Pastoral Australia
Fortunes, Failures and Hard Yakka
A historical overview 1788-1967

By Michael Pearson and Jane Lennon
CSIRO Publishing, 210 pp., $69.95

[Journal of the Canberra and District Historical Society, 2010, pp. -  .]

Pearson and Lennon define pastoralism as the spread of cattle and sheep but demonstrate how much more there has been: weeds and wire fences, massacres and mortgages, stock routes and over-stocking, blue heelers and doggerel. Their book began in 2006 to ‘provide an historical context for the selection and assessment of places of heritage value to the nation relating to the theme of pastoralism’. The authors interpret context as backdrop while heritage pops up in lists of sites. Occasionally, one of these illustrates a larger process, as with wool washing and scouring. The authors missed the opportunity to construct their overview by starting from sites as windows onto the worlds of pastoralism.

Throughout Pastoral Australia, preservation is presented in terms of keeping sites of settler construction. However, the sub-text more than hints at a heritage of loss and destruction. While the Boonarga locals will welcome money to preserve their Cactoblastus Memorial Hall, how would they react were the authorities also to set aside a couple of adjoining hectares for prickly pear as a memento of what went wrong? There will be no need to fund the conservation of treeless paddocks and shadeless homesteads.

In telling the story, the authors draw on songs, verse and paintings but do not mention whether the promotion of these cultural practices are part of conservation. Should some of the Heritage budget go to keeping ‘Tom Collins’ in print? Another intangible is the smell of boiling down. Should tourists be nauseated by the stench that more than once saved pastoral Australia from bankruptcy? Thousands of windmills and artesian bores are the material expression of the quest for an inland sea, showing that it was there all along, though underground.

Aborigines receive their due as victims and for their contributions to the success of pastoral enterprises. The 1966 equal pay decision is often blamed for disrupting traditional life but here we are reminded of the impact of drought, a fall in beef prices, and the new methods of mustering that came in response to the walk-offs starting at Wave Hill that year. Despite the best of intentions, the authors have not escaped from the prejudice of vocabulary. Take this example: ‘Only to the north was there no expansion because of difficult country, Aboriginal resistance and lack of markets, despite the heroic overlanding trip of Frank and Alec Jardine …’. The application of ‘heroic’ to the overlanders but not to the resisters is telling. Later, they insert ‘fierce’ and not heroic before resistance. These slippages pale into nothing against Doug Anthony’s supremacist back-cover endorsement of opening the country to commerce.

The authors draw on their own primary researches but, of necessity, rely on secondary sources for most of their material. This procedure leads them into domains beyond their ken, such as political economy. Without saying so, they challenge the thesis of Noel Butlin who made urban construction the driver of the long boom from 1860 to 1890 against Brian Fitzpatrick’s model of pastoral ascendancy. Pastoral Australia indicates the flows between manufacturing and pastoralism that made the Sunshine Harvester factory in suburban Melbourne as much part of the pastoral heritage as Elsey homestead.

The failings that follow from treating history as backdrop are apparent in the account of the state butcher shops and cattle stations set up under Queensland Labor in 1915. At the outbreak of war, the non-Labor State government had responded to the Imperial authorities by ‘nationalising’ the State’s livestock. To those Empire needs, the radicals brought their fears of monopolising by international trusts such as Swifts which had begun a works at Brisbane in 1912. Similarly, the threat from the US agricultural machinery trust to the Victorian producer, H V McKay, was behind the 1907 Harvester Judgement for a basic wage, which soon upset rural employers. Recognition of monopolising would have added to their evidence that the subtitled ‘fortunes’ can be read as plunder.

More surprisingly, the authors miss micro-economic considerations. They do not explain the persistence of hand shears as protection for stud rams and all sheep exposed to late cold snaps. Similarly, they seem unaware of how the costs of fencing wire held back its adoption, as shown by Winslade in his 1994 article for the Australian Economic History Review. Nor do they mention Jim Fitzpatrick’s Bicycle in the bush. Encountering any of these matters would have been more worthwhile than being told yet again of the deleterious effects the Vermont strain.

The sources employed include multiple entries in the 1962 Australian Encyclopedia, a national treasure which deserves to be digitalised, although the rulers of the on-line universe, who have rarely done any research, assume that everything more than ten years old must be, as Ben Bowyang put it, ‘RONG’. The references sensibly mention geography journals as often as history ones.

Pastoral Australia should be read by everyone with any interest in settler Australia . Heavy high gloss paper and an eight-page colour foldout have pushed the paperback price to $70 so that its purchase will be a stretch for such school libraries as are allowed to survive.

Humphrey McQueen