IN THE BEGINNING it is about land: enjoying, aggregating, owning, using, preserving, developing and selling land.
Land is, and always has been, a fulcrum of wealth and meaning. For millennia emperors and kings, colonial powers and trading companies have undertaken perilous journeys and embarked on epic battles to secure land and the resources and mysteries it holds – staking claim at home and abroad, often sweeping aside those who were there previously, and in the process redrawing maps and redistributing power.
Modern Australia is built on this principle and, within the Federation, Western Australia demonstrates it best.
With a third of the nation’s landmass, it is the single biggest entity. If its residents were evenly spread across the more than 2.5 million square kilometres that make up the state, each would have a patch just under a square kilometre to call their own – three times that available nationally, and vastly more than in the smaller, more densely populated states.
On this basis alone, it should not be surprising that WA is central to national prosperity.
When the Indian Ocean-facing territory became a colony, there was little understanding of the riches that lay beneath its ancient soil, or the tens of thousands of years of human settlement that had prevailed in what included vast tracts of apparently inhospitable terrain. It did not take long for gold to be discovered and dug out, for forests to be felled, dams sunk, water pipes laid and land to be distributed to the new arrivals.
It took much longer to realise the extent of the resources embedded in the geology, to appreciate the unique ecosystems, and even longer to realise the richness of the cultures that had developed and been maintained for millennia.
The legacies of these discoveries are now impossible to ignore, and illustrate another principle: that wealth aggregates across generations. Generally, the rich get richer.
Western Australia is small enough and blessed with enough resources to produce family dynasties in the way that has not been seen since the days of squatters on the fertile plains of the east coast colonies. That some of the richest people in the world should derive from WA is a testament to the land – as well as determination and ingenuity. But it begins with the land.
So the mineral wealth that has accreted over millions of years in the vast plains of the state has underwritten national economic wellbeing for the past decade – bringing unimaginable fortunes to those whose forebears staked claims, and a substantial trickle to the rest of us.
Those who were dispossessed and put under the control of the state have not done so well. They have weathered the consequences and survived, but with only a fraction of the embedded capital, making it unreasonably hard for many to move beyond the starting block.
The profound challenge for the twenty-first century is to ensure that the land can continue to give, and that this bounty is distributed fairly. Plunder might have made sense in another age; now we know better. It would be a tragedy if the legacy of the recent boom years was just more ghost towns.
AUSTRALIA IS ONE of a handful of countries to face two great oceans, and like Canada and the US, the dream of travelling west in search of a fortune is deeply embedded in the national psyche. Over the past few years, WA has won the population race. Although its absolute numbers are still small, the rate of increase has been remarkable – well over the thousand people a week that Queensland clocked up when it was growing at a clip a decade ago. Not all of those who moved west for well-paid jobs in the mining industry will stay, but many will, and it will be up to them to create a sustainable twenty-first century society.
Just as the gold rushes of the nineteenth century provided the means and ambition to establish Melbourne as an exemplar of a solid Victorian-era city, the mining boom of recent years has provided a unique opportunity to establish Perth as a sustainable twenty-first century city.
Such an ambition would suit the times and may have traction. From the big cities on the Pacific coast this seems improbable, but the picture up close suggests it is plausible. It could even provide a template. WA is one of the canaries in the mine of climate change in Australia. Community activism has pushed policy makers to respond seriously.
Just as the Pacific coast states of North America emerged from the bloodshed of the wars of settlement and the devastation of droughts and earthquakes to fashion the epicentre of twentieth century cool, Western Australia is on the cusp of reconciling the past and creating a new future.
This is important for the state and for the nation. As the push to re-examine the nature of the Federation gathers momentum, with economic, social and cultural consequences, it is essential that there is a deeper understanding of the impulses that underpin the positions that will be put on the negotiating table. A resilient, sustainable, reconciled WA is important for Australia.
The portrait of the state and its people, challenges and opportunities that emerges from the contributors to Looking West will confound many preconceptions. These stories provide rich insights into the history, geology, environment, politics and creative impulses that inform the state.
This edition of Griffith Review has been produced in partnership with Curtin University. Professor Anna Haebich, who has written extensively for Griffith Review in the past, has been an inspired co-editor. She has worked closely with associate editor Rosemary Stevens and a team of distinguished Curtin academics to indentify the best writers, the interesting subjects and the important issues.
It has been a rewarding collaboration, which we hope will be as productive, informative and joyful as Pacific Highways, our New Zealand edition, and the bestseller Tasmania: The Tipping Point?.
25 November 2014