You are here

Glen Marshall, population and indigenous rights activist - obituary

Glen Marshall was born 19th June 1926 at Cessnock New South Wales and died at Sea Lake Hospital on 28th February 2015. He was buried in Culgoa Cemetry on 4 March 2015. After working as a ranger in Tasmania, where he raised his children, he obtained a degree in Agricultural Science from Melbourne University, where he also knew Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. He spent the years 1960 to 1974 in Papua New Guinea and was Assistant Director of Education from 1962. During this time he became very interested in the religion of the peoples he met there. He came to the conclusion that the primary function of religion was to 'keep a tribe or community together'. He later obtained a Masters degree in theology, and, still later, was employed by the University of Melbourne in a related field. He was named Anzac of the year in 2004.

Whilst in New Guinea, he was a lay preacher and incurred the wrath of Christian missionaries there both for taking indigenous religion seriously and for discussing the rising problem of overpopulation, which he observed had not been a problem before colonial and missionary interference with tribal traditions. He was told to 'keep his hobby to himself' and was so disgusted that he immediately resigned. He told me that he never entered a church again, although he maintained an interest in what he called 'progressive theology'. You can see an interview with him about this period in this video and read a transcript here.

Glen eventually retired to Culgoa, in the Mallee Wimmera, North Victoria, after considering several other small towns. He liked small towns and the land.

Activism for Water in Culgoa and the Wimmera Mallee

The economics of the post WWI and WW2 eras had brought injury and insult to Culgoa and the Wimmera Malley region with the deployment of that famous and unfortunate Australian invention, the 'stump-jump' plough, which had stripped this marginal land of the invaluable protection of malley eucalypts. Over the next hundred years many local farmers had taught themselves the value of the local vegetation and had replanted and protected what remained in order to survive.

Glen joined the Victorian branch of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA - formerly AESP) and corresponded occasionally over the years with the writer. In 2003 he and fellow Culgoa citizen, Audrey Mather, convinced Jill Quirk and myself, both on the SPAVic executive, to investigate the Bracks and Brumby Government big agribusiness plans to divert water from Culgoa River to already ecologically costly irrigation activities in the Riverina and to hear the other side of the story from local farmers who had formed PipeRight Inc. See article here: We also noted that the concentration of voters in the Riverina versus their sparseness in the Wimmera Malley played a part in the popularity of irrigation for Victorian politicians.

The government proposal favored an opaque 'business case' that ultimately closed the century-old gravity channels where water was used to supplement mixed farming activities in years when rainfall was insufficient even for the famous drylands wheat farming there. Through the Victorian Government initiative the Wimmera-Mallee farmers incurred large new expenses for water and infrastructure, making their climate-adapted agriculture financially very difficult. The government used a short-term and purely economic argument that irrigated activities like intensive pig farming and wine growing in the Riverina contemporarily earned more dollars per litre of water, as opposed to the long-term sustainability of drylands farming in the rangelands.

In March 2015, Jill Quirk (recent past president of SPAVicTas) and me (Sheila Newman, current president) went to visit Glen Marshall in Sea Lake Hospital where he was in treatment for terminal cancer. Our purpose, apart from saying good bye to an old friend, was to record Glen's important observations about indigenous social organisation and population growth rates. (See the short video here: Glen suffered from nerve deafness and Jill (a retired audiologist) had recently been able to get over an administrative hurdle to have his hearing aid fixed, so dialogue was easy. We stayed overnight at a local hotel and visited Glen twice. Both visits had a feeling of happy intellectual meetings, during which Glen covered many other subjects besides population. Glen also spoke with great appreciation of the caring attitudes of the hospital staff at Sea Lake, where it was obvious that he was allowed to remain an individual to the end and had a functioning office in his hospital room. He particularly enjoyed chats with his doctor, an Irish immigrant who had obtained a degree in classical studies prior to his medical degree.

Glen would have approved of our adding to this article that Sea Lake was a testimony to the great social importance of small towns in their ability to give time and place to everyone and to blend with their physical environment.

As mentioned, Glen spent his latter years in Culgoa in the Wimmera Malley and this was where he was buried.

The Victorian government 'won' its business case and, since our first visit in 2003 the town of Culgoa, where Glen was buried on March 4, 2015, has virtually dried up. Anticipating this, Audrey Mather had since moved to Bendigo. On our drive up to see Glen in Sea Lake in March 2015, we passed through Culgoa. Due to scavenging for irrigated agriculture elsewhere in the early 21st century, the Culgoa River that had once preserved life in the town, was reduced to stagnant puddles more typical of drought, despite relatively good rainfall this year. The beautiful knotty malley gums and the silk-thin ground cover that lined the dry river bed were doomed. Only a government located in a distant place could have brought itself to remove the little water that made such a difference over centuries to this place. Economics as practised in our day is surely the destroyer of social and ecological capital, of local democracy and the ability to preserve spiritual and functional relationships with the land. What happened to Papua New Guinea is happening to Australia. It has little to do with the colour of our skins and a lot to do with the colour of money.

Early life

Glen's father was born in the north of Scotland in 1884 and his mother was born eight years later in Eden on the south coast of NSW. Both came from Christian families and remained practising Christians all their lives. They married in 1913 and reared three children of which Glen was the eldest. Glen's father initially made a very good living from a business associated with the manufacturing and exporting arm of the dairy industry. The family remained quite wealthy through Glen's early school years, however, when the Great Depression destroyed his father's business and the family followed Glen's father around the country as he attempted to scratch a living from any job he could. Glen wrote that, from the age of seven until his seventh school year, he attended 19 separate schools and that he never identified with a school. These circumstances made it impossible for him to be accepted by any peer group at the time.

Although the Depression eased by the time he reached the age of 13, his father had gone into debt to help the family survive and Glen could not remain at school. After he passed the merit certificate exam, he had to leave school to work as a lad labourer in a butter factory in Merrigum.

For the next five years he worked his way through the technical stages of butter manufacturing, acquiring DLI 'tickets'. He writes that he was not at all interested in social life, but spent all his spare time reading mathematical texts.

Aged 19 he joined the RAAF and served mainly with the 56 Operational Base Unit (OBU). After the war he matriculated, then took a degree with honours at Melbourne, qualified to be a teacher, then served in numerous schools in Victoria, Papua New Guinea, prison education service and finally in education administration where his major duty was integration of physically and mentally handicapped children into mainstream education.

He wrote that his Christian formation helped cultivate a deep concern for true social justice. He became convinced that, "although no-one is independent, all of us ought, wherever and whenever possible, irrespective of any circumstances, serve others more than we expect to be served."

He hated bigotry. He wrote, "Bigotry surrounds us, its ugly effects showing up in too many facets of our work, play and social life."