Australian traditional culture under threat again and again.

Jun 8, 2021

The changing of a word in the national anthem from ‘young’ to ‘one’ indicates that Australia did not begin in 1788. So aspects of society going back beyond that date are clearly Australian culture. Around Bathurst today, real Australian culture has been threatened by inappropriate and unnecessary developments. All Australians should object.

Huge gaps exist between the thought processes of those who see the country as something to exploit and those who see country as something to treasure. The robber barons of extractive industries are in continual conflict with conservationists who warn of environmental destruction. It is obvious that the former have the funds to mount media campaigns. Governments are too timid to question miners and others who relentlessly destroy habitat. This is a David and Goliath struggle.

Two such struggles have been under way in the Bathurst region. In both cases Wiradjuri elders have warned that important sites of Australian cultural heritage are under threat. The first threatening proposal concerned a Go-Kart track while the second concerns a gold mine. Development of the recreation facility at McPhillamy Park on Wahlu, formerly known as Mount Panorama had to be abandoned. The federal Environment Minister found that an important Australian cultural site must be preserved. 

Meanwhile a mine – also named McPhillamy – has been proposed at Kings Plains near Blayney despite misgivings about significant Australian cultural sites. An area which has many stone axes is clearly not just of local importance to Aboriginal people. Such a site is of national importance. My ancestors might not have started arriving until 1798, but these sites form part of my cultural heritage. It suits developers to present their opponents as a minority. It suits their arguments to position Indigenous interests against those of the general community. This creates a situation in which they can appear to be placating nuisance minority interests so that they can get on with development.

Archaeologists are the only ones who should be digging on such a site. The area could be rich in artefacts because Wiradjuri people used it for religious activities including initiation rites. It could be the site of a tool factory, the intersection of trading routes, or a site rich in suitable minerals. Furthermore, not all of the area has been surveyed for signs of cultural significance. One ecologist has suggested that only about 15% of the affected area has been inspected.

There have been reports that the miner thinks that it would be appropriate to remove the axes and other artefacts to a museum. Perhaps the axes could even be replaced later! Such proposals are ridiculous. The axes indicate that this whole area is important culturally. It must be preserved in its entirety. Miners tend to get reports from consultants whose objectivity is often compromised by the desire to get future contracts. Adverse findings are most unlikely in this context.

We should be sceptical too about developer claims that their aim is to create employment. In the first place, employers across Australia are showing their true colours by oppressing workers. Young men die on building sites, employees are forced to work for a pittance, often in insecure part-time and casual positions, fly-in-fly-out arrangements mean that local communities do not receive the benefit they are promised, employers prefer cheap imported labour if they can get it. In short, these developer claims ring hollow.

As the issue unfolds, reports suggest that the miner has admitted that the operation would need much more water than originally claimed. This admission does not inspire confidence in other claims made for this enterprise. Local farmers have expressed concern about the impact on the Belubula River which is a major tributary of the Lachlan. The company’s plan to dam the Belubula would swamp some dozen local springs. 

Certainly we must remain sensitive to the needs of Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal connections with the land are ethical and spiritual. But it is time that every Australian felt and acknowledged a connection with Australia’s deep history. We need to be thankful that Indigenous peoples retain knowledge which enriches our understanding. We should acknowledge their ongoing custodianship and celebrate what they have been able to preserve in the face of generations of settler hostility. We should help in this process and not try to brush it aside.

Australia has the world’s longest surviving culture. The new wording of the national anthem should inspire us to feel part of this longevity. Our survival needs to be explored and appreciated. We should reject the notion that if a local government authority or a miner pleads special need we should allow them to rip into the land. Australian culture is on the line here.

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