Monthly Archives: June 2017
Recent government moves to commercialise Australia’s state-based land-titles registries have generated strong concerns about transparency, security of title and loss of government revenue. It might surprise some readers that Sir Robert Richard Torrens, the man behind Australia’s cadastral “Torrens system” of conveyancing and land-title registration, was an economic liberal who just might have approved of the trend towards privatisation.
The story of Torrens and the Real Property Act of 1858 is fairly well known. Torrens took an interest in reforming South Australia’s chaotic deeds-based land system when an acquaintance lost money on a property, owing to a faulty title.
With help and advice from competent friends, and a sustained campaign for conveyancing reform, Torrens won the seat of Adelaide in the first parliamentary election of 1856. His Real Property Act came into effect in 1858. Soon afterwards, Torrens resigned from government to run the new land titles registry.
Under the new system, the location and dimensions of each land parcel were to be surveyed and registered. Every new land owner received a secure grant of title, guaranteed by the Crown.
Torrens: the man and his motivations
Torrens’ interest in market systems is less well known. His father, Colonel Robert Torrens, was both a colonisation commissioner and a noted political economist who wrote extensively on theories of rent, wages, profit and comparative advantages in trade. Colonel Torrens admired the early work of liberal theorist John Stuart Mill, especially his “system of logic” in economic science.
Expert historians, including Douglas Pike, Rosalind F. Croucher, Greg Taylor and Giancarlo de Vivo, have described the lives and works of father and son in detail. Still, the intellectual relationship between them remains unclear. How strongly was the son influenced by the father? Did he develop his own ideas on political economy?
One thing is certain: Torrens (the son) expressed strong admiration for Mill. In his prospectus for a new South Australian land bank, Torrens named him “the great economist” and “the most accurate thinker of our time”. He also quoted Mill:
To make land as easily transferable as stock would be one of the greatest economical improvements that could be bestowed on a country.
Land as a commodity
With the Real Property Act in place, Torrens could argue further that land, being immovable and indestructible, was the safest kind of collateral for loans of money. Its “limited extent” made it “yearly more and more valuable”.
So, freeing up the transfer of land for everyone was a stepping stone to freeing up flows of money, which Torrens saw as a good thing.
On one hand, the institutionalisation of land ownership has allowed the efficient, cheap transfer of land parcels via a single, trusted provider. It minimises costs for home buyers and gives them a certain peace of mind. As long as the transfer process is performed correctly, title holders are immune to claims from former owners and their creditors.
On the other hand, it has allowed faster, easier land speculation and wild fluctuations in property values. It seems that Torrens didn’t anticipate the phenomenon of the commodity price bubble and couldn’t foresee growing, public disquiet over market failures.
Privatising the system
In 2014, Victoria’s Liberal government proposed the sale of the state’s land titles office. Treasurer Michael O’Brien explained that “the market can perform those services just as efficiently, if not more so”. However, the Liberals lost to Labor at the November 2014 election and the sale did not go ahead.
Last year, the New South Wales Liberal government floated the idea of privatising the state’s land titles registry. Despite protests and arguments, the deal has gone through. Responsibility for title transfers has been leased to a consortium of investment fund managers. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian promised “more efficient practices and better outcomes for customers”.
Victoria’s recent 2017-18 budget includes funds for a scoping study to investigate the privatisation of its own land titles office. There have been some negative comments in the news media, but the final decision is still some time away.
Torrens, then and now
Is privatisation consistent with Torrens’ ambitions for land-titles reform? If the aim was to free up the trade in land and money by reforming an unruly, inefficient system, further reform couldn’t be called inconsistent.
Once the new system was established, Torrens didn’t stay put to run it. He travelled widely and, when nominated to run for parliament in Britain in 1865, resigned as registrar-general without returning to Australia. If the system mattered more than the people running it, shifting it back into private hands might not be inconsistent either.
But, if privatisation caused delays, eroded security, or raised the price of conveyancing, it wouldn’t be consistent at all. For better or worse, Torrens really wanted land transfers to be quick, safe and cheap.
Last month, priceless botanical specimens were destroyed after an apparent miscommunication between scientists and Australian customs officials.
Although unfortunate, the incident has focused attention on the importance of being able to share scientific specimens around the world, and the vital role that herbaria play in modern science.
Despite being sometimes described as “museums for plants”, herbaria aren’t just natural history storage and displays. In this era of DNA barcoding, big data, biosecurity threats, bio-prospecting, and global information sharing, herbaria are complex and evolving institutions.
The modern herbarium is steeped in tradition and full of antiquities, but it also leads the application of modern approaches to understanding our past, present and future natural world.
The power of 8 million specimens
If you tell someone that you work at a herbarium, most will ask “what’s that?”, or perhaps “oh, what kind of herbs do you grow there?”.
Conventionally, a herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are stored and managed in an organised and structured way by curators and botanists who specialise in plant taxonomy and systematics.
There are some 3,000 active herbaria worldwide. As a collective, they contain more than 380 million specimens, spanning collections dating back as far as 500 years ago.
In Australia there are nine state, territory or national herbaria that, along with some university collections, hold close to eight million specimens. Four major Australian herbaria hold over a million specimens:
The National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne
The National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney
The Australian National Herbarium, Canberra, and
The State Herbarium of South Australia, Adelaide.
Herbarium specimens exist in many forms, including “pickled” plants or plant parts such as flowers or other delicate structures, dried specimens still attached to the surface on which they grew (like tree bark and rocks), and fruits or seeds preserved whole. But the overwhelming majority are dried, pressed plant specimens attached to archival card. Alongside these specimens there are sometimes drawings, paintings or photographs of the species, which capture details that are not discernible in the preserved specimen.
The Australasian Virtual Herbarium
The plant specimens don’t just exist on their own inside herbaria. Along with the specimens, the accompanying information is vital, such as where and when they were collected, specific details of the environments where they were collected, and who collected them.
In Australia, the major herbaria have been actively adding this information into a digital repository, resulting in a world-leading dataset: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.
The collation of these resources helped to inspire the development of the Atlas of Living Australia, and gives anyone with an internet connection access to specimen records from around Australia and the world.
Specimen-based, online data sets provide evidence of what species are found in a particular place at a particular time. They are a direct link from the presence of a species in the field, to collections of physical specimens held in herbaria, with the current name (that is, the latest changes in taxonomy) for that specimen.
There are many applications of such evidence including tracking changing species distributions such as ferals and weeds (an example of the weed “Salvation Jane” is shown in the figure above). Herbaria have been active in supporting detection of biosecurity threats. New introductions of species to Australia need careful determination of their identity and herbaria work with agencies to assist with this.
Sometimes, herbarium or museum specimens are the only evidence that a species existed at all. For example Gentianella clelandii, a species of native Gentian, is only known from the collection made of it in 1947 in the South East of South Australia. This species and others like it are likely to have been lost as a result of changing land use in the region at this time.
Samples from Cook, Flinders and Baudin
Important historical, scientific or cultural plant specimens exist in herbarium collections.
Plants collected during the voyages of early European explorers – including Dampier, Cook, Flinders and Baudin – are still found in herbaria. Some of these plants were also shipped live back to Europe, and have been grown in gardens and in scientific collections all over the world.
Remarkably, due to the care in methods of preserving them, these specimens are often in excellent condition more than 200 years after their collection and still able to be used productively in scientific research.
These historical specimens are often the first known collections of a previously undescribed species. If so, they will be designated as “type” specimens by the taxonomist naming the new species. Type specimens are very important as they allow the work of taxonomists to have a global frame of reference. This allows scientists to work out if two (or more) species have been assigned the same name.
Herbarium records enable resource managers to track distributions of both pest plants and endangered plants, providing a historical and current view of how widely spread and common the various species are across Australia.
You say River Red Gum, I say Yarrow
Taxonomy is the science of describing, classifying and naming plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomists do the work of describing and arranging plant species into classifications based on their morphology (what they look like), their genes and sometimes other features.
While highly scientific by nature, taxonomy is also vital to society at large. For invasive plant control, for border control, for environmental management and for urban planning, there must be no ambiguity as to which plant species we are talking about. Common names of plants can be misleading, the same plant often having many different common names. For example, the Australian iconic tree species Eucalyptus camaldulensis is known as River Red Gum, Blue Gum, Murray Red Gum, Red Gum, River Gum and Yarrow. We know these are all the same species, because taxonomists can compare herbarium specimens and determine if they share the same characteristics.
Expansion of the search for new biological compounds for human use — including medicines, food, cosmetics and other applications — exemplifies the problem of misapplied taxonomic names. For example the search for bioactive compounds in marine algae yields very different results for different species.
But imagine if there wasn’t a way to apply the precision of taxonomy in the search for information on the characteristics of a species to be used for biological control? Not only would time and money be lost, but the incorrect species could be used and unforseen outcomes may occur.
An example from the insect world is the Southeast Asian termite. A potentially harmful species of the termite genus Coptotermes was known regionally by another name, affecting its management as a pest causing building damage in the Americas and Malaysia.
Herbaria as a research resource
In addition to storing and organising specimens, larger or highly specialised herbaria usually have an associated research program. Focus scientific areas typically include taxonomy, systematics (how living things are classified and named), evolutionary biology, conservation biology and applied botany (using plants for economic benefit) .
Many herbaria have molecular genetics laboratories attached to them. DNA can be extracted from many specimens, even very old ones, and thus they can become a core part of ongoing DNA based scientific research. Today, DNA barcoding can provide a rapid tool for identifying species when flowers or fruits are not available, or if we have only fragments. Globally, DNA barcodes are now available for more than 265,448 species in the BOLD database. This aggregation of DNA sequences, which for plants are linked to herbarium vouchers, are a global resource that can be used in a “big data” context to explore ideas.
The value of herbaria samples extends beyond just the plants themselves. Herbarium specimens have been used to collate data for inferring changes in flowering times, leaf morphology and species ranges with climatic shifts.
Scientists also analyse chemicals that herbarium specimens have been exposed to, such as heavy metals associated with urban development, and different elements incorporated as leaves grow. Knowledge about waxes on leaf surfaces, as well as inhabitation by insects, fungi and bacteria are all possible through herbarium samples.
The global network of herbaria share specimens so that taxonomists and other researchers can benefit from their existence. With online resources making it known exactly what specimens are in which herbarium, there is an ever growing set of demands made on the use of specimens.
Curators who look after collections must balance the requests for using specimens in the present with long term preservation. The ability to track the impact of climate change and other unforeseen influences on plant health may make our current herbaria collections even more priceless in years to come.
In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.
Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.
Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.
My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.
This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.
1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative
Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.
White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:
The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.
This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.
Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.
The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.
Has anything changed since the 1960s?
The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.
Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.
For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.
Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).
For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.
There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.
The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.
Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.
Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.
This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.
Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.
Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.
Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.
However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.
The belated inclusion of Aborigines in chapters on Australian national identity is a welcome improvement. Nevertheless, this inclusion is momentary.
Who’s responsible for textbook content?
According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.
The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.
The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.
Australian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.