Coyne's Australian Country

By Michael Coyne

Three SistersI spent the majority of my pre-college years in the North American mountain west, where I became very familiar with long road trips through the United States. Once I started studying at Georgetown, I got used to seeing a sizeable portion of the agricultural American heartland unfold below me during the 3-hour flight from Denver to Washington. Even so, I don’t think I was prepared for the vastness of Australia. After studying in Australia for a semester, I have a more visceral understanding of the Sunburnt Country’s incredible amount of open space, and a more nuanced understanding of how differing perceptions of this space affect Australian society. 

Here are some useful figures to explain the vastness I’m talking about: Australia’s total land area is about equal to the area of the lower 48 United States. Yet the country’s population is only about 24 million people – slightly larger than that of Florida (20 million) and slightly smaller than that of Texas (27 million). Moreover, the majority of this already small population lives in large coastal cities like Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. As such, there are large areas of the country with almost no human presence – the town of Alice Springs is one of the largest in the Northern Territory, and its population is barely 30 thousand people. 

I read all of these statistics before I went to Australia, but I still was taken aback when I actually arrived. During a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, I didn’t encounter small towns or welcome centers like on the US interstates – instead, there were agricultural depots with gas stations left unchanged since the 1980s. On a flight from Sydney to Singapore, I looked down at the interior of Queensland and the Northern Territory and thought I was looking at the surface of Mars. There were no crops or pastures at all – just undulating, reddish desert. 

Before I left for Australia, I thought that understanding the role of space was the key to understanding Australia, especially in relation to the United States. I particularly enjoyed reading an article titled “Australia and the US: Intimate Strangers” by Michael Evans of the Australian Defence College. Evans argues that Australia’s interior, which is significantly more inhospitable than that of the United States, defined Australian national values. The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer could not exist in Australia; rather, “the experience of a harsh bush frontier fostered virtues of social equality and collective endurance.” The notion that Australia’s more generous social policies, emphasis on “mateship,” and lower income inequality are all products of a foundational need to cooperate and survive an unforgiving continent seemed very tidy and logical to me.  

Now, however, I’m not so sure that Evans’ analysis of the European perception of space in Australia tells the whole story of the land’s role in Australian society. I took a very enjoyable class on Aboriginal Australian cultural anthropology while I was studying at the University of Sydney, and was particularly struck by the idea of Country in the Aboriginal context. Each Aboriginal community has its own Country, which is both a physical territory and spiritual homeland. From this perspective, the land is not hostile or unforgiving at all – it is sacred, imbued with a people’s foundational beliefs, ancestral heritage, and cultural practices. 

My class only briefly touched on this disconnect between Aboriginal and European perceptions of the land in Australia, but I think it is critical to understand, especially if one is looking to understand the country’s domestic issues. Of course, there are numerous issues affecting Aboriginal communities in Australia today, and they will not be solved by a shift towards more congruent perceptions of the land. Still, it is reasonable to say that when one side sees the land as sacred, while the other sees it as dangerous, there is little room for constructive dialogue. All Australians would do well to treat their country’s vast landscape with respect and celebration – for my part, I can say it deserves nothing less.