Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Great desertion of our heartland
To trek this country, from the asphalt to the dirt and back, is to prove what we knew. Australia, like some great termitey redgum, is emptying out, concentrating its vital tissue into a thin coastal cambium with big fat nothing at its centre.
It’s not a new trend. Driven by mechanisation and drought, then sea change and downshift, our coastal drift has been evident for a century or more. What’s new is the extent and the impact. It’s what the demographer Bernard Salt calls the Big Shift and what last year’s State of the Environment report calls the “suburbanisation of coastal Australia”. And perhaps, you tell yourself, it’s fine. Nothing to chew your knickers over. After all, those great, hollow-core eucalypts often sprout happily on, oblivious of the vacancy at their centre. So perhaps we can safely leave the continent to the big corporate abstractions, the miners and the irrigators, the diggers and the salters, and sprout gaily on in our cooling coastal breezes.
Perhaps. But when you travel the country, fine is not how it looks. Even the biggish mining towns such as Kalgoorlie, Broken Hill and Cobar are going yellow at the edges, as the practice of outsourcing miners closes pubs and starves service industries. But it’s the small towns that really show the damage. Like Wilcannia, with its wistfully self-proclaimed “friendly grocer” barricaded behind mild steel while child gangs on bikes maraud the streets. Or like Manna Hill, well outside mobile range in outback South Australia, where the single phone box takes only Telstra cards that you can’t buy because, midday Friday, the pub, the servo and what might have been a general store are all closed and gone bye-bye.
In 1901, Salt says, 32 per cent of us lived in Australia’s cities, 7 per cent on the coast. By 2001, the figures were 64 per cent and 19 per cent respectively. In 2003, the State of the Environment report says, 91 per cent of Australians inhabited either the major cities or “peri-urban coastal communities” as the great linear suburb girdling Australia is now known. In some places, these coastal communities are only one-block thick, either side of the blacktop but, excepting national parks, it’s now near-continuous, leaving the vast inland largely emptier than ever.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether terra nullius wasn’t an apt description after all. River after river is nothing but dry leaves, lake after lake nothing but salt, field after clear-felled field nothing but a parched, broken and hoof-hardened landscape while long-arm irrigators busily deplete rivers and salinate soils as spiralling dust spouts dump any remaining topsoil into any remaining waterways.
Sure, there’s a drought on. And sure, it’s beautiful, this wide, brown, droughty country. But did we have to be quite so mindless in its management? Just because we’re dumb white folks? Must we limit our horizons to next year’s profit season? Are we obliged to perpetuate the spirit of our convict forebears who starved rather than understand the landscape? And what, you wonder, might (say) the Israelis have made of such a place?
That’s the inland. But the peri-urban coastal communities’ effect on Australia’s periphery is, if anything, more pronounced. Numbers-wise, the main drift is city bound. But the main impact undeniably is on unspoilt beaches, fishing villages and small coastal towns that were once scattered on the coast and are now vanishing under the avalanche of canal estates, shopping malls and epidemic McMansionism that runs from Mandurah to Esperance, from the Yorke Peninsula to the Coorong and from Bega to Coffs.
Who is shifting? Not, contrary to popular belief, superannuated refugees but, on the whole, the relatively young (in 2001, 80 per cent of seachangers were under 50) escaping the jobless inland for the great coastal ‘burb. You can see why they want it. More difficult is understanding why any government would see the peri-urban coastal communities – unsustainable, obesogenic, mall-fed and hopelessly car-based – as an OK option.
The reason, if that’s not too strong a word, rests on our understanding of the word “right” and our tacit, modernist belief that the only values that count are personal ones. The rights in question are two: the individual’s right to live where and how whim dictates, and the land-owner’s right to develop. They’re things we all want. But they’re also things that, until relatively recently, were the privilege of the few, not the right of the many. This shift, from mass-wanting to mass-getting, changes everything.
We presume – call it the castle premise – that democracy has made the rights of kings available to us all, and that some fairy dust has costlessly converted the undreamable dream into sustainable reality. This is why we love democracy, why we fight and kill for it. And the peri-urban coastal community is built democracy.
But that’s not all it is. The peri-urban coastal community also symbolises our determination to ignore the best, in the words of Socrates, in favour of the pleasant; symbolises, that is, our devotion to mediocrity, to the hollow centredness that is kitsch. And this is the real peril. As any wise old redgum knows, losing your heartwood may not threaten life but if your sapwood goes, you’re cactus.