THERE ARE THREADS that run like arteries through a nation and in this country one is the land. It is the source of many of the sustaining myths, preoccupations and conflicts – the biggest dreams and the greatest disappointments. From the boastful national conversation about property prices to the nagging unease about sustainability and native title, the nature of our obsession with land changes with the season but is never far away.
It is hard to remember a time when talk about land, property or country was not near the top of the news list, when the landscape did not deserve an award as best supporting actor on the screen, when artists and writers did not take their inspiration from the environment, when Aboriginal people were not telling us that country was much more than dirt and water, trees and rocks, when profiteers and scam merchants did not promise untold wealth from a little investment in a development up the coast and most of us did not dream about plots of our own, unencumbered by debt.
This preoccupation is not unique to Australia; indeed the global internet spam merchants regularly hit the send button to remind unwitting receivers that real estate is the key to wealth. But just as every unhappy family is dysfunctional in its own particular way, so our land stories – or what Melissa Lucashenko calls “earthspeaking” – have their own cadence, their own resonance and their own trip wires. It is clear that the physical nature of the land, the spiritual dimension of the land and the trajectory that has made ownership of the land the key to personal wealth since white settlement are now hard-wired into the Australian psyche.
AT ONE LEVEL the reason is simple: since before ledgers were kept and titles offices established, land has been the dominant source of wealth in this country. For Aborigines before white settlement that wealth was not measured in coins but came from a highly evolved and symbiotic relationship with country, but for the past 215 years the claiming, granting, trading, farming, mining and selling of land has become a more venal, mercenary activity.
The trend was set with the now rejected notion of terra nullius, the declaration of Crown land, the grant of leases, the claim of vast acreages by explorers and the trading of plots of land for bottles of rum. Recalling these patterns from dimly remembered events, as Jim Forbes and Peter Spearritt do in their essay, makes new sense of the peculiar property obsession that has gripped Australians over the past couple of years.
THERE ARE SOME narratives that are bound to repeat themselves endlessly with only small variations for changing times. In Australia, the creation of wealth from the ownership and exploitation of the land, not the tales of industrialisation or innovation that have powered the development of other countries, is one such narrative.
From the chicanery of the Rum Corps trading land for booze, to the handouts to squatters, the land grants to entice settlers, the grim soldier settlements of the postwar years and the mining and property booms of the 20th century; land has been the key commodity of trade, largesse, exploitation and a means to generate wealth and cement belonging.
Throughout the 19th century, land ownership separated the rich from the rest; by 1915 it explained why 90 per cent of the wealth was in the hands of a fifth of the population. Eighty-five years later nearly half the national wealth was tied up in land and houses, and although the very rich no longer relied solely on land to generate their wealth, it was still the bedrock of their affluence and the entry point for others; an entry supported by taxation policies that exempted the family home from capital gains tax, that fostered disproportionate investment in property and ensured that property passed from one generation to the next unencumbered. As a result, any rich list includes a disproportionate number of property developers and landowners, about 20 per cent of the workforce is employed in the property industry broadly defined and lack of home ownership remains the sharpest dividing line between the real battlers and others.
We are at what commentators agree must be the fag end of another of the cyclical property booms that have reshaped the continent and the way we live. In 2002, as the obsession with buying, building, renovating and selling approached its zenith, $124 billion worth of real estate changed hands. It fuelled the economy and locked more than 80 per cent of the population into residences within 50 kilometres of the coast.
In conversation it did not take long to tap the unease that accompanied this roller-coaster of development, speculation, borrowing and repayment, but despite cautionary admonitions week after week, new records were set for house prices. What had for years been a peculiarly Sydney obsession oozed around the nation and seven-figure house prices went unremarked in the most unlikely places. Whatever the level of debt, and it was unprecedented, people were comfortable that the value of their houses would generate future tax-free returns and insulate them from the ghastliness of the world beyond these shores.
The fault lines were, however, becoming clearer, driven by increasing rates of indebtedness, prices that were prohibitive for many first-home buyers and a shortage of supply. While interest rates remained at historic lows the political pain was below the threshold, but there were plenty of Hanrahans ready to foretell of ruin. A few figures from one city give a snapshot that explains a great deal. In Sydney, a third of the population rent the roofs over their heads, yet, of the home owners, more than 40 per cent owe nothing on their abodes, which they know are worth much more than they were. These figures are a key to understanding affluence and inequality, security and insecurity in our biggest, most diverse city.
That this property boom coincided with unprecedented insecurity about the world and our place in it may have provided some comfort. At least in a changing world some things remained constant and within our power to change – the colour of the walls, the style of the window dressings, the design of the furniture, even the look of the garden. The obsession reached a fenzied peak when the sale of the made-for-TV apartments in The Block became one of the highest rating television programs ever. Tess Brady’s satire takes us inside this preoccupation with home beautification with a Melbourne story that humorously explores the tension between public and private places, while Mark Wakely explores the pursuit of the dream home.
MANY OF THESE dreams are played out in the mundane drama of life in the suburbs. For all the media hype about inner-city property prices, the focus on the high-rise apartment buildings that are creating their own micro worlds for investors and empty nesters, at its heart Australia remains the most suburban of nations. Most people live in the suburbs that march on relentlessly, turning hills and valleys into a patchwork of kerbs, gutters, roads, houses and shopping centres. Yet the suburbs are not as homogeneous as the architecture suggests, writes Alastair Greig, and cultural critics who dismiss the differences misunderstand the nature of the political power of those who live beyond the inner cities. The suburbs have been transformed as “master-planned” developments have offered affordable mansions in neighbourhoods filled with “people like us” and an almost tangible promise of community in a privatised utopia, a situation about which Brendan Gleeson is extremely sceptical.
The earliest suburbs, Patrick Troy writes, evolved to address problems of sustainability where “home-grown” was a necessity, not a quaint indulgence. As a result, beyond the inner cities each block needed to be big enough for a house, a vegie garden, some chooks, maybe a cow, water storage and a septic tank. Although governments now offer incentives to home owners to install water tanks and require energy efficiency in new dwellings, the sustainability of the suburbs is a matter of dispute. But the appeal of growing things in our own soil runs deep and pulls many back to the land, as Michael Wilding recounts in his memoir.
THE PREOCCUPATION WITH land is not just about wealth. It is also the core of community and dreams of belonging. Where we live and how we live shape our social relations, our expectations and our understanding of the world and ourselves. This is clear in Judy Kennedy’s report on the changing role of rural women. Time after time the message came from women living on farms that the reason they lived there was for love of the place, the people, the lifestyle – a special form of connectedness coupled with a newfound ability to shape the way the business ran, a long way from the mythologised tale of the long-suffering drover’s wife. The identification of shared interests is a theme developed further by Rick Farley in his analysis of the way coalitions of complementary groups may find new ways to ensure sustainable land use, while Tom Connors throws a match into the debate about drought support.
There are many who would agree that claiming the land, declaring terra nullius, is at the root of a uniquely Australian psychological unease. For Melissa Lucashenko, growing up on the outskirts of Brisbane, the sense of belonging and the importance of place became even clearer as she peeled back the layers of her family’s story, moving beyond her father’s changing persona to her mother’s casual confession, “as though her attention had lapsed: we were Aboriginal”. This revelation is the springboard that has shaped her unique perspective.
The way different worlds intersect is a theme that recurs in a number of the essays in this collection. For Ramona Koval, the gap between suburban Melbourne and life on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land takes on new meaning when she unwittingly finds herself caught up in the thrill of a turtle hunt. When Geraldine Brooks travels to the Kimberley with art dealer Tim Klingender to secure paintings for Sotheby’s, she finds a gap between “the richest 200,000 people on the planet” and the Kimberley artists bemused by the thought anyone could have a house big enough for their giant Ngurrara I canvas.
Matthew Condon writes of his return to live on the Gold Coast after a lengthy absence. He confronts memory and alienation in Australia’s fastest-growing city, a fractured optimistic place where “you meet yoga gurus who used to be property developers and property developers who used to be waiters and waiters who used to be yoga gurus” and where he finds the essence of the place in a remnant forest. For Jack Waterford, the fury of the firestorms in January 2003 – also captured in Simon O’Dwyer’s photo essay – provides a reason to remember the way the nation’s capital grew up, lost its sense of community but regained its spirit in the face of extraordinary losses. The process of regaining a sense of spirit and purpose for the people of Boolaroo in the Hunter Valley is likely to be more protracted. As residents of the township that grew up around the site of the first heavy industry, a lead smelter, in what became one of the most industrialised regions of Australia, the people of Boolaroo are paying the price of decades of ignorance about industrial pollution. The smelter has closed but the legacy lingers, as Andrew Belk – whose short story The big Jesus featured in the first issue of Griffith REVIEW – finds when he returns to his childhood haunts.
THE DAMAGE TO the environment is not confined to former industrial sites; it is gnawing at the core of the land and its creatures, as Anthony Lawrence’s poems suggest. Creating a sustainable future will take great political courage and tough decisions, according to Ian Lowe, who argues that the cost of not doing so is potentially catastrophic. Much energy is being devoted to ensure that water usage is better managed and that the scourge of salinity is halted. These programs, while undoubtedly urgent, are too new to evaluate.
The same cannot be said about the great land-policy change of the past decade – the recognition of native title – the heart of one of the biggest dreams and potentially the greatest disappointments about land ever in this country. While there have been some gains through the legal and legislative process, they have not lived up to the promise – or threat – that accompanied the Mabo and Wik decisions of the High Court. The outcome of the cases is documented in a web supplement to this issue by leading native-title lawyer Graham Hiley, available at www.griffith.edu.au/griffithreview, while Ann Genovese and Alexander Reilly analyse the use of the metaphor “the tide of history” in judgements to extinguish rights.
For leading Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, the realisation of the practical impediments to the dream of land rights has forced a personal reassessment of priorities and strategies, which he explains with frankness and passion in these pages. He has not given up on the importance of native title or the spiritual and economic importance of land, but fears for the survival of his people unless the cycle of welfare dependence and alcohol abuse is not broken. To achieve this he argues there is a need to jettison leftist legacies that have failed to provide useful answers in the past.
Paradoxically, at a time when the immediate focus of our recurring land preoccupation is on property prices and sustainability rather than native title, as it once was, it is clear, as Mark McKenna writes, that Aboriginal notions of land have captured the political imagination and shape the unique ways Australians now seek to describe the place they call home. Gone is the language of threat, the dreaming of Europe’s green fields, replaced by words that reflect the power of the land, its Aboriginality.
There is no escaping this change in the way we now see the land, as the images in this edition attest. A powerful new thread of dreams and disappointments has been added to the enduring narrative of “earthspeaking” down under.
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