Australia “A Bit Lost” – Rick Farley

This is the full text of Rick Farley’s 2003 Australia Day Address, from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Mr. Farley was the Executive Director of the National Farmers’ Federation from 1988-1995.

  • Listen to Farley’s speech (29m)

Text of Rick Farley’s Australia Day Address.

Rick FarleyI wish to acknowledge the Aboriginal traditional owners of the place where we come together today and thank them for their welcome. I pay respect to their elders and to their culture – the oldest living culture in the world.

All Australians extend their sympathy and support to families who have faced tragedy in recent months – particularly those touched by the Bali bombings and those who have suffered from bushfires and abnormal drought. While there may be different views about these events, I am sure their human cost appals us all.

I also acknowledge those who have previously given this address. I am humbled to be added to their ranks and tremulous in the shadows of their legacy. I thank the Australia Day Council of New South Wales for the opportunity.

Australia Day is accepted widely as our national birthday. Birthdays, in my now wide experience, are complicated things that pull at our emotions in different ways. They are certainly a time for celebration of what we have achieved. But they are also, invariably, a time for reflection about what remains undone and contemplation about the legacy we will leave. I would like to talk about all three aspects today.

Our young nation has many substantial achievements and much to celebrate. In the time of white history, we have gone from convict colony to a modern and vibrant society in three life spans. We are a democratic and civil society that has produced world leaders in science, engineering, medicine, business, agriculture and the arts. We have the priceless gift of the oldest living culture. Our cities are amongst the most desirable cities to live in the world and we have had disproportionate success in many sports. We clearly punch above our weight as a nation.

However, for Aboriginal Australians and many others, January 26 is not a day for celebration. To them the date signifies invasion and dispossession. As Thomas Keneally noted in his 1997 Australia Day address: “A majority of Australians can see why today cannot be a day of rejoicing for all, and that therefore there may be grounds for ultimately finding an Australia Day, a celebration of our community, with which we can all identify.”

In her 2000 Australia Day address, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue made a strong plea for a change of date: “Let us find a day on which we can all feel included, in which we can all participate equally, and can celebrate with pride our common Australian identity.”

I endorse that view. It would be better to have a more inclusive date for our national day.

In so doing, I am sensitive to the fact that I can not speak for anyone else. I can only speak today for myself and share some of the things that have shaped my views and some of the conclusions I have reached.

My perspective has been shaped over a long time by a very diverse group of Australians – cattlemen, farmers, conservationists and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I thank them all for the education they have provided me. It also has been shaped by over 25 years in the political and public policy arena, which represents both the best and worst of our national endeavour.

This is my Australia – warts and all.

I have come to understand that our nation is shaped initially by landscape – the lowest, flattest and driest inhabited continent on Earth. Two-thirds of our country is arid or semi-arid, so water is one of our most precious commodities. Our soils are old and fragile with enormous amounts of accumulated salts.

Our continent is the only one inhabited by a single nation, so we have a better chance of managing natural resources sustainably than anywhere else in the world.

We are a highly urbanised society. Over 80 per cent of our population now live on 1 per cent of our land mass, and within 50 kilometres of the coast. Half our continent is inhabited by only 0.3 per cent of our people. Seventy per cent of population growth is in the capital cities, mostly on their outskirts. As Donald Horne has pointed out, Australia’s national identity now is more about the beach than the bush.

Our industry base has changed enormously. It once was dominated by agriculture, mining and manufacturing, but the services sector now accounts for two thirds of the economy. The transition has been painful and there are many casualties who feel abandoned and bitter.

We are an intensely multicultural society. Over 44 per cent of our population are either first- or second- generation Australians. Over 15 per cent of us speak a language other than English at home.

With the exception of indigenous people, we also have an ageing population. Those aged 65 and over are expected to double by 2050.

The big economic decisions of the 1980s changed Australia radically and forever – to float the dollar, open up financial markets and reduce protection. We had no alternative but to enter an ever-expanding global market place, driven along by the revolution in communications technology and the collapse of communism.

But successive national governments did not manage the transition from a closed to open economy very well. The weight of adjustment was not shared equally and some communities, particularly in rural areas and the outer suburbs of the capital cities, fell behind. Their issues are recognised better now, but the gap between the rich and the poor keeps on increasing.

My sense is that Australia still is casting around for values to replace the relative certainties that existed pre-80s. We are a small nation in a big new game and we’re not quite sure yet of our place in the evolving order of things. The elements which cemented Federation after 1901 all are gone – industry protection, centralised wage fixing and the White Australia policy. Where they used to be, there is only the promise of more change and greater competition. The pace of change, the pace of our lives, keeps on accelerating, and brings its own anxiety.

Then, as the current advertisements say – terrorism has changed the world and Australia is not immune. We appear to be heading for war with Iraq, which many Australians find difficult to understand. That already has generated unease within our communities and new pressures on the economy, and they will continue to grow.

The combination of external pressures – the likelihood of war and continuing international political and economic uncertainty – and internal forces – drought, ongoing economic and social adjustment – has created considerable insecurity and nervousness. As Geoffrey Blainey noted in a recent article, 2002 ended “with a severe bout of the jitters – more severe than any experienced in Australia in the last 50 years”.

So I perceive my country now to be a bit lost; still not managing change equitably; searching for its place in the world; looking sometimes for simple truths and solutions which no longer exist – in the middle of a cultural vortex and not quite sure of the exit point.

In that situation, it seems sensible to me to look to the bedrock of our nation, the points that can ground us and give us stability. In my view, these distil down to our country – our land and waters – and the nature of our relationships with each other.

Unless we use natural resources in a sustainable way, we are mining the future. Unless the relationships between our citizens are respectful and inclusive, we are a divided and diminished society.

To me, these are the defining features of Australian culture and identity. Together, they can unite our communities, build resilience, and create a firm foundation from which to meet the ever-increasing challenges we face.

By any measure, we are not caring properly for our natural resources.

We automatically imported European systems of agriculture, based on wet, fertile landscapes, and unsuited to our fragile soils and rainfall patterns. Australia’s wealth depended on agriculture and mining for a long time, and without sufficient knowledge about the long-term results, we went hell for leather.

The results are evident today. By 2050, 17 million hectares of land will be at risk from salinity. Acid soils are likely to affect an even greater area. About 50,000km of streams are degraded. Nearly 90 per cent of temperate woodlands and mallee has been cleared, resulting in huge loss of biodiversity. One in five native bird species is threatened with extinction.

Landclearing has actually increased since 1997, despite its clear contribution to dryland salinity, declining water quality and greenhouse gases. The equivalent of 50 football fields is being cleared each hour. Australia’s rate of landclearing is exceeded only by Brazil, Indonesia, the Congo and Bolivia. Most is taking place in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania. Weeds cost over $3.3 billion per year in lost production.

There is not enough water in some of our river systems now to meet the combined demands of agriculture, human consumption and environmental flows. Adelaide’s water supply will fail World Health Organisation standards two days out of five within 50 years and the mouth of the River Murray is being dredged even now. Last October, 7 million tonnes of topsoil blew away in one gigantic dust storm.

To add to the equation, no one is certain of the impact of global warming, but the best scientific modelling predicts drier weather patterns will become the norm for most of Australia.

The tasks before us obviously are enormous. Farming systems will have to change; further adjustment in the farm sector is likely; rehabilitation will take decades and will be impossible in some areas; public and private costs will be huge; new regulatory systems will have to be introduced; and a vast amount of political and social capital will need to be invested.

But unless we do it, in my view we will limit our future as a nation and as a society. Our economic, social and even our spiritual security will inexorably be diminished.

The first step is to give proper prominence to these issues. They have been simmering along in the background for a while, and now are before the Council of Australian Governments. However, they are not top of the list of government priorities.

A much wider public debate is needed to generate community understanding about how to care properly for country and the things that are at risk. Government already has a pretty fair idea, but is gridlocked by the scale of the problems. It needs to know that the electorate wants it to break through, stepping on a few toes and banging a few heads if necessary.

The issues already have some impetus. The impact of drought last year certainly registered on the national radar screen. So did Richard Pratt’s initiative to reduce water losses by piping it on farms instead of using open channels. The rise in political support for Green candidates also has not gone unnoticed. The United Nations has proclaimed this year as the International Year of Fresh Water.

Perhaps most importantly, leading environmental scientists have formed the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and developed a blueprint for fundamental change to our land and water management systems. The blueprint provides a clear focus for the debate needed to break through the current gridlock.

There are many issues to be resolved and many different opinions. However, I believe a broad consensus is developing between policy makers, practitioners and scientists and reflected in the Wentworth Group’s blueprint. The consensus is around building blocks for sustainable natural resource use.

In the first place, there needs to be a commitment to long-term action by all political parties. This was the strength of the first Decade of Landcare. Significant changes in the landscape will take a long time. Governments will change and there must be confidence that partnerships, once begun, will be continued.

Resource management plans should be developed on a regional basis and owned and driven by the regional community. One size just doesn’t fit all and there will be different priorities in different regions.

Regional plans should be consistent with broad national policies and priorities, including the extent of native vegetation cover, landclearing, and environmental flows. The commonwealth should make it clear to the states that the targets must be met and that no other outcome will be accepted.

Two key national priorities should be increasing environmental flows in the Murray-Darling system and capping the Great Artesian Basin.

There should be a market by which landholders can bid to provide environmental services for public benefit. The services would help to implement regional plans, using public investment. Systems already are being trialed in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

There should be a national water market with consistent mechanisms. Action taken in one State may benefit another. The issue of what water allocation goes with property rights needs to be resolved.

It would help if the cost of water could be better reflected in product pricing and description. It takes 7,500 litres of water to produce $1 worth of rice in the husk and 1,600 litres to produce $1 worth of seed cotton.

Everyone agrees that very significant long-term public investment is required and that there needs to be a secure mechanism to raise it – but then it gets a bit murky.

My own view is that a lot of the public investment in practice will need to come from the federal Government, although it is likely to be supplemented by local government. The prospect of preserving necessary allocations in the annual federal budget for decades is not tremendously appealing. I can see no other option as effective as an environment levy as part of the commonwealth tax system.

Phillip Toyne and I advocated this a few years ago and I remain to be dissuaded. Taxes will have to increase anyway, so it is best to be open about the amount necessary for new land and water management systems and identify it separately.

However, taxpayers would need to have confidence that their new contributions are being used properly. There have been allegations that successive federal governments have allocated Landcare and Natural Heritage Trust funds with political intent. Public support for an environment levy would be diminished if it is tainted in this way.

I therefore believe an independent body – call it a sustainability commission – should receive the proceeds of an environment tax levy and administer the public investment necessary to implement regional resource management plans. It should conduct regular resource audits and report each year to the national Parliament. It also should provide expert advice to government on natural resource management policy.

Whatever the final detail, I am encouraged by the developing consensus around a series of building blocks to care for our country.

There is a golden opportunity here – to come together in an act of national will to create a priceless legacy for future generations; to cement part of the foundation for a modern Australian culture and identity. One that builds on the past, but can deal with the new realities we face. Certainly a fitting thing to contemplate on Australia Day.

The second part of the foundation for a contemporary Australian identity must be the relationships that shape our civil society. Some of them are stretched pretty thin now and need a lot of work.

In particular, I believe the relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians deserves special attention. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the First Peoples of Australia and have special rights arising from that status. Their cultural heritage is protected by commonwealth and state legislation. The Australian common law recognises a functioning system of indigenous law, with property rights it calls native title.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, Aboriginal people are increasing as a proportion of rural and remote populations. Their birthrate is higher than the national average and more people are identifying as indigenous. They also are a critical part of some regional economies and they are starting to win seats in local government and state parliaments.

Then there is the moral dimension. Australia’s indigenous people have not been treated equitably. They have been dispossessed of their land and remain the most disadvantaged group in our society. They have a life expectancy about 20 years less than the rest of us and twice as many of their kids die at birth. That is shameful for Australia. All of the pedantic academic debate in the world can’t change those basic realities.

For all these reasons, the indigenous agenda is not going to go away. The real issues are how best to accommodate Indigenous aspirations, how long it takes, and what damage we inflict on ourselves along the way.

In my experience, the overwhelming priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are to achieve greater economic independence and protect their culture and identity. The two go together. It’s hard to maintain your own culture when you are dependent on a dominant culture’s welfare.

There were great expectations that these priorities could be advanced after the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992 and the passage of the commonwealth Native Title Act in 1993. Importantly, the legislation reflected a political compromise in a process begun by the High Court. There were high hopes that the basis of a national settlement with Australia’s first peoples had been achieved.

However, a lot of Aboriginal people now believe that the 1993 compromise has turned out to be unjust – that they have been dudded. The Native Title Act has been amended significantly since then and the High Court, with new membership, has identified additional constraints on native title. The goal posts have shifted.

After the Court’s decisions in Miriuwung Gajerrong and Yorta Yorta, native title claimants now must prove a continual observance and acknowledgment of traditional laws and customs. That’s a bit hard if you can’t get to your ceremony grounds because you’ve been put on a mission or reserve, or because the pastoralist won’t let you onto his lease, or because there is no record of your grandfather on his traditional country.

Native title now is confined basically to land where no one else has a permanent interest; where the traditional owners have never been forced to leave their country; and where they can prove to the satisfaction of a whitefella court that they have practiced their laws and customs on a continuous basis since settlement.

Nine years after the historic political compromise on native title, Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged party. Private landholders and the mining industry had their titles validated and the type of leases where co-existence can occur has been greatly restricted. Torres Strait Islanders have won native title claims because they have been able to remain on their traditional land and waters. However, there have been few determinations of native title on the mainland. The capacity for native title to assist Aboriginal economic development has been restricted largely to isolated areas and negotiations with the mining, oil, gas and electricity industries.

The Native Title Act has not served its purpose. The first of its four main objects is “to provide for the recognition and protection of native title”. Instead, it has become a mechanism to constrain and extinguish native title. It has not delivered a just compromise for Aboriginal people, whose position in our society has not improved.

As well, the transaction costs are enormous. Individual court cases have cost tens of millions of dollars – in some cases, exceeding state expenditure on Aboriginal programs. The annual cost of the National Native Title Tribunal and native title representative bodies is over $50 million.

There has to be a better way. That has been acknowledged by the High Court. In his judgement in The State of Western Australia v Ben Ward (Miriuwung Gajerrong), Justice McHugh noted: “The deck is stacked against the native title holders whose fragile rights must give way to the superior rights of the landholder wherever the two classes of rights conflict. And it is a system that is costly and time-consuming. At present the chief beneficiaries of the system are the legal representatives of the parties. It may be that the time has come to think of abandoning the present system, a system that simply seeks to declare and enforce the rights of the parties, irrespective of their merits.”

Many Aboriginal people are totally frustrated and discontented with the extent to which native title has been able to advance their goals. I believe they would be prepared to consider alternatives and the timing is right for such a discussion. Some new form of national settlement might be possible – the 1993 exercise clearly has failed.

It might include, for instance, an indigenous economic development fund that could be accessed by those who choose to opt out of native title claims, or who choose not to exercise their right to negotiate. That investment then could be leveraged by agreements with industry about particular projects.

In practical terms, such an arrangement could create a “win-win” situation where the costs of court cases, in both financial and social terms, are avoided and greater economic opportunities are delivered for Aboriginal people.

The possibility of settling some major unfinished business with Aboriginal Australians, and assisting their escape from the destructive spiral of welfare and substance abuse, is another golden opportunity – another fitting thing to contemplate on Australia Day. It too would be a marvellous foundation for contemporary Australian values and a modern Australian identity and a magnificent legacy.

As a proud Australian, I rejoice that these opportunities exist and that they can be raised for national debate. However, I am frequently frustrated and disappointed at the nature of the debate that occurs. Too often, issues are “dumbed down” and reduced to gladiatorial point scoring. Too often, views are dismissed because of where they are thought to come from on the political spectrum. Too often, positions are shaped by opinion polls and spin jockeys at the expense of candour and honesty.

I believe there is a responsibility for community leaders and the media to ensure an informed and inclusive debate occurs about the big issues that shape our nation. I don’t think that responsibility is being fully discharged now.

I also place enormous value on the freedoms and tolerance of our civil and democratic society. However, I fear they will be tested as Australia prepares for a new war and as national security fears grow.

To be true to ourselves as a civil society, we must guard against racial stereotypes, racism and xenophobia. Our Muslim citizens must be afforded the same respect as all other Australians, irrespective of what events are occurring elsewhere in the world.

On our national day it is right to celebrate. But it is also right to reflect on what remains undone and right to contemplate the legacy this generation of Australians will leave.

Our nation has come a long way in a very short time and we have much to be proud of.

We’ve made mistakes along the track, but we can to try to correct them.

We live in a unique place and we know enough to look after it better.

We have the priceless gift of the oldest living culture in the world.

Caring properly for our country and resolving unfinished business with our first peoples can become national goals that unify our communities and create greater national certainty and confidence.

They can become important foundations for a contemporary Australian culture and identity that equip us to find our place in a world that is changing ever faster.

They can become an historic legacy for future generations of Australians.

So let’s all talk properly. Let’s all have a civil conversation about the things that are important to us, and that will be our endowment. Let’s have an informed and inclusive national debate. We truly do have an amazing opportunity to pass on fantastic gifts if we are prepared to seize the moment.

That’s enough reflection and contemplation. Time now for celebration.

Happy Birthday Australia.

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