From the edge of the edge

GOING HOME FROM work on late afternoons in summer, I drive west between lines of flat grey bush straight into the glaring red sun that hangs just above the horizon. I’m driving to the edge. As the crow flies, I live five minutes from where the land ends and the Indian Ocean takes over. On scorching days the Fremantle Doctor, gusting up from the south across near-deserted sand hills, rouses us from the torpor of a forty-degree-plus day. With our extreme new summer temperatures this is a definite plus for living on the edge of Australia. I live on a good cultural edge with my partner, Darryl Kickett, a local Noongar man with a strong culture, lots of relatives and an ancient family lineage stretching back forty-five thousand years. He doesn’t have to look anywhere else for Home – he’s right in its heart. Not like me, still looking back after twenty-five years, along with the hundreds of thousands of other immigrants looking every which way for Home.

Immigration to the west has been overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic, bestowing an enduring legacy of looking back west to Britain as Home, like those colonists described by visiting Austrian botanist Baron von Huegel in 1833, who ‘gazed westward over the vast and stormy sea in the direction of their homeland, so far away and out of reach’.

Distance and isolation from the other Australian colonies cultivated an inward-looking attitude, expressed in periodic calls for the Cinderella state to secede from the nation and make its own way in the world. Cutting across the stagnation were mining booms that brought ‘t’othersiders’ west with new ideas and connections back east.

Among prospectors in the 1890s gold rushes were radicals from the union strikes in Queensland, who laid the foundations for a new progressive politics in WA and the nation’s second state Labor government in 1904.

The story goes that in 1900, the conservative Premier John Forrest granted women the vote to circumvent such an outcome. His plan clearly failed him, but it empowered women in WA with a new socio-political voice. Tragically, they didn’t raise it in defence of Martha Rendell, who was hanged in 1909 (the third and last woman in WA) on the grounds of specious evidence for the murder of her stepson. Instead, they filled out the crowds baying for her death, leaving it to a small group of professional men to call for mercy. But WA can be proud of its milestones for women in politics: first woman elected to any Australian Parliament (Edith Cowan, 1921), first woman state premier (Carmen Lawrence, 1990) and first Aboriginal woman elected to any Australian parliament (Carol Martin, 2001).

Demographically, WA is out of kilter, with Perth home to 98 per cent of the state’s population of two and a half million, and growing. In his article for The Conversation, ‘Australian census: booming Western Australia must embrace its new diversity’, academic Paul Maginn cites the 2011 national census in describing the ‘rise and rise’ of Perth as Australia’s fastest growing capital city. New Zealand, South Africa and the UK might top the list, but the increase in newcomers to WA from China, the Philippines, Korea, India and Thailand convinces Maginn that the ‘Asian Century is gathering demographic and economic momentum’ here. Walking around Perth, I can’t see this new ethnic diversity. Instead I see Perth striving for a glamorous US West Coast look, picked up in a February 2014 travel piece by Baz Dreisinger for the New York Times:

…multiple parks and waterfronts; spotless subways and free public buses; restaurant menus with organic, locally sourced food and wine; cool bars in heritage buildings; and pop-up everything, from farmers’ markets to cinema and yoga. Welcome to Perth.

Forget stories of cashed-up bogans. Perth’s beautiful people – models, actors, sports stars, musicians, foodies – also emulate the tanned West Coast style. I admit to the ‘Asian Century’ manifesting in some Perth universities with large enrolments of mainly overseas, fee-paying students. Curtin University alone has around nine thousand enrolments and a purpose-built mosque. I like to think the students are building scholarly and professional networks and knowledge that will endure when they too go back home. After all, as the universities point out, Perth and Asia share the same time zone.

THE PILBARA IS another edge where sand plain and red outcrops meet the sea. In the recent mining boom, vast resources of gas and iron ore made it the economic powerhouse of the nation and temporary home for some of the world’s largest mining corporations. The rich got richer – two-thirds of the wealth went to the state’s richest households – and more famous, with mining magnates Twiggy Forrest and Lang Hancock becoming national celebrities. Perth’s skylines grew ever higher, into shimmering glass temples of praise to wealth and progress. Cashed-up, fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers crowded out airports, stretched services to the limit and pushed local property prices sky high.

After the boom comes the bust, and with a 40 per cent slump in iron ore prices the state was left counting the costs: huge investments in infrastructure; a dramatic drop in state revenue, forcing cuts in state expenditure and employment; local economies and workers – geared to soaring wages and booming sales – left hanging, irreparable damage to the environment and Aboriginal lands, and priceless Aboriginal art sites destroyed.

Only now is there public disclosure of the toll for FIFO workers of compression shifts: long hours of hard, repetitive work, isolation and family disconnect manifesting in suicide and violence in the mining camps and conflicts back home. Little wonder that people power in the Kimberley opposed the James Price Point gas hub in their midst, despite the promise of vast new wealth.

In early 2011, Darryl and I arrived in Halls Creek in the East Kimberley. We were on the edge of desert lands in Kidja and Jaru country, which suddenly transformed into the edge of a vast inland sea that covered the Kimberley. The rains had come, in abundance, rivers rose to record-breaking heights, bridges were destroyed, towns isolated and all communications stopped – no mobile, no email and no credit card – with electricity cuts in temperatures over 40 degrees and high humidity. We all just had to stay put.

Overnight came the shocking news that the Warmun community village up the highway towards Kununurra had been washed away: seventy-six houses destroyed, along with the art centre and its priceless collection of Aboriginal art, and five hundred people evacuated by helicopter. How easily the rest of Australia can forget a remote corner of WA. Aboriginal ladies from the art centre in Halls Creek, who spent long nights watching the catastrophe of the Brisbane floods, saw no mention of their tribulations on TV.

And then, how suddenly the destructive forces of nature put paid to my plans.

Crazy as it seems, I was trying to orchestrate the sale of our dad’s house in flooded Brisbane from this flood disaster in the west. The sale papers had travelled from Brisbane to Sydney to Perth to Halls Creek. I had tramped around in the heat getting them stamped and signed and parceled up and then had finally waved them off in the post office truck travelling to Kununurra. Such exquisite timing! The truck drove into Warmun just as the raging floodwaters swept through, taking with them the truck and my precious documents, never to be seen again.

BEING ON THE western edge of the continent, away from the centre of action, has encouraged a national amnesia about political activism here and a stereotyping of WA as a naively conservative state.

There are numerous examples to counteract this view. Protests in the 1990s stopped the clearing of old-growth karri forests for wood chipping. The rage spread across all classes, and in February 1999 three hundred professional business people ‘in suits’ assembled in front of Premier Richard Court’s office in St Georges Terrace and used their mobiles to jam the phones. In February 2014, six and a half thousand people protested at Cottesloe Beach against the Barnett government’s shark cull. It was finally dumped – but only after sixty-eight sharks had been killed. Opposition by environmentalists and Aboriginal custodians contributed to Woodside’s decision in 2013 to withdraw from its $45 billion liquefied gas project at James Price Point, and helped delay Buru Energy’s plans to start shale fracking at sites in the Kimberley.

Aboriginal activists punch well above their weight, whether in concert with other groups or alone. Pilbara Aboriginal pastoral workers were the first to go out on strike when they walked off twenty-five stations in March 1945, to protest for fair wages and living conditions. Eight hundred left over the next three years: some were forced back to work by the police, but most stayed out and supported themselves by selling pearl shell, grass seeds, animal skins and tin, which the men mined and the women yan dyed in coolamons to shake out the dirt.

In the late 1970s, the Kimberley Land Council-led protest against mining exploration on Noonkanbah Station, and the bullying tactics of then Premier Sir Charles Court, attracted national attention. At the height of the dispute, Jimmy Chi and Broome band Knuckles performed the now-iconic song Bran Nue Dae from the back of a ute as a convoy of huge mining trucks, with their strike-busting masked drivers, rumbled past. The song went on to become an unofficial anthem for Aboriginal rights, a celebration of Aboriginal culture and identity and, finally, the hit song from Jimmy Chi’s ground-breaking Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae.

In the 1980s, Aboriginal deaths in custody became an international issue following the death of sixteen-year-old John Pat in Roebourne jail. Helen Ulli Corbett, a Yamadji–Noongar woman, began a national ‘listening tour’ that gathered information about ‘something like a hundred deaths’, which she took in ‘an old second-hand suitcase’ to Amnesty International in London. In 1986 she addressed the United Nations in Geneva, and recalls that ‘within four hours of delivering the speech the Hawke Labor government, well Hawke himself, got on TV and was crying and said we need to hold a Royal Commission into deaths in custody’.

Appointed in 1988, the Royal Commission was led in WA by Yawuru man Pat Dodson, who covered the thirty-two WA deaths out of the national total of ninety-nine. Tabled in Parliament in 1991, the report made 339 recommendations. One was for a custody notification service for police to call an Aboriginal Legal Service hotline whenever they arrested Aboriginal people. Adopted in NSW but not in WA, this could have saved the life of twenty-two-year-old Yamadji woman Ms Dhu, who died in August 2014 after being locked up in South Hedland police station for non-payment of fines. Then in Perth, on the eve of a National Day of Action in October to protest the death of Ms Dhu, came the news that an Aboriginal man had been found dead at Casuarina Prison.

Dry statistics hint at the pain Aboriginal communities experience. While they are only 2 per cent of the state’s population, they make up two-fifths of the adult prison population, three-quarters of juveniles in detention and more than half of children in state care. What can be done to prevent this continuing anguish?

THE THIRTY THOUSAND strong Noongar nation stands poised on the edge of a momentous decision that many believe might help to remedy these statistics. In early 2015, Noongar people will vote on a proposed Native Title Settlement that promises, in exchange for the ‘surrender of all native title’, to provide ‘a long-term cultural, social and economic development package [with] appropriate recognition of traditional ownership, provision of a significant land base, specific housing initiatives and indexed monetary compensation and support for regional management corporations’.

With the community divided, the outcome of the vote remains uncertain. A spreading grassroots movement believes that healing is the way to shift the statistics. Red Dust Healing is one such program that is having a powerful impact. It sets out to heal spirits broken by generations of dispossession, powerlessness and rejection and to restore dignity, integrity, love and respect. As my partner Darryl explains, it is based on Aboriginal philosophies of healing as ‘spiritual understanding of self, identity, love, belonging, family, security, hurt, heartache, good times, laughter and our connection to land. But mostly healing is a grasp for hope and acceptance based on love and respect, of understanding our supports and being able to tell “our” stories. Red Dust Healing offers tools for people to fix up their own broken lives and then take on the bigger issues around them.’

Western Australia IS the only Australian state on the Indian Ocean rim. I’ve travelled the length of its coastline – fishing, camping, swimming, sunbaking, walking on reefs – but had never looked out very far from that liminal space of the shoreline.

That changed on 24 March 2014, when I heard the announcement that Malaysian Airlines flight 370 had crashed into the ‘middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth. This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites.’ I vaguely remembered names of sites below the Indian Ocean – Exmouth Plateau, Broken Ridge, Perth Basin, Nikitin Seamount – and wondered if the plane might have landed there, and thought how the eyes of the world would once again be trained on us, so many years after the America’s Cup and ‘Perth, the City of Lights’.

The next day, on my way to the Indian Ocean Futures Conference in Fremantle, I glimpsed US servicemen personnel here to search for MH370. At the conference my mind was peeled open by papers about exotic Indian Ocean trade, slavery, architecture and pearling, then contemporary issues of defence, food security, asylum seekers, piracy, migration, poverty, sustainability, climate change – all the rich complexities of a world opening up for me just beyond the horizon.

A keynote paper by Isabel Hofmeyr brought me back to earth. It demonstrated to me how peripheral Western Australia is to the tight mesh of stories that make up the Indian Ocean, and how irrelevant Perth and the west coast are to the extremes of poverty and extravagance of the Global South.

To add to my disillusion I saw Those Final Hours, the apocalyptic film set in Perth that wallops our wealthy city and its overblown suburban homes built out of mining money. It shows the rich and glamorous west coast set sinking into ‘debauchery, crime and madness’ in some sort of global punishment for all their hyper-conspicuous consumption. All waiting to be blasted to ash.

The director’s final cut cruelly transforms the azure-blue Indian Ocean of my summer reveries, with its cooling Fremantle Doctor and beautiful western sunsets, into a scorching skyscraper-high wall of flames. It advances from the horizon as the end of the world closes in at the edge where the Indian Ocean ends and Australia takes over, just five minutes as the crow flies from my little jarrah cottage.


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