Whitefella Jump Up by Germaine Greer

From outback to outrage
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This book is Germaine Greer's brilliant and original - but highly provocative - solution to Australia's problems. She wants every Australian whitefella and whitesheila to sit down in front of a mirror and say, "I live in an Aboriginal country". She says that this simple declaration could change Australia and its relationship with the rest of the world. "All the trappings of fake Britishness could be ditched" and "with one bound [Australia] could free itself from its spurious identification with the WASP 'axis of evil'".

Greer believes that riding on the coat-tails of Britain, itself on the coat-tails of the US, has brought Australia neither power nor wealth. "If we followed the Aboriginal course, we could follow the Aboriginal precedent and simply absent ourselves from activities that we knew to be evil and pointless." Most important, accepting that Australia is an Aboriginal country could save the environment. "Whitefellas simply look away when I point to the devastation inflicted on the island continent," she writes. "The denial of the disaster continues; the devastation accelerates."

Her facts are indisputable. Australians have fled from the land and its droughts and flooding rains, bushfires, salination and open-cut mining. Now they cluster along the suburbanised eastern foreshores. They have returned to the beach where they landed.

When Greer's ideas were first published in Quarterly Essay, a serious, challenging Australian magazine, many Australians hit the roof. All the worst epithets were dusted off and flung at her: "ratbag... publicity-seeker... lost her marbles.. expatriate... rabble-rouser", and - intended to be the most telling insult of all - "academic". The assault was led by Patsy Millett, daughter of Dame Mary Durack, author of Kings in Grass Castles: a popular history of the Durack family's pioneering enterprise in outback Australia. Greer attacks the Duracks for land-grabbing, accuses them of exploiting the Aboriginals, and says they were descended from landless and illiterate Irish peasants. Patsy Millett writes in the "responses" section printed in this book that the key to Greer's "long career as a hit-and-run artist upon our shores has been to ride upon a white horse of indignation and/or outrage at some aspect of Australian failure - pronounce upon it loudly and prominently via the media - and depart."

Readers here will wonder what the fuss is all about. Greer offers her idea modestly and with some diffidence. She says it is not a polished blueprint but a platform for debate. She says she did not expect her readers to bear her in triumph through the streets of Sydney or Melbourne. "It would have been wonderful if numbers of clever people had seen some potential in my idea of Australia as an Aboriginal republic and amused themselves by seeing how far they could develop it. I cherished a faint hope that the chattering classes might kick the idea around for a week or two, long enough to see if its time might have come, but they didn't and it hadn't".

But one gets the sense in the "The Last Word" section, where Greer replies to her critics, that the sly and mean-minded nature of what they said has shocked and saddened her. "English readers will now have the opportunity to see the essay in the context of the responses it elicited," she writes, and may "understand why I choose to endure the manifold disadvantages and discomforts of life in England rather than to return to my birthplace."

This is a powerful polemic, skilfully organised, thoughtful and beautifully written. How can anyone not be moved by Greer's final plea on behalf of a country she loves? "Australia doesn't owe whitefellas (including me) a living. They should stop ripping its guts out for a pittance, and sit on the ground. Sit on the ground, damn you, and think, think about salination, desertification, dieback, deforestation, species extinction, erosion, suburbanisation, complacency, greed and stupidity. As if."

Philip Knightley is author of 'Australia: a biography of a nation' (Vintage)