Wednesday, 14 December 2016

ON THE COMMONS OF UK AND LAND TITLES IN AUSTRALIA

A migrant’s lament and observations

Synopsis

The invasion of 1788 brought the concept of ‘enclosure’ and private ownership of land to Australia because that was a time when great tracts of England’s commons were being enclosed by Acts passed by the Parliament at Westminster. That Australia was a huge agglomeration of Aboriginal commons was totally overlooked and the commoners, the Aboriginal peoples, were pushed aside with no compensation as offered in UK. Enclosure is foreign to the land of Australia and is damaging to both peoples and the land itself. Possibly the teachings of Henry George may, over time, help ameliorate the situation.

Introduction

I migrated from Sussex, UK to Tasmania in 1981 at the age of 57. After 14 years we, my wife and I, moved to our present home near Byron Bay. But I write about land and the Australian attitude towards it.

The Commons of England

After a couple of decades in Australia, I realised I missed the commons of England – I had taken them for granted whilst domiciled there. Many Australians have lived in the UK and enjoyed access to the remaining commons with no thought as to the connection with Australia’s history.

The commons are tracts of land on which the general population enjoy ancient rights of access and although the commons have been subject to many ‘Acts of Enclosure’ over the centuries, the remnants are still a major feature of the country. For most people they are somewhere to walk the dog, take a stroll or do a more extended walk through the English countryside. Such are Clapham Common, Wimbledon Common, Blackheath all within Greater London. I worked for the Government on ’commandeered’ land Chobham Common, Surrey, in the 60s and US cruise missiles were similarly placed on Greenham Common. When I left UK, I was a Commoner of Ashdown Forest, enjoying grazing and bedding rights for my livestock and thatching and firewood rights over the 3,000 acres of common – which once belonged to John of Gaunt.

The Acts of Enclosure, which enabled huge tracts of English commons to be enclosed and privatised, were passed in the Parliament of Westminster – which was then largely composed of big landholders and members of the legal profession; it was all ‘legal’ – notices being displayed in the parishes concerned, some consultation with affected parties and some compensation was on offer. If neighbouring landowners were after the same bit of common, this was sorted out at Westminster before the Act was legislated. (Westminster became known as the place where the rich and powerful sorted out their differences – a definition I wryly recall when it is claimed that Canberra represents the Westminster system here!)

With the realisation of my loss it dawned that Australia does not ‘do commons’ for sound historical reasons. Between 1750 and 1850 very many Acts of Enclosure were effected and there was some justification that agriculture had to be modernised to meet the needs of the growing population as the industrialisation gathered momentum; the urban population was increasing rapidly and the rural population declining.

Enclosures and Aboriginal Philosophy
Thus at the beginning of white ‘settlement’ of Australia the ‘Establishment mind-set’ was one of ‘enclosure’ – the concept of ‘commons’, where land is not owned by any but used by many,  was in their view out-dated, bad, inefficient and certainly not part of any plans for the ‘new’ nation. (At the time, ‘democracy’ was also a dirty word.) From my understanding, Australia then was like a vast, continent-wide, agglomeration of Aboriginal Commons – the land not ‘owned’ at all but used, shared, nurtured and venerated by the numerous tribes of the indigenous population according to their needs and culture. White man did not see this at all; it was  ‘terra nullius’ – the commoners were ‘brushed aside’ with no thought of compensation.  And I say that I miss the commons of UK! How can this compare with a people’s complete loss of their common land that had been their total sustenance for millennia! It seems to me that the ‘invaders’ did not just steal the land but ‘enclosed’ – even ‘imprisoned’ – it.

A deeper connection between the idea of commons versus enclosures was brought to mind a few months ago at a talk by Aboriginal academic and activist, Dr Mary Graham, QUT. She spoke about Aboriginal philosophy in comparison to ‘western’ modes of thought saying that Aboriginals had no difficulty in hold different concepts simultaneously. In contrast, western views were ‘either or’, ‘this or that’, ‘alive or dead’. It struck me that this is an exact parallel as between enclosures (this is mine, not anybody else’s) and common land which has many users and uses. This is also shown in the western, legalistic ‘Native Title’ when ‘Aboriginal Common’ would have been more representative of traditional status and highlighted more recently with the kerfuffle raised when Bill Shorten on Q&A said that Aboriginal constitutional recognition could be considered as well as a Treaty; most aboriginal spokespeople have agreed with this, the neoliberals – Turnbull, Brandis & co – say ‘no, no’ we can only think about constitutional recognition don’t complicate the issue!

Modern Australia reflects this difference in the passion for ‘ownership’ of real estate and the regard for land as a commodity and investment. And in the absence of public rights of way and parcels of common land.

This poses the question, ‘Can there be true reconciliation between two groups having such a fundamentally different philosophy and such a different regard for ‘country’, the land? Accepting such a situation, when asked what can be done about it, Mary Graham replied, ‘I don’t know’.  

Her talk/interview can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAwBqTVbxNs


Can Georgist ideas help
Nothing, of course, will change ‘western’ attitudes quickly and one cannot put the clock back but my feeling is that there is much merit in the teachings of Henry George (1839-1897): he proposed that the only tax that should ever be collected is a Land Value Tax  - if you need a piece of Australia for your exclusive use and benefit, then you compensate the rest of us for ‘forgoing our rights’. His book, ‘Progress and Poverty’ is still in print; one of his seminal observations was the one never finds abject poverty without luxury being nearby!

There is of course much more to Henry George’s teaching than this but it seems to me that if all – especially lessees and freeholders – were obliged to pay a Land Value Tax quarterly, even monthly, we would be reminded that our occupation of the land carries obligations as well as rights. Times have ‘moved on’ since George’s day but the concept of taxing land remains. That land taxes are invariably concocted by State Governments to benefit some and punish others and to be competitive between States has made them unpopular but George’s idea was a simple, flat rate tax applied throughout a nation. Such could not be more fair nor more broadly based but it would need to be introduced slowly so that society and the economy could adjust. But if we can have a ten year plan for changes to company tax, we could equally have a ten year plan for land tax! Since George’s time, there have been many suggestions – other than General Revenue – for the creative uses of the revenue of LVT. Julian Pratt in his book, 'Stewardship Economy' - recalls that Thomas Paine suggested 'payments from the fund be made unconditionally to rich and poor alike' - in effect, a Citizen's Income. Ref http://www.stewardship.ac/stewardship.htm

I am coming to the view that the concept of enclosure is indeed foreign of the land of Australia and that both residents and the Australia itself are suffering in consequence; maybe some Georgist’s teachings can help ameliorate the situation over time.

Colin Cook,
Bangalow NSW
July 2016


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