Home and away: Australian sense of place

by Libby Robin

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No doubt droughts and soil erosion and strikes are outstanding features in Australian life, but we are not the only country suffering from these troubles. On the other hand we are the only one that shouts itself hoarse telling all the world what a rotten country this is.

W. M. Hughes, former Prime Minister, 1949.1

The city-dweller has an uneasy relationship with the ‘battler on the land’. Since federation, urban Australians have always outnumbered rural. The number of primary producers involved in food and fibre production for Australia and the export economy is very small indeed, and shrinking. But the imagined bush life has been important to Australian identity, and the celebration of bush-workers continues in such impressive museums as the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, in Longreach, Queensland. Such an imagined identity contributes significantly to the political power wielded by the rural sector, even as the percentage contribution of this sector continues to decline. Government initiatives have ensured an ongoing urban willingness to share in, assist and endorse primary industry, just as defence is regarded as ‘national business’, even for people not involved in the military. Soldiers and settlers are historically the patriotic concerns of ‘all Australians’.

The rhetoric of supporting ‘battlers on the land’ started during war-time, when the home-front all rallied around and made sacrifices for the national good. The patriotism was built on wars fought elsewhere, on ‘British-Australian’ identity and loyalty to the Queen. The glory of the ANZACs brought honour to England ‘s ‘elsewhere lands’, Australia and New Zealand, fighting together, showing they were still patriotically British and fighting British wars. Their blood was spilled, but not for their countries. Gallipoli had nothing to do with defending the soil of either Australia or New Zealand. After the Great War, the soldiers had to come home and use the local soil to build a peacetime life. Soldier Settlement schemes followed both world wars. The social vision was to provide soldiers with a place to ‘come home to’ – whilst simultaneously developing and populating the interior. But the ecological vision was lacking and the villages of ‘closer settlement’ designed to provide mutual human support, were predicated on land parcels too small to feed a family. The war continued – with the land itself. Successive governments willingly supported scientific expertise in support of agricultural and pastoral dreams. The ‘officer corps’ for the new battle with the land were government scientists.

Australians often try to work, rather than rest in their home country. The original protestant work ethic shared much with the post-war ‘migrant work ethic’, overwhelmingly a drive to ‘improve at all costs’. In Australia the land was invoked in the progressive rhetoric. Taming ‘mongrel country’ improved the people, even as they tried to improve the land. The people who shouted themselves hoarse ‘telling all the world’ what that this was ‘the worst dried-up and God-forsaken country’2 were in fact nationalists – something Billy Hughes perhaps failed to recognise. They were boasting of the success of Australians against the odds – the patriotic nation of underdog ‘masters of hard country’, enemies to an inimical nature.

Sometimes the work ethic was overtly national – even government sponsored. In 1929, there was a national ‘Grow More Wheat’ year, part of a national endeavour to reverse the negative balance of payments that subsequently spiralled into the Depression. Efforts to double the outputs from Mallee soldier settlement farms with superphosphate and intense planting contributed significantly to the dust bowl of the 1930s; Australian topsoil blew far away, staining red the snow-capped mountains in New Zealand. Boosters like writer Ion Idriess exhorted Australians in the 1940s to ‘get to work then in faith and confidence’ and to demonstrate a nationalist independence: ‘It depends on us alone whether we make or mar it’.3 More often, however, that independence was manifest in a private life, not in national endeavour.

The suburban house on a quarter acre block is symbolic of an Australian idea of home, even if it is actually decreasingly common, as households more often comprise a single-person family or time-poor families working long hours outside.4 There is less time for home-making or gardening, and such things do not carry the badge of honour they had in the 1950s, but even so a home garden can offer some independence from the economy. During the Depression years when money was so scarce, having one’s own cow, poultry and vegetables could underwrite the diet of family and friends. In the present, wealthy era, home-grown produce allows the grower to control his or her produce and to escape the chemical spraying that commercial crops may carry. Andrea Gaynor’s recent book, Harvest of the Suburbs, drew links between the protestant work ethic and the thrift of the independent home gardener.5 There were rare schemes like the Young Gardeners League (1916-1918), where the home garden was enlisted into patriotic service through children growing food for sale to assist the Education Department’s War Effort.6 But generally speaking, the home garden was intensely private and seldom called into national service.

A work ethic alone is not enough to create a nation, and the national scale is not always the right one. Australia was born as a ‘nation for a continent’, but the continental scale has often proven too big to feel at home. The tendency to identify abstractly with a whole continent, even one that – according to Idriess – contains ‘the riches of a world’, masks unease. But the vastness of the continent can throw out a personal challenge.

Crossing Australia – beating what Geoffrey Blainey later called the ‘tyranny of distance’ – was another battle, another test of character. Francis Birtles took the challenge of distance personally. In his book Battle Fronts of the Outback he writes of journeys by bicycle ‘in the Great Outback Wilds of Australia’ soon after Federation. He rode his push-bike on the dirt road from Fremantle across the Nullarbor Plain to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in 1902. In 1908 he returned to the saddle and went from Sydney to Darwin and back through Central Australia. In 1912, at the height of summer, he set a record for cycling from Fremantle to Sydney (via Adelaide and Melbourne ), a distance of 3,175 miles (over 5,000 kilometres). He covered the unsealed road from Fremantle to Adelaide (2,000 miles) in just 20 days, averaging 102 miles a day, and one day riding for 15 hours to cover 268 miles (428 kms). He travelled alone or with a ‘blue Australian cattle-dog’ as his sole companion. He felt the need to prove his Australian valour, since he had been rejected by the Australian military for service in the Anglo-Boer War in 1899. (He had been in Cape Town with the Merchant navy when he offered his services – but was only 17). Birtles fought instead with a troop of irregular South African mounted infantry (where he incidentally discovered shorts, which he later introduced to Australian fashion). His outback journeys were on a scale designed to prove himself, rather than understand the country he passed through so rapidly. His emphasis was on reaching the big city destinations in heroic and extraordinary times.

The story of Birtles’ travels had a happy ending. In depression times in 1933, he returned to investigate a gold claim he had made in Arnhem Land on one of his ventures. He unexpectedly struck it rich. For the first time in his life, he did not have to worry about money. He was able to self-publish the memoirs of his bicycle feats, and also of his pioneering motoring around Australia in the 1920s. Birtles was adopted as a ‘national celebrity’. In January 1929, the manufacturer of the Sundowner Bean Car, the small vehicle Birtles drove around Australia, presented it to the Commonwealth government on condition that it be placed in the ‘Museum in Canberra’ when this was built. The vehicle is now in the Nation Gallery at the National Museum of Australia. Birtles, the self-made man, exemplified the Australian identity forged in mongrel country, overseas wars and through sporting records.7 Surviving in a tough land, prowess on the battlefield and great sporting achievements are still signifiers of Australian ‘heroes’.

Travelling long distances is also still common among Australians. Travellers wear as a badge of honour the fact that they have further to travel to most international destinations than other nationals. Australians young and old take a ‘year off’ or sabbatical to travel to Europe, Asia or North America, often, paradoxically, seeking out Australia elsewhere – through ‘pilgrimages’ to Gallipoli, the Kokoda Trail and the Burma Railway. Such pilgrimages mirror the ones taken by returned soldiers who came back restless from the wars that made those elsewhere places famous and vicariously Australian. While the travellers sought out the places where Australian blood was shed, the soldiers came back and travelled in search of their ‘real home’ – often in Australia ‘s desert outback. W. B. Brown, when he returned from the war, declared that ‘the real Australia remained for me to discover’. Some ten years later in 1955, he went in search of a place ‘one thousand miles from the sea’.8 Legions of ‘Grey Nomads’ in campervans set themselves similar goals for their retirement quests, covering vast distances and often mapping their progress on the sides of their vans.

The tension between nature and nation, between ecological limits and patriotic optimism leads to an unevenly populated continent. People are mobile, but they hug the temperate edge, the places where rain does fall, at least sometimes. Australians live in particular places – not all over the continent. Rather they prefer the cities ‘like five teeming sores’ – or the sea-change belt, the peri-urban coastal sprawl along the southern Indian and Pacific coasts. The people on the ‘restless fringe’, as Joe Powell calls it, face away from the land and its limits, even as the ‘battler’ defines nationalistic rhetoric.

The archipelago of ‘island homes’ wedged between ocean and interior looks outward to international views. In the inside country, the outback and the Top End, the battle to wrest productivity from poor soils continues, with some success but fewer battlers. It is only large corporations that can ‘drought-proof’ the risks they take – and they are not building communities, merely harvesting profits. A central question remains: if we are at war with our land, where do we live in peace? Nationalism based on proving mettle elsewhere makes it difficult to stay home with honour and make peace with the country.


Libby Robin expands on these arguments in her forthcoming book, How a continent created a nation, UNSW Press, 2007 in press. She is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia and in the Centre for Research and Environmental Studies, Australian National University.



1. Letter from W. M. Hughes to R. J. Dumas, 29 December 1944. NLA Manuscripts Collection W. M. Hughes Archives, Series 48. MS 1538.

2. Henry Lawson, ‘His country after all’, from the first series of While the billy boils Sydney, Angus & Robertson 1896, p. 51.

3. Ion Idriess, Onward Australia, Sydney, Angus & Robertson p. 264.

4.Australian Bureau of Statistics Population growth and distribution, Australia. See: http://www.abs.gov.au/

5. Andrea Gaynor, Harvest of the suburbs, Perth, UWA Press, 2006, pp 48-66.

6. Libby Robin, Building a forest conscience, Springvale, NRCL, pp. 30-2.

7. Francis Birtles, Battle fronts of the outback, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1935. John Clark The Sundowner Bean car, Canberra, NMA Press, 2003.

8. The returned soldier, W. B. Brown from Geelong, used this phrase in his untitled travelogue of Central Australia, (no date – approx. 1955), which he sent to Crosbie Morrison, because he inspired the trip with a lecture ‘Beyond the Alice’. Series 14/1, Crosbie Morrison collection, MS13358, Manuscripts collection, State Library of Victoria, p. 1.

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