QUARTERLY ESSAY 9 Beautiful Lies



George Seddon

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan, in accents most forlorn. And so we will unless we listen and act. Tim Flannery’s essay is a manifesto. We have heard some of it before, but not all, and here we have all thirty-nine articles passionately and clearly argued. Since I subscribe to all the principal tenets, I have little to offer other than marginal annotation – but it invites this at times, by the very force and speed of the argument.

The introductory three pages are nothing less than brilliant in linking so clearly the direct environmental costs of the Snowy scheme with the longer term environmental consequences of the ill-conceived population policy that was used at the time to justify it, while the two together have greatly reduced our capacity for a humanitarian response to the refugee problem we have helped create.

These three pages are what one might hope for in the editorials of the newspaper of a civilised and thoughtful nation in crisis. But we don’t see them, and I am far from confident that the Australian public at large has any idea at all of, for example, how misconceived was the Snowy scheme. In Western Australia, letters still appear quite regularly in the local daily in support of Ernie Bridges’ mad scheme to drought-proof the south-west by running a pipe-line down from the Kimberley. It has been shown very clearly more than once that the pumping costs alone would bankrupt the state, but that does not stop the West Australian from publishing letters of support. Should a responsible press behave thus? A similar story can be told for Queensland and western New South Wales: the spread of the cotton industry down the Darling almost to Bourke is on a par with rice-growing along the Murrumbidgee – flood irrigation with its huge evaporation loss on the driest continent on earth?

Sheep and Cats (with Fire to come)

If widespread environmental degradation is generally recognised, who are the chief villains, apart, of course, from us? Flannery passes sentence on sheep and European pyrophobia, while cats get a remit. I am sure about the sheep. They have done immense damage in the pastoral rangelands, made worse by inadequate public and private policy. Only South Australia has been able to put sensible management policies in place. Sheep have eaten out the palatable species in huge areas of semi-arid Australia, and their jack-hammer hooves have pulverised the topsoil, leaving it to blow. One of our principal exports has been topsoil. All the hooved mammals have contributed to this, including feral goats and buffalo, but the sheep have been the worst. In a book coming out this year I put my view that “Waltzing Matilda” should be our national anthem – because the swagman killed and ate the jumbuck.

Flannery’s assertion that cats are not especially destructive is well worth considering, and he is probably right. Dr John Walmsley, it seems, is a victim of woolly thinking, while Flannery has “good science” on his side – we have his word for it. The examples he adduces to show that cats do not cause extinction are very plausible, especially the case of the large islands, Kangaroo Island and Tasmania, which both have feral cats but have lost only the Dwarf Emu (Kangaroo Island) and the thylacine, neither from cat predation. Removing a predator is more likely to lead a species to extinction than introducing one, the classic case being the removal of the mountain lion from the Kaibab National Park in the US. The kaibab deer then had a population explosion followed by a dramatic collapse. Before the cat was introduced into Australia there had already been several major changes in the predator–prey relations, especially the introduction of the dingo and the disappearance of the thylacine in mainland Australia, and one other major predator, the Aborigine, was disempowered at about the same time that the feral cats achieved their near-continental distribution, so one might see the cat at least in part as filling a newly vacant or under-tenanted niche.

What seems more likely than that cats have either been major agents of marsupial mayhem or that they have not been at all significant is that cats have been a serious threat to some species in some places. They are certainly a major hazard in attempting to re-colonise parts of the Peron Peninsula with small marsupials, but Tim would concede this, although not, it seems, Dr Walmsley’s comparable efforts. The rangers I knew in the Snowy River National Park were convinced that cats were a real threat to the survival of the lyre-bird in that area, once apparently fairly common. Nevertheless, they survive in quasi-suburban Sherbrooke Forest, so even with birds there is contrary evidence. Where we live in Perth (one of Australia’s gigantic urban feedlots, as Flannery calls them) there has been a spectacular revival, to my delight, of several ground-feeding bird species, especially the willie-wagtail and the mudlark. Their local disappearance was caused by inappropriate pesticide use, and their recolonisation has not at all been impeded by the moggies. This, of course, like so much of the evidence, is anecdotal, but at least from someone who is neither a cat-lover nor a cat-hater.


Flannery comes close to endorsing a beautiful lie himself, although it is a corrective exaggeration rather than a lie, and he illustrated this in The Future Eaters. Some early colonists and explorers in south-eastern Australia remarked on the skill with which the Aborigines used fire as a maintenance tool. Sylvia Hallam showed, largely through linguistic analysis, that the Nyoongah had a sophisticated understanding of fire-management in south-western Australia. Rhys Jones, with the all the flair of a top advertising executive, popularised the concept with the phrase “fire-stick farming”, and this became an invaluable counter to the common view at the time that the Aborigines were primitive savages. So far so good, but as Flannery has remarked elsewhere, in such a highly politicised arena the moderate view loses out. Without in the least discrediting Aboriginal knowledge of fire-management, there is reason to doubt its universal application; indeed, it strains credulity to think of a population about the size of Perth applying fire-hazard reduction (control) burning over a continent. They would have had time for nothing else, and as in all communities there would have been a few irresponsibles whose fire escaped, other mishaps from sudden changes in wind direction, lightning strike and all those troubles that our own society struggles to cope with, often unsuccessfully, even with high-technology resources like the capacity for water bombing.

In any case, many areas of dense forest appear to have been virtually uninhabited. A.W. Howitt recorded some, like the gorge of the Mitchell, which was off-limits, and parts of East Gippsland. The Krautungalung of the lower Snowy area were not true nomads: they practised transhumance, moving in a defined territory from the coast, up river and back again in a repeated seasonal pattern. According to Howitt, they called the people of the sparsely inhabited dense forest to the east, “the Wild Men” (Brajerak). The Nyoongah of south-western Western Australia had a distribution pattern not unlike that of today: coastal, estuarine, along the rivers and in the light woodlands of what is today the wheatbelt, the terrain in which their management techniques were likely to be most effective. The heavy jarrah and karri forests of the Darling Plateau were sparsely inhabited, although Hallam does produce good evidence that they (or parts of them) were more open than they are today. Many other areas, in south-eastern Australia, of what is now fairly dense forest seem once to have been “open and park-like”.

In central Australia, the anthropologist Tindale described the Aborigines, whose culture he admired, as “peripatetic pyromaniacs” capable of setting fire to thousands of square kilometres of Triodia to catch a few lizards – but they were true nomads, living with a different ecology. Flannery calls the colonists “pyrophobic”. People with phobias all sound a bit neurotic, but all settled societies are pyrophobic, as most Aboriginal societies seem to have been. That is why they managed fire to try to reduce its potentially destructive powers – just as French foresters, for example, have been doing in southern France for many years. None of the above is to challenge Flannery’s central thesis, that large parts of Australia are more flammable now than they were two hundred years ago.

Immigration and cultural diversity

Flannery gives a rich account of the cultural diversity of the founding decades, which includes the Eora, but he then shows how the culture became progressively more introverted, persisting until the 1950s. I have no disagreement with the broad-brush thesis, only a few more marginal notes. I am older than Tim, born in 1927 and so with a different experience. My father was a country bank manager, and much of my youth was spent in Mildura. We lived above and behind the bank in one of the two main streets, Langtree Avenue, and I have no memory of xenophobia. A group of Chinese lived next door; they ran a laundry. We neither liked nor disliked them. They were different from us, but they were there, full stop. Mildura was the dream of two Americans, the Chaffey brothers. Ernestine Hill wrote a book about them and called it Water into Gold. I wrote a book with a chapter heading “Gold into Water”, since the irrigation water for the whole irrigation area was described as “free”, which meant that the huge infrastructure costs were not paid for by the consumer. Flannery gives the Chaffey brothers stick, and rightly so on environmental grounds. Oddly enough, however, Mildura was a social success. Almost half my father’s customers were Italians or others of Mediterranean origin, and this before World War II. There was no question of “acceptance”: they were there (and they brought us great fruit and vegetables). It was the war that broke the social harmony. From Mildura we moved to Horsham, where many of (the best) farmers were German, come east from South Australia. Tim concedes that successive waves were absorbed, and this really strengthens his point rather than the reverse. There were, however, deep cultural divisions within those societies, between the Protestants (us) and the Irish Catholics, who were plotting to take over the place. Venom was also directed at the Jews, who were planning to do the same thing. There were cultural neuroses enough, but they may have varied from place to place. I doubt that Australia has ever been quite so homogeneous as superficial appearances suggest.


I have some reservations about the globalisation of food, having spent a lot of time in Italy, where Italian cuisine is still resolutely Italian, with minor exceptions like pizza, essentially an American re-import in its present form, although there was an earlier Italian source. The main customers for it are tourists anyway, mostly American. I love Italian cooking, but there is nothing like the variety we enjoy here in Australia. Outside Paris, French food is still mostly French; outside south-east England, English food, alas, is still mostly English (and that includes the “Chinese” food). We have every right to be proud of the quality and diversity of our cuisine, as does New Zealand, and yes, it owes much to migration, as well as to the Australasian taste for travel.

Moo-cow Mitchell

It seems a pity to interrupt the grand sweep of the Flannery narrative with nitpicking, but quibbles do suggest themselves with such a thought-provoking essay. “Moo-cow” Mitchell’s vision of settling 75,000 British migrants in the south-west of Western Australia did not fail because of “the truculent soils and the sheer weight of the forest to be disposed of”. The latter was back-breaking, but the enterprise failed because the blocks were too small for subsistence farming, and much more important, because the only cash crop, milk and butter, had no real market. Transport was poor, refrigeration prohibitively expensive, and the domestic market minute. The “landscape of bucolic bliss” is there now, however, and it does combine a distinctively Australian quality with a kind of European civility – but the crop is not grass but wine-grapes, perhaps the most economically successful and sustainable agricultural enterprise in Western Australia. Get the crop and the market right! The remaining dairy farms make gourmet cheeses, which give a higher return and are easier to transport than bulk milk or butter.

The wine industry around Margaret River has been self-funded, much of it from the ample resources of the medical profession, and it is further supported by and supports the tourist industry. Mitchell’s dairy farms were a state enterprise, and although the funding was meagre and the implementation largely failed, its failure actually paved the way for the vines, and Mitchell’s principle should not be dismissed.

Grapevines win over grass on another count: they are deep-rooted, while grass and cereal crops are not. The future lies with the deep-rooted: salt-bush, tagasaste (very successful on the light lands around Jurien Bay), agro-forestry, reversion to natural scrub. Acacia cyanopylla has been planted in trials near Esperance. Sheep are naturally browsing rather than grazing animals, and the acacia is highly nutritious and nitrogenising to boot, but it demands more fencing and more management than current practice.

Much of the southern half of agricultural Australia is ill-suited to its current use, primarily large-scale cropping for cereal, mostly wheat. Productivity is very low by both European and North American standards when productivity is measured by yield per hectare. Italy has a total cereal production that is close to that of Australia and quite often exceeds it, from much less land. Twice in the last decade the United Kingdom (which effectively is East Anglia, the only part of the UK with a climate dry enough to ripen wheat) produced more wheat than Australia (admittedly two good years there and two bad years here). To put a few figures on it, in 1998/9, Australia had a wheat yield of 22.1 million tonnes (Mt) with a (comparatively meagre) yield of 1.91 t/ha. World production was 588 Mt, to which we contributed about one-thirtieth – although we exported nearly four-fifths of our production. That, however, was a very good year, the second best in the decade. Back in 1991/92 we produced 10.6 Mt against 90. 6 for the EU: Germany and the UK produced considerably more, France more than three times as much, and even Italy almost as much, at 9.4 Mt (and for Italy, for all intents and purposes you can read Sicily). The story was similar, even worse, in 1994/5, when we were down to 8.9 Mt. It is also worth emphasising that although our figures vary substantially from year to year, from a low of 8.9 to a high of 23.7 Mt (in 1996/97), the European figures are relatively constant: France always produces around 30 Mt. Figures for the other cereals tell a similar story but on a much smaller scale on our part. We produced 1.39 Mt of rice, about one-four-hundredth of world production, and exported about half. We also exported about half of our coarse grains production (primarily oats, barley, sorghum and maize), which represents about one-ninetieth of world production. The bottom line, which comes as a surprise to many, is that we are not a significant cereal producer on the global scale1. Our National Anthem is another beautiful lie: I have proposed an alternative.


Every now and then Australia or parts of it win the lottery. How the prize-money has been and is spent may be worth more attention than it has received. The prize has come from mineral discovery, and although Blainey’s title The Rush That Never Ended (great book) has been true in the broad sense, it has not been continuous, but more like herpes, breaking out in different ways in different places. How have we spent the lottery wins? Victoria built some fine provincial cities, notably Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine, and it recklessly overbuilt its mega-feedlot, marvellous Melbourne, which then crashed. It began Melbourne’s primacy as an industrial and financial centre; the industry worked while we had tariff protection and the financial control until Sydney caught the new waves of information technology and left Melbourne to its conservative ways.

Western Australia won a later lottery in the last decade of the nineteenth century and spent heavily on infrastructure: Fremantle Port, railways, and a reticulated water system to the south-west and a pipeline to Kalgoorlie. This is over-simplified, but there is a point: the intention was to invest in the state’s future, translated as its agricultural productivity. Salinity has seen to it that this hasn’t worked much better than the moo-cows, but it was a good try.

Today we have won the lottery again, repeatedly, in the Pilbara, where the magnificent infrastructure has been built by the mining companies themselves. It will not outlast them, however, because without mining it will have limited alternative functions. Most of the money that has poured into state coffers has gone into general revenue and has been spent on doubling the size of Western Australia’s principal feedlot, Perth.

Mining creates skills as well as wealth. It needs emphasising that it generates and supports much of the “knowledge industry” in Australia, through the technological sophistication of the offshore oil rigs, the plant at the Burrup Peninsula and the facilities at Port Hedland, where the mainframe computer is more powerful than the space control centre at Cape Canaveral. All of the above are not only leading-edge technology by world standards. They also require constant input from highly skilled personnel, as does marketing and management of such global enterprises. Much of the employment is in Perth and the other state capitals. If we are to have a “knowledge nation”, this is the most likely driver.

Mining is not discussed by Flannery, and is anathema to many “conservationists”, for two or three reasons. One is a fear of all multinationals, irrespective of their individual character. There is hostility based on the appalling environmental degradation of early mining in Australia, which continued well into the last century. There are still rogues, but the main players are now, for the most part, exemplary. There is minimal land disruption compared to agriculture and grazing, and they are among the major employers of anthropologists, biologists and re-vegetation experts. The other fear is that they deal in an exhaustible resource and their activities are unsustainable. This is both true and misleading. The known reserves of all our major mineral resources are greater now than they were thirty years ago; in a sense new technologies “create” resources. New techniques of exploration will, without doubt, locate major ore bodies that now lie beneath the thick regolith of weathering products (including a thick sand blanket) that covers so much of central Australia, thus concealing surface indicators of mineralisation. This has hitherto not been penetrable by conventional methods of exploration, but CSIRO has been working on new techniques with great possibilities. One is the Glass Earth Project, which will allow us to “see” below the top kilometre of the earth’s surface by using magnetic fields, gravity, infra-red surface observations and computer modelling. Concealed ore deposits, like the bedrock sequences in which they lie, are highly weathered in much of Australia, and their appearance, mineralogy and chemistry are radically altered to the point that neither surface observation nor remote sensing can detect them.

These techniques are now being used in terrain “previously opaque to exploration”. There is good reason to believe that vastly more mineral deposits await discovery than relatively crude exploration technology has discovered to date. This is good news in that mining is one of the relatively few things other than cricket and tennis that we do well by global standards, and we need the money. How we spend it becomes the important question.

The Dead Hand

Flannery exposes some of the limitations of the “environmental” movement, and his essay is a telling critique of Amanda Lohrey’s preceding essay on the Greens. Campaigns to “save” gems of the environment have been useful and at times successful, to our benefit, but they do not adequately address the fundamental issues of land use and land management, or in Flannery’s words, “land, soil and bio-diversity conservation”.

Flannery cites Jock Marshall’s The Great Extermination: A Guide to Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste. It was an important book, and it should be in the library of every secondary school in the country. But Marshall was the original shock-jock. I would put beside it, along with Watkin Tench, The Future Eaters and a few other key texts, Bruce Davidson’s book Australia: Wet or Dry, which should be reprinted.

Flannery is a mammalian biologist by trade, and from Monash, hence his affinity for Marshall. For mammalian biologists, “biodiversity” has become a mantra. It matters immensely, and I can share his grief at the loss of the white- footed rabbit-rat or Gnar-ruck, just as I share that of the Greens over the loss of Lake Pedder (in the latter case, from direct experience). We are the poorer for both, but neither loss keeps me awake at night, whereas the increasing salination of our soils is the stuff of nightmare. There is something to be said for Phillip Baxter’s image of life-boat Australia after all, not so much in fending off the hands of those struggling to climb on board (although that too, alas) but primarily in deciding what to jettison from the sinking ship. “Triage” is a useful concept because it focuses the mind on the essential or key issue, which in our case is the land. This is the danger of all the “save” campaigns. Worthy in themselves, they divert attention from the core problems. What I want us to save is the viability of Australia.

An attack on salinity will also be our best approach to conserving biodiversity, both animal and vegetable, by preserving or maintaining habitat, rather than by campaigning to “save” this or that species. The latest report from the National Land and Water Resources Audit predicts that salinity will impinge not only on our agricultural land. Some two million hectares of native vegetation are at risk, as are many wetlands. To reverse or halt this process, to restore at least one-third of our agricultural land to shrub and woodland and to dramatically reduce stocking rates on pastoral rangelands will be necessary to maintain some food production, but it will achieve the re-creation of animal habitat as a by-product. National parks won’t do it: one of the most telling of Flannery’s telling phrases is that they have become “marsupial ghost towns”.

Population, immigration, decency

The last section deals with population policies, for which “stocking rates” is a useful phrase to link environmental and social concerns. I need no convincing that we need to reduce immigration rates very substantially, nor that we must somehow reconcile this with our humanitarian responsibilities. Phrases like “creating the greatest good for the greatest number” will not help in achieving this. If you have one hundred dollars and one hundred people, you can give them all one dollar, thus helping the greatest number, or you can give the hundred dollars to one person, who gets the greatest good, or you can give fifty people two dollars or whatever ratio takes your fancy. Academic niggling aside, however, I am very much with Flannery about population growth, the need for a more humane society, and a better expression of this through foreign policy. Vietnam was a sorry mistake. Iraq was not our war. Most of our aid goes to Papua New Guinea, but we have had great difficulty in ensuring that it is effectively used (having assisted in a couple of ADAB surveys of our foreign aid programs, I know how hard it is to get good results, with all the dedication and goodwill in the world). Our intervention in Timor seems to have been our success story so far, but it will be a continuing responsibility, and I would like to see a fair proportion of our limited resources directed there.

This is contemporary politics. The main force of this powerful essay is to detail the extent of the environmental crisis, and in this it is exemplary. If at times the Flannery rhetoric has overtones that suggest the Pontifex Maximus and a new Messiah, so be it. We need ritual cleansing (of woolly thinking) and we need saving – which leads me to a last despairing question. Is anyone listening?


George Seddon is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Science (University of Melbourne). Among his books are Landprints and From the Country, an anthology from the work of T.R. Garnett, which he edited.

1. Data from 1999 Australian Commodity Statistics, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Canberra


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 9, Beautiful Lies. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 10, Bad Company.


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