Hands of friendship from Indigenous Australia

Something really interesting is happening to the perennial public discussion about how the continent’s original people and those who came from other places relate to each other.

“We are not the problem, we are the solution,” Siena Stubbs, a 17-year-old student from Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land, told a Garma Festival audience in August 2019.

Siena’s message came in the form of the “Imagination Declaration”, written as a follow-up to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and addressed to the prime minister and state and territory education ministers.

The Uluru Statement is a cry from the heart of First Nations people to all of us who call ourselves Australian: that we simply listen, take in what they are saying and accept their unique gift to us – wisdom built on millennia of experience of these lands.

Fully equal to Uluru in its freshness, eloquence and passion, the Imagination Declaration is made all the more powerful by the youthfulness of the 65 Indigenous and non-Indigenous school students who put it together. It urges Australian leaders, when they think of Indigenous children, or any children, to “imagine what’s possible”. 

“Don’t define us through the lens of disadvantage or label us as limited,” it says. “Test us. Expect the best of us. Expect the unexpected. Expect us to continue carrying the custodianship of imagination, entrepreneurial spirit and genius. Expect us to be complex. And then let us spread our wings, and soar higher than ever before.”

The Imagination Declaration soared in the national education conversation for month or two before a cascade of disasters saw it set aside while official Australia dealt with more “pressing” issues. We could be forgiven for thinking the officials wanted it shelved, like the Uluru Statement. But like Uluru, its proud authors will not let it lie forgotten.

Something really interesting is happening to the perennial public discussion about how this continent’s original people can achieve a voice and a place in our 21st century government, and how prominent that place should be. We know the discussion will never be fully resolved because such things never are, but it is moving forward.

Tasmania has a unique place in this national conversation as the one state – or colony as it then was – whose effort to “cleanse” itself of its Aboriginal people had official sanction. That failed; the first inhabitants of this island continued to live amongst us, their cultural identity kept alive over generations by an irrepressible oral transition.

One outcome of that oral tradition is now on display for all to see in Macquarie Street, Hobart. A stone’s throw from the site of the colony’s first government house, the bronze form of a colonial gentleman-scientist, William Crowther, has been augmented with a powerful new statement about truth-telling by the Indigenous artist Allan Mansell.

It is both surprising and gratifying that Mansell’s art has remained unvandalised; that it has been accepted by a public that not so long ago would have been outraged at “desecration” of the memory of figures from colonial history represented in time-honoured bronze statues.

The whole debate about Crowther and his own, actual desecration of the corpse of Aboriginal leader King Billy, or William Lanne, in 1869 could have become nasty. The fact that it hasn’t is due in no small part to Indigenous efforts to focus not on the past for its own sake, but on how knowledge of the lives of Indigenous people can benefit all Australians.

A new University of Tasmania course devised and run by Aboriginal people seeks to help participants, regardless of ethnic and racial origin, better understand what it is to carry the torch for a culture that survived and thrived on this island for tens of thousands of years.

Indigenous Lifeworlds, a course put together by Maggie Walter, University of Tasmania distinguished professor of sociology, invites students to experience the stories and physical world of First Tasmanians, including the dispossession and shocking trauma they experienced from 1803. It won’t be easy, but it will surely be immensely rewarding. 

A monument at piyura kitina, the Indigenous name for the site of that 1803 British landing, was built to honour the leader of those interlopers, naval lieutenant John Bowen. The land he named Risdon Cove, along with the Bowen memorial, is now back in Indigenous hands. Like the Crowther statue, the fate of that memorial is a very open question.

The quest to understand what it is to be Australian is moving in a radically new direction, away from Europe and toward our part of the world, including the ancient cultures that colonists sought to displace and, unsuccessfully, to destroy. And the journey is getting more intriguing by the day.

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An industry out of control

It is way past time the Tasmanian salmon industry was fully regulated in accordance with appropriate environmental and health measures.

Aquaculture has rarely been out of the news since Richard Flanagan’s Toxic – a broadside at what he called the “rotting underbelly” of the salmon farming industry – was launched in April.

The book has touched raw nerves on both sides. Those with a gripe against salmon took up with renewed zeal Flanagan’s multi-pronged attack on the billion-dollar industry’s failings, while its defenders took comfort from the author’s reputation as a writer of fiction. 

Amid all this came the launch of a federal government inquiry into Australian aquaculture instigated by the Morrison government’s recently anointed industry development minister, Tasmanian senator Jonathon Duniam, and chaired by Western Australian MP Rick Wilson. Its marching orders are to ascertain how the industry might be expanded.

Whether Tasmanian salmon farming needs expanding is an issue in itself. It would make sense for Wilson’s committee to ignore that sector altogether and focus on the others, which include bluefin tuna, barramundi, prawns and the two oyster industries, eating and pearl culture.

Compared to any other Australian aquaculture sector, Tasmanian salmon farming is massive, more than six times the size of the next biggest. Measured by both weight and economic value, its product adds up to well over half the national aquaculture total. It’s fair to ask, is it too big?

Flanagan’s book has added fuel to smouldering public disquiet about salmon farming’s impact on people and nature – anathema to an industry that relies heavily on retail sales. A couple of its heavyweights – Frances Bender of Huon Aquaculture and recently appointed industry spokesperson Julian Amos – put the defence case in articles in these pages last week.

Those opinion pieces heavily emphasised the industry’s contribution to the Tasmanian economy. Bender puts the number of jobs remunerated by the three companies involved (Tassal, Huon Aquaculture, Petuna) at 2300 and estimates that it indirectly employs over 10,000.

That may be, but the real issue is not whatever money the community may be getting from the industry today, but the long-term price to be paid for that activity. The fact that no-one is currently being asked to pay this price only adds to its importance.

I have never experienced the industry’s noise and light pollution that so blighted Flanagan’s days and nights on North Bruny, and I used to consume as much salmon as the next person. But that changed some years ago when an abalone diver described to me her experience of salmon farms. 

Under the waves, not just beneath pens but for hundreds of metres around, she found scenes of devastation: previously crystal-clear water turned milky, sea bottoms covered in algae, and in once-abundant waters a complete absence of living shellfish, including abalone.

Defaunation (disappearance of animal life) in south-eastern and western coastal waters has bothered independent marine scientists for many years. They have voiced their concerns in multiple forums, including federal and Tasmanian parliamentary hearings. But instead of questions they’ve been met with impassive stares.

Scientists including world jellyfish expert Lisa Gershwin have repeatedly warned state and federal MPs of threats posed by intensive salmon farming in the forms of damage to other marine species resulting from detritus and introduced chemicals and pathogens, and threats to human health from algal blooms and polluted water, both marine and (from land-based operations) drinking water.

So what’s holding back our legislators? Why this reluctance even to dip the toe into these milky waters? Why would they think such matters are unimportant?

As in so many issues around the state of our environment, the answer lies in the money trail. That doesn’t have to involve any sort of direct benefit. Government can be blindsided by high economic returns, but electors too have been known to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour when it delivers relief from food or mortgage stress, no matter how transitory that relief. 

But there are limits. The state has become the industry’s willing agent, to the point of sidelining planning and environmental laws and allowing it to self-regulate, a practice honoured by the title “adaptive management” but better named trial and error.

For millennia our coastal waters have been a primary source of spiritual and actual nourishment for people living around our island’s shores. Now their future is threatened by an industry which, having been given the run of the public estate, is now literally out of control. 

Flanagan’s book is a timely wakeup call. Far from the expansion envisaged by the Duniam-Wilson inquiry and the state government, we must instead limit its size and operations to what an unspoiled environment can sustain, and curtail its excesses through independent public regulation.

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Preparing for a disorderly future

Our world has changed forever, and there’s no going back. Our children understand that. Unfortunately our leaders don’t.

Some time back, as university students, we took to the streets to confront our elders about a war in Asia that was none of Australia’s business. To escape from that mess, all we had to do was get out of the war. Which we did.

The students are in the streets again, but now they’re school-age, something unthinkable in the Vietnam era and hard for many to swallow today. Their mess is no mere war, but a global crisis which left unattended will devastate Earth’s life systems, including ours.

The crisis is so big that most adults ignore it and focus on more immediate things, like staying solvent and putting food on the table. Or if they’re at the top of the human pile, keeping the company profitable, reading the economic tealeaves or winning the next election.

Our children have stepped into the breach, demanding that we stop making loony decisions about our future, like building a new power station to burn more fossil fuel, and start being honest about what we’re now facing.

It is now clear to all who think about it that while some political and business leaders seem to understand that we’re in a crisis, no-one at the top is willing to confront this and make the big decisions needed to turn it around.

The rational approach to the climate crisis is to follow the lead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the thousands of scientists responsible for its reports. In tones of increasing urgency they all say that the scale of disruption ahead demands a complete end to carbon emissions and truckloads of preparation for an orderly and just transition.

But for decades these calls have landed on deaf ears. Those of us who try to engage with political leaders, including Tasmanian ones, about the fast-disappearing window for effective action know all too well the fossil fuel addiction that continues to drive and shape their world view.

Knowingly or otherwise, decision-makers everywhere are under the malign influence of that old order. Interests with a stake in prolonging the use of fossil fuels keep politicians on a short leash while attacking detractors and sabotaging public discourse with misinformation. 

School strikers see what their elders apparently cannot: that the old scheme of things is collapsing around us. In the face of cascading environmental, social and health crises, the efforts of our leaders to mask reality with daily barrages of the old measures – GDP or budgetary or employment data – seem pointless, even ludicrous.

We have to admit that elected or appointed leaders in government and business are not up to the job. And we have learned from our enduring public health crisis that when old ways of thinking are shown not to work, we must discard them. 

The pandemic should be a wake-up call. We urgently need to apply that elsewhere and be honest with ourselves and others about our present situation, which is nowhere near where science says we need to be if we are to keep climate change within safe bounds.

In fact, the time when individual governments, communities or people could have an impact has already passed us by. The only shot left in the locker is radical action by all developed nations working together, but the chances of that happening are vanishingly small.

Let’s face it: we are not going to get an incremental, orderly transition to a secure future. Hard times will continue, even get harder, as a changing climate makes its presence felt and systems are shaken to their core. The failure of gradualism leaves us facing an unsettling ride into a thoroughly disjointed future.

Yet there is reason for people both older and younger, but especially younger, to take heart. We are entering a time different from everything we know, in which we are all learners. And young people, as we all know, are the best learners. Unlike their elders who know only a fossil-fuelled economy, they are unencumbered by outmoded mindsets and expertise. 

School students are right to be angry, and I hereby offer them a baby-boomer’s apology for the continuing failure of older citizens to address this unfolding calamity. 

But our young soon-to-be citizens should also feel energised by the challenge before them. There is opportunity to be had in the inevitable disruption ahead. Young people will be best placed to cast aside old, failed systems and take charge of building a new, sustainable world.

That transition will be tough, and there will be disheartening setbacks. It will be disorderly, sometimes painful, occasionally shocking. But it definitely won’t be boring. 

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