Thursday, March 27, 2014

Abbott and Pyne Hands Off Our Education Rally - Melbourne, Australia - 26th March 2014

I'm in this. I'm wearing a magic mushroom tshirt. It was probably inappropriate... I speak! For your viewing pleasure (or otherwise)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fair-skin privilege? I'm sorry, but things are much more complicated than that

Following on from my article about why I prefer the term "black", I encountered what I can only describe as an unexpected and actually quite upsetting response via Twitter. It was unexpected because it came from members of the migrant community; a community which, on the most part, I have experienced as strong allies. It was upsetting because no amount of explanation from an Indigenous perspective seemed to satisfy. There was a barrow to be pushed and it needed to be pushed at all costs. I write this piece not to cause division, but rather to use this opportunity to educate in the hope that the knowledge of people is expanded. 

It started as an initial long Tweet that I was sent, but from there it developed into a long twitter exchange. At no point throughout this exchange did I get the sense that any of the points I had raised from an Indigenous perspective were taken on board. This long tweet, minus identification and lead-in paragraph is below: 

You've made some comments that indicate that you regard it as ‘old fashioned’ or ‘wrong’ to use skin colour as a marker of race. However, if you deny skin colour as a marker of race, then you deny an important aspect of Blackness.

Being darker doesn't make you more Black, but it does make you, all other things being equal, more discriminated against. To deny that is to deny your privilege: not privilege of class, education or profession, but privilege of skin colour.

There are countless different ways to be Black and not all of them are visible. But denying visibility in Blackness reminds me of whites who claim to be colour-blind. In doing so, they deny other people’s experience.

I think the reason why this means so much to me is that I have no shared culture, no shared history, no shared community or any of what you consider to be contemporary or valid Blackness. Just skin colour. 

Now before I go further, it should be highlighted that my article, which was completely about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, and which used many of our descriptive terms, our language and our experience to highlight this fact was interpreted, as was made clear in the residual tweets, to have impact for non-Indigenous communities of colour. I never set out to represent these viewpoints in my piece. I do not have the required background to represent these views from a first-hand experience. Considering that our media is dominated by white males writing about everyone else, I would much rather read those perspectives first-hand rather than silence the voices by hazarding guesses at what their views might be. Likewise, I expect that people would recognise that I am coming from the perspective of an educated Arrernte woman of the hard-left persuasion who lives in the city, recognise how rare those voices are in the media, and not contribute to the silencing. It was unfortunate that this didn't happen.

To start with the point regarding how skin colour is a racial marker and there is a privilege associated with lighter skin, I didn't deny this in my responses although I tried to highlight from an Indigenous perspective why the situation was more complicated. I just got walls. This was why I ended up putting a stop to the conversation. To put it simply, I don't disagree with Dallas Scott when he highlights how skin colour seems to be associated with greater financial disadvantage, lower educational attainment and social ostracism, although I would argue that factors such as remoteness and mainstream ignorance also come into play. I'm 100% certain that skin colour was the reason why Jack Charles and Gurrumul Yunupingu were denied taxis. Their visibility is undeniable. 

However, fair skin privilege from an Indigenous perspective is incredibly limited. The view expressed by the long tweet completely ignores the many assimilation practices that fairer skinned Aboriginal people have been exposed to in this country, such as the "Stolen Generations". Children of fairer skin being ripped away from their darker parents in order to be trained up in domestic chores and farmhand duties so they could then be given to settler communities as free labour. 

Fair skinned children being blackened up with charcoal by the parents in the hope that the government officers would not notice their colouring. Children being belted for speaking their language and forced to abandon language, culture and family in order to avoid punishment. Living conditions so abhorrent that a dog would turn it's nose up at them. Don't believe me? Here is my grandmother, who was a member of the Stolen Generations, talking about the experience in her own words.  It didn't end with my grandmother either. My father was a welfare kid who ended up with some siblings in The Convent School in Alice Springs where they were also punished severely for expressing language and culture. Recently my brother, at my father's birthday, delivered a speech where he gave the first paragraph in Arrernte. I cannot not tell you how that felt. For two generations children in my family were denied the right to speak language because they were wards of the state and here's my brother, at nearly 30 years old, reclaiming this language so that his siblings and his son are not also denied it. It's for these reasons that you see so many fairer skinned Aboriginal people fighting so damn hard to reclaim language, family and culture. By virtue of skin colour many were denied these things. This is not an experience within the borders of this country that translates readily to a migrant experience.

Additionally, whilst I never denied skin colour as a marker, and whilst I also don't deny the existence of some fair skin privilege in the some ways, what about visiting the concept of "migrant privilege"? The White Australia Policy existed until the early 1980s yet from the 1940s onwards, following the impacts of wars, it was chipped away at bit by bit. Non-white immigrants were eventually accepted into the country in various "waves" to the point of Malcolm Fraser openly supporting multiculturalism and opening up the refugee programmes to many Asian nations. This country has gone so far backward since this time with elections being won on the basis of "stopping the boats" that I am disgusted to live in it. Yet, here's the thing: my father, despite being born in this country and having ancestors that had been born in this country for roughly 4000 generations, was not counted in the census as a citizen of this country until he was 17 years old. This is why I have problems with the term "First Australians". Each successive wave of immigrants became Australians before the First Peoples, regardless of skin colour, were recognised as human beings. Therefore, migrant communities, whilst actively discriminated against by other Australians and enduring vast poverty, racism, ostracism and countless other things, also had more rights in this country than the First Peoples. 

I state this not to be inflammatory. Rather it is a simple historical fact and one I believe that the majority of people living in this country are unaware of. They are not aware that one of the wealthiest countries in this world has third world conditions tucked away far from the visible eye. They are not aware that trachoma and other third world diseases are still an issue here. They are not aware and I am not surprised. Why? Because this country continually fails to acknowledge its own history and even goes to the extent of suppressing it by referring to the negatives as "black armband history"; therefore there is no value for national pride to revisit this stuff. Everyone who lives here benefits from stolen lands for which treaties are yet to be negotiated, massacres, frontier wars, assimilation policies and the displacement of original peoples. Including Indigenous peoples that live on lands other than homelands (yep, this would be me). Yet the broader knowledge of this is so severely lacking. Sometimes a simple acknowledgement is all that it takes to make the day of an Indigenous person struggling for recognition. 

One final point, throughout the course of the tweeting, the dissenting voices referred to themselves as "Black Australians" and I feel the need to claim sovereignty here. To me this was no different than seeing Andrew Bolt referring to himself as an "indigenous Australian". It diminishes our importance as First Peoples of this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the "Black Australians". Migrants of colour are black people who have made Australia their home and have become "Australians" therefore accepting this country as it stands: a place which was wrongfully declared Terra Nullius and was taken without the consent of the First Peoples. There is a difference. We use "black" as a way of highlighting our experiences as a result of, or in contrast to "White Australia". The lack of general population knowledge due to national denial when it comes to our unique struggles is why I feel that this distinction is sometimes unknown and needs to be explained. 

I wish to apologise to the many comrades and allies I have within the migrant communities for the existence of this blogpost. Know how much I value you, your support and your commitment to fighting side-by-side for recognition in this country. This is not a blogpost that is written for you. Rather it is written for others who, sometimes through no fault of their own, do not possess this knowledge. Who would make comments such as encountered above without realising just how limited and uneducated on the plight of First Peoples these comments are. Who accept this country as their home with a dominant power to struggle against for recognition yet fail to delve into intricacies of the experiences of First Peoples. I hope this post assists in their acquisition of knowledge.

Finally, I look very much forward to reading more about the experiences of migrant communities in this country. I want to read a hell of a lot more about the unique experiences of racism, the ostracism and the intricacies from these voices. I WANT to read about skin colour and how this manifests as a site of repression from a migrant perspective. If I had my way, the dominant white, middle-class, right-wing male voices would be sidelined in the media in favour for diversity and the sharing of true knowledges. I will never, however, be representing these voices myself in my writings. As First Peoples whose experience is almost always denied, we've got our own stories to tell and I am not the right person to be telling the stories of others. With respect.     

Update 11/4/14 - Earlier this week, a response was written by the original poster of the long tweet that started all this. On reading this post, beyond linking it so people do know a response was prepared, I have decided no further response from me is warranted. The piece speaks for itself and I would be clearly wasting my time furthering this exchange, and a couple of parallel exchanges with others. Among many other "interesting" points made, it's news to me that I want anyone to accept this country as it is, what with me being a sovereignty supporter and all... Anyway, make of it what you will.

Update 14/4/14 (what I hope will be the final one) - Eugenia Flynn has written a response to this whole situation, and I encourage all to read it. It's incredibly important and not only reflects her own proximity to this issue but came about because, despite all efforts, things didn't appear to be letting up any time soon and myths were continuing to be perpetuated by those with a barrow to push to achieve their own notoriety (my words, not hers). It is an extraordinary piece and I want to thank her publicly for taking the time to articulate her views. I hope that those with unanswered questions will find them within her articulate text. I have previously stated that no further response from me is warranted, and whilst there was a further response given on me stating this (available via the link in the first edit if you click on the main site), it is unproductive to engage with that response post or any subsequent as I have no doubt they will continue. Fiction is fast becoming "fact" and I'm not willing to be a part of that.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

I'd love to have a beer with Duncan, provided bloody Duncan doesn't exclude me...

Social media can be alternately a wondrous invention of the 21st century whilst also being a curse. It's wonderful because with the click of a mouse button, you are able to connect with an infinite amount of people instantly and find out what's going on. A particularly useful tool to have when communicating with the Indigenous community. However, when what's going on is not particularly pleasant stuff, the gift of social media fast turns into a curse.

Such it was last week when news spread rapidly that a publican in Coolgardie had banned Indigenous people from drinking in her pub because her phone was allegedly stolen. A sign, that was quickly photographed and circulated on social media attested to this racist ban. The story of an Aboriginal miner who was refused service and is now seeking legal advice was told. The pub's page on Facebook was trolled with reviews being written about the regular KKK meetings and the archaic attitudes and decor. In short, some well-oiled internet activism sprung into action and let people know that this was not acceptable.

The publican apologised soon after the sign had gone viral, but by then the damage had been done. People had witnessed the modern day exclusion of a group of people based on race via the information superhighway. For a moment we felt yet again like things hadn't progressed since the time Freedom Riders were spat on and arrested at the Moree Pool for trying to gain access so the local black kids could have a swim.

The problem is, this is not an isolated incident. This happens more regularly than people in this country either hear about or acknowledge. In this instance, thanks to social media, information was quickly and widely dispersed, but this was not the case in Bairnsdale in 2011 when Police issued a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol to Aboriginal people in an attempt to curve street violence. In 2008, a Taree bottle shop put a ban on “mixed or otherwise” Aboriginal people and instructed staff to tell these people to leave. Of course, in 2007 the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended and blanket alcohol and pornography bans were enacted in remote Northern Territory communities but it has been mainly activist groups who have questioned these government policies. The general public have been mainly silent. They probably believe, what with the government rhetoric and the media reporting, that these bans were completely warranted despite the original Lateline report that led to a declaration of a “state of emergency” was found to be seriously lacking in credibility.

Of course, exclusion does not always centre around alcohol. Last year the cast of The Shadow King were repeatedly refused taxi service in Melbourne and were later racially abused by a tram commuter. Also last year, well-known community character and Elder statesman of the theatre Jack Charles went public on an incident of racism he had experienced again from a taxi driver. Famous Yolgnu singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was refused a taxi the previous year in St. Kilda, despite him being blind and therefore needing reliable assisted transportation. These are the incidents involving public Indigenous figures so you can just imagine how often it happens to everyday Aboriginal people.

We see the continual videos taken on public transport of racist attacks including one on a presumed Aboriginal person (though later this was found to not be the case) only a couple of weeks ago. We hear the offensive opinions some Australian revellers on Australia Day have of Aboriginal people in John Pilger's documentary Utopia. These are all incidences of what we call “blatant racism” but while this stuff raises its ugly head occasionally, events like Australia Day, statements such as “black armband view of history” and frequent tales of how acknowledging difference is apparently racist also exclude Aboriginal people. They tell us that we don't have a right to our truth, our history and present, and our right to define ourselves how we choose. They exclude through denial and assimilation. If people don't feel that this is every bit as damaging as being excluded through blatant acts such as bans and denials of service, they are very wrong. 
Racism is a part of every day life in Australia. It is heartening to see people band together on social media and state that these sorts of acts against an entire group of people are not acceptable. It gives me hope that through these channels and contact over networks that did not exist in previous generations, people are connecting with others they may not have in the past and are therefore being challenged and gaining different perspectives. They can also pressure people who exhibit attitudes that exclude entire races of people and enact change. There is still so very far to go though...

Audio recording of my Nanna Emily Liddle (Perkins)

Sharing this for posterity. Link is from the NT Government Archives called "Territory Families". My Nanna passed away in 2003, and therefore, despite the fact that she is talking about some horrific conditions and being taken from family and community as a young girl to two childrens' missions, the fact that I can still hear her voice this many years after she passed is a gift. 

From memory, this was originally in an exhibition in the early 90s called "Between Two Worlds". To quote the intro:

Around 1930 or thereabouts, when Emily Liddle was nine years old, the authorities decided that it was time for her, as a child of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal heritage, to leave the station where she’d grown up and go to school.

At this time the children were no longer held in town at the ‘Bungalow’ but were taken to Jay Creek, about 45km away in the West MacDonnells.

In time the institution was moved from Jay Creek back into town, to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, and Emily Liddle came too

Here's the link to the page where the audio recording is available, or click here to go directly to the audio without going to the page first.

Nanna Emily Liddle

Friday, March 7, 2014

Aboriginal Feminism – So what does this entail?

This piece was originally commissioned, but it turned out to not be suitable as a more personal take was wanted. I've decided to post this here, and will release the other one once it has been published elsewhere.

For a very long time, Aboriginal women have been active in the feminist movement and Aboriginal feminists have been central in the Indigenous movement. We have a long and proud history of strong women who speak their minds and who remain staunch in the face of disparity. Yet as Aboriginal feminists, the struggles we face are unique. Not only are we negotiating the hotbed of race politics in this country and how that permeates throughout the women’s movement, but we face gender politics from both the mainstream Australian community also within the black community. It is for these reasons that I feel Aboriginal feminism is, at this point growing, and a new generation of activists are engaging and tackling issues effecting black women today.

Due to the process of colonisation, what effects white women generally effects black women, however due to the intersection of race, black women face unique battles as well. Back when the women's movement was fighting to access to safe and effective contraception and legal abortion in this country, Aboriginal women were additionally fighting for the right to keep their children in the face of the legislation that led to the Stolen Generations. White women were fighting for economic independence separate from men (eg: so they were not forced to be married to have security) and the right to equal pay while black women were also fighting to be paid for their labour in the first place.

Whilst the fights of mainstream feminism have never been completely contrary to the fights of black feminism in this country due to the processes of colonisation, they have, at times, not been inclusive enough to allow for the additional levels of oppression black women face. We occasionally get accused of being divisive when we do bring up incidences of intersecting oppression. Our real battles sometimes remain unrecognised whilst a focus on feminist matters that would be considered quite secondary to a lot of black women rages forth. Sometimes, matters we would consider not particularly important in the black feminist movement can be the ones we get questioned on the most. One such example I can think of are the constant questions we get about women playing the didgeridoo. It is considered culturally inappropriate for women to play this instrument which is commonly interpreted by mainstream feminism as sexist. However, black women don't tend interpret it this way, rather it is seen as “men's business” and therefore a respected part of culture. If black women indeed do consider this sexist, then when it comes to the grand scale of what black women are facing, such as having their agency removed by policies within the NT Intervention, or the much higher rates of intimate partner violence experienced, or achieving twice the number of academic accolades yet only getting a smidgen of the recognition; all whilst facing racism; whether or not we can play the didgeridoo does not even rate as an issue. If it were an issue, it would be an issue for black women to challenge. White women challenging this would not only come across as an act of imperialism, it would also severely diminish our right as black women to enact change within our own communities.

Similarly, within black movements, our women encounter the patriarchy. Black men, and women, are not immune to reinforcing the patriarchy due to the fact that we are both fighting for racial equality although sometimes this very argument gets played. Additionally, whilst we fight with our brothers against racism, some do accuse us of being divisive and not focussing on the “real issues” when we bring up issues of sexism experienced internally. This is because our men face oppression too and highlighting that oppression can exist at a number of levels can be seen as downplaying their experiences of oppression. I have been told that the patriarchy is not a matter of concern within black communities because it's considered a product of the colonisers, yet this is not actually the case. Black women are seen as strong-willed and able, yet from both black and white perspectives we are supposed to be nurturers and supporters at the same time. We commonly hear statements like “our women are the backbone of our communities” (in other words, the part that gives the community strength, structure and holds it all together in the background) regardless of whether we wish to be the backbone or not.

We additionally face the same issues as other women with regards to how we're valued within the broader society. Our physical features are considered extremely important yet we are subjected to oppressive western notions of beauty and are additionally judged on our skin tones. Despite our celebrated strength, we are also supposed to be submissive and hyper-feminine. Our achievements are often considered lesser on the basis of womanhood and additionally “concessional” on the basis of Indigeneity. Sometimes we are freer from these oppressive forces within the black communities due to the need, as a small population, to be more tolerant and band together in the fight against racism, but this is not always the case. In short, simple recognition of women's issues in the context of race politics can sometimes be a real battle.

In the process of decolonisation and the fight for overall equality, Aboriginal feminism is essential. Due to the intersecting forms of oppression, black women are often at the coalface of the battles and therefore can provide in-depth experience and solutions for the future. There is a lot to share and learn from Aboriginal feminism, and indeed, I feel that both the black movement and the women's movement are stronger for having some passionate and dedicated black women working with them and challenging the systems.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The inevitable search for the easy-out loophole

The other day, my article regarding my personal preference for certain terminology went live. I've posted the link to it in my articles tab, and it's also below in the original form if folks wish to have a flick through it. I saw it shared widely and I got some great comments back, from those who both agreed and disagreed with my stance. What I was most pleased with were mob who welcomed the piece. They are kind enough when it was first written here, so when it went "mainstream" I did wonder how it would go. So thank you to those who shared it.

Mostly, I avoided the commentary, as is my want but also because in a lifetime of being a black woman, much of the dissenting opinion from outside the mob is rehash. I have heard it all before, several thousand times and it doesn't get more interesting or convincing the more I read it. Oh yeah, and calling me a "white" person who is appropriating political terminology to feed into my alleged victim mentality just shows the petty-mindedness of some, as well as their complete inability to read an entire article without regurgitating their incessant bile onto a keyboard. I made a footnote to my original blogpost on receiving a comment but apart from that, I didn't engage.

What I did see though, which is equally rather boring, are what I call the "easy out loophole arguments". Several places where my post was published, I saw comments like this:

"What if I am about to talk to room full of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and I don't know their individual preferences for terminology? Am I supposed to go around asking everyone what they prefer before I start talking? What if they don't all agree? Am I then expected to use several terms?"

And this from progressive types. Allow me to *headdesk* before I go further...

In my piece I covered umbrella terminology and how I use it. Surely this would have given adequate insight to people on how to use these terms. The correct answer is "respectfully". Use the terms with respect, and if you are corrected by a community person later then take that information on board. It's really not that difficult. When I see people doing all this "what if...?" business I can't help but think that they are looking for some way to not engage fully with mob or are just throwing stuff into the "too hard basket". The key is always respect.

Respect, for example, is why I have actually lost count of the amount of times I have written to news publications over the years complaining about their use of a small 'i' when using the term "Indigenous" to refer to the mob. Several years ago I wrote a letter to the editor that got published in a Murdoch rag and although I had used capital 'I' throughout my letter, when it was published it had all been reduced to lower case. I rang up to complain to them about this and I was told that they had merely adhered to what was in their "style guide". I was not surprised that the Murdoch press had no style, I have to say...

"Indigenous" may not be a preferred term, but when we use it, in our own publications, we always capitalise the 'I'. When we say it, we are doing so with a capital 'I'. Why? Because we are using the term as a noun. We are naming ourselves as a collective of First Peoples of this country distinct from other inhabitants on the basis of history, culture, religious connection and timeline. We are not using it as an adjective; as a mere handy qualifier of the term "Australian". Indeed, we often use it without "Australian" tackled on at all. It never ceases to amaze me that certain publications will always capitalise the 'e' for "English", or the 'i' for "Indian" (to give a couple of examples) even when these terms precede "Australian", yet flatly refuse to take cues from the First Peoples of this country when it comes to how we would like to be addressed. How we are entitled to be addressed. And that, folks, is a perfect example of a term not being used in a respectful manner.

Then again, considering the amount of disrespectful coverage I have seen over the years from the MSM when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it probably is not remotely surprising that some sources still can't be bothered capitalising their 'i's...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Utopia: An Aboriginal perspective

IMAGE CREDIT: Chris Graham.
IMAGE CREDIT: Chris Graham.
NATIONAL: Award winning investigative journalist John Pilger’s new film Utopia will be a powerful weapon to raise awareness about Aboriginal Australia, according to Arrente writer Celeste Liddle*.
On flicking through the UK reviews of John Pilger’s new documentary film “Utopia”, one thing quickly becomes apparent: Pilger has created a hard-hitting film that is of extraordinary importance.
Utopia, which was released in the UK in November, has consistently received rave reviews. CineVue refers to it as “as an examination of forgotten injustice it’s quite simply essential viewing”. Metro states that the film is “confrontational, eye-opening and saddening viewing”.
As someone who has been lucky enough to see the film, I cannot say I am at all surprised that four-star ratings have dominated, with the slightly lower ratings seemingly limited to criticism about the length of the film and Pilger’s interruptive and bombastic-at-times interview style.
It is frequently described as a “must see”, its content as bleak, confronting and disturbing and its core arguments as compelling and shameful.
In short, since its release, it has shaken viewers in the UK and awoken them to some unspoken truths in this country.
That the film may not have the same reaction in Australia is not a surprise to me. The content, after all, covers the appalling situations and vast injustices facing many Indigenous Australians.
It’s been historically well-established that these things are not items of interest to the majority of people living in this country.
Whilst some independent cinemas have come on board to screen Utopia, it looks like additional screenings are going to have to be held in places such as universities and activist organisations, as well as on SBS TV.
In other words, what should be mandatory mainstream viewing about what’s happening in the proverbial “backyard”, particularly if people take the democratic process of voting seriously, is probably going to end up preaching to the converted.
It’s nothing new that other countries are expressing shock and outrage over this film, whilst Australia tries to ignore its content. For further information, check out the mounting pile of political denials following reports from visiting UN officials.
It’s a crying shame, because Australia NEEDS to see this. They need to sit down and absorb the realities of the “Aboriginal situation” and they need to start responding if they actually do believe in the “fair go for all” they’re so fond of espousing as a core value of this country.
They need to start acknowledging the history and addressing the current issues if they do actually believe this country is a place to be proud of.
In Utopia, Pilger takes the viewer on a journey through some of the most horrible human rights abuses affecting Indigenous Australia.
It’s a journey that started 28 years ago with his film The Secret Country – The First Australians Fight Back and Utopia shows that little has changed.
Powerfully, at the beginning of the film, Pilger highlights some of the exorbitant wealth certain sections of Australia are currently enjoying to the point where they can afford the rent on a $30,000 per week beach-side property.
He then takes the viewer to Ampilawatja, where shanties are lodgings and kids have to be bathed under a communal outdoor tap. He juxtaposes the wealthy Canberran suburb Barton, named after the orchestrator of the White Australia Policy, with the region of Utopia, the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country.
Basic services such as sanitation and transport are lacking in Utopia’s communities. Trachoma and glue ear are still health issues running rampant. The differences between Barton and Utopia are stark, yet the differences between 1985 and 2013 Utopia are almost non-existent.
Pilger then delves into the years of historical denial. The lack of acknowledgement of the frontier wars at the Australian War Memorial; the demonising of a people to justify the building of an empire; the “history wars” of the Howard years where actualities got shoved aside for national pride.
It’s particularly poignant when Pilger visits a former prison camp and place of torture and murder for Aboriginal men called “The Quad” on Rottnest Island.
He finds this place has been turned into a luxury resort.
Ignored historical facts are delivered thick and fast throughout the film and each one lands like a punch in the gut, but none more so than the idea that Australians just do not want to hear it.
White Australia definitely appears not too keen to hear it, at least.
As already mentioned, many appear to think Australia is a nation to be proud of. They show this in a scene where Pilger takes a camera down to Circular Quay to speak to the flag-shrouded masses there celebrating Australia Day.
As Pilger works his way through the jingoistic hoards asking people whether they thought Aboriginal people had a right to be offended regarding the meaning of Australia Day, he is greeted by everything from the perennially boring “we’re ALL Australians” to hearing some
of the most enduring stereotypes of the “uncivilised Aborigine”, to being told that he’s “full of s**t”. Certainly some realities of the country’s National Day rain on the parade of the festival-goers and they simply don’t wish to know about it.
The criticism of the collective Australian amnesia and avoidance continues as John Pilger delves into black deaths in custody and the imprisonment rates of First Peoples.
He shows footage of the final hours of Kwementyaye Briscoe; locked in his prison cell as police neglect to seek proper medical assistance.
Pilger speaks to the parents of Eddie Murray: a 21 year old man who died in custody in 1981 by hanging after being arrested for public drunkenness. There have been serious doubt cast on this official reasoning for his death – police records had been falsified and there was evidence that there had been cover-ups.
That his parents fought for decades and both ended up passing away before seeing any justice makes this case even more tragic. Eddie’s case was the first one examined in the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, yet years later these deaths continue with little public outcry or even acknowledgement.
When the film investigates the installation of the Northern Territory Intervention, the injustice highlighted goes up another notch.
The ABC Lateline report that led to the Howard government declaring a “state of emergency” in the NT was exposed by journalist Chris Graham (formerly Managing Editor of Tracker and a contributor) as having fabricated stories and falsified documents; using old and inaccurate footage in some cases to construct their untruths.
The findings from police departments,the Central Australian Specialists, the Australian Crime Commission and other experts that there was little to no evidence to support the claims made by the Lateline programme and the then government has not caused public outcry. Six years after the Intervention was instituted and the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) suspended to bring the policy in, the Intervention continues, albeit in a modified form.
There are two huge points Pilger investigates through this section of the film.
One is that the greater Australian public has been more than happy to accept the intervention because they readily accept horrible and racist stereotypes of Aboriginal people as fact.
Another is that when it comes to a country generating billions of dollars worth of income through the mining of its mineral resources, the demonisation of Indigenous Australia is a small price to pay.
It’s almost completely impossible to deny the truth of Pilger’s assertions here. Pilger has already so poignantly highlighted many layers of Australian racism by this point, and has juxtaposed this racism with wealth generation repeatedly.
Indeed, the continual spectre of the mining industry looms throughout the film.
The diminishing of land rights by governments and the fear campaigns that have been run by the media are highlighted.
Taxes upon mining and the resources that these funds could have injected into severely disadvantaged Indigenous communities are shown as being vehemently opposed by some of the wealthiest and powerful mining magnates in the country.
Mining interests have continually been at loggerheads with the interests of traditional owners, and at the end of the day, the magnates have almost always won.
Most Australians have remained apathetic to the reality that whilst Gina Rinehart earns almost $1 million every 30 minutes on natural resources in this land, Australia remains the only first world nation to not have eradicated trachoma.
Indeed, the minority government formed in 2010 by the ALP following the toppling of Kevin Rudd from leadership suggests that, in part, Australians felt taxing mining companies was actually a bad thing. That the media continually pumped this information through to the voting public is undeniable. When it boils down to it, a fairer distribution of wealth, particularly for Indigenous Australia, is not a consideration for a population who are conditioned to think that black Australia already get too much.
Pilger also delves into the Stolen Generations and how they are continuing today via the high rates of removal of Aboriginal kids by government authorities. The Apology given by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 is revisited and Rudd emulates the Artful Dodger when asked why things have not improved and why compensation was denied to members of the Stolen Generations and their families immediately following The Apology.
Pilger’s final argument; that a treaty with Indigenous Australia needs to happen is a very poignant note to end on. I particularly commend him for this.
In an endless and well-funded campaign for Constitutional Recognition, which to me is a form of “practical reconciliation”, the point that it’s not a true negotiation and redistribution for the proper benefit of black Australia needs to be made.
What will truly change if black Australia is merely written into a coloniser document, and why is it considered so important at this point in time for this to happen? Why was a treaty on the table in the 1980s yet is not being talked about now when we are told so frequently that many gains have been made?
Pilger doesn’t even mention Constitutional Recognition and I can only garner from this that he, like so many of us in the community, has reservations regarding this push and cannot see what the true benefit of it will be beyond yet another symbolic gesture.
Throughout the film, you see Pilger completely setting politicians and other officials on the back foot when questioned on how they have dealt with Aboriginal issues, and the few gains that have been made.
You see medical practitioners, journalists and researchers highlight the many miscarriages of justice and human rights abuses that have been inflicted particularly on the most vulnerable members of the community.
You see Pilger bring the evidence of all this to the table over and over again for the audience to ruminate upon.
Yet here’s the rub for me: as an Aboriginal woman in this country, very little of what he has presented to me is information I did not already know. Nor would it be information a fair chunk of black Australia wouldn’t know. It’s affected our families, it’s denied our heritage, it’s been right there in front of us our entire lives. We know it because it is a part of us.
This is why I have little sympathy when I see opinion pieces criticising John Pilger for releasing this film to the UK before Australia because they feel that this is an Australian story and it needs to be discussed here first.
The evidence has been there for Australians for a very long time, and Australians have chosen; through socially-embedded racism; through personal greed; through manufactured national pride, to ignore it over and over again.
If Utopia causes outrage in other parts of the world and casts a very stern global spotlight on Australia with regards to the situations facing Indigenous Australia, then perhaps this might actually lead to some more positive outcomes for a change.
We can only hope.
*Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte Australian woman living in Melbourne. She is the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Celeste blogs personally at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist and is particularly interested in education, politics and the arts.
** The community premiere of Utopia will be held at the Block in Redfern at 7 pm January 17th. It will be introduced by John Pilger. All are welcome to attend. Please click here for other screenings across Australia.