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Rudd and Abbott charge the north


'Great Central State' by Jack Cross. Cover features map of Australia with South Australia and Northern Territory marked as one big stateKevin Rudd has now joined Tony Abbott in a charge to the North. The common idea is that a substantial fraction of Australia's population and economic activity can be pushed up and across the northern half of the continent. The assumption is that northern Australia is ours to do as we like with. In fact, it's not.

Much of Australia's Aboriginal population lives in northern Australia, and Aboriginal people make up a far higher proportion of the population there than anywhere else. They own or co-own, in both Western legal terms and in customary law, vast tracts of land, many of which are open to non-Aboriginal people only with Aboriginal permission. In northern Australia, Aboriginal people have constructed a distinctively Aboriginal way of life, as different from the mainstream as it is from 'traditional' Aboriginal society.

What the major parties are proposing is not necessarily a bad thing from Aboriginal points of view. What is bad is the assumption about our prerogatives. Official Australia has long looked at the north as a tabula rasa awaiting 'development', an unmissable opportunity and an infuriating failure. And apparently it still does.

Credit for getting this history under way goes to the pastoral grandees of the colony of South Australia. In the 1860s they funded an obsessive-compulsive alcoholic Scotsman to find out what lay between their northern border and the far coast, and how it could be got. John McDouall Stuart's six expeditions found little to encourage them, but lust trumped reason, and South Australia set itself to be the first colony in history to found a colony. The two would fuse, in time, to become the Great Central State

Dreams of imperial glory and speculative fortunes turned almost immediately into a long-running mixture of farce and nightmare. Eventually South Australia got lucky. In 1911 it managed to palm off its colony onto the newly-constituted Commonwealth of Australia. Astonishingly, the Commonwealth even agreed to pay serious money for it, nearly four million pounds, plus another 2.2 million for a railway line that had not even reached South Australia's northern border, let alone made any money.

Believing, as had the South Australians before them, that there must be a way to turn space into land, the Commonwealth did what South Australia had done, with the same result. An official inquiry report in 1937 was scathing. It found that in the 25 years since the takeover the federal government had spent more than 15 million pounds and was heading further into the red. The previous year's production had brought in 100 000 pounds less than the Government's outlay for the year of 600,000 pounds.

Most revealingly, nearly a century after the frontier's first appearance in the Territory, its Aboriginal population still outnumbered the non-Aboriginal (if you include Chinese, which the inquiry didn't) by three or four to one.

But the inquirers nonetheless found that it can be done, if it's done right. It prescribed the familiar medicine: ports, roads, bridges, railways, ports, industry development boards, the lot.

Much of what the inquiry wanted soon came to pass, but not in result of its proposals. In 1939, war saw tens of thousands of troops stream north to build roads, airfields, a port and other infrastructure. For the first time the white population exceeded the black.

Soon motor vehicles, aircraft, air conditioning and buckets of public money transformed the look and feel of the Territory, but 'development' remained elusive. In the Territory, and more particularly in neighbouring tropical Queensland and Western Australia, mining was the only big earner, not necessarily to the advantage of government revenues.

The kind of on-the-ground industries apparently envisaged by Rudd and Abbott — horticulture and agriculture particularly — were confined to coastal enclaves or to the margins of viability. Much of the north proved too hot, too wet, too dry, too far from markets, too barren or too pestilential, with the happy consequence that the frontier failed to do its grim work.

Instead of a near-obliteration of Aboriginal populations of the kind seen on the eastern and southern seaboards, northern Australia witnessed a slow-motion saga of sporadic violence and accommodation, of advance and retreat. Neither side ever looked liked winning, and neither ever looked like giving up.

In the aftermath of the Coniston massacres of 1928 both sides abandoned violence for other means, and since then both have used the law, politics, money and public opinion in hundreds of struggles over land and 'culture', some famous or notorious, most not, one side straining to gain ground, the other to resist and to recover.

That 160-year struggle now seems to be reaching a new stage. We like to think that the devastation of one population and culture by another is all in the past, but the apparent failure of Rudd and Abbott to notice that northern Australia is shared country suggests that there might be more to come.


Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden has written on relations between white and black in History Australia, Meanjin, Inside Story and The Weekend Australian.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Northern Territory



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Existing comments

Thank you...I have just been educated...and grateful.

Rev'd Patricia Bouma | 20 August 2013  

"You can't put new wine in old wine skins". New opportunities are required for Indigenous employment to break the welfare dependence cycle in favour of self respect. The vast black soil grasslands of the Gulf, which I am familiar with could feed a lot of people, one of my sons has started a farming venture on the Flinders River and in a very dry year harvested 0.75t/ha of Mung beans, which will be eaten in Asia. The Third Stage of the Ord Scheme is a partnership with the Traditional Owners to develop their own agricultural enterprise "new wine, new skins"

Nev Hunt | 20 August 2013  

North Queensland is Katter country and the Federal Member for Kennedy is one very parochial person. I think the 'too hot, too wet, too dry, too far from markets, too barren, or too pestilential' statement is an accurate one. Not to mention the cyclones. Having been born and lived in North Queensland until the age of eight, I have some memory of a very (proudly) different kind of place to the southern states.

Pam | 20 August 2013  

Nearly forty years ago our family witnessed the process of European take over Aboriginal lands for mining and national parks. This was top end NT – where ‘consultation’ was a token one way talk in condescendingly broken English (‘leaders’ were largely identified by the Europeans as those closest to European culture) and trinkets were offered in the form of land tenure ‘privileges’ and co investments in mining, tourism amongst others along with employment opportunities and western education. I say ‘trinkets’ because most of this was as meaningless as the shiny mirror of eighteenth century. Today, little has changed except perhaps a few more Europeanised Aboriginal people are accepting opportunities on western terms and that makes the statistics look good for those who need them. Definitive statements on health and education policies and employment prospects are announced – ultimate solutions to persistent commitment to Country and cultural bewilderment leading to too many profound personal tragedies. How familiar these ‘new’ solutions are – nothing new, nothing new. The Top End has a very tough climate: towns are airconditioned refuges more often than not, surrounded by comforting gardens of southern or British plants. It is inhospitable to agriculture (we are to be the next ‘food bowl’ – check out the amount of sprays and fertilisers used to grown western foods). And it is only truly understood as an environment and as a living entity in its own right.

Jane | 20 August 2013  

A thoughtful article. I was also impressed by the comment from "Jane". That "charge to the North" by Abbott and Rudd sounds to me just like the next step in the war to obliterate Aboriginal culture. It's about Western style modern agribusiness. And also about mining. Perhaps it will be about radioactive waste dumping, too. Apart from the obvious frenzy to get votes in the north, this push has nothing to do with "caring for country", and everything to do with destroying Aboriginal communal land culture.

Noel Wauchope | 20 August 2013  

Perhaps with Abbott's policy of inclusion of Aboriginal spokesmen in his prime ministerial department, it is worth another shot, particularly as it may lead to greater Aboriginal independence and progress in the salvage of the Aboriginal culture. Wouldn't expect Rudd, should he retain government to do anything - his "catch up with Abbott" policy is like what much of what he is currently proposing - a grasp at any straw, an illusion, if not a frank lie, designed simply to feed his Bonapartean delusion.

john frawley | 20 August 2013  

Australia's original inhabitants learned to live by serving and preserving the land sharing with its animals. The northern hemisphere peoples changed and adapted the land and its animals to serve their selfish .desires. We continue to impose northern hemisphere thinking on our fragile land.Ashenden states clearly it has all been tried before and here we go again!

Gregor RAMSEY | 22 August 2013  

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