EJANZH: Dargavel reviews Robin

Libby Robin, Defending the Little Desert: the Rise of Ecological Concsciousness in Australia. Melbourne University Press. pp.203. ISBN 0 522 84831 1 (Paper $29.95)

Reviewed by John Dargavel

In introducing his Places Worth Keeping: Conservationists, Politics and Law (Allen & Unwin, 1993), Tim Bonyhady remarked that some of Australia’s most significant environmental disputes had never been written up at length. He noted the dearth of analysis, a situation he addressed by examining half-a-dozen conflicts from a public law perspective.

Now, five years later, his implicit challenge to historians has been taken up by Libby Robin with a full-length treatment of a key dispute. Although theses have been written on other disputes, little else so substantial has yet been published; Ian Watson’s Fighting over the Forests (Allen & Unwin, 1990) is the exception which springs to mind.

Defending the Little Desert is a doubly important book. First, because it examines a major turning point in attitudes to the natural environment and public involvement in decisions about it; and second, because it is provides an examplar, matched by few others, for further studies. The fact that the Little Desert became the subject of a dispute at all illustrates the change of attitudes better than anything else. It was an area of Crown Land covered in seemingly useless ‘scrub’ – mallee heath – on poor soils in the low rainfall region of north-west Victoria which had been sensibly bypassed in a century of agricultural settlement.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, the agricultural frontier was being pushed out with the aid of fertilisers, improved pastures and literally by bulldozers. In 1967, the new Minister for Lands, Sir William McDonald, saw it as opportunity for wheat farms and urged a scheme for its subdivision and settlement. He can hardly have expected much opposition and from such varied quarters, yet it came from local residents, Shire Councils, scientists, economists and bureaucrats, as well as from the Field Naturalists Club and National Parks Association. Nor can he have expected mass meetings against the scheme or such critical coverage in the press. There were no precedents. The political landscape had changed.

The outcome for the Little Desert was that the scheme was abandoned and the area is now a National Park. No longer seen as a ‘useless’ residual land, it is prized for its rich and varied wildflowers, its birdlife and animals – its ‘biodiversity’ in the current jargon, and for its own dry aesthetic appealing to visitors and tourists. The outcome politically was the creation, in 1971, of a new form of organisation to review, and in effect allocate, the use of public lands. The Lands Conservation Council, or ‘LCC’ as it became known, replaced the previous ‘horse-trading’ in land between agency heads in a closed committee. The new Council had an independent Chair – the first was Sam Dimmock and second David Scott – and members with conservation credentials from outside the public service as well as the agency heads.

Public participation was positively encouraged by releasing detailed study reports for each region, soliciting submissions from the many different interests, first on what should be done and then on what was proposed. The LCC’s final recommendations were almost always accepted by Victorian Governments. It provided the progressive model for many land-use and planning processes elsewhere.

Unlike so much writing on the environment, Robin’s book is neither a polemic nor a salvationist melodrama of righteous battle with evil developers. Rather it probes gently and sympathetically into the lives and actions of the individuals and groups involved in the campaign to ‘save’ the Little Desert. These are set in both personal and historical context so that we are led to see both the continuities and the divergencies of the event. For example, there had long been a national parks movement, a lively interest in natural history – Crosbie Morrison’s broadcasts were particularly popular during World War II, and a strong interest in the practical conservation of soil, water and forests. Robin categorises these as two conservations: the private, personal one of nature conservation, and the public, utilitarian – though not necessarily ‘economic’ as she suggests – one of state agencies. The Little Desert dispute brought out the inter-connections between the two in a remarkable way.

After setting out the bones of the dispute, Robin focuses her tale on types of participants in turn: the national parks movement, individuals and local field naturalists, the Wimmera shire councils, ecological scientists in the Botany School of Melbourne University, and the bureaucrats – or, more accurately, the economists and scientists employed in the Agriculture, Forests, Wildlife and Soil Conservation agencies.

The distinction is important and Robin brings it out. Although formally faceless, they constituted a professional cadre who built a growing conservation philosophy inside the bureaucracy. They had both personal links and sympathies with the nature conservation movement and professional links with scientists outside the bureaucracy, such as those with Professor J.M. Turner at the Botany School.

However, the cadre was neither monolithic nor harmonious and Robin depicts them as engaged in ‘a quirky organic struggle between individuals and putative systems, between egos and memoranda.’ They were able to assert, in Robin’s happy phrase, their ‘scientific citizenship’ by writing reports within the system, leaking them outside it and giving evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry. They proved a powerful force in the defeat the settlement scheme.

We are encouraged to see in this study that categories of ‘public’ and ‘private’, or of ‘state’ and ‘civil society’, are not as dichotomised as they are commonly assumed to be. And it is important to recognise that the participation of the various arms of the bureaucracy has to be secured, just as much as that of stakeholders and community groups, if decisions about using natural resources are to be valid and lasting.

Robin contrasts the dispute over the conservation of the Little Desert with the later, more radical environmental protests such as those over Terrania Creek, the Franklin Dam or the Queensland rainforests. Although I too have found this well-established periodisation convenient, we may have to reconsider it. At the moment, as Bonyhady noted, we lack comparable studies of these later disputes so that we tend to see the divergencies rather than the continuities. And dismally, the contrast appears insignificant in the face of the Kennet Government’s decision in 1997 to scrap the LCC, scientific consultation and community representation in public land-use decisions.

Defending the Little Desert is a most timely book. It heartens us that widespread endeavours can improve public decisions and public processes, even if now we need all the heartening we can get.

John Dargavel is a Visiting Fellow in the Research School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University. He is a founding member of the Australian Forest History Society.