Monday, 1 October 2012

'Boundless plains' and 'golden soil'? Really, Australia?

I watched the rugby league grand final match on TV yesterday, which is pretty unusual I admit but I did so as a kind of scientific experiment. After all, the football match is of national interest and forms part of the annual cultural routine of a majority of Australians. It's also important for people living in the Pacific Islands and in Papua New Guinea.

Part of the event is always the singing of the national anthem, and this year the singer chosen to do it had bright red hair. Advance Australia Fair was not the song I sang during school assemblies growing up, so I don't really know the words. The song achieved official anthem status in 1984 under a Labor government. (Originally the search for a new national song had started earlier, under the now-mythic Labor government of Gough Whitlam, but the conservatives unsurprisingly decided to switch back to God Save the Queen in the intervening years. This was the song that I sang growing up.) So the red hair was appropriate, I thought. It's a very nationalistic song, and a quick read about its roots in the late 19th century confirm this assessment. But it's also very practical, especially when you consider the make-up of Australia's economy at the time it was composed. Yes, we have "golden soil", it goes, but settlers should remember that there's only "wealth for toil". Paraphrasing the verses a bit later on, it says "the land abounds in rich gifts" and this land is "boundless", a very optimistic judgement looking back from the 21st century when the whole continent has been thoroughly mapped out, parcelled up, and much of it sold off for various uses. It's inviting, as it was meant to be. In those days colonial governments wanted to attract free settlers to the continent to build its strength. The sentiment is thrusting, optimistic, and full of the spirit of free enterprise.

The model for Australia's bourgeoisie and its leadership, of course, was America. In the antipodean summer of 1878 when the new song was composed many Australians would have already been discussing for some time the matter of federation and of national sovereignty. Doubtless many felt up for it. But to even use the word "Australia" in the song was already to make an extra-legal claim on people's identities. In fact there was no such thing, but rather a collection of sovereign colonies all sitting together on the same bit of land on the map. But the United States of America had successfully transitioned from a collection of colonies to nation, and during the 19th century had seen extraordinary growth in its economy so that it had come to rival nations in Europe from where so many of its settlers had arrived. Federation in Australia finally arrived, in 1901, but you can be sure that it was hardly controversial by that time. The way things happen here a majority consensus always forms before major changes occur in matters of political moment.

That majority feeling has certain characteristics, and most people still, now, tend to make the usual comparison with America when summing up their views of their own country. It's hardly surprising. But our population is edging toward 23 million while in the US it sits at around 315 million. That's a differential of around 14 times to digest, and so Australians may in their minds seek to make claims for American enterprise that privilege it against our own, less successful, capacity to grow and prosper. This is unfair. It's true that the soil in Australia is productive and there appears, at first blush, to be plenty of land, as the national anthem boasts, but some qualifications based on hard science need to be made in order to see that the comparison is, in fact, odious.

The topsoil in Australia, which is the land's productive engine, is relatively thin and in addition the soil itself is extremely old, salty and weathered. In the US, the topsoil is thick and because of recent (geologically speaking) volcanic activity, it is rich and productive. Australia's continental mass is the world's oldest, geologically understood. Here, mountain ranges have thrust up and been weathered down so that they have almost completely disappeared, in the time that North America has come to possess its current shape. Simply put, in the continental US the land can support a larger population because it is more fertile than it is in Australia. High mountains feed broad rivers that cut their courses across the verdant countryside. Because there is no central mountain range Down Under, there is little precipitation over a vast area of the continent. And in times of drought, a significant quantity of agricultural land can become extremely marginal. Land along the coast, especially in the far north, the east and the south west, receives enough rain, but that bounty does not usually extend further inland. In the US, the enormous river complex of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and many other substantial streams, irrigate prime agricultural land. Here, only after a Big Wet in the north does any water make its slow passage down through the Outback to central areas, so that they are not by any means suitable for continuous cultivation.

Peter Dodds McCormick, the Scottish settler who penned our national anthem, can't of course be unduly faulted for failing to accurately personify the true character of the land that comprises Australia, in his famous song. His age was boundlessly optimistic, and it is only with the greater knowledge that applied science has offered to more recent generations that they can say that Australia is a challenging environment and that we have to be careful about the level of population we allow so that the land can be used sustainably. Nevertheless, we're lucky in Australia. The wide range of climatic zones means that fresh fruit and vegetables are available for consumption in the country's large cities throughout the year. And we not only supply the overwhelming majority of our own needs, we also export significant quantities of produce to neighbouring countries, in Asia, where a growing middle class is beginning to demand large amounts of high quality food. The past few years have seen adequate rainfall in most of Australia's agricultural areas. I wonder what our farmers thought about yesterday when they listened to red-haired Sarah De Bono sing the national anthem. Do they, too, feel boundlessly optimistic?

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