Australia – still the lucky country?

Australia with Simon Reeve, a three part series screened on BBC2 in May revealed a side to the ‘lucky country’ that was a long way from the usual sun, sand and surfing clichés of the average travelogue. Yes there’s a shot of Reeve driving over the Sydney Harbour Bridge but in the rest of the series if there is any spectacular scenery it’s put firmly into a context that not everything is as it might seem. For the segment on venom hunting off the coast of Cape York that means – don’t be fooled by these idyllic-looking waters because if you venture in without a protective ‘stinger’ suit – if the box jellyfish doesn’t kill you, a hungry salt-water crocodile will.

The paradox is, of course, that although Australians’ love to scare the bejesus out of British visitors to Oz – where there’s usually a competition for which state has the most deadly creature that the hapless tourist is going to encounter – the truth is that Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised societies and the closest that city dwelling Australians have been to a salt water crocodile is either in a zoo or on a television programme.

Up on the Gold Coast in Surfer’s Paradise tourists go for sun, surf – and casinos and most visitors are too busy enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle to notice what goes on behind the scenes here.  There’s a seamy side to Surfer’s and that is the organised crime scene, run by what appear to be renegade motorcycle gangs. Violence fuelled by drugs, alcohol and gangland rivalry – it’s all there – something I expect the tourist industry would rather you didn’t know about.

There’s another side of Australia that the tourist industry is keen to cover up and that is the scandalous paradox of the amount of poverty and suffering that still exists in one of the world’s richest countries.  If there is any mention of indigenous culture at all to tourists it is packaged as the promise of some sort of entertainment when visiting Uluru or Ayers Rock as it was previously called.

This series isn’t afraid of getting stuck in to the darker side of Australia – and exposes the way that the dominant white culture and the indigenous one lead vastly different lives. The programme takes the viewer into the heart of an isolated (as most of them are) and highly dysfunctional aboriginal community and showed the shocking housing and living conditions. There are no easy answers here as any Australian will tell you, as it’s not as though the State and Federal governments haven’t pumped money into trying to improve Aboriginal people’s lives.  It’s just that so far there still seems to be a vast cultural gap between the two sides about the way to go about it.

Although this aspect of the programme was shocking for many of us watching, even for those of us who have travelled into these remote communities, Reeves does provide an example of one feel-good story in the indigenous community as he interviews an entrepreneurial Aboriginal woman in the Cape York area who is actively involved in the resources boom, hiring out diggers to a mining company.

Although it may come as a surprise to the rest of the world, the resources boom is the greatest driver of the Australian economy and is the one reason why Australia largely escaped the global recession.

A resource boom driven economy though is nothing new.  Before Australia became a federation of its various states, the state of Victoria was for a time the richest colony in the British Empire, founded as it was in the Gold Rush. Profits from gold ensured that Melbourne could build on a scale to rival some of Europe’s greatest cities and even today there is a part of the city at its eastern edge known as ‘the Paris end of Collins Street.’

One of the most extraordinary places that Simon Reeves visited was Kakadu National Park. It is the size of Wales yet rarely visited by tourists and certainly not by the numbers who visit Uluru. Kakadu is an extraordinary ecosystem and we used the park as a setting for the prologue and the final chapter of Revolution Earth.  Another World Heritage Site it too hasn’t escaped the drive to find minerals to dig up and export to the booming economies of Asia.

The raw material for uranium has been mined for many years – it’s only in recent times that the infrastructure has been put in to mine it on an industrial scale.  As recently as the 1950s, mining uranium ore was carried out by hand (often by migrant labour) with pick axes and shovels, with not even so much as gloves for protection.  You can see how primitive these mining implements were in the photographs that accompany this piece. And contrast that to the scale of the mining now.  To research our book we posed as tourists and took a trip around Ranger Mine in Jabiru. It was certainly an eye opener to get the slick PR spiel about the benefits of uranium mining to the Australian economy and how the company was committed to employing indigenous people.

But benefits aside, we didn’t hear much talk on that trip of the environmental damage that Australia’s resources boom has caused.  In the wet season the run-off from uranium mining washes directly into the river systems in Kakadu National Park. The problem for environmental activists in Australia is that these remote places are so far away from the major cities (Darwin is five hours by jet from Melbourne) that it is very hard to monitor the environmental impact of mining from a distance.

Even though Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is a protected World Heritage Site the need to protect the reef from the impact of environmental damage isn’t allowed to obstruct the resources boom as massive container ships are allowed to use it as a shortcut to get to port.  They do so under the guidance of highly experienced reef pilots but even so, all it takes is one small error of judgment that could have potentially deadly consequences for the wildlife.

There is one predator though that has been quietly creating havoc on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef since the 1970s but in recent years the crown-of-thorns starfish population has increased to epidemic proportions.  Usually when a species in Australia becomes invasive it is because it was introduced but the starfish is native to the reef.  If you think of the word starfish you may be imagining a small, benign little creature but the crown-of-thorns is the stuff of science fiction – with multiple arms that slowly eat their way through the coral.

The problem has got so acute that the tourist boat operators, who depend on the reef for their livelihoods go out and try to kill the starfish on the parts of the reef where their boats take visitors. Although you can understand why the operators are worried, such an undertaking seems futile, as the cause of the proliferation of the crown-of-thorns is likely to have been caused by human intervention, namely pollution and the run-off from agriculture fertilisers leaching into the ocean. The fledgling starfish thrive on the algal blooms caused by the chemicals in the fertiliser.

Lest you get the wrong idea, the series finishes on an upbeat note as Reeves celebrated Australia Day in Melbourne. I do hope that an Australian broadcaster buys Australia with Simon Reeve so that locals get the chance to see the series for themselves.

Australia – the lucky country? Certainly it is for those who have been able to live and work there as a result of the resources boom – but sadly not for those marginalised communities  that are still yet to be given their share of the proceeds of the wealth bonanza.  Image

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