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Blazing a track: "the Australian experience in a small compass"

Portrait of Paul Hasluck on the cover of his biography by Geoffrey Bolton

I have been reading Geoffrey Bolton's biography of Paul Hasluck. It is an intriguing story, covering Hasluck's early life in Western Australia, his careers in journalism, the diplomatic service, politics and government, and his appointment as only the second Australian-born Governor-General of Australia.

Hasluck was also a historian, a playwright, a poet and a writer. I met him once, when I was a boy. This was not long after the war when I think Hasluck was still a journalist, but also an aspiring politician. The meeting arose from the fact that he was an exact contemporary of my father and they were students in the same class for five years at Perth Modern School just after World War I. My mother and Alexandra Darker (who became Paul Hasluck's wife) were also contemporaries, two years on, so that the Haslucks and my parents were friends.

Alexandra Hasluck, by the way, was an historian in her own light, the author of (to name one of my favourite books) Portrait with background: a life of Georgiana Molloy, a fascinating biography of an early Western Australian pioneer and botanist.

Paul Hasluck was born in Fremantle in 1905, both his parents being officers in the Salvation Army. In 1912 they were transferred to the small southwest coal mining and timber town of Collie where Paul’s parents were in charge of a "farm school" run by the Salvos for orphaned boys. It was one of those institutions of its time which aimed to provide a healthy outdoor environment, but also to teach the boys useful life skills, fitting them for work on farms or in the bush. Paul loved it there and discovered, as Bolton describes it, "a profound sense of emotional identification with the Australian bush - it is not too much to term it spiritual or mystical - that remained with him for the rest of his life".

The influence of the bush (as well as his skill as a writer and training as a historian) shines through in an essay written by Hasluck in retirement. Here he writes of the time when he was living at Collie and was, perhaps, twelve years old:

My childhood memory is of the jarrah forests of South Western Australia in winter. In those days railway sleepers were hewn in the bush, not sawn at a mill. Sleeper cutters camped in the bush, usually a pair of them sharing a tent and a camp-fire, with a wooden bar on two forked sticks to support the billy and two broad sheets of bark leaning above it to keep the rain off the fire … if they were cutting in new country there would be no road, and, among those steep gravelly hills, covered with dense bush, a track had to be found to take the dray... Axe in hand, on foot, the carter or his mate found a way and marked the trees with a blaze, with a swift downward stroke slicing off the bark to reveal the white gleaming outer surface of the sapwood so that it glistened like a mirror. He made each blaze in the face of a trunk that could be readily seen from the last marked tree.

As a small boy I walked with them, took part in the calculated exploration of a way where there was never a way before, the breathless moment of decision, the swish of the blade, the smell of the wounded tree, the puckered eyes looking ahead to find where the track should go next, the sense of bushmanship and the checking with the sun that made one aware of where the final destination was in spite of all the windings around the hills ...

'They blazed a track’ is a simple phrase but a rich one. The words hold the Australian experience in a small compass.

Bushmen, having blazed a track, hauling hewn sleepers out of the jarrah forest with a horse-drawn dray, probably about 1922

Reading Hasluck’s recollections of the sleeper cutters reminded me of events of long ago during my own association with the forests of Western Australia. And here I am not referring to the times I was selecting the route for a new road or marking a survey line, although I did a lot of that work and it always involved blazing trees. As a young forester I was taught to blaze both sides of the tree, so that you could see your blazed line both coming and going. My boss Barney White convinced me of the wisdom of this with a story about another forester who had blazed only on the "way-out" side of the tree and then could not find his way home when night was falling.

Rather than to my days as a forester, my mind has gone back to an episode in my days as a senior officer in government in the late-1980s. It was at the height of the political machinations and bitter confrontations over the use of south-west forests that were so unpleasant for members of the forestry profession. The government supported the timber industry and timber workers up to a point, but was wavering in the face of mounting 'green' opposition, political influence and a well-contrived and dishonest propaganda campaign. Green preferences were going to be critical in coming elections.

Foresters were caught in the middle of all this. We were required to implement government policy (which meant planning and overseeing timber cutting and logging operations), but we also supported the concept of an industry which not only produced useful, environmentally friendly and beautiful products (timber and fine writing paper), but which we knew could be sustained by professional forest management. Our position was anathema to the urban environmentalists, and they ran a very nasty campaign, with foresters cast in the role of villains. Things reached rock bottom when journalist Tony Rees, writing in The West Australian newspaper, compared members of the forestry profession (unfavourably) with the doctors who prescribed thalidomide to pregnant women knowing that it would cause birth deformities.

They were uncomfortable years ... but not without the odd glimmer of humour.

One glimmer arose out of our association with a small Federal Government agency in Canberra who became entangled with the forest management controversy at that time. This was the Australian Heritage Commission (AHC), an organisation few of us had ever heard of before, but who rose from obscurity to enormous prominence when they blundered in and started throwing their weight around. The Commission had been created by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam back in the 1970s, and charged with the role of identifying places of cultural significance, and then listing these places on a "Register of the National Estate". It was a noble concept. Going about their job over the years, they had done good work, we discovered, in identifying various places of cultural importance and bringing them to the attention of the authorities and the public. However, their role was clear: it was to identify and register places, not to manage them.

The AHC's Register of the National Estate

The problem (for us and them) began when they were discovered by the activists who then used them as an instrument for achieving an environmentalist agenda. All of a sudden, the AHC became a political player. Parties of grim-faced AHC officers were constantly flying in on trips to WA, and they would pontificate to us about what Western Australians could, or could not do in the State's forests. Their position was that their Register over-rode the State government's forest policy and forest management plans, and that once they listed an area of forest, they (the AHC) could dictate how it was to be managed. Like many Federal public servants, they treated their State counterparts with haughty disrespect, and this did not encourage good working relations. A serious stoush resulted.

It should never have got to this. The trouble was, the listing of an area on the Register of the National Estate was portrayed as being tantamount to making it a National Park, and therefore untouchable. I used to point out that areas of intensively worked farmland were on the Register; indeed, the AHC had registered the Monte Bello Islands whose ecosystem had been blown to smithereens by an atomic bomb a few years earlier, hardly comparable with the ephemeral impacts of forestry ... but this cut no ice. If the AHC listed the karri forest, it was claimed, that was it. Shut up shop. Everybody out.

The greatest difficulty I had was with the public servants employed by the AHC, not with the Commissioners who, when eventually drawn into the shemozzle, always seemed to me fair-minded and reasonable. The staff, on the other hand, had an inflated view of their own importance. They saw themselves flying to WA, making momentous decisions about forest management, and generally sorting out the hill-billies of the bush. There were three difficulties in this: (a) their understanding of the complexities and nuances of forestry and of silvicultural operations was close to absolute zero; (b) they had no interest in the social or economic consequences of their proposals; and (c) most of the time they had no idea what we were talking about - we could have been speaking a different language.

The last point came home to me one day when I had a posse of them out in the bush and I was trying to explain karri forest silviculture and regeneration. In passing I mentioned that our departmental treemarkers would identify a tree to be felled by "blazing it".

One of the AHC officers gasped. "Surely it is not necessary to set fire to a tree as well as to cut it down!" she said.

For a moment I was nonplussed. Then it dawned on me that she had never heard the expression "blazing a tree", or if she had heard it, she was under a complete misapprehension as to what it meant.

An old-time bushman, blazing a jarrah tree

All these years later, reading the memoir of his adventures with the sleeper cutters in the jarrah forest, I wonder what Paul Hasluck would have made of this ignorance of "the Australian experience", as he called it. Or, for that matter of what my story demonstrates about how drastically the way Australian life and administration has changed, so that government decision-making is now in the hands of people who do not have the faintest knowledge about the Australian bush, or basic bushmanship.

What of the Australian Heritage Commission? I have not heard them mentioned in any context for 20 years or so. Like many Canberra bureaucracies they rose like a comet in the eastern sky, shone gloriously for a year or two and then faded over the western horizon. My last memory is of them “courageously” taking on the Federal Government about mining in the Northern Territory, after which they were never heard of again. Forest use and management in Western Australia took its own course, overseen by Western Australians.

But before then, the AHC bubble had burst in WA. This occurred, I think, when they made the tactical blunder of seeking to list a huge area around the south-west town of Manjimup, including hundreds of working farms. Word got around that this would seriously constrain farming practices and threaten farmer income. Enraged farmers held a public meeting in the Manjimup Town Hall (which no member of the AHC attended), and Bob Pearce, the WA Minister for the Environment (who did attend, and who had nothing to do with the AHC's proposal), took the brunt of the farmers’ fury. Pearce could look after himself, but he was not impressed. The AHC's credibility with the WA government went into terminal decline from that moment, and it was made very clear to their political masters in Canberra that they were not welcome in Western Australia.

And of Paul Hasluck? His poetry strikes a chord with me, especially his poem Exile. This captures an emotion many of us have experienced overseas (the gut-wrenching nostalgic aroma of eucalyptus leaves), and which also touches on that great Australian emotional dichotomy - the creation of farms and towns at the expense of the forest:

You who stayed at home you never knew

The acrid silence in a heart that grieves.

You never stood, as I, in a foreign land

Crumpling chance gum leaves in your hand

In desolate dampness while memory retrieves

The sight of trees I felled when I was strong.

The old-style Kelly blade swung fast and keen

When the great trees fell their trunks were clean,

But the days were hot and it was not long

Before the sun had browned the leaves

And the lean virgin trunks turned grey

And the smell of the sap had floated away.

Now bogged in meaner matters of a lower sphere,

In exile from felicity, across the waste I hear

The wet bite in the pale wood as the chips flew

And the smell of their death fills my nostrils today

As it did in the south where the great trees grew;

And the crumpled gum leaves in my hand

Tell what I loved and killed in my own land.

When Paul Hasluck died in 1993 it was as Sir Paul Hasluck, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order and a privy councillor. He had been a Member of the House of Representatives, Australia's Foreign Minister, and our Governor-General. He is today recognised as one of Western Australia's most distinguished sons, and has a Federal electorate named after him. But throughout his career, he never forgot his formative years growing up in the jarrah forest, and his respect for the men and women of the bush. These memories informed his work as a politician, diplomat and governor.

Indeed, it might be said that his career itself blazed a track … from the schoolboy walking through the jarrah forests with pioneering timber cutters, to the foremost position in the governance of Australia.


Bolton, Geoffrey (2014): Paul Hasluck. A life. UWA Publishing, Crawley, Western Australia

Hasluck, P (1975): The poet in Australia: a discursive essay. Hawthorn Press, Melbourne

Hasluck, Paul (1984): Dark Cottage, Fresh Water Bay Press, Claremont Western Australia.

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24 jun 2022

Certainly stirred up memories of dealing with AHC staff who regularly flew in, business class, dropped their doings, then flew back to Canberra. Yes the Canberra mafia caused much unwanted pain to States and Territories, and no doubt continue to do so. I’m all for doing tasks at a national level, but at best Canberra should provide the Secretariat, not be the driver or owner of the process. The purge of the Canberra mafia is way overdue.

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