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May 01st 2013 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

Remaking Australia as a Frontier Society

Australia faces an epoch-defining challenge. With the global population projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, our country is well placed to become a major food supplier for the world, doubling or even quadrupling agricultural production, and generating an additional $1.7 trillion in aggregate export earnings over the next four decades. Estimates vary, but global food supply will have to increase by between 60 per cent and 100 per cent by 2050 to satisfy requirements. Much of the demand will be in Asia, including from an increasingly massive middle class with ever more discerning tastes and evolving consumption patterns that will respond to the efforts of a sophisticated agricultural industry.

Australia has a potentially major role to play in meeting this challenge, capitalising on its geographical position, expanding its agricultural sector, improving its crop yields and productivity, adopting new technologies, developing its infrastructure, and bringing virgin lands under cultivation. It is in the unique position of being a developed economy that nevertheless possesses large-scale under-utilised land and water resources located in northern Australia in close proximity to these emerging markets.

At the economic level the outlook for this initiative is positive and Australia is well placed to take advantage of this stupendous opportunity. While it will be a major task to mobilise the trillion dollars required between now and 2050 to finance the project, it appears there are vast funds available internationally. Foreign investors, pension funds, international corporations and foreign governments are already buying Australian farm land to capitalise on the growing Asian demand.

However, at the cultural level the situation is different, as Australia is afflicted with deeply entrenched anti-development forces. It must therefore re-affirm its national identity as a frontier society, ready to engage in nation-building projects on a continental scale, and prepared systematically to harness the natural and human resources required to develop a thriving, highly productive society. This is a battle that must be won in the realm of culture, and it can no more be ignored than the financial or physical infrastructure requirements of this gigantic project can be ignored. Indeed, it can be seen as involving the installation of the essential cultural infrastructure necessary to support the expansion of Australia’s primary industries as this unfolds over the decades to come.

After all, even a trillion dollars of capital will be of little use in developing our agricultural potential if the cultural and political environment remains unfavourable to the types of massive development that will be required to realise the vision of Australia as a world-class food producer. Ominously, this is a country where radical environmentalists have had a free ride for decades, shutting down innumerable worthwhile projects and strangling many others in “green tape” designed to make their successful completion uneconomical or even impossible. International investors will quickly retreat once they realise that their complex, capital-intensive projects will be slandered, stymied, suffocated and sabotaged by a well-resourced cadre of cosseted vandals (“protesters”) aided and protected by an array of political, legal, judicial, academic and media supporters.

Therefore, in order to play the global role that lies before us, Australia must comprehensively strip away this crippling ideological overburden and return to the self-confident and optimistic frontier society ethos and nation-building activism that was sustained for nearly two centuries into the 1980s, as previous generations fought to harness our continent’s natural resources. The alternative is to continue our decline into the depths of de-industrialisation, economic retrenchment, demographic torpor, self-hatred and authoritarianism that has been so successfully promoted by the Greens, much of the ALP, and their academic and media supporters.

Australia’s identity as a nation-building frontier society emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, and crystallised around a particular set of values colloquially known as the Australian Legend, which have always found various modes of popular expression. However, it has also been opposed by a well-organised adversary culture, composed initially of intellectuals and activists on the far Left and, more recently, in the radical environmental movement. Consequently, for about forty years Australia has been trapped in an debilitating cultural and political crisis arising out of the intense battle over our national identity, which has been targeted since the 1980s by a Green-Left alliance determined to propagate an historically inaccurate and culturally self-destructive “black armband” view of Australia as a genocidal and ecologically rapacious “settler society”.

Such negative representations are notable for their specific focus on the frontier and their depiction of it as a zone of conflict, violence, exploitation and despoliation. This mendacious distortion is an ideological confection designed to demonise mainstream Australian history, impose a crippling burden of unwarranted guilt, stifle free enterprise and economic development, and strangle the long-held nation-building aspirations of the vast bulk of the population.

The conflict between those who identify with the nation-building frontier spirit and those who oppose it intensified in the 1980s when a Green-Left coalition emerged. This combined remnants of the Australian communist parties that had imploded in the 1970s with radical environmental activists inspired by the explicitly anti-human ideology of the deep ecology and animal liberation movements, including Earth First! and Friends of the Earth. They achieved several major victories which marked the closure of the frontier in Australia and the end of our country’s first great epoch of nation-building.

The first key Green-Left victory occurred when the Hawke government capitulated to the extreme elements of the conservation movement and blocked the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. In one opportunistic, short-sighted gesture the federal government robbed an entire state of an economic future driven by renewable hydro-electric energy, ultimately reducing Tasmania to the status of a mendicant welfare state ruled by an ALP-Greens junta supported by federal funding, with negative economic growth, little industry, an ageing population, and emigrating young people. This surrender empowered the radical environmentalist movement, entrenched their broad-ranging veto powers at all levels of government, and kick-started the rise of the Greens. It also set a precedent that ended major dam construction in Australia, so that in 2009 an essential project like the proposed Traveston Dam in Queensland could be vetoed by a Labor federal environmental minister because of its alleged impact on “nationally listed species such as the Australian lungfish, the Mary River turtle and Mary River cod”. This absurd and irresponsible decision robbed the Queensland people of a vital piece of water storage and flood mitigation infrastructure that could have played a crucial role in preventing many disasters. It also led directly to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars that had already been invested. This is a particularly appalling example, but many others could be cited. Looking ahead in the light of this situation, the question arises: Why would investors want to have their time and money wasted in such exercises in futility, multiplied many times over?

The second event of the 1980s that symbolised the rise of the Green-Left forces and their assault on Australia’s national identity was their concerted campaign to derail and discredit the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. This ideological onslaught was spearheaded by the four-volume A People’s History of Australia Since 1788, a polemical work aping Howard Zinn’s Marxist attack on another frontier society, A People’s History of the United States. This deceitfully misnamed “people’s history” was designed to ensure that all Australians were called to account for the historical depravity of their nation. As the Introduction to every volume made clear: “This history is critical not celebratory. It rejects myths of national progress and unity. It starts from a recognition that Australian settler society was built on invasion and dispossession [and that] the last two hundred years [was] but a brief, nasty interlude”, between the arcadian indigenous past and the green utopia to come.

The leftist historian Mark McKenna recalled the effectiveness of this 1988 campaign in another polemic against the core concepts of Australia’s national identity, What’s Wrong With Anzac? (2010). According to him, public support for the Bicentennial was systematically undermined by the “impact of the new critical histories of the last two decades”; these generated “an increasingly polarised debate” as Aboriginal groups declared 1988 a “Year of Mourning”; “feature articles discussed white guilt and national shame”; editorials deplored the “ideological vacuum at the heart of the Bicentennial”; and the Hawke government once again capitulated to the Green-Left forces, refusing to support the First Fleet re-enactment, in a servile betrayal of the processes of national remembrance that can only happen once a century.

A more recent anti-development tactic impacting directly on the agricultural sector involves the exploitation by radical environmentalists of government initiatives to give local Aboriginal groups control of functioning cattle stations. In one case, the Yulumbu people turned over their 3123-square-kilometre cattle station, Mornington, on the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River, to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy for an annual royalty of only $50,000. The AWC intends to turn the station into a native flora and fauna reserve. Such government-funded environmental groups are happy to see huge cattle stations like Mornington granted to Aborigines, because the Aborigines may not run them as commercial properties, choosing instead just to live in the old homesteads, while being open to offers for the land. As Keith Windschuttle has observed, “if you visit the Kimberley, locals will tell you it is an open secret that Green activists have long sought to close down the district’s entire cattle industry on the grounds of its environmental damage”, and this government-funded arrangement is an effective albeit duplicitous way of achieving this aim.

The pivotal role that the frontier plays in history was first identified by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. His essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” advanced the thesis that the national identity of settler societies is formed through the extended engagement of their people with their frontiers. This thesis shaped fundamentally our understanding of the history of America and other frontier societies, including Australia. According to Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”, the history, culture and core institutions of America were shaped primarily by the engagement of waves of colonists with the vast alien environment of North America. For Turner, “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development”, and illuminate how America’s unique national character was forged. It was the “vital forces” inherent in the settler population and unleashed by the frontier spirit that called forth the core values, institutions and social structures of American society. Above all else, such institutions “have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people—to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness”, and in implanting civilisation where only its antithesis reigned before.

Crucially, Turner saw the frontier not as a fixed location, but rather as an ever-expanding and always challenging zone of nation-building activity, whose very existence mobilised an irresistible human force that drove settlement relentlessly along river valleys, through vast forests, and across mountains, lakes and plains in what became one of the most awesome achievements in human history. It gave expression to “an expansive power”, inherent in the people, “which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State”. “Hardly is a new state or territory formed before the same principle manifests itself”, and this process was “destined” to continue until the brute physical limits of frontier expansion were reached.

The settlers were faced with unprecedented challenges as they confronted a vast wilderness extending on a continental scale from their initial tiny settlements. But as they became aware of the opportunity that lay before them they consciously went about creating a New World, with each “advance of the frontier [entailing] a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines”. And inevitably, a specific set of personal characteristics came to dominate amongst these people as they moved out from their beachheads to create a new nation. Primary among these were individualism, independence, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, a suspicion of centralised authority, a democratic temper, and republican values.

Turner’s thesis had obvious relevance for Australia. Indeed, when Turner rose to speak in 1893, the frontier spirit had contributed greatly to making America the largest economy in the world, but another frontier society had the highest standard of living. Australia had achieved that status in the 1860s, following the gold rushes, leading Britain and America by over 20 per cent in the decades leading up to 1890. Gross Domestic Product per capita had increased rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century to give Australia the global pre-eminence that it sustained for about forty years. The major depression of the 1890s eroded Australia’s lead but it continued to share first place up until the Great War, after which America pulled ahead. This was a remarkable achievement for a country that had begun only a century earlier as a struggling convict settlement and only became a nation on January 1, 1901, but Australia too possessed its own frontier spirit.

The classic study remains Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) which, paralleling Turner’s much earlier work, identified a specific Australian character that had emerged from the colonists’ encounter with the frontier as they shadowed the American experience of nation-building on a continental scale. The book attempted to trace the historical origins and development of the Australian legend or national mystique. It argues that a specifically Australian outlook grew up first among the bush workers in the Australian pastoral industry, and that this group has had an influence, completely disproportionate to its numerical and economic strength, on the attitudes of the whole Australian community.

This vision of an Australian national identity was crystallising in the Bulletin and amongst popular writers in Australia in the 1880s and 1890s. As Ward writes:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the occupation of the interior had been virtually completed, it was possible to look back and sense what had been happening. Australians generally became actively conscious, not to say self-conscious, of the distinctive “bush” ethos, and of its value as an expression and symbol of nationalism.

Ward believed that the Australian frontier experience promoted similar values to those identified in America by Turner. However, the Australian ethos was also shaped by its convict past and the gold rushes and came to feature irreverence and even larrikinism. It also embraced co-operation and egalitarianism rather than the fierce competitiveness that shaped the American frontier. These qualities became the origin of the uniquely Australian notion of “mateship”.

Central to this cultural phenomenon was the figure of the resourceful bushman, which exemplified the vital role played by Australia’s pastoral industries and the bush environment:

It seems that outback conditions exercised a kind of natural selection upon the human material. The qualities favouring successful assimilation [to frontier society] were adaptability, toughness, endurance, activity and loyalty to one’s fellows … Frontier conditions fostered and intensified the growth of the distinctively Australian outlook.

Consequently, by the time of Federation, “the ‘noble bushman’ was already firmly enshrined in both the popular and the literary imagination”.

This nascent national ethos inevitably became politicised, especially once the initial conception became associated with the achievements of the Australian military in the Great War to form the core of the Anzac Legend. It was the journalist and war historian Charles Bean who transmuted the Australian Legend that had crystallised in the 1890s into the Anzac Legend that remains so powerful today, long after visions of “the bushman” have faded. Although possessing an Oxford MA, Bean emulated many of the earlier writers by working as a journalist in the bush. This assignment had a profound impact on him—as he later said, “it flashed upon him that the most important product of the wool industry was men; it was responsible for creating some of the outstanding national types”. He subsequently wrote two books on such themes, On the Wool Track (1910) and The Dreadnought of the Darling (1911), which portrayed Australians as the best of Britons, celebrated mateship, and extolled the bushman as a resourceful and independent type of person. He observed prophetically that if ever England were in trouble she would discover in Australia “the quality of sticking … to an old mate”.

Bean later became Australia’s first official war correspondent and reported on all the battles in which Australia was engaged throughout the Great War, fought on a fearful frontier far from home. At Gallipoli he helped rescue wounded men under fire and was recommended for the Military Cross (although as a civilian he was not eligible) and mentioned in dispatches. He edited The Anzac Book (1916) which he compiled from drawings and writing by the soldiers and which was very popular, and he later served as editor of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, writing Volumes I to VI himself, dealing with the activities of the Australian Imperial Force in Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

Bean wrote that the main theme of The Official History “may be stated as the answer to a question”:

How did this nation, bred in complete peace, largely undisciplined except for a strongly British tradition and the self-discipline necessary for men who grapple with nature … react to what still has to be recognised as the supreme test for fitness to exist?

His answer: “the big thing in the war for Australia was the discovery of the character of Australians. It was character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there.” In his later one-volume history of the War, Anzac to Amiens, Bean observed that “Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat”. Bean concluded that “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born” on April 25, 1915.

The power and popularity of the Anzac Legend created problems for the Australian Left that have never been resolved, principally because the Gallipoli campaign preceded the Russian Revolution by less than two years. The ideal of the Anzac was emerging as a powerful cultural force in Australia at the same time as the Soviet-directed Communist International was promoting its competing ideological notion of “Socialist Man”. The Anzac ideal proved vastly more popular in Australia than the socialist ideal, and this was intensely resented by the radical Left, particularly as the ideal had emerged organically as a deeply held populist belief and was neither an intellectual construct nor socialist in orientation. It was therefore denounced from the outset as conservative and reactionary, as the communist historian Frank Farrell explains in his history of International Socialism and Australian Labour (1981), “the Anzac myth and the touchy digger were powerful right-wing influences in politics” from the Great War on. Consequently, in 1919, the ALP re-affirmed its commitment to class struggle and resolved to eliminate from school teaching materials “all articles relating to or extolling wars, battles or heroes of past wars”. The antagonism between the Diggers and the Reds exploded in May 1921 when 150,000 people filled the Sydney Domain to protest at the burning of the Union Jack by communists at May Day demonstrations. Urged on by the crowd, angry ex-servicemen overturned the communists’ platform, attacked the speakers, and set fire to their flag.

Over subsequent decades the Left vacillated between trying to discredit the Australian Legend and trying to co-opt it, torn between an awareness of the power of the bush ethos and an ideological allegiance to the urban working class. Coral Lansbury insisted in a 1966 Meanjin article that underground coal-mining did more to generate mateship than pastoral work, that the ethos was invented by union leaders, and that the best that could be said of the bush workers was that they “were given to bestiality rather than to buggery or the raping of Aboriginal women”, as Ward later recalled in “The Australian Legend Re-Visited” (1978). The attack was pressed home by Humphrey McQueen in A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism (1970), an extremely influential extended pamphlet that stood for many years as the only book-length historical work by the New Left. This asserted, first, that the freed convicts, miners and bush workers who generated the Legend were merely a lumpenproletariat or petit bourgeoisie, lacked a socialist class-consciousness, and were, in Marxist terms, beneath contempt. Second, he signalled the arrival of the subsequent dominant form of criticism, not only of the Legend and Australia’s frontier experience, but of our national identity as a whole—namely, that it is based on relentless, violent, virulent racism.

This shift marked the beginning of a ruthless demonisation of the frontier that underpins much of the ideological opposition to development in Australia, and led to the “history wars” that continue to rage today.

Two basic positions can be identified in this extremely important dispute. The first lies in continuity with older historical accounts of Australia’s frontier experience and claims that conflict between settlers and the indigenous people was comparatively low-key, that government policies were intended to be humane, and that the decline of the indigenous population was primarily due to disease and other unforeseen factors.

The second position rejects the moderation of this assessment in favour of an extremist and hysterical revisionist view of Australian history. This flows from the 1960s when the New Left lost interest in the working class and embraced various purported victim groups and the “external proletariat” allegedly created in Third World countries by imperialism. Proponents of this now dominant view portray the settlement of Australia as a violent invasion characterised by war and genocidal conflict on the frontier that still continues. Prominent examples include Henry Reynolds (The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, 1981, and An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History, 2001), and Lyndall Ryan (The Aboriginal Tasmanians, 1981). Their methods, interpretation and conclusions were subjected to a comprehensive critique by Keith Windschuttle in his two volumes on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002 and 2009).

The systematic demonisation of the frontier also promoted the negative concepts of “settler colonialism” and “settler society”. These are applied to liberal democracies like America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Israel as terms of extreme condemnation to signify genocidal societies inherently committed to the total destruction of indigenous people, cultures and environments. A recent example of this genre is Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History (2005), edited by A. Dirk Moses, an associate professor at the University of Sydney. This manages to conflate the Holocaust, genocide, settler-colonialism, and “the Stolen Generation”, and represent them as merely different expressions of the same underlying logic of extermination purported to be inherent in settler societies. In this fashion, the Holocaust and the Nazi pursuit of lebensraum through the systematic annihilation of some 50 million Slavs in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is treated as conceptually identical to the alleged massacre of Aborigines at Warrigal Creek in Gippsland in 1843, frontier violence in Queensland and Tasmania, and the removal into care of children at risk in Aboriginal communities. The core idea is that genocidal tendencies are built into the very fabric of settler societies and the actual scale of the atrocities is beside the point.

This argument is developed in Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007) by Ben Kiernan, an expatriate Australian who is professor of history at Yale University. Kiernan makes Anglophone settler societies central to his litany of atrocity, and consequently focuses not on Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and Rwanda, but on the alleged genocides carried out by England and its descendent societies, such as America and Australia. Instead of attending to such obvious elements of genocide as anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, ultra-nationalism and criminal dictatorship, Kiernan is more concerned with the “fetish for agriculture”, from which flows all manner of evil. Consequently, the alleged genocidal history of Australia occupies centre stage in his book, being allocated almost as much space for discussion as the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet Terror combined.

The demonisation of the frontier is found also in environmental history. In Taming the Great South Land: A History of the Conquest of Nature in Australia, by William Lines (1992), a narrative is endlessly recounted of “a continent robbed, people and animals exterminated, land pauperised, air and water poisoned, [and] forests eliminated”. As the radical environmentalist (and self-appointed expert in Australian history) David Suzuki observes in his foreword, the book “puts the lie to the myth of the heroic history of modern Australia and reveals it as the sordid tragedy it really was”. Manning Clark described the book as “a source of knowledge and inspiration”.

The genre achieved another notable success with The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994), by Tim Flannery, the basic orientation of which is made explicit in the title—the current generation is consuming the future. It was subsequently made into a documentary series for ABC television, further promoting this wilfully distorted view. Flannery now holds many influential positions and has recently returned to his apocalyptic prophecies, with After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis (2012).

Another Australian text draws these themes of indigenous degradation and ecological despoliation together. Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of the Outback (edited by Deborah Bird Rose and Richard Davis, 2005) recognises that the concept of the frontier “is one of the key, founding metaphors of virtually all settler-colonial societies, and serves as a continual source of symbols in the construction of national histories and identities”. However, it is precisely for this reason that the authors seek to attack it, aligning themselves with attacks on the frontier thesis by revisionist historians who are “stripping the frontier … of much of its sacredness as a source of national values [while] redefining the historian’s social role [and] abandoning their image of neutral objectivity”. Consequently, their concern is not with the colossal efforts and sacrifices stretching over generations that are demanded by nation-building, but rather with (yet again) recounting “the tragedies of western expansion: the destruction of the environment, the massacres of indigenous populations, the ambiguities, difficulties and disappointments of settlers’ lives”. The “master narratives of Australian history” are relentlessly denounced, including the overcoming of the convict past, the enormous efforts of the pioneers, the explorers, and the miners; the sacrifices of the Anzacs (who are dismissed as “cannon fodder”); the battlers of the Depression; and those who struggle perennially with droughts, floods and bushfires. Previous historical accounts of these are all dismissed as “stories of victimisation”, which amount to little more than “big-noting” and whingeing. “Battling”, the book concludes, “is an Australian imagined tradition”, which pales into insignificance when compared to the alleged suffering of the favoured victim groups.

As this brief summary indicates, if Australia is to realise its $1.7 trillion opportunity and play the global role demanded of us then there has to be the political will necessary to overthrow the cultural hegemony exercised over our national life by the anti-development extremism of the Green-Left alliance, and the debilitating complex of negativity that surrounds it, exemplified by the “black armband” view of history. This will be no small task, as the current situation has been several decades in the making. Nevertheless, it must be undertaken and the prospects are presently politically auspicious, with Coalition governments in the major states and a likely Coalition victory later this year at the federal level. Moreover, parliamentary representation of the ALP and the Greens has declined precipitously over the past few years, especially in the resource-rich states. After the West Australian state election in March, the ALP held only 36 per cent of all parliamentary seats at federal, state and territory level. In Queensland it held only 8 per cent; 21 per cent in New South Wales; and 32 per cent in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Similarly, at various state elections since March 2011 the Greens’ primary vote has declined by about a third (in Western Australia, for example, it fell from 12 per cent to 8 per cent), putting their Senate seats in doubt.

This developmental goal can be achieved also because there still remains a significant reserve of popular support for the nation-building, frontier society ethos that underpinned the economic development of Australia until the 1980s. And this is despite the concerted efforts of the Green-Left forces to propagate the “black armband” view of history through every level of the education system.

A useful recent indicator of this popular support was the generally favourable response to the leaked details of the options being explored by the Coalition water taskforce earlier this year, including plans to build up to 100 dams designed to prevent floods, drive hydro-electric power stations, and provide irrigation for agricultural development capable of feeding 120 million people across the Asia-Pacific. The popular response appears to have been overwhelmingly positive (unlike the inane response of the ALP at the time). In the letters section of the Herald Sun on February 15, only one out of eleven letters published on the plan was opposed to it, with the overwhelming majority of letters excited by the options discussed, referring approvingly to “nation-building”, “big ideas”, “sanity and logic”, “tremendous future” and “long-term infrastructure”—all terms evocative of the frontier spirit.

Such sentiments reveal the extent to which Australians are still sympathetic to the frontier ethos that played such a formative role in our history. Like America, which has also suffered the impost of extreme environmentalism over the past forty years, Australia has been a frontier society for most of its history, undertaking massive economic and social development on a continental scale. For generations the opportunities this nation-building project offered attracted millions of settlers and immigrants determined to make their lives in Australia and to hand something on to their children and future generations.

It is this nation-building spirit that explains the ease with which our society remains remarkably cohesive despite the fact that some 25 per cent of its population is born elsewhere. It appears that a once-in-a-generation opportunity now exists to rekindle that spirit and realise once again the potential of our country.

Mervyn F. Bendle wrote on “Derrida and the Destruction of the Humanities” in the April issue.