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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

CLOSER SETTLEMENT IN QUEENSLAND

THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE AGRARIAN DREAM, 1860s–1960s

This chapter examines the long-term obsession of Queensland governments with developing a rural-agrarian rather than industrial-urban economy from the mid-nineteenth century through to the 1960s. It will discuss why closer settlement became the cornerstone of rural development policy in Queensland and how it evolved from its distinctly liberal-agrarian origins to an agrarian socialist focus, before finally becoming conservative agro-pastoral in character. I consider how in many ways closer settlement failed to deliver on the agrarian dream during most of the twentieth century, but then also look at where rural development has proved more successful, particularly from the later part of the century, as farming approaches have been more effectively adapted to Queensland conditions.

From the 1860s the closer settlement ideal was to remain the cornerstone of rural development policy in Queensland for more than a century. Closer settlement was promoted as the means by which the agrarian dreams of generations of politicians and populist opinion would be realised. They had grandiose visions of an agrarian society where the empty lands of the coast and interior would become densely populated by a new class of antipodean yeomanry working their own family farms. All Queensland governments, regardless of their political persuasion, adopted overtly ruralist policies, only differing in their emphasis towards pastoral or agricultural development, and their degree of opposition or support for liberal, socialist or conservative principles. With few exceptions, all sides of politics also considered industrialisation, urbanisation and manufacturing as unnatural, undesirable and unnecessary in Queensland. The political ideology informing the closer settlement ideal evolved from distinctly liberal-agrarian origins beginning in the 1860s. By the 1890s an agrarian-socialist motive began to emerge and would eventually dominate closer settlement policy after Labor’s rise to power in 1915 through to the 1950s. Labor’s agrarian-socialism was finally challenged and usurped by a conservative agro-pastoral ideal of closer settlement championed by the Country-National Party after World War Two.1

Despite the best efforts and generous treasuries of a seemingly endless procession of political patrons, agrarian closer settlement failed to materialise on anywhere near the density, scale and success that had been originally envisaged. The agrarian dream could not overcome the numerous environmental, technical and economic problems that beset small-scale closer settlement agriculture. These problems included unstable domestic and foreign markets, strong domestic competition, long distances to markets, lack of suitable agricultural land, difficulties in adapting various crops to Queensland conditions and the lack of appropriate agricultural skills of many selectors. Indeed, the root cause for the continued failure of closer settlement in Queensland was essentially that broad-acre livestock grazing was inherently more suited to its economic and environmental conditions than was intensive small-scale agrarian production.

Closer settlement is a term that has been widely used in Australia to describe the intensification and expansion of agricultural settlement and rural land use. In Queensland the term was originally used to describe land settlement involving the sub-division of large tracts of pastoral leasehold land for agricultural selection. The socio-political objective of closer settlement was to create a new class of agrarian yeomanry of independent family farmers in Queensland who would produce agricultural staples such as maize, vegetables, fruit and grain. Through the more intensive use of ‘wasted’ rural lands, closer settlement promised to deliver greatly increased rural population densities and thus underpin the creation of a socially conservative, stable and economically balanced agrarian-pastoral society (Johnston 1988 pp. 186–187, 200–201).

Figure 6.1 Russian immigrant selector, Mr Kolishkin, a cotton farmer in the Callide Valley closer settlement area, beside his tractor and disc plough, ca.1936.

Photograph courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The closer settlement ideal promoted in Queensland during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries required the development of viable, extensive and intensive small-scale mixed agricultural farms cultivating cash crops, supplemented by livestock grazing and dairying. Following advances in agricultural knowledge, methods and technology in the early decades of the twentieth century, closer settlement policy evolved to incorporate broad-scale cultivation and grazing on substantially larger properties, supported by government sponsored rural infrastructure development and cooperative processing and marketing schemes.

The importance and continuity of the closer settlement ideal to the political and developmental history of Queensland is widely accepted in the historiography.2 Closer settlement remained a core element of rural development policy in Queensland until the 1960s. During this time the political, economic and social motives and outcomes associated with closer settlement evolved. This chapter suggests that there have been three broad and overlapping phases during its evolution in Queensland: liberal-agrarian (c.1860s–1910s), agrarian-socialist (c.1900s–1950s) and conservative agro-pastoral (c.1940s–1960s) closer settlement.

The liberal-agrarian phase of closer settlement was based on the ideal of the townsman, tradesman, bush worker and immigrant taking up small freehold or leasehold agricultural farms, and was championed by liberal conservatives from the 1860s through to the early twentieth century. The second phase, agrarian-socialist closer settlement, saw a shift in the political-economic emphasis away from liberal-conservative individualism towards a more cooperative agrarian-socialist agenda, based on leasehold tenures and cooperative marketing, promoted by the emergent Labor party. The third and final phase, conservative agro-pastoral closer settlement, describes a process combining structural and political change. During this phase the introduction of new rural tenures, the development of modern broad-acre grazing and cultivation methods, and the evolution of the mixed cropping and grazing property, coincided with a political shift away from agrarian-socialist ideals towards a new country-conservative ideal based on freehold ownership, while maintaining producer controlled cooperative marketing.

A bias towards rural development has always infused the political economy of Queensland. Pastoral production based upon sheep and cattle grazing provided much of the stimulus for Queensland’s economic development during the nineteenth century. Indeed, broad-acre grazing has proved to be the most suitable and viable form of primary production for the economic and environmental conditions experienced in Queensland (Powell 1991 p. 24). The importance of the pastoral industry to Queensland’s economic development ensured the continued political dominance of pastoral interests over the political economy for much of the nineteenth century (Cochrane 1989 p. 36).

Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the allure of urbanisation, industrialisation and manufacturing did not generally impress Queenslanders. This is especially true of the state’s political leaders.3 While urbanisation and industrialisation were being actively encouraged in New South Wales and Victoria, Queensland politicians discouraged industrial development. They argued that industrialisation would detract from the ‘essential’ task of expanding rural settlement and would unleash new social evils.4 The political divide between urban and rural development was driven by a deep-seated ideology that openly opposed urbanisation and industrialisation. The agrarian ideology infused public discourse on the political economy and found practical expression in political policy, land legislation and numerous rural development schemes. In the popular mind and populist politics of Queensland, the city and its modern problems (for example, overcrowding, social unrest, pollution) were unfavourably compared to the perceived more wholesome and morally superior rural lifestyle (Cameron 1998; Johnston 1982 p. 49; Powell 1988 pp. 16–17).

Queensland, with its vast and diverse landscape, appeared to offer land aplenty to fulfil the rural yeomanry ideal in the manner expressed by populist nineteenth-century agrarian utopians such Edward Wakefield, Henry George, John Dunmore Lang, and Queensland socialist radical William Lane. This popular antipodean imagery of a new world fit for the new agriculturalists found its most potent political expression in Queensland (Powell 1991 p. 24; Powell 1988 pp. 16–17; Wilson 1990 pp. 63–64). Most politicians, townsmen and settlers were intoxicated by what Queensland historian Ross Johnston (1982 p. 50) has so succinctly and correctly termed the ‘call of the land’.

There is no doubt that the call of the land tapped into a rich vein of popular desire among those who dreamed of a new life working their own land. Thousands answered the call and took up selections in the hope of building a better future for themselves and their families. However, a great many others, while fully supportive of the closer settlement ideal, voted with their feet and more often than not opted to stay put in their ‘immoral’ urban habitats. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries more than two-thirds of Queensland’s working population were employed in the shops, warehouses, factories, wharves and building sites of the towns and urban areas.5

LIBERAL-AGRARIAN CLOSER SETTLEMENT

Liberal-agrarian closer settlement has its roots in the liberal political reaction against the growing power of pastoral elites and as a response to the growing social tensions associated with increasing urbanisation. Agrarian closer settlement promoted the liberal yeomanry ideal; a vision of an agrarian society dominated by an independent and morally superior yeoman citizenry living on their own family farms. Town liberals, factory, bush and pastoral workers and immigrants generally opposed the continued consolidation and control of vast areas of land by individual pastoralists and pastoral companies. For many, the land offered the opportunity for a new type of antipodean freedom. Closer settlement promised to open up land for the little man and not just the privileged squattocracy. In essence, closer settlement championed agrarian values in opposition to nineteenth century trends towards pastoral expansion, industrialisation and urbanisation (Cameron 1999a pp. 56–57; Cameron 1998).

The greatest supporters of closer settlement and the yeomanry ideal during the nineteenth century were the enfranchised liberal townsmen. They welcomed closer settlement as means to challenge the growing political-economic hegemony of the pastoral elite, and later as a panacea for the growth in radical socialist ideals among the urban and rural working class. Closer settlement appealed both to their political and social ideals, as well as their hip pockets. The shop keepers and merchants knew they would benefit from the financial rewards of servicing the needs and wants of selectors.6

The contemporary working class also saw closer settlement as a way to counter the social, political and economic power of the squattocracy and the largely British controlled companies that dominated the pastoral industry (Cochrane 1989 pp. 36–37; Thorpe 1996; Lewis 1973 p. 83)7 Pastoralists generally tolerated closer settlement so long as it did not directly hinder their business. The also realised that an influx of selectors would provide them with a convenient and compliant workforce, as opposed to the transitory and increasingly militant labour they usually had to contend with (Cameron 1999a pp. 45–83; Johnston 1982 p. 53). In any event, by the late 1860s many pastoralists had already secured most of the best grazing and cultivation country for themselves, so small-scale cultivation and dairy farming posed no real threat to their livelihoods (Johnston 1982 pp. 51–55).

The liberal-agrarian phase of closer settlement initially involved the promotion of small-scale agricultural selections, including tropical fruit, vegetable and grain cultivation and mixed grazing and dairying, that would balance and complement existing pastoral production. Selections were to be privately owned freehold and leasehold tenures, with farmers selling their produce on the open domestic market. Rural land sales were used to fund inter-colonial and overseas assisted immigration to attract rural settlers and ‘easy’ terms were offered to encourage existing urban residents to move out into agricultural districts (Johnston 1982 pp. 50–51).

The first Queensland colonial government was elected in May 1860 and was led by Colonial Secretary Robert Herbert. Although Herbert and his ministry generally represented the interests of colony’s pastoralists, his government nevertheless adopted a progressive and proactive land use strategy. Herbert introduced land legislation that, at least in part, attempted to address the needs of the smaller land holder through the promotion of agrarian closer settlement while also providing certainly and security of tenure for pastoralists (Cameron 1999a; p. 58; Cochrane 1989 pp. 36–37; Johnston 1982 pp. 50–51; Joyce 1990a pp. 25–28).

Beginning in the 1860s, successive governments sought to promote rural development by opening land for agricultural selection through closer settlement, encouraging immigration and constructing developmental railways into existing pastoral districts. Glen Lewis (1973) has described this political-economic process as the ‘trinity of hope’ (p. 6). From separation through to the mid-1880s, the trinity went unchallenged as the primary means of promoting economic development and was expressed through a plethora of rural lands legislation and policy while actively discouraging urbanisation and industrialisation (pp. 76, 83).

The Crown Land Act of 1860 established agricultural reserves within occupied districts sub-divided into three closer settlement zone categories; town (housing land), suburban (small agricultural allotments) and country (larger mixed agricultural farms). The agricultural reserves encompassed about 40,000 hectares around all major urban areas adjacent to the coast between Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Port Curtis (Gladstone), and around inland towns of more than 500 people. The 1860 Act encouraged many immigrants to take up selections in the south-eastern districts, particularly around the capital Brisbane. Despite early optimism, most selectors struggled to survive due to a combination of factors including their lack of farming skills and knowledge, low productivity, market instability, debt and insufficient seasonal income and not enough suitable land being available (Johnston 1982 p. 51).

Further attempts at promoting rural intensification through closer settlement were made by the Mackenzie/Lilley ministries in the late 1860s. In 1866 the freeholding lease for agricultural purposes was introduced and with it the Queensland grazing farm was born. Unfortunately this policy did more to assist pastoralists to secure freehold title over the best land within their leases, rather than help the struggling selector get a decent block of land. The Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1868 was the most effective agricultural settlement legislation of the period, albeit with limited success in areas outside of the Darling Downs. This Act authorized the resumption of land within pastoral leases for agricultural settlement. The intention was to sell, or preferably lease blocks for agricultural selection. Nevertheless, freeholding increased despite the government’s objective of making leasehold the preferred tenure for pastoral and agricultural occupation (Cameron 1999a pp. 56–57; Irwin 1989 pp. 26-27; Johnston, 1982 pp. 50–52).8

In most areas agricultural settlement limped along during the 1860s and 1870s, hamstrung by a lack of good land and marketable staples to cultivate. Maize was the principle crop grown by selectors and returns were often meagre. Only sugar cane, and briefly cotton, showed much promise and these were worked under the plantation mode of production and were at that time not viable crops for closer settlement. It seemed that even cultivation, like pastoralism, would become the preserve of men with capital (Johnston 1982 p. 57; Fitzgerald 1986 pp. 179–180). After fifteen years of legislation promoting closer settlement, the expansion of the area of land under cultivation was also meagre. By 1875 only 31,000 hectares were being tilled, of which more than half was worked for maize production. Problems continued with the suitability of settlers, the quality and size of their selections and wild fluctuations in supply and demand for maize, all of which undermined the viability of closer settlement during this period (Johnston 1982 p. 54).9

Despite continued setbacks, Queensland parliaments continued to pursue the agrarian dream through closer settlement. The 1876 Land Act provided a boost to agricultural settlement, particularly on the Darling Downs, but the liberal-agrarian push found it fullest expression with the 1884 Land Act (Fitzgerald 1986 pp. 189–190). The Land Act of 1884 clearly expressed the electorally popular liberal yeomanry ideology of its sponsors Colonial-Secretary Samuel Griffith and Lands Minister Charles Dutton (Johnston 1982 pp. 53–54). The Act increased the area available and term of leases for grazing farm selections.10 Although the 1884 Act was partially effective in opening up new agricultural land for settlement, the Liberals’ quest to encourage small-scale family farming failed largely because much of the land, and many of the selectors who tilled it, were unsuitable for intensive agriculture. Moreover, a number of bad seasons, both wet and dry, spread of rabbits and cattle ticks and fluctuating commodity markets, all conspired against the success of closer settlement during the 1880s and early 1890s.11

While the average selector struggled to make a living hoeing maize and tending a few cows, the sugar planters enjoyed greater economic success. The plantation system was based upon the gross exploitation of South Pacific Islander labour, essentially working as indentured slaves. The success of sugar as a marketable staple by the 1880s, largely due to rapidly increasing demand for sugar, encouraged the government to promote the establishment of cooperative milling in the hope of assisting the closer settlement of the sugar districts. In some ways mirroring the agricultural resumptions from the big pastoral runs, the larger sugar plantations were targeted for sub-division and settlement, to be owned and worked by ‘white’ labour (Johnston 1982 pp. 61–64).

Dairying also met with some success during the late 1890s, and particularly after the establishment of cooperative processing factories in the dairying districts and the development of strong export markets in Britain and Europe around the turn of the century. Dairying proved viable because it produced a steady, albeit modest income throughout the year. Crop growing, on the other hand, only provided seasonal income several times a year (Cameron 1999a pp. 126–127).12

The economic depression and industrial turmoil of the early 1890s that gave rise to political labour also saw the liberal-agrarian ethos challenged by the agrarian-socialist ideals of organised labour and the expanding urban and rural working class (Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989 pp. 162–163). The McIlwraith government responded to the rise of agrarian-socialist ideals within the organised labour movement by initiating the colony’s first cooperative land settlement legislation; the Co-operative Communities Land Settlement Act of 1893. The Act incorporated some of the cooperative agrarian-socialist closer settlement ideals expressed by the newly formed Australian Labor Party. The Act allowed for the establishment of cooperative farming communities to promote the re-settlement of unemployed urban workers onto farms. The scheme established at least twelve cooperative farming communities involving almost 2000 people. Unfortunately for the cooperative settlers, the scheme proved a dismal failure due to the inadequate agricultural skills of the idealistic urban workers, the poor quality of the land provided for them, and infighting and lack of cooperation within the communities (Barker and Byford 1988 p. 103; Bernays 1919 pp. 325–326; Black et al. 1978 pp. 13–15; Hughes 1980 p. 224).

Despite supportive legislation and other government inducements, the plight of the small selector was often a dire one throughout the nineteenth century. Most selections were too small, soils too poor and climate too dry. The calibre of the selectors themselves was also problematic. Most were probably enthusiastic and full of hope, but this didn’t off-set their lack of agricultural knowledge and skills. Even those who got good land, and knew how to work it, struggled to make their farms economically viable. Many never rose above a level of basic subsistence. With a few exceptions, most notably dairying during the 1890s and small-scale sugar cultivation after 1900 in the coastal districts, the push to develop viable closer settlement districts during the nineteenth century failed to live up to popular expectations and dreams of most selectors (Johnston 1982 pp. 132–134, 137; Lewis 1973 pp. 25–26, 79–80).

AGRARIAN-SOCIALIST CLOSER SETTLEMENT

By the turn of the century it had become clear even to the most vocal political promoters the trinity of hope – closer settlement, immigration and developmental railways – was fiscally unsustainable and had failed in its task of socially engineering an agrarian utopia for the working man and his family.13 Some successes, however, had been achieved. Grain growing on the rich black soil plains of eastern Darling Downs did well, so too dairying and sugar cultivation in the coastal districts where it was supported by cooperative processing. Nevertheless, despite more than four decades of proactive agricultural closer settlement policy and legislation less than 200,000 hectares had been selected for cultivation. By 1904, when statistics on the number and area of rural holdings become available, there were 19,200 rural holdings in Queensland (1353 pastoral and 17,854 agricultural). However, three-quarters of occupied rural land was utilised for pastoral production. At this time the average area of a pastoral holding was 54,000 hectares, whereas the average agricultural farm was a mere 13 hectares. Most farms were concentrated in south-east Queensland around the urban fringe and were generally too small to adequately support a family.14

Federation coincided with a renewed push to promote closer settlement with the passage of the Agricultural Lands Purchase Acts and the Special Agricultural Selections Acts (1901 to 1904). The agricultural development drive of this period culminated with the Closer Settlement Act 1906 and the Land Act 1910. These comprehensive Acts combined five decades of agricultural policy experiences into the first effective legislation that successfully encouraged broader-scale closer settlement (Bernays 1919 pp. 326–327, 335–336). Despite many setbacks, particularly due to the spread of prickly-pear which forced many settlers to abandon their selections in the south-western and central districts,15 Queensland’s closer settlement legislation began to achieve some positive results between 1906 and 1920.

During this period almost 320,000 hectares were repurchased from pastoral properties, of which almost two-thirds were located on the highly productive Darling Downs (Johnston 1982 p. 139). The stimulus provided by the 1906 Closer Settlement Act saw the number of agricultural holdings in Queensland increase steadily from almost 18,000 farms encompassing about 210,000 hectares in 1904 to 26,700 holdings (310,000 hectares) by the end of World War One.16 Nevertheless, much of this growth was still restricted to the state’s south-eastern districts.

A number of good seasons boosted agricultural production, which fortunately coincided with a period of higher rural commodity prices, particularly for dairy products, as a result of strong export demand and cooperative production. Dairying was perhaps the greatest agricultural success story of the pre-war period, which along with grain growing, were stimulated by the practical assistance measures associated with the Land Act of 1910 (Bernays 1919 pp. 335–336). Closer settlement of the sugar districts also began to expand, especially after World War One in response to huge growth in demand for sugar and bolstered by Commonwealth and state government assistance in the form of subsidies, irrigation infrastructure, production quotas, cooperative milling and marketing, the cessation of sugar imports and the establishment of price controls (Cameron 1999a pp. 282–284).

The governments of this period invested heavily in the extension of branch railways to service the new agricultural districts. Great advances were also made in agricultural production methods and technology and the wider availability of more efficient farming plant (e.g. tractors) and motorised vehicular transport helped boost productivity. Nevertheless, these successes were almost exclusively limited to the state’s south-east, where good agricultural land was in close proximity to the domestic markets and the export port of the capital Brisbane. Indeed, even as late as the 1940s the state’s southern-eastern districts still accounted for 90 per cent of the cultivated lands in Queensland (Lewis 1973 pp. 132, 188).

Agrarian-socialist closer settlement evolved out of the liberal-agrarian ideal and began to influence liberal rural settlement policy from the early 1890s. The short-lived early Labor governments and labourist coalitions of the 1890s and 1900s actively sought the electoral support of farmers along with urban and rural workers. While agrarian-socialist closer settlement encompassed many of the central characteristics of the liberal-agrarian agenda, there were some fundamental differences. Labor’s rural lands policy restricted freeholding in favour of long-term and perpetual leasehold tenures. However, it was not until the election of the Ryan Labor government in 1915 that agrarian-socialist land settlement policy came to dominate Queensland’s rural politics. The Labor Party cultivated a political alliance between workers and farmers and secured the support of the latter by promising to implement a comprehensive program to restructure the agricultural sector. Labor’s rural development program included the introduction of cooperative pooling and marketing of agricultural commodities, agricultural education and skills training, agricultural research, and the establishment of large-scale planned closer settlement schemes to promote internal urban to rural migration (Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989, pp. 88–104; Theodore and Gillies 1922).

In 1916 the Ryan Labour government introduced the perpetual lease tenure for agricultural selections and strictly limited the freehold alienation of rural lands. This policy allowed the government to retain some planning control over leased Crown lands while providing the lessee with greater security of tenure and the right to sell their lease in a similar fashion to freehold title. Indeed, Labor’s policy was so strictly enforced that between 1916 and 1957 less than 220,000 hectares of land were freeholded in Queensland.17

During the early 1920s the Labor government, led by Premier Edward ‘Ted’ Theodore, embarked upon an ambitious rural development strategy that would become known as the Queensland System. Labor intended to solve Queensland’s closer settlement problems by fundamentally reorganising the agricultural sector (Theodore and Gillies 1922). Theodore was determined to raise the social status of farmers in order to attract more people into the sector. To improve the economic viability of closer settlement agriculture Labor created cooperative producer organisations to control the marketing and distribution of agricultural commodities in order to stabilise prices and enhance returns to farmers. The government also recognised that a general lack of appropriate agricultural skills among selectors had stymied agricultural development. They responded by initiating comprehensive agricultural eduction programs to assist farmers in adopting the latest scientific methods to maximise productive potential. Scientific research programs were established to improve agricultural production methods, increase yields and disease resistance in crops and the productivity of livestock. Perhaps Labor’s greatest achievement was to successfully corporatise the pooling, marketing and distribution of agricultural commodities. The Queensland System effectively underpinned the economic viability of grain and fruit growing, sugar cultivation and dairying from the 1920s onwards (Cameron 1999a pp. 309–314; Johnston 1982 p. 179, 181; Murphy 1990 pp. 329–331).

The Queensland System won Labor great political kudos and electoral support among small acreage farmers, and those urbanites sympathetic towards rural development. The Ryan and Theodore Labor governments vigorously pursued the expansion of closer settlement during and after World War I and the number of agricultural holdings increased by 25 per cent in just six years to reach a peak of more than 33,500 farms by 1925.18 This success was primarily the result of the rapid expansion in dairying production and exports, the successful broader-scale cultivation of cereal crops (e.g. wheat and barley) and sugar cane, and the acceptance and functionality of Labor’s rural corporatist policies supporting cooperative pooling, marketing and distribution of agricultural commodities (Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989 pp. 94–99).

Figure 6.2 Returned WWI soldier-settler Syd Calvert with his wife and son at their camp in Amiens, near Stanthorpe, 1920.

Photograph courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Perhaps the most ambitious elements of Labor’s rural development programme of the 1920s were a number of large-scale rural infrastructure and closer settlement schemes aimed at promoting agricultural expansion and intensification. The first of Labor’s large-scale closer settlement schemes were soldier settlement projects. These settlements included pineapple farms in the Beerburrum area, fruit growing in the Stanthorpe district, grain growing around Cecil Plains, cattle grazing in Roma and surrounding districts, and sugar growing in the Tully district (Cameron 1999a pp. 303–308; Johnston 1982 p. 179; Murphy 1990 pp. 329–331).

The Beerburrum soldier settlement was the first in Australia. Unfortunately for most of the returned servicemen involved, the Beerburrum project failed largely because of a general lack of agricultural experience among the ex-servicemen and the soil on many blocks not being very suitable for pineapple growing. The Queensland and Commonwealth governments had envisaged 20,000 soldier settlers and their families taking up farms in Queensland by early 1919. Most returned servicemen weren’t interested in battling the bush and stayed put in the towns and other urban areas. In reality, fewer than 2,600 had taken up holdings by 1921. By 1929, when the soldier settlement scheme was finally abandoned, many returned servicemen had been forced to give up their farms due to a lack of practical government assistance, inadequate agricultural training and skills, fluctuating commodity prices, and the marginality of the country provided to them (Fitzgerald 1984 p. 57; Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989 p. 101; Johnston 1982 p. 179).

Undeterred by these failures, Theodore and his Labor colleagues initiated several very large-scale rural settlement projects, most notably the Dawson River Valley, Burnett River Valley and Callide Valley rural settlement and irrigation projects. These schemes also mark a shift in the direction of closer settlement toward areas outside of the south-east districts in an effort to stimulate the development of Central Queensland, and later North Queensland. Theodore was a staunch and enthusiastic supporter of closer settlement and rural development and promoted his grand settlement schemes with an evangelical zeal. He hoped to lure the Commonwealth and British governments to commit large sums of money to a mixture of soldier and assisted immigrant closer settlement projects in Central Queensland (Fitzgerald 1994 p. 63; Cameron 1999a pp. 303–308, 384).

In 1921 Theodore sought the support of Prime Minister William Hughes to help fund his vision for a great agricultural region based in southern-central Queensland. Theodore envisaged that 10,000 families could be settled in the region. However, relations between Hughes and Theodore during this period were tense. Hughes did not warm to Theodore’s grand plans and rejected the project out of hand (Young 1971 pp.41–42). Despite the lack of Commonwealth support, Theodore persevered in the hope that, whatever the scale of schemes he was able to establish, they would eventually evolve into something of much greater and permanent benefit to Queensland.19

Theodore and his Labor colleagues recognised the difficulties faced by farmers trying to undertake dry land agriculture in regions where rainfall was often unreliable and long-term climatic patterns little understood. The Labor government enthusiastically embraced broad-scale irrigation as the key to expanding agricultural production and it was seen as the missing factor in the successful closer settlement equation. Ignorant of the complexities of arid landscape ecosystems, the planners and farmers saw the wild torrents running off their land as pure waste; in their minds all that was required was the intervention of human ingenuity and technology to harness this liquid gold. The Irrigation Act of 1922 encapsulated these ideals and established several large-scale irrigation closer settlement schemes including the Upper Burnett River, Callide River and Dawson River valleys schemes in southern-central Queensland, and the provision of irrigation for the Inkerman sugar growing closer settlement scheme originally initiated in 1910 (Fitzgerald 1994 p. 63; Powell 1991 pp. 114–115, 128).

The Inkerman closer settlement scheme, located in North Queensland on the Burdekin River around Ayr and Home Hill, was established prior to Labor winning office in 1915. Closer settlement for sugar cultivation along the Burdekin began with the resumption and selection of the Inkerman estate from 1910. Theodore was an enthusiastic supporter of the project and considered large-scale irrigation projects as the logical answer to the disappointing results of most previous closer settlement schemes. The Inkerman Irrigation Scheme was opened in 1922 to irrigate sugar cane, vegetable and other cash crops (Cameron 1999a pp. 306–308).20 The project was to prove relatively successful as the eastern Burdekin district is one of Queensland’s most productive irrigation areas.

Figure 6.3 This ca. 1900s pit sawn board selection lies abandoned in Bringalily State Forest, near Inglewood, 1999.

Photograph by D. Cameron – Environmental Protection Agency.

The Upper Burnett and Callide valleys schemes, located in Central Queensland, together encompassed an area of about 1 million hectares opened for closer settlement selection for mixed agricultural farms (Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989 p. 102; Fitzgerald 1984 pp. 65–66). The nearby Dawson Valley scheme was the most audacious rural land development project initiated in Queensland to that time. Begun in 1922, the project required the clearing of forests to make way for five settlement zones of up to 20,000 hectares, each to be serviced by a custom-designed township. Only one town ever made it off the drawing board; Castle Creek – the present town of Theodore.21 The Dawson Valley scheme made provision for 5,000 farms of between 4 to 8 hectares for intensive vegetable irrigation, and for 30 to 200 hectares for irrigated mixed cropping and grazing farms. Theodore had hoped the scheme would attract a population of 50,000 to the region, whom he hoped would produce vegetables, cotton, tobacco, dairy products, and bacon and lamb for the consumers and manufacturers of Brisbane and for export to Great Britain (Cameron 1999a pp. 384–386; Fitzgerald 1994 p. 63; Powell 1991 pp. 114–115, 128).

The 1920s marked the zenith of Queensland government support for large-scale agricultural closer settlement and reflected the post-war optimism and desire of many people to start a new life on the land. However, this period of intense rural development proved to be short-lived. The closer settlement bubble burst in the wake of a widespread drought between 1925 and 1927, fluctuating agricultural commodity prices and falling demand. By the time the Great Depression descended upon the Queensland economy after 1929, more than 3,100 family farms had been abandoned and the future of closer settlement looked bleaker than ever.22 Indeed, despite successive governments pouring millions of pounds into closer settlement for more than sixty years, census data indicates that those engaged in rural occupations including farming, actually decreased from 32 per cent to 25 per cent of Queensland’s total workforce between 1881 and 1933 (Lewis 1964 pp. 238–239).23

After fifteen years in the political wilderness, the conservative opposition won back government during this period of unprecedented economic and social turmoil. The Country Progressive National Party, formed in 1925, won government in 1929 under the leadership of Arthur Moore, who was quick to seize on the opportunity to redirect rural lands policy to assist farmers and graziers directly rather than through grandiose settlement schemes (Costar 1990 pp. 376, 383, 387–388). Moore offered existing farmers and potential selectors the opportunity and incentive of owning their own land under freehold tenure.24 In 1929 the Country-Nationals introduced a comprehensive Land Act that encouraged freeholding, offered greater security for leaseholders and provided financial assistance for the embattled selectors in the Upper Burnett and Callide Valley closer settlement areas (Lack 1960 p. 93). These measures mark the beginning of a shift in attitude towards closer settlement. The Country-Nationals, and other conservatives, firmly believed that for closer settlement to succeed farmers needed the incentive of freehold ownership. Unfortunately for the Country-Nationals, Labor won back government in 1931, and the conservatives would have to polish the opposition benches for another three decades before they could again put their rural development plans into effect.

AGRO-PASTORAL CLOSER SETTLEMENT

By the 1940s changes in the application and conditions associated with grazing homestead, grazing farm and agricultural selection tenures promoted the evolution of agrarian closer settlement into what might best be described as a species of agro-pastoral closer settlement based upon broad-acre mixed grazing and cultivation. During this phase a process combining structural and political changes occurred. The introduction of new rural tenures, the development of modern broad-acre grazing and cultivation methods and the rise of the mixed cropping and grazing property, coincide with a political shift away from agrarian-socialist ideals towards a new country–conservative ideal based on freehold ownership, while maintaining producer controlled cooperative marketing.

During the twentieth century selections increased in size and became more productive. The most successful properties combined grain growing, fodder cultivation and livestock grazing and were worked on a scale that was never contemplated during the nineteenth century. When grazing selections for the ‘small man’ were introduced under the Land Act of 1884, selectors were allowed up to 260 hectares for grazing, whereas agricultural selections ranged from just 12 and 145 hectares. By the late 1940s a selector could lease a mixed grazing and cultivation area of 8,100 hectares for sheep or 24,000 hectares for cattle, both of which were large enough to be economically viable in good seasons with favourable markets. Changes in interstate and foreign market conditions, rural economics, and rural lands legislation gave rise to a new bred of selector; the independent farmer-grazier (Lack 1960 p. 352).25

Figure 6.4 An abandoned cypress log hut on a 1920s forest grazing selection, Western Creek State Forest, near Millmerran, 2002.

Photograph by D. Cameron – Environmental Protection Agency.

The greatest expansion in intensive grazing and broad-acre cultivation (e.g. grain growing) has occurred since World War Two. Grain growing (i.e. maize, wheat, sorghum) evolved from an individual working a few hectares to several hundred or even thousands of hectares by the early 1950s. This process coincided with great advances in agro-pastoral science, especially in horticulture and livestock breeding, the introduction of exotic improved pastures, bulk fertilizers and chemical pest control and new production technologies. The structure and demands of domestic and foreign markets and the greater mechanisation of farming fundamentally altered the economics of primary production. Increased production was achieved through more efficient cultivation and harvesting methods, equipment and processes, and better access to rail and heavy truck transport, expanded and improved road networks, and the development of bulk storage and export facilities.26

During the early stages of the agro-pastoral phase of closer settlement there developed a slow shift in the political orientation of selectors away from Labor towards the country-conservative parties. Despite their political rhetoric against the agrarian-socialist ideals of the Queensland System, the Country Party recognised the system’s strengths and popularity among farmers (Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989 p. 89). The fundamental divide between Labor and the conservatives on rural policy was the issue of freehold tenure. Labour continued to offer only leasehold tenures. The conservatives, on the other hand, promised the opportunity to obtain freehold; a policy that would secure them a handsome political dividend.

After World War Two, the Hanlon Labor government revived their rural development program. This time they adopted a new strategy of cooperative development with the British Government. The Peak Downs Scheme was established in 1948 as a joint-venture with the British government and created the Queensland-British Food Corporation (QBFC). The scheme intended to develop large-scale cropping and livestock production for export to the United Kingdom to alleviate post-war food shortages. The QBFC took control of about 200,000 hectares of land in the Peak Downs region. However, after just six years of operations the scheme was abandoned. The QBFC lands were opened for closer settlement selection on blocks of up to 2,500 hectares. Like earlier rural development schemes, it too failed because of unreliable rainfall, pests and disease damaging crops, production inefficiencies and marketing difficulties (Johnston 1988 pp. 209-210; Knight 1990 pp. 444–445; Lack 1960 pp. 363–364, 408–410).

The Hanlon Labor government also revived the vision of the grand irrigation schemes of the 1920s and promoted a number of projects to assist northern development. During the 1940s and 1950s the Labor government looked to North Queensland as a new frontier for closer settlement. The Burdekin River Irrigation Scheme was initiated in 1949 with the intention of providing irrigation for 100,000 hectares of new agricultural land along with a hydro-electric power station. The Burdekin Scheme was located up-river from the Inkerman irrigation area and initially focused on tobacco growing, which failed, and then sugar cane, which was to prove more successful (Powell 1991 pp. 240–247). Soldier settlement blocks were opened for selection at Clare, Millaroo and Dalbeg, encompassing about 7,500 hectares of irrigated land along the Burdekin. Irrigated tobacco growing was also established on the Atherton Tableland in North Queensland. The Tinaroo Dam scheme provided water for about 40,000 hectares of new agricultural land in the Mareeba-Dimbula district (Manning 1993 pp. 26–28; Powell 1991 pp. 214–222). The combination of irrigation and hydro-electricity generation captured the developmental imaginations of post-war Queensland governments. By the late 1950s agro-hydro and other irrigation schemes had been developed for the Burdekin, Tully and Barron Rivers in North Queensland (Lack 1960 pp. 351–352, 365–366, 552).

However, it was during this period that the allure of the closer settlement ideal began to fade even among the Labor faithful. At the 1950 Labor Party state convention, the powerful Australian Workers Union faction amended the closer settlement policy to restrict the sub-division of large pastoral properties for closer settlement with the intention of protecting pastoral workers’ jobs. Nevertheless, the Labor government’s 1952 Land Act continued to promote closer settlement and more than two million hectares of pastoral lease country in the wetter districts of the south-west and central regions were made available for competitive agricultural and gazing selection (Lack 1960 pp. 386–387).

Following the split in the Labor Party in 1955, the Country Party, led by Frank Nicklin, was elected to government in 1957. Nicklin quickly instituted the long promised changes to rural lands policy to allow freeholding of new rural land and existing long-term and perpetual leases, along with other farmer friendly measures. For most of the period from the 1870s through to 1957, rural land legislation favoured leasehold tenures for pastoral and agricultural holdings rather than permanent alienation through freeholding. Nicklin’s freehold policy won great support among rural voters, particularly farmers and rural workers who had aspirations of owning a farming property. By 1957 only six per cent of land in Queensland had been alienated under freehold tenure. By way of comparison, almost 60 per cent and 33 per cent of land in Victoria and New South Wales respectively, had been freeholded by this time. 27 However, within two decades, Country-National Party governments had tripled the area of land freeholded in the state to almost 34 million hectares, or about 21 per cent of the state.28

The Nicklin government would also implement the last of the large-scale closer settlement schemes in Queensland; a scheme that was distinctly agro-pastoral in character and application. The Fitzroy Basin Brigalow Land Development Scheme, better known as the Brigalow Scheme, was initiated in 1962 to develop 4.5 million hectares of virgin brigalow scrub in Central Queensland for broad-acre grazing and cultivation. Between 1962 and 1977 a total of 247 freehold and freeholding lease blocks encompassing an area of 1.4 million hectares were taken up29. This scheme, unlike most of the closer settlement schemes that came before it, has proved to be a reasonable success (Cameron 1999b).

The difference between the Brigalow Scheme and earlier projects is that is was based on reasonably sound rural economic principles, if not environmentally sustainable ones. Most of the brigalow blocks were big enough to be economically viable cattle grazing properties. Markets for beef were expanding during this period, as were prices. The cleared soils of the brigalow belt supported very productive improved pastures. The government built a good network of ‘beef’ roads to allow efficient transport of cattle and provided technical and scientific support that was both comprehensive and useful. The government established brigalow research stations to develop property management practices, pasture improvement and animal husbandry techniques appropriate for application on the Brigalow Scheme properties. Most importantly, the calibre, determination and practical experience of the brigalow settlers enabled them to succeed where others may well have failed (Peart 1989 p. 27; Turner 1981 p. 34). The Brigalow Scheme selectors are great exemplars of the new breed of independent graziers who are now dominant within the Queensland cattle industry.

The Brigalow Scheme was to be the last of a long line of grand rural settlement schemes initiated in Queensland. It also demonstrates the structural and political changes that have occurred in relation to the purpose and outcomes desired of closer settlement in Queensland since the 1860s. The original liberal-agrarian ideal of the yeoman selector tilling a few acres evolved into the farmer-grazier working broad-acre properties on a scale that would be almost incomprehensible to the nineteenth century selector. In Queensland today there are actually fewer agricultural farms than there were 100 years ago. However, the size of the average farm has increased by more than 1,400 per cent during that time. In effect agricultural farming has experienced a process of structural consolidation toward fewer, but very much larger and more efficient farms. On the other hand, the total area of land utilised for grazing cattle and sheep has doubled but there are ten times as many grazing properties in operation today than there were at the turn of the century.30 Here a process of deconsolidation has occurred allowing for the expansion of livestock production through the sub-division of larger properties into smaller family holdings which has given rise to the independent farmer-grazier.

In conclusion, it is fair to contend that the agrarian dreams of the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have not been realised. The early successes of closer settlement were generally limited to maize, wheat and vegetable growing, dairying and sugar cultivation in the south-eastern districts and along the coast. Generally speaking, closer settlement failed to produce the agrarian paradise that many had hoped for because intensive small-scale agrarian production did not suit the fundamental economic and environmental conditions experienced in Queensland. Closer settlement agriculture struggled to overcome the many environmental, technical and economic challenges it faced in Queensland. The problems that beset small-scale agriculture included instability and competition in its primary markets, shortages of suitable agricultural land, difficulties associated with adapting crops to Queensland conditions, especially pests and diseases, and a general lack of appropriate agricultural skills among selectors brave enough to chance their hand on the land. Across most rural areas of Queensland broad-acre livestock grazing and crop cultivation have proved to be inherently more suited to the prevailing social, economic and environmental conditions, and both have contributed fundamentally to the economic and social development of Queensland.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, ‘Early history of land tenure’, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1910, Cat. No. 1301.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, viewed 11 April, 2005, AusStats http://www.abs.gov.au.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, 2005: Queensland at a Glance, Cat. No. 1312.3, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, viewed 11 April, 2005, AusStats http://www.abs.gov.au.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1992. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1991.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1988. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1988.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1976. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1976.

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Census of the Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer; 1911, 1921 and 1933.

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Official Year Book of Queensland 1957. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1958.

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. The Queensland Year Book 1940. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1940.

Jenkinson, CM. Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol.97 (1906), pp. 225–228.

Leahy, PJ. Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol.98 (1906), p. 1342.

Queensland Bureau of Industry. The Queensland Year Book 1940. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1940.

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Queensland Government. ABC of Queensland Statistics. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1907–1932.

Queensland Government. Queensland Parliamentary Papers. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1900–1931.

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Queensland Government. Queensland Parliament Votes & Proceedings. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1861–1900.

Queensland Irrigation Commission. ‘Inkerman scheme views’, Queensland Parliamentary Papers (2) 1923. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1923.

Queensland Irrigation Commission. ‘Plan of the Dawson River Irrigation Scheme, Castle Creek section, proposed township of Castle Creek, 1922–1923’, Queensland Parliamentary Papers (2) 1923. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1923.

Queensland Land Administration Commission. The Brigalow Story: Fitzroy Basin Brigalow Land Development Scheme. Brisbane: Land Administration Commission; 1968.

Rutledge, A. Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol. 85 (1900), p. 1423.

Worker.

ENDNOTES

1     The arguments presented in this chapter are based on primary sources research and statistical analysis detailed in the author’s PhD thesis ‘An Historical Assessment of Economic Development, Manufacturing and the Political Economy in Queensland, 1900 to 1930’. [Phd. Thesis]. St. Lucia: University of Queensland; 1999. The thesis research included a comprehensive assessment of social and economic statistical data from the 1860s through to the 1930s. A wide range of official statistical returns were consulted including the series Statistics of the Colony/State of Queensland (1900–1932), ABC of Queensland Statistics (1907–1932), Queensland Industrial Gazette (1916–1931), and statistical returns published in the Queensland Parliament Votes and Proceedings and Queensland Parliamentary Papers (1861–1930) and the Queensland Year Book (1910, 1940, 1957, 1976, 1988, 1992). The thesis includes a comprehensive appendix of statistical sources and data and can be viewed online at http://adt.library.uq.edu.au/public/adt-QU20030306.130843.

2     Cameron 1999a; Cohen 1995; Fitzgerald 1994; Fitzgerald 1986; Fitzgerald 1984; Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989; French 1990; French 1992; Johnston 1988; Johnston 1982; Murphy et al. 1990; Thorpe 1996; Waterson 1968.

3     Cameron 1999a; Cameron 1998; Cameron 1997 pp. 39-48; Fitzgerald 1986 p. 179; Gough et al. 1964 pp.7-9; Lewis 1973 p. 194.

4     CM. Jenkinson, Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol. 97 (1906), pp. 225–228; PJ. Leahy, Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol. 98 (1906), p. 1342; A. Rutledge, Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol. 85 (1900), p. 1423, Queensland Parliamentary Debates, (1900), p. 1424.

5     Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Census of the Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer; 1911; (3) 7, p.1288.

6     Cohen 1995 pp. 132–133; Fitzgerald 1986 pp. 125, 189; Henderson 1992 pp. 71–73; Hertzberg 1905 p. 12; Johnston 1982, pp. 49–55, 89–92, 145–49; Lewis 1973 p. 83; Waterson 1968; Wilson, 1990 pp. 63–64.

7     See also the Worker, 12 December 1903.

8     Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, ‘Early history of land tenure’, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1910, Cat. No. 1301.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, viewed 11 April, 2005, AusStats http://www.abs.gov.au.

9     Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1992. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1991, pp. 240–241.

10    Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, ‘Early history of land tenure’, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1910.

11    Cameron 1999a p. 73; Johnston 1982 p. 53–55; Joyce 1990b p. 145; Waterson 1990 pp. 137–138; Wilson 1990 pp. 66–68.

12    Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1992. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1991, p. 243.

13    Queensland Government. Queensland Parliamentary Debates. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1912, vol. 113, p. 29.

14    Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, 2005: Queensland at a Glance, Cat. No. 1312.3, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, viewed 11 April, 2005, AusStats http://www.abs.gov.au, pp. 2–3; Queensland Government. Queensland Parliamentary Papers. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1914, vol. 2, p. 788.

15    Queensland Department of Public Lands. Annual Report of the Department of Public Lands – 1920. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1921, pp. 119-129.

16    Queensland at a Glance, pp. 2–3;. Queensland Parliamentary Papers; 1914, vol. 2, p. 788.

17    Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Official Year Book of Queensland 1957. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1958, p. 127.

18    Queensland at a Glance, pp. 2–3.

19    Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 1921, pp. 1798–1799.

20    Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1923, vol. 2, p. 975.

21    Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1923, vol. 2, p. 975.

22    Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1914, vol. 2, p. 788; 1922–1923, vol. 2; 1924, p. 133; 1930–1931, vol. 2 p. 577.

23    Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Census of the Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer; 1911 3 (7) p. 1288; 1921 1(7) p. 896–901; 1933 2(12) p. 1198.

24    Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. The Queensland Year Book 1940. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer; 1940, p. 110.

25    CBCS 1940 pp. 110–112; CBCS 1958 pp. 126–128.

26    CBCS 1958 pp. 126–127, 141–143, 429.

27    CBCS 1958 p. 127; ABS 1988 p. 234.

28    CBCS 1958 p. 127; ABS 1988 p. 131.

29    Australian Bureau of Statistics. Queensland Year Book 1976. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 1976, p. 238; Queensland Land Administration Commission. The Brigalow Story: Fitzroy Basin Brigalow Land Development Scheme. Brisbane: Land Administration Commission; 1968.

30    ABS 2005; Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1914, vol. 2, p. 788.

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Cite this chapter as: Cameron, David. ‘Closer settlement in Queensland: the rise and decline of the agrarian dream – 1860s to the 1960s’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 06.1–06.21.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie