Develop the North: Aborigines, Environment and Australian Nationhood in the 1930s

Article excerpt

Develop the north had been a cry of Australian nationalists since the pre-federation era. It was part of a larger demand to develop the nation, to provide Australia with the economic and demographic resources requisite for prosperity and defence. (1) However, the north (within which term I include the contiguous areas of arid central Australia) had particular pertinence to this national project, since it was there, facing the source of the feared invasion, that the emptiness of the continent was most starkly displayed. Northern development was not just a national ambition but, more importantly, a nationalist myth: beyond pragmatic matters of economic productivity and military preparedness, it embodied an aspiration for national unity and an incentive for collective action to remedy the supposed deficiency--even disgrace--of vast lands lying empty and unused. Like other nationalist myths, northern development inspired some extravagant visions of the future: the desert transformed into endless grain-fields and abundant orchards, worked by millions of sturdy independent farmers whose produce would be shipped out through numerous bustling ports along the northern coastline or via the network of railways that would crisscross the continent. Australians then could be proud of their national achievement and confident in their national future, for they would have validated their possession of the land by peopling the empty spaces and transforming the wilderness into farmland.

Northern development was a civic project, but it was deeply embedded

in the ethnic nationalism characteristic of early twentieth-century Australia, whereby the 'crimson thread of kinship' constituted one of the strongest bonds of nationhood. (2) Whiteness was the outward marker of this blood kinship, and northern development was, axiomatically, development by and for the white race. Moreover, a primary purpose of the enterprise was to close off the possibility of non-white development. If the teeming millions of Asia were to be stopped from laying claim to Australian lands, those lands had to have white millions of their own, both to validate the moral claim to country and to provide the personnel necessary for military defence. So attached were white Australians to the vision of an all-white nation that even the persistently nagging doubts about the viability of the white race in the tropics had to be set aside for the sake of the national ideal. The north must be developed for the white nation, by white muscle, white ingenuity and white determination.

Although northern development was a potent nationalist myth, linked into the pre-eminent nationalist myth of white Australia, it was neither static nor uncontested. In the interwar period, the developmentalist dogma came under attack from critics who asserted the environmental limits to agricultural and demographic expansion. In the 1930s, a decade of renewed white interest in Australia's Indigenous peoples, the potential repercussions of northern development on the Indigenous inhabitants became a matter of some concern. According to one school of thought, Indigenous people had to be protected from the ravages of civilisation by shutting out development from vast swathes of northern land, allowing them to pursue their time-honoured and environmentally sensitive lifestyles. Doubtless a minority view, its adherents were white academics and humanitarians, for whom the sorry history of Indigenous--white interactions in this continent proved that the only possible future for Indigenous people lay in their total segregation. Contemporary Indigenous activists thought otherwise. They demanded inclusion in the Australian nation, as citizens possessing the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as other Australians. In the political lobbying of one of those activists, William Cooper, secretary of the Melbourne-based Australian Aborigines' League, northern development was represented not as a looming disaster for his people but as a platform for the enhancement of Indigenous rights and status. …