17 Sept, 2020

Somewhere near Nyngan, NSW

Travelling backwards

Reflections on an outback road trip

I’ve just returned from ten days in outback New South Wales. Typically for Australian road trips, this involved many hours of listening to AM radio while observing the landscape slowly evolve through different climate zones. Although I felt very fortunate to drive anywhere during these times, the sights through the window and the voices in the speakers combined to evoke a depressing sensation of travelling backwards.

Being the 20th anniversary of the 2000 Olympic Games, ABC radio was playing a long, nostalgic program reliving those glory days for Sydney. Along with excerpts of coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies and Cathy Freeman’s unforgettable 400m win and subsequent victory lap carrying the Aboriginal flag, they interviewed people who ran in the torch relay.

Christine Anu at the Sydney Olympics (Sport the library/Jeff Crow)

Two of the interviewed torch bearers were Indigenous people. They ran barefoot through cold September mornings to connect with country and ancestors while representing their nation at that historic, global moment. After great secrecy, it was revealed that Cathy Freeman would light the cauldron at the end of the relay. 

Commemorating one hundred years of female participation in the Games, six Olympic-medal-winning women ran the final legs of the relay inside the stadium. They passed the torch from oldest to youngest and finally to Freeman. She stood above a pool of water and lit the flame which flared up around her. 

Imagine the symbolism!

A 62-year-old male running champion arrives at the stadium to pass the fire to a female champion who passes it on to five younger generations of women, and ultimately to an Indigenous athlete. She lights the cauldron to be celebrated in front the world at the beginning of a new era in history.

The presenter reminded me that the Olympics came a few months after massive Sorry Day marches were held across Australia. Over 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to demand a government apology for stealing Indigenous children from their families. I was one of around 60,000 who marched for Aboriginal reconciliation in Brisbane. These were some of the largest protests Australia had ever seen.

Not being much of a sports fan personally, my main memory of the Olympics was participating in a Greenpeace campaign. We wanted to convince Coca-Cola to stop using climate-destroying chemicals in their refrigeration. The company was one of the world’s biggest producers of fridges, and we leveraged on their sponsorship of the supposedly “Green Games” to insist they convert to safe refrigerants, and we won! Sure, they’re the world’s biggest plastic polluter and they peddle in sugar addiction, but at least they agreed to stop using HFCs. I still have a pile of stickers which I no longer needed to put on their vending machines.

Such optimism! 

What hope we had for the new millennium! Indigenous people, women and the environment might finally be lifted up. We might all face the future in peace, together as equals.

The enthusiasm in the voices of every one of those recalling their Olympic highlights couldn’t help but make me wonder what went wrong. How did we go from rapturous adoration of ‘our Cathy’ to booing Adam Goodes out of his footballing career?

After two decades, we are still forced to take to the streets to plead for the basic rights of women and people of colour not to be murdered or abused. The rates of fatal domestic violence, Indigenous deaths in police custody and children being taken from their families are still very far from acceptable. The inequalities and divisions of our society feel worse than ever.

While I listened to the stories, I watched the country whizz by. After hours of blackened trunks, fuzzy with lime-green new leaves, the trees gave way to scrubby shrubs and purple and yellow wildflowers. Eventually small, grey tufts punctuated the red soil of the desert. Although I couldn’t spot even one living kangaroo or emu, the colours reassured me that the bush may be able to renew itself after last summer’s horrifying fires.

The further west I drove, however, the more signs I could see of a land still devastated by drought. The dead and fallen trees, the puddles in the river beds, the completely dried-up lakes, the small sinkholes in the soil and the empty buildings, all pointed to the fact that this years’ rains had not fallen evenly around the country. Without water, all life is on borrowed time.

Menindee Lakes (author’s photo)
When the radio show finished, it was time for the news.

With a sinking heart, I heard my Prime Minister declare we needed a “gas-led recovery” from the Covid crisis. The government wants to spend our tax money on gas extraction and new gas-fired power stations to replace the inevitable demise of the coal ones. 

Rather than facing the fact that only renewable energies and battery storage can power a secure future for Australia, they prefer to gamble on an industry which may provide limited jobs and just might produce short-term financial gains, but ultimately can only worsen climate change outcomes and endanger us all.

At the turn of the century, I never would have thought it possible that an Australian government could be heavily investing in fossil fuels in 2020, particularly after we have just suffered through the worst drought and bushfire season in the nation’s history.

What will it take to get us going forwards again? The pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to pause in our mindless pursuit of endless growth and consider what is important in life. Water is important. Justice, equality and peace are important. We can’t progress by following the same patterns which have been dragging us back for the past twenty years or more. We can’t let corporations dictate our governments and we can’t let regressive media dictate our minds. It’s time to remember we are a society. Everyone can only benefit if we move together towards a better world without leaving anyone behind.

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