the vast Brigalow scrub regions of central Queensland were exposed only to the vagaries of an evolving climate, and occasional burning by Aboriginals, until the advent of the Europeans. Within 200 years or less, along with numerous other forest types, these great swathes of tree and scrub were all but gone. The colonial outpost geared itself up to become one of the most economically productive nations in the world partly on the back of the land it cleared.

Yet despite the failure of the early explorers to find a Garden of Eden in the centre of Australia the country prospered. How? 

In the first instance the settlers were industrious, they often had large acreages of relatively well watered land to work and as the pace of rural development gathered speed their efforts were partnered by innovation and government support, and later off course by irrigation. So they were able to successfully crop and graze wheat and wool, and there were export markets ready to buy. 

As it turned out, whilst there may not have been deep topsoil and gently flowing rives stretching all the way to the Indian Ocean, there was a lot of wealth; mineral wealth, lying beneath the surface. 

Incidentally it is the continuing exploitation of this natural resource, along with in bound tourism, which underpins our current economic strength.

 In both cases, agriculture and mining, the cost of occupying and utilising the vast hinterland was low because the land, in most cases was stolen or simply appropriated on unequal terms. As Justice Brennan of the High Court said in Mabo and I quote approximately " The dispossession of Aboriginal people's land underpinned the economic development of the modern Australian state…" (sic)

So quick was both the dispossession of the indegenous people's country and so rapid the transformation of the landscape, "a brutal disruption…" as historian Eric Rolls puts it, that we are only now beginning to understand that there will be a price to pay for the past and putting off the day of reckoning will only increase the cost. 

My evidence for this claim?

Well, the biggest stock-take of Australia's wildlife and bushlands ever produced, the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002, shows Australia in the grip of an extinction crisis . One third of the world's recent mammal extinctions are Australian, the report finds, and the extinctions are continuing now. In fact we are in the midst of an extinction catastrophe unprecedented since a meteor strike took out the dinosaurs. 

While past generations lost species like the Tasmanian Tiger through ignorance, this report confirms that ignorance is no longer an excuse for inaction. We now know what wildlife we've got, we know what we're losing, and we also know how to save it if we are all willing to act. 

Add to this the spectre of spreading salinity as salt seeps across many parts of rural and now urban Australia plus a sick and sorry river system and we have a bona fide crisis in the health of our natural landscapes accelerating under our noses.

The Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that:

? Nearly 1600 native species and 3000 unique bush-land types throughout Australia are at risk, from the Coolibah woodlands of Queensland to the heathlands of Western Australia, and land clearing is the biggest culprit;
? Australia's system of national parks and conservation reserves is incomplete, with 33% of bushland types not protected in any reserves; 
? Northern Australia, once thought to be a refuge for wildlife, is under pressure from increasing threats such as over-grazing, feral pests and land clearing, and many native mammals and birds are declining rapidly as a result. 

At the same time as these dour findings are made the Assessment cites a recent report to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) which shows that "it is far cheaper to maintain … natural systems than it is to allow them inadvertently to be damaged and, subsequently, to inherit a costly repair bill." (ATBA 2002, p. 63; PMSEIC 2002, p. 2). The PMSEIC report also reveals that enormous economic benefits can be gained by protecting biodiversity, with every dollar spent on controlling land clearing bringing twenty times that value in "collateral benefits". 

Here's the rub. The Prime Minister's Council costs that repair bill currently at between $2-6 billion annually. A figure that reflects the ACF/NFF research on repairing our natural landscapes. But critically the cost grows every day, as long as we fail to address the root causes of biodiversity loss outlined in the Assessment. 

Both the PMSEIC report and the Biodiversity Assessment have been with the Government for months and despite ACF's call for some attention to be given in this year's budget, funding to environment was not reflective of the scale of the crisis. 

What about those ads celebrating the government's support of communities working on the environment. you often see on late-night regional TV? It is a sobering statistic that for every tree planted under the first phase of the Natural Heritage Trust, (via the partial sell off of Telstra) for example, around one hundred trees were bulldozed in land clearing operations, thus making a mockery of the Government's NHT "Bushcare" program goal of "reversing the long-term decline in the quality and extent of Australia's native vegetation" by June 2001. It simply hasn't happened.

Despite these problems, the NHT's first phase achieved considerable improvement in community awareness, capacity and activity in land management and environmental repair across Australia. Despite continuing difficulties with bureaucratic logjams, inadequate monitoring and assessment, pork barrelling and siphoning of funds to infrastructure programs such as dams which were not within the emit of the Trust, it has been a fair start.

Most people here would be familiar with the Charles Sturt story. I'm guessing that past speakers at this event and at many University gatherings relay some of the notable features of the famous explorer's life.

Despite the scrutiny that comes with revising history Sturt still fares well. He was notable for mainly successful explorations with the exception of his last expedition to find the inland sea in the centre of Australia. He gave the settler society its first glimpse of the character and extent of the Australia's southeast inland river system, the Murray, Darling, Bogan, Lachlan and Bidgee were either explored or intuited by him. 

In particular the second expedition of 1829-1830 which saw Sturt and seven companions row the length of the great Murray to the sea (or almost, Lake Alexandrina) successfully and peaceably passing through Aboriginal lands and keeping his party intact, made his reputation as the 'Father of Australian exploration'.

His subsequent life of public service and declaration to "…contribute to the public good", if only more of our modern day heroes made this an ambition, certainly justifies his reputation.

Now of course Sturt was not really exploring new and uncharted waters. After all there had been a recent wave of settlements on the Murray six thousand years earlier displacing people from an even earlier era. They would have had an intimate knowledge of the river systems and in all likelihood would have shared their knowledge with Sturt if communication had been easier or more willing.

Still Sturt navigated a river system we would today call pristine; the water clear, the fish life abundant, the bird life especially around the wetlands, abundant. 

Now the Murray in particular is more pipeline than river. It has been tamed by weirs and dams, huge amounts of water are diverted from the river for irrigation. The Murray suffers drought like conditions six out of ten years and annual flows to the sea are a fifth of what they were in Sturt's time. With thousands of tonnes of salt coursing down the river, with the river mouth all but closed very two tears, with algal blooms and withered wetlands and Adelaide's water supply in jeopardy, everyone from the Prime Minister down agrees the time has come to do something about the parlous state of our river systems.

The answer is 'environmental flows' which means to get more water flowing down the river and that off course is going to cost money and take considerable political will.

I want to identify a range of key measures urgently needed to restore the Murray and tackle the shocking loss of bush I've mentioned and which I'd like to preview for you tonight. These include:
1.Leveraging Private Investment
Whilst it remains critical for governments to fund landscape repair the burden need not fall directly on the public purse. In a ground breaking report commissioned by the Business Leaders Roundtable including Elders, ABN Amro, Southcorp and ACF, Allen Consulting found that clever use of Federal money can "leverage" or stimulate major investment in natural resource management and environmental initiatives from the private sector. By investing with vision and prudence, $3.50 can be leveraged for every dollar of Federal Government money. 

2. Smarter investment
We have to be astute enough to target funds to address the causes of environmental problems and to prevent them in the first place. This is a wise investment strategy for the future. It is far cheaper to prevent land degradation and impacts on our wildlife, than to bring a species back from the brink of extinction or to restore a degraded river system. 

3. Instituting a Land and Water Repair Levy
A national land and water repair levy should be instituted to help raise revenue to meet the costs of immediate repair and on-going maintenance of Australia's land, waters and biodiversity. In this way all Australians can make a contribution to protecting Australia's declining rural, regional and urban landscapes. 

4. Control land clearing: Stronger laws to end large-scale clearing of remnant native bushlands and protect important areas of regrowth bush, and financial assistance to help farmers and landholders manage bushlands more sustainably.

5. Completing Australia's system of national parks. 
6. Protecting the rangelands and northern Australia.
7. Restoring and protecting rivers and wetlands to: get least 1500 gigalitres in additional water flows to the Murray River over ten years. 

Wise investment of the kinds proposed will:
Reduce the current annual cost to agriculture of lost production associated with land degradation (the figure is estimated at around $1.2 billion);
Reverse the annual environmental repair bill in Australia ($2-6 billion and growing);
And off course ensure a robust nature-based tourism industry where our natural assets from which we can sustainably earn so much income are properly looked after.

I've spent some time detailing these measures to show how it is possible to move Australia to a sustainable footing in relation to the natural environment and to illustrate that the information from scientists and advice on appropriate policy have already been accepted by this government and others, but simply haven’t been acted on. Finally I have asserted that it makes economic as well as environmental sense to address the problem now.

What is holding us back? Why does the Federal budget only allocate approximately 1% to environment spending? And why, notwithstanding the efforts of the current NSW state government, some departments and institutions to ramp up their efforts and to develop a strong working partnership between the farming community, environmental groups and governments, are these issues constantly dropped into the too hard basket, or politicised, or deemed unaffordable, or in some quarters refuted, because to be seen to be green is to be seen to be on the left or a basket weaving cityslicker. 

Perhaps as is often suspected in the regions, the cities are too busy with their own needs and problems. And yes the ecological footprint of Sydney is as huge, and contributes the size of the problems I've referred to already.

The scale of the challenge, whether in country or city, suburb or central desert, demands national leadership of the kind that saw Australia under John Curtin throw off the imperial loyalty to Britain in World War Two and seek assistance from a more likely ally when the country was literally under threat. Or of the leadership shown by PM's on both sides of the House when post war reconstruction became an urgent task for Australia.

Now some of the reason for our national lassitude we might identify as "political" and it is true that the political response from both sides of politics to the environmental crisis has been tardy. It is also true that the current Federal government is often hostile to environment issues and organisations for that matter. Although environment is now a byword, common in most circles this is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not a word used in Charles Sturt's time, it did not rate a mention in the constitution debates nor in the founding document of the Commonwealth and so it has been left to the States in the main to engage the issue.

Today restoring our ailing Murray-Darling river system to health is a real test of the Federation, after all this river system traverses four states. And will require national leadership and cooperative State participation of a kind we have rarely seen in Australia.

But there is another, deeper reason I think that sees us stranded, despite our current material wellbeing, in a continent in decline, where despite the increasing popular support for looking after our environment, we are still not succeeding in any meaningful way in coming to grips with how to keep doing everything we want to do and having everything we want to have whilst fixing up our battered land. 

The unpalatable fact is we are a wealthy, literate and open society, the envy of the world in fact and we are proving very poor managers and occupiers of a fragile land.

Here my feeling is we haven't learned to accept it and love it enough for its own sake as well as for what it brings to others. I don't mean romantic love off course, and I do know that many people who live on the land have very deep feelings of affection for the place they live. 

I mean love in the sense of giving full consideration to the object of our love. Maybe we need to listen more acutely to our poets or look more closely at our painters. Maybe to and forgo the huge doses of self-centredness that are common in contemporary culture and celebrated in popular media.  We haven't taken the metaphysical jump that the Aboriginal took when land became a family relative, although most of the astronauts did when they viewed a borderless, beautiful, blue world from the distance of outer space. They may have been heading towards a black hole but it was the sight of a green planet that brought them to tears. 

Maybe we need to square up to the fact that it is a part of our civic responsibility to the future inhabitants, a true case of having in Sturt's words "a wish to contribute to the public good…' for the sake of all the people and animals of Australia (and our region) who are affected by our today actions. 

If we embark on this inward journey we will most definitely find success for the natural advantages that we have are great, Despite all I have said tonight we remain, in comparison to most other people and countries, highly favoured. We have the example of forbears who made so much of the land. Yes it is now suffering as a result in some places but its destruction was rarely intentional and the hard work and hardships of yesteryear's settlers make our endeavours of today sometimes seem a bit paltry. 

We are capable of foresight and innovation, indeed I see it all around me in everyday life. We possess access to technology and education and training, we have democratic freedoms which permit the free circulation of ideas and views. We are. with the exception of the shadowy threat of terrorism, without enemies, in short we have few excuses for not caring for our country.

In the song 'Cats in the Cradle' the songwriter Harry Chapin writes of always being on the road and never having the time to stop and properly bond with his son. When he finally stops to do that it is too late, the son has left home, and his pleas for them to get together falls on deaf ears.

In our case we have to take an internal journey in our hearts and minds, find the time to bond with the earth, to understand for it, to care for it a bit more, and to demand our leaders act to preserve as well as we can. Now the earth will remain but for us to and have done little and moved on simply makes the task for the explorers of tomorrow that much harder. 

So lets fully appreciate this extraordinary place we call home, and lets fill the black hole in our political life with a national project of land and water repair which involves all levels of government and community, led by the Commonwealth with substantial investment by the private sector. If we raise ourselves to this task I am convinced it can be a turning point for the Australian people, a journey worth taking in a continent worth looking after.

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