‘You’re right that I haven’t told you everything.’
In 2004 Bethany (Bet) embarks on a journey to find out who she is, by trying to find out more about her mother Sarah.
‘I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born.’
Bet sees the story of her mother as starting in 1974, the year before Bet was born. I was drawn into the story, of Bet trying to look back on her mother’s life to try to better understand herself and her own place in the world.
As a teenager in the 1970s, Sarah Francis is sent from her home in upstate New York to accompany Pastor Isaiah Woolcott on a mission to Idaho. Sarah leaves behind her mother Greta and brother Levi.
‘Three days before I am conceived, Sarah packs her suitcase.’
When Sarah becomes pregnant, her mother sends her from Poughkeepsie in New York State to family in Sydney. My heart breaks: Greta is more concerned with the Pastor’s reputation than with Sarah’s wellbeing. And when Sarah arrives in Sydney, she is not staying with her Aunt Nadine and Uncle John: she’s delivered to a home where unmarried mothers live (and work) until their babies are born. No one intends for Sarah to keep her baby: perhaps her Aunt Nadine might take the baby. Thus far, Sarah has been given no say in the arrangements made for her. But her passivity ends (temporarily at least) after her baby is born. With the help of Dora, who quickly becomes a friend, Sarah takes Bethany.
Imagine. A young woman, cut-off from all family trying to establish a life for herself. Sarah’s life so far has not prepared her for this. Sarah wants to return to her mother in New York State, but she has no money for the airfares. Bethany grows up as an only child with no links to family and no clear history. Sarah alternates between passive acceptance of her situation, relying heavily on her friend Dora, being manipulated by others, and being quite manipulative herself. Her friend Dora is one constant in both Sarah’s and Bet’s lives.
Bet is encouraged to work hard at school, and she does. Bet becomes a qualified vet, but she is restless and chooses to work as a locum rather than settle into one practice. Sarah’s unsettledness is also part of Bet’s life: both want security but neither know how to find and embrace it.
This novel took me on an uncomfortable journey, a reminder that parents had lives before children, a reminder that parents and children shape each other’s lives and a reminder that we can never really know another person completely. Bet has Sarah’s scrapbooks, but it is not always possible to understand the significance of the mementos that others keep.
A beautifully written novel that has me wondering about family and identity.
I would love to meet you one day. And yes, I would say hello. How could I not do so? Reading your memoir has educated and inspired me and reminded me that disability takes many forms. When I was a child, the focus was on difference. Most children with a physical disability went to a special school and many lived in associated homes. Those of us in more mainstream education had little contact. Difference became entrenched early. And now, over fifty years later, I wonder what opportunities we all missed.
‘I think, when someone needs to engage with a disabled person, the first thing they should say is ‘Hello’ – not something inappropriate that they wouldn’t want said to themselves.’
As I was reading your book, I kept stopping so I could learn more about ichthyosis and its impact on those who live with it. And then I thought about other disabilities, both visible and invisible, and the energy many must use in their daily lives on activities many of us find easy.
And when I finished your book, just before you turned forty, I wanted to thank you for all you have achieved so far and to wish you well for the future. Your work as an activist for the wider disability community helps us all.
So, thanks Carly, for writing this book, for sharing your personal experience of disability and your love of life (and fashion). Thank you for reminding us (although we should not need reminding) of the importance of inclusion.
Some will recall it as 2021. For more, it will be Year 2 of COVID. Either way, it will have been a time of disappointment for many. And the nation’s politicians need to bear a large share of the responsibility for that feeling.
It’s easy to imagine a different scenario. As 2020 ended, there were disappointments, too, with parts of Sydney in lockdown. But most imagined that, with vaccines on the way, our future would be brighter.
While there had been a tragic second wave of infections in Victoria that reflected poorly on its Labor government, the country’s decision-makers had taken advantage of Australia being an island nation, imposed external and internal border controls, and established an effective tracing system.
There had been some failures, and several hundred fatalities, and many Australians abroad were treated harshly. But governments succeeded in their primary duty of preserving our safety, and they seemed to have done well in propping up the economy in tough circumstances.
What an opportunity this scenario offered!
An efficient vaccination program delivered rapidly in the first half of 2021, targeting vulnerable groups first, then extending quickly to the rest, would have provided substantial protection from COVID’s Delta strain when it arrived. The construction of quarantine facilities could have allowed the safe return of Australians stranded overseas.
Instead, the federal government mismanaged vaccine procurement, muddled its messaging, did nothing much about quarantine and stuffed up the “rollout” – both of Australia’s national dictionaries embraced “strollout” as their Word of the Year.
Millions unnecessarily spent much of 2021 locked down. Some paid with their lives, and others with their health, jobs and businesses. The economy has suffered another multi-billion-dollar shock.
It would be easy to blame the Morrison government. After all, its indolence and squalor became increasingly plain during 2021.
But there is something more alarming at the heart of these failures: a basic frailty in national government. So energetic when chasing down “welfare cheats” and in persecuting whistleblowers, Australia’s federal government is just no longer very good at the hands-on delivery of anything of serious complexity.
The JobKeeper scheme acclaimed as a national saviour in 2020 was revealed this year as an efficient scheme whereby the already filthy rich could become even filthier and richer.
Unleashed in haste, it lacked basic mechanisms for checking whether those claiming its benefits had actually suffered their anticipated losses. The result has been an unprecedented looting of the country’s treasury, all within the law.
JobKeeper contributed to a larger narrative that has gathered a hold: that the Morrison government lacks honesty and integrity. Its resistance to creating a proper anti-corruption commission is widely seen as prima facie evidence of its own fear of what one would find.
Scott Morrison instead raises the furphy of ICAC’s treatment of the former New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, as an objection to a federal body on anything like that model.
Australian conservatives and some on the Labor side, too, have long resolutely opposed the concept of a bill of rights, yet now we find just one right being elevated above others – religious freedom – which in the hands of the government amounts to an enhanced right to discriminate against sexual minorities.
Predictably, its effort has done little more than draw adverse attention to the expansive right that already exists to do just that in the Sex Discrimination Act, the result of lobbying of the Hawke Labor government by the churches.
The Morrison government is certainly interested in accountability, but not in the accountability of politicians to voters. Its preferred version is the accountability of the people to their political masters. So, far from protecting whistleblowers against government illegality and wrongdoing, it prosecutes them with vigour. It sought to impose US Republican-inspired voter ID laws to deal with a problem that only it seems to believe exists.
And it wants to make it easier for politicians to sue members of the public who say objectionable things about them on social media.
The same politicians who tell you that they believe resolutely in protecting women’s right to be free of sexual harassment maintain a workplace in Canberra, with its adjuncts in their electorate offices, that would disgrace the most rancid feudal regime.
Women have been harassed and even assaulted with impunity. Ministers have slept with staffers. Staffers have filmed themselves masturbating on desks. There is no recourse for the victims of this regime unless, like former Liberal staffers Brittany Higgins and Rachelle Miller, they go to the media.
The reckoning in these matters has arrived, but the prime minister repeatedly displayed his inability to understand what is at stake. On one occasion, he began a media conference expressing his sympathies with the plight of women but ended up issuing a thinly veiled threat to the female journalist most prominent in reporting of the issue.
Which brings us to Morrison himself.
The idea that he routinely lies now clings to him like a politician to a freebie. The extraordinary attack on him by French President Emmanuel Macron, over the mismanagement of the submarine contract and the AUKUS agreement, confirmed a sense of Morrison as a small-time Sydney politician morally and intellectually out of his depth, and lacking in the necessary gravitas or judgment to deal with complex international affairs and major world leaders.
It seemed odd, at the beginning of 2021, that we still didn’t have a single book about him. Was he too uninteresting to bother?
Now we have several, but the turn in Morrison’s fortunes was so rapid that it defeated the efforts of authors to keep up. When Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen’s How Good is Scott Morrison? went off to the printers, the authors were convinced he was a shoo-in for the next election. By the time it appeared in the bookshops, the edited extract that appeared in The Australian suggested they were rather less sure.
The year saw a remarkable leeching of Morrison’s standing and authority, not least in relation to state and territory leaders.
But they too had their problems: Berejiklian lost her job when ICAC announced it had launched an investigation into her conduct. Daniel Andrews in Victoria suffered a serious back injury at the beginning of the year and faced large “freedom” protesters waving the Eureka Flag at the end of it. Mark McGowan seems a little less shiny than a year ago, as Western Australia’s severe border restrictions extend into 2022.
And we have a federal election to come.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, having kept his powder dry for years, is beginning to drip-release policies, seeking just enough distance over issues such as climate policy for product differentiation without frightening the horses. He seems to wish to slip quietly into office rather as numerous Labor state and territory opposition leaders have done over the past 25 years.
Morrison is now transformed from goofy Scomo into biblical Moses, leading his people out of the COVID desert into the Promised Land of “Freedom”.
But he still must try keeping the increasingly wild right flank of his Coalition government solid while attending to the threat that independent and Labor candidates pose to metropolitan Liberal seats.
His government ended the year by losing two ministers to scandals, with another announcing his retirement at the next election. Morrison’s grip on the Coalition party room was now so loose that it called into question his grip on the House of Representatives itself.
The election result seems less certain than in the months before the 2019 election when it was all rather obvious that Labor and Bill Shorten were heading for a famous victory.
Readers will understand if I refrain from offering a prediction.
Morrison’s theme that can-do capitalism beats don’t-do government is nonsense. Labor can respond by exalting government’s role, writes Michael Keating. Scott Morrison is signalling that his campaign for the forthcoming election will be built around the theme of ‘‘can-do capitalism’’ in contrast to ‘‘don’t do government’’. According to Morrison: ‘‘We’ve got a bit used to Continue reading »
Australian conservatives’ obsession with religious freedom is just another US import, and part of a worldwide surge in fascist identity politics. It might seem bizarre that in a nation facing challenges regarding our recovery from the pandemic and the climate crisis that the Coalition government is wasting energy on a religious discrimination bill. The bill, Continue reading »
By fast-tracking migration for Hong Kong passport holders, the government is abandoning its long-time non-discrimination principle. Australia’s permanent migration program has operated on a non-discriminatory basis since at least the Whitlam government. But recent changes specifically targeting Hong Kong passport holders for fast-track permanent migration via the skill stream suggest that principle may have been Continue reading »
Prior to colonisation there were approximately 250 different Aboriginal languages spoken by some 500 clans throughout Australia. Each clan possessed numerous Dreaming stories, depicting how the land was traversed and marked by the Ancestral Beings, who created land-forms, people, animals, plants and celestial stars.
Their experiences, and often the consequences of their actions, formed the basis for Aboriginal kinship systems, laws, ways of caring for Country and connecting to land.
These ancestors are not relegated to the past, for their presence is still felt at sacred sites, and they are still responsible for providing the resources that sustain the clan. Some Aboriginal people maintain their connection to these powerful beings by continuing to perform the songs and dances they gave them, and marking their bodies and objects with their sacred designs.
Thus Aboriginal cultures are necessarily rich with symbolism. Towards the end of the 20th century, Aboriginal culture was increasingly being called upon to provide a symbol of nation – representing Australia as a whole – by groups of non-Indigenous Australians who believed it offered a depth and richness of symbolic meaning that more conventional symbols had lost (or perhaps had never had).
The most widely known Ancestral Being is the Rainbow Serpent, or Rainbow Snake, the English names for the figure that appears in the Dreamings of many different Aboriginal language groups across the continent.
It features as an important creator figure, guardian of sacred places, bringer of monsoonal rains and storms, bestower of powers upon healers and rainmakers, or a dangerous creature that punishes people who violate laws, or dwells in waterholes threatening to swallow unwary passers-by, to name just a few incarnations.
It is also strongly connected with fertility, both human and ecological. In all of its guises and geographies the Rainbow Serpent is associated with water, an essential resource, and the rainbow, whose shimmering light and curved form reflects the scales and body of the snake. The rainbow is also an important bridge between the water and the sky, the sky yet another resting place for the Rainbow Serpent.
Just one of the many Rainbow Serpents who travelled the land is Yingarna, whose story is told by Kunwinjku-speaking people from western Arnhem Land. In one of many stories she was said to be the first Rainbow Serpent, and all of creation burst from her body. The Kunwinjku also possess Dreaming stories about Yingarna’s child, Ngalyod, who is associated with the “potentially destructive power of the storms and the plenty of the wet seasons”.
The immense power that Yingarna and Ngalyod have is both creative and destructive: these Rainbow Serpents are not simply benevolent symbols of unity, but can also be threatening, so their resting places should be avoided. This menacing aspect has been symbolised in Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru’s painting from the National Museum of Australia’s collection, which depicts Yingarna with terrible crocodile’s teeth and tail, and a round, emu-like body capable of holding all she has swallowed.
The idea of the Rainbow Serpent as a composite of many other animals and even plants appeared elsewhere; western Arnhem Land rock paintings portray Rainbow Serpents with the head of a kangaroo, body of a snake, tail of a barramundi, and yam-shaped protrusions from the body. The oldest of these rock paintings have been dated to 6000 years, supporting the argument that Rainbow Serpent stories are among the world’s oldest continuous religious traditions.
This makes it especially useful as a national symbol, claiming for modern Australia both universality and longevity.
For Aboriginal people the Rainbow Serpent is not relegated to the past and time of creation, but remains an awesome source of power that shapes the contemporary world. When Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, local Aboriginal people interpreted it as a “warning to stop neglecting their traditional law and associated rituals”, and succumbing to the temptations of “lawless” city life.
Non-Indigenous Australians have known stories about other Rainbow Serpents since colonial times. Francis Armstrong, the first government interpreter of the Swan River Colony (now Perth), recorded an account of the Waugal (also spelled Wagyl), a Noongar Rainbow Serpent, in 1836, seven years after the establishment of the settlement. He observed that there were
certain large round stones, in different parts of the Colony, which they [Noongar people] believe to be the eggs laid by the waugal … On passing such stones, they are in the habit of making a bed for it, of the rushes of the blackboy [balga, grass tree or Xanthorrhoea preissii].
This was because, according to Noongar elder Clarrie Isaacs, the Waugal had created the Swan River and all its associated waterholes, and “has the power of life and death over Aborigines and demands the respect due to it”.
However, despite noticing the reverence that the Noongar paid these stones, the settlers still removed them from their place, indicating that they accorded them no significance.
This instance suggests the difficulty of translating the symbolic significance of an object and story across cultures, especially when there is such disparity in power relations. But in addition it reveals the way the very land contained symbolic meaning for Indigenous people, whereas for the increasingly utilitarian colonisers the land was reduced to little more than an economic resource.
The Rainbow Serpent, then, means different things for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Armstrong’s example demonstrates that in the early period it was considered a mere curiosity and disregarded, for the colonists were busy transforming and re-purposing the land.
Conflicting attitudes about the Waugal arose again in the 1980s when the state government wanted to redevelop the site of the Old Swan Brewery, also known as Goonininup, a resting place of the Rainbow Serpent.
Again, a century and a half later, few non-Indigenous Western Australians sympathised with Noongar protests, and received the idea of the Waugal with great scepticism. Isaacs attempted to find equivalences in European systems of belief:
They say because when they drive past the site that because they cannot see some sort of ridiculous fire breathing dragon-like creature poking its Loch Ness Monster-like head from the waters that it does not exist. It is as ridiculous as myself making an assertion that God is actually a large white man sitting on a throne atop some puffy clouds.
But the developers ignored inconvenient arguments about religious symbolism, preferring a more self-interestedly rational interpretation which, according to cultural studies scholar John Fielder, demonstrates the imperial nature of Western rationality, where our logic renders all other logics as essentially illogical, irrational – not to be thought of as logic at all.
The Noongar saw the Waugal as a “spiritual being”, while their opponents saw the Waugal as “some wildly primitive superstition” and the Noongar themselves as troublemakers.
However, non-Indigenous Australians have attached a range of other meanings to the Rainbow Serpent, for the most part far from hostile. This is partly due to the influence of anthropologists who, in the early 20th century, became interested in what they called “myth”.
Anthropologist AR Radcliffe-Brown compiled a survey of stories from different Aboriginal language groups across Australia, and concluded that the Rainbow Serpent occupied “the position of a deity”. Despite noticing many differences in these stories, Radcliffe-Brown assumed that there was just a single Rainbow Serpent, and that it was akin to a god, “the most important nature-deity”. It was a view that greatly influenced non-Indigenous Australian understandings.
Taken out of the particular contexts of each language group’s Dreamings, the Rainbow Serpent has been stripped of its numerous ambivalent symbolisms and iconographic forms, and frequently reduced to a singular entity – a benevolent mother/creator-figure in the form of a brightly coloured snake.
Perhaps this is in part due to the snake’s particular morphology; it is easy to imagine its enormous sinuous body carving out the rivers and creeks in the ancient “Dreamtime” (as it used to be described), whereas the meaning of the multiple symbolisms and composite form of Yingarna, Ngalyod and other Rainbow Serpents discussed by Aboriginal clans eludes outsiders.
It could be argued that this new rendering as a benevolent snake is a process of intellectual colonisation, for the settlers have domesticated the Rainbow Serpent, making it comprehensible and palatable to Western ideas. It was a case of non-Indigenous Australia connecting to Aboriginality only on a disembodied and superficial aesthetic level rather than at a level of deep understanding.
In the 1970s, celebrated Australian artist Sidney Nolan painted two large murals depicting Rainbow Serpents. Snake, a 45-metre long mosaic was said to be Nolan’s “homage to Australia’s Aborigines”.
The second work, Little Snake was inspired by the sight of the Central Australian desert blooming after years of drought. Nolan used the Rainbow Serpent to represent “the magical power of water that brings life from a state of stasis”.
It is this “domesticated” image of the giant brightly coloured snake with which Australians are probably most familiar, and which would prove most suitable for representing the Australian nation as a whole.
A commonplace symbol
Since then, images of Rainbow Serpents have slithered across school walls and community murals in suburbs and towns throughout the nation, at least those with large Indigenous or left-leaning populations.
The education system has taken the Rainbow Serpent to its widest audience. For many young Australians the Rainbow Serpent has been packaged as an Indigenous fairytale. From the 1970s, Australian children have read illustrated books depicting the life and adventures of the Rainbow Serpent.
By the 1990s, children could paint their own Rainbow Serpent designs during NAIDOC Week, Harmony Day, or other events celebrating Australia’s multiculturalism. For adult Australians, the Rainbow Serpent has a number of other connotations. Tourists have been able to buy prints, T-shirts, books and jewellery or even underpants decorated with the great snake’s sinuous form, as an exotic souvenir of Australia.
Walkers and leisure-seekers can photograph, sit on or picnic by large public sculptures of the snake in public spaces, where it was intended to acknowledge and commemorate Aboriginal people. And since 1997 New Agers, ravers and ecotourists can come from “across the globe to dance a common dream” at the annual Rainbow Serpent Festival in Lexton, central Victoria, to camp and dance, but also learn from local Dja Dja Wurrung and Wadawurrung peoples and other Indigenous people from the Pacific and north America.
The New Age market has been one of the most avid consumers of the Rainbow Serpent symbol, reading in it positive messages about the earth and people’s spiritual relationship with it. Anthropologist Sallie Anderson has noticed that:
The authors of many New Age books on Aboriginal culture and spirituality pick and choose characteristics from ethnographic descriptions of various rainbow serpent myths that seemingly support their comparisons with the Kundalini, electromagnetism, Vishnu, fertility and death, vibration and energy sources and various other themes.
The Rainbow Serpent’s winding form and brilliant colours have become a commonplace symbol within Australian pedagogical, cultural, economic and built environments.
This widespread familiarity with the image, and the apparent tangibility of the concept in its domesticated and aestheticised form, has led to it being understood as a preeminent symbol of Aboriginal identity, especially apparent in public events celebrating the centenary of Federation.
The turn of the century saw a groundswell of interest in Aboriginal people and their place in Australia. The first year of the new millennium was supposed to mark the end of the ten-year journey towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
In June 2000, hundreds of thousands had participated in the Walk for Reconciliation and in September Australians cheered for Indigenous athlete Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics. These milestones meant that a feelgood emblem of the newly reconciled nation was needed for 2001, when Australia’s national identity was celebrated in the centenary of Federation. The Rainbow Serpent was called into service.
On 1 January 2001 the Journey of a Nation – Centenary of Federation parade through the streets of Sydney included a float shaped like a huge coiled snake, with dancers wearing costumes decorated with Rainbow Serpents designed by Bundjalung artist Bronwyn Bancroft.
Then, at Canberra’s 2001 Floriade festival, the Rainbow Serpent again appeared, this time in the “Century in bloom” display. On this “floral walk through the decades”, viewers passed through plantings of humble vegetables representing the hardships of the Depression and beds of flowers planted in the shapes of the German Iron Cross and the Japanese Rising Sun, indicating World War II.
The 1970s were represented by a display of tulips and native flora planted in the design of the Rainbow Serpent, ostensibly symbolising “Australia’s Aboriginal heritage”. These examples suggest that the Rainbow Serpent was used by the event organisers as a metonym for Aboriginality, so audiences could embrace Aboriginal peoples’ place within Australia’s national identity.
However, the Rainbow Serpent was also used to symbolise Australia as a whole, and not just its Indigenous peoples. In Sydney’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display, the grand finale is always the lighting of the mystery symbol that adorns the eastern side of the city’s beloved Harbour Bridge. In 2001 that symbol was the Rainbow Serpent, depicted alongside the Federation Star. The maxim of that year’s show was “100 years as a nation, thousands of years as a land”.
Thus the Rainbow Serpent was used to give modern Australia an ancient past, and, in conjunction with the star, was appropriated to represent Australia.
The use of the Rainbow Serpent was no doubt well intentioned, but this plainly benevolent and amorphous meaning was far removed from that connoted by the original, highly ambivalent Rainbow Serpents of the Dreaming.
Aboriginal people have also adopted new symbolic meanings for the Rainbow Serpents. Due to the history of colonisation and the emergence of Indigenous political organisations and media, Aboriginal societies have become more mixed and cosmopolitan, and a pan-Aboriginal identity has emerged.
Instead of identifying solely with one’s clan or language group, Aboriginal people have formed a community that encompasses the entire continent. As such, they have needed to develop their own symbols to represent this new pan-identity, and the ubiquity of the Rainbow Serpent in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies makes it well placed to act as “a symbol of unity … amongst urban Aborigines”.
The image of the Rainbow Serpent has been used in a number of ways. The Rainbow Serpent has provided a logo for Aboriginal corporations such as the Northern Land Council. Victoria’s Rumbalara Oral Health Centre depicted the Rainbow Serpent as dental floss, “twisting through an orange tangled web, which represents plaque on teeth”.
For the Aboriginal community of Moree, it was a symbol of unity when they constructed a 17-metre long Rainbow Serpent for the Black + White + Pink Reconciliation Float, entered in the 1999 Mardi Gras parade.
Inscribing new meaning
The Rainbow Serpent has been an important symbol in Aboriginal societies for thousands of years, and by the start of the 21st century it was also a recognised symbol for the wider Australian society. In making that transition it lost its particular “traditional” meanings of creation, water and fertility, and its ambiguous combination of creative and destructive forces.
Although it has not featured much on the national stage as a symbol since the Federation centenary in 2001, it remains a potent symbol of local Aboriginal community spirit and reconciliation. For example, Bundjalung artist John Robinson’s Rainbow Serpent artwork was installed at a shopping centre in East Maitland, New South Wales to celebrate 2018’s Reconciliation Week.
In 2019 a Rainbow Serpent water feature designed by a collective of Kamilaroi women artists was commissioned for the Gunnedah Civic Centre, and the Perth Royal Show showcased a public performance by Noongar elder Walter McGuire, featuring a “35m long Wagyl inflatable creation … illuminated by the colours of the rainbow”.
It is evident then, that the supple skin of the Rainbow Serpent continues to provide an ideal canvas for inscribing new meanings and symbolisms for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In the first major deal of the Glasgow climate summit, more than 100 nations have pledged to end, and reverse, deforestation by 2030. As the declaration states, forests store vast amounts of carbon dioxide and are essential to stop global warming beyond 1.5℃ this century.
This new pledge is an example of so-called “nature-based solutions” – using ecosystem restoration and protection, better forest management and forest plantations to tackle climate change. Research suggests, if done appropriately, they could provide 30–40% of the CO₂ reductions required by 2030.
But these approaches should not take away from the need to stop burning fossil fuels. There’s also a glaring omission in the new declaration: no mention of the need for Indigenous people to give our/their prior informed consent, or be the decision makers on our/their own land.
This is significant, because some nature-based solutions can negatively affect Indigenous people around the world. For this reason, more than 250 organisations, networks and movements have signed a new statementagainst nature-based solutions, calling them nature-based “dispossessions”, and a scam.
Indigenous people should have a seat at the table in Glasgow, and a voice in decisions about our/their lands. The best pathway forward for Indigenous people is to manage carbon projects themselves. This is true self determination.
Disrupting livelihood and culture
Indigenous people manage or have tenure rights over at least 38 million square kilometres in 87 countries on all inhabited continents. This represents over a quarter of the world’s land surface, intersecting about 40% of all land-based protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes.
And yet, disadvantage is still widespread. International carbon policies such as nature-based climate schemes continue to contribute to a variety of poverties.
Examples abound. Take, for instance, the REDD+ program which operates under the auspices of the United Nations. It aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, such as through sustainable management of forests to increase carbon stocks.
A review in 2018 revealed how REDD+ projects disrupted local peoples’ livelihoods and culture in various ways. The more serious impacts included:
creating food insecurity by reducing the availability of agricultural land
loss of land through shifts in land tenure and forest management to outside corporations
unfair consent processes which do not include all people affected by projects
the clearing of forest to make way for monoculture plantations with higher carbon storage
limited formal frameworks to maintain local livelihoods and biodiversity.
Less than 1% of climate finance from developed nations supports Indigenous and local community tenure security and forest management.
But research suggests securing the rights of Indigenous People to our/their homelands would help conserve more carbon in the territories under our/their control. Land managed by Indigenous people tends to have lower rates of deforestation and store more carbon than lands managed or owned by non-Indigenous People.
Under a best-case scenario, First Nations ownership of land would be recognised under law. Projects should be designed to acknowledge Indigenous participation and priorities. And the practices should draw on western science and Indigenous science and knowledge.
And when nature-based solutions are proposed, land tenure issues need to be resolved, and Indigenous rights need to be respected. These are the preconditions that lead to benefits for both Indigenous people and the climate.
The Aboriginal Carbon Foundation in Australia is an excellent example of such a scheme. It involves savanna fire management projects in northern Australia to reduce the frequency and extent of late dry season fires. This results in fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and more carbon stored in dead organic matter.
Core benefits are developed by Traditional Owners and later verified. They include:
improved social ties as community members work together on projects using a peer-to-peer framework
elders sharing traditional ecological knowledge with young people
Indigenous-led land management that protects the environment, rock art and sacred sites
meaningful employment that aligns with the interests and values of Traditional Owners
increased pride and self-esteem of Indigenous people.
Indigenous people are not just vulnerable to the effects of climate change solutions, they can also be disproportionately affected by climate change itself. Traditional Owners often live on lands directly affected by climate change and can also lack the social and economic infrastructure to ensure resilience to respond to these changes.
This underscores why Indigenous people should be at the centre of decision-making about climate change and solutions to address it.
Recognition of this need is slowlygrowing. But more needs to be done – including enshrining the rights of Indigenous people in Paris Agreement rules governing carbon trading.
What’s more, the high cost of global travel and accommodation and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic hinders the attendance of First Nations leaders at international talks.
A Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform was formalised at COP21 in Paris. But it remains to be seen whether this will influence negotiations at COP26.
Finally, while nature-based solutions have the potential to be an important response to reducing human-caused emissions, they are fraught with danger. The real culpability for climate change lies with nations and regions that burn large amounts of fossil fuels.
First Nations people should not be forced to carry the burden of climate action. Instead, world leaders must prioritise reducing CO₂ emissions at their source.
At the same time, they must recognise the rights and interests of Indigenous people and guarantee climate solutions are determined by Traditional Owners on our/their land.
Vaccines save lives, and have been doing so since the development of the smallpox vaccine more than 200 years ago.
However, for vaccines to keep entire communities safe they need to be taken up by very large proportions of the population. Only then can the vaccinated offer protection to the unvaccinated, known as “herd immunity”.
The article also claimed “vaccine fears have plunged to a record low”.
However, while the data were real, in our view, the interpretation of them was flawed.
Fear hasn’t substantially diminished. Instead, mandatory vaccination of certain groups in the community, and significant disadvantages for those who refuse to be vaccinated, is driving increases in vaccination uptake.
What’s more, politicians have foreshadowed various freedoms for the vaccinated. For example, the freedoms currently afforded to fully vaccinated Sydneysiders, but not the unvaccinated, include: visitors to your home and access to gyms, pools, retail stores, hairdressers, nail salons, pubs, zoos, cinemas, theatres, museums and galleries.
If people weren’t vaccine hesitant, mandatory vaccinations and incentives wouldn’t be necessary. A substantial portion of the community don’t want to be vaccinated, and would choose not to be vaccinated, if it wasn’t for the strong arm of government.
So why do people delay or refuse to get vaccinated?
The WHO lists complacency among the leading reasons for vaccine hesitancy.
But how can this be the case? After all, COVID has already killed nearly five million people globally and infected over 240 million. In the face of these numbers, how could anyone remain complacent? Why do we see unmasked protesters, apparently oblivious to the threat?
The psychological theory that best explains these behaviours is “terror management theory”. According to this theory, humans are unable to face the stark reality of death, and often engage in various forms of denial.
We see ourselves as grander than the animals, immune to many of their problems, and destined for immortality with our gods. As one group of researchers put it, humans
could not function with equanimity if they believed that they were not inherently more significant and enduring than apes, lizards, or lima beans.
Hundreds of studies in social psychology laboratories have shown that subtle reminders of death (known as “death primes”) lead participants to vigorously defend their religious and cultural beliefs, and their freedoms.
In the process, we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me.
This effect will be magnified even further if the social groups to which we belong also endorse similar views. Reminders of death lead people to fiercely defend the values and beliefs of their group. In the context of COVID, this means we may become more individualistic, more distrustful of science or government, or more trusting in our god’s ability to protect us, if these attitudes are valued and shared by our culture or subgroup.
The formation of Australia’s federation in 1901 was both practical and sentimental. Pressing policy matters in the areas of immigration, trade and defence required the coordination of a federal government. As important was the growing nationalist feeling that the people in the different colonies were defined by the challenges and opportunities of the great south land. They were Australians, as well as Tasmanians, Queenslanders, Victorians and so on.
Nationalism is a modernising project, building identities and moral communities which transcend regional and parochial identifications. Compared with the regional identities of the old world, the colonial identities of Australia’s 19th century European settlers were weak, but they existed nonetheless.
The enthusiastic young men of the Australian Natives’ Association, which pushed hard for federation in the late 19th century, may have thought of themselves first and foremost as Australians, but colonial identities persisted after federation, due to their roots in the different histories, economies and social worlds of the six colonies. Time and again during the first decade of the new Commonwealth, Alfred Deakin, the country’s second prime minister, would conjure up the map of Australia and tell people they needed to think of themselves as Australians first and to approach political problems from a national perspective.
An intriguing historical question is when people’s identities as Australians transcended their state-based identities. I have always thought it was during the second world war. Prior to the war, the decisions and policies of state governments had greater effect on people’s day-to-day lives than those of the federal government. Health, education, transport, law and order, land management, local government, roads, sewerage, water and power were all state responsibilities. As yet, Commonwealth welfare responsibilities were limited and there was no federal income tax.
When Australia was threatened by Japan, the federal government assumed primacy. In addition to responsibility for defence, the Commonwealth assumed the power to re-allocate resources, including labour, to support the war effort, as well as taxing people’s incomes.
The different experiences of the states and territories with the COVID pandemic and the closure of state borders raise the question of whether state-based identities are stronger now than they were, say, 20 years ago. I’d suggest three reasons this might be the case, based on historical observations, rather than hard quantitative data.
Sydney and Melbourne have also maintained their inherent political differences. In The Sydney Melbourne Book, political scientist James Jupp contrasts the reformist, Protestant, middle-class political culture of Melbourne with the hard-nosed materialism of Sydney. Melbourne was patrician, idealistic and internationalist; Sydney proletarian, masculinist and cynical.
For much of the 20th century, this made Victoria the natural home of the Liberal Party, until the early 1970s when Gough Whitlam lured a section of the moral middle class over to a social democratic Labor Party.
Victoria’s political culture is still more progressive than that of New South Wales, but this now tilts it towards Labor and the Greens rather than the Liberals. The Liberals’ centre of gravity, meanwhile, has shifted to the more proletarian and anti-intellectual culture of Sydney.
The second reason state-based identities might be strengthening is the differing impact of neoliberalism on our two levels of government. After the second world war, Australia had three decades of confident, government-led nation-building: the postwar immigration and Snowy Mountains schemes, the development of manufacturing, and the expansion of the nation’s universities and scientific capacities. The effort culminated in the cultural nationalism of the Whitlam government.
This nation-building momentum was stalled by the onset of stagflation in the mid-1970s, and it gradually petered out as governments turned to neoliberal remedies to restore economic growth.
A major casualty of neoliberalism has been the capacity of the federal government to deliver services, as it privatised and outsourced many of its responsibilities. Steering not rowing was the mantra. Government would pay the bills for the private sector to do the work.
In the September issue of The Monthly, John Quiggin ponders how the Commonwealth government of 50 years ago would have handled the pandemic. Back then, it operated quarantine facilities, had a Department of Works that was able to expand them as needed, owned an airline that could have flown Australians home, ran a network of repatriation hospitals and owned the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.
Above all, mid-century federal governments had the confidence and capacity to lead. They were, writes Quiggin, far better equipped to deal with the pandemic and would have seen themselves as having the obvious responsibility to do so. Quarantine management would not have been handballed to the states, and the vaccine rollout would have been less shambolic.
Pretty well the entire political class subscribed to the neoliberalism of the 1970s and ‘80s, but state governments have been far less successful than the federal government in offloading their core responsibilities, such as health, education, policing and emergency services. Hence, state governments have retained more capacity. As they have become more effective in these regards, and the federal government less so, people have been drawn back into their orbit. Differences between the states in people’s political experiences have been enhanced, along with people’s sense of the distinctiveness of their state.
The third reason Australians’ state-based identifications may have strengthened is the development of the two-speed economy since the 1980s. The reduction of tariffs since the 1980s damaged the economies of the manufacturing states, especially Victoria and South Australia, which turned to services such as education and tourism. At the same time, mining boomed in Queensland, Western Australia and parts of NSW. People in the different states have experienced very different economies. Horizontal fiscal equalisation, the transfer of resources between jurisdictions, softened the impact of this on the service delivery capacities of the states, but we were not all in the same economic boat.
The political impact of this has played out most obviously and destructively in the inability of our federal governments since 2000 to develop a coherent response to climate change. Coal has been weaponised, with effective policy held to ransom by mining electorates, especially in Queensland.
At the 2019 election, the number of Australians voting for Labor and the Greens was marginally higher than the number voting for the Coalition, although this did not translate into a majority of seats. In Queensland, for example, the Coalition won 23 of the 30 seats. In the winner-takes-all commentary, election victories are interpreted as telling us something about all Australians, the country at large. But they don’t.
Perhaps I am speaking as a Victorian here, but for the past decade or so I have been feeling more strongly identified with Victoria and its progressive politics, as Labor loses federal elections in Queensland and Western Australia. COVID has simply strengthened a pre-existing feeling.
The author will be appearing on a panel to discuss federalism in the time of COVID on Friday, October 22, as part of Australian Catholic University’s Friday Forum series. Please email IHSS@acu.edu.au for more information.