In search of Doomadgee’s outstations

Doomadgee housing Late 1950s

Author Mark Moran shares his experiences of Doomadgee in his excellent book Serious Whitefella Stuff (2016). Doomadgee is an Aboriginal shire and township in North West Queensland, about 100km from Burketown and 500km from Mount Isa. It began in the 1930s as a mission called Old Doomadgee further north at Bayley Point on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Old Doomadgee brought together the remnant population of Ganggalia, Waanyi, Garrwa and Yanyula people from the western Gulf region. Their lands had been overrun in the 1870s and from the 1910s they lived in camps and shanties outside white properties, where they worked for rations. In 1933 they were herded up by Christian Brethren missionaries into Old Doomadgee.

A shortage of fresh water at Old Doomadgee led the Queensland Government to believe that the site was unsuitable for population expansion. When a cyclone destroyed the mission in 1936, they decided to relocate the mission despite local objections. Around 50 children and 20 adults living at Old Doomadgee were moved 100km south to the current site of Doomadgee on the banks of the mostly dry Nicholson River, named by Ludwig Leichhardt after he passed though in his first expedition.

The site grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Queensland Government removed many Aboriginal families from pastoral stations including Westmoreland, Lawn Hills and Gregory Downs. The Christian Brethren were strict and conservative rulers with no time for Aboriginal culture. Doomadgee gained a reputation as one of the most authoritarian missions in Queensland. Women had to wear ankle-length dresses and younger women were locked up at night and forced to do domestic duties during the day. As in Palm Island, Children were separated from parents into same-sex dorms. They were not allowed to speak their language or practise their customs. The superintendent’s word was law. Punishments included confinement or for women, cutting off their hair.

The various tribes initially had little in common with some from Queensland and some from the Territory, and some from near the sea and some from inland. But they eventually bonded calling Doomadgee home. The men and women were sent out to work on pastoral stations. Moran says than in 1965, 274 people – half of Doomadgee’s population – were working on 74 pastoral properties across the region, with the Mission receiving what little money they made. But in 1968 when the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission decided Aboriginal workers were entitled to fair wages, the stations sacked their black workforce rather than give them equal pay and Doomadgee’s function as a regional labour pool came to an abrupt end.

The Christian Brethren handed control of Doomadgee back to Queensland in 1983 but premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen showed no interest in granting the town autonomy. It wasn’t until 1988, the year after Joh was replaced, that Doomadgee became a local government region given trusteeship over the Doomadgee reserve land held in Deed of Grant in Trust, known in Queensland as DOGITs. By then many townsfolk had established outstations including at Old Doomadgee after the road gang cut a 120km road though “using a combination of local knowledge, compass dead reckoning and radio reports from a ministry pilot overhead.” The outstation movement was a Whitlam-era response to the problem of centralised missions and the assimilation era. In Doomadgee and elsewhere a land claim became a pathway to land rights. Elder Tom O’Keefe established one of the town’s first outstations at Six Mile, on traditional land owned by the Waanyi People of which Tom’s mother was one.

When Mark Moran arrived in Doomadgee in 1991, all white people in town lived in one area separate from the rest of the community, a legacy of mission days. The outstation movement was gathering momentum and Moran as a council supervisor did what he could to support it. At the time around a quarter of the town’s 1000-strong population wanted to move out in search of the bush life as a way of strengthening their culture. The outstations were ad hoc affairs using family labour and whatever materials they could scrounge. When the federal government introduced Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP, or more pejoratively, work for the dole) unemployment benefits were converted into community development projects which spurred on more outstations in Doomadgee.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was formed a year earlier and provided useful funds and functions for Aboriginal communities. ATSIC provided 1000 cattle distributed to four outstations to manage and each station got a $10,000 construction grant. The cattle were never profitable – a helicopter muster was prohibitively expensive – but they enabled young people to learn pastoral skills and helped the dormant Doomadgee Rodeo to resume. Young Jason Ned, now the mayor of Doomadgee, won the bareback bull ride in the 1993 event. Doomadgee had desperately-needed money to spend on new sewerage, street works, the airstrip and water infrastructure. But ATSIC reined in its outstation funding after many splurged on huge car costs, with maintenance providing difficult in rough conditions. There was funding available for housing in town but Moran helped local families who wanted to build more permanent accommodation on their outstations. That was until the Council went broke and an administrator was appointed who sacked all contractors including Moran.

Undeterred Moran returned to Doomadgee a year later working for the Centre for Appropriate Technology to prepare a planning report for the outstation housing grant he had brokered. They built eight homes using steel frames, full perimeter verandahs, external ablution blocks, elevated rainwater tanks and ventilated pit latrines. ATSIC called a moratorium on outstations in 1996 after reports many were being abandoned or trashed. In Doomadgee some had done better than others with Merv Peter incorporating Gumhole Aboriginal Corporation opening an avenue to government funding. With the help of ATSIC Moran helped deliver an outstation plan and an outstation committee but it was never put to practise as funds dried up.

Outstations became a front in the ideological battle. In 2005 Howard demolished ATSIC without developing a proper replacement. Indigenous Affairs minister Amanda Vanstone called remote communities “cultural museums“. Before the 2007 NT Intervention crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers said outstations were “highly dangerous places for women and children because they are unable to escape any of the violence.” The free-market Centre for Independent Studies’ Helen Hughes called them a form of apartheid and a “socialist utopia”. Fellow right winger Gary Johns said Aboriginal people needed to live in towns to escape from humbugging though Moran argues the need to escape that was the impetus for the outstations in the first place. But he admits that while there was evidence of improved health outcomes of living on outstations, there were problems with providing an education in such a remote environment.

Anthropologist Diane Austin-Broos defended the outstations saying they eased the pressure on larger communities. Despite the lack of jobs and schooling, people could paint, care for their country and generally enjoy well-being. She also said they were less worried about their comparative disadvantage than outsiders. “Clothing (often second hand), shelter (often makeshift) and food (a mix of foraged and store bought)…might look second rate to the outsider but…this mattered less to remote Aboriginal people,” she said. Moran said people moved to Doomadgee outstations for many reasons: culture,history, subsistence, autonomy, wellbeing and safety but they also expected similar housing, infrastructure and services they got in town and that proved to be beyond the funding they had or could source from governments.

The Commonwealth government restricted funding in 2007. Outstations could still get money but only if they were running a business on site. CDEP jobs were harder to get and the Doomadgee CDEP corporation remained the only outstation resource agency in the area. With ATSIC gone there was competitive tendering for contracts and in 2009 they lost the contract to an external employment services company, Mount Isa Skills. Moran says the result was Doomadgee lost its last lifeline to the outstations.

Under a new Labor government, Doomadgee was named as one of 29 “remote hub settlements” where services would be concentrated on larger communities. Each hub would have a Local Implementation plan and Doomadgee’s LIP made no mention of the outstations. Most outstation residents were forced back into the quarter-acre social housing blocks in town. When Moran returned again in 2014 Merv Peter’s Gumhole was the only permanently occupied outstation left though Merv had sadly died after a long illness. Rodeo champion turned mayor, Jason Ned, founded another at Spoon Creek as money flowed into the town via nearby Century Mine. Moran met Tom O’Keefe, then in his eighties, who was still at Six Mile which he described as his life achievement. “Built my outstation and now there are four mango trees,” O’Keefe told Moran.

Black ’47 and beyond: the Irish famine in history, economy and memory

The famine of the 1840s is the pivotal moment of Irish history. Before the famine eight million people lived on the island of Ireland, but five years later less than six million remained. It was one of the more devastating and long-lived famines anywhere on the planet. I’ve covered British prime minister Robert Peel’s initial response to the famine which was well-meaning but ran up against British vested interests. Now I turn to the work of Irish economic historian Cormac O’Grada and his Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (1999). It looks at historical and economic data from the famine era but also examines folklore to get a more impressionistic view of events. O’Grada also applies comparative studies looking at other similar major famines such as in Finland (1866-68), Soviet Union (1918-22), Ukraine (1932-33), Bengal (1943-44) and Biafra (1968-70) while he acknowledges that Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-62 in China was “in a macabre league of its own”.

The Irish potato harvest failed in 1845 due to a blight called phytophthora infestans. Poor weather in 1846 worsened the blight and contributed to the failure of public works as a famine response. O’Grada rejects suggestions of a British “genocide”. He says policy failures were a result of a dogmatic political economy of “doctrinaire neglect” not murderous intent. Infectious diseases were the main cause of death not starvation – a reason why the death toll was high in crowded Dublin slums far from blighted potato fields. The famine mostly killed the poor while the relatively better-off had the safety valve of emigration.

Ireland’s economy in the 1840s was overly dependent on the potato with 0.8 million hectares under cultivation before the famine, a figure halved by the 1850s. The potato was highly prized as a garden crop and initially as a supplementary and seasonal food. Ireland’s acidic soil and damp climate was advantageous for cultivation. It was among the first countries to popularise the crop and spread its love to other parts of Europe. The blight also affected Scotland, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But in the Scottish highlands the poor supplemented potatoes with oatmeal and fish and nowhere was the impact as severe as Ireland. Irish consumption was five kilos a day for adults in the bottom third of the population, compared to 800 grams in Holland. This was partially due to British corn laws making them cheaper than in Europe, but it was also a function of Irish poverty.

Almost two-thirds of Irish agricultural labourers had no land and the top quarter of farms held 60pc of the land, mostly better land. Many farmers rented marginal land many in joint tenancies, a continual source of friction. They were badly housed, illiterate, underemployed and too poor to move away. Emigration was an option for the less impoverished and population growth had slowed in the decade before the famine with rising labour demand in industrial Britain and America. Most of the very poor lived in the south and west and there was disproportionate famine impact west of a line from Waterford in the south-east to Ballyshannon in the north-west. Eastern counties were wealthier and had easier access to seafood and relief and employment in port towns.

Weather was a crucial factor. The 1845 harvest was only a quarter down on previous years but poor weather in 1846 caused the blight to inflict more damage than anywhere else in Europe. It delayed planting and stunted growth while heavy rain in the summer months of July and August caused fungi spores to wash into the bulbs and destroy the crop. Crop failures had happened before in 1822, 1831 and 1836 but never two years in a row. Public works was the government government response to prior failures but Ireland’s cold winter weather in 1846-47 and 1847-48 made that a miserable solution to workers with inadequate clothing, “rags hardly covering for decency” as one Wicklow observer noted. Reports of the initial deaths in late 1846 attracted shock and attention but as the bodies piled up in early 1847 they lost newsworthiness. Though yields recovered in 1847 the potato failed again in 1848 and conditions in the west in 1849 matched the worst of two years earlier. Bodies were left unburied and crime was rampant with many preferring transportation to the disease-ridden workhouses. Mortality remained high in some workhouses as late as 1851, five years into the crisis, – far longer than any other famine in world history.

This long drawn-out affair caused famine fatigue and contributed to negative caricatures of Irish irresponsibility and dishonesty in the British press, not helped by hundreds of thousands of unhealthy Irish arriving in Britain from 1847. The British felt Ireland was not taking enough responsibility for its own problems. In 1849 prime minister Lord John Russell refused a grant to Ireland of £100,000 saying the problem was exaggerated. The Times patronisingly admonished Ireland saying it needed moral stimulus to understand the difference “between giving alms in the presence of our children and inducing them to contribute out of their own pocket money”.

Authorities faced massive challenges in determining what relief to apply and where. Local relief committees were tasked to raise funds, submit public works proposals, advise on the most deserving and distribute food to the needy. Unpaid committees, usually clergy, traders, landlords and agents, had local knowledge but were overburdened. The government also pushed cash-for-work schemes which employed up to 140,000 people. But by 1847 these schemes were replaced by soup kitchens and poor law unions using prison-like workhouses. The 130 workhouses spread across the island existed pre-famine for poor relief, but were stigmatised as a last resort due to prison-like uniforms, inadequate food, forced labour and confinement. As famine admissions rose they were overrun by typhus. By March 1947 the workhouses were full housing 700,000 people with 24,000 dying each week. A stingy British exchequer demanded too much of chronically underfunded local committees. Still, the small weekly wage was attractive for penniless families and they kept many people alive through the dark years.

Getting precise figures how many died is difficult due to no civil registration of birth and deaths. Protestant churches recorded burials and in places like Bandon, Co Cork records show a large increase in mortality in the famine years, though it was less prevalent in Dublin. The main estimates of aggregate death come from comparisons of the censuses of 1841 and 1851 and assumption on population growth to 1846. There is also the detailed 1851 mortality data compiled by Dublin surgeon and medical census commissioner William Wilde, though there was considerable under-reporting. His data shows who died of dysentery, diarrhoea, dropsy, fever and starvation from 1846-51 with figures of 407,083 deaths of which 54.9pc were men. Twice as many died in Munster and Connacht than Ulster and Leinster. The toll was highest still in the four poor western counties Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. No county and no constituency was immune. In 1847 Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery reported a large spike in burials while the Waterford Mirror reported “fever and pestilence have been doing their worst here among the upper classes while famine and destitution are quickly thinning the numbers of the poor.”

Over one million people left Ireland for good between 1845 and 1850. Some would have left anyway, but most were responding to the famine. Harsh conditions aboard and the long crossing contribute to the legend of the “coffin ships” but O’Grada says this was a myth and most made it safely across the ocean. Mortality on the unregulated and cheaper Canadian route was higher than the American route, as this was the only option for poorer emigrants. The average mortality for the New York route of 2pc was no worse than pre-famine times. Indeed the record of German ships in 1847 was worse than British ones. Irish emigrants were not the very poorest and usually had modest means such as land, animals, savings or a dowry and there were also assisted passages from landlords anxious to lose unreliable tenants.. Though America was an improvement on Ireland, they remained on the lowest rung of American society long after they got there. In New York they did the city’s “rude and heavy work” and most took the advice to move farther inland. The Irish-born population of Britain also doubled to almost a million, mostly in the four port cities of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. Long distance emigration continued for the next 100 years usually following in the path of already departed relatives.

Of those left behind, export manufacturers in the cities were least affected as they could still sell overseas. Survivors were also better off in a tighter labour market and traders also benefitted from rising demand in the 1850s. Landlords freed of non-viable tenants were buoyed by rising meat and dairy prices and saw rents improve and tax bills decline. Ireland’s economy recovered again before flattening out in the 1920s and beyond – the price paid for political sovereignty and economic illiteracy of 20th century conditions rather than post famine effect.

The famine remained an important element in Irish memory and provide rich data sets of details and anecdotes of vivid lived experience. “If I told you where people were buried, you would not go out at night,” one 85-year-old west Cork farmer told a collector. In Sligo an account said if someone died in the house, they were left there unless someone from the house could carry them to the graveyard and do the burial. Another story tells of someone holding up a potato and saying to it “well, thank God it was not you I buried today.” Tales like these help O’Grada’s argument scale and depth of the Great Famine was unique in European experience. He said its enduring impact was reflected in a continuing desire “to remember things we never knew”. Whether that remains true of wealthy 21st century Ireland is debatable. As Jerry Mulvihill wrote in the Irish Times this week, there has been a lack of visualisation of the Great Hunger. “The commissioning of art, the growing list of literature, the creation of monuments and memorials relating to the Great Hunger are, I feel, Ireland reclaiming and owning its past and very much conducive to healing,” Mulvihill said.

Another visit to Norfolk Island

With my partner working on Norfolk Island, the South Pacific paradise has become my de facto holiday home and I’ve made four visits in the past 18 months despite the pandemic. This time last year the island was one of the first Australian jurisdictions to close its borders, an action that seemed shocking at the time, but one which was quickly copied and made mainstream by the bigger states. The action worked and the island has been COVID-free bar one case which was quickly isolated. The only effect today is that the usual air carrier Air New Zealand cannot deploy its planes from Sydney and Brisbane due to travel restrictions and Qantas are filling the breach at least until financial year end.

The route is providing important revenue for Qantas at a time when international routes are closed and the planes are full of tourists taking one of the few opportunities to get “overseas” at the moment. The bustling streets and buses on the island are good for local business but it is causing stress on food supplies. With no supply ship coming to the island in the last few months supermarket shelves in Burnt Pine township are bare, there was rationing of essentials, and cafes are only serving small cups of coffee amid dwindling milk supplies.

Island administrator Eric Hutchinson said Norfolk had a shortage of flour, cooking oil, sugar and rice. Locally produced food such as fish, beef and vegetables are ensuring there is no starvation despite the inconvenience and a ship was due in the weekend as I write these words. Longer term Hutchinson told media there was a plan to build a temporary landing stage so trucks could drive off ships. “That will change the landscape,” he said.

There was a barge landing point at beautiful Ball Bay (above) on the east side of the island. That jetty was a temporary structure used by contractor Boral to unload equipment to redo the airport runway last year and was also used to ship in other supplies from the mainland while it existed. But part of the contract with Boral was for them to remove the jetty on completion of the work. In any case it was occasionally unsafe with at least one barge escaping from its moorings and crashing ashore in the dangerous surf.

Big surf is a fact of life on Norfolk Island and rough weather is the norm (which could delay the unloading of the current ship). When we tried to hitch a boatride over to Phillip Island (above, rear) on a previous trip it took us nearly two weeks in the height of summer to get seas calm enough to do the treacherous 7km trip, Even the nearer Nepean Island just 2km offshore is out of bounds due to the surf beyond Kingston harbour.

Luckily Emily Bay remains a calm haven whatever the weather. Situated west of Kingston harbour, the bay is protected from the swell by a coral reef and offers safe year-round swimming, though you need to be careful of the currents. As the only safe beach on the island, it is a popular spot but is big enough never to to seem crowded and is always an oasis of calm whatever the conditions on the ocean.

Every morning and afternoon I went out to snorkel in the reef which was usually crystal clear apart from at very high tide in a big swell. I loved the vibrant fishlife with my favourite being the bright blue wrasse, one of the larger fish on the reef. All the time I was there there was a running joke that I had not seen any of the island’s many eels. A friend of my partner rubbed it in as she saw eels on numerous occasions. Finally my partner came to the rescue and pointed out this stout moray eel above poking out from a isolated spot of coral. And she took the photo too.

The rockpools were full of life at low tide including this lovely large crab. It seems the ecosystem in the Norfolk Island coral is in good health. Academic John Turnbull has just returned from a research trip to the island and found healthy corals on many survey sites. While large fish like shark were rare, he recorded blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish. “Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk,” Turnbull said.

Elsewhere there are more reminders of Norfolk’s stunning landscape. East of Duncombe Bay are a group of small islets which include Cathedral Rock. The basalt that makes up Cathedral Rock cooled into columns. A gaping hole through the bottom of Cathedral Rock allows waves pass straight through the resulting archway. Duncombe Bay is where Captain James Cook landed in 1774, the first European to set foot on Norfolk Island which he named “in honor of the noble family of Howards”. Cook found the island uninhabited but with plenty of fresh water, spruce pines, fish and “babbage palms”. Cook’s discovery made Norfolk a useful adjunct to the infant colony of New South Wales in 1788.

Philip Gidley King and his small band landed at Kingston in March 1788 (as did the Pitcairn Islanders 68 years later). The difficulties of getting in and out of Kingston were soon exposed with the sinking of the Sirius off Slaughter Bay in 1790. The first penal colony lasted until 1814 and was completely destroyed when it was vacated so it would be of no use to enemy nations. The second settlement began in the 1820s as the jails of Sydney overflowed and the colonists saw the need for a new harsher punishment centre.

Possibly the oldest surviving building from the second settlement is the Crankmill. It was built in 1827 as a store. Later uses included grain storage, milling, a hospital and a barracks. Later still Pitcairners used it as a boat shed. The British installed powered cranks in 1837. Prisoners operated them to turn a pair of mill stones that ground corn and wheat. Intended as a punishment, it was constantly sabotaged but was mostly replaced by a windmill in 1840. Yet it continued as a punishment until the end of the second settlement in 1855, the only one of its kind in Australia. Fire gutted the building in the late 1800s and the Norfolk Island Whaling Company housed boats there in the 1900s, finally falling into ruin mid 20th century.

Another early building is government house. It has been the official resident of island governors since 1829. Amid the succession of early brutal governors was one exception Alexander Maconochie. Maconochie studied the penal system in Tasmania and wrote a book in 1839 called Thoughts on Convict Management and Other Subjected Connected with the Australian Penal Colonies. Each prisoner would earn marks of commendation through works and conduct and would be freed once they reached a set total. He avoided the use of leg irons, neck chains, “spreadeagling”, and the gag while the lash would be used as a last resort. A new Whig administration was anxious to see how his polices would work on brutalised Norfolk and he became commandant in 1840. Governor George Gipps would not allow his system to be used on repeat offenders, but Maconochie defied him, which led to the system’s downfall when word got back to Sydney. Although Maconochie achieved good results, the Colonial Office decided he was too lenient and the island returned to its state of terror in 1843.

The Pitcairn Islanders were quick to claim the island in 1856 after it was abandoned a second time. They were descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty The passage of time and the arrival of religion had given them the veneer of respectability with the mutiny offenders long dead. By 1856 the islanders were under the sway of George Hunn Nobbs. Nobbs was not related to the mutineers. He arrived on Pitcairn in 1828 and used his education to become its effective leader. Nobbs was instrumental in convincing islanders to move to Norfolk in 1856. The newcomers more or less ignored the previous British settlement, though they are all buried together in the beautiful graveyard at Cemetery Bay.

The sense of grievance Pitcairners still have is abundantly clear across the island. In Burnt Pine there is a prominent display of painted green hands called Hands Up for Democracy to show the “concern and distress” Pitcairners have felt since they lost self-government in 2015. The People for Democracy Movement along with the the Council of Elders and the Chamber of Commerce have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanting the restoration of good governance and democracy. The say the removal of the island’s autonomy in 2015 was ill-considered and poorly planned. Council of Elders President David Buffett said the island no longer has a say in the provision of key government services, such as education, policing and health. “They have been farmed out, for example, to New South Wales and there is now some discussion being held with the Queensland government to farm some out in the Queensland area,” Buffett said. “But there is no participation by Norfolk Island people in that process, and that is obviously a lack of democracy and in the lack of democracy it means a lessening of our cultural impact in terms of those factors.”

As I left for home and looked out over the world heritage site of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, I reflected on another eventful trip. For such a small island, it has an outsized history and has profoundly affected all who travel here. Visiting the island in the 1930s AB “Banjo” Paterson noted island settlers “saw for the first time tropic abundance, so much so that some of them were inclined to stop there and not go on.” He recognised its qualities of paradise. “Why should they kill themselves working? Here was fifty inches of rain a year and every kind of fruit and vegetable,” Paterson wrote. But as author Robert Macklin found 80 years later it is a dark paradise. Food stress is a real problem, when tourists arrive but the supply ship doesn’t. Meanwhile unresolved tensions between Pitcairners and non-Pitcairners still dominate Norfolk Island’s political landscape. Nothing in its future is certain, though I know one thing for sure. I’ll be back again.

Google and surveillance capitalism

Photo by John Lee from Pexels.

In 2018 Google quietly removed all mentions of its unofficial motto from its code of conduct. “Don’t be evil” had supposedly been part of the tech giant’s DNA since 2000 though as Gizmodo reported, when Google rebadged as Alphabet in 2015 it became “Do the Right Thing”. The code was not just about providing users unbiased access to information it was also about doing the right thing more generally, “following the law, acting honorably, and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect.” However as a stunning 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff shows, Google has blatantly long stopped doing the right thing so it is no surprise the phrase has been quietly retired.

Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as something which unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Though some data is used improve service and products, the rest is declared as proprietorial “behavioural surplus”, a term Zuboff repeatedly uses in her book. This surplus is fed into machine intelligence to produce prediction products which are traded in a “behavioural futures market”. The intention is not just to know about behaviour but to shape it at scale. This shaping is now leaving the digital world and becoming a day-to-day reality through the “Internet of Things”. Digital connection is a means to others’ commercial ends as surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of human experience.

Zuboff says surveillance capitalism was invented by Google in the early 2000s though the other tech giants, especially Facebook were quick to learn the lessons of applying big data to commercial success. They saw that Google got away with its invasive actions as the law struggled to catch up, or was merely compliant. The timing of 9/11 helped as the US security apparatus to nurture and mimic surveillance capitalism’s capabilities for its own promise of certainty and total knowledge. Zuboff points out the error in the phrase “if it is free, then you are the product.” We are not the customers of surveillance capitalism, we provide its crucial surplus. Its actual customers are businesses that trade in its markets for future behaviour. This new knowledge is from us, but not for us. This huge market, Zuboff says, is likely to eclipse ownership of the means of production “as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth in the 21st century.”

It didn’t always have to be this way. Zuboff notes the early 2000s Georgia Tech experiment of the “Aware Home“. It predated the smart home by 20 years but was underpinned by trust and the sovereignty of the individual who had knowledge and control of the distribution of their information. But the rise of neoliberal economics has allowed what was once defined as “data exhaust” to become “behavioural surplus”. As Piketty described in Capital in the 21st Century the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth and financial elites use their outsize earnings to fund political capture to protect their interests. The growth of surveillance capitalism was helped by the byzantine click-wrap agreements (upheld by courts) most users simply say yes to rather than be bogged down in hours of semantic text.

Google is notoriously secretive but Zuboff has analysed the scholarly articles of its chief economist Hal Varian which explore “computer-mediated transactions” and their transformation economic effect. Varian noted that computers had several new modern uses including “data extraction and analysis” and Google proudly says it is at the forefront of machine intelligence innovation. Varian says they gather large volumes of “evidence of relationships of interest” to which they apply “learning algorithms to understand and generalise”. Google’s invention of targetted advertising gave them a profitable start but it became the cornerstone of untold riches when it was put to the use of surveillance capitalism.

Stanford graduates Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company in 1998 two years after the Mosaic browser opened the doors of the World Wide Web. Their search facility was immediately popular and produced collateral data such as patterns, spelling, phrasing and location which was initially ignored. They hired Amit Patel to start data mining these accidental caches and he concluded they provided a “broad sensor of human behaviour”. Google engineers turned the “data exhaust” into a recursive learning system that improved search and spawned innovations such as spell check, translation and voice recognition.

Initially Google lived up to its “don’t be evil” mantra, reinvesting the user data into improved products. The problem was the products were given away freely and Google was not making money. It had a small AdWords team which generated modest profits from sponsored ads linked to key words but initially most revenue came from licensing agreements with the likes of Yahoo and Japan’s BIGLOBE. In 2002 the New York Times doubted Google could create a business model as good as its technology.

The Dot Com Crash of 2000 had left Silicon Valley under siege and Google investors were thinking about pulling out. Page and Brin had to do something and they abandoned their lukewarm hostility to advertising. They decided to choose keywords instead of leaving it up to advertisers. They would use the raw materials used to improve search to meet this new objective. In 2002 Eric Schmidt was appointed CEO with a mission to understand the predictive power of their massive store of data and turn it into surveillance surplus. Initially that meant tying the price per click to the likelihood someone would actually click on the link. Google would mine data to match ads to interests. This was approaching the holy grail of advertising: providing the message at the right time when it might influence behaviour.

At this point Google came up against the friction of privacy requirements. Many users were simply not giving information to make a full “user profile” so Google conscientiously overcame these decision rights deriving the missing data from online activity or from third-party services. As Zuboff said targeted advertising turned Google from its advocacy-oriented founding to behavioural surveillance as a full-blown logic of accumulation. Google used its semantic analysis and artificial intelligence to squeeze more meaning from its data sets. That behavioural surplus – at scale – was a game changer and a zero-cost asset that would lead to enormous profits in the years to come.

Google was transformed into a rapacious beast that allowed no limits on what it could find and take. It asked no permission and pursued – and continues to pursue – its own values ahead of the social contracts others are bound to. Facebook was quick to learn the lesson as it monetised its growing audience in the 2000s. They hired Google executive Sheryl Sandberg as chief operating officer. Sandberg saw Facebook’s social graph as a massive potential source of behavioural surplus. There they could not just satisfy demand but create demand using Facebook’s conversational culture. Together, Facebook and Google made surveillance capitalism the default model of capitalism on the web, drawing in imitators in every sector. They all understand the value of Google’s discovery which is that we are less valuable than other’s bets on our future behaviour.

The goal is to automate us and almost 20 years on, they are enormously successful with ever more ways to garner behavioural surplus as we live our lives increasingly online. The focus is moving from predicting individual behaviour to the behaviour of entire populations. Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Self regulation has not worked as surveillance capitalists declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides. As Zuboff calls it, it is market-driven coup from above: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse of digital technology. She said we begin any fightback to name the problem as the first step toward taming. “My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young,” Zuboff said.

Brexit: Heroic Failure

The British right wing press are crowing. The COVID vaccine rollout, says the Express, is Brexit’s “finest hour”, a fete which even Angela Merkel is envious, apparently. The Mail quotes the doyen of Brexit, Nigel Farage, who says Britain’s decision to unshackle from the European Medicines Agency has allowed it to launch its “brilliantly successful vaccine program.” And the Telegraph has warned Europe to “stop sulking” at Brexit.

It is true Britain is vaccinating a lot faster than Europe, some 21 million Britons have received the first jab as at March 7. It success is thanks to its early approvals of the Pfizer and AstroZeneca vaccines and a January decision to prioritise the first dose. However the British Medical Association has criticised that latter decision as “unreasonable and totally unfair” and said it could cause “huge logistical problems” for general practices and vaccination centres, something Fleet St has been less keen to publicise. And it is no surprise that Britain and Israel lead the vaccine charge with both prime ministers using vaccine nationalism (and a big chequebook) to bolster their political credentials after completely botching the pandemic response pre-vaccine.

The vaccine has become yet another front in the war caused by Brexit. Leavers claim Britain’s speedy approval was proof of the case for Leave, Remainers pointed out the drug was made in part by a German company and will be produced in Belgium. It is a war forensically analysed by Irish writer Fintan O’Toole in his book Heroic Failure (2019). Heroic Failure was written before COVID took over our lives but its lessons will outlive the pandemic. O’Toole writes as a friend of Britain but one who notes the country’s open and tolerant reputation has taken a battering since the Brexit referendum result in 2016.

Brexit, he says, is a largely English phenomenon built on a sense of imaginary oppression and the pleasures of self-pity. O’Toole says self-pity is a form of self-regard as if they deserve to be pitied. It promotes a feeling of implied superiority. Brexit’s internal incoherence is that it wants to be two things simultaneously, a sort of mercantilist Empire 2.0 connecting the old white colonies, while it is also an insurgency revolting against intolerable oppression.

O’Toole looks back to the period after the Second World War when England developed a “national grudge”. Despite being on the winning side in both major wars, it was bankrupt, Empire-less and suffering stagnation while the economies of defeated enemies were surging. Britain’s own arrogance played a role. It was invited to the 1955 Treaty of Rome discussions and sent its under-secretary of trade who found the whole discussion distasteful. “You speak of agriculture which we don’t like, of power over customs which we take exception to, and institutions which frighten us,” he told the Europeans. Even when finally accepted into Europe, England oscillated between feelings of happy supremacy and a web of inferiority. The Daily Mail’s 1973 announcement of the EEC decision was that of Europe lucky to have them. “To know the British will be Europe’s privilege,” it wrote.

It was a doubtful privilege but it showed the marked reluctance of many in England who felt membership was marginally less worse than staying out. Joining was framed as a sovereign remedy for economic ills but there was a collective loss of will from “Little Englander” intellectuals amid airy haughtiness and dejected resignation. The allure of Brexit was of ending the uncertainty. But O’Toole said, all it did was to fuse the two emotions into self-pity.

England could only imagine two fates: the coloniser and the colonised. If it was no longer the one, it had to be the other. And almost from the beginning, the Common Market was a scapegoat for everything from inadequacies in the health service to the rise of xenophobia. There was always Germany. O’Toole said the English missed the chance to finally put the war behind them with the reunification of Germany in 1990 as the finally vindication of their repudiation of Nazism. Germany’s triumph should have been Britain’s triumph as well. But there were no handshakes at the Brandenburg Gate because conservatives could not transcend their mental map of Britain imprisoned in Europe. That year trade secretary Nicholas Ridley called the EMS a “German racket” and though he had to resign for it, the idea germinated. In 2018 UKIP MEP Roger Helmer complained he was not born a European citizen and his father’s generation fought to ensure they would not be German citizens. “I am determined I shall not die as a European citizen,” Helmer said. The EU remained in the imagination as an insidious form of Nazism.

The role of the media was crucial. When Germany banned British beef (also in 1990) due to BSE, the media kept up its idea of a German “mad cow” war for 10 years, twice as long as the actual war, with the Mail still urging British government retaliation in 1999. They posted a photo of fake Nazis from ‘Allo ‘Allo along with a statement why it was “a good week to be beastly with the Germans” while audaciously claiming it was Germans who were “keeping the feud alive”. In 2016 the Mail ignored its own history of appeasement to slam David Cameron’s visit to Brussels ahead of the Brexit vote as “Who will speak for England?” drawing parallels again between the EU and Nazi Germany. It was the British media who were keeping the feud alive and fighting the war again though evidence of the “invasion” was hard to find beyond British beef missing from German shops.

The book title comes from Stephanie Barczewski’s book Heroic Failure and the British with British heroes drawn from failures such as Scott of the Antarctic, Dunkirk, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Franklin expedition, Gordon of Khartoum and the Somme. Heroic failure is transference, re-imagining British conquest of the world as an epic of suffering not for the victims but for the victors. But its currency is deeply debased in the Brexit debate, no longer disguising colonialism but wallowing in self-pity for a “plucky little nation annexed by a European superstate”. Its 2012 manifesto “Britannia Unchained” evoked slavery though it was black man Beau Isagba who represented the worst of what some elements of Britain have become” for punching a Malaysian student in the 2011 London Riots. Emotionally Brexit was fed by anxiety and the campaign slogan was “Take Back Control”. It put together two fears – Britain’s loss of status since 1945 and the erosion of white privilege – to provide re-assurance to righteous anger.

The Irishman O’Toole notes the complete absence of Ireland from the 2016 Brexit debate. The only concession at the time to what has proved an intractable problem of dealing with the Irish border was Nigel Lawson’s arrogant suggestion that Ireland would be welcomed back into an independent UK. But Brexit is the result of fissures in the existing kingdom. Englishness had been sublimated into Britishness since the 17th century but Scottish and Welsh devolution has forced attention again on what it means to be English. Previously the domain of skinheads, football hooligans and drunken squaddies, English nationalism reared up in 2016 as a new force. Opinion polls noted how the population was increasing calling itself English not British – especially outside London (mirrored by the Brexit result). But while the English want an English parliament, the Brexit victors took the opposite track claiming it as a win for the union.

That union looks increasingly broken. The SNP wants to put “Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands“. The Unionists are saying the Northern Irish Protocol (which places the EU border back in the Irish Sea) is “doing untold damage“. And in Wales even the pro-Brexit fishers are unhappy with the continued French access to fishing rights untl 2026. The Mail and co may delight in an apparently speedy vaccine rollout. But otherwise Brexit is careering out of control with matters only like to get worse with full customs checks due to begin on July 1.

For many who voted leave, the intention was to blow the doors off and give the Establishment a good kicking, which as O’Toole said was richly deserved. But instead of being a controlled explosion of anger it blew up the whole vehicle of state. There was too much gelignite and misplaced energy in it. Brexit was a crisis of belonging. “The self-pity at its heart,” O’Toole wrote, “will sour into a toxic sludge of imagined treachery that will be hard to drain from the groundwater of British politics.”

Banjo Paterson’s Australia

Then Governor General Peter Cosgrove and wife Lynne Cosgrove unveil the Banjo Paterson statue to officially open the new Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton in 2018. Photos: Derek Barry

A month ago, the Sydney Morning Herald commemorated the 80th anniversary of the death of Andrew Barton Paterson by reprinting his obituary. Paterson, the Herald said, was a prolific writer of light topical verse and his ballads of the bush had enormous popularity. In his lifetime he was perhaps most famous for his rivalry with fellow Australian author Henry Lawson. While Lawson had an unhappy alcoholic life he was accorded a state funeral when he died in Sydney in 1922 aged 55. Paterson, by contrast, was far more content and successful in life, but was buried quietly after he died on February 4, 1941 aged 77. The raging war and the recent fall of Singapore concentrated minds on other matters when Paterson died but it also showed a long decline from creative success, a decline which only his death arrested. He remains one of the best known Australians in history..

While I’ve known of the evocatively named Banjo seemingly all my life, I’ve had a keener interest since I came to North West Queensland. In 2017 I visited Combo Waterhole, which inspired Waltzing Matilda and then attended the reopening of Winton’s Waltzing Matilda Centre a year later. The Winton building features a prominent statue of Paterson, familiar from his appearance on the $10 note, and is the town was where Paterson’s most famous song was first recorded. He wrote two other classics, Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River and he was involved in looking after horses in the Australian Middle East campaign in World War I. As Grantlea Kieza’s Banjo (2018) wrote, Paterson lived an epic life.

Paterson loved horses, as testified by his war service. The SMH obituary makes a telling observation. Lawson almost always wrote as one who travelled on foot while Paterson wrote “as one who saw plain and bush from the back of a galloping horse”. He learned to ride horses on the family’s stations, and he received early schooling at a bush school and from a governess engaged by his family. Even his famous moniker is horse related. Paterson did not play the banjo or was much musical inclined. The Banjo a family racehorse and it was as The Banjo he first came to public attention.

Andrew Barton Paterson (known to the family as Barty) was born on February 17, 1864 in the heart of the New South Wales bush to two fairly prosperous and well-connected Scottish families the Patersons and Bartons. Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton was a distant relative. Paterson’s birthplace was Narrambla near Orange and his first five years were spent at Buckinbah closer to Wellington at Yeoval, where the Banjo Paterson museum now lies. Along with two younger sisters he had the run of 35,000 hectares on three adjoining properties. Its dangers and excitements – animals, droughts, floods, bushrangers, adventures, injuries and death – formed the core of his later writings. His Aboriginal nurse Fanny was a constant presence giving Paterson a respectful attitude to Indigenous people but in his writings their suffering was unimportant compared to the majesty of the land.

When wool prices tumbled in the 1860s the family had to sell Buckinbah and they moved to Illilong near Yass where Paterson attended Binalong public school. He attended his first horse race at Bogolong (now Bookham) aged eight. A rider borrowed Barty’s saddle and the youngster was thrilled as the rider won the race on a horse called Pardon. Paterson later used the name for his poem Old Pardon the Son of Reprieve. Barty inherited his storytelling from his mother and she encouraged his learning in the classics and in the country. Aged 10 he was sent to Sydney to his grandmother for a big city education at Sydney Grammar.

Paterson was sporting inclined and he excelled at cricket and tennis.He loved to visit home on holidays where he broke in wild horses. Though he failed to matriculate into Sydney University, through family connections he got a job at the legal firm of Herbert Salwey as an articled clerk. Aged 18 in 1882 he was earning money and enjoyed reading a weekly magazine The Sydney Mail which serialised a book by Thomas Alexander Browne writing as Rolf Boldrewood. Robbery Under Arms was the first local outlaw tale which following the real life exploits of Ned Kelly and the fiction of Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, opened a craving for Australian experiences. Two years earlier editor Jules Francois Archibald published a bold new weekly magazine called The Bulletin, which quickly became known as the Bushman’s Bible. The Bulletin struck a chord as a nationalist Australian voice when the continent was still six colonies who all preferred to deal with London rather than each other.

Paterson liked the Bulletin’s anti-imperialist message and was abhorred when Sydney sent 750 troops to the Sudan to avenge the death of General Gordon. He sent his poem about to the Bulletin signed as The Mahdi (Gordon’s enemy in Khartoum) which was published along with Archibald’s editorial that sending troops was a “fearful mistake”. Paterson sent in a long political tract under his own name which was rejected and then fearful of another rejection, another poem signed as The Banjo after “his father’s so-called racehorse”. The published poem was a forgettable boyish piece about Irish home rule but the name stuck for the rest of his life.

Archibald liked Paterson’s rough but humorous style and encouraged him to send in material about the bush which he would publish at seven shillings and sixpence a poem. An early poem in the 1886 Christmas edition was The Mykora Elopement which established his gift for alliterative rhythm, “By the winding Wollondilly where the weeping willows weep”. In 1887 the commissions kept coming but he needed the lawyer job to pay the bills. That year another writer struggling to make ends meet but without influential friends – a 20-year-old house painter named Henry Lawson – sent the Bulletin his first piece about the hostility to Queen Victoria’s jubilee. His A Song of the Republic delighted the Irish Catholic Archibald who told Lawson “you have good grit”. Lawson as the underdog and Paterson as the adventurer provided the creative fuel to the Bulletin for the next 20 years and their spirited debate about the merits of Australian bush life enthralled its readers.

In 1889 Paterson wrote his first great poem Clancy of the Overflow. The poem began as a demand letter to a drover to which the drover’s mate replied the drover had disappeared up to Queensland and “we don’t know where he are”. Banjo was entranced by the fractured grammar and the idea of a man roaming wild unconcerned by office life. The poem was immediately feted as the epitome of the drover or stockman as a free spirit.

Late that year Paterson visited the high Kosciusszko country and met a hill dweller who would provide the inspiration for The Man From Snowy River which appeared in the Bulletin in April 1890. With his movement in the station Paterson was creating a myth of Australian impressionism though it wasn’t immediately famous. It wasn’t until Angus and Robertson published it in book form in 1895 it became a household name. As was The Banjo. By then Paterson had visited Dagworth Station near Winton and listened to fiance Sarah Riley’s friend Christine Macpherson pluck out the catchy Scottish song “Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea”. He and Macpherson collaborated on new words based on the shearers’ strike in Queensland and a suicidal swagman. While it led to the break-up of Paterson’s relationship, the collaboration produced the instant classic Waltzing Matilda, which became Australia’s unofficial national anthem,

By the end of the decade Paterson was outed as The Banjo whose works Melbourne’s Table Talk said “were the most valuable contribution to purely Australian literature”. Australia’s favourite poet was hungry for new adventures and when the Boer War broke out in 1899 the Sydney Morning Herald hired him as war correspondent. Unlike Sudan, Paterson approved the NSW contingent but was sympathetic to Boer concerns. He reported on action at Colesberg and Arundel and saw the taking of a Boer homestead as he began to see how the war was unwinnable.

A friend of Paterson from the Bulletin days also came to the same conclusion and launched his own total war on the Boers. Harry “Breaker” Morant, a former short-lived husband of Daisy Bates,was a charming conman and Queensland drifter who created his own legend as a horse breaker, and who also published poetry in The Bulletin. Paterson met him at a hunt and they struck up a friendship chatting till 3am before Morant typically asked for money. In South Africa he was a lieutenant with the Bushfeldt Carbineers and operated a shoot to kill policy with his men in revenge for the death of his commanding officer. At his court martial Morant told prosecutors he was operating under Rule 303 for the Lee Enfield .303 rifle they carried. Morant wasn’t the only murderer, but had to hang for speaking about the unspoken shoot-to-kill policy. Paterson never met him in South Africa but he had enough of war and shipped back home.

After travels to China, England and New Hebrides and a brief fling with fellow writer Miles Franklin, Paterson finally settled down aged 40 and married in 1903 to Alice Walker. They had known each other eight years and were both part of the Scottish squattocracy. The wedding was reported in detail in the Evening News which was unsurprising as he was now editor. The News was a lurid, racy publication to which Paterson added accuracy and colour. He continued to publish books and poetry but they were less successful that his 19th century work.

By the time of the First World War Paterson was 50 and seeking a new challenge. He was unable to get a war correspondent job with the Herald but travelled with the horses to Europe as an honorary vet. From Colombo he broke the story of the Australian captain who sank the German ship Emden. When the troops landed in Egypt he went to England and to get to the front in France. He visited Lady Dudley’s field hospital then near Boulogne but could not get employed as a journalist. He sailed home and re-enlisted in September 1915 taking two years off his age on the form. Putting his horse experience to good use he was made a lieutenant in the Household Cavalry, the 2nd Remount Unit.

Paterson was based in Cairo dealing with 50,000 horses and 10,000 mules. Promoted to captain, he and his men broke in the wildest horses in a daily and dangerous rodeo show. He never got to see the frontline but stayed in Palestine for 12 months after the war. He was reunited with wife Alice who signed on as a nurse at the Ismailia Red Cross hospital. At the end of his assignment he was sickened as 2000 Waler horses were shot dead, unable to return to Australia due to strict quarantine rules.

Unlike the horses, Paterson returned home just as his third collection of poetry, Saltbush Bill JP, was published. He got a job as a reporter for The Sportsman which he enjoyed thoroughly for eight years, especially reporting on the racing. Lawson died in 1922 but Paterson was possibly the only person in Sydney not to attend the funeral. They were not enemies. Paterson had even represented Lawson in legal troubles, and he later regretted calling Lawson “the melancholy poet with a graveyard of his own.”

Paterson lived on and remained a major social presence in Sydney for the best part of two decades. His voice was heard on the new medium of radio and a portrait of him won the new Archibald prize, bequeathed by Paterson’s old publisher. Australia was dragged into another war in 1939 and this time it was Paterson’s son Hugh who fought, as a rat of Tobruk. Hugh survived but never saw his father again. The Banjo passed from life into legend on February 5, 1941. As the Herald said in its obituary Paterson and his old friend Lawson “imparted to the literature of their country a note which marked the beginning of a new period.”

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