Author Archives: Francesca Beddie

Australian Garden History April issue

The April issue of Australian Garden History features the exquisite paintings of the Australian bush by Marion Mahony, the wife of Walter Burley Griffin. Mahony deserves to be better known in her own right, as award-winning journalist Glenda Korporaal demonstrates.

The cover shows the remarkable rainforest built on the side of Black Mountain in Canberra, with another article discussing the landscape design  of Canberra’s parliamentary triangle.

For this and more, you can buy a digital or hard copy at Australian Garden History

 

 

 

Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project

Amid the restrictions of COVID-19, the Bundanoon History Group managed to complete phase one of its bushfire project in time for what turned out to be a cool and wet summer. Its messages have been distilled in a poster hanging on the History Shed in the main street and in a short video made for the National Museum of Australia’s Momentous online project.

We live with fire in this beautiful part of the world, so recording its history and is important, as was ensuring that a local perspective on Black Summer was included in the national record. One gap in our archive remains the Indigenous perspective, which the BHG will seek to rectify. Knowing about Aboriginal fire practices is now acknowledged to be an important way to avert some of the disastrous consequences of bushfire.

Wingello is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of fire’ or ‘to burn’. It was indeed such a place, not just in 2020. In 1965 – in the month of March – 31 houses were burned down in Wingello. Bundanoon fared better thanks to 1000 firefighters, volunteers, troops and police who fought back the fire, helped by wind changes. In January 1939, Bundanoon escaped the fate of Penrose, which lost nine houses, two stores, a fruit-packing shed, a church and eight farmhouses. Bundanoon’s own Holy Trinity Anglican Church was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve 1904.

When reading about these previous incidents, the similarities are stark: both the causes − climatic conditions and human error – and the way we cope with them. Writing in the Sun Herald, Max Suich observed that three things would be remembered about the horror of that week in Bundanoon in March 1965: courage, generosity and humour, sentiments familiar to all those who lived through last year’s Black Summer.

Thanks to a grant from Oral History NSW this project will continue in 2021. Contact Francesca Beddie if you wish to know more and can see how our project links with others recording the events and impact of Black Summer.

Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.

 

Cicada time

People are talking about cicadas, again. That reminded me I’d written  a post about how to pronounce ‘cicade’ in spring 2017:

By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.

More intersting really is the extraordinary lifecylce of these creatures. The carcas I found this morning tells of the adult cracking through the shell of its nymph to fly off and feast on spring’s vegetation and, if male, to serenade us . This article on the ABC RN website explains the cycle and shows the moment of liberation. 

Bundanoon is a favourite place for cicadas. That’s why the local school has been part of a citizen science program, the Great Cicada Blitz. Australia has the richest diversity of cicadas in the world (350 of around 100 have been identified).  This project is asking people to help with understanding the ecological preferences of Australian cicadas, including how they have adapted to urbanisation.  You can send in photos or sound recordings to add to the database. Now there’s a good way to use social media. 

 

 

Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies

by Francesca Beddie

 

When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.

Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.

Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.

By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.

Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:

tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.

Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.

Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.

Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.

Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.

[This post first appeared at https://johnmenadue.com/francesca-beddie-higher-education-reform-use-and-abuse-of-menzies/]

 

Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie 

Bushfire haiku

Red sun smoky skies
Surely not the new normal
Though it’s been weeks now

Stop checking the app
Blue diamonds are not that close
Can’t just hope for rain

Have a bushfire plan
Know what to take, when to leave
Impossible choice

Life goes on, prepare
Pre-Christmas celebration
Down at the seaside

There too fire invades
Its acrid smell permeates
Nostrils, then psyche

Smoke wakes me at 5
Reach for the phone, Fires Near Me,
No danger here, yet

The sun’s not up but
Turns the sea-mist apricot
An ominous dawn

Whitest sand in world
is grey under smoky sky
The water is still clear

The sea is calm now
An easy swim brings relief
Tiny shells sweep in

Childhood memory
Collecting dozens of shells
Making necklaces

A short-lived respite
Further along the bay it’s
Not shells but embers

Black gum leaf fragments
Mark the pattern of the waves
No escape today

Social media:
Hawaii holiday snaps
ScoMo with Aussies

Cave Beach next morning
Ripples catch the orange light
Burnt leaves fall from sky

Surfing with embers
Finishes the holiday
Pack up, leave early

Hot and dry at home
No more the green oasis
Water gutters, plants

Evening news: fire kills
Two young men, fathers of babes
Where is the PM?

A Facebook call out
Our local firefighters need
Chapstick, lozenges

I can help out here
Drop off a bag of supplies
Add mince pies as thanks

Family of firies
Deputy captain and son
Battling deadly blaze

Smoke in nostrils, dreams,
In every room: cannot sleep
Start the to-leave list

8am, gym class
Keep up the normal routines
Walk dog, exercise

Festive fun-filled class
Christmas yoga, breathing smoke
Downward dog with flies

Catastrophic day
A waiting game: should we leave?
Nerves fray, we are mute

Inside try to work
39.6 degrees
A new fire, closer

Panic scrapes my throat
Finish packing, spray the house
Check the app, again

Papers in the car
Along with clothes, did I pick well?
Plus some precious things

5pm, 20⁰
The fire 20k away
Down to watch and act

Sky is grey, briefly
Teased that it might bring moisture
Now a sallow glow

Variety show
Yes, life must keep going on
Scrooge, angels, bagpipes

Talent, cheer and hope
Hat goes round for firefighters
It’s time for Christmas

Francesca M. Beddie © December 2019

The Golden Country: review

I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.

Watts is a Labor MP married to a Chinese Australian. They have two children. This gives him a personal interest in how Asian Australians see their country and its history. In The Golden Country (a reference to Australia’s changing complexion), he takes us back to the 19th century. He uncovers tales of the Chinese on and off the goldfields and on the front during World War One that were absent in the history and myths he learned as a child. This biographical thread runs through the book, which traces the creation of the “Australian Legend”. To understand how a sense of Australianness comes about, Watts draws on anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s idea that nations are shaped by “an imagined political community” with a shared history, culture and values.

Australia’s national identity was forged as explicitly white and Western. The East “was seen to be home to immortality, irrationality and psychological weakness, whereas the West was the home of virtue and rationality, discipline and physical strength”. We are living, Watts says, with the hangover from that dichotomy, which saw a century of nation building defined by the exclusion of Asian Australians. He uses statistics to show how such exclusion still pervades our political institutions, the nation’s boardrooms and top echelons of our public service and universities.

Now that 13 per cent of Australia’s population, over three million people, has Asian heritage – more than the percentage of African Americans living in the United States – this bamboo ceiling must be dismantled. Before suggesting how, Watts says this change in demography is primarily the result of John Howard’s immigration policies. He has evidence to back this up. The emphasis on importing skills during the Howard years doubled the total permanent-migrant intake. Even more significant was the increase in temporary migrants deployed to address skill shortages in a booming economy.

Watts focuses on the contradiction between this policy and Howard’s insistence that Australia was neither an Asian nor a racist country and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian vitriol. That’s a fair observation, as is Watt’s conclusion that, by allowing the anxieties Hanson stoked to enter the political lexicon, Howard reshaped the electoral strategies of both conservatives and progressives. The latter came to see “race, immigration and national identity as dangerous political terrain”. Nevertheless, as Watts shows, most Australians have not been much influenced by the shrill, offensive “ethno-nationalism” of recent years, with the political debate about migration being fuelled by “unrepresentative conservative political parties”.

This being so, Watts goes too far when he says Howard’s culture wars “hindered our collective ability to talk openly about the implications of the societal shifts he set in train”. That has meant, he asserts, governments haven’t invested in the urban infrastructure needed to cope with more people nor anticipated problems like foreign interference with diaspora communities. He can’t shaft these unresolved matters of public policy home solely to Howard or to one side of politics.

Where Watts stays silent on John Howard is the latter’s decision to take Australia to war in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the ramifications this has had on immigration, namely the influx of refugees from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. This silence has two possible explanations: Watts’ focus on Asian migration; his own party’s shameful record on asylum seekers and offshore detention.

Benedict Anderson’s imagined community turns out to be more than an explanatory tool. The concept shapes Watts’ ideas for today’s multicultural Australia. He wants to reimagine Australia, starting by arguing that racism in Australia is untypical. With a nod to Noel Pearson, he wants a set of contemporary Australian values that include respect for difference and inclusiveness but otherwise embody those in the Australian legend: the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism and irreverence. Watts wants everyone living in the golden country to embrace these values.

Our community, he thinks, is already there (although he does concede there are significant differences between multicultural urban areas like the one he represents in Melbourne and the bush). It’s the national political imaginings that must catch up. This needs leadership but can also happen by injecting new Aussie stories, for example about Chinese Anzacs and Indian traders, into mainstream history and by elevating Asian-Australian talent into the top echelons of Australian political, business and cultural circles. Watts should also have made mention of voices from other corners of the world.

When it comes to his policy prescriptions, Watts changes his analytical hat for one full of nostalgia for Anzac, with an Asian twist. And he doesn’t do enough to link his desire to see skilled immigration continue apace for the sake of productivity with other pressing domestic problems. These include environmental sustainability, inter-generational disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and the long-term unemployed, persistently poor innovation and management in Australian enterprises.

Nor does Watts properly factor in the impact of changing patterns of labour mobility. His justified concerns about current problems in immigration – the exploitation of lower skilled temporary migrants and underfunded settlement programs – prevent him from imagining a new global citizenry who embrace not one nation’s values but who thrive by being connected across the planet.

[This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian.]

Towards cosmopolitaness

In April 2019, the American Society for Editing decided to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like ‘Asian-American’, ‘African-American’ and so on. ‘American Indians’ refers to those hailing from India; the first people of the American continent are called ‘Native Americans’. While a hyphen is a small thing, its use can be a sensitive matter when it touches on a person’s sense of self, especially now when public discourse revolves around ethnicity, gender and other self-selected groups rather than the -isms that used to dominate politics: socialism, liberalism, humanism. 

Writing in 2010 (when hyphens were still de rigeur), Tony Judt said:

today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans (sic), African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. 

I saw that sentiment on display at the Sydney Writers Festival  last week. A panel of successful writers lamented their split identities. What a pity they had to put themselves into boxes! What a shame not all had learned a second language!

I know the awkwardness a ‘foreign’ name can cause: how do you spell ‘Francesca’? Where do you come from? I always say just Australia, even though my mother was a Pom, one grandfather a German and one great grandmother a Spaniard. That heritage has enriched me, because we are, to quote Stan Grant, ‘a human symphony, the songs of so many lands’. Grant argues in his new book, On Identity, that it’s time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. Perhaps dropping the hyphen is a step in that direction.