Subscribe to our newsletter!

By clicking ‘Subscribe’ you agree to our privacy and legal statement.

Australia Day Address 2002 by Dr Tim Flannery

Rick Farley delivered the Australia Day Address at the Conservatorium of Music on 22 January 2003.


The day, the land, the people.

Two hundred and fourteen years and one day ago, a rowboat tentatively made its way through the entrance of the harbour that lies outside these doors. It was the first European vessel ever to glide upon Cadi, as Sydney Harbour was then called, and it carried Governor Phillip, who was seeking a place to settle the 1,000–odd people of Australia’s First Fleet.

This is the 214th anniversary of the day Phillip discovered pretty cove called Werrong with its run of good, clean water. He must have been delighted by the smooth-trunked angophoras that seemed to spring straight from the sandstone around it, their limbs turning bright salmon pink as they shed the last of the old year’s bark. And the water was full of bream. One of Phillip’s rowers, an American named Jacob Nagle, hooked a beauty while the Governor was ashore examining the cove he would re-name Sydney for a dithering and now-forgotten Home Secretary.

Philip’s party left the following morning, and for one last time – just a few days – the Cadigaleans had Cadi all to themselves. As they woke next morning to warm themselves by the fire, they faced, as always, the incomparable harbour that gave them their life and their name; watching its ruffled waters and musing, perhaps, that the rowboat’s visit had been a bad dream. Doubtless they enjoyed those last few lazy summer days travelling to their favourite spots to fish. The women would take to their canoes with fishing line in hand, a fire smouldering amidships and perhaps a baby on their shoulders; while the men strolled to a sheltered cove, its surface like a mirror. There they would chew mussels, spitting into the water and spearing the fish that came to the burley. Or maybe they’d just pluck a feed of oysters from the rocks, or gather great handfuls of flowers to make a sweet drink from the nectar.

Some Cadigaleans were lucky enough to have their own private island in the harbour. These had been handed down from parent to child since time immemorial. Perhaps they’d invite friends over to enjoy a meal at this special spot; then the sounds of the corroboree would carry through the balmy night air. If conditions were right, the young men would travel to the beaches near the Heads to ride their short bark canoes through the waves, managing them with small hand paddles in feats of amazing sporting prowess.

The anniversary we’re celebrating today marks the day that ruined the neighbourhood for the Cadigaleans. Within 18 months of Phillip’s return, half of them were dead from smallpox; within a century their 10,000 years of freehold around the harbour would be denied, then forgotten. Only the bream remembered. Those crafty fish make no distinction between black and white, but treat all of us two-legged landgoers with the same suspicion. Perhaps because we all sense in our hearts the tragedy of this, our national day carries shadows that neither ebb nor lighten with the years. We can’t celebrate Australia Day unreservedly, nor can we expect Aboriginal people to celebrate it, unless we somehow come to terms with that terrible history. For a long time we denied it; until that furious outbreak recently when we screamed at each other that the black armband view, or the white blindfold one, was the more correct version of our past. Then, just over a year ago, 100,000 Australians took to the Harbour Bridge and strode across the waters of Cadi, the sky above emblazoned with a heartfelt ‘sorry’ to the Cadigals and other indigenous peoples of this land.

It marked, perhaps, a new beginning – one that I’d like, if I can, to carry forward today. Australia Day is also 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 surficial 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 marvelous 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.

Give him chaps and maté and he is transformed into an Argentinian vaquero. 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 Australians, the land has a special significance. That’s because our country is so very different from any other. The Europeans that migrated to North America found a land not so very different from that which they had left, but those that came to Australia sometimes felt that they had arrived on another planet. The environmental forces that have, over the millennia, shaped that very distinctive Australia - from kangaroos to gum trees and Aboriginal cultures - are currently working on us, shaping our culture. Because of that it is worth knowing a bit about the forces that make Australia different. 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. Its biodiversity increased in relative peace and isolation over the eons, until today we rank eighth on the planet in the richness of our natural wonders. And because of that stability many species became very specialised, confined perhaps to just a few square kilometres, making them vulnerable to future changes.

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, and this is a theme to which I will return soon. 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 last 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 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 reaping so abundantly today. The last 50 years have been marked by a retreat of Australians from the countryside towards the cities, partly because the resource base they relied on had been destroyed by earlier generations.

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 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.

Nothing seems to rouse the passions of some Australians so much as disparaging roses, lawns, plane trees and the like. Yet I really do think that they are a blot on the landscape. I used to joke that I’d shout beer all round at my local pub the day someone brought me a plane tree leaf that an insect had actually taken a bite out of. The fact is, that as far as Australian wildlife goes, plane trees are so useless that they might as well be made of concrete. Australia is home to 25,000 species of plants, as opposed to Europe’s 6,000 or 7,000. Surely amongst that lot we can find suitable species that will provide shade, and food for butterflies and native birds as well. To be honest, there is another reason I dislike many introduced plants. If gardens are a kind of window on the mind, I see in our public spaces a passion for the European environment that indicates that we are still, at heart, uncomfortable in our own land. If we can see no beauty in Australian natives, but instead need to be cosseted in pockets of European greenery, can we really count ourselves as having a truly sustainable, future adapted to Australian conditions?

Fire is the issue of the moment. Who could imagine, having seen the heart-rending destruction of the last few weeks, that we are even beginning to understand how to manage fire in Australia? The losses in biodiversity and human infrastructure we suffered are part of a repeated pattern of loss that shouts to us that our fire-culture is inappropriate for Australian conditions. It’s worth recalling the searing summer of 1789, when Sydney was dropped, dying, from the sky. Watkin Tench wrote that standing among the rough tents of Sydney was like being at the mouth of an oven – yet remarkably the journals of the First Fleeters mention no fire. When it came to fire management, the Aboriginal people of the Sydney region had things right, for they maintained biodiversity while apparently greatly reducing the risk of wildfire. While we do not know in detail how they managed things, we can surmise that they managed the land with an eye to fire all year round – not just in crises.

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.

While we cannot know what some future nation that has adapted to Australian conditions would be like, we will know when the transformation is complete, because then we will be living sustainably, and for the first time our children and their children will have a long-term future here. Such a culture will almost certainly still contain elements brought from elsewhere, but in all of its truly important aspects – those that touch on our interaction with our land – it will have been transformed by the dictates of the unique Australian environment.

This environmental view of culture is not what most people think of when it comes to defining themselves as Australian. Instead, things like meat pies, Holdens and Aussie Rules (or League) have tended to loom large. Holding such things dear makes some people feel more Australian than others – the citizen eating a souvlaki, or wearing a turban, or following the soccer, for instance. Yet such definitions tend to divide Australians from each one another rather than unite us. Though I like my meat pie as much as anyone, it’s a bit silly to define your sense of identity around it. I look forward to the day when we forget about whether it’s a pie or a souvlaki that’s being eaten, and ask instead what the meat is.

For those weaned on the notion of multiculturalism this concept of an environmentally based Australian identity might seem alien. Why not let a plethora of cultures from all corners of the globe exist side by side in this expansive land? And isn’t the alternative simply assimilation into the great Anglo majority? While I celebrate Australia’s diverse cultural mix, I don’t think that Multiculturalism is the future for Australia, simply because no culture can exist unmodified in a new environment. Old practices die away and new ones, that help people adapt to their new home, spring up. At the most fundamental level that is what cultures do – they help us to survive in our particular circumstances. As a result, after 214 years of exposure to Australian conditions, the supposedly dominant Anglo culture is no longer truly ‘Anglo’. Instead it has been steeped in the dye of Australia and it is beginning to transform into something else. The same is true for every other cultural group that has entered this continent – even the Aborigines were once newly arrived people from Asia. Whether we like it or not, all of us are in the process of a slow convergence on a yet- to-be-formed Australian culture that is suited to Australia’s conditions.

Australia still has so much to offer, and so much can be done to ensure that the country provides the very best of life to its people. This, however, cannot happen while we imagine that we are people from another place. A series of changes needs to occur both in government policy and in the hearts and minds of all Australians, before we can think of ourselves as having a secure future here.

As I indicated earlier, the single most important change is the need for all Australians to achieve true environmental sustainability. An extraordinary start has already been made in the area of primary production, but much more remains to be done. The development of a population policy is central to this process. Such a policy, I believe, would result in better environmental and humanitarian outcomes. Australia’s population policy should be based on recognition of the environmental constraints of our land, our economic needs, and the social desires of its people. The only way that such a policy can be achieved is for the nation to engage in a broad, vigorous and truthful debate, accompanied by a Government inquiry that is charged with setting an optimum population target. Once the target has been decided we should redesign our immigration program in light of it, with an eye to more flexibility and greater fairness. Before the inquiry has done its work it is not possible to say how large the immigration intake could be, but almost any imaginable scenario would allow for a reasonable level of immigration.

The development of such a policy would take much of the hysteria and negativity out of the immigration debate, for an immigration program firmly embedded in a population policy will transparently serve the national interest, and thus have the support of most people. It would also result in a better humanitarian outcome for those involved, because the intake could be framed over a longer period than the current annual intake, allowing us to accommodate those caught up in international emergencies.

Another advantage of such a policy is that by examining environmental impacts in order to set the population target, we would highlight our most unsustainable environmental practices. These could then be intensely targeted for remediation so that our overall environmental impact was lowered, allowing for a larger population if that was what we wished. It would be important for the population target to be reviewed every five years, as that way we can track change. Then if environmental conditions improve, we can, if we wish, increase it. Ideally this important national process would come under the purview of a Minister for Population rather than a Minister for Immigration. Their responsibility should encompass all things touching on population change, including issues such as maternity and paternity leave.

Some people have extremely negative feelings about population policies. It’s important to remember, however, that our schemes of social support for parents and children, and our immigration program, add up to a de facto population policy – one that has not been carefully thought through as a whole. No one has oversight of it, it is not clearly demonstrated to be in the national interest, and there is little acceptance of elements of it in the community. Others argue against a population policy on the basis that it would be preferable, in terms of achieving sustainability, to reduce consumption rather than concentrate on numbers. While focussing on patterns of consumption is important, it is vital to realise that population is the great multiplier of environmental impact, and that sustainability cannot be addressed without considering it.

Equally important to achieving environmental sustainability as a priority for our nation is recognising the role that Aboriginal people played in shaping this land, for it is only by doing so, that we will be able to address critical aspects of our troubled past. When James Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia in 1770, he remarked that the land looked like a gentleman’s park. And indeed it was, for those eucalypt groves set in grassy plains were the result of 45,000 years of careful management by Aboriginal people. They, just like the Europeans, irrevocably changed the land when they first arrived – but thereafter they crafted it with fire and hunting, creating something new. It was that ‘something new’ that we now recognise as the distinctive Australian landscape. Thus, in a very real sense, this land is human-made – a handicraft of the Aboriginal people.

This concept has profound implications. It means that there is no Australian wilderness, and no national park that can exist in its pre-1788 form without the ongoing input of people. All of the continent must be managed or it will change in ways that we will not like. This is one reason why the depopulation of the outback is so distressing – without people, vast areas of the continent will go unmanaged. If we accept this view, it implies that there is an important management role for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in all reserved lands.

We are clearly indebted to Aboriginal people for our land in more ways than one, and their skills and knowledge are vital to the continuance of the Australia we know and love. Having said this, romanticising Aboriginal cultures is not helpful. Reconciliation must be undertaken on Aboriginal terms – not with some fictional or idealised people or nation, but with Aboriginal communities in their full diversity throughout this land. We need to listen carefully to what they have to say, and assist them in achieving their desires.

We also need to do something profound, symbolic and permanent to mark our change of heart, and I suggest that to achieve this we should go back to where it all began – Werrong on the fine harbour of Cadi. Phillip’s act of sycophancy in re-naming the pretty cove for Lord Sydney has done its job long ago. And even back then those rebellious Irish convicts would have little to do with such brown-nosing. They ignored Phillip’s Rose Hill, instead using its Cadigal name of Parramatta. It would be in the very best tradition of Ned Kelly to go back to the name honoured by 10,000 years of use on the lips of its original inhabitants and re-christen Sydney Cove as Werrong, and Sydney Harbour as Cadi. Men and Women of Cadi! To my ear it has a fine ring to it.

Other important changes that will lead to a sustainable future involve our relations with other nations. Australia will always be relatively small and thinly populated in a world of far larger, more powerful – as well as many far poorer – countries. This means that foreign policy is critically important to us - for in effect it must act as our national insurance policy. This view, I think, necessitates a fundamental restructure of the way we deal with others. Our guiding light in this matter will always be self interest, but it must be enlightened self interest; that is, a self interest that is congruent with the self interest of the majority of our neighbours. Corrupt and dictatorial governments will rise and fall in the nations around us, but the people will always be there; and it is our good reputation with them that will be our greatest assurance of an untroubled future. Only one platform can deliver that: an enduring commitment to the recognition of human rights worldwide. That should be the yardstick against which we measure all of our dealings with non-Australians. The development of such a ‘national insurance policy’ might proceed best if we had a Minister for Non- Australians, a sort of ombudsman whose responsibility would be to ensure that the non- Australian people whom we effect – from refugees to recipients of Australian aid - are well- served and fairly treated in our dealings with them.

Several global environmental issues severely threaten Australia, not the least of which is a runaway greenhouse effect. Scientists studying global climate change inform us that by raising global temperatures by around 6 degrees centigrade over the next century, it will pose the greatest threat that our species has ever faced during its half million years of existence. This is because it will create far hotter conditions than humans have ever experienced. What this astounding rise in temperature means for Australians, or indeed anyone, is not yet clear, but the warning signs are ominous indeed. If it is to have a comfortable future, Australia needs to take a global lead in terms of its renewable technologies and the brokering of international treaties such as the Kyoto protocol.

Education will play a vital role in the creation of a truly Australian nation, for it’s the tool we use to shape our minds to give us the best chance of success in life. A commitment to education – in particular education that imbues people with a real sense of place – is a great national imperative. Yet in this we seem to have lost our way, and are squandering our intellectual resources as profligately and profitlessly as previous generations squandered the soil. Students increasingly seek degrees that will turn them into cogs in the economic machine; and universities are in crisis, with the academic expertise vital to find our way forward in ever-shorter supply. Our nation needs a clear, Federally endorsed vision of what it requires of its education system, particularly with regard to higher education. That vision should then be taken up by universities and academics, who can help shape it, then subscribe to it and make it a reality.

Finally, there is one last matter – that of our responsibility to each other – that I think needs emphasising. I tend to believe that cooperation, sometimes glossed as that peculiarly Australian phenomenon of ‘mateship’, represents the first significant social response of the Europeans to their new land. By this I mean not just mateship as a masculine blokey thing, but something much deeper – a kind of interdependence fostered by adversity. It came about because the Europeans soon learned, as the birds and Aboriginal people had long known, that one can survive in such a difficult land only if you have helpers and friends.

In the very first Australia Day address, Thomas Kenneally discussed how central the concept of a ‘fair go’ is to Australians, and how precious our accepting, relatively equal society is. We are fortunate that our experience in this land has encouraged the development of such a society. Yet now globalisation has brought other social models, developed in other, more competitive places, and these are beginning to influence us. How can we engage with the world while keeping our society equitable, generous and cohesive? We each of us can think of some things that will help, but I’m afraid that all signs are that we are losing this vital battle to preserve the defining values of Australian society. Perhaps if we all gave some thought to the issue each Australia Day, we would stand a better chance.

The darkest horror lurking in the imaginings of 19th century Australians was that this wild continent might somehow claim them, or their children, to itself. As the currency lads and lasses grew up, tall, barefooted and at ease in the bush, those dark fears increased, for their parents saw degeneration in every deviation from standard European cultural practice. The continent, they feared, somehow forced all of its inhabitants – from its seemingly half- formed marsupials and egg-laying platypus to its naked, black savages – into a base and primitive form. Right up to the time of Sir Robert Menzies and beyond, their worst fear was to return ‘home’ only to find that they had become degraded ‘colonials’.

Today that dark, lurking fear – that this wide brown land might somehow claim us as its own – is, I suspect, our best hope for a sustainable, long-term future. For we have realised that we have no other home but this one, and that we cannot remake it to suit ourselves.

Instead we must somehow come to terms with its conditions, to surrender our ‘otherness’ and thereby find our own distinctively Australian way in a very different, large and sometimes threatening world.

Dr Bryan Gaensler delivered at the Australia Day Address at Customs House on 24 January 2001.