Environmental issues from the not so distant past

Amy Linsell
Thursday, 8 September 2022

The Commonwealth and its citizens have always had complicated relationship with the environment.

Australia’s vastness, and the sheer variety in its landscape, has affected the way it is governed and shaped its history. It is a land of extremes, with drought and flooding rains. Beaches and the outback frame the Australian identity.

The future will undeniably hold a range of unique environmental challenges, for not just Australia but the world.

To help us understand the challenges ahead of us we can also look to the past. We put our collection under the microscope to explore the Australian relationship with the environment.

Emu wars

After the First World War, the Western Australian soldier-settlement scheme granted blocks of land to returning veterans in the state’s south-west. By the 1930s many soldier settlers were struggling as a result of drought and low wheat prices.

To make matters worse, hordes of emus moved through the fields consuming crops and destroying fences. Soldier settlers met with the then Minister of Defence, George Pearce, and requested machine guns to cull the emus.

The cull began in 1932, but with public opinion strongly against it and the emus’ uncanny knack of scattering, the project was quickly abandoned with fewer than 1,000 emus killed. 

Following this unsuccessful cull, farmers continued to request military assistance to handle emu numbers again in 1934,1943 and 1948. Each request was refused by the Commonwealth government.

Tasmanian Franklin River

The 1982 plan to dam Tasmania’s Franklin River to generate hydro-electric power was deeply controversial. Despite bipartisan support for the project in the Tasmanian Parliament, many on the mainland were opposed. Conservationists from Tasmania, the mainland and around the world staged non-violent blockades of heavy machinery onsite. 

Opposition to the dam got a boost when the Franklin River area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in December 1982. The following year, the new federal Labor government introduced regulations to halt work at the proposed dam site.

The Tasmanian Government challenged the move, however, the High Court upheld the regulations. It found the Federal Government was obliged by international treaty to protect the site. It has been argued that the demise of plans for the Franklin Dam largely ended the building of dams for the generation of hydroelectricity in Australia.


Caring for country

First Nations people have always been intimately connected to country. 

In 1979 the Commonwealth began an Aboriginal ranger program to manage the newly declared Kakadu National Park. It was recognized that traditional owners and the local community were best placed to provide advice and interpretation. 

The trainee rangers would undertake a 12-month course in which they could learn about, and share their knowledge of the land. Much of the training would happen on country. The rangers would then take the lead in caring for and interpreting country and culture in the park. Today, Aboriginal rangers continue to play an active role in management at Kakadu National Park.

A waterfall between two cliffs.

Twin falls at Kakadu National Park. NAA: A6135, K10/4/86/8. 

To learn more about some key moments in Australia’s environmental history visit the National Archives of Australia’s permanent exhibition, Connections / Mura gadi.