Australia: A Land Worthy Of Study
Brian W. Haines
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
AUSTRALIA is where a man walks tall. The old time name for the native
Australian was a Cornstalk. Sometime in the middle of the last century
a distinct native Australian could be distinguished. He was hard
working, thin faced, rangy, and believed in matemanship.
The cult of matemanship sprang from the need in the outback to rely
upon someone who whatever the difficulties would never desert his
mate. The life in the outback was harsh; conditions of living from the
extremes of climate, the lack of water, the insects, poisonous snakes
and the vast distances meant that a mistake would bring death. No one
who has travelled across the great deserts can fail to be impressed
with the almost super-human hardiness of the early settlers.
Probably nowhere is there a greater misconception amongst the general
public about the founding of a country than there is about Australia.
The ordinary impression is of convict ships unloading upon the shore
in Botany Bay thousands of convicts who then proceeded to work,
building cities, roads, and generally laying out the land ready for
the time they became free men or their decendants claimed free rights
to the cities they had built.
Few convicts had or could have had many descendants. The majority of
convicts transported were male; the number of female transportees was
very limited. Even today the male prison population outnumbers the
female by more than seven to one. As a consequence it was just not
possible for a convict to have a family, quite apart from the fact
that he was in confinement. Additionally the women convicts tended to
be taken by the warders and soldiers as solace for themselves, so any
chance that a male convict might have had of creating a line of
descendants was very slim indeed.
After the serving of his sentence the convict was either allowed to
return to Britain or he was released on a ticket-of-leave system. The
numbers who managed to survive their sentence were few compared to the
numbers who either died during transportation or during imprisonment.
The claim of right to the ownership of Australia by Britain as terra
nova was more of a fluke than a result of calculated planning. The
Dutch, Portuguese and the Spaniards all had seen the country and taken
no action. All they saw was land, but their hearts were set upon the
products of the use of land so they concentrated upon the Far East,
upon gold and spices and the results of the labour of people.
Australia was described as a "barren and miserable country"
by Dampier, and the inhabitants as miserable people. This was the
prevailing attitude towards either the smallest continent or the
largest island, whichever way you like to think of it, and where land
was free for the taking.
At all periods of recorded history the available supply of land has
remained the same, give or take a few square miles. Yet here was a
vast, sparsely inhabited area none really wanted until a use was found
for it. It was the British who found that use, not as a healthy
off-shoot of Britain, or even as a secondary production unit to feed
the home country; but as a dumping ground for undesirable members of
The settlement of the rest of Australia was something of a lucky
accident. With the concept of a convict colony in the official mind,
thoughts turned to the keepers of the convicts and how they should
live. There was also the hierarchy of officialdom that supplied the
lines of provisions. Many of the first free settlers were parasitic
upon the convict community, and the convicts were used as labour to
keep their keepers - as nice an example of slavery as you will find in
Upon what particular point of moral law the British Government
reserved the right to itself to sell portions of Australia to the
first settlers is hard to say. No doubt it felt that the right of
protection under the law was enough to give it the authority to make
To be fair to the government of the day, the first instructions to
Arthur Philip as Governor were humane and comprehensive. He was
enjoined to cultivate the affections of the natives, and to seek to
promote amity and kindness between the members of the colony. There
was to be a grant of thirty acres of land to every male convict who
was worthy, by virtue and industry, together with stores and supplies
to allow him to work the land. Yet at the same time the colony was
organised upon the principles of servitude rather than freedom.
For the first half century or more the constant cry from the settled
lands was for cheap labour. Cheap labour was convict labour. The land
was so vast, the work so great, that no one could envisage any other
method of working the land than with slave labour. Where land is
restricted, the haves can impose on the have nots, even in an area
where there is plenty for all. This situation has not changed. Today
there are industries crying out for cheap labour, and claiming that
they cannot otherwise survive. It is the same on the land. Farmers try
to give good reasons why they should be given cheap labour to save the
crop - at the moment of writing, the fruit crop.
The first settlement was built in Sydney cove, Botany Bay having
proved unsuitable. An almost immediate alarm that the French would try
to gain a foothold on the new continent led to expeditions being sent
to settle the danger areas. Gradually free settlers followed in the
wake of the early convicts. The first city was, naturally, Sydney.
Henry George paid a visit to Australia and a land restoration league
was formed. A lot of hard work was put in, and is still being put in,
by members to implement the ideas of Henry George. Site-value rating
was established in some areas, to the benefit of those areas. Because
of the geometric pattern of the boundaries in Melbourne the actual
differences between areas that are site-value rated and those that are
not can clearly be seen. A demarcation line of the well kept property
on the one hand and the run-down property on the other will be seen to
coincide with the civic boundary where the two systems meet. If this
were to be seen only in one sector of Melbourne it could be argued
that one was guilty of being selective in the choice of one's
examples, because one wished to draw this conclusion; but the weight
of evidence from all the areas suggests that as the system of rating
is the only factor in common, rating on site values encourages
improvement. The usual rating system is penal in effect and
discourages improvement by charging the owner more. The result is that
an owner is reluctant to improve property and gradually the whole
standard of maintenance falls. He is caught in a vicious circle. The
more he improves the more it costs. If he does nothing he loses on the
value of the property as it becomes more old fashioned. Under site
value rating this does not occur; he can up-date his property for the
cost of the improvement.
The economy of Australia has always been cyclic. From the very first
flush of settlement the demand for land in favourable areas created
land booms, to be followed by disastrous slumps as people accumulated
in towns and cities. In spite of the wealth of acreage thousands of
people would not, and still will not, move from the sanctuary of town
life. This concentration of population forces the price of property up
in the favoured area bringing shortages in housing and work, while in
the remote areas property is cheap and labour hard to find. Again
there is this paradox; on the one hand a lot of people create a
breeding ground for trade and high employment, yet on the other they
create social and employment problems.
In each major city the elite congregated in the better areas - those
that were the most healthy ,or nearest to transport, or had some
feature to distinguish them from the rest, and here land prices rose.
With the growth of better communications some of these communities
have shifted leaving behind gracious houses which have declined in
value. A walk round any town will reveal the history of fashion and
The biggest boom periods in Australian history have been linked with
mining. The gold rushes, opal strikes and nickel booms are well known.
Opals are again in the news and all the old problems have come to the
fore this year in the areas where they have been found. But to go back
into history, gold and the romance of the gold fields provides an
interesting case study of what can and does happen.
By a quirk of nature the valuable minerals of the earth are located
in the harshest and most inhospitable places of the world. Gold is no
exception to this rule. How the old time prospectors made their
discoveries is another story; maybe some Victorian sentiment that
wealth was to be found in suffering sent them into the burning outback
to seek fortune and find reward. Bailey found his gold 360 miles east
of Perth in September 1892 to set off one of the greatest gold rushes
Australia was to know.
At Coolgardie, which today is a ghost town, came thousands of
prospectors from all over the world. Land prices rocketed overnight.
Food, bedding and water were almost as scarce as the gold itself.
Before the strike there was nothing but uninhabitable desert - no
buildings for the lack of materials, no crops for the lack of water,
no people for the lack of natural resources. The nearest water was
hundreds of miles away. Then came the gold strike. Suddenly this land
Daily the town grew. From being nothing it became in a matter of
months the third largest town in west Australia. Money poured into the
area. Streets were laid out in geometric pattern. Neighbourhoods were
named after the places from where the builders came. Newspapers
appeared; at one time there were six daily papers. Electric lighting
was installed in the streets - no mean achievement at the turn of the
century. A pipeline was built bringing water 360 miles.
In the district of Toraak, named after the district in Melbourne, a
standard house of the period cost £12,000, a price that even
today is good in an ordinary thriving town. The main street had large
hotels, public buildings, offices, all strong and substantially built
at tremendous cost. An early picture shows crowds thronging the
streets, hurry and bustle everywhere.
Then the gold ran out. The people departed, the houses sold for £50
each for the timber in them. Land prices dropped. For years the
buildings stood empty and idle until they were pulled down for the
sake of the safety of visitors. Now the town of Coolgardie has a
population of about 1,200, property is cheap and the desert has
reclaimed the rest.
Today Australia is in the grip of a national land boom. In this huge
country with a relatively small population, land is going up rapidly
in price. Developments are under way in places thousands of miles
apart, and land fever has spread through every section of the
community. But gold does not account for it this time. Land is being
bought for the income it will bring or the price it will sell for in a
few years time. In Australia there is a lot of land. History shows
that booms burst, even land booms. Unless the income from land is
channelled into the public purse, rather than into the pockets of the
speculators, the conditions for the crash will inevitably be
generated. Not just a few towns like Coolgardie will be affected, but
the whole country will suffer.
Is it too late to learn from the lessons of the past?