“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





17 June 2015


Recalling Toyne of the Outback
a bloke who changed his country
and another who's doing his best

So Phillip Toyne has died of cancer. He was only 67.

Thinking about his considerable life, one can't help marvelling at the actual changes this astonishing man made to Australia.

The swathes of wild Tasmania Toyne the quiet campaigner helped the early Greens secure with world heritage listing; the preservation of the Daintree and Kakadu; the conversion of Peter Garrett from rock star to green activist to cabinet minister; the handover of Uluru to its original owners; his transforming days at the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation; his gradual development of what became known as Landcare; his negotiation of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act; his hand at the wheel of Bush Heritage Australia ...

I can think of no single person who has had such a powerful and transforming infuence on how this country looks. Not only can Toyne take some direct credit for the planting of millions of trees in the rural landscape since the days of the Hawke government, but his long association with the late Rick Farley, head of the National Farmers' Federation, quite simply changed the way Australian farmers faced their ground.

In a grab, Toyne put the black and green back into country. To make gold.

So what's this got to do with wine?

Nothing. And that's my point. If indeed the Australian wine industry is an industry, like a single working entity in pursuit of a common goal, this industry sure could use a visionary of Toyne's calibre.

Never has it needed such a character so badly.

There is no doubt that the industry's environmental understanding has come a long way in the last twenty years, influenced indirectly by the greening influence Toyne quietly wielded over all the other sorts of farming.

But let's stand back and have a think. All those years of fixing the river, for example. It's a long time since Prime Minister John Howard convinced us to let him sell Telstra so he could splash a couple of billion at the dying river system - it never had much of a splash of its own.

And the one obvious business which has never put its hand up and admitted that its abuse of precious freshwater to produce ridiculously cheap alcohol could use a touch of close examination? Not the wine industry, surely.

Just sayin'.

Which leads me to a key aspect of Toyne, and precisely why the wine business probably doesn't deserve such a visionary influence.

The wine industry always acts as if the conservatives hold government.

Now of course there are times when the conservatives do hold power: the current Federal situation is example enough. The few notable cap-in-handers currently influencing the wine industry seem to find Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce pliable, if only with the help of Senator Sean Edwards, vigneron of Clare.

But there are long swathes of time when the opposite is the fact. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating come to mind. South Australia comes to mind. Regardless of its bull-headed rightness, the South Australian wine industry exists under a deep-seated Labor regime. Quite often, by the behaviour of significant wine industry players, you wouldn't think so.

Surely it's time you got it, guys?

Toyne's strength was his capacity to realise who the key players were, and how he could use them, regardless of their politics. He had no qualms about dealing in the halls of power. He could talk to, beguile and befriend his enemy.

Bob Brown still marvels at how Toyne convinced him that he'd have to deal with Senator Graham Richardson to influence Prime Minister Bob Hawke to get those protective listings placed over Tasmania. Richo was hardly a friend of the Greens.

Pat Dodson still marvels at how Toyne, the lawyer-cum-schoolteacher-of remote blackfella camps, would convince him to climb into his tiny, frail aircraft, and wobble off across the vast desert to make deals with the enemy.

Noel Pearson will long marvel at the negotiating skills he learnt from Toyne.

And as for that totally unlikely marriage of the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers' Federation? There are many still gasping in disbelief, after all those years, at just how that happened. It was Toyne's capacity to recognise and isolate the key players - whatever their hue - then go and sit with them and work shit out.

Having seen only the first episode of The Killing Season, with its dark pall of treachery and mistrust, I felt there was only one person in the whole damn thing who came through it with class and some unblemished dignity: former Treasury boss Ken Henry (below).

Henry's visionary suggestions for revamping the way wine is taxed are now nearly seven years old. In their way, these recommendations could have the single biggest positive influence over the future life of Australia's biggest river system, talking green.

In a country with no water, you can't maintain a basin of this importance by using 1200 litres of its water to make a litre of drink that's three times the strength of your average beer but is sold for the price of bottled water.

This huge socio-environmental scam exists only because the bladder pack plonk made there is taxed at a rate lower than better quality, more profitable and more environmentally-responsible wine.

Now we see huge premium wine companies like Treasury and Pernod-Ricard's Jacob's Creek calling for a rethink on the calm sense in Henry's recommendations. They agree that the unfair and corrupted WET Rebate system should be replaced with an across-the-board excise like all other alcohol incurs.

Not only is this more profitable for them, but this is classic left-meets-right creative thinking. We finally see the big guys - traditionally regarded as the enemy of the small high quality wine producer - jumping the fence. They no longer seek to be regarded primarily as producers of cheap bladder pack plonk, with all its dubious implications.

They've left the confounding web of wine industry councils and committees out on their own, looking very silly indeed.

Who do these bodies look after? They look after the subsidised bladder pack business that stretches the viability of our river. 

Toyne would love these politics.

So the mischief in me uses the death of this great man to suggest that right now, Ken Henry is the Phillip Toyne the wine business needs.

But you know what? Unlike the Farmers Federation, who saw the green light, the wine industry can't grasp just how its perceived enemy could be its long-term saviour.

Which convinces me it's not really a single industry at all. There are two businesses and they have very little in common. The water-abusing bladder packers have hidden behind the veil of the premium quality, more profitable, environmentally-responsible gastronomic artists for far too long.

In the bright spirit of Phillip Toyne, Ken Henry knew this eight years ago.


Bob Allan said...

Philip White, I just came across your article about Phillip Toyne. As well as being Phillip's doctor, I was a close friend. As such I had the pleasure of accompanying him on many outback trips, and also frequently sharing a bottle of Australian red with him. He enjoyed a glass right up to the last weeks of his life. I agree your assessment of Phillip's contribution to the environment and aboriginal affairs. Many thanks for a great article. Cheers.

Philip White said...

Thankyou Bob. I always felt lucky to be near him. I learnt much.