Wounded Country by Quentin Beresford

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Inverell farmer and political lobbyist, Mal Peters, ‘talks the talk’ that politicians and bureaucrats have to hear if the Murray-Darling River basin is ever to be returned to its days of continued health. It is a very sick place. Peters explodes when talk of another reform process is mooted:

…the Australian public are going to say, you’ve blown $13 billion of our bloody money, and the river’s worse than what it was. So away we go again (349)

as yet another scheme to fix the Murray-Darling is imposed on a frustrated public by uninformed and uninterested bureaucrats hidden away behind the seat of power. Having convinced themselves that minimal changes to the water flow will restore the ecosystem, they have no tolerance of, or interest in, the research findings of Virginia Marshall, a Wiradjuri Nyemba woman and Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian National University. Marshall comments that the sacredness of water shapes the identity and values of Aboriginal peoples. But no government fully understands Aboriginal water knowledge and the values they could impart. Rather, the water needs of indigenous people, those same folk who have managed the great waterway for thousands of years, are ignored as of little consequence.

The catastrophic failure of the Murray-Darling management authority, an arm of the NSW and Federal governments, is of momentous proportions.  The extent of its gravity is highlighted by the Menindee lakes fish kill of January 2019 when an estimated one million fish died. Beresford, desiring to establish how this could happen, discovered a tale of responsibility avoidance, of political indifference, and, in the case of one National Party power-broker, not only mismanagement but also the undermining of the processes of government.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has responsibility for the health and upkeep of the waters of the Murray-Darling rivers. Well, maybe. One can only wonder at a system that monitors the level of water in the river such that when the water level drops to a certain height, administration of the river system becomes the province of the NSW Government and when it rises again becomes the MDBA responsibility again. Meanwhile, the indigenous people, the real owners are left, uninformed, without a voice, and isolated.

This sorry tale of mismanagement, buck-passing and collusion with big spenders is what Beresford set out to investigate. That the river is exhausted, its waters drained to excess i.e., that the Murray-Darling has been over-exploited by white interests is beyond question to any outside observer. Cubby Station withdrew enormous amounts of water to service its cotton crop, but to find any denizen of St George who will agree, is a tall order. Beresford’s book investigates when the decline in a healthy centuries old river system began to accelerate and makes engrossing reading. His studies uncover, layer by layer, the truth that when graziers and settlers took over aboriginal land and fed upon the river, the first destructive steps were taken. Contemporaneously, bureaucrats and politicians were keen to feed on the bonanza too. Pastoralism had rendered the aborigines surplus to requirements. Little wonder that nature took exception to produce Australia’s very own dustbowl.

The book details strategies to fix the ailing system, but all failed because all were focused on getting rich but treating the general public to flurries of activity that when viewed objectively and dispassionately had little chance of doing more than filling columns in newspapers and fitting the evening television news. Beresford is not a popular bloke in Macquarie Street or the halls of parliament in Canberra. Berejiklian has not enough votes in this part of the world to care while successive Turnbull and Morrison governments do not bother to respond when pressed.

Beresford’s book is aptly named ‘Wounded Country’. It describes a tale of carnage but does so in a fair but outspoken voice that one day the Australian people may choose to hear.

Wounded Country


by Quentin Beresford

NewSouth Books

Paperback | Sep 2021 | NewSouth | 9781742236780 | 432pp | 234x153mm | GEN | AUD$34.99, NZD$39.99

Wounded Country | NewSouth Books

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