Patriots: Defending Australia's Natural Heritage 1946-2004

Article excerpt

Lines, W. J. (2006). Patriots: Defending Australia's natural heritage 1946-2004. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 416 pages. ISBN : 0702235547

On most occasions when I read a book I read several pages or hopefully a chapter before I get distracted or interrupted. I invariably read many other things-newspapers, magazines, research papers, other books-before I resume where I left off with the first book. In a sense, there isn't a 'first' book as the process is ongoing. While this approach may appear chaotic, I find that it helps me build understanding, relate a given topic to others and allows me to 'test' some of the ideas or claims being made in a particular text. This was certainly the case as I read William Lines' Patriots, a popularised account of the rise of nature conservation in Australia over the last 50 years. As I attempted to relate Lines' ideas to my life, teaching and research, I found there were numerous aspects of the book that resonated, yet I was also left unsatisfied. This is the fourth book of Lines' that has made its way onto my bookshelf, and like the others I feel that it has not lived up to some of its claims. The rise of conservation in Australia is not a recent phenomenon, as Lines seems to imply. As Tim Bonyhady (2000) has observed, there are numerous well documented historical accounts of people raising concerns about the effects of European settlement on the land. As early as 1892, for example, Dixon observed the severe consequences of over grazing and over use of fire on the native vegetation in South Australia.

Given the current focus in popular media on fairly abstract environmental issues like global warming, Lines is to be congratulated for his attempt to raise awareness of the people who have struggled to protect the natural environment of this continent. While I suspect many Australians know at least a little about sporting figures such as Don Bradman or Dawn Fraser, I doubt many know of the conservation efforts of people such as Myles Dunphy, Masie Fawcett, Crosbie Morrison or Judith Wright. Lines tells many intriguing stories about the conflict over land use and the characters involved. Did you know, for example, that Elyne Mitchell, famous for the Silver Brumby series of books, was an outspoken advocate for the protection of the Snowy Mountains?

Lines' account of politics and processes sheds light on the often cavalier approach of some state governments to public involvement in the decision-making processes regarding land use and development. For example, in 1988 the Tasmanian government introduced project-enabling legislation for the Wesley Vale pulp mill three days before the closure of public comment on the Environmental Impact Statement of the mill (pp. 254-57). While these stories made for interesting reading I found that the discussion often changed topic in odd ways that were difficult to follow. In the same passage referred to above, the discussion shifts from the battle over the Wesley Vale pulp mill to sand mining on Moreton Island in Queensland with only a vague reference to the duration of some conservation campaigns.

In a similar manner, I was also frustrated with the simplistic, and often cynical, claims Lines made. He often collapses complex issues or relationships into generalised statements that were unsubstantiated. For example:

The defence of Australia's natural heritage pitted conservationists against governments that were extreme, irrational, hysterical, dishonest, unscrupulous, abusive, cowardly, despotic, and often corrupt. Much government mendacity and duplicity reflected the humbug and manipulation intrinsic to public life. (p. 283)

I found Lines' minimalist approach to substantiating and, at times, questionable use of references (he relies heavily on newspaper articles at key points) problematic. As we have seen in the socalled history wars (see for example Manne, 2003), any representation of history is subject to interpretation and is never objective or value free. …