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The day, the land, the people

By Tim Flannery - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

Australia Day is a day for relaxing and celebrating the good life – a great Aussie holiday – and a time also to think about our origins; what it means to be Australian, and where our nation is going. Perhaps its an Australian characteristic that until now we’ve been long on the leisure and short on the thinking; which is unfortunate, because it has left us with shallow roots in this continent. Our history and our ecology reveal just how superficial those roots are, for they reveal that most of us still live as people from somewhere else, who just happen to inhabit – sometimes unsustainably, ignorantly and destructively – this marvellous continent.

Let’s look at history first. Growing up with Irish ancestry in Victoria, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ned Kelly, with his intolerance of injustice and independent spirit. But the more I think about him, the less I can see him as distinctively Australian. At heart he was an Irishman struggling with his Old World oppressors in a drama transplanted in its entirety to the Antipodes, the khaki backdrop of the Australian bush making virtually no difference. The Man from Snowy River can hardly be counted as uniquely Australian either. Seated astride American megafauna (a horse) that had been introduced to the continent just a century before, chasing other introduced megafauna, he is a figure of a much larger history – the global cattle frontier. Exchange his Akubra for a ten-gallon hat and he becomes a cowboy. Even most written histories of the Australian nation read like the story of a European people who just happen – almost incidentally – to stride an Australian stage. And perhaps that is, until now, precisely what we have been.

Certainly I don’t mean to suggest that the European aspects of our history are irrelevant or should be disposed of – only that they reflect us as a people who have not yet developed deep, sustaining roots in the land. Yet Australia – the land, its climate and creatures and plants – is the only thing that we all, uniquely, share in common. It is at once our inheritance, our sustenance, and the only force ubiquitous and powerful enough to craft a truly Australian people. It ought to – and one day will – define us as a people like no other.


For 45 million years Australia has wandered in isolation across the Southern Ocean, carrying with it an ark full of ancient life forms. Over this immense period the other continents have experienced violent change – profound swings of climate that saw them transformed from tropical paradises into bare rock sheathed in miles of ice. Their nature has been irrevocably altered by multiple invasions of plants and animals, their ecological stability denied. Australia, however, has remained almost unique in its stability.

It also seems that the evolution of life here was driven partly by a different imperative – towards co-operation for survival rather than competition. Many Australian birds, from kookaburras to blue wrens, breed co-operatively, and many species exist in symbiosis with others. This trend towards co-operation is also evident in the country’s human cultures. As a result of these trends, Australian life forms have become woven into a web of interdependence, which means that a small disturbance of one part has repercussions for the whole.

Despite its relative stability, this ancient Australia was no paradise. Its soils were by far the poorest and most fragile of any continent, its rainfall the most variable, and its rivers the most ephemeral. It was a harsh land for any creature that demanded much from it, and as a result, energy efficiency is the hallmark of Australia’s plants, animals and human cultures.

Our European heritage left us appallingly equipped to survive, long-term, in this country. For a start it left many colonial Australians unable to see the subtle beauty and biological richness of the land, and what they could not understand they strove to destroy as alien and useless. For most of the past two centuries we have believed that we could remake the continent in the image of Europe – turn the rivers inland and force the truculent soils to yield. We even knowingly introduced pests – from starlings to foxes and rabbits – in our efforts to transform this vast Austral realm into a second England. Much of this terrible history reads as a rush towards ‘development’, which was then – and often still is – just a soft word for the destruction of Australia’s resource base.

That arrogant colonial vision left a fearful legacy, for it actually made people feel virtuous while they dealt the land the most terrible blows. Already one of every 10 of Australia’s unique mammals is extinct, and almost everywhere – even in our national parks – biodiversity is declining. Australia’s soils are still being mined – salination will destroy the majority of Western Australia’s wheat belt in our lifetime if nothing is done – while our rivers are in great peril and sustainable fisheries everywhere have collapsed. It is the bitter harvest of all of this that we are reaping so abundantly today.

Yet despite all this, there are signs that things are changing for the better. Today, as the Australian environment subtly teaches those who listen to it, Australians are undergoing a radical reassessment of their relationship with the land, particularly when it comes to the basics like food, water and fire. After 200 years of destruction, revolutionary changes are taking place in the countryside as farmers and graziers strive to make primary production sustainable in Australia’s unique conditions. Leading the way are people like the Bell family, who run cattle sustainably in the ultra-dry Lake Eyre Basin, or the many involved in the development of sustainable aquaculture. These people are my national heroes. They mean far more to me than Ned Kelly or the Man from Snowy River, because they’re not just acting out European dramas on an Australian stage; instead they are throwing out old, inappropriate European-based practices and inventing their own, distinctively Australian futures in a bid to create sustainability in this land.


I have no doubt that today many farmers are very far ahead of the majority of Australians in most aspects of environmental thinking. What’s needed now is a change in consumption patterns by city-dwellers to provide a market for sustainably produced products. As the ‘buy Australian’ campaigns and the advertising of many products as ‘environmentally friendly’ shows, there is a great desire among Australians to preserve their environment. Yet still much damage continues, in part because urban-dwellers need to become well informed about what environmental sustainability really means, and how they need to alter their patterns of consumption in order to achieve it.

The way we use water is also slowly changing in response to Australia’s unique environment. Because of our continent’s great rainfall variability, Sydneysiders need eight to ten times the water storage of the inhabitants of New York or London – that’s around three Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth per person. The economic and environmental costs of this are stupendous, and they are forcing us into new ways of thinking about water, as plans for more dams are shelved and water is re-priced. This shift has the power to alter our urban landscapes – for the beloved Europe-green lawn, English rose and London plane tree are all thirsty drinkers.

Three human lifetimes – about 214 years – is simply not long enough for a people to become truly adapted to Australia’s unique conditions, for the process of learning, of co-evolving with the land, is slow and uncertain. Yet it has begun, and the transformation must be completed, for if we continue to live as strangers in this land – failing to understand it or live by its ecological dictums – we will forfeit our long-term future here by destroying the ability of Australia to support us.

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This is an edited extract from Tim Flannery’s Australia Day address, given to the Australia Day Council of New South Wales on January 23, 2002. The full text is available at

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About the Author

Dr Tim Flannery is Director of the South Australian Museum.

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