Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and Guardian Australia journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He was was born at Inverell into a farming family with New England roots deeper than most. His debut novel Tank Water is out now from MidnightSun Publishing.
Michael Burge
Michael's articles about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process are available at his website.

OPINION: With flood-ravaged communities in NSW and Queensland experiencing a repeat of February’s deluge, there are signs of hope that Australians might have heard the last gasp of what I call the Dorothea Mackellar Climate Inaction Plan.

I’m not the first to call out the use of this narrative. In 2018, during the early stages of the drought that led to the Black Summer bushfire crisis, the former LNP leadership team of Turnbull and McCormack were criticised for performing a bit of a Dorothea Mackellar poetry slam at Trangie in the NSW Orana region.

Strains of her 1908 ‘My Country’ have traditionally backed up other worn-out tropes, such as “this is not the time to discuss climate change”, “build more dams” and “this is a one-in-one-hundred-year event”.

In the past month we’ve heard “one-in-ten”, “one-in-five-hundred” and “one-in-one-thousand-year event” uttered by politicians from all levels of government. Barnaby Joyce extended to the 3,500-year bracket, and labelled the situation “diluvian”.

So it’s time to admit that Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) no longer occupies higher ground than the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), because now that it’s twice-in-thirty-days, she is redundant as a climate commentator.

Flood stories

Dorothea Mackellar in 1918

Reportedly penned while Mackellar was homesick in London, her Edwardian-era poem rose on a wave of post-Federation nationalism that rural leaders – generally on the frontline of flood and fire – are particularly drawn to perpetuate.

In six stanzas, she evokes a strong emotional link to Australia as opposed to the ‘green and shaded lanes’ of England. While Mackellar described the ‘terror’, ‘famine’, the ‘tragic’ and the ‘pitiless’ in our landscape, her much-abused line ‘of droughts and flooding rains’ did not reference the complete inundation of communities; it simply relates a ‘steady soaking rain’ that returns a ‘film’ of green to the countryside.    

We’d likely need to follow Joyce and go ancient to capture in story what we’re witnessing this week, back a further three thousand years into epic territory. 

It’s quite possible that for many Australians who came across it in the Old Testament and the Quran, the best-known flood story in our culture is that of Noah’s Ark, which is also reflected in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh.

Both stories relate the intentional inundation of the land by gods intent on punishing mortals, with a local hero tipped off and encouraged to prepare, facing plenty of naysayers (let’s call them early climate change deniers) in the process. The predicted flood washes over the land after weeks of rain (forty days and forty nights would bring a lot more than Dorothea’s ‘soaking’), after which the hero saves his family and countless mating pairs of animals. 

Older wisdom

Twenty-first century Australians don’t need to go beyond our shores for more localised flood stories. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the keepers of knowledge and cautionary tales about flooding, such as that of Tiddalik, the giant frog who swallowed, then released, all the water in the land. 

Records of coastal inundation were kept alive via oral traditions in First Nations communities across the country, handing down eyewitness accounts and allegories through an estimated 300 generations.

We’ve returned to older wisdoms before. While it never became illegal to capture water on your roof, it became almost impossible prior to the year 2000 to rely on this tried-and-true frontier technology, even in rural towns. Once the red tape was cut, the uptake of water tanks on eligible dwellings lifted to 34% of Australian homes, up from 24% in 2007 according to the ABS.

More Australians have started to adopt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural burning as a way to mitigate disasters in the wake of Black Summer. These involve controlled burns to clear weeds and promote native seeds, reducing the potential for larger fires during bushfire season.

The landscape also tells a story that science has been able to capture, indicating that it’s floods, not droughts and fires, that are likely the primary concern going forward. 

I’d like to believe that signs of political change are a combination of all these new-old stories.

When National Party Senator Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience, conceded on our public broadcaster in February that “The IPCC is dead right” and that there’s “no argument” about the increased frequency of natural disasters, it was a shocking-if-welcome advance on the habit of politicising Mackellar’s poem while disasters unfold.

But it’s still just words when what we really need is action.

Main image:  Francis Danby, The Deluge (1840).