February 20, 2023
“Where do I really come from?” is a question that niggles many people and haunts some. It has been commercialised into apps and television shows; you can send your DNA away to find out about your 7% Peruvian heritage.
“Where do I come from?” is a natural question, an innate instinct. We seem to need to know.
For those who don’t, the quest to find a sense of self is easily understandable.
If you don’t know your birthplace, your parents or some other aspect of your origins, something niggles away, drives you to finding out, to visiting the place you were born, or the house where a parent lived, even or especially if it’s in a distant land.
I’ve been thinking about this question, this question of provenance, of origin, in different ways for some time. It is both a personal question, and a national question.
I know where I’m from, save for a more recent revelation about a great-grandfather. (1)
Nevertheless, despite (largely) knowing where I’m from, this question of provenance tugs at me. I remain vexed by it, drawn to thinking about it as a person and as a citizen. The personal is the political.
“A man never leaves his country” this quote gripped in my conscience as soon as I read it. It is Picasso, and I came across it in Patrick O’Brian’s biography of the peripatetic artist. This was not a rumination on the long-standing questions of national identity of Spain. It was a lament, a euglogy about his birthplace of Malaga, on the southern coast.
Ever since I read his words, I cannot visit Proserpine, its approaches, or the waters nearby without thinking the quote. I left Proserpine at 17, nearly 30 years ago now. After a literal lifetime, my parents left just over a year ago. I knew why I had to leave and understand in different ways now what propelled me away, what sent me onwards. Since then, I have begun to understand what draws me back, or at least to think differently about this feeling, this sense of belonging to a place.
This is all leading somewhere, to a place. To the reason I am sharing this reflection with you all.
My original interest and intrigue in Griffith, the person after whom the place is named, arose as much from innocent curiosity as from what I might describe as the mystery of the place we all call home, this place, this land we call Australia.
When they were handing out continents, not many nations got one, we did
The founder of the Griffith Review, Julieanne Schultz recently published her own treatise, The Idea of Australia. It charts a course of personal reflection and national consideration, evoking concepts of place and identity. For her, the smell of a berry on Minjerribah/Stradbroke Island is the anchor. The personal as political.
Trying to figure out the how and why of Australia has long intrigued me. Not many nations are peaceably formed, and truthfully, neither was ours.
My new colleague Rachel Perkins has done a fine job of documenting this, and our eponym is in this history. There is a question that looms… That important discussion should and will happen, but my present purpose is different.
The forming of the Australian federation was democratic, albeit the franchise was narrow. Only some women in just two colonies only were entitled to vote; it would be nearly 70 years before the original inhabitants of the continent were enfranchised.
When I have thought about Australia, I have spent most time in the narrow passage of time immediately before 1901, hunting for clues, for threads.
"Trying to figure out the how and why of Australia has long intrigued me. Not many nations are peaceably formed, and truthfully, neither was ours."
The movement of people and people’s movements mostly assert independence and self-determination, creating new nations from the dismantling of larger nations. The number of nations has steadily grown of late, not shrunk. Think here of the break up of the Russian federation, Yugoslavia and the Czechoslovakia in the lifetime of the university. Closer to us in time and place is the birth of East Timor as a separate nation.
I am underscoring the point that a peaceable vote to join together is quite the outlier. In our circumstances, as a federation of six colonies, those voters were endorsing a drawing together not voting to separate.
It’s fascinating to me, but it doesn’t get us to the answer about this land we call Australia.
The fertile ground of the late 19th century is more about the genealogy of a body politic, than the DNA of a nation called Australia. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that this absolutely neglected, incredibly intriguing period of time can inform an understanding of the formation of a federation of states, not the nation entirely. It’s not the complete picture. How could it be?
The quote above about the ‘handing out of nations’ is a Keating trope, and you can find it deployed in response to serious questions about our geo-strategic context, about our future, and concepts of nationhood and citizenship.
As a rhetorical flourish, it’s typically excellent. But nothing was handed over, not least a whole continent, and there is unfinished business on defining the ‘we’. Those questions, as Keating himself has argued for more than 30 years, involve more fundamental questions about the indigenes of this land and a Crown in a far away land.
In the Australian context, what it means when a nation is coterminous with a continent is the unique element. There are many island nations, to be sure. But only one nation can describe their island as a continent – the wide brown land we call Australia.
These questions of land, of patriotism, of people with a fidelity, loyalty or connection to a land, loom as questions of place, of belonging.
I am taking this reflection somewhere, to a place.
Terra Australis Incognita
Once, reflecting on the mystery, I tried answering this question, where did the name Australia come from?
It was certainly not the name the first peoples used to describe the land; it was not used by Cook or Phillips, or the Dutch sailors before them. Their imaginations extended to a time stamp on old names of Wales and Holland. In an ancient land, concepts of newness and discovery are not easily reconcilable.
New Holland didn’t get out of the starting blocks, but the locational qualifier of the new Wales points toward the answer of where the name Australia came from. This new Wales was posited as a new South Wales. Long before the ships of the northern hemisphere portently arrived on the continent’s shores, there was a mythology, a theory, a question of, the hope of a great southern land.
Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown (incognita) southern (australis) land (terra). Flinders sailed around it, and wrote of a circumnavigation of “Australia”. If he was the first to sail around it, he wasn’t the first to embrace it. The great southern land had long existed, and it was known.
The name Australia came well after the ships of Europe, and was in common usage before it was enacted as the Commonwealth of Australia on the 1st of January 1901. Like the origins of the nation itself, there is a lack of clarity. The National Library of Australia says it was Governor Macquarie who promoted the name to the British government, and by foreign decree so it came to be. The land then was to be called Australia, it was a continent that now had a name but it was not yet a nation.
The nation’s High Court is described in a simple form in our constitution, under the principal hand of Sir Samuel Griffith, and then constituted by a later Act of Parliament. (2) Griffith, of course, was then its first Chief Justice. (3)
"The National Library of Australia says it was Governor Macquarie who promoted the name to the British government, and by foreign decree so it came to be. The land then was to be called Australia, it was a continent that now had a name but it was not yet a nation."
Why mention Griffith’s High Court? It was this High Court, imagined and enacted and then led by Griffith, which evolved into the institution that dealt so decisively with terra nullius in 1992, some 90 years later. In the case we know as Mabo, the land (terra) of no people (nullius) was called out as the myth: terra australis incognita no longer.
The great southern land has been here since time immemorial, and it had been peopled for tens of thousands of years. Those people belonged to the land, and surely the land belonged to them. It took the voice of Edward Koiki Mabo to have this case heard, for the law to change, and for things to begin to change for many indigenous Australians whose claim to original ownership has since been recognised. It took Eddie Mabo’s voice to be heard for change to occur.
It was another great jurist from Queensland, Gerard Brennan who would also go on to serve as a Chief Justice, who described the effect of terra nullius on indigenous people in the lead judgment in the Mabo case in these stark terms: “their dispossession underwrote the nation.”
I read Brennan’s words in early 1995, as an undergraduate student on the Nathan campus. The law school hadn’t yet graduated a student. It was to be nearly two more years before that happened, and at about the same time in the December of 1996, the next seminal native title case was handed down by the High Court. The Wik people’s ownership was to be recognised again.
The nation, and the nation’s legal system, the understanding of property, of ownership – all this was in flux at this point. For a nation that mythologises the land this contest was acute, despite there being so much land and so few people.
If all politics are local, it is perhaps not surprising that both Mabo and Wik were about land held by the Crown in Queensland, literally the Queen’s land. Questions of whose place it was, and whether land belonged to some people in priority over the people who belonged to the land – these were big questions.
Once again, you are entitled to ask, where is this heading? I am taking it to a place, a place that matters.
To do this, one more layer of context. Second year blues are a thing. Perhaps the second year students of 2023 don’t call anything ‘a thing’ much anymore, and their language about mental health is far more evolved than in the time and places I’m referencing here.
But in 1995, in second year, I was in a bad place.
There is no traceable story to tell here, nothing diagnosed and there is a risk of memory and the tricks it plays.
But after the thrill of the first year, the adrenalin of all that is new, a new place and a new occupation as a university student, after the rush of freedom, comes the crush of adult obligation and realisation – is this really what I want to do? Four more years of study and then what? It is unfathomable in the moment.
I prefer to remember this time now like an intellectual ‘growing pains’. I was reading the philosophers: Hobbes’ violently conceived Leviathan, Mills’ liberty, Locke’s freedom and Aristotle’s theory of human society were in a swirling cocktail with McGahan’s nihilistic New Farm of 1988 (4), Birmingham’s lethal felafel and the timeless, endless haunt of Hermann Hesse’s Joseph Knecht.
Back in Proserpine at the end of my first year I had – as usual – spent the previous summer working full time to save for the semester ahead. There was chatter about Mabo, and myths about the Main Street being claimed, farms at risk from being taken back by the aborigines.
Mabo was being conflated by politicians who were either racist, or just cravenly unaffected by the moral corruption of utilising race in a quest for power. It was a heady, febrile time in the nation’s history.
The conversations in the pubs, at BBQ’s, and outside the paper shop selling the newspapers carrying the stories of the ‘backyards under threat’ were conversations were about a suddenly uncertain future.
Our fractured history was the source of this worry, this grief. The nation was hearing about its uncertain lineage. If you know anyone who was found out that their ‘Mum’ is not in fact their ‘real’ or biological mother; that there is a different version of their history, that their understanding of self is not purely linear, and in fact a darker story, a less comfortable part to their personal history exists, then you will know of the grief this causes.
One can describe this period of time – then and perhaps even now – as a national reckoning with our nation’s darker history, the less comfortable consequences of the myth of terra nullius.
In my birthplace, I heard people talk about generations who had lived in an area, worked and cared for a place, sustained themselves from it, built homes on it and raised families. None of those conversations where about these concepts being in any way a pathway to understanding the notion of original ownership, of notion of a native title. This was shorter, narrower version of connection to the land.
I knew these people, these families said to be under threat. I went to school with their children. The anxiety over the family farm – being any ‘family farm’ – was a talismanic community anxiety. It was real, even if it was based on a catastrophising of imagined futures.
This is a thumbnail sketch, and it’s not meant to be revisionist and reductionist, let alone stereotypical. If there is a stereotype award in this narrative, I was in the gold medal contest. A Greenpeace shirt (STOP THE BLOODY WHALING, with BLOODY in red lettering), a pair of Doc Martens, the radio dial in my 1982 Cortina never moved off JJJ, Pearl Jam and (less forgivably) Green Day CDs on high rotation in my share house. I was even trying to grow my hair long, but it was determined to go out and up, not down.
As I struggled through second year, perhaps with only my mother alive to me being a bit down’ ‘(as mothers tend to spot even at a distance of 1000km away) I was trying to come to grips with big fundamental questions. Questions about the nature of humans, of societies, theories of politics, of a good life … all while I was in my first time of living in a share house, working holidays and weekends and everything else about young adulthood that is romantic in hindsight, but confounding in the moment.
The second year curriculum in my law degree was headlined by Constitutional law, and competing with me in the stereotype stakes was a lecturer, whom I shall not name but describe. His attire legendarily included a sarong once, oftentimes cargo pants and sandals, loud shirts mostly, he wore earrings, he had a goatee and pronounced constitution as con-ste-too-shun despite not being from North America as I recall. His voice was helped through lectures by refreshments from a de-labelled vodka bottle filled with water. I say it was water because a fellow student took a swig during a lecture break once just to check. He was resolved about the place of indigenous Australians in any understanding of con-ste-too-shunnel law. He was brilliant, and I was captivated, mesmerised. I listened, and read, and felt big shards of glacial ice fall away from the scaffolded views I had hitherto heard.
It was a lot. 1995: second year blues, or perhaps just teenage angst, trying to figure out the world, where I was from had started to seem different from a distance. I was trying to work out what life was really about, and craved more certain times, or at least times of greater contentment that seemed to have been a few moments ago.
During that year, I longed to be back in the summer just gone. After the thrill of first year came a summer of living down at the beach with extended family at Midge Point, with a weekly rhythm of driving daily back into town from Monday to Friday for a job of mostly manual labour. This had seemed enough. I had known contentment then, that was a good place.
When I sought salvation in that year, I would close my eyes and walk in my mind along the beach, or be skipping across the waves in the tinny on the way to go crabbing.
I did not know this then, but these notions of being anchored to a place were the key to so much in a way that has taken me a long time to work out, almost ultimately to now, to where we are today. This place, this time.
In introducing native title law, the lecturer – actually let’s call him Geoff – did not start with the law.
The lecturers never did. It was why the degree was brilliant. Constitutional law started, in earnest, with understanding the reality of the history and way of life of the first peoples of this land. Then came the law. The sequence was proper, logical.
I listened to Geoff speak of ideas of people belonging to land, not land belonging to people. Of a deep connection to lands and places that were not owned, but occupied, not one’s land, but the land of one’s family, a concept writ large and imagined beyond the idea of the nuclear family.
The land, the people. The connection to place. Eddie Mabo’s story, the voice of Eddie Mabo.
I sat and listened Geoff as he nudged us, invited us, but did not lecture us into thinking about the stunningly confronting and compelling, utterly cogent concept that Australia as a place needed to reconcile with its true past.
I closed my eyes.
Not because I was scared or wanted to pretend I was not there.
But because something primal, something true was there. I didn’t suddenly know all that was true, right, correct, whether Aristotle was right or Bentham’s calculous solved it, but I knew something then, and I’ve known it since.
Place matters. Where one comes from matters. Despite all else, we are beings of a place. It may haunt us, it may comfort us, it may be the point from which we propel, it may be the homing point to which we must return. It may be all of those things…
It might drive us to other places, or magnetically pull us back. But where we come from matters, even when we define ourselves apart from it, it is forever the reference point.
When I closed my eyes then, and now, I can walk from the beach at the front of my grandparents house, along the ebb of the tide, and through the first mangroves, past Sandfly Creek, toward ‘Secret Beach’, and then along the exposed shoreline, where it is windier, but the colour of the rocks change.
And in the re-lived memory of my childhood, this land, the shoreline, the wind, the water that rolled in, as it always had, this walk, this sense of place, its colours, its smell, the sense of place taught me something. Belonging to a place, never mind whether some invented concept of ownership said it belonged to you, was something I understood innately. This is not a parable of equivalence, but empathy. I was not able then, nor can I now, fully comprehend the scale of loss that underwrote Australia.
But I felt a permanent empathy sear into my being. I winced at the sting of an injustice.
My sense of place, of where I came from, of where I belonged, and where those people who defined and populated my being belonged, was suddenly converted from something instinctive into something realised. This was an enlightenment, and it cast new light on the darkness of history.
In the darkness of of my 1995, I would seek refuge in this imagined walk along the unpopulated shoreline towards Jimmy’s Rocks. It was indelibly part of who I was, who I am. It is country I can never leave.
It was the key to understanding native title as a legal concept, to understanding original belonging, to a why it mattered so much, why it was a moral imperative.
I like to think now that it clicked for me then. I know now that this was an important point, a place at which I realised many things.
Alongside place, it is time that defines us. And now, some time later, I hope I understand it all a little better.
I started with the frame of defining where we, I, Australians, come from. To conclude, this is where I am heading…
The answer to all of this, the point of of what I wanted to say today is that place matters, this place matters.
I feel deeply connected to Griffith for many reasons, but the connection for me is strongest in the buildings of my time as a student. Not many of them, if any, are architectural marvels. But together they evoke a sense of place, of time. None of them evoke a sense of grandeur. They feel mostly feel ephemeral and susceptible, not enduring or timeless. Some feel or felt fashionable, there isn’t a sense of great permanency.
Nevertheless, the landscape and the built form of the campus are essential to my sense of where I truly come from.
What I know now is that place truly matters. And what we build at Griffith, the places we create, the streetscapes, the public realms, and the landscapes we care for matter. These are the locations of those moments in time that define lifetimes, the backdrop to the staging of one’s life, they all matter.
The places of Griffith must be inviting, grandeur is not required but beauty and meaning are musts. Beauty will not be enough, it never is. It must, however, be a pre-condition.
That’s because these places will matter, in times of plenty and in times of less
If a university is a community of scholars, then the community must convene. We humans are a tactile lot, we hold hands, we embrace in times of joy and in times of loss, we marry with a kiss, we grieve when the next hug is not possible.
Being together, physically, is how we truly come together. All other means are just imitations.
So our places – the places of Griffith – must draw us to convene, to be physically present in physical surrounds. To be on the campus in places of three-dimensions, of sounds, of smells, places of memory that create places of being – and belonging.
We must curate, and we must build spaces that people want to be. That means imagining places that go beyond the utilitarian, that are not ‘value engineered’ to the false accounting of one fiscal year. We must build, curate and care for our spaces by measures beyond their depreciation schedule. We must build them not to be posthumously named, but as wellsprings of life.
We must build places that draw people together, not motivate or facilitate people moving apart. The atomisation of our university might facilitate flexibility, but it threatens our true and original nature as a community of scholars, as a place of learning.
We must – as we make significant decisions about many of these places this year and next – think about legacy. That legacy is the bequeathment of places of real worth, of special meaning, of truth. They should be places of patriotism, with an idea of belonging, of being connected to a place, to the land – never just another building.
My provocation then is this: what I love about Griffith is its lack of pretension, what I would change about Griffith is its lack of pretension. If what we do is worthwhile, then we must create places of enduring worth, of true worth, of belonging.
- Who turns out wasn’t my great-grandfather but was married to my great-grandmother whose gambling habits in Northern England had precipitated him accompanying her in swapping hemispheres to Australia in the early 1950s.
- Reputed to also be by largely by the hand of Griffith, despite him not being an MP, and in fact a serving judge of another court.
- An aside relevant to 2023: Griffith presciently said of the drafting of the Constitution: “We have to devise a constitution that will work, that will have within its bounds sufficient scope to allow of any developments… it is well to have a constitution so elastic as to allow of any necessary development that may take place.” To which Alfred Deakin asked: “Capable of being amended?” And Griffith replied: “Everything is capable of being amended.”
- Perhaps a name even less imaginative than New Holland or New South Wales.
15 February 2023 Kombumerri lands/Gold Coast
The Hon Andrew Fraser is the University’s sixth Chancellor, and the first alumnus to hold the position.
Mr Fraser is a professional director with a wide range of roles across the private, public and charitable sectors. Currently he serves on the boards of the major construction firm BESIX Watpac Ltd and Chairs the Australian Retirement Trust, the $240b fund which is the result of the merger of QSuper and Sunsuper, which Mr Fraser led as Chair of Sunsuper. He is the Chair of Orange Sky Australia, and serves on two other charities, Hear and Say and 3rd Space. In addition, he is a director on the Brisbane Broncos Ltd (ASX: BBL) and is the President and Chair of Motorsport Australia. A graduate of Griffith University, from which he received a University Medal, Mr Fraser has served on the Council of the University since 2017 and was the Deputy Chancellor and Chair of the Finance, Resources and Risk Committee.
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