Finally! The National Farmers Federation has announced that it will implement a long-term public relations campaign to mobilise public and political support for a major expansion of the agricultural industry in Australia and to combat the zealotry of animal rights activists and green extremists.
Such a response is well overdue. Australia faces an epoch-defining challenge. With the global population projected to exceed nine billion people by 2050 our country is well placed to become a major food supplier to the world, doubling—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. This is not idle musing: hundreds of millions of people will starve if the global food supply is not greatly increased.
This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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Much of the demand will come from 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, especially those 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 opportunity. While it will be a major task to mobilise the investment required 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 farmland to capitalise on the growing Asian demand.
However, at the cultural level the situation is different, as the NFF has finally realised. 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.
Radical environmentalists have had a free ride in Australia for decades, shutting down innumerable worthwhile projects and strangling others in green tape and with “law-fare” designed to make their successful completion uneconomical or even impossible, as has been demonstrated with the Adani mine and in the Hunter Valley. Investors will 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, the ALP, and their academic and media supporters, especially those entrenched in the ABC.
Fortunately, Australia has a rich heritage to draw upon in this ideological battle. Its 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. This was a local version of a similar phenomenon identified in America by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his ground-breaking 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”.
Turner recognised the pivotal empowering role that the concept of “the frontier” plays in the history of young settler societies like America and Australia. He showed how the national identity of such societies is formed through the extended engagement of their people with their frontiers. According to Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”, the history, culture, core values and institutions of America were shaped by the waves of colonists as they spread out across the vast expanse of their continent, implanting a 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 humanity’s most awesome achievements. 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 very 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 an obvious relevance for Australia. Indeed, when Turner advanced his thesis in 1893, the frontier spirit had contributed greatly to making America the largest economy in the world. However, 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 in 1901.
The critical factor in this monumental achievement was that Australia possessed its own frontier spirit. The classic study of this remains Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) which, paralleling Turner’s 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 outlook of the whole Australian community.
This vision of an Australian national identity was crystallising in the Bulletin magazine 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 became associated with the achievements of the Australian military in the Great War to form the core of the Anzac legend. The journalist and war historian Charles Bean 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 Australian 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. 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. He declared 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 recognized 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.
This positive national identity created problems for the Australian Left a century ago that have never been resolved and that continue to play a central role in the crippling ideological campaign being waged against primary industries in this country.
This was because the Gallipoli campaign preceded the Russian Revolution by only two years and the ideal of the Anzac emerged 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 and this was intensely resented by the local Communist Party and the radical Left, particularly as the ideal had emerged organically as a deeply held popular belief and was neither an intellectual construct nor socialist in orientation.
As the communist historian Frank Farrell revealed in his history International Socialism and Australian Labour (1981), “the Anzac myth and the touchy digger were powerful right-wing influences in politics” from the Great War onwards. 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”. Inevitably, 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 worked tirelessly to discredit the Australian legend. Their frustration led to some extreme claims. For example, in a 1966 Meanjin article Coral Lansbury declared 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”. 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. McQueen asserted that the freed convicts, miners and bush workers who generated the Australian legend were merely a racist lumpen-proletariat or petit-bourgeoisie who lacked a socialist class-consciousness, and were, in Marxist terms, beneath contempt. This book set the tone for subsequent histories of Australia, right up to the present day.
This shift from Ward’s The Australian Legend of 1958 to McQueen’s A New Britannia in 1970 marked the beginning of a ruthless demonisation of the frontier that underpins much of the ideological opposition to development in Australia. Proponents of this now dominant view portray the settlement of Australia as a violent invasion characterised by war and frontier conflict that still continues. Influential proponents of this view include Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan. Their methods, interpretation and conclusions have been subjected to a comprehensive critique by Keith Windschuttle in his multi-volume exposé of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.
The conflict between those who identify with the nation-building frontier spirit and those who oppose it intensified when a Green-Left coalition emerged in the 1980s. 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. For example, they prevented the construction of many essential dams and transformed Tasmania into a mendicant welfare state. They also had an important ideological victory with the forced resignation from Melbourne University of Geoffrey Blainey, one of Australia’s greatest historians.
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 societies allegedly committed to the destruction of indigenous peoples, cultures and environments. An example of this genre is Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History (2005), which manages to conflate frontier societies, European settlement, and “the Stolen Generation” with the Nazi Holocaust.
This argument is developed in Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), which claims that frontier societies like America and Australia are driven by a “fetish for agriculture”, from which flows a level of wickedness comparable to that found in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and Rwanda. That such absurd claims can be made reflects the self-hating intellectual monoculture that dominates our universities and the suppression of countervailing arguments.
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 (1991), 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 it 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 made into a documentary series for ABC Television, further promoting this wilfully distorted view. Flannery followed this up with After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis (2012).
An all-out attack on Australia’s national identity was launched with Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of the Outback (2005). This 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”. Consequently, it had to be attacked mercilessly by historians “stripping the frontier … of much of its sacredness as a source of national values”. Their concern is not with the colossal efforts and sacrifices stretching over generations that are demanded by nation-building, but rather with the alleged “tragedies of western expansion: the destruction of the environment, the massacres of indigenous populations, the ambiguities, difficulties and disappointments of settlers’ lives” and so on.
The positive, older “master narratives of Australian history” that prevailed up until the mid-twentieth century were relentlessly denounced and ridiculed. These include 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. Such historical accounts 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 victim groups currently favoured by academics.
As this brief summary indicates, if Australia is to realise its colossal potential as a food bowl of the Asia-Pacific and play the global role demanded of us, then there has to be significant and sustained political and corporate willpower. This will be 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 ideological situation has been several decades in the making, as we have seen.
Put succinctly, the primary industry sector (both agriculture and mining) in Australia is facing a crisis because neither it nor various governments over the past fifty years have been prepared to combat the corrosive impact of the black-armband view of history. They opted out of the ideological struggle and now they are paying the price.
Nevertheless, the challenge must be undertaken. Moreover, there is significant latent popular support for the nation-building, frontier society ethos that historically underpinned the development of Australia. Indeed, 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 provided by this nation-building project 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 ambitious, forward-thinking and optimistic nation-building spirit that explains the ease with which our society remains remarkably cohesive despite the fact that a huge proportion of its population is overseas-born.
Vast numbers of Australians want to make something of their country and to contribute significantly to the world. Hopefully, the NFF and the federal and New South Wales governments are now recognising that a once-in-a-generation opportunity now exists to re-kindle the foundational spirit of Australia as a frontier society. However, fine talk will not suffice, and these key actors must be prepared to engage vigorously in an ideological struggle if the enormous damage inflicted on Australia by fifty years of Green-Left propaganda is to be successfully combated and the enormous potential of our country is once again to be realised.
Mervyn F. Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity (Quadrant Books, 2015).