TONY SMITH. Refusal of custodianship and environmental crises.

Whitefella criticisms of Australia Day have argued that 26 January is a significant date mainly for New South Wales and especially Sydney. Recently, fish kills in western waterways and the wind erosion of topsoil have shown that the state faces environmental catastrophe. The same mindset which refuses to acknowledge Indigenous concerns over the celebrations on 26 January is responsible for threats to the environment.

In mid-January, Prime Minister Morrison made two significant media statements. In one he took a strong stand over the date on which Australia Day is celebrated and repeated a threat to remove the authority to conduct citizenship ceremonies from any local government body choosing to downplay its activities on 26 January. The statement is a reaction to suggestions that the celebration of what is invasion day for Indigenous people is insensitive and ignorant.

The Coalition Government’s hard line on 26 January is consistent with its weasely rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Choosing to misinterpret Indigenous claims, then Prime Minister Turnbull cited community concerns, promised to campaign in Canberra on behalf of the Uluru Statement and then did nothing. The general government attitude smacks of a guilty realisation that acknowledging invasion also directly accepts that modern Australia is based on an act of theft. If Britain invaded Australia then it stole the land.

The Prime Minister’s second significant statement was in Kakadu. He was announcing infrastructure spending to address a crisis in employment. In spruiking his Government’s economic achievements the Prime Minister, implied that it was only through budgetary stability that we could afford such luxuries as our fragile environment. This statement like the intransigence over 26 January reveals much about the Government’s philosophies.

Clearly, for those whose values give priority to profits, all else flows from the financial bottom line. The environment is there to be exploited and to create profits. Unfortunately, this desire to manage and control the natural environment quickly results in the degradation of the very resource on which profits are based. The recent fish kills along the Barka (Darling River) and the loss of topsoil as great clouds of dust blew from the western districts of New South Wales are warnings that the environment can no longer sustain the land use practices favoured by the agents of capitalism.

It takes little expertise to understand that the flows in the Murray-Darling system have been reduced beyond tolerance. Nor does it take much expertise to realise that a dustbowl is being created by agricultural and pastoral activities being encouraged to extend into marginal lands. Government sanctioning of inappropriate land clearing and the raising of expectations about assistance to cope with ‘drought’ are clearly culpable.

What makes the environmental degradation even more insufferable is that much of the excessive water usage and land clearing has occurred because of the activities of international conglomerates engaged in extractive industries or mono-cropping. Government demands for environmental impact statements and rehabilitation of degraded areas are at best ineffective and at worst hypocritical and farcical.

The idea of managing the environment is a formula for over exploitation. For some 40,000 years, the Indigenous peoples maintained the environment through custodianship. Custodianship contrasts markedly with management in that it is not based on an idea of ownership of land, but of reciprocity. Indigenous cultures ensured that the people and the land were inseparable. Their philosophy is that if you look after the country, the country looks after you. Many individual non-Indigenous people accept this philosophy, but the governments which court investment dollars from big miners and big agricultural companies do not.

The environmental catastrophes in New South Wales cannot be blithely dismissed with a shrug as an inevitable feature of living in a land of drought and flooding rains. Unless Dorothea Mackellar’s poem is to be amended to include descriptions of lands of massive fish kills and topsoil loss, a drastic change in thinking is required.

Stopping the celebration of invasion on 26 January would be a step towards respectful acknowledgment of traditional custodianship. While Indigenous advice could not be expected to heal the wounds already inflicted on western New South Wales, custodianship would ensure that crises did not become so severe. Just as Indigenous burning practices aimed to prevent sudden uncontrollable conflagrations, custodianship of land and rivers would prevent catastrophes. The Government’s policy of treating Indigenous peoples like any other lobby group ensures that Australia is deprived of the wisdom inherent in custodianship philosophies.

The idea that having environmentally sound policies depends on the economy inverts reality. In fact, an economy is unsustainable without a strong natural environment. The only way to ensure that Australia’s fragile environment survives for another 230 years is to show Indigenous people the respect they deserve. An excellent beginning would be to abandon the celebration of invasion which is an obvious roadblock. Without that decision, constitutional recognition would be a meaningless gesture.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. He lives on Wiradjuri country.

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