Carmen Lawrence: ‘Perhaps it’s not too late to recast ourselves as custodians of Western Australia’

Recent successes inspire hope the Kimberley (and places like it) will eventually be recognised for their deep intrinsic value. Leah Kennedy/Shutterstock

Carmen Lawrence: ‘Perhaps it’s not too late to recast ourselves as custodians of Western Australia’

Recent successes inspire hope the Kimberley (and places like it) will eventually be recognised for their deep intrinsic value. Leah Kennedy/Shutterstock

What is the future of Australia’s wealthiest state? The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and Curtin University, is publishing a series of articles exploring the unique issues facing Western Australia.

… We are, we often feel, living
on the edge of something good.

Nothing disturbs us.

Winds from Africa and Indian waves
bear each day to our long white shore
_only what we most admire: fashions,

technology, and rich strangers, as neat as
beetles who smile at our
_simple friendliness.

Yes, we like it here.

The Way We Live Now
Bill Grono

On cue, iron prices are falling off a cliff and small, locally-owned mining companies, along with those that service them, are collapsing.

A story from the Business News afternoon wrap of September 8, 2014, tells us that “mining services company Ausdrill may be A$8 million out of pocket after Western Desert Resources announced it had fallen into the hands of administrators on Friday”.

The company blamed its collapse on recent substantial falls in the iron ore price (at a five-year low) and the high Australian dollar. The very next day, a more comprehensive story in the Financial Review reported that “a raft of high-cost junior miners face a battle to stay afloat amid a sustained decline in the iron ore price”.

More flamboyantly, one of their columnists wrote the next day that “the smell of burning cash is wafting over the smaller players in the industry”.

According to a contemporaneous ABC report, the unemployment rate among professional workers in the minerals industry (geologists and mining engineers) is now 12.2%, double the national average. And the effects on the Western Australian government’s finances are already disastrous, as royalties tied to the volumes of ore extracted fall in response to slowing Chinese demand.

All according to script.

It also seems clear that the large, mainly foreign-owned companies that dominate the sector are partly responsible, having increased production massively in the last few years. They can hardly be surprised that prices are down; nonetheless, they seem to be. This surprise may be feigned, since some insiders suggest that the apparently paradoxical strategy of the big players to continue to increase production when prices are down is designed to drive out their higher-cost competitors.

For the moment, the big boys are still making record profits to ship off to their international shareholders while the state, despite its straitened circumstances, continues to supply industry assistance on a scale that takes a significant bite out of the royalties it does receive.

Despite the evident risks – the predictable cycles of boom and bust – this fixation with mining has marked WA since the first mining boom on the Goldfields, which rescued the state from penury.

In his Australian Dictionary of Biography (1981) entry, FK Cowley observes:

The Forrest government was extraordinarily lucky. While the eastern colonies were suffering from droughts, depression, unemployment, financial crises and bank crashes, one new goldfield after another was discovered in Western Australia, especially after the discovery of Coolgardie (1892) and Kalgoorlie (1893). Hundreds of companies were formed in the eastern colonies and in London to exploit the gold deposits and much capital flowed in for investment in mines, business and property … The increased demand for foodstuffs on the goldfields greatly benefited the farmers and pastoralists. In fact Forrest rode on the crest of the boom and took the political credit for it.

This is a familiar Western Australian story that governments of all stripes have sought to exploit, grabbing the glory and claiming that political virtue, rather than dumb luck, is being rewarded. But these are different times. What our forebears saw was a land of plenty, with no apparent limit to what human ingenuity could achieve in pursuit of “progress”.

What they triggered and what we have inherited, alongside material prosperity, are serious problems: a burgeoning city where services have not kept up with growth (traffic congestion is a daily nightmare); income inequality as wide as Portugal’s; a rising cost-of-living burden on the least well-off; pressures on families imposed by the “fly-in fly-out” lifestyle; fewer kids finishing school; environmental degradation and the destruction of Aboriginal heritage. There is a downside to our collective obsession with mining.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I fell in love with this land.

Perhaps it was when, as a little kid, I went picking wildflowers with my mother from the great swathes of everlastings that smothered the woodlands; or it may have been when I got the first heady, unforgettable whiff of the coastal heathland on the approach to the boarding school I was exiled to.

Perhaps it was the first time I craned my neck in the flickering light to gaze at the stately karris of the southern forests; or when I paddled up Windjana Gorge, wondering at the ancient rock paintings and the towering remnants of the Devonian reefs; or maybe it was when I squinted into the harsh midday sun to watch Ngaanyatjarra women dance solemnly through the spinifex of the Gibson Desert.

Whenever it happened, the feeling has only intensified, making me more than a little protective of my home state. Perhaps that is why I am less than enthusiastic about the siren call of “economic growth” which looks, too often, like wanton destruction – destruction that occurs out of sight of most Australians in this remote part of the continent. We are, for the most part, city dwellers who rarely lift our gaze above the ramparts of our ordered, suburban security.

Living in Western Australia does sometimes feel like living on the edge of the world, facing nothingness: west over the vast Indian Ocean and east to the unimaginable expanse of the Nullarbor; south to the raging waters of the Southern Ocean; north to Indonesia, its sprawling, populous presence obscured by the holiday fog of Bali.

Even the plane trips within the state’s 2.5 million square kilometres can seem interminable. How could anyone ever have imagined making this place home?

There are times when this feeling is unsettling, others when it is intoxicating. As the quote from Grono’s wry poem suggests, we can often feel that we are “living on the edge of something good”.

Even the speedy flow of images and chatter in cyberspace can’t really dispel the sense of sitting on the edge: Perth, a place some have dubbed “the most remote capital city in the world”, is more than 3,000 kilometres from Canberra and almost the same distance from Jakarta, perched on the ocean’s rim of this third of the continent.

The fact that the rest of Australia seems not to understand how little connection our story of European settlement has with the official national narratives around “discovery” and the First Fleet seems to reinforce the feeling of isolation. Far from being obliterated by the steady flow of newcomers from all parts of the world, the responses to this unknowing – a suspicion of “the eastern states” bordering on paranoia and the popular political habit of “Canberra bashing” – seem to be adopted almost as a rite of passage.

When travelling, I often encounter people’s perplexity about why anyone would choose to live here. They wonder aloud why I stay, as they see it, so far from places of urban sophistication and excitement, in a place where the only preoccupations appear to be mining and money. And it is true that both the geography and the history of the state have contrived to create a provisional, material attachment among many who live here.

Ingrained in our economy and our state of mind is the image of the fly-in fly-out workers: here, but not here; exposed to (but insulated from) the harshness of the remote, desert regions; making money in the mines, but often at the expense of what they really care about.

I recently heard a story that may be apocryphal but which captures this sense of impermanence.

Apparently a bunch of Perth’s business types were noting with regret the fact that there had been little long-term investment of the state’s mining wealth in architectural and cultural establishments (unlike “Marvellous Melbourne”). After a little speculation, someone offered a definitive explanation: “Well, we don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”

So many people who live in Western Australia are new to the place, imbued with the “just get on with it” attitude that has permeated all the mining booms. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that in 2013, almost a third were born overseas – the highest proportion of any state. Add to this those who’ve come from other parts of Australia and it would seem that every second person was born somewhere else.

On top of this, Western Australians are, like many of their compatriots, essentially urbanites, many venturing only nervously into the bush and then usually within the confines of manicured resorts away from the snakes and spiders – and don’t mention the sharks.

This matters. It means that many people have not been here long enough, or do not stay long enough or move about enough, to see or care about the impact we’re having (and have already had) on the place: the loss of habitat for our unique wildlife, the species loss, the degradation of arable land, the tree deaths, the decline in stream flows, the great drying out.

And there’s not really an easy way for them to come to understand these problems. The government doesn’t want to talk about them, the media largely ignores them, and the pressure to expand the urban footprint by clearing remnant bushland to accommodate the newcomers adds to the problems. And developers and mining companies alike appear to see the land only as a resource that will yield profits and wealth – at least for some.

Those who arrived yesterday – mainly from the UK, New Zealand and South Africa – can’t be expected to see where we’ve come from or to appreciate the scale of the havoc we’re causing.

Nor are they likely to easily understand the continued fallout for Aboriginal people over the European expropriation of their country. The exploitative mindset, the Christian idea that we are entitled, indeed expected, to have dominion over all the Earth has consequences: riches beyond imagining for many, devastation for others.

There is a wonderful caricature in the National Gallery by 19th-century satirist Robert Seymour. It is a pungent commentary on the early British settlement of Western Australia. Titled Plucking and Peeling, it shows a smirking Thomas Peel, cousin of then Home Secretary Robert Peel, plucking a squawking white swan.

The image and the subtitle – Cousin Thomas, or the Swan River Job – conjure up both nepotism (even corruption) and a greedy enthusiasm for plundering the place that is not likely to end well – neither for the swan nor the plucker. Whether it was Seymour’s intention or not, it is tempting to see the depiction of the swan as white rather than as WA’s famously black swan as indicative of a failure by Peel to appreciate that this new land might overturn all his settled perceptions.

Peel was enticed to the Swan River Colony by Captain James Stirling’s campaign to attract investors to fund the establishment of the colony, a proposal that had the imprimatur of a British government seeking to forestall French interests in the far reaches of the Australian land mass, but wishing to avoid any significant financial obligations.

Stirling’s pitch to potential investors and migrants exaggerated the opportunities and minimised the risks, fuelling a frenzy that seems to anticipate a defining character of WA’s economy: the “irrational exuberance” of the booms and the inevitable, gloom-laden, busts.

Thomas Peel was an early enthusiast and organised a syndicate of financiers to invest in the colony, devising “grandiose plans to acquire land, purchase ships and finance the transfer of up to 10,000 people over four years. These he hoped would be employed on grazing operations and the large-scale cultivation of tobacco, cotton, sugar and flax.”

In any event, Peel and his co-investors received less land and in poorer locations than had been promised. Forced onto land 72 kilometres south of the settlement that is now Perth, the Peel migrants were beset with dysentery and scurvy. Within 12 months of their arrival in 1829–30, at least 30 of the original 400 were dead, while Peel lived on to become a bitter recluse, but not before being instrumental in the death of at least 30 Bindjareb warriors and an unknown number of women and children in a payback massacre at Pinjarra – the first of many in the state – on the land he had taken from them.

These images of the early years of colonisation in Western Australia seem prophetic. Since then, many have come, and still come, expecting to use the land as a right to make a fortune, with little regard for the place or the people already in residence for 40,000 years or more and without any apparent consideration of the costs. Many, especially in the minerals and resources sector, today treat WA as the fly-in fly-out state – a mindset that means the industry and its supporters in government leave big footprints, and not just physical ones. They change the way people think and live.

It was the wholesale clearing of the land for agriculture that began a process of degradation and disregard for the natural environment, which was taken up with enthusiasm by the mining industry. Then, as now, the relationship to the land was one of power and purpose, fed by the European colonialist desire to subdue the land and bring it under control.

My own family had a hand in this destruction, clearing and farming the land for generations. My forebears were typical of the first waves of arrivals to Western Australia, coming from England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1850s, some free like Thomas Peel’s migrants, but most of them convicts (at least the men), quickly making the transition to farming through tickets of leave and Crown land grants. (I’m less certain about the women, but at least some were illiterate young women brought to the colony to work as domestic servants and to remedy the “scarcity of women”, as one account put it.)

Most of them came without apparent prospects and probably without much hope either – they were extruded from their homes, miserably adrift. But they were resilient (they had to be) and adapted quickly, though at what cost we will never really know.

For the most part, these weren’t people who had either the time or the education to allow them to reflect on their changed circumstances. They came with no understanding of the Aboriginal people or the uniqueness of the place and seemed blind to both as they cleared and cropped the land, eking out a living in conditions that were utterly unlike anything they had encountered before. Many of them were city dwellers to begin with, plucked from the slums of London and Glasgow with few of the skills needed to farm the unfamiliar land.

By the time I was growing up on a farm in the marginal Wheatbelt country south of Geraldton, success in farming had come to be equated with clearing as much land as possible, as quickly as possible. Farmers who were content with their holdings and left more than the occasional, isolated York gum for stock shade were seen as derelict, lazy, holding back progress.

Governments offered incentives to increase clearing, and the soldier settlers like my father were required to clear the land as a condition of the land grants and loans that made farming possible. In later years, my father remembered one of his neighbours warning him against clearing one of his few remaining patches of bush because it would “go to salt”. My father ignored this advice – to his cost.

Early land-clearing efforts were considered to “improve” the land. Speaking about clearing forests in the 1930s, one farmer said that “ring-barking the trees [is] a process guaranteed to sweeten the soil, improve the quality and quantity of native grasses, and build up the soaks” – the opposite, as it happens, of what actually occurs.

While Dorothy Hewett celebrated a landscape and a way of life that many Wheatbelt kids like me still hold close – her rendering of space and light, of the land’s relentless grasp – she clearly sensed that we were spoiling our heritage, and wrote of a “whole Noah’s ark of animals” having been whisked away and of erosion carving up the land and of white patches of salt that “deadened the paddocks”.

Her fellow poet and kindred spirit John Kinsella tells of helping his uncles and cousins plant trees to try to reclaim land lost to salinity: “The salt was the poison. The salt was the truth behind it all and the rich green and the yellow and then burnt stubble of crops were only an illusion.” Describing two poems she had written decades apart about the same area, Hewett observed that while “the place is the same the poem has become a lament. Clearing and overstocking have decimated the fragile earth and the salt is rising”.

The destruction of the mallee woodlands in Western Australia that Kinsella and Hewett wrote about is almost complete. And along with it, hope for sustained and reliable agricultural production.

In the Avon area, where my father grew up, only about 7% of the natural vegetation now remains, mostly as scattered remnants. Over the whole of the South West (12% of the state’s area), 65% of the vegetation cover has been cleared, with less than 2% of some vegetation types remaining. What is now well understood, but was not when my father and his mates were ripping through the “scrub”, as they called it, is that native vegetation is crucial in sustaining soil fertility: providing nutrients, regulating salt levels, preventing erosion, maintaining good water quality and controlling invasive insects, plants and animals.

As my father and many other farmers came to understand (too late), the removal of deep-rooted eucalypts and their replacement by shallow-rooted crops caused dissolved salts to come to the surface with the rising ground water, where they were concentrated by evaporation, the rate of which has increased due to climate change and the localised effects of wholesale clearing. The result is a drop in rainfall by one-fifth over the last few decades, a decline starkly evident in the records my father kept for years for the Bureau of Meteorology.

Land clearing has had a devastating effect on native animals too, although they weren’t much mourned when I was young. Apart from the fact that millions of animals are directly killed when the land is cleared, natural habitats are lost or fragmented, which makes inroads for invasive weeds and feral pests and accelerates the already catastrophic loss of species.

While our lost richness is celebrated without any apparent sense of irony in our state’s animal emblem (the numbat – endangered) and in one electricity retailer’s advertising campaign (the chuditch – vulnerable), most people here seem entirely unaware of what has gone. Governments and businesses see what is still to be exploited, not what remains to be protected and treasured.

Although not on the same vast scale as for agriculture, clearing for urban development and mining continues apace. The population looks set to grow at a gallop to reach four million by 2050, driving the unthinking and uncontrolled coastal sprawl that is Perth as it chews up the natural vegetation, creating in the process isolated communities where young men and women sleep off the exhaustion of a fly-in fly-out lifestyle.

The federal government has, in the last couple of years, approved clearing of the largest remaining intact banksia woodland in the metropolitan area at Jandakot Airport, and given the green light to clearing of the Alkimos region north of Perth for a residential development. Both included nationally listed, critically endangered species and ecological communities.

I saw what happened at Alkimos quite by accident, travelling back to Perth along a newly constructed road, taking a short cut after a visit to friends up the coast. The transition from dense, undulating coastal heathland to the blasted, flattened moonscape was jaw-dropping in its intensity. And to amplify the effect, a huge real-estate sign boasted that the new development was “Bringing Life to the Land”.

It was too much for me – I pulled to the side of the road and howled.

In comparison to agriculture, mining directly affects relatively small areas of land, but the local impacts can be intense. Mines and mining operations have the potential to despoil relatively pristine landscapes (exploration grid lines strafe the deserts), disturb and destroy habitat, spread weeds and damage cultural heritage.

In the early ’90s, when I was Premier, I had the first of many brushes with the mining industry. After a very public stoush between international mining giant Conzinc RioTinto (CRA) and local people about a proposed mine, we moved to protect one of the last areas of relatively unspoiled vegetation in the sand-plain country of the northern Wheatbelt, in an area known as Mt Lesueur (the French again – Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was a naturalist and artist on the French sailing expedition led by Nicolas Baudin in 1801).

Described in Nature as one of 25 global environmental “hotspots”, Mt Lesueur consists of many different landforms and vegetation types and is home to over 900 plant species: acacias, leschenaultias, melaleucas, kangaroo paws and a rich diversity of superb orchids. (It is now being considered for listing on the National Heritage List.)

Even then, Mt Lesueur was recognised for its outstanding wildlife and landscape, yet CRA was determined to assert its professed right to mine for coal within the boundaries of the proposed park, threatening to sue if they were unable to proceed with their large, open-cut coalmine and an associated, privately owned power station.

It was local farmers who started the campaign against the proposal (as they are doing again today against proposed coal seam gas exploitation – fracking – on farmlands and on conservation reserves in the area). They were soon joined by conservationists, scientists, union-members and artists. This campaign, bolstered by a new policy that prohibited mining in national parks, gave the Environmental Protection Authority (which had much stronger powers than today) the momentum to decide that the proposal was “environmentally unacceptable and against government policy”, since the gazetting of the park was in prospect.

Like many parts of Australia, the Mt Lesueur region does not provoke an immediate aesthetic (protective) response in naive visitors – “it’s just scrub”. It takes close observation, patience, and the turning of the seasons to see what is really there. And like many parts of the state, the natural wonder of the place is jeopardised by what is under the ground.

Struggles to protect and save the natural environment are as much a part of WA’s fabric as is mining but, although the victories are sweet, they are increasingly rare as governments relinquish control over their lands and seas to international corporations.

As Paul Cleary noted in his book Mine-Field (2012), “the frenzied pace” of resource development in Australia “has tipped the balance of co-existence to the point where mining dominates our society, our economy and even our political system”. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Western Australia.

And mining has changed the people. At the peak of the latest mining-construction boom, it was the place to be – jobs and opportunity and stratospheric wages. But there is a dark side. Every day, planeloads of workers fly north to the slog of 12-hour shifts in the Pilbara’s searing heat and red dust, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Perth airport in the early morning of those days when the new shift leaves is a grim place. The mood speaks to the dark side: depression, anxiety and increased rates of suicide among mine workers. Not everyone finds the experience of living in mining camps distressing, but many do: the anonymous spaces; the boredom and drinking; identical “dongas” away from family and friends; not being able to say goodnight to the kids; threatened with fines and docked pay (in at least one case) if they didn’t show up to work over the Christmas and New Year period.

Conversations about our places and landscapes and why we should protect them are difficult to have here. Governments typically underestimate the importance of place to our wellbeing, and ideas that might improve the quality of our lives are buried under the fixation with quantity, ignoring the reality that our shared sense of belonging is rooted in those places to which we are attached.

Even when we may not fully apprehend their significance, the destruction and neglect scar us deeply. A sense of homelessness and alienation results when cherished places, spaces and settings are destroyed or irrevocably changed. Most of us, even those who have not yet put down deep roots, experience a sense of loss and we grieve.

This has particularly important implications for Aboriginal heritage, which is often damaged by resource development and about which little is understood in the wider society. The result is that we do not really know what is being destroyed or how much has been lost. Assessments of Aboriginal heritage are often funded and undertaken only in response to specific threats from development projects, and usually at the behest of the proponents. Anticipated changes to the Aboriginal Heritage legislation mean that, in future, even those records need not be made public. Record, then destroy.

But we are not ignorant of the fact that Australia’s Aboriginal people view their world as an interconnected whole, making no real distinctions between the lands, waters, the plants and animals and the culturally significant sites and objects. This traditional knowledge, at the heart of Aboriginal culture, is handed down through the generations and can only thrive when it is lived in the country to which it is tied. Where this link is disrupted, as is often the case with resource industries, cultural heritage in the broadest sense is threatened.

The activities carried out for and by resource companies often result in the removal or degradation of features that form an important part of Aboriginal heritage – landscapes, habitats, rock art, ancient storylines and geological formations. In the feverish desire to plunder the riches to be made by feeding the steel mills of China, we barely stop to consider the enduring loss that this demolition represents.

The tragedy is that there is no recovery from these harms; no mine rehabilitation program that will restore the cultural meaning of these places.

But there are people here who stare down the “development at any price” boosters and seek better outcomes. For years, governments and companies have been planning to enable the exploitation of oil and gas off the Kimberley coast by establishing a “gas hub” at James Price Point (Walmadan), 40 kilometres north of Broome, smack bang in the middle of the Lurujarri Heritage Trail and peerless dinosaur track ways.

After a sustained and determined campaign by the local people in the face of an extremely hostile political establishment, the main proponent, Woodside, pulled out, citing “economic reasons” as the cause but conceding that the delays and obstructions of the campaign cost them significant time and money.

Despite firm opposition to the idea of a major industrial development in such a precious place, James Price Point is being stubbornly pursued by the government as the location for the hub.

What was/ is in contemplation is not a small footprint but a very large and complex piece of infrastructure, which would almost certainly expand over time. It would also give the green light to other development. Across the region, miners have extensive leases over bauxite, coal and shale gas deposits, with the latter already being extracted on a trial basis by Buru Energy and others planned on the land of the Yawuru people, much to their chagrin.

These places are all in the West Kimberley, an extraordinary place by any measure (and listed on the National Heritage List). It has a fascinating and unique wildlife, a magnificent coastline, spectacular gorges and waterfalls, ancient and ongoing Aboriginal culture and a distinctive pastoral and pearling heritage.

Not only is it recognised as one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the world, but scientists discover new species almost every time they visit. Some have argued that it deserves UNESCO World Heritage Status as a “site of outstanding cultural and natural importance to the common heritage of humanity”.

Whatever its official status, it is, I believe, one of Australia’s last great wild places – one of very few remaining on our planet. Despite decades of European settlement, it is remarkably unspoiled; the coastland and marine life are not fully charted, and many parts of the rugged, trackless terrain are rarely visited. It has so far been protected by this relative isolation. But that may be coming to an end.

The vibrant, if threatened, Aboriginal cultures of the Kimberley are marked by the many overlapping stories of the people who have occupied the land for more than 40,000 years. It is the traditional and spiritual home to 13 traditional owner groups who speak more than 30 different Aboriginal languages, some unique to the region. It is home, too, to their ancestors and the many creation beings held by traditional owners to have shaped and occupied the ranges and plains, rivers and waterholes, seas and islands.

Powerful creation beings such as the Wandjina are seen in many different forms in the rock art, river systems, tidal movements, stone arrangements, geographic formations, animal and plant species, and in the stars and planets.

What we now know as the “Dreaming” is for Aboriginal people the law, transmitted through traditional narratives, images, song and dance, weaving together the elements of their social world – their entitlements, responsibilities and obligations. As one Bardi women said: “They are living stories; they are the spirit of us.”

The many Wandjina paintings of large-eyed, mouthless, anthropomorphic beings with halo-like rings encircling heads, and the elegant human-like painted figures of Gwion Gwion rock art have attracted significant international interest. They form what is considered one of the longest lasting and most complex rock art sequences anywhere on the planet.

It is typical of the sense of privilege that now goes with being a “resource giant” that the company at the forefront of the James Price Point development sought approval to destroy Aboriginal sites in order to build the pipes to bring the gas onshore. And the approval was duly given, despite the fact that a similar request to destroy sites in the area was emphatically refused, twice, in the 1990s.

Although some of the local Aboriginal people initially approved the proposal, even they threatened to withdraw their support if a proper social and cultural impact assessment was not undertaken, citing evidence that “aspects of the project would cause ‘significant disturbance’ to Aboriginal heritage values”.

Other local Goolarabooloo people steadfastly opposed the development, believing it would destroy important sites crucial to Aboriginal law and culture. In the course of the campaign, evidence emerged that, at the request of Woodside, the Western Australian government withdrew letters to the company from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs advising that their proposed work site at James Price Point overlapped with significant sites integral to Aboriginal men’s song cycles.

Apart from the potential impropriety of this action, the message is clear: Aboriginal heritage can be sacrificed without public knowledge and without penalty.

The fallout from the unholy relationship between the company and the government is still being felt. In 2013, the Goolarabooloo people brought forth a case to challenge decisions made by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). Chief Justice Wayne Martin struck down the environmental approvals for the gas hub because of a failure by the EPA to have proper regard for the conflicts of interest of its members. The legal status of a raft of similar approvals has now been thrown into doubt.

Despite stories like this of needless confrontation (other options were available) and a history of regular and destructive booms and busts, the official line still gives priority to digging it up and shipping it out, no matter what the effect on other values that are important to us. Short-term economic imperatives almost invariably prevail when contests about land use emerge. To point out cumulative harms, or to indicate the possible gains from a more diverse economic base that is less reliant on the unpredictable resource price gyrations, is still to invite ridicule.

But it seems increasingly clear that unless we reweight the balance between economic activity and what remains of our heritage, priceless natural and human assets will be lost forever and the wellbeing of Aboriginal Australians – and of us all – further compromised.

Successes like those at James Price Point, by determined people resisting development in priceless places, inspire hope that the Kimberley (and places like it) will eventually be recognised for their deep intrinsic value. They are not just places ripe for unrestrained exploitation. We need to be able to talk frankly about the long-term effects on us – on the quality of our lives – of such a single-minded focus on what we can wrest from the land.

Instead of seeking dominion over all the Earth, perhaps it’s not too late to recast ourselves as its custodians.



This essay was originally published in Griffith REVIEW 47: Looking West.