There has been a lot of talk about white trash in the press over the past few days – it all started when the otherwise apparently sensible but stricken-with-an-unfortunate-smugness Chris Sarra, who runs the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute told The Australian that:

“If I’m an incompetent teacher filling the school day with photocopied worksheets, videos and Nintendo, it doesn’t matter. Aborigines will get the blame.

“In its crudest form, remote communities are the place to tuck our white trash away.”

Sarra expanded on those comments in a comment piece in the Weekend Australian that, for mine, is a confused mash of part-sensible commentary on recent government policies and actions (the failed NT Intervention) and part-touting the merits of his Institute’s programs.

The sensible commentary includes this:

I find strange the calls to extend into other Aboriginal communities the unfounded and whimsical policies and processes such as those underpinning the Northern Territory intervention…Even the architects of such expensive processes acknowledge the dramatic failure of government to provide adequate education, health and justice services to remote Aboriginal communities.

For all the huffing and puffing about mutual responsibilities, there has been only one-sided contemplation of intervention strategies to ensure functionality in communities…What disgusts me about these more recent approaches – pretending to be innovative, but simply reflecting life in the mission days – is that they never seriously call into question the roles and responsibilities of such service providers.

But, of course the sensible parts of Sarra’s message got lost in the flurry of commentary about his “white trash” comments. And of course the media went to their current go-to man on all matters Aboriginal, the “mouth-from-the-south” Warren Mundine from NSW. Mundine is the favourite blackfella of the assimilationist Bennelong Society, having received the society’s Bennelong Award in 2005.

Mundine, who may not be alone in thinking he is mad, had this to say to The Australian about Sarra’s comments:

“It drives me to no end of madness.

“We have people also who are going into the communities and they are not moving on and letting Aboriginal people move up and take over those positions.”

And in the same article, Sarra, two days after he branded the teachers, cops, shopkeepers and administrators in Aboriginal communities as “white trash”, was running a mile from his comments and said he would never use the term again:

“If I had my time again I would use the term lazy and incompetent,” he said.

Now, being a person enthusiastically inclined to sloth, I know a bit about lazy and incompetent.

And having lived and worked in many predominantly Aboriginal townships the length and breadth of the NT and elsewhere I’ve seen my fair share and more of Sarra’s “lazy and incompetent” white trash – in all of the positions he nominates.

And, on a broad interpretation of “white trash”, I would most likely qualify – I was born poor, haved lived poor most of my life and am (relatively) poor now. I left school as early as possible, took an apprenticeship (hot-metal compositor) that was set firmly on the tracks to extinction, left too soon, laboured on the nation’s roads and factories and then found a small, drug and alcohol, travel and sex-addled niche in rock and roll for a ten years or so.

But if I was born white trash at least I was bought up with a sense of self-worth and respect for others.

Rock and roll took me around the world a few times and to most corners of Australia more often than I liked. In the early eighties after a particularly dull Australian tour and left with the options of running away to Perth or Darwin, I, like many seeking escape from the inner-city pits of Australia’s south, chose Darwin.

The Territory in the eighties was white-trash heaven – most of the NT government were not-too-far-removed from trashdom themselves and the general populace reveled in a relentlessly self-indulgent fog of drug and alcohol…abuse is most likely the wrong term…dedicated self-medication might be better.

Alcohol was a god in the Territory then and it still is – it is just that the government now encourages restraint, at least for blackfellas, rather than glorifying excess.

As the ex- Administrator (think Territory version of Governor-General) of the NT, Ted Egan said famously in one of his hit songs:

“Oh, we’ve got some bloody good drinkers
In the Northern Territory
From Darwin down to Alice Springs
They’re always on a spree
From out on the Barkly Tablelands
And across to the VRD
In the Northern Territory

Oh the drinkers of the Territory
Are black and brown and white
But no matter what your colour is
You get into it every night
So grab yourself a stubby
And sing along with me
About those bloody good drinkers
In the Northern Territory.”

Now, despite the efforts of various governments to turn the NT into a tropical version of a southern nanny-state, we maintain our leadership in all manner of areas – we maintain our proud traditions of having the country’s highest murder and assault rates per capita, the highest road mortality rates per capita, lowest life expectancies and – proudly for a sad few – one of the highest rate of pure alcohol consumption in the world.

As a recent ABC Radio report revealed:

“…Northern Territorians drank 4 million litres of pure alcohol in the last financial year. More than 50,000 people – almost all Indigenous – were picked up for public drunkenness over that time. Of those, 30,000 went to the cells, and 20,000 were sent to sobering-up shelters.”

But I digress – back to white trash I have known.

As I said above, I’ve seen just about every species of white trash that Australia can offer – corrupt shop-keepers who run off with the takings (and more), cops who take back-handers and turn more than too many blind eyes and who run second-hand car scams and the lazy and truly incompetent teachers who see a few years of hardship detail out bush as an accelerated stepping-stone to a higher level teaching post back in town.

And teachers and cops – because they are unionised – are best able to milk their government employers for all they are worth…or in this case…for what they aren’t.

One personal example will do – this points more to the administrative culture within which many teachers – incompetent and otherwise – thrive and survive.

In 1989 I was in a slow recovery from a serious motor cycle accident (real white-trash creds here – get T-boned by a 4wd, break every major bone from the waist down, spend a few months in hospital, lose a leg and a partner in the process). I was wallowing in a share house in Darwin and wanted out – a job with the bilingual project at the Maningrida school in central Arnhem land beckoned and I applied for it and got it.

And what a job – I landed on my feet…err, foot. Because I had been hired ex-Darwin I walked off the plane at Maningrida and was given a three bedroom, part-furnished air-conditioned house to myself, a couple of return airfares a year to Darwin, free freight for my food and grog, free water and electricity and more, much more.

And after three months I was given permanency – I was now one of those rare and protected species – a Northern Territory permanent public servant – almost impossible to sack and free to suck on that privileged public tit for as long as I did the minimum necessary work enough to keep the job.

And I barely had the qualifications – I knew a bit about how to lay out a page, I was a hunt-and-peck typist, didn’t know one end of an Apple computer from the other, couldn’t run an offset press, and couldn’t speak any of the fourteen local languages – let alone any of the six used in the school’s bilingual programme. But i was white.

But all this beneficence aside – the most galling part of this job was the treatment – by an almost unashamedly racist NT Education administration – of my local (read Aboriginal) co-workers. As noted above I was barely qualified for the job – but my direct co-worker received none of the benefits I did – no house – my co-worker’s extended family lived in a run-down timber shack that burnt down a few years ago –  no flights, no free food and grog freight, no permanency – nothing – just a casual position and lots of humbug from the school and education administrators when he was called away for ceremonial business or other cultural obligations.

My co-worker was eminently more qualified for the job than I and could speak, read and write in at least 6 languages and ‘hear’ several more, knew how to operate the man-trap of an offset press, was more than competent with the computer and the publishing programmes and had ten years of experience in the job.

That ten years had been spent working with a passing parade of “bosses” of varying competence and commitment. And my co-worker only received half the pay of the boss, and hadn’t received an incremental increase in salary, as was due, for the last two years.

Darwin’s reply on my query about my co-worker’s entitlements? “Lost in the system…too busy right now, try next month.”

The pay increments came through…eventually…and the day they did I made a pact with my co-worker – “When I get you up to the same pay-rate as me, and you in my job, I’ll leave. I’ll only be here for two years or so but that’s my promise to you.” And it was a promise I was glad to keep – my co-worker got pay equity with me and got my job. Soon after that  I left the NT public service, never to return to its cosseted bosom.

The next year I started the study of law at The NT University and have practiced law in the NT and NSW since.

White trash made good – maybe.

Got a view? Are you white trash – self-defined or otherwise? Know some white trash horror stories from the NT or elsewhere?

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