Australian politics

Mar 8, 2013

On “boys”, “little boys” and the politics of intra-racial discrimination in the Northern Territory

For mine, Anderson used "boys" and "little boys" as dog-whistles to the broader Aboriginal community in the NT to send a barely-encoded message that the pretenders to the Mills throne are no more than boys, uncircumcised (or sub-incised) grown men unworthy of consideration as men.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

 Yesterday morning ABC radio’s Darwin presenter Julia Christensen interviewed Northern Territory Country Liberal Party Minister Alison Anderson, who, as I reported earlier, had on Wednesday this week nominated NT Transport and Local Government Minister Adam Giles for the positions of Deputy Chief Minister and Treasurer (vacated by the gaffe-prone Robyn Lambley). Giles rejected that “silver-plated” offer and instead made a lunge for the top job held by the deeply unpopular Chief Minister Terry Mills. Anderson turned her back on her nominee and, claiming to carry the votes of three newly elected Aboriginal MLAs (Larissa Lee, Bess Price* and Francis Maralampuwi Xavier) rang the death-knell on Giles’ bid. Christensen got straight to the point – the challenge to the leadership of Chief Minister Terry Mills:

Christensen: A marathon session yesterday nearly 7 hours of deliberations over the leadership. Why did it take so long? Anderson: Oh look I think that you’ve got ego’s inside of the room, you know boys that want to be all of a sudden Chief Minister and all sorts of things happening, you know you give them something and they want more.

Christensen asked Anderson if she wanted the either the Chief Ministership or Deputy (she didn’t) before turning to whether Anderson supported the bid by Adam Giles for the top job:

Anderson: Absolutely not because you know this is where we need to get the story straight Julia. I mean what’s running in the NT News this morning is absolute utter nonsense and just one side of the story … We’ve got in fighting with boys that think you know they want to be the Chief. They all want to be leaders nobody wants to be the number two and he was given that position on a silver platter. Christensen then probed Anderson – repeatedly – about the widely reported threat that her and her so-called “Bush Coalition” would quit the CLP and go to the cross benches either as independents or in coalition with Labor if the CLP parliamentary wing went with Giles. Anderson dissembled but repeated her “boys” comment, with an added, and very significant, sting: Anderson: Whatever it took … We don’t want this infighting and we don’t want little boys all of a sudden putting their hand up saying I want to be Chief Minister, give me a try. I think that if you have a look at politics people come up the ranks and if you get given number two on a silver platter you know you should gracefully take it.

Christensen again pressed Anderson on the probable fallout from her so-called “bush coalition” walking away from the CLP government, noting that Anderson was effectively “holding them [the CLP] to ransom.”

ANDERSON: Who knows Julia you know like I said there’s lots and lots of little boys in the party that will all of a sudden put their hand up and say I want to be Chief Minister give me a try and we’ve just got to have stability to give business confidence and that’s all we’re interested in. … ANDERSON: Oh look I don’t know, I can’t predict these boys.

Christensen had by now picked up on the use of the term “boys.”

Christensen: It’s interesting to hear you call them boys. Is that the way you see them? Anderson: Well you know like I mean I’ve got two boys in my family … so you know like I’m in a room full of young men or young boys all of a sudden wanting to be Chief Minister.

For mine Anderson’s repeated use of the terms “boys” and “little boys” can only have been chosen to demean and humiliate. It was clear that she was talking about Adam Giles and perhaps also about former Health Minister Dave Tollner or Attorney-General John Elferink, both of whom have made failed coup attempts. It is useful to examine the senses in which the term “boys’ and “little boys” can be used, particularly, as Alison advised Christensen and ABC listeners yesterday morning, because context is important. “Boy” as defined by my Australian Oxford Concise Dictionaryhas three senses:

1 a male child or youth. 2 a young man, esp. regarded as not yet mature. 3 a male servant, attendant, etc.

Adam Giles is no boy. He is a 40 year old Aboriginal man. Elferink will be 47 years old this year, as will Dave Tollner. Tollner and Elferink are non-Aboriginal. None of them could be called “boys”, except that Anderson, who is 55 years old, may regard their relative youth as relevant. So what else might Anderson be alluding to with her repeated reference to “boys” and “little boys”?

“Boys”, and more particularly “young boys” and “little boys” have, in the Northern Territory at least, particular cultural meaning. You will not find a definition in a dictionary – at least not an English language dictionary – for the locally-specific cultural meanings of those words.

But there are other sources. Kirr-kirr is an online language database for the Warlpiri language, which is spoken across large tracts of the south-west of the NT and beyond. Warlpiri is the language of the multi-lingual Anderson’s father and the mother tongue of Stuart MLA Bess Price and her NT Labor Party predecessor, Karl Hampton. “Murrku” is one Warlpiri descriptor for “boy” and is defined as a “male human from birth to puberty before initiation.” Warlpiri, being a language rich in dialect and synonym, has other terms for “boy”, including “mangi“, an “uninitiated adolescent male human” and “wirriya“, which has four senses, the primary one being an “uncircumcised male human.” This brings us to the cultural sense in which the English term “little boy” may have been used by Anderson.

For mine, Anderson used “boys” and “little boys” as dog-whistles to the broader Aboriginal community in the NT to send a barely-encoded message that the pretenders to the Mills throne are no more than boys, uncircumcised (or sub-incised) grown men unworthy of consideration as men. Cultural and societal eunuchs if you will. As boys and little boys they have no – or little – standing in adult society and can thus be effectively ignored. The day after the NT general election in late August 2012 I posted a piece titled “NT election: race card played as major parties tussle” that began with the par:

“Traditional”, “culture”, “yella-fella”, “ceremony man”, “malaywi”. Sources tell me these are the keywords in a series of alleged vicious whispering campaigns aimed at chasing Aboriginal votes in the dozens of small remote mobile polling booths that have been running for the past two weeks, in the lead-up to tomorrow’s Northern Territory election. … What I am hearing from the remote booths is that the Country Liberal Party’s “four traditional Aboriginal candidates” and their supporters appear to be leading a well-planned charge against their Labor opponents that involves the use of intra-racial and cultural slurs.

I gave a number of examples of conduct at the polling booths and elsewhere, including this from candidate (now MLA) Bess Price:

Elsewhere Bess Price, CLP candidate for the massive seat of Stuart (think Victoria plus Tasmania), kicked off her election campaign with an attack on local Amnesty International workers and a senior Aboriginal activist that smacked more of Pauline Hanson’s politics than the sedate election campaign conduct we are used to in Territory politics. Price went on national TV to join a debate that for most in the NT had long faded into history — intra-racial envy. Price’s latest comments against “southern white activists” and “white-blackfellas” were enthusiastically picked up by The Australian and the egregious Andrew Bolt, but got little traction in the NT.

There is an extensive literature on the nature and effects of racism – particularly towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from other ethnic groups – but little attention has been given to intra-racial discrimination in this country, though some work has been done on intra-racial violence, often called “lateral violence.” In their 2009 study Experiences of racism among urban Indigenous Australians, Yin Paradies and Joan Cunningham found that:

It is notable that one third of participants reported experiencing racism from other Indigenous people. To our knowledge, there are no other published data on the extent of this phenomenon in Australia. A recent study in the United States found that 28 per cent of African Americans and 15 per cent of Latinos reported intra-racial racism (i.e. racism perpetrated by a member of their own racial/ethnic group) as the most prevalent form of racism (Brondolo et al. 2005), while 15 per cent of ‘problematic life experiences’ were attributed to intra-racial racism in another study (Clark 2004).

A 2006 study by the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, The Impact of Racism on Indigenous Health in Australia and Aotearoa noted that:

A number of participants argued that intra-racial racism was a lived reality for many Indigenous people whose opportunities are curtailed due to discrimination perpetrated by other Indigenous people on the basis of skin colour and racial identity (Paradies 2006d). Others considered such actions to be intra-racial discrimination but did not classify them as distinct from internalised racism, but rather a manifestation of it. There was debate over the value and meaning of this concept, and concern that it had the potential to reinforce ‘victim-blaming’ discourses that characterise racism as an Indigenous ‘problem’ rather than recognising it as a consequence of systemic racism within non-Indigenous society.

In 2011 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda highlighted this issue in his Annual Report. Gooda observed that:

… sadly some of the divisive and damaging harms come from within our own communities. Ask any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and they will tell you stories of the back stabbing, bullying and even physical violence perpetrated by community members against each other. When we already have so many of the odds stacked against us, it is tragic to see us inflict such destruction on ourselves. … John Liddle, in a speech during the first Aboriginal Men’s Health Conference in Alice Springs, where the important Inteyerrkwe Statement of Apology was made, describes lateral violence: “By recognising actions such as malicious gossip as violence we can better appreciate that this kind of mental assault can be just as damaging as physical violence. We can appreciate the trauma that these attacks can have on others, and we can better understand how these attacks undermine both our communities and our own wellbeing.” … Words that undermine Aboriginal identity are commonly used as insults and tools of social exclusion (such as ‘coconut’, ‘textbook black’ or ‘air conditioned black’), as are accusations of supposed privilege and favouritism applied to those perceived as (or even accused of being) ‘real blackfellas’. In doing so, a sense of division is created between individuals, groups, communities and even geography – thus the language/no language, remote/urban or north/south ‘divide’. These false divisions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, or ‘hierarchies of blackness’, fuel conflict and lateral violence when people step outside of these narrow, prescribed roles. For instance, Noel Pearson has spoken about the supposed clash between ‘modern’ identities as individuals in a ‘market capitalist system’ and ‘communalist traditions and dynamics’.

Racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I am unsure if Anderson’s references to Adam Giles as a “boy” or “little boy” are racist or discriminatory – in the sense of intra-racial discrimination. I contacted Adam Giles for a response to Anderson’s comments. He declined to engage with her on this matter – they are both still ministers in the Mills CLP government – but he did issue this brief statement:

I won’t dignify those comments with a response other than to say that I would never use such language about a colleague or countryman or woman.

==============================

* Around midday on Thursday Stuart MLA Bess Price issued a remarkable press release that, in part, reads: “Neither I, nor any of my colleagues, have ever used the term ‘Bush Coalition’. We bush members, including Gary Higgins, member for Daly, face a lot of common issues and often work together on these,” Mrs Price said. “But to suggest that our votes are controlled as if we have no independent views is demeaning and absolutely wrong. I am one among equals. We were elected as Country Liberals by the voters. … “Any suggestion that I would be told to take my vote away from the Chief Minister is wrong. “Let me make it clear. While I work with and respect Alison Anderson – and indeed all the other members from Bush electorates – Terry Mills is my leader and that is where my loyalty lies.”

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