TO refresh my memory, I was doing some crisis management research yesterday into the near-starvation of the earliest European Australians in 1788. I was mainly interested in the details of how Governor Phillip managed the situation and how one would categorise his strategy, philosophically. I had read enough Keith Hancock and N.G. Butlin to know economics in Australia had a dirigiste tilt from the start. During the initial years of an era Butlin described as the “bridgehead economy,” the Commissariat oversaw and supplied all necessities. Simple markets, private ownership, self-improvement and industry were by no means discouraged but it would be fair to say they had a secondary – even novel – status in the scheme of things, tiny though the scheme was in those days. Ignorance of Australian conditions, lack of foresight and bad luck eventually led to a collapse in livestock production and agriculture. Many seeds brought from England were lifeless when the colonists planted them and transported provisions generally had run down to desperation levels by September 1788. Enter the cargo cult. Phillip dispatched the Sirius to the Cape where extra supplies were purchased – four months’ worth – but this was no long-term solution. Michael Crowley continues:
It occurred to me that following the present pandemic – when thousands will be looking for opportunities and the nation should be looking to imbue itself with a new, vigorous self-sufficiency – perhaps we could revive the Phillips/Ruse experiment. What if parcels of land currently lying fallow and useless in ‘our’ national parks were granted to young settlers on the understanding that they could stay – and own – if they made it work? True, the skillset necessary would mean only experienced graziers and farmers would meet the selection criteria but the employment opportunities for others would still be substantial. The plan would also improve land management across vast swathes of the country, protecting communities from the ravages of neglect-fuelled bushfires. As for the question of Phillips’ economic philosophy – back where I started – was his experiment ‘mutual obligation’ welfarism or primitive capitalism? Was it both? It did the trick either way.