(This is a lecture I gave to Adelaide Festival of Ideas which went down pretty well, I think, with an audience of about two hundred, and a lot of ABC listeners in the nine or ten weeks since then. Bear with the length, if you will. It addresses the central, driving myth of modern Australia.)
When driving north north-west, as I sometimes do, from Melbourne to Adelaide, I find myself sometimes in twilight engulfed by green and fertile plains and hills round Ararat in the Western District, a great bonus of countryside the size of half of England, with very few people in it. And I pull over and drink some orange juice and look out at the surrounding, fading beauty and wonder how many Hazara peasants and their sons could fruitfully till the soil here on small holdings, growing things. It is five hundred thousand? A million? Or how many cities the size of Newcastle could be sustained here? — three? four? – if the rains and rains and floods kept coming and were piped to places of need, recycled, purified, desalinated, poured down into hot rocks to come up as steam that powers electricity and is then, and therefore, clean enough to drink? Why not? I ask.
And I drive on, into the dark.
Sometimes I go to Adelaide by train from Sydney, and in dawn go past the Menindee Lakes, as big now as Lake Erie, and wonder why no fish are being farmed there, no waterside restaurants built, no grey mud beauty-cream harvested, as it is from the Dead Sea. Is it truly because the lakes will recede, and not be there in ten years’ time? Or is it another reason?
We are told we must not let the Boat People in, in part because they jumped the queue, preferring not to have their children caned and sodomised and whored and fed drugs and under-educated in Malaysia, but in part because Australia cannot sustainably hold more than, what, twenty-five million? Thirty-five million? People? Ever?
And our Asian neighbours think this is a really strange thing to say. They look at a continent two-thirds as big as China, which has 1.4 billion people, two-thirds of which is 900 million people, and they wonder, where do we get off? And, how dare we?
And I look at the map, and I find that Bob Katter’s electorate, embracing most of the northern thrust of Queensland, mostly green and fertile, is as big as Great Britain, and has ninety thousand people in it. And Tony Crook’s electorate, which is only half desert, is as big as Scandinavia, and has ninety thousand people in it. And Mike Kelly’s electorate, green, fertile, beach-fronted, ski-lodged and cheese producing, is as big as Israel, and has ninety thousand people in it. And I look at Tasmania, which is as big as Ireland, and mostly green and fertile, and has six hundred thousand people in it, unlike Ireland, which has four million.
The Maralinga lands, given back to their people by Mike Rann, are the size of Belgium. The far North Coast of New South Wales, from Taree into Quirindi and up to Tenterfield, Nimbin and Tweed Heads and back down the coast to Taree, is the size of Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island put together, and has only four hundred thousand people compared with those parts of New England, no more fertile, no more richly soiled and freshly watered, which boast nine million people.
So what are we talking about here? A genuine crisis in our carrying capacity in a parched land that is full up? Or something else?
And let’s leave aside the Ord River Catchment Area, as big as Denmark, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, as big as Wales, the Snowy River high country, bigger than Switzerland, South-East Queensland, as big as Macedonia, and try to find out, following, as it were, the paper trail, or the water trail, why we really fear immigration from Asia of people not of our religion, into our cities and pastures and country towns.
We are told it’s because we don’t have the water to sustain much life here, that this is the driest continent. Well…I’m not sure ‘continent’ is a useful word in any argument that we might have on any subject on this planet. Asia is probably the coldest inhabited continent, but it contains Saudi Arabia, India, Sri Lanka. Africa is the most food-rich continent, potentially so, though five thousand children starve there every day.
And…Australia is the driest continent, with the thinnest top soil. Well, the top soil’s pretty deep round Mullumbimby and the rain abundant and provident in the Tweed and Richmond valleys. The deep-soiled, well-watered parts of Australia are bigger than half of non-British Europe. Why say ‘continent’ at all? ‘Continent’ is not a useful word. We should never use it again, in any context. It is a fraudulent word, a waste of ink, a waste of breath.
And what we have here for sure is a big lie, a lie as big as Terra Nullius, however innocently it was arrived at, a lie as big as the notion that Israel was an underpopulated, savage, desert place before 1948 when the bulldozers levelled the towns and the armies at gunpoint pushed out people resident there a thousand years to provide a Terra Nullius in which to build a new Jerusalem free of the memory of the old.
It is a big lie, and there is plenty of room. And we have to ask why and how this big lie, Australia Deserta, was innocently arrived at, or maliciously told.
Innocently? Well, after Burke and Wills and Edward John Eyre and the hardships of Dad and Dave on their selection, and the dust-blowing droughts that so formed the sun-burnt souls of Henry Lawson, Barcroft Boake, Xavier Herbert and John Williamson, one could be forgiven for thinking Australia a dry, inhospitable, unreliable, ecologically cantankerous place. But this is only if you think of it as an ill-equipped nineteenth century share-cropper would, not as a twenty-first century minerals industry CEO, or a tourist hotel owner with a bedroom view of Uluru. It’s then as hospitable and population-friendly as Palm Springs is, or Vegas, or the Grand Canyon, or Los Angeles. You only have to pipe the water in.
And, as to the question of water, to put it a little vulgarly, the sea is full of it. And its level could be brought down just a bit, by piping some of it into South Australia where desal plants, powered by hot rocks, wind or solar, could turn it cheaply into potable water, or shaving water, or garden water. Australia Deserta, or Terra Australis Deserta, as some medieval cartographer might call it, the big lie, was innocently born of nineteenth century eyes, and powerful words, and word-clusters like The Outback, and The Birdsville Track, and The Back of Beyond, and The Never-Never, stopped us measuring what we had, in cane-growing coastlands, and wheat-growing inlands, and the cattle-farming north, and the apple-growing south, and the once fish-teeming rivers, and blizzard blowing ski-lodge mountain valleys as big as Switzerland, and, as John Ford said, we printed the legend, and we believed in it.
That’s if we got here, to this conclusion, innocently, though some in this room I imagine did, and were not encoiled into a larger racist fantasia of prized possession of a blessed place, and repelling the swarthy heathens who want to take it from us, as in Tomorrow When the War Began, and want to take it soon.
Is it just the Hughes-Curtin-Menzies myth of the Yellow Peril overwhelming in their invading millions and insistent sperm our proud British stock that drives this parsimonious fantasy, this frugal superstition, that there is no room at the inn for anyone but our own post-Christian Anglo-Celtic grandchildren, and the odd Japanese chef and the odd buxom Ukrainian waitress to feed them, or the odd Russian bride to breed their blue-eyed children? Or is it something deeper, something more primally transmitted? Something deep in our DNA?
The question should be asked: Why is it boats that so affright us and not aeroplanes, not aeroplanes loaded as they eventually are with immigrant illegals? I believe myself the reason lies in race memory, of the medieval plague.
Boats, if you remember, leaky hulks with rotten cargo, and rats, and fleas, brought the plague to England, and Europe, from the Middle East and North Africa, and a third of England died. And we somehow remember this, and we search on arrival, and probe on arrival, each Middle Eastern or Muslim boat person for disease, in a way we do not search and probe any English round-the-world yachtsman, or Jessica Watson, or Willem Dafoe, or Hillary Clinton, or Kevin Rudd, though they have been as far and as deep into disease-bearing latitudes as any Palestinian refugee. We have this image of menace by boat, a tall ship with black sails, so well evoked in The Threepenny Opera, and also in Pirates of the Caribbean, that bears a cargo of ill-fortune, of kidnap and pillage and syphilitic rape, an image as old as Greece in its war with Persia, of advancing seaborn menace we must repulse with might and main and virgin sacrifice, which in our day continues, and is shouted from the rooftops by Tony Abbott. ‘Stop the boats!’ he bellows in war cry, but never ‘Stop the refugees!’ It is the boats, and their disease, he starts us thinking of and fearing, not the talented little children within them, or their frantic pregnant mothers watching our naval vessels approach, and praying to their sky-god to make us Australians wise providers of their need.
It is the boats we fear, and fear primally, and not the goat-herding mountain Shi-ites who would prosper here, and make good slaughtermen, and nurses, and brain surgeons, and old-age carers, and Sanskrit scholars, and husbands for lonely schoolteachers, and it’s because of the boats we have invented the myth, and printed the legend, of Australia Deserta, when our ecology is agog with possibilities.
We have an Inland Sea now, and we could breed fish in it, while it is here. Australia is a net importer of fish, despite our twenty-seven-thousand-mile coastline and this to me seems ridiculous. We could make the Menindee Lakes a hive of trout, and salmon, and export megatons of them to Japan, while the lakes last, and we do not know for certain they will ever go away. But…if they do…well…
What will we do if the desert returns, and we become, again, the driest continent, instead of what we are now, one of the wettest? What do we do to house and heal and feed the multitudes now breeding in Uruzguan and Aceh and Syria and Sri Lanka, who may soon choose to ask us for shelter and succour and sanctuary on our none too fatal shore?
Well…we should think a bit, and revolve in our minds the twin thoughts that, lo and behold, the desert does bloom, because it has, and the desert, in order to bloom, needs, well, it needs not so much rainfall, as water. And where is it to come from?
In California, which is desert, it comes, in pipes, from snow-topped mountains four hundred miles away. In Kuwait, which is desert, it comes, in pipes, from the desalinated Red Sea. Don Dunstan had an idea of towing some icebergs north and feeding them, as ice cubes, into Adelaide’s reservoirs. But there are other means to the end of nourishing the refugee millions who soon will be sharing our green and gold and sand-blown, mine-gouged, beach-proud, water-scarce, blue remembered hills and kookaburra-chuckling suburbs, if we let them in.
Israel found, in their DesertBloom project, that deep underlying brackish desert water, in which South Australia is richly abundant, made sweeter tomatoes, and bigger strawberries, and fatter bananas, and statelier red roses, than normal clean snow-melt water by a factor of about thirty-two percent. Looked at that way, thought on that way, suddenly our desert is a garden; and the fifty thousand Hazara peasant farmers currently keen to come here, suddenly and surprisingly a boost and boon and a bonanza to our economy.
They would also be of help in the difficult matter of camel milk. There are half a million camels in South Australia, and camel milk, as is well known, mitigates diabetes and lasts ten months when refrigerated, and is therefore a multi-billion dollar export, but the difficulty is, how to get it. Well, you have to sneak up on a mother camel feeding her eager baby and, as it were, grasp her attention without losing her respect. It can be done but it requires a lot of running, jumping, lassoing, tying down and praying to Allah, and, of course, Hazaras would be good at this, and we would make, oh, ten billion a year, halve diabetes worldwide, make productive use of our desert, and so on.
Hazaras might be useful also in growing and tending and reaping non-hallucinogenic marihuana in great northern forests and turning it into chairs, tables, chopsticks, clothbound novels, T-shirts, trousers, curtains, carpets and blankets and with it sequestering more and more carbon as it swiftly grows and is swiftly cut down, thereby delaying, I guess, for a century or two, the world’s end, on twenty acre allotments rented from Aboriginal peoples, or shared by them, in newly watered places now judged desert, or Back of Beyond, by cartographers underinformed of human progress and modern possibilities.
Or they could be licensed to fish in the new, vast, continuing Inland Sea, or grow oysters, or teach waterskiing there. And thus by intricate adjustments to an altering ecology provide the tax base for the comfort of us baby-boomers grown old and rancorous in crowded and filthy nursing home in the 2020s and ‘30s.
I know I mention the Hazaras a lot, and it’s because, well, I know a few, and to me and my children they look like Mediterranean Australians, most of them, those that do not exactly resemble Ricky Ponting, and their industrious, parsimonious, hardworking family values put me in mind of the Anatevka Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, dispersed and exiled by the Russian pogroms, Jews from whom I descend, and I resent the idea, affected but not believed by our Prime Minister, that they are a problem that should be ‘finally solved’ by their ‘resettlement’ in Malaysia: jobless, resented, ill-schooled, enslaved, pious, mocked, persecuted and festering at the end of an endless queue, and considering, at long last, some of them, terrorism as a career option.
And if the Inland Sea dries up? Well, there are pipes, there is water. A big enough pipe could transfer the Fly River into the Darling or the Laklo in East Timor into the Drysdale in Western Australia. And there is coastal storm-water that could be sucked up after storms and driven in tankers to grey-water reservoirs in towns with a need of it.
Water, you see, is not the problem, or it is not the problem any longer. Water can now be made. And living space, lebensraum, Hitler called it, is not the problem. There is a continent one-third as big as Africa of it. Race is not the problem. Nearly all of them look like us.
Sustainable numbers, therefore, are not the problem either. That thought, that phrase, that question, that mischievous hypothesis is a big lie. The problem seems to be that we do not like women wearing certain headgear, or men praying loudly five times a day to an angry deity we do not much like the smell of, with his multiple wives and hatred of dogs and pig-meet. And this is the fear we have disguised beneath the very, very dodgy theory of lebensraum, Hitler’s excuse for exterminating – or, as he put it, relocating – another Semitic people, elbow-room for the ubermensch, the Anglo-Celts, and our lesser Mediterranean cousins, lebensraum for the Euro-Aryan supermen, us.
So: how many, do you think? Let’s not be too ambitious. Let’s look at the world’s most successful, most prosperous and, yes, multicultural and conscienceful functioning democracy, Germany. It’s three-quarters the size of Western Australia, it has eighty-two million people, and it will have ninety million people by 2025.
Let’s begin to match it. Let’s take in all the one hundred and seventy thousand queued up refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia, let’s pay whatever Hazaras who want to come here to do so, thus easing much of the divided, reft and bloodstained anguish of Afghanistan, let’s ask what country towns and cities would like some refugees, let’s put them in caravan parks outside or in those towns, give them the unemployment benefit, and the caravan rent, and a bicycle, and the use of the local schools, and see how it goes.
If we do this in the next five years, we may have a population of twenty-five million, by decade’s end, with as many young people working in it as are needed to subsidise the swollen bubble of the old, a better country, and a better society, and a better feeling within ourselves of what Australia hereafter must mean.
All those in favour?