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Dr Peter Cahalan Aus Day 2022


We have things to learn from the Aboriginal custom of acknowledging the custodians of a place and its elders past and present.

This community has been built for over a century by generations of its members. Real people have built its infrastructure and social institutions – churches, clubs, sports places and meeting places - and shaped its way of life. They could well have been your ancestors – elders of your past. And they might well be many of you – the elders of present-day Pinnaroo. And some of you are the elders of this community’s future, your contributions just beginning. I warmly acknowledge you all.

I particularly want to acknowledge your Lions Club and not just for its role in organising today. In 1967 an English couple migrated to the Riverland with their two daughters. They were sponsored by the Barmera Lions Club. One of those daughters, Penny, is here with me today. I owe a long and happy marriage to Lions and so have always had a special affection for them.

The theme of this year’s Australia Day – you might have seen the ads – is” You’re a part of the story.” And that’s something I’d like to explore with you now. You citizens of the Pinnaroo district are part of wider stories – and have your own story to tell.

First, what does it mean to be South Australian Australians? I’ll suggest four of the factors that might have shaped who we are as a distinctive part of the overall Australian story.

So, number one: the environment .Can I invite you to sing something with me? I’m hoping that a fair number of you know the song which missed out to Advance Australia Fair as our national anthem. It’s the Song of Australia. Listen to the words.

[Sing the first verse]

Let’s check the words of Advance Australia Fair. “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil…. Our land abounds in nature’s gifts.” What’s the message? We’re rich. And what does Song of Australia have to say? “Lovely weather”. This lovely song was written in 1859 – a bare 23 years after the official European settlement of South Australia. So we worked out very quickly that we weren’t going to have it all that easy. Mother Nature hasn’t largessed us as much as she has some other parts of our country.

And I think this is one of the roots of a strongly South Australian version of being Australian. We’ve a tradition, as one economic historian once remarked, of knowing how to contrive our own opportunities. We’ve been an inventive mob – not least in the fields of agriculture, horticulture and medical science.  Your own wonderful museum is a testimony to the adaptability and resilience of your own farmers. And our governments have worked on contriving opportunities. Tom Playford’s long drive to attract industry here via incentives to companies and the offer of good housing to immigrants is a classic case.

Likewise an often noted aspect of our culture is our high level of volunteering. We’ve historically high levels of volunteer involvement. Up to 50% of regional residents are involved in some kind of unpaid community work. Some of the great national volunteer movements have come out of SA: eg Meals on Wheels and Keep Australia Beautiful.

These are all basically responses to that challenge of not being naturally one of the big, wealthy States.

First factor, Mother Nature. The second: women.  It’s an old furphy that we’re different because we never had convicts. What’s actually far more important is that from the outset we were the only Australian colony with a planned balance of the sexes. The sex ratio in the eastern colonies for much of the nineteenth century was around 160 men to 100 women. This imbalance gives us the blokiness that marks a  lot of the mythmaking about what it means to be Australian. Our great folk songs  -which have been a driver of our sense of being Australian -were spread across the country by a nomad tribe of single male shearers and miners. Whereas in our case we were a more family-based culture from the early days. And that I think brings with it a certain gentleness, politeness and willingness to cooperate which arguably is greater here.

Third, we have a tradition of planning and a respect therefore for orderliness. We were a utopian settlement – a place where the ills of England and the disorderliness of European settlement in other parts of Australia wouldn’t be replicated. No settlement before survey for instance – like the efforts to ensure a balanced sex ratio this was designed to create a society which grew steadily and fairly. We’re one of the few places anywhere, surely, where one of our great heroes is a surveyor.

I vividly recall the moment when the power of this culture of planning came home to me. I was in Marree, gateway to the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, talking to the president of the Marree Afghan community. They were hoping to build a community centre and had an offer of sponsorship for it. So what’s the problem, I asked. “We can’t find anywhere to build it:”, she said. I looked around at the vast flat outback all around us and thought of the empty blocks in the township. But the problem was that no one knew who owned title to those and didn’t dare build on them. And at that point I thought: Colonel Light 1, feisty anti-authoritarian Outbackers 0.

We’re often criticised – and criticise ourselves- for being overly cautious and over-planned. But rightly or wrongly I think it’s one aspect of who we are.

Fourth and finally, we have the kind of people who came here in those early waves of white settlement. We had a lot more of the so-called nonconformist Protestant communities here – Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and others. And the hallmark of these has long been a commitment to social and civic responsibility.  Not to mention our German immigrants – who in the opinion of other farmers have accentuated our propensity to be tidy and diligent.(A question for you: do you reckon the farms on this side of the border are any tidier than over in Victoria? Or is this tidy farm thing just a myth?)

So we’re South Australian Australians. Not a lot different from other Australians. But our story isn’t an exact replica of the storytelling and mythmaking about Australia that overwhelmingly reflects the self-image of Sydney and Melbourne mixed in with a lot of stuff about the Outback.

But now let’s make it more local. Because, like Australia,  South Australia is a mosaic of diverse regions. There’s Adelaide – also with its different areas- and in tourism terms at least we have 11 regions. And these can be very different in their ways of life. Wine regions, farming regions, coastal regions, riverside regions, Outback regions, near to Adelaide and far-from- it regions. Some parts of the State will be suffering drought while others are getting adequate rainfall or doing well economically. But there can be a tendency in the history books to talk about South Australia overall doing well or badly at a particular time. You’d know only too well that things might be better or worse here in the Mallee than in other parts of the State.

Let’s bring it down to a community level. One of the  most interesting jobs I had in museums and tourism was working with communities on identifying what they felt made them distinctive. It actually started with a project in 2000/01 in which Max Wurfel was a participant. The History Trust secured a Centenary of Federation grant to explore the story of dryland farming across SA. Six museums fronted up for a workshop – one of them your fabulous Mallee Heritage Centre. Its history of settlement exhibit was a result of that project.

What fascinated me were the different stories which people brought to the same table.

The Melrose museum’s one-liner was: “You’ve got to be resilient to live on Goyder’s Line.” They spoke of how farms north of Melrose had to be bigger and how they dealt with frequent drought via arrangements to agist their stock.

For Kimba it was: “You’ve got to be a learner to survive around here”. This meant a focus on Dept of Agriculture advisors, Rural Youth, Agriculture Bureaux and so on.

Lameroo said: “Lameroo people have always been spenders” and pointed to the abundant water sources in the district.

I worked with other communities after that. Each came up with a different one-liner about themselves.

Port Broughton: “Footy and netball are the same word around here.” In fact the role of those sports in towns and districts across our State is a huge one and this could be the key one-liner for lots of towns. I reckon that when people talk of regions they often think of their footy league as their real region. There are two leagues on the Fleurieu Peninsula and I’ve a hunch from talking to people in, say Yankalilla, that they’re connected to Willunga because it’s in the Great Southern Football League whereas nearby Aldinga’s in the Southern Football League and it’s of little interest to them.

My favourite story about this is from Kapunda. A schoolgirl being interviewed for an exhibition said that there was a real crisis going on just then. The footballers and netballers usually married each other. Whereas at just that time the netballers were older than the footy guys.

Towns that from a distance might look like each other have quite different things to say. Take Ceduna and Streaky Bay. From Adelaide they’re both West Coast communities undoubtedly imbued with the same qualities of our remoter coastal townships. But for Ceduna the story was: “It’s life on the edge here. It’s tough but our main communities – Aboriginal, Greek and others- do a good job of getting on pretty well with each other.” Down the road at Streaky Bay it’s: “Mother Nature comes to our rescue time and again.” Streaky’s a tourism hotspot and that balances its farming/fishing economy – and its beautiful location is what the locals love about the place.

A few others:

Whyalla: “We built the promised land in the bush. 64 communities came here from around the world and built a great community. It might not look much when you first arrive but we love it.”

Hawker: “Hawker looks north.” It’s always serviced the pastoral, railway, mining and tourism economies of the central and northern Flinders Ranges. So they reckon that if they had a late-arvo invitation from Quorn (70 kms southwest) to a barbecue they’d decline. Nah, sorry, too late. But if one came in at the same time from Parachilna (90kms north) they’d be in the car and up there like a shot.

Finally ,and my favourite, from Penneshaw: “We’ve all got six toes around here. We’re very close knit. We’re small and remote but we’re resilient and can laugh at ourselves and enjoy life.”

So each of these towns – from Pinnaroo to Penneshaw – are a part of a wider regional, State and national story. All of us are of course Australians and it doesn’t do to overstress the level of our difference. But there’s a risk that the ideas about what it means to be Australian are powerfully driven from other places and reflect their regional realities, not ours.

I’ll end now with one last personal reflection on who my Australian heroes are. We’ve made a lot of the Anzac tradition and I for one am inspired by stories such as the Rats of Tobruk and the  young and inexperienced soldiers who fought against superior Japanese numbers on the Kokoda Trail.

 But my heroes are not mainly our soldiers. Instead, they’re a group who have been the source of derision and scepticism for over a century. And they’re our politicians. I often think about the comparison between Australia and Argentina. In 1900 we were roughly similar societies. Both of us had had large numbers of European migrants over the previous half century and exported raw materials to Europe with a similar per capita output.  You couldn’t have foreseen then that Argentina would slide into long periods of disruption, violence, military dictatorship and economic calamity. Australia has stayed peaceful and its economy more robust for 120 years. And that’s a tribute to all of us but particularly to the politicians of all persuasions who’ve done the tedious, often grimy work of building a society which above all is peaceful.

I wouldn’t be a politician today and like everyone here there are those I respect and those I don’t. But we owe them collectively for having to live under constant scrutiny and frequent attack. And I include in their ranks the elected members of local councils.

So here we are on Australia Day in the unique community of Pinnaroo. There are many ways to address the theme of “we’re all a part of the story”. Rightly it includes Aboriginal people, immigrants and minority cultures. For today I’ve focused on the theme of regions and communities in those regions. I warmly urge you to keep chatting with each other about what you think are the things that make your Pinnaroo community unique, with its own flavour just that bit different from other towns. And to do that respectfully. There’s plenty of debate around Australia Day and I welcome that. The worst thing is for an institution to recede into the silence. And when you have debate you have passion. But as Australians, as I’ve said, our glory is to have managed to stay peaceable when other countries with similar opportunities to ours haven’t.

So I want to warmly wish you a happy, peaceful, thoughtful Pinnaroo Australia Day. How nice it is to be here and thanks for your hospitality.

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