Girt by a sea of anomalies

FEDERATION BECAME CLEAR to me for the first time recently – at least fifteen years after I served on the Celebration of Federation Committee chaired by Joan Kirner. That was the first time I had been able to witness this deft politician in action, and I learned a lot. But for all the tactics and intrigue, the great conversations and the miraculous process of gaining some kind of accord among so many different views, I didn't really feel federation in the blood. Prior to my Epiphany-on-Murray, the best measure of understanding had been the matter of a national defence force. Had we not federated, we would not have been able to send troops to World War I. Had that not happened, there would have been no slaughter and sacrifice, and subsequently perhaps fewer anomalies in the evolution of our day of choice for sounding pride, nationalism and identity.

My Murray tale is not about identity (though there's something of that to observe) or national pride, but about a glimpse of what federation meant. I was doing some research about the Paddlesteamer Canberra, which turns one hundred in 2013, as does her namesake. This lovely old boat is tied up at the wharf in Echuca, and I had a chat to her captain. He believes that the boat, commissioned by a professional cod fisherman and built in Goolwa, may have been named with tongue in cheek. Prior to federation, interstate taxes were enormous: if you fished in one state and sold your catch in another, there were exorbitant taxes to pay.

You only have to note the anguish in past years of farmers getting a reduced water allocation on the Victorian side of the Murray, while their neighbours in full view on the other side get a larger allocation, to understand how close yet how divided the states can remain. In some places still, to fish from the Victorian side you have to get a New South Wales licence. Prior to federation the division was much more dramatic.

Federation abolished the interstate taxes, and from 1901 the cod fishermen grew rich: with profitability up, better equipment and a consequent increase in the popularity of the business, this was the start of a period in which the Murray was fished out. By 1913 this particular cod fisherman was rich enough to commission a new boat, hence the nod to Canberra. It was an unsustainable practice: that became clear when fish stocks were exhausted, as was the temporary realisation of the Chaffey brothers' dream of Los Angeles in the desert when they started to introduce irrigation along the Murray. These are early examples of what appeared to be great ideas at the time, but neglected the fundamentals for building resilience.

For me, the value of the PS Canberra's story is in understanding the extent of the divide between the colonies prior to federation. Can we imagine what the implications would be now if such interstate taxes applied? These days Murray water has a price on it. What would South Australia's fate be with no source within its boundaries and taxes to pay for water originating in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland? Given the technological, especially engineering, advances in the past century, you can imagine squabbles of civil war proportions had the colonial system prevailed, leaving anyone downstream waterless.

ONE OF THE great stories I've come across, also in research pertaining to the centenary of Canberra, is that of the CSIRO. It says a lot about what Australia thought it was for in the past, and begs the question about what it is for in the twenty-first century. The original Advisory Council of Science and Industry was set up in 1916, and in 1926 morphed into the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The organisation's agenda consisted of research that would help develop both primary and secondary industries: in particular, farming, mining and manufacture. But the focus was on agriculture. Indeed, the story I gleaned from the CSIRO in Canberra left me with the impression that the national agenda has been in the hands of the CSIRO since its inception. Australia wanted to be a world leader in agriculture. Given the pioneering work of MacArthur around Parramatta in the wool industry at the end of the eighteenth century, and that of Farrer one hundred years later, exactly where Canberra is now, in developing resilient wheat species, this looks like a reasonable aim.

While baby boomers were still being drilled in boiling-hot classrooms about the wonders of wheat and sheep, the agenda was changing. World War II had demanded the CSIRO turn its attention to research that would assist Defence: radar was high on the list. Emerging from the war, Australia saw its future in manufacturing, and I witnessed the pride in the men of my family, my father and my uncles, as they got jobs at Kelvinator, British Tube Mills and Holden. Again, the list of projects indicates the shift, as Australia now aimed to lead the world in manufacture and industry.

The effects of globalisation and international trade deals, and the criminal slipperiness of national currencies (a national currency's strength no longer reflecting the hard-working efforts of its people, as it had done for the majority of the twentieth century), have seen the importance of agriculture and manufacture decline dramatically. While the recent attention to methods of slaughter and the transporting of livestock remind us of how many Australians are still affected when agricultural trade is interrupted, and how many exporters are still affected when global financial markets fiddle with the Australian dollar, it is also clear that subsidies are now essential in maintaining what used to be mainstays of the Australian economy. Interestingly, this was also one of the many passionate themes of President Obama's most recent State of the Union address: a commitment to supporting American car manufacture and exports. Is everyone except China in the same boat?

These days the CSIRO's agenda focuses on sustainability (or, we hope, resilience, which is the stronger concept), and 'invention' is now high on the list of proud achievements and priorities. Atomic absorption spectroscopy, plastic (polymer) banknotes and Wi-Fi are all products of the CSIRO, highly exportable and profitable on the global scale. If you accept that whatever the CSIRO is doing at any point is a good indicator of what Australia is for, then what we are currently for is the nurturing of clever scientists who contribute to this creative thinking and convert it into world-leading invention.

While I am an awestruck follower of new developments in all kinds of science, including environmental and medical, I have no expertise in these fields. But I can see how the development of 'resilience thinking' is essential for the future health of my own field of arts and culture, and I know that it must be the same for all systems, economic, ecological or cultural. Continuing to feed the top of the tree while neglecting the roots is a recipe for weakness and vulnerability. Taking a little off the top in times of challenged resources in order to nurture growth at the roots is the way to go – yet for many this is an unattractive model. There's some unwillingness to temper the boom, to ask shareholders to take a bit of heat, to shave off just a small percentage of lifestyle luxury, in order to divert resources to shoring up the less glamorous, less obvious paths to future strength and the great claims we could make about what Australia can be for in the future.

PHYSICALLY, GEOGRAPHICALLY, FACTUALLY, what Australia is used for, as opposed to what it is for, represents a substantial list. It is used as a strategically vital defence outpost for the United States of America. The absence of protest at the latest announcement in Darwin says a lot about the voice of contemporary Australia. Has celebrity really conquered all? Is it as simple as an equally strategic decision to ensure the physical presence of a charismatic American President at a highly sensitive northern border, to quash dissident opinion? Or is it just that we are now so mature we realise that we can't have a secure nation without the help of a much larger ally, so why argue? Young people are keen to occupy financial districts, but once upon a time in Australia young people travelled to the red centre to protest an American presence they were prevented from knowing about. Has the century-old fear of an invasion from the north, no longer just the 'yellow peril' of yore but now also twenty-first-century 'asylum seekers' (such irony in the derision of a concept that should evoke sympathy), made it seem pointless to challenge the American military presence there?

We are also used as a convenient territory for the ongoing promotion of the British royal family's popularity. The admirable Elizabeth II still works her undoubted charm, but the power of even greater celebrity, in the shape of William and Kate, seems destined to play a more crucial role in Australia's immediate future. As delightful as they may be, charming pretty people are no reason to postpone a public debate about independence and national pride – yet recent polls indicate, and the media are happy to report, that republicanism is now 'off the agenda'.

We are used as a temporary stall in the global financial markets. When major currencies dip we are seen as a handy short-term site for speculators to keep on making money until those larger markets rise. Then they desert our currency as quickly as they came to it, in the tap of a computer key. None of this would matter if it only affected the active players – let them speculate, let them rise or fall. But the whole country having been forced into what is portrayed as a life-or-death need for superannuation, every Australian's future is a potential victim of global gambling. We are told we must have super or our old age will be miserable, yet we are obliged to sink our hard-worked earnings into playthings for speculators who don't give a damn about the quality of our lives in old age. I have a family background in which gambling played a critical role, and I fear any form of gambling far more than most, but it is surely one of the most astonishing anomalies of all, that for all the appearances of a strongly individualist nation we are 'patsies' for any number of serious cons operating around the world. Are we generally viewed as likeable precisely because we don't kick up a stink about such things?

WHAT AUSTRALIA IS for at present, as opposed to being used for or used as, is the source of raw materials for the development of the Asian Century. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and India form the vast majority of buyers of Australia iron ore, coal, natural gas and aluminium. There have been many questions asked recently about the export of uranium to India. What we have most to sell is not what we grow and raise on the land, or what we produce and manufacture out of those raw materials above and below, but the raw material itself, which is sold to others so they are able to value-add. And the question of sustainability is all-important: people talk about enough raw material under the earth for a hundred years, but that's not long enough.

In this context, building resilience and exporting know-how, a priority for the CSIRO at present, seems like a good idea. As a continent we now confront many of the challenges that the rest of the world is or will be facing. Given our excellent record of scientific achievement, an ambition to lead the world in inventive measures for resilience/sustainability seems like a beauty. It wouldn't surprise me to learn, for all the media attention Australia's elite sportspeople achieve and the constant boast that we 'punch above our [population] weight' in this area, that we do likewise in global achievement in science and the arts too. When I look at other institutions, like the Curtin Medical Research Centre at the ANU, where eighty-six PhDs are beavering away at things like revolutionising methods of medication for those with HIV/AIDS (which could have absolutely future-determining results for Africa and parts of Asia), and NICTA in Canberra, where scientists are collaborating in the Bionic Eye project through the development of the chip that interprets the data gathered by the camera and feeds it to the brain, I am in no doubt about our ability. Our record in immunology, led by the great humanitarian Gus Nossal, and now in DNA research, is at the top of the international field. Despite our popular image throughout the world for fun and sun, beaches and sexy cities, sport and laid-back ratbaggery, perhaps what we are really for is something less glamorous, such as brains and courage in pioneering fields. Do parents dream of their kid making a fortune as an elite sportsperson, or a fortune as a celebrity, or an award-wining scientist who will change the world?

Brilliance in resilience thinking harks back to MacArthur and Farrer. It seems to 'come natural' in a continent like this. But it takes guts, and a game population. Despite our good fortune in 'wealth of soil', and the contradictories of fire and flood – which bring tragedy to some communities, and huge opportunities for observation, experiment and development of new measures for the scientific community, in similar proportion to the development of new technologies as a result of war – the majority of Australians, whipped up by the conservative media, seem resistant to the kind of national agenda that might allow us to be great in the global context. Dr Brian Walker, a CSIRO research fellow and now part of the global Resilience Alliance, has often talked about the necessary pain we have to go through to develop and sustain resilience.

The very things that many people believe we are for may in fact prove to be the barrier to us continuing to be for great things in the future. The strongest arguments against doing anything about carbon emissions come down to speculation about domestic finances. We are in a perfect position, a perfect moment of environmental threat, to show global leadership and scientific skill in dealing with the escalating challenges of air quality, water shortage, natural disaster (which could equally now be renamed man-made disaster), disease, food supply and so much more. But the prevailing feeling of the Australian people seems to be saying that leadership of this kind rates a poor second to maintaining the quality of life that would resonate with so many when asked 'What's Australia for?'

Recent stays at Gulf St Vincent, Yellow Waters (in Kakadu) and Durras on the south-east coast have reinforced for me the sense of an Australian paradise: anyone who can afford to spend time in the beauty of these pristine natural environments understands why international tourists are in awe of what we take for granted. These, and so many other unique places, sit next to wealth, relaxed lifestyle, sports stars, film stars, pop stars, big TVs, cars, and the consequent freedom for pleasure, laughter and taking the piss. But for how long? And will anyone have a voice strong enough to persuade us as a nation to do the tough things required for building resilience, and thus preserving so much of what we and the world currently value in Australia? It does mean shaving off some of the privilege of the lucky country, and there's the rub; but it is the only way we can continue to be what we are now for, and also become as soon as possible what we should be for in the twenty-first century.

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