Our Country

Speech delivered by Mr G Bland, Director of Mathematics, at the School’s Australia Day assembly 2011

The date of January 26 was chosen for Australia Day as a commemoration of the landing of the First Fleet in Port Jackson in 1788. However, in modern Australia, we take this time to reflect on some of the qualities that make our country such a special, wonderful place. And seldom has there been a greater demonstration than in these last few weeks, of the worst, and the very best, of Australia.

Good morning, Dr Bell, Ms Ridley, staff and students.

In 2007, The Sunday Mail ran a special promotion for the increasingly anxious residents of South-East Queensland, offering four-minute shower timers to help conserve water. The parched region was suffering under the effects of back-to-back El Niño events, and the outlook was bleak. Wivenhoe Dam had drained down to 15% capacity, its lowest on record, and the State Government, scrambling to build emergency water infrastructure, imposed level 6 water restrictions. These were the days of the buckets in the shower; the days when homeowners joined long waiting lists to purchase rain water tanks in an effort to capture the few pathetic drops of rain that fell on the roof. Anybody who was desperate enough to turn on a garden hose risked becoming a social outcast, or even worse, being labelled “un-Australian”.

These times are not so long ago, yet they have been reduced to a distant memory by the awful Queensland floods of January 2011. For surely this event could provide no greater reminder that a large part of our collective identity, of our sense of being Australian, is inextricably linked to our country and its climate. We almost take for granted that to live in Australia is to live in a land of extremes. Brisbane author John Birmingham reflected on this fact in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald shortly after the peak of the Brisbane floods. He wrote that Australia is:

… for the most part, a profoundly anti-human place… In the past decade or so we have seen vast oceans of fire rage around Sydney and tear through Victoria… At this time of year cyclones haul themselves across the northern reaches of the land in great armadas, laying waste to all they pass over. Violent dislocations of the moment – a great storm, a flash flood, rivers of fire – interrupt long, racking stretches of perdition. Droughts lasting years, that parch and crack the very earth with their power, and end, as often as not with the savage whiplash of flooding rains so great in extent that they would drown most of Europe if translated there. (Birmingham, 2011).

Being of an analytical mind, I have always been interested in weather events. Six years ago, I received a rain gauge as a birthday present, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that one of my favourite hobbies is checking the gauge every morning, entering the daily totals into my Excel spreadsheet, and analysing the results. It seems though that for many of us, the Australian weather is much more than just a polite conversation starter. For generations of farmers and primary producers, it is the difference between seasons of bounty or despair. On the sub-tropical coastline during the steamy summer months, it can so quickly turn from a gentle ally to an unforgiving foe. I have fond memories of the Wednesday afternoons when I was Cricket Coordinator, nervously watching the Bureau of Meteorology weather radar as the malevolent splotches of red and yellow marched east towards the city, right on cue at 3:00 pm.

Although the events of this summer will be seared into our memory because of the closeness to home and the number of our friends and family affected, it is just the latest in our nation’s long history of extreme events, and it won’t be the last. Somehow, as flood, wind and fire have tested generations of Australians, this harsh climate has become almost an endearing part of our collective identity. Dorothea McKellar summarised this beautifully in her iconic poem, My Country (1908), in which she wrote of her love for this “sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains”.

In fact, the beauty and terror of the Australian climate can be traced back to the earliest recorded history of European settlement in Australia. There is a growing body of evidence that the men and women of the First Fleet received a very sobering introduction to their new surroundings shortly after the colonisation, or some would say “invasion” of New South Wales, that we now commemorate as the first Australia Day.

Researchers now believe that the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour probably corresponded to a La Niña event very similar to the weather we have experienced this summer, punctuated by driving rain and massive storms (Gergis, Garden and Fenby, 2010, pg. 4). Diary entries describe weather events that must have been terrifying for British officers accustomed to the mild European climate. Arthur Bowes Smyth, surgeon to the ship The Lady Penrhyn, wrote about the disembarkation of the female convicts on February 6, that:

they had not been landed more than an hour, before they had all got their tents pitched or anything in order to receive them, but there came on the most violent storm of lightening and rain I ever saw. The lightening was incessant during the whole night and I never heard it rain faster. About 12 o’clock in the night one severe flash of lightening struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp, under which some places were constructed to keep the sheep and hogs in. It split the tree from top to bottom, killed five sheep… and one pig. (Bowes Smyth, as cited in Gergis et al, 2010, p.8).

More tempestuous weather persisted and it was soon obvious that the convicts and soldiers were hopelessly ill equipped for their new environment. By the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790, the food rationed colony was subjected to the other extreme of the Australian climate, suffering through temperatures upwards of 40 degrees Celsius in a sustained five-year drought (Gergis et al, 2010, p.4).

So how then are we as modern Australian people influenced by this long-standing, uneasy compact with our physical country? How does the harshness of our climate contribute to our sense of being Australian? Over the last couple of weeks, I have watched events unfold with a sense of disbelief, and listened to the countless stories of loss and hardship, followed swiftly by the selfless acts of thousands of ordinary people who have volunteered their time and resources to restore some sense of normality. Throughout the whole ordeal, many commentators have told us that rallying together to help those in need is the “Australian” thing to do. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the volunteering effort showed tremendous “Aussie spirit” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2011). Other commentators have reacted quite strongly to the use of the word “Australian” in this context. They argue that compassion, decency, and helping those in need constitute a fundamental human response to hardship, not the exclusive defining characteristic of any particular nationality (Fisher, 2011).

Reflecting on this myself, I think that the “Aussie Spirit” that was invoked by Gillard is a much more complex construct. Compassion and helping out your mate are certainly central to this “Aussie Spirit”, and you need look no further than the overwhelming public response to the Brisbane floods for evidence of that. You would also find evidence in the extraordinary tradition of fundraising and community service among the students at Brisbane Girls Grammar. But I think that the “Aussie Spirit” means more than just helping others in need. It seems to me that it’s not just what we do – it’s how we do it. After tragic events, we go about the process of cleaning up and rebuilding with a quiet resilience; a calm purpose; a determined defiance. Our egalitarian background and sense of a “fair go” mean that we feel great empathy for those who have suffered loss, regardless of our differences. Even in times of crisis, we are able to retain our sense of perspective, and sense of humour. So it was that in Rockhampton, surrounded by floodwaters an inch below its floorboards, it was business as usual in the Fitzroy Hotel, re-branded the Fitzroy “Float-el”, with the regular customers arriving by boat (Earls, 2011).

This Australia Day will have special significance for Brisbane residents as we call upon whatever “Aussie Spirit” we can find to rebuild and restore those affected parts of our city. It is a time to celebrate with friends and family, and look forward to the future. But whatever you do, don’t throw out the shower timers and buckets just yet. For there will certainly come a time when we will need them once again. And when that time comes, we will face up to our challenges with determination and resolve, together, as we have always done.

Mr G Bland

References

Birmingham, J. (2011, January 15). Tough Love for a Tougher Place. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved January 15, 2011, from http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/

Earls, N. (2011, January 9). Staying Afloat Down Under. New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/opinion/10Earls.html

Fisher, N. (2011, January 20). Nationalism and Identity in a Disaster. The Drum Unleashed (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 23 January 2011.

Gergis, J., D. Garden’ and C. Fenby. (2010). The Influence of Climate on the First European Settlement of Australia: A Comparison of Weather Journals, Documentary Data and Palaeoclimate Records, 1788–1793. Environmental History: 1–23. doi:10.1093/envhis/emq079

MacKellar, Dorothea. (1908). My Country. Retrieved January 23, 2011, from http://www.imagesaustralia.com

Workers praised for tireless clean-up efforts. (2011, January 15). ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved January 25, 2011.

 

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