believe your own shtick
A lesson from the rise and fall of Australian conservation
1 November 2006
Bindi Irwin is all over the news these days and it looks like a cruel
thing to this possum. I mean, shes just a little kid. She still
has a decade of school in front of her. And the angst of teenhood.
And maybe shell find, as she gets older, that wildlife icon
just aint her. Then what? Irwin built a business around personal
celebrity. The adulation surrounding Bindi strikes this possum as
a desperate attempt to find a commercial substitute.
When youve lived a long time and seen many things, you notice
the patterns. Theres always got to be a left-wing bookseller
in Newtown, an art-house bonking movie in the cinemas and a conservative-friendly
conservationist on TV. In my lifetime I have lived through three major
Australian conservation icons: Harry Butler, John Wamsley,
and now Steve Irwin. Trust me, I know what Im talking about,
and the system probably wont wait for Bindi.
The icon role is for aggressive self-promoters its a
perpetual gig with its own special shtick. You have to come across
as a real Aussie a loveable garralous larrikin
modelled on the Aussie male caricatures on the postcards they print
for tourists a hands-on, no-nonsense he-man, as
distinct from a new-fangled, university-trained ecologist.
Big business and right-wing governments (these days it goes without
saying this includes Labor governments) crave private enterprise role
models. Embarrassed by their own increasingly hostile impulses towards
conservation and biological science, they have a pressing need to
proclaim that theyre practical, down to earth conservationists
and the book-learned elites and government conservation departments
dont know how to do it.
The Irwin style of conservation made governments feel relaxed and
comfortable. It was all about individual responsibility
rather that the responsibilities of government. The importance of
the icon role can be judged by the fact that Howard rushed to the
media and talked gibberish about Irwins quintessentially
Australian demise; Queensland Premier Steve Beattie offered a state
funeral, and the Sydney Morning Herald devoted more pages to one man
than it has since Frank Packer shuffled off to meet the Big Auditor.
Irwins ocker image might as well have been lovingly crafted
to fit John Howards right-wing agenda. Basically it was a symbiotic
relationship, as they say in the wildlife business. Irwin latched
onto Howard like a suck-fish on a shark and hung on for the ride,
mouth open, in the hope that his own conservation agenda would benefit.
It was a faustian bargain. He stooped to calling Howard the
greatest leader Australia has ever had, which is like saying
that Bishop Paley was historys greatest naturalist.
In 2003 Irwin attended a barbecue for George W Bush at the Prime Ministers
Canberra residence. Asked the next day by Channel Nines Richard
Wilkins about Greens' Senator Bob Browns vocal opposition, in
parliament, to the detention of Australian citizens at Guantanamo
Bay and the unequal free trade agreement, Irwin remarked,
Oh crikey mate, he needs to be taken out the back and given
a good belting.
Now Bob Brown led the campaign that saved Tasmanias last wild
river, with all that implied for nature conservation. Nothing obliged
Irwin to slag off at him, but I guess it was just another opportunity
to ingratiate himself with his political patron. If you hitch a ride
with a big predator, pretty soon youll find the words ooze out
Irwin fell victim to a stingray. He did his animal-bothering thing
once too often, but the underlying hazard for conservative-friendly
conservation icons is that, like American TV evangelists, theyre
taken in by their own shtick.
Take Harry Butler. The ABC made him into a national icon. Originally
a wildlife consultant to big mining companies, he had the requisite
genuine Aussie manner, a beard, a battered hat and an
ability to find cryptic fauna in the wild.
Harry walked the walk and talked the talk, but he was really a consultant,
and a man becomes what he does. He came a cropper because he just
couldnt conceive of his old employers in government and industry
losing a fight against grassroots conservationists. In the early 1980s
when the Wilderness Societys campaign to save the Franklin swept
Australia, Harry gambled on the Fraser government pushing through
the Dam project, and he signed on as its wildlife consultant. His
fans were deeply shocked. When, against the odds, the conservationists
won, Harry was political roadkill.
In the late 80s, the mantle passed to John Wamsley who proved the
viability of small fenced-off natural areas free of introduced foxes
and feral cats sort of gated communities for vulnerable wildlife.
Wamsley too, did the bushman shtick and worked the iconoclast entrepreneur
angle in a way that appealed to Dick Smith nationalists and the folks
who would later become Pauline Hanson supporters.
Alas, he was sucked in by the prevailing capitalist triumphalism.
Unfortunately, in a market economy as Karl Marx or your local
used car dealer will testify you can subjectively value
your stock at whatever price you like, but its objective value is
what somebody else is willing to pay. Dead, a kangaroo has market
value as meat and hide, but the only real market value Wamsleys
thundering herds of mini-macropods had was what people would pay to
see them. And the more sanctuaries he established, the more he was
competing with himself. In 2001 the business had to be radically restructured
and many of its assets sold off.
The idea that the market economy can ever have more than a modest,
specific, and tactical significance in nature conservation is a nonsense.
In the broad scale, conservation depends on governments recognising
that wild ecosystems are, literally, priceless, and defending them