The Empty Land Down Under

Like America, but different.

It has crossed my mind more than once that the average American knows about as much about Australia as the average Australian knows about the US.

Many urban myths surround visits to this country by Americans, but two stand out in my mind which I witnessed first-hand. The first was on an international flight and a fairly young American asked me where Australia was.  Apart from the fact that he was headed for Sydney, he really appeared to have no idea, so somewhat facetiously I said: "When you get to Indonesia, turn due south and you can't miss it."

Then there was a Texan in Sydney who spent hours driving around looking for the bridge to New Zealand and was most disconcerted to find that his leg was being pulled by an Australian joker, an oddball friend of mine.  At least he wasn't offered a chance to buy it.

Winston Churchill once referred to the US and the UK as two great nations divided by a common language.  He knew very well that the ties that bound the two countries were much stronger than that; so it is with Australia.  However, considering that we face many of the same global challenges and share the same long list of enemies foreign and domestic, I thought it might be a good idea to tell you something about my adopted country.

From Whence the Aussies

In terms of area, Australia is roughly the same size as continental US, excluding Alaska.  Secondly, our coastline is longer than that of America.  Thirdly, while your population is nearly 304 million, ours is something over 22 million.  Our population density in terms of people per acre is less than one-tenth yours!

A close examination of maps will reveal that we are predominantly an urban people, clinging to the coast of the mainland in an arc from Brisbane, through Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and then across many miles of desert, Perth.  A small island to the south, Tasmania, is the sixth state, with a population of 400,000 as compared to over a million people in the smallish American state of New Hampshire.

There are two territories: the Northern Territory, which in terms of area is massive and will one day become a state, and the Australian Capital territory.  Our artificial capital city was founded as a compromise at the time of Federation in 1901 because of long-standing (in a relative sense) rivalries between New South Wales and Victoria.  It was described accurately, if apocryphally as "A good place to run sheep," and indeed, that is the way some people regard our politicians, although the MPs do their share of the fleecing.

The reason for the pattern of settlement is understandable.  Although the continent was probably discovered by the Dutch, Great Britain colonized the country.  The first settlers were convicts.

Extensive research on the crimes conducted by those who were deported to New Holland (as it was initially known) reveals that most were petty criminals, guilty only of stealing food - bread and chickens rating heavily on the charge sheets.  Most were male and had been transferred from prison hulks - old ships used by the British government as an extension of overcrowded prisons.  Furthermore, with the American colonies being lost as a dumping ground for criminals, another place had to be found.  That new penal colony became known as Terra Australis, Latin for "Southern land."

White Australians tend to date settlement from 1788 and the First Fleet, which is naturally enough disputed by the aboriginal population that claims prior ownership.  Their tribes appear to have spread from Southeast Asia about 30,000 years ago.  Of the great explorers from Britain, Captain James Cook (at that time a Lieutenant in command of HM Bark Endeavour) is given a great deal of credit, claiming the continent for the crown in his first voyage in 1768.

The colonies grew slowly and the numbers of prisoners were soon matched by free settlers.  The initial shortage of women took some time to change but ships were actually sent with women, especially for the settlers.

As the individual colonies developed, they were divided by attitudes towards free trade, protectionism, and commercial rivalry. The history of Australia has often been described as violent and brutish, perhaps because of the people who became Australians.

With the discovery of gold in the following century, many Chinese came to Australia to be second rate citizens as in the California Gold Rush in the United States.  At the outbreak of World War II, the population numbered slightly less than 6 million people and when the war ended, Australia became a major destination for migrants.

Any reasonable map of Australia combined with satellite photography and more recently, Google Earth, shows that Australia really is the driest continent on earth, with the exception of Antarctica.  The topsoils are very thin and only certain areas have the combination of sufficient rainfall and good soil for agriculture.

Aussies and Al Gore

The deserts of the red centre are just that - red.  Flying from Sydney to Asia across the Australian mainland in the late afternoon provides a view virtually indistinguishable from pictures of Mars - rugged plains and mountains, geographically very old with very little to sustain life.  Many early explorers perished looking for an inland sea, which does not exist, although fossil evidence suggests the presence of a large body of water in the center some eons ago.

By comparison with many other countries, farming in Australia is a marginal occupation and very much subject to climactic fluctuation.  One of the reasons Al Gore's propaganda has gained such a foothold in this country is that we are beginning to realize that certain climactic features bring drought, more drought and then sometimes, floods.

Until comparatively recently, the weather systems known as El Niño and La Niña were believed to be the driving forces affecting the weather but we now know that the great currents of the Southern Ocean are probably just as important, if not more so in the unpredictable cycles of our climate.  I was trained as a meteorologist when I left school and in the first lecture, I can remember we were told that climate was never static; it was dynamic.

We were also told that the Earth was an oblate spheroid (that is, not-quite-round), with an inclination to the sun of 23 1/2°.  Furthermore, the planet's orbit around the sun varied slightly and dear old Earth had a tendency to wobble on its axis.  In those days, our greatest fear was a new Ice Age and, coming from England, where I had seen snow on the ground in May 1963, a coming ice age appeared all too feasible.

Australians have succumbed to the Gore hype because they live in cities which are expanding constantly.  One of our great tragedies is to see good farmland disappear beneath tar, cement and houses, pushing farms into more marginal land with poorer soils and less rainfall.

The major cities sprawl in every direction but every state capital is on the coast, with the exception of Canberra, the artificial national capital, between Victoria and New South Wales.  It is well above sea level, which makes it very hot and dry in summer and very cold and dry in winter.

Many Americans will have seen pictures of catastrophic bushfires that spread through Victoria on February 7 this year.  The death toll has risen to over 200 and could climb higher, as remains are found in houses built in the bush, the local term for barely tolerable suburbs many miles from city centers and small inland towns along rivers.

The "mighty" Murray-Darling River system was once navigable by paddle steamers, just like the Mississippi.  Following World War II, river traffic was already in decline.  The construction of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme in the Australian Alps brought irrigation along the rivers and as a result, when what's left of the river finally reaches the sea, it is very shallow and brackish.

The estuary in the state of South Australia is bedeviled by sandbars and is something of an ecological nightmare.  There are some agreements to release more water and restrict irrigation but it is likely to be too late for some species.

Perth in Western Australia was never settled by convicts.  They were all free settlers; the climate is rather like the Mediterranean only much hotter.  A couple of summers ago, they broke a record of consecutive days over 38°C and Perth vies with Adelaide for the title of Australia's hottest city.

Despite being on the coast, Perth is a very dry city and Western Australia is a very dry state. The water tastes terrible to those of us from Eastern states.  Partly as a result, the Westies are almost a race apart: certainly some of them believe it and act accordingly.

There is more than adequate rainfall in the Kimberley region of northwest Western Australia but the dreams of piping water to the parched capital is still a pipe dream, pun intended.  West Australians are a proud and independent people, who occasionally hanker for separation from the rest of Australia but schism has never been a serious proposition.

The new federal government is encouraging and subsidizing collection of rain water for domestic use; similarly encouraging solar power and in many respects, I have to say that I hold a rather antiquated belief that we are stewards of the land and it is our duty to ensure that successive generations escape some of the privations endured by the early settlers of Australia, who really had it hard.

In many countries, especially neighboring New Zealand, a farmer is asked how many head of sheep he runs on an acre (or in the days of metrical measurement, a hectare); but in Australia, the proposition is directly opposite - How many acres/hectares does it require for one sheep?  That is not a joke but a stark reality.

Exploitation and Economy

Australia continues to produce good quantities of food from grains to animals, but the fruit industry is subject to globalization and is in decline except for niche markets.  Australia's major contribution to world GDP is what I refer to as brutalist extraction: dig something up and ship it out, unprocessed.  Aluminum is the only metal these days that is refined on a large scale.  Steel, copper, zinc, tin and other metals have declined to the point of near nonexistence; we have our own rust belts to prove the point.

In one respect, I agree with the environmental lobby.  Australia should not be cutting down its native forests to provide wood chips for the Japanese and other Asian markets.  Plantations are reasonably successful but they do not provide the correct habitat for the unique marsupials of this huge dry land.

Those animals faced challenges from imports, ranging from camels, goats and buffalo, which are extremely destructive in the wild; wild dogs usually known as dingoes, a cousin of the coyote, which probably made its way to Australia with the arrival of the Australian aboriginals, many thousand years ago.

A basic problem in Australia has been profligate use of our resources, especially water, and now we are paying for it.  Australia may well be as large as the US and while there is lively argument about the maximum population that the country could carry, it is doubtful whether 40 million should be exceeded.  There is no agreement on a national population policy and I predict that it will be a particularly nasty ongoing debate once other matters are driven from our media.

So today you have it: being water-wise is not a new catch-cry, nor is it undue alarmism.  It has brought us dual flush toilets and, for those who cannot afford them, the recommendation that a house brick should be put in the toilet cistern and showers limited to three minutes.

Someone once said that the next Great War in the Middle East would be about water.  Australia is currently fighting its own war over that very precious commodity and truth about climate change has been the first casualty.

Mark Twain put it, "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over."  How right he was!

The British introduced not only food crops but plants that thrived and became pests, now described as noxious weeds.  We have plenty of experience with feral blackberries, pampas grass, gorse, thistles and other plants from many continents.

The tiny oxalis with its pretty flowers is the bane of Australian gardens, and even our most expert gardeners admit that it will never be eradicated.  It can wreak havoc in vegetable patches, to say nothing of imported grasses which run wild.

We also have problems with rabbits, mice, foxes and domestic cats gone wild.  Some of the latter grow to twice or three times the size of their domestic forebears.  They are savage hunters and killers of native wildlife, which by and large are ill-equipped to fight back.

Once federated, Australia remained a member of the British Empire and as such, our soldiers fought alongside the British in the great wars of the late 1890s and the 20th century.  Australians and Americans stood shoulder to shoulder against the Boche in World War I - that horrible slaughter that was allegedly the war to end all wars.

In 1942, after the fall of Singapore and the sinking of British warships, it became abundantly clear that Australia could not be defended from the Japanese by the British.  In a memorable plea, the Australian Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for assistance, announcing that "without any inhibitions of any kind. I make quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship with the United Kingdom."

Changing Ties - England to America

In those days the Australian population was around 6 million and defense in depth would have been impossible.  Australia became a gigantic US base, from which a counterattack against Japan took place.

Naturally enough, although it was highly censored at the time, there were inevitable cultural clashes between the allies.  Although in numerical terms the Australian contribution was small, our armed forces help drive the Japanese back toward the home islands and the inevitability of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was from Australian shores that Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good his promise to return to the Philippines.

After World War II and the celebrated speech by Winston Churchill about the Iron Curtain descending "across Europe from Stettin in the North to Trieste in the South," Australia became part of the alliance against Soviet expansion.  Australian armed forces fought in Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam.

In more recent times, our forces participated in the first and second Gulf wars, some are stationed in Iraq, others engaged in peacekeeping operations in the Pacific, and we have the cream of our fighting men, the SAS, in Afghanistan, fighting the mujaheddin and the Taliban.

It would be wrong to depict Australia as an uncritical ally of the US.  There was and still is an extremely strong and pervasive left-wing anti-American feeling among our so-called elites, in academe, the civil liberties lobby, the legal profession, and some of our political parties.  Our current government, headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, won the election of 2007.

It is an Australian Labor Party (ALP) government but the days are long gone when the party's left-wing was populated by a miscellaneous rabble associated with the trade union movement.  The unions were implacably opposed to US "imperialism" and were great believers in doctrines of moral equivalence.

Stripped of fancy rhetoric, "equivalence" meant more than a simple ideological nod to the USSR and a world view indistinguishable from that held in Moscow.  The "hate Amerika first" lobby was extremely strong during the Vietnam war and conscription for that conflict was the focus of many protests of a type all too familiar in America.

Like GIs and other US forces returning home, our servicemen were reviled and rejected, especially by the ALP.  Paradoxically, it was an ALP government that rehabilitated Vietnam veterans and ensured that they received recognition and justice.

For those who cannot make the distinction, the Australian Labor Party long ago rejected socialism.  If anything, it is slightly center-right in the political spectrum but has its left-wing moments.

The so-called Liberal Party, formed in 1944, governed for 23 years from 1949.  The party is not liberal in any recognized sense, nor is it conservative as Americans would understand the term.  Basically, it comprises reactionaries whose sole objective is power.  It is one of the tragedies of Australian history that a respectable conservative public-spirited movement has never developed in this country.

Irrespective of which party governs, we stand united with the US in the worldwide struggle against militant Islam.  Unlike America, Australia has not had a revolution or civil war, nor has its territory been invaded.  However, like America, we are a young country and still attract immigrants.

Unfortunately for those of us engaged in intelligence work, the menace of Soviet subversion and espionage was believed to have vanished with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR.  The so-called "peace dividend" wreaked havoc on our security and intelligence services.

It is not generally recognized that following the end of the Evil Empire, its successor maintained active intelligence operations against the Western world.  At a time when the US was trying to convince Russia of the benefits of the liberal free-market system, the KGB had morphed into the FSB and SVR and espionage continued unabated, while Russia's military intelligence service the GRU scarcely broke step in intelligence operations around the world.

One of the underlying preconditions for the collapse of the Soviet Union was defeat in Afghanistan.  In arming and training the Afghan resistance, the West created a miscellaneous grouping of bandits, thugs and murderers.  This weapon turned in our hands: once the USSR withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, our erstwhile allies declared war on the Great Satan and the rest, as they say, is history.

View from Afar

In conclusion, Australia has always had close ties with England and America, but not so close as to be identical; we shared the same enemies but fought them in different ways; and had a similar love of freedom but both come by and preserved it in a quite different fashion.  In a way, Australia is fighting many of the political struggles that lie in America's future, particularly environmentally, but under circumstances of much more pressing urgency and far more extreme solutions.

I believe there is much that American conservatives can learn from the experiences of my adoptive land.  This is something that hopefully I will address more substantially in due course, because 9/11 also scarred our national psyche.

Early on in this piece, I commented on the size of Australia.  Flying from Sydney to Perth is practically the same as flying New York to San Francisco and Melbourne to Perth is like New York to LA.  Until you visit Australia, you cannot grasp the sheer immensity of the country and the vast emptiness of the interior.

What America once was, Australia now is; but the times have changed.  It's been said that California shows the future of the United States; well, Australia may show the future of California.

Christopher Marlowe is a retired intelligence operative from a major NATO nation.  Read other articles by Christopher Marlowe or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Fantastic read. This is a very good, macro-level paper on Australia. The geographical context is nice.
March 17, 2009 8:54 AM
I've been following this site for awhile. Glad to see a fellow Aussie!
March 17, 2009 12:08 PM
"Christopher Marlowe is a retired intelligence operative from a major NATO nation."

I may be way off base here but I'm guessing....Australia?
March 18, 2009 12:12 PM
Kit, you do know I suppose that you probably survived the 30th.May 1593 and went on to live undercover in what was to become, sometime later, a NATO country. I, a fellow Aussie, explored your second chance in Much Ado About Something.

Daryl Pinkson has taken the theory further in a new book, Marlowe's ghost. Be happy to loan you a copy if you are interested. I think he has a website with the same name

Mike Rubbo
March 18, 2009 6:10 PM
March 18, 2009 6:13 PM
My email address was incorrect. It's in case you'd like to borrow the book , or the film, exploring the possibility that Christoper Marlowe was the hidden hand behind Shakespeare.

March 18, 2009 6:21 PM
I am gratified that I am not the only Australian to read Scragged and some of the excellent articles published. Indeed, I survived 1593 and wrote many more works although poor Will Shakespeare will never rest easily or lightly. What is beyond dispute is that I participated in the great NATO effort against expansionist Soviet communism, something that is ridiculed in the wide brown land and of course, Mr. Putin is very busy whitewashing Stalin while increasingly consolidating power.

Good sires, I have settled here to spend my last days in moderate penury but I will raise a glass of the amber fluid and drink to our country which could and should be better.
March 18, 2009 6:52 PM
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