August 27th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Online census fiasco a cautionary tale

CANBERRA OBSERVED Tony Abbott: regrets, he's had a few, and those few he mentions

VICTORIA Volunteers put head on CFA, Cash pursues federal remedy

RURAL AFFAIRS Crisis in dairy industry escalates to new level

SOCIETY AND POLITICS Gays and lesbians can have happy marriages

SOCIETY AND RELIGION The science is in: God is good (for our children)

LAW AND SOCIETY Messing with marriage will hit constitutional bump

GENDER POLITICS Croome's blackmail gamble

TAIWANESE POLITICS Tsai remains in control after her first 100 days

MUSIC An industry that serves everyone bar the maker

CINEMA Villains under coercion: Suicide Squad

BOOK REVIEW A lose-lose country

BOOK REVIEW Grown in the 'burbs: a self-sufficiency plot

U.S. POLITICS The Good Ship Lollypop must be on the slipway

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Grown in the 'burbs: a self-sufficiency plot

News Weekly, August 27, 2016

B.A. SANTAMARIA: Running the Show. Selected Documents, 1939–1996

Edited by Patrick Morgan

Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, 2008
Paperback: 604 pages
Price: AUD$59.95


Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


My grandmother, Lillian Abrahams, grew her own vegetables and raised chickens, mainly for eggs, but we would eat a chicken now and then. She had fruit trees and gooseberry bushes. In the evening, I would walk down the hill to the dairy, a family-owned farm, and get a billyful of fresh milk. There is no greater pleasure than drinking rich, unadulterated, creamy fresh milk.

My Grandmother bottled her own fruit. I remember with pleasure the desserts she served: homemade ice-cream with stewed blood plums, made from the produce of her own trees. She also had geese, which would chase me. When I was young, the geese were terrifying. Geese are natural guardians.

My Grandmother lived in Gosnells, on Perth’s southeastern periphery, then a rural area. She outlived three husbands, all military men. I spent every school holidays either with my Grandmother or my Aunty Agnes, who ran a boarding house in East Perth, then a very rundown semi-industrial area.

My Grandmother was self-sufficient. She sought nothing from anyone. She had no income apart from her war widow’s pension, but she wanted for nothing. She was independent. From her 1½-acre block she produced almost everything she needed. No one could tell her what to do. She lived sustainably. Freedom was her strength.

Is self-sufficiency desirable? Can it be achieved? Is self-sufficiency more than mere subsistence? I believe that the answer to all three propositions is “yes”.

The late B.A. Santamaria promoted rural life to solve pressing social problems and for religious reasons, and to sponsor economic sustainability and national independence. Farms were for living, not just to generate commercial returns. Santamaria promoted “independent farming”. His National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) advocated sustainable rural living.

Santamaria wrote: “The farmer should first and foremost look to his land to provide him directly with all the necessities of his life – with his vegetables, his meat, his milk, his cream, his butter and his eggs … whatever the vicissitudes of the market, the farmer could always obtain his own necessities from his own land.” (p53).

The NCRM was founded at a conference held at Xavier College, Melbourne, in 1940. Santamaria was the NCRM’s inspiration and guiding light. He was also deeply involved with what was then known as “the Movement” or “the Show”, which evolved into the National Civic Council (NCC). The NCRM’s aim was to uphold the Catholic faith and preserve the family though the application of Christian social policy. Santamaria believed that people remained practising Christians more in the country that in the cities, that the birthrate was higher and that family breakdown was less prevalent.

Santamaria’s primary motivation was to overcome social dislocation, but the notion that small-scale agriculture and economic self-sufficiency were economically beneficial appealed to Santamaria. The NCRM fitted in with the distributist ideas of British Catholic intellectuals G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, namely breaking up business monopolies and redistributing huge sheep runs to family farmers. The overweening power of the state would thus be restrained, with a mass of small units effectively governing themselves.

Householders and small farmers would not be enslaved by the financiers or the agricultural lenders. The NCRM believed in “the moral primacy of agriculture”.

At its height in the early 1950s, the NCRM claimed more than 4,000 adherents, 130 parish groups and 18 regional councils. Apart from individual farms, two Catholic rural communities were set up: one at Maryknoll, east of Pakenham, near Melbourne; and at San Isidore, outside Wagga Wagga. The colonies struggled over the decades, as such ventures invariably do.

Santamaria’s best-known scheme, following World War II, was to bring in immigrants to settle on small acreages supplied at cheap rates by state governments. Following a NCRM convention in 1953 at which he spoke, the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, was heard to describe the scheme as “a sheep, a goat, three acres and a migrant”, thereby heaping uncalled for ridicule on the scheme. Although sponsored by an organisation with a religious basis, the scheme would be open to persons of various religious denominations, Santamaria said. (Running the Show, p97).

Expectations are powerful things. The NCRM advocated self-sufficiency, but the its leadership stressed that it did not want a return to peasant agriculture, but rather to promote “intense culture”, as in Denmark and northern Italy. Most economists at the time advocated manufacturing as the engine of economic growth for Australia. The Movement’s most trusted economic adviser, Colin Clark, promoted agricultural production aimed at large-scale exports.

Creating a self-sufficient rural yeomanry was adventurous, even noble. The demise of the NCRM was in part a byproduct of the Split. Santamaria’s scheme foundered for reasons largely beyond his control.

Santamaria may have failed to appreciate the drudgery entailed in a rural smallholding. After all, his father was a shopkeeper, not a farmer. The idea of forming colonies, as at Maryknoll and San Isidore, devoted to a particular spiritual belief or political philosophy is as old as mankind. The rural movement revealed Santamaria’s utopian streak, similar in nature, if not practice, to St Thomas More’s idealised mythical society of Utopia.

Possibly the failure of such enterprises is due to thymotic pride, which Plato described as the impulse of an educated people with an expectation of prosperity to govern themselves. To put it simply, except in special cases such as the priesthood, people rarely seek poverty, or to have poverty and dependence thrust upon them. Of course, poverty and dependence are antithetical to enduring sustainability.

Yet the notion of at least a degree of self-sufficiency is attractive. In recent years, householders have adopted sustainable agriculture in the suburbs. This takes a number of forms. The classic is the backyard vegetable patch.

When my family first relocated to Melbourne’s northwestern suburbs, I was astonished to see that several of my neighbours had dug up their front lawns and replaced them with potato patches. These days, backyard vegetable plots are commonplace. All you need is some space and some organic mulch. Fruit trees are also frequently cultivated. Lemon trees are ubiquitous.

Growing fruit trees requires patience. A friend of mine has a yard full of fruit trees. They are like his children, he says. He has never once bought a seedling; he uses the stones from fruit bought from the greengrocer. He also makes his own wine.

Chickens are making a comeback. Although regulations vary from place to place, in the City of Moonee Valley in Melbourne’s northwestern suburbs, householders do not need a permit to run 10 chickens or fewer. A chook pen with 10 chooks will usually produce seven to eight eggs a day, more than sufficient for the average family.

Community gardens are popular with people who have limited space. East Keilor Sustainability Street Community Garden has plots for growing vegetables. The community garden is situated on a block of wasteland owned by the council. Gardeners pay a small annual fee. Money is also raised through regular open days. There are rules and regulations, this being council property, but the only really serious injunction is “thou shalt not take another gardener’s produce”. The plots are neat and well laid out, large enough to get a good harvest. Gardeners often share or give away produce.

Trendy St Kilda has two community gardens, one at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens and one at Veg Out, near Luna Park. In both cases, the gardens are open to the public. Unscrupulous people could steal the produce, but they rarely do.

Community gardens depend on some form of cooperative spirit. Cooperation, rather than altruism, prevails. The gardens flourish due to shared interests. Plot holders have to pitch in for things such as lawn mowing and cleaning. Occasionally, some prized crop will prove too attractive; vegetables do disappear. That Chinese cabbage may be just too tempting.

The key word is sustainability. Many plot holders depend on the garden for their vegetables, especially in spring and summer. Some crops will grow throughout the year. Large crops of vegetables can have multiple uses. Beetroot, for example, can be cooked or used in salads; it can be used in borscht, the Russian soup; and it can be used to make tasty beetroot relish.

My grandmother was an excep­tional cook; in fact, she was, for a time, a professional chef. When she passed away at the age of 87, she left practically everything she owned to me, including her cooking utensils. One hundred years after their manufacture, I am still using them.

And what is the surprise? Every single one of them was made in Australia! They are fine, sturdy, well-made utensils: pots, pans, cake tins, colanders, sifters, graters, baking dishes. Everything my grandmother left me was made in Australia. Australia made things in those days! We made things for ourselves. We had a manufacturing sector. We were independent.

Among the first things that Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam did in 1972 was cut tariffs across the board by 25 per cent. That was the beginning of the end for Australia’s manufacturing industry. The strategic argument for manufacturing can be overdone, but if we cannot sustain our own basic needs, we will become dependent on other countries for those needs. They may not always be dependable or sympathetic to our strategic aims.

A sustainable manufacturing sector is more than about producing goods; it is about sustaining our economic base. We have some world-beating manufacturing companies – biotechnology company CSL, bionic ear supplier Cochlear Implants, and Austal shipbuilding company, which supplies warships to the United States Navy. But for manufacturing to be sustainable, we need more companies that can make kitchen utensils like my Grandmother’s.

If we look to an industry where Australia is a world beater, combining expertise in agricul­ture, we need look no further than our local bottle shop. Australia is the global market leader in wine. Wine is a knowledge-based product that requires skill in growing, harvesting, making, designing, packaging, marketing and distribution. What’s more, most wineries are small family-owned enterprises, based in regional areas. And wine is a truly sustainable industry.

If all our manufacturers could match our winemakers, we truly would have a world-beating and sustainable manufacturing sector. That would be good for our economy and good for our national security.

Jeffry and Lydia Babb are members of East Keilor Sustainability Street Community Garden.

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