October 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Read the roo

By Robert Drewe
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
As Qantas flounders and the Australia Council drops its instantly recognisable kangaroo logo, what is the status of the erstwhile national symbol?

I don’t know much about the macropod scrotum market, but apparently it’s going great guns. On the Australian Souvenirs website, there are other popular kangaroo products such as a paw bottle opener that gives the rude middle-finger gesture, a “kangaroo paw peace salute keyring” and a kangaroo paw backscratcher. Your itches eased for $37.95. But it’s kangaroo scrotums that are sitting pretty. Marsupial testicle bags – entertaining or what? According to Australia’s kangaroo-product industry, they’re examples of a national sense of fun that finds dead kangaroo parts hilarious.

Another online company, RooBalls, has a special offer at the moment. “Can’t decide which kangaroo scrotum product to send to a friend? Why not send them all 4 different scrotum products to show off!” So you can show your love with a scrotum-based keychain, bottle opener, coin pouch and corkscrew.

While cracking open a stubby with a kangaroo scrotum might earn admiration in some circles, many people and organisations are mystified about how the cultural status of our national emblem has come to this. It wasn’t always so unedifying. Let’s jump back a little (unlike the kangaroo, whose popularity as a symbol for aspiring institutions is based on its supposed reluctance to leap backwards), for a valedictory historical overview.

The marsupial of course already had huge spiritual significance for the Indigenous population when James Cook’s Endeavour returned to England in 1771 with a specimen on board. Soon after, Joseph Banks commissioned George Stubbs to paint a portrait of the unique creature. The official account of the voyage was illustrated with an engraving of Stubbs’s The Kongouro from New Holland, which soon symbolised this strange continent in exhibitions and printed works across Europe.

As white settlement evolved, the kangaroo came to represent Australian values. As with America’s bald eagle, Canada’s beaver, India’s Bengal tiger, South Africa’s springbok, Lebanon’s striped hyena and Costa Rica’s sloth, it became a national emblem, and, in 1908, a buttress in the national coat of arms.

It’s now Australia’s most familiar symbol, appearing in the logos of many organisations, including Qantas, Tourism Australia and Australian Made. According to Roy Morgan Research, the latter’s logo is trusted by 88 per cent of Australians and used by more than 2600 businesses, on thousands of products.

The first stain on the kangaroo’s reputation occurred in its natural habitat, the bush. (In the cities, interestingly, it was urban youths from southern European backgrounds who would later strike a derisory blow, coining the word Skip for a boring, old-style Anglo-Celtic Australian.) While seen as cute by city folk, the kangaroo was detested by farmers. Its reputation for damaging crops and fences, and its competition with domestic animals for resources, made it a target for eradication.

Government experts say that some species (eastern grey, western grey, red and wallaroo) are so plentiful they need regular culling to protect the land, other wildlife and the kangaroos themselves from starving during droughts. In 2009, the government estimated that Australia had 27 million kangaroos. The estimate now is 42.7 million, but how they count them is a mystery.

The culling of the national icon enrages activists, who have long campaigned against a practice that they say is cruel and driven by commercial interests. Licensed hunters earn a fee for each kilogram of dead kangaroo. The carcasses are processed for meat, skin and hides for export to 70 countries – an industry worth $200 million annually, according to the main commercial body, the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

So what’s the kangaroo’s status today? Source of scrotum bottle-openers or valuable export? Farmers’ pest or national icon? Valuable trademark or outdated advertising symbol? A clue might lie in the tumult surrounding the logo saga of the Australia Council.

In 1983, the federal government’s funding body, officially the Australia Council for the Arts, commissioned the respected designer Lyndon Whaite to create a logo that would “reinforce the presence of the Council in the arts and wider community”. According to an article on the graphic design online journal Re:collection, his brief was succinct and prescriptive: avoid hard-edged “corporate” imagery, and make it unmistakeably Australian.

Whaite’s resulting sketch encompassed a kangaroo, a sun and an enveloping arc. “Of the images readily recognisable as Australian,” he said, “the kangaroo is without doubt pre-eminent nationally and internationally.”

So, Whaite had followed the brief, but the corporates got their way, and his logo’s original vitality was chipped away. In 1988, at the First Asia Pacific Design Conference, critic and “Life Be in it” cartoonist Alex Stitt declared that “the Australia Council, which proudly displayed a symbol with some real handwriting in it, has cleaned it up in order to eliminate most of the human character. And this is the Government body that protects, preserves and promotes the arts in our society!”

The logo then became a recurring symbol of protest for the artist John Kelly, who deconstructed and subverted Whaite’s iconic kangaroo in a sustained attack on the council’s “distinctly anti-art” strategy of “branding the arts”. In 2005, when commissioned by MONA’s David Walsh to design his Moo Brew beer labels, Kelly aped the logo on the cans. Ever the optimist, he applied to the Australia Council to fund a project critical of itself.

A version of Whaite’s kangaroo prevailed as the council’s logo, appearing on all the books and projects it supported. Then, two months ago, and four decades after its creation, the logo was finally dropped when the Australia Council was transformed into Creative Australia, under the federal government’s national cultural policy. Fittingly, at the launch last August, word has it that attendees were served kangaroo-meat canapés.

Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe writes novels, short stories, memoir and essays. His latest novel is Nimblefoot.

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