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The Australian Vegetarian Experience

A talk by Robert Fraser, President of the Vegetarian Society of Western Australia and IVU Regional Secretary for Australasia

As many of you will know, I am not Australian by birth or upbringing, so who am I to talk about the vegetarian movement in Australia? But as I've been closely involved in it over the past 12 years, I'd like to speak about it's genesis and development, with some words about it's current status. I have been fortunate in getting much information about the early years of vegetarianism in Australia from people who were at the 'birth', so to speak, of this movement. These include Mrs Emma 'Mick' Fearnside, of Adelaide, South Australia. She currently shares a house with the widow of the founder of the movement, so she is in a better position than anyone to recall the history of the Australian movement.

Before we discuss the formal vegetarian movement in Australia, let's pause a few minutes to set the scene. As many of you will know, Australia was originally populated by various tribes. They were collectively known to European settlers as 'Aborigines', although in recent years, it's become more common to describe them by their tribal names. Aborigines had inhabited Australia for perhaps fifty thousand years, and were intimately bound to the land by spiritual ties, with a great awareness of plant and animal life cycles. The land provided them with everything they needed for a healthy life. They were nomadic, and learned to manage their country in such ways that its resources renewed themselves and were not used up. They were generally not vegetarians; they speared kangaroos and caught fish or dug in the mud for crabs. They killed just what they needed, unlike the 'mass murder' practices of the more recent white settler.

A large part of their diet included naturally occurring fruits and plants, most of which are even today unknown to the average white Australian. At least half of the food eaten by Aborigines came from plants. Just as we eat root vegetables, greens, fruits and seeds, so did the Aborigines. Fruits, seeds and greens were only available during their appropriate seasons, but roots could usually be dug up all the year round, because the earth acted as a natural storage cupboard. Important foods were replanted. The regular digging-over of the soil, and the thinning out of clumps by collection of plants, together with burning to provide fertiliser, is not very different from what we do in our own gardens, and the whole country was in a way an Aboriginal garden.

Even in the dry arid zones of Australia, such plants were there for the finding. Nuts, seeds, fruits, tubers, they were all there for the taking, and the natives had great respect for their land and it's bounty. Sadly, reports by the Australian Medical Association have shown that people in remote Aboriginal communities are forsaking traditional foods in favour of fast food, promoted through slick marketing campaigns. Soft drinks, fish and chips, pies and hamburgers are taking the place of hunting and gathering.

When my wife's late parents were growing up in Australia in the pre-WW2 years, they thought themselves to be the only vegetarians in the whole continent - and maybe they were correct! At least, they knew no other vegetarians, and the prevailing climate, in what was still essentially a country with an agricultural economy, was heavy promotion of meat and dairy.

How many vegetarians are there in Australia now? While there has never been a formal study to my knowledge, figures which various researchers have come up with suggest that the number may be about 3%, or some 3/4 million people. It has been claimed by some that 45% of all households have either given up or reduced their intake of meat products. I don't know the source or reliability of these figures.

The history of the formal vegetarian movement in Australia dates to the late 1940's, and interestingly was an offshoot partly of the animal rights movement and partly of a religious movement. It appears to have stemmed from a lecture given in Sydney in April 1948 under the title of 'The Humane Aspect of Vegetarianism', under the auspices of the local branch of the World League for the Protection of Animals. The speaker at that meeting was a bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, Sten van Krusenstierna. Sten was the former Vice-President of the Malayan Vegetarian Society in Singapore.

Several of the founder members of the fledgling Australian society were naturopaths and dietitians, so in many ways, the Australian movement has come full circle, as it now works in conjunction with the Natural Health Society in production of the 'New Vegetarian' magazine, promoting natural therapies and natural health alongside the vegetarian philosophy and animal rights issues.

The newly founded Society immediately set about the production of a newsletter - which we know to be so important in uniting people in a common cause - and the first issue of the Australian Vegetarian was published in July 1948 at a cost of sixpence.

It contained a message of congratulations from the New Zealand Vegetarian Society, (which has now recently celebrated it's 50th anniversary), in which they pointed out that a visit to a slaughterhouse will strengthen the conviction of the sincere vegetarian and increase his zeal for the cause. The founder President of the Australian Vegetarian Society, a naturopath by profession, stated that he had become a vegetarian after many years of dedicated meat eating, and only in desperation to rid his body of accumulated toxins, did he change his diet.

He reported that his mind became clearer and he felt better in body. He also stated his professional experience that all the sick and diseased whom he'd persuaded to make the vegetarian change recovered more quickly, and that in no case of refusal to give up meat was there a complete cure.

In many ways, Australia is a very parochial country, with organisations in several different States preferring to go their own ways and run their own local activities, although I guess this is not a unique characteristic of Australia. The vegetarian society operated initially on a national basis for some years, servicing members in all States, but it seems that in about 1957, the society in New South Wales went into abeyance, and it was left to the members in South Australia to take up the cause on behalf of the members. They took over the regular magazine and kept it going for many years. Meetings did continue to be held in these States, however, as is evidenced by a copy of the magazine dated Dec 1959, in which meetings are listed for Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, with contacts listed for Melbourne and Perth.

This same magazine contains information of interest to the student of the history and development of the Vegetarian movement. For example, one article describes the availability for the first time in Britain of soyamilk, not the Plamil product that is so well known today, but a product known as Wanderlac, actually produced by the manufacturers of Ovaltine. Strangely, the manufacturers claim that it has been formulated to resemble the nutrient pattern of cows' milk. The article doesn't say if Wanderlac was commercially available in Australia, but I suspect not. The same publication contains a preponderance of material on natural therapies and non-drug treatment of asthma and arthritis; not surprising, since the then President of the Society was a practicing naturopath.

I don't know when the Vegetarian Union of Australasia was founded, but the initial moves were made around about 1976, apparently resulting from a discussion at an IVU Congress between the then General Secretary and an Australian delegate. The suggestion was that a national body be formed, with the intention of coordinating activities and promoting the cause throughout the country.

Annual congresses were proposed and the Australian Vegetarian journal was suggested as a vehicle for the movement. The first 'congress' was held in 1985 in Sydney, and some 50 people attended. The participants apparently took this opportunity to set up a formal structure, with a constitution and an interim committee. They also decided to affiliate to the IVU. A second congress was held the following year in Adelaide, and another was planned for Melbourne in 1987, but I don't know if it actually took place.

At the Adelaide meeting, the name VUA was decided upon by the participants, who also elected a Regional Council. As far as I am aware, this was the last meeting to be held, and when I got involved with it in 1993, it was very much in a dormant state. I was elected Convenor, mainly as I recall because I had shown some interest, and I have made attempts to kick start it, but with little success.

I'm not aware of what gave the Western Australian society it's initial impetus. It may have been inspired by the other societies in Australia, but it first appeared in 1987 as an offshoot of the Theosophical Society, with the aim of furthering their ideal of a humane and cruelty free lifestyle. The inaugural meeting was held at the end of 1984. The Society was run by three members of the Theosophical Society and structured basically along the same lines as the other vegetarian societies in Australia. The Society was loosely organised, with a small "membership", which we later discovered to be mostly unfinancial, but it did have a strong social core.

They met at monthly intervals at the local Theosophical Society headquarters, and the events included cooking demonstrations, social evenings, "pot luck" dinners, and the occasional weekend "retreat". In due course, one of the members set up an informal cooperative, purchasing bulk supplies of vegan organic food stuffs and setting up a stall at the meetings for members to "do their shopping" on the nights of the meetings.

In 1987, the three founders of the society, who did most of the work, resigned. My wife Gina and I, and a few others who had showed some enthusiasm for the continuity of the movement, were persuaded to step into the breach. We are mostly still there!

We soon discovered that the Society was in dire straits. There were a few dollars in the bank, and perhaps a dozen financial members, with around 40 on an informal mailing list, many of whom we discovered later, were no longer interested. We promptly set some priorities for the growth of the Society - and its very survival. Gina started a newsletter, which initially consisted of a few sheets of paper typed on a second-hand typewriter (ours), and I hand-delivered most of them to everyone who had been on the mailing list, financial or not! This newsletter, known as the 'Western Vegetarian', developed slowly into a good-quality magazine, especially when we bought a computer with an elementary desk-top publishing programme. We wrote a Constitution based on the original Australian society's constitution, and tailored it to meet the requirements of the prevailing WA legislation required for incorporation. Incorporating the society was a priority, as this gave it official status

. We relocated a few years later from the Theosophical Society to a local community hall, when the Theosophical Society decided that we had become 'independent'. Our monthly meetings always featured a guest speaker on a wide range of topics. Attendance at our monthly meetings varied over the years and finally started to decline. It got to the point where we realised that the membership were no longer interested in supporting regular monthly meetings, and we decided to have them on an "ad hoc" basis only.

In 1991, a new vegetarian magazine was started by Vegetarian Societies in New South Wales and Victoria, based upon their local newsletters. This magazine, 'New Vegetarian', was largely the initiative of the President of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Vegetarian Society, Mark Berriman, who, together with Mark and Adrienne Cassattari-Brown, quickly built this magazine into a major national publication. We in WA merged with it later that year. In 1996, the Natural Health Society of Australia decided to merge their publication with NV, and it became the 'New Vegetarian and Natural Health' magazine.

As for the activities of the WA society, we have organised several well-attended full-day seminars over the years, with expert speakers on subjects as varied as animal rights, food technology, natural therapies, and environmental pollution. Speakers have included acknowledged experts in their fields, medical practitioners, University lecturers/researchers etc.

Merchandising of products bearing a vegetarian or vegan message, and production of a wide range of information sheets was also a priority for us. Such an approach has enabled us to participate in major health and lifestyle 'expos' which are held twice-yearly in Perth. These 4 day expos, with attendance of many thousands, help strengthen our existence and enable the vegetarian philosophy to disseminate more widely.

The society in Western Australia no longer hosts regular social events, since we cannot be guaranteed a reasonable attendance. We toy with the idea from time to time, but presently feel that it isn't feasible, given the low participation rate of the majority of members. Other societies, however, have annual vegan barbecues at which thousands enjoy vegan foods; most groups attend major expos and lifestyle festivals; some hold regular social and restaurant outings, and all are firmly entrenched!

Australia is a good country in which to be vegetarian, because of the wide variety of fruits, vegetables and salads either grown here, or imported from neighbouring countries. Organically grown produce is also increasing in availability, but is still often hard to find and tends to be expensive. A number of "fake meat" products, including sausages and burgers, are sold, and several varieties of soya milk are sold, including some made without Genetically Engineered soya beans.

Vegetarian restaurants are not hard to find, especially in the major cities, and offer a good range of cooking styles, often Chinese or Indian.

Our Society in Western Australia, and some of the others, are members of the IVU. We are also affiliated to Animals Australia, an umbrella group of animal rights and animal welfare societies, mostly very actively campaigning for Animal Rights.

The AVS continues to operate very strongly, with branches in some States, while other States have independently started their own local groups including vegan societies. Distance between societies doesn't help with co-ordinated campaigns or projects - in fact, we all function independently of one another. The national magazine is the largest single coordinated activity that all Societies are involved in, although not all actually participate in providing material for it.