Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Not owning but belonging to the land

  • 19 July 2018
There is a certain lookout on the bluffs of Lorne, on Victoria's surf coast. I've been there several times yet feel like a tourist each time. It is a breath-taking vista: the road running like a thin, grey ribbon next to the blue expanse of Bass Strait, which brushes here against a sandy cove.

We were heading back to the car, in the middle of the bush at midday, when I had to stop. The scent of eucalypts was intense. I could feel the sun on top of my head, and millennia below my feet. Tears sprang unbidden, inexplicably. I felt, for want of a better word, embraced.

I had not gone looking for this moment, did not even know I had needed it. It is still the only time I felt fully welcomed, and I cling to it when everything else seems so hostile. I took it as permission to be here.

Someone once told me that it is a mistake for migrant-minorities to want to belong, because it will always be under nationalist/supremacist terms. But when racist rhetoric and policies come buffeting, anyone would want to be tethered to something.

There are severe limitations in the western ways we tend to think about country, and land. Land is often conceived in terms of ownership and property — ideas that are implicated not just in colonial histories, but in extractive industries and concentrations of wealth.

In this model, land is a fulcrum of power. That is how seizures become a necessary precursor to occupation. Owning is licence for all sorts of things: homesteading, livestock, plantation economies. It stands for control. In the period when nascent democracies were granting suffrage, it was still only men with properties who could vote.

Even today those with property are rewarded through all sorts of fiscal incentives, at the expense of those without. The wealth gap has reverted to pre-modern conditions, when inheritance rigidly determined not just the character of individual lives but sociopolitical hierarchies. Our parliamentarians likely all own property.

"Their calculation of value, of what it means to live on the land, is distinct. It comes from a position of humility, where natural resources are held as debt rather than entitlement."

In economic discussion, land barely features on its own, as distinct from the tensions between labour and capital. It is merely the sphere in which wages and rent are paid, a passive site of production or competition. It holds