Frontiers of the future

Tim Sherratt, ‘Frontiers of the future: science and progress in 20th-century Australia’, in Deborah Bird Rose and Richard Davis (editors), Dislocating the frontier: essaying the mystique of the outback, ANU E-Press, Canberra, 2006, pp. 121-142.


The glow of his campfire framed a simple tableau of pioneer life. Across this ‘untenanted land’, Edwin Brady mused, ‘little companies’, such as his own, sat by their ‘solitary fires’. ‘They smoked pipes and talked, or watched the coals reflectively’. Around them, the ‘shadowy outlines’ of the bush merged into the dark northern night, and ‘the whispers’ of this ‘unknown’ land gathered about. It seemed to Brady that this camp, this night, represented the ‘actual life’ of the Northern Territory as he had known it. But the future weighed heavily upon that quiet, nostalgic scene. The moment would soon fade, Brady reflected, as the ‘cinematograph of Time’ rolled on. It was 1912, and something new was coming.1

Staring into the flames of the campfire, Brady imagined he heard ‘the whistle of the Trans-continental Express’. The ‘rumble of freight trains’ followed, and the sound of water churning in the wake of ‘fast coastal steamers’. The night was filled with movement as Brady perceived an end to the north’s crippling isolation, the conquest of its ‘lonesome distances’. New industries too! The ‘chug-chug’ of sugar mills, ‘the buzzing of cotton jinnys’, ‘the clinking of harvesters’, ‘the hissing of refrigerators’—as Brady listened, ‘the thousand homely sounds of human progress’ joined in a triumphant ‘hymn of the Future’. The night’s subtle whispers were lost amidst the clamour of technology on the move. Not mere campfires, but ‘young cities’, electric lit and alive with enterprise’, would soon arise to defeat the darkness.2 This was Brady’s dream. This was progress.

Edwin James Brady, poet and journalist, visited the Northern Territory in September 1912, gathering material for his ambitious compendium of Australian developmental opportunities, Australia Unlimited.3 Brady was travelling the country, charting the outlines of Australia’s future with his typical optimistic zeal. His trip north was drawing to a close and, as he relaxed by his last campfire, he began to ponder the transformation of the Territory. The sounds and images conjured from the night reveal much about the spirit that invigorated his work. He imagined an end to isolation and emptiness, the growth of both population and production. The future was rising like a flood, lapping at the frontiers of settlement, ready to redeem Australia’s waste lands with the regenerative flow of human ingenuity and enthusiasm. Australia’s unlimited prospects lay both in the conquest of space and the fulfillment of time. Plotted against these two axes, the upward course of progress was clear.

The ‘cinematograph of Time’ was an apt metaphor. It portrayed the unfolding story of Australia’s national progress as a product of the latest technology, presented with an assured sense of inevitability – frame follows frame follows frame. In the early years of the century, confidence in the transforming power of science and technology was high. ‘The wealth of today’, Brady argued, ‘is but a beggar’s moiety of the unlimited wealth of the future which will be won by the application of modern knowledge to local conditions’.4 His optimism is echoed still in the slogans of ‘knowledge nation’ and ‘new economy’. Science and technology remain as engines for change, cascading revolution upon revolution. The weight of inevitability that threatened to extinguish Brady’s isolated campfire continues to press upon our visions of the future –invigorating our hopes and intensifying our fears. We are all familiar with the story of progress, a compelling tale of growth and improvement that entwines national ambition with individual longing. But how are our journeys through life framed within this unrolling narrative? What choices do we have, and how do we make them?

For Brady, progress was measured in miles and acres, a story of continental conquest. Land figures less prominently in contemporary calculations of achievement, nonetheless, we continue to imagine progress in terms of distance travelled, as a journey, ever onwards through time. In a landscape of metaphors, amidst metaphors of landscape, the meaning of progress eludes easy analysis. Our future is constructed within the shifting space of time. This essay imagines an alternate journey, one that explores the terrain that separates the life of an individual from the destiny of Australia Unlimited; a journey that carries us from science, to nation, to citizen, venturing unsteadily along the boundary between hope and fear. If the topography remains unclear, the scale awry, we might at least hope to chart a few reference points along the frontiers of the future.

all this paraphernalia

In July 1909, the Minister for External Affairs, Littleton Groom, introduced legislation for the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory. Groom, a methodical and well-educated liberal MP from Queensland, briefly surveyed the history of the Territory and presented to the House ‘a few opinions of practical men’, all of whom were optimistic about the region’s potential. ‘[W]e have there’, Groom concluded, ‘some of the finest land in Australia’. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Territory’s ‘latent resources’ would not be extracted without effort. The investment of capital and a dramatic increase in population were essential, but so too was an increase in knowledge. ‘We are every year acquiring a better knowledge of our natural conditions and a better understanding of the laws of production’, Groom argued. It was through such an understanding, he continued, that ‘much of the land which is now despised will ultimately become very productive’. Where would this knowledge come from? Groom looked to a scientific agency whose establishment he had advocated since his entry into politics—a Federal Bureau of Agriculture.5

Littleton Groom embodied much of the spirit of ‘new liberalism’, or ‘progressive liberalism’ as he termed it.6 By the late 19th century, traditional laissez faire policies seemed increasingly impotent in the face of growing threats to social cohesion and unparalleled opportunities for accelerated development. Responding to this challenge, new liberals sought to wield the power of the state to claim progress as their own, to enrich the character of their citizens, and to ensure the prosperity of their nation.7 ‘I want to see the individual and individuality developed to the full’, Groom argued, and wherever the state ‘can be used for the purpose of doing good for the people as a whole, then I believe in the State exercising its powers accordingly’.8 It was a creed carried into the first federal parliament under the banner of protectionism, defended most eloquently by Groom’s friend and colleague, Alfred Deakin.

The idea of a federal bureau to foster agricultural improvement was emblematic of the new liberals’ cause, a clear example of how government could employ ‘direct agencies’ in the manufacture of progress.9 Fashioned after the US Department of Agriculture, the proposed Australian bureau was expected to coordinate scientific investigations and collect ‘the very best and latest information’ for dissemination to primary producers.10 Such ‘intelligent legislation’, Groom maintained, brought ‘greater liberty’ to the farmer, while also boosting the country’s productive capacity.11 Both individual and nation would grow. Deakin, who himself had made a special study of irrigation, was a keen supporter of the measure, as were a number of other prominent protectionists.12 Isaac Isaacs argued passionately: ‘All this paraphernalia … is only the gold lace of the Constitution, unless we can make of it an engine for the promotion of the material, moral, and social welfare of the people’.13

The Bureau of Agriculture was invested with many of the attributes of an ideal, progressive society. Scientist and farmer would work together, melding knowledge and practice, intellect and endeavour. Their cooperative efforts promised both an enlightened citizenry and a wealthy nation. This presumed interdependence and its implicit sense of balance was at the core of Groom’s liberalism. He quoted approvingly the Victorian Director of Education’s assessment that an ‘ideal education’ concerned itself with ‘physical fitness’, ‘mental fitness’ and ‘moral fitness’. ‘So it was with national life’, Groom added, ‘Industrial and intellectual capacity must be developed’. The nation’s greatest resources, he argued, lay in ‘the hand power, the brain power and the heart power of our manhood and womanhood’.14 There was no simple formula for progress. It was a property both of individuals and of nations. In a good society the two were closely linked, proceeding apace. But this could be achieved only through a complex set of balancing acts, by constantly tweaking the levels of authority and freedom, duty and reward, ideals and practice, knowledge and control.

the modern hayseed

The life and work of Littleton Groom was memorialised by his widow Jessie, in a biography she compiled under the title, Nation Building in Australia.15 A tad grandiose, but the title perhaps speaks more of Groom’s compelling sense of duty than it does of posthumous puffery. ‘Nation building’ was a commitment, an act of service, a life to be lived, not a victory to be won. However, the title also makes reference to one of the most significant periods in Groom’s political life. From 1905–8, he served as a minister in Alfred Deakin’s protectionist government. Although they were a parliamentary minority with a fragile hold on power, Deakin’s protectionists nonetheless embarked upon an ambitious legislative program that did much to define the nature of Australian federalism.16 The achievements of this administration were eulogised by Groom himself in a pamphlet also entitled ‘Nation Building in Australia’. It was a phrase that linked the personal and the political, a citizen’s duty and a country’s destiny.

As Minister for Home Affairs, and later Attorney-General, Groom contributed significantly to the government’s tally of ‘practical legislation’. But his achievements in areas such as meteorology, statistics and bounties were intended as part of a broader system of institutions and legislation, designed to manage Australia’s productive resources through the rational application of scientific knowledge. At the heart of this system he imagined his Bureau of Agriculture.17 With Australia’s economy heavily dependent upon primary industry, Groom argued that the establishment of such a bureau could ‘be justified on financial considerations alone’.18 Not only would existing farms be made more efficient, the frontiers of land settlement would be advanced. Immigrants would be rallied to Australia’s great nation-building crusade, inspired by the government’s support for small landholders.19

But there was also a moral dimension to the promise of agricultural improvement. ‘We may trust the cupidity of mankind to develop our mineral resources’, Deakin remarked pointedly, ‘but agricultural, pastoral, and kindred pursuits need the superintending and assisting help of the States and of the Commonwealth’.20 Agriculture was not just about profit. Isaac Isaacs had argued for the need to ‘liberalise’ agriculture, ‘to raise it to a level higher than it has ever occupied before, to give it a dignity, a worth and a profit which may raise the Australian nation in the whole scale of civilization’.21 The application of science promised to ‘elevate’ agriculture and its practitioners.22 No more would the farmer be figure of ridicule, a ‘clodhopper’, a ‘hayseed’.23 On the contrary, Deakin argued, ‘The modern “Hayseed” is an up-to-date, keenly alive businessman, whose study is how to make the best of a small area with limited means but unlimited intelligence’.24

Science was a potent addition to the regenerative elixir of frontier life. The idea that a new ‘type’ of man was being created at the nexus of European civilisation and Australian environment had gained considerable currency, infused by progressive assumptions about the benefits of rural living and the role of the frontier in the formation of national character.25 Edwin Brady warned that the land’s ‘ancient lineage forbids the familiarity of the unworthy’, and welcomed its ‘paradoxes and difficulties’ as a test of Australia’s physical and mental prowess.26 The establishment of a Bureau of Agriculture was a response to this continental challenge, offering further improvement of the Australian type through a reinvigorated assault on the vicissitudes of frontier existence. Groom quoted approvingly US President Roosevelt’s assessment, that as well as creating wealth, his own department must aim ‘to foster agriculture for its social results … to assist in bringing about the best kind of life on the farm for the sake of producing the best kind of men’.27

But in the transfigurative furnace of frontier life, both man and land were forged anew. Just as Groom had looked to a future when the ‘despised’ lands of the Northern Territory would be revealed in their true productive glory, so other supporters of the Bureau of Agriculture believed that the accumulation of knowledge would ultimately redeem lands now defamed as ‘desert’.28 Deakin described the transformation wrought upon the desert plains of the United States, arguing that the answer was not simply irrigation, but intelligence: ‘Brains pay better than water, and brains are making farming pay to-day’. Australia’s ‘hope’, he continued, ‘lies in those enormous tracts which have yet to be brought into the service of man and made productive of wealth for the whole community’.29 Australia’s ‘Dead Heart’, Brady proclaimed memorably, was in fact a ‘Red Heart’ destined to ‘pulsate with life’.30 Brain and heart, mind and matter, man and nature – the golem of progress would arise, moulded from the continent’s red soil, in the image of the ‘modern hayseed’.

Groom imagined a nation made strong through the accumulation of knowledge and the occupation of land. The frontiers of science and of settlement would be brought into alignment by his Bureau of Agriculture, thence to move forward in their inexorable conquest of the continent. Australia’s ‘emptiness’ was no longer simply a location for scientific research, it was itself an object for study and transformation. ‘Altogether, a great realm of exploration lies open to us’, proclaimed Prime Minister Joseph Cook, introducing legislation for the Bureau in 1913: ‘A whole vista of duties and potentialities opens up when inquiry is made as to what there is to be done in Australia’.31 A new wave of discovery and possession was gathering momentum. ‘Little now remains for the geographical explorer to do’, Brady argued, ‘but for the scientific investigator there is still an almost limitless field in Australia’.32 Time and space were traded along the frontiers of the future. Science gained space, a ‘vista of potentialities’ to explore and conquer. The land, in return, won a sense of inevitable fulfilment – the gift of time, the power of destiny.

the battle of Australia

The campfire was slowly dying, as was the dream. Edwin Brady continued to ponder the Northern Territory’s future, but the sounds of progress filling his thoughts gradually yielded to the insistent ‘tramp of young Australian feet at drill’. Instead of ‘clinking’ harvesters, he now heard ‘the wireless keeping watch by night and day’; instead of rumbling freight trains there was the sound of ‘scouting aeroplanes coming home to their military hangars’. As the embers crumbled to ash, Brady concluded his campfire devotions, looking up at the stars ‘glittering like bayonet points’ and offering a prayer to the ‘God of Nations and of Battles’ that ‘this Northern State-to-be might put her young feet upon the paths of Destiny … in peace’.33 Brady’s hymn of the future was scored to a martial beat; Australia’s unlimited future could be assured only through determined vigilance and resolute defence.

Australia Unlimited was a ‘Book with a Mission’, not merely to sell Australia, but to save it. ‘A mere handful of White People’, perched uncomfortably near Asia’s ‘teeming centres of population’, could not expect to maintain unchallenged ownership of the continent and its potential riches, the book’s prospectus warned.34 Even as Australia was beginning to enjoy the first fruits of nationhood, its legitimacy, its very existence, seemed imperilled. Australia’s ‘empty north’ was widely perceived as an open door to potential Asian aggressors.35 The Deakin government was keen to remedy this vulnerability, and its move to assume control of the Northern Territory was justified both in terms of development and security. ‘We have in the north a rich, fertile country’, Groom argued, introducing the legislation, ‘and … that Territory, as it is to-day, especially in relation to other nations, is a menace to the Commonwealth’.36

Offering both the promise of riches and the threat of invasion, northern Australia revealed the complexities of nation building – development and defence were closely entwined. The problem with the Northern Territory, Groom explained, was that it remained ‘unmanned’.37 But ‘manning’ the country was not simply a matter of numbers. What was required was ‘effective’ occupation, ‘by a people who are applying their energies and industry to developing the resources of the country’.38 Only when settled by sturdy, hardworking landholders would the north be made both productive and secure. With its promise to improve the quality and efficiency of rural life, science appeared ready and able to bulwark the nation’s defensive frontiers. The Bureau of Agriculture was an essential part of a system aimed at developing a strong, self-contained nation. Moreover, as part of a well-balanced civic education, science rounded out the armoury of Australia’s ‘citizen soldiery’. The nation’s best defence, Groom argued, lay in ‘the ideal of the intelligent proprietor of the land defending his own country’.39

But defence meant more than just preparedness. Australia’s progress had to be won in an ongoing contest of legitimacy, with battles raging along the frontiers of race, land, identity and occupation. Groom’s 1901 election campaign was energised by his detailed and passionate advocacy of the principle of ‘White Australia’. Quoting C. H. Pearson on the dangers of Asian immigration and the threat of racial degeneracy, he warned his electors ‘we are not fighting the battle of Australia alone, …we are fighting the battle of civilised Europe’.40 Australia was seeking to defend, not only its land, but its integrity as a civilised nation. Fears of infiltration, contamination and degeneration constantly pricked at the confidence of White Australia, reflected in Commonwealth action to enforce quarantine and eradicate topical diseases.41 Groom’s Bureau of Agriculture was justified as a means of defence against the pests and diseases, which ‘have no respect for the border lines marked on our maps’.42 It was in the denial of borders, the negation of boundaries, that Australia’s dissolution threatened. The battle for racial integrity was both personal and national, moral and martial. ‘Can you allow your children to blend their blood with that of the alien races?’, Groom asked, ‘Can you imagine anything more pathetic than sad-looking almond eyes peeping out of the Caucasian faces?’43

But the very notion of integrity, the fearfully imagined borders of White Australia, were themselves a denial of Aboriginal presence. The ‘waste’ and the ‘emptiness’ that Groom hoped to dispel through the application of science, were constructed out of a lingering sense of unease and illegitimacy.44 With its offer of life and renewal, science helped to legitimate possession, demonstrating the inevitability of civilised conquest. There was a place for Aboriginal people in this modern world, but it was not on the land. Opening the science section of the Austral Festival in Toowoomba, Groom noted that while the region’s ‘native tribes’ were virtually extinct, some of their weapons remained. He suggested that ‘out of love and respect for the black races that were passing away’ such implements should be preserved ‘as an historical lesson … as to the weapons of those who preceded civilisation’ and as a ‘permanent memorial’.45 With Aboriginal people apparently consigned to the museum showcase, it was the land itself that had to be subdued. Brady imagined the coming breed of farmers, ‘with library and laboratory behind them’, as a ‘silent conquering army’: ‘Led by the shining spirit of William Farrer, this Army of Invasion is preparing its assaults upon the outstanding citadels of Nature’.46

Frontiers are uneasy places, juxtaposing the known and the unknown, civilisation and nature, us and them. Around and through the markers of geography, the imagined borders of knowledge and possession create place from race, gender and time. The splendour of nation is revealed against the dark, looming shadow of otherness. Unthinkingly we talk about the future in terms of our fears and our hopes, rarely pausing to consider how the two are related. Groom’s vision of progress, his mission to create a prosperous and fulfilling future through the application of science, encompassed both development and denial. Progress was both a triumphant quest for improvement and a fearful battle against the spectre of degeneration and dissolution. It is this tension that gives progress its power. The oppositions and dichotomies of frontier imagining energised the process of nation building, expanding the bubble of time to create a space into which the future could unfold.47 But this act of creation proceeds by destruction, obliterating alternatives. For Groom and Deakin the development of the north was both a fulfillment of destiny, and a vital necessity. There was no choice. Progress uses its own internal tensions to make itself seem natural, necessary, inevitable.

blast the bush

Len Beadell was leading a survey party through the mulga scrub of central South Australia, when he came across something unusual, even unnerving. ‘It was almost like a picket fence’, he described, with posts made from ‘slivers of shale’. Being in such an isolated location, he decided ‘it was obviously an ancient Aboriginal ceremonial ground built by those primitive, stone-age nomads in some distant dreamtime’ – an Aboriginal ‘Stonehenge’. As he scrabbled in the dust, searching for a piece of charcoal that might be used to fix this eerie structure in time, Beadell pondered the ‘ironic clash of old and new’: ‘only a few short miles away the first mighty atomic bomb ever to be brought to the mainland of Australia was to be blasted into immediate oblivion … and it was by-products of this very weapon which could be used for determining the age of the charcoal from these prehistoric fires’.48 Beadell’s expedition had set out from the British atomic test site at Emu Field, searching for a permanent testing range – one that would become known as ‘Maralinga’.49 It was 1953, and something new was coming.

The ‘clash of old and new’, the sense of disjunction, was a familiar characteristic of frontier experience. But with the coming of the atomic bomb, the sense of ‘newness’ seemed to have become more acute. The destruction of Hiroshima was revealed unto a shocked world as the harbinger of a new age – the ‘atomic age’. Media reports talked about ‘new vistas’, a ‘new era’ in world affairs, a ‘revolution’ in daily life.50 The atomic bomb, Clem Christesen wrote in Meanjin, had ‘severed the old world from the new with guillotine-like decisiveness’.51 Most importantly, the world faced new challenges, for the atomic age carried grave implications for the future of humanity. It was a ‘turning point’, ‘perhaps the most solemn turning point of all history’, Rev. Dr C. N. Button warned his Ballarat congregation: ‘Humanity is at the crossroads’.52

The Sydney Morning Herald relayed the news from Hiroshima under a pair of significant subheadings: ‘Terrifying New Weapon’ and ‘Big Possibilities In Peace’.53 The ‘good’ atom/‘bad’ atom routine dominated much public understanding of this mysterious technology.54 It was a formula popularly represented in the image of the atomic crossroads, placing humanity at a fork in the road of destiny, with a signpost pointing one way to destruction and the other to progress. Which was it to be, apocalypse or utopia? There was no escaping; it was time to choose. The assumed imminence of the crossroads, the disjunctive dynamic of the atomic age, obscured much of its familiarity. Like the frontier, the crossroads gained its metaphorical power from the conjunction of opposites. The wonders of a techno-utopia shone invitingly amidst the menacing gloom of atomic obliteration. But there was no choice. The signpost to destruction was a warning, a lesson to be learnt. Just as it had in Groom’s plans for northern development, progress in the atomic age used the threat of dissolution to charge itself with the force of destiny. Both imagined a future fulfilled through the accumulation of space, whether by the inexorable expansion of Australia’s frontiers, or by a continuing march along the road to atomic nirvana. Both offered a journey from which there was no turning back.

In the glare of an atomic explosion, Len Beadell imagined, the mulga scrub around him would instantly ‘come to life’.55 At the dawn of this ‘new’ age, the image of vast expanses of idle and wasted land, silently awaiting the transforming power of science, continued to evoke enthusiasm. As Britain’s readied its big bang at Emu Field, the Sunday Herald keenly anticipated the moment when the ‘inland silence that remained unbroken for ages’ would be ‘shattered’ by the bomb. Australia’s desert lands had found a new destiny, for ‘the very poverty of these areas in surface resources made them valuable in the atomic field, either as a storehouse of uranium riches or as the kind of waste land where experiments can be most safely conducted’.56 Ivan Southall described the Woomera rocket range, established some years earlier, as an ‘open-air laboratory’: ‘one of the greatest stretches of uninhabited wasteland on earth, created by God specifically for rockets’.57

Even as rockets were being propelled into ‘space’ (the final frontier), science presented the land with yet another chance for renewal. Woomera and the atomic tests brought science and land together with a familiar mix of imperial loyalties and national self-interest, development and defence. The Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, sought to justify the establishment of the Maralinga range by portraying it as ‘a challenge to Australian men to show that the pioneering spirit of their forefathers who developed our country is still the driving force of achievement’.58 These new pioneers had the opportunity to contribute to the deterrent power of the free world, while possibly winning Australia access to the secrets of the atomic age. Distorted echoes of Deakin’s ‘citizen soldiery’ rang down the years, charged with imminence of the crossroads challenge.

Australia Unlimited Ltd

In June 1957, the Sydney Morning Herald published the first in an annual series of supplements surveying ‘the great endeavours and achievement of Australian commerce and industry in the postwar years and the fabulous promise of future national development’. The supplements were titled Australia Unlimited. Edwin Brady would have been pleased by the overwhelming sense of optimism that suffused every page. ‘Confidence’, the supplement declared, was the ‘theme for the future’.59 It was a confidence born of postwar reconstruction, economic expansion, and a rise in the standard of living, but it was nourished also by a belief in the generative power of science and technology. The Chairman of CSIRO, Ian Clunies Ross, provided something of a keynote in his observation that ‘there are no problems so great that they cannot be solved once we marshal our resources for a resolute and sustained attack on them’.60 Clunies Ross’s ‘faith’, the supplement concluded, ‘articulates the endeavours of the planners and makers of Australia’s future’.61

The Minister for Primary Industry, Billy McMahon, praised the work of Australia’s ‘modern explorers’, the ‘scientists and scientifically minded farmers’, who were ‘rolling back our farm horizons’ and revealing our ‘unlimited’ opportunities.62 He invoked a familiar catalogue of hopes, but one that was charged with an increasingly powerful sense of expectation. Attempting to define the ‘newness’ of the atomic age, the nuclear physicist Ernest Titterton suggested that ‘the funeral pyre of Hiroshima’ was ‘the symbol of an era in which science has become so important in our lives that all decisions, including political ones, must be made with scientific considerations in mind’.63 No nation, it seemed, could afford to ignore the implications of science. The power of science was the power of the bomb, the ability to change the world, to bring down the guillotine on the past, to erect the signposts at the crossroads of destiny. Progress, science and atomic energy were virtual analogues, each brought the promise of a future transformed.

Old dreams were invested with new hope. Atomic energy would power the reclamation of Australia’s ‘great spaces’.64 The Chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, J. P. Baxter, described the possibility of ‘package power stations’ to serve ‘the remoter parts of the continent’, particularly those whose mineral wealth ‘will demand exploitation’.65 Uranium offered a solution at last to Australia’s ‘empty north’, propelling the nation into a new phase of ‘pioneering’.66 The mining and processing of this mysterious metal, it was argued, would give ‘the economic life of the Territory the transfusion of new blood it needs’.67 Progress was represented not only by the Rum Jungle uranium mine, but by the modern town of Batchelor, created specifically for miners and their families. Opening the project, Prime Minister Menzies declared it ‘something of a miracle’. ‘Not long ago’, he continued, the Northern Territory had seemed ‘almost worthless’: ‘But the history of Australia is the history of converting people from despair to hope and from hope to achievement’. With the discovery of uranium, the north seemed destined to host ‘one of the great communities of Australia’.68

Edwin Brady always intended to write a sequel to Australia Unlimited, and if he had lived a few years longer, one could imagine him poring over accounts of the Rum Jungle project, thinking back to that campfire and his dreams of progress.69 But there was something rather different about this new style of pioneering. The town of Batchelor, with its individually styled family homes and its remarkable range of ‘comforts and amenities’, had brought suburban living to the frontier.70 More importantly, its inhabitants were not sturdy landholders working their properties, but wage earners, employees of Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd. The Sydney Morning Herald’s version of Australia Unlimited was not the story of hardworking individuals creating national progress out of their own instinctive drive for improvement. In the wake of the Manhattan Project, the scale of progress had changed dramatically, represented now by huge developmental projects that married government-supplied infrastructure with foreign investment and expertise.71 Progress was measured not in the sweat of the yeoman farmer, but in the profits of large multinational companies.

The Liberal Party went before the electors in 1958 emphasising its achievements in national development and its success in attracting foreign capital.72 ‘Our slogan is “Australia Unlimited”’, Menzies asserted, ‘and we pronounce it with confidence’.73 The campaign theme was highlighted by a tour of key projects and facilities, including the opening of Australia’s first nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights.74 But behind the confidence of ‘Australia Unlimited’ lurked a new fear. Electors were urged, not to make, but ‘to conserve the forces of progress’.75 As the security enclosures at Rum Jungle and Lucas Heights demonstrated, while individuals had seemingly lost the power to create progress, they had somehow gained the ability to threaten it.

a change of heart

The war, when it came, only lasted for a month, but that was long enough. All life was quickly extinguished in the northern hemisphere, and the clouds of deadly radioactive fallout gradually diffused to shroud the whole globe. For the people of Australia, it was a lingering, drawn out journey to oblivion. Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On the Beach was published the same year as the first Australia Unlimited supplement. Its theme was not confidence, but fear, resignation and confusion. There was a new threat from the north, invisible and unstoppable. ‘It’s going to go on spreading down here, southwards, till it gets to us?’, Moira asks, ‘And they can’t do anything about it?’ ‘Not a thing’, replies Commander Dwight Towers, ‘It’s just too big a matter for mankind to tackle. We’ve just got to take it’.76 All they can do is wait helplessly for their own death. In this final act of surrender the people of Australia are united with the rest of humanity: one world or none.

Just as atomic power promised to conquer Australia’s vast spaces, so the bomb seemed poised to obliterate national boundaries. There would be no winners in an atomic war. G. V. Portus from the University of Adelaide argued that the ‘only defence of the world against the threat of atomic warfare is political defence’, and called for the ‘abandonment’ of the ‘out-of-date’ concept of national sovereignty.77 Some looked with hope to the newly formed United Nations and its attempts to negotiate a system of control, but the UN Atomic Energy Commission soon descended into deadlock.78 Others sought more radical solutions, inspired by Einstein and his declaration in favour of world government.79 But the political fallout from our atom-bombed world soon settled, and the divisions became clear again. In this new age of oxymorons, war was cold, and the bomb was a weapon of peace.

The Cold War pushed Australia’s defensive frontiers ever northward, as the concept of ‘forward defence’ emerged to contain the threat of communism.80 ‘We must, by peaceful means extend the frontiers of the human spirit’, Menzies proclaimed, ‘We must, by armed strength, defend the geographical frontiers of those nations whose self-government is based upon the freedom of the spirit’.81 Menzies invoked the prospect of a looming third world war to justify his government’s defence preparation program, but increasingly Australia sought security in treaties and alliances, rather than men and guns.82 The nation’s defence was to be assured through the graces of its powerful friends, rather than the character of its citizen soldiery. Just like the characters in On the Beach, Australians were left to ponder a threat that they barely understood, and against which they could do very little.

But even as the frontiers of Australian security expanded, so they rebounded inwards, enclosing hearts and minds in an ever tighter grip. Long-held fears of infiltration were revived, with communism identified as a domestic as well as an international threat. Agents of the enemy were amongst us. The circumstances of the bomb’s creation and use focused much of this anxiety on the myth of the ‘atomic secret’.83 The CSIR, with its modest atomic energy program, proved a favourite target for political opportunists.84 Not only was it believed to be harbouring communists, its Chairman, David Rivett, had the temerity to suggest that good science entailed the free and open interchange of information.85 To prove their security credentials at home and abroad, both Labor and Liberal governments cranked up the legislative apparatus, providing new levels of protection for defence ‘secrets’, and creating new agencies to monitor the threat within.86 The common citizen was no longer the nation’s guarantee of security, but a potential weak link in its defensive perimeter.

It was, perhaps, human weakness that was most glaringly exposed by the bomb blast over Hiroshima. Even as the world marvelled at this new conquest of the forces of nature, they wondered if humanity had the maturity and wisdom to control it. ‘It is a challenge to the conscience of man’, the Argus considered, ‘to ponder gravely whether his intellectual achievements have not outrun his moral perceptions’.87 The ‘crossroads of destiny’ had brought a ‘moral test’ upon the world; science demanded ‘a change of heart’.88 And there was no time to get your breath back. Bomb tests followed bomb tests, and then the Russians had it, and so the Americans built the H-bomb, and there were more tests … The frontiers of science were running ahead, pushing ever deeper into unknown territory, leaving the world gasping, trying to catch up. In April 1954 a distinguished panel of speakers considered the latest menace under the title ‘The H-Bomb – A Challenge to Humanity’. Canon E. J. Davidson proclaimed: ‘Our civilisation stands at the point of decision … It must conform to the moral order of the universe or perish’.89

Each new challenge brought its own sense of urgency, its own restatement of the crossroads choice – change or die. There was no ‘turning point’, no critical juncture on the road to progress, only constant reminders of our own fallibility and the apparent disconnection of science from the ethical life of humanity. The crossroads offered not the chance to change the future, but to conform to it. We were the ‘other’, able to occupy the future only through the courtesy of science. The destructive sense of inevitability that the frontier wreaked upon the land and its original inhabitants was turned upon us all. It was humanity itself that threatened progress.

a hapless mess of wreckage and misunderstanding

In May 1999, The Australian invited a range of ‘well-informed and influential’ speakers to examine the question: ‘How can we continue to build an open, competitive international economy while ensuring we develop a progressive society?’90 The resulting conference was entitled – yes, you guessed it –‘Australia Unlimited’, and focused on the dangers and opportunities wrought by the latest in revolutionary forces – globalisation. Something new was here. The forum’s major sponsors provided a convenient summary of its themes in their half-page advertisements. Ansett offered ‘a world of destinations’, Foxtel brought the news of the world to you 24 hours a day, while IBM described the ‘treasure trove of products’ available on the Web. ‘Now it really is a small world’, they told us.91 But globalisation is simply progress rebadged, measured still in the conquest of distance, the colonisation of space. Science and technology continue to bolster its imagined momentum, pushing time beyond its limits, creating the fault-lines of the new.

Within each Australia Unlimited, there was an attempt to articulate the balance of forces that will ensure continued progress: the interplay of nation and citizen, knowledge and capital, freedom and control. In the latest version it was the balance between the ‘two competing imperatives’ of ‘economic growth and social harmony’ that most concerned the movers and shakers.92 Stuart Macintyre was the only contributor to comment on the link to Brady and Deakin, noting that ‘the principal object of Australian policy in the early years of the century was not the economy or social justice but the nation’.93 It was a point lost on most forum participants, who imagined progress to be found in the maintenance of a healthy, global economy. Nations are not built; they grow in the rich and fertile environment of globalisation – just keep piling on the manure. But all is not well in this garden of plenty, for the disintegration of social cohesion threatens continued reform. ‘Even at a terrible cost to themselves’, Dennis Shanahan wrote in his summary of the forum, ‘individuals and single nations have the potential to turn the advantages and underpinnings of globalisation against globalisation itself’. Unless governments and corporations can persuade individuals of the benefits of this new age, their ‘resistance … has the potential to … set off a chain reaction threat to general progress’. The danger is not ideological, resistance derives not from political commitment, but from ‘a sense of alienation, envy and resentment’.94 The problem is in being human.

In traversing these three versions of Australia Unlimited, it is tempting to imagine a linear narrative, to trace the progress of progress. That is the lie at the heart of this paper. Concepts such as the individual, the nation, even science, are never simple, and are always contested. There is no single stream of progress meandering through time, there are many countercurrents, eddies, backwaters and divergences. The point is not what progress has become, but that it has become, and is becoming still. Progress is not a belief, a hope, a naïve aspiration; one that we can in our supposed sophistication simply reject or deny. Within the meaning of progress there are many balances to be negotiated and boundaries to be drawn: a continuing process of accumulation and disjunction that shapes our perceptions of time and our awareness of change.

The process of future-making leaves its traces, and this brief, inconclusive sortie has tried to find the chisel marks in the smooth, worked surface of the new. Who makes the future? Groom’s idealised citizen seems to have been overtaken by the scientist, and both by the forces of global change, but all are fictions drawn from the battlefields of identity and authority. Where is the future made? Spatial metaphors are commonly invoked to illuminate the meaning of time, and so it is that progress is seen to be forged at the frontier, the crossroads, or in the networks of globalisation. Movement is taken for granted, we are on a journey, ever onwards. Is there a choice? Images of a future under threat, of a menacing otherness, of the imminent danger of annihilation, all work to deny alternatives. We are warned to keep to the main road for our own safety, for the safety of the future. But to understand our options, we have to explore the meaning of our journey, to chart its origins, to look again at the signposts. We have to find the frontiers of our future in our past.

In one of his last journal entries, Alfred Deakin struggled to stay within time: ‘Why babble more … I have shed, once and for all, my past as a whole – my present fruitless – my future a hapless mess of wreckage and misunderstanding’.95 His memory was almost gone, so too his words, his life. Groom lived on, but also battled to keep pace with progress. So thoroughly modern in his nation-building enthusiasm, he suffered the ultimate humiliation of being remembered by Robert Menzies as ‘old fashioned’.96 And Brady? Edwin Brady died in 1952, just short of his 83rd birthday. He spent most of his later years at his camp in Mallacoota, sandwiched between the bush and the sea. He was, he reflected ‘perhaps the most successful failure in literary history’. Barely able to make a living, he nonetheless persisted ‘in asserting that Australia is the best country in the world’.97 Most of his plans had come to nothing. There was no sequel to Australia Unlimited, no film version, his hopes for the economic development of East Gippsland had been thwarted, his utopian farming community had failed. ‘Should I end up, therefore, on a melancholy note?’, he asked. Brady’s journey along ‘Life’s Highway’ was coming to an end, but he would not submit to the inevitable, he would not surrender to time. ‘I decline to become mournful’, he answered, ‘I refuse to grow old’.98 There is no turning back. Is there?


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  1. Edwin James Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 570. []
  2. ibid., pp. 570–1. []
  3. ibid., p. 515ff.; Some details of Brady’s travel arrangements, facilitated by the Commonwealth, are contained in National Archives of Australia (NAA): A659/1, 1943/1/3907. []
  4. ibid., p. 53. []
  5. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (CPD), vol. 50, 30 July 1909, pp. 1878–1891. For more on Groom see: Jessie Groom, Nation Building in Australia : The Life and Work of Sir Littleton Ernest Groom; David Carment, ‘Groom, Sir Littleton Ernest’. []
  6. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 Nov. 1906. For an examination of Groom’s liberalism see David Carment, ‘The Making of an Australian Liberal: The Political Education of Littleton Groom, 1867–1905’. []
  7. Rather than a comprehensive political doctrine, ‘new liberalism’ represented a constellation of ideas that also appeared under banners such as ‘progressivism’ and ‘national efficiency’. See: Michael Roe, Nine Australian Progressives: Vitalism in Bourgeois Social Thought, 1890–1960, pp. 1–20; Tim Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character, pp. 38–9; John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s, pp. xvii-xx. For more on the relationship with science, see Roy MacLeod, ‘Science, Progressivism and Practical Idealism: Reflections on Efficient Imperialism and Federal Science in Australia 1895–1915’. []
  8. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 Nov. 1906. []
  9. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901. []
  10. CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, pp. 1827–31. []
  11. Quoted in Groom, Nation Building, p. 56. []
  12. For Deakin’s interest in irrigation see: J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin – A Biography, vol. 1, pp. 84–6; Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin – A Sketch, pp. 92–7. In 1901, John Quick noted that beside himself, William Groom (Littleton’s father), Alfred Deakin (Ballarat), Hugh McColl (Echuca) and Allan McLean (Gippsland) had all campaigned on the issue, CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, pp. 1827–8. []
  13. CPD, vol. 2, 12 July 1901, p. 2507. []
  14. Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1906. []
  15. Groom, Nation Building. []
  16. J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin – A Biography, vol. 2, pp. 407–8. []
  17. For example, see Groom’s speech on the Bounties Bill, CPD, vol. 36, 23 July 1907, p. 776. []
  18. CPD, vol. 50, 3 August 1909, p. 1928. []
  19. For example: Rodgers (Wannon), CPD, vol. 70, 16 September 1913, p. 1261; Patten (Hume), CPD, vol. 72, 12 December 1913, p. 4249. []
  20. CPD, vol. 58, 6 October 1910, p. 4215. []
  21. CPD, vol. 2, 12 July 1901, p. 2507. []
  22. For example: Senator McColl, CPD, vol. 52, 15 October 1909, p. 4603. []
  23. CPD, vol. 52, 14 October 1909, p. 4521. []
  24. CPD, vol. 59, 23 November 1910, p. 6589. []
  25. Richard White, Inventing Australia, pp. 63–84; Graeme Davison, ‘Frontier’, pp. 269–70. See also: Roe, Nine Australian Progressives: Vitalism in Bourgeois Social Thought, 1890–1960, pp. 68–70; Brigid Hains, ‘Mawson of the Antarctic, Flynn of the Inland: Progressive Heroes on Australia’s Ecological Frontiers’. []
  26. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 636. []
  27. CPD, vol. 50, 3 August 1909, p. 1929. []
  28. For example: Fenton (Maribyrnong), CPD, vol. 58, 6 October 1910, p. 4217; Patten (Hume), CPD, vol. 72, 12 December 1913, p. 4251. []
  29. CPD, vol. 59, 23 November 1910, p. 6590. []
  30. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 630. []
  31. CPD, vol. 70, 5 September 1913, pp. 933, 935. []
  32. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 53. []
  33. ibid., p. 571. []
  34. Copy of prospectus (undated) contained in NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907. []
  35. David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939, pp. 113–126. []
  36. CPD, vol. 50, 30 July 1909, p. 1880. []
  37. CPD, vol. 50, 30 July 1909, p. 1880. []
  38. ibid. []
  39. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 November 1906. []
  40. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901. For more on the influence of Pearson, see: Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939, pp. 45–9; Roe, Nine Australian Progressives: Vitalism in Bourgeois Social Thought, 1890–1960, pp. 17–18. []
  41. Alison Bashford, ‘Quarantine and the Imagining of the Australian Nation’; see also Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939, pp. 141–153. []
  42. Toowoomba Chronicle, 10 December 1903. []
  43. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901. On fears of miscegenation, see: Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939, pp. 181–193. []
  44. Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, p. 187; Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939, pp. 12, 113ff. []
  45. Toowoomba Chronicle, 7 November 1906. []
  46. Brady, Australia Unlimited, pp. 286–7. []
  47. Deborah Bird Rose describes the ‘hand of destruction’ and the ‘hand of civilisation’ that shape the space-time of the frontier, see Deborah Rose, ‘The Year Zero and the North Australian Frontier’, pp. 19–20; Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Hard Times: An Australian Study’, pp. 12–15. []
  48. Len Beadell, Blast the Bush, pp. 173–6. Radiocarbon dating was one of the products of the atomic age, see: Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, pp. 86–94. []
  49. Twelve full-scale atomic tests were conducted at three sites – the Monte Bello Islands, Emu Field and Maralinga – between 1952 and 1957. For an official history (with all that entails) see: Lorna Arnold, A Very Special Relationship: British Atomic Weapon Trials in Australia. For more critical appraisals see: Robert Milliken, No Conceivable Injury: The Story of Britain and Australia’s Atomic Cover-Up; Tim Sherratt, ‘A Political Inconvenience: Australian Scientists at the British Atomic Weapons Test, 1952–3’. []
  50. Argus, 5 June 1946, p. 7; SMH & Argus, 8 August 1945, p. 1. []
  51. Clem Christesen, ‘Editorial’. []
  52. C. N. Button, God, Man, and The Bomb, p. 8. []
  53. SMH, 8 August 1945, p. 1 []
  54. For US experience, see: Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, pp. 109–30; Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, pp. 170–182. []
  55. Beadell, Blast the Bush, p. 8. []
  56. Sunday Herald, 4 October 1953. []
  57. Ivan Southall, Woomera, p. 3. For the history of Woomera, see: Peter Morton, Fire Across the Desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946–1980. []
  58. Quoted in Milliken, No Conceivable Injury: The Story of Britain and Australia’s Atomic Cover-Up, p. 93. []
  59. ‘Australia Unlimited Supplement’, SMH, 19 June 1957, p. 1. []
  60. ibid., p. 28. []
  61. ibid., p. 1. []
  62. ibid., p. 24. []
  63. E W Titterton, Facing the Atomic Future, p. 4. []
  64. ‘Australia Unlimited Supplement’, SMH, 19 June 1957, p. 16. []
  65. ibid. []
  66. ‘Australia Unlimited Supplement’, SMH, 19 June 1957, p. 10. See also: Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944–1990, pp. 64–95; Noel Saunders, ‘The Hot Rock in the Cold War: Uranium in the 1950s’. []
  67. National Development, no. 1, October 1952, p. 13. []
  68. SMH, 18 September 1954, p. 3. []
  69. Brady’s hopes for further volumes and revisions of Australia Unlimited are documented in Series 10, Brady Papers, NLA MS 206. []
  70. D. E. Burchill, ‘Rum Jungle Uranium Field – Building the Township of Batchelor’; SMH, 23 September 1954, Womens Section p. 7. See also: Noel Saunders, ‘The Hot Rock in the Cold War: Uranium in the 1950s’, pp. 155–69. []
  71. Lenore Layman, ‘Development Ideology in Western Australia, 1933–1965’, pp. 235, 258–60; Lenore Layman, ‘Development’. []
  72. Marian Simms, A Liberal Nation: the Liberal Party & Australian Politics, p. 58. []
  73. Australian Liberal, vol. 2, no. 1, November 1958, p. 1. []
  74. An occasion celebrated by the SMH with yet another supplement, the ‘Australian Nuclear Research Establishment Feature’, 18 April 1958. []
  75. Liberal Party of Australia, Australia Unlimited! A Nation on the March. []
  76. Nevil Shute, On the Beach, pp. 39–40. []
  77. Kerr Grant and G. V. Portus, The Atomic Age, pp. 16, 23–4. []
  78. Joseph I. Lieberman, The Scorpion and the Tarantula: The Struggle to Control Atomic Weapons, 1945–1949. For Australian involvement see: Tim Sherratt, ‘A Physicist Would Be Best Out of It: George Briggs and the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’. []
  79. SMH, 29 October 1945. See also: Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, pp. 33–45. []
  80. Lachlan Strahan, ‘The Dread Frontier in Australian Defence Thinking’. []
  81. Quoted in ibid., p. 162. []
  82. Geoffrey Bolton, The Middle Way, pp. 79–80. []
  83. For some cultural antecedents, see: Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, pp. 55–74. See also: Saunders, ‘The Hot Rock in the Cold War: Uranium in the 1950s’. []
  84. Phillip Deery, ‘Scientific Freedom and Postwar Politics: Australia, 1945–55’; Jean Buckley-Moran, ‘Australian Scientists and the Cold War’. []
  85. Rohan Rivett, David Rivett: Fighter for Australian Science, pp. 1–14. []
  86. Frank Cain, ‘An Aspect of Postwar Australian Relations with the United Kingdom and the United States: Missiles, Spies and Disharmony’; Frank Cain, The Australian Security Intelligence Organization: An Unofficial History, p. 30ff.; David McKnight, Australia’s Spies and their Secrets, pp. 6–48. []
  87. Argus, 8 August 1945, p. 2. []
  88. Age, 1 July 1946, p. 2; Argus, 6 July 1946, p. 2. []
  89. ibid., p. 19. []
  90. ‘Australia Unlimited’ Liftout, The Australian, 8–9 May 1999, p. 2; Articles and reports from 1–8 May in the Australian. []
  91. The Australian, 1–2 May 1999, p. 17; 3 May 1999, p. 12; 4 May 1999, p. 16. []
  92. The Australian, 1–2 May 1999, p. 16. []
  93. ibid. []
  94. ‘Australia Unlimited’ Liftout, The Australian, 8–9 May 1999, pp. 1–2. []
  95. Quoted in Murdoch, Alfred Deakin – A Sketch, p. 284. []
  96. ‘Foreword’ in Groom, Nation Building, p. vi. []
  97. Edwin James Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’. []
  98. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s Highway’; extracts from ‘Life’s Highway’ were published in Southerly from no. 4, 1954 until no. 4, 1955. []

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