This is a guest post in response to John Pilger’s film Utopia by Bob Durnan, a community development worker who lives in Alice Springs and has worked in Aboriginal town camps and remote communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland for 35 years.
Utopia was shown on SBS Television on Sunday 1 June.
As some knew thirty or more years ago, when Pilger first started hurling his furious observations on the subject around the international and Australian stages, a lot of the changes that we want to see happening in Australia are likely to take a very long time to fully achieve.
In those days, however, Pilger was possibly a little more considered, even though much less had been done by our governments to meet the legitimate demands of Indigenous people.
It is true that the achingly slow progress in some areas is partly because Australia has a strong streak of racism stretching across its Hansonite sector.
Around 25% of the population held strongly prejudiced, even bigoted, beliefs about Aboriginal people, according to a large study commissioned by Philip Ruddock for the Howard Government in the late nineties. This research also identified that Australia had another larger layer of relatively non-racist but very cautious conservative attitudes about Aboriginal issues.
These findings were later confirmed by research conducted during Rudd’s regime, and caused the Howard government to reverse, and Rudd/Gillard governments to slow down, the pace of accommodating the more radical Indigenous demands for recognition and self-determination. Pilger probably doesn’t really get the subtleties of this: while Howard dismantled the dysfunctional ATSIC, he nonetheless left in place most of the really the important gains of the eighties and nineties.
Admittedly, things could have been done better by the governments, and the rest of us, over the last thirty years. We could have achieved more. Conditions in some communities are certainly still very poor, sometimes worse than they have been at times in the past. The important point is, are they now getting better or worse, in general?
I would argue that the efforts of Aboriginal-controlled organisations have produced many worthwhile results, despite all the setbacks and confounding factors; and they have also produced a great deal of useful experience, evidence and knowledge, which are now guiding Indigenous thinking and planning.
Overall, things are heading in the right direction, but progress is still impeded by the incredibly important fact that over half the Aboriginal adult population in many communities has such little literacy that they cannot really engage effectively in some of the processes that could lead to more rapid progress.
Nonetheless, the efforts of the mass movement of people and organisations led by Aboriginal people have in recent years forced the huge extra investment and concern increasingly displayed by the Commonwealth government in remote areas over the last ten years. This has been expressed by the efforts demonstrated in the COAG experiments, the Closing the Gap programs, and the Stronger Futures investments (which locks in the expanded spending for crucial services over the next decade).
Though much of it is belated, this investment has generally been taking things in the right direction, being the biggest expansion in Commonwealth commitment since the Whitlam era. This should be acknowledged.
Wherever appropriate, the continuation of these programs should be supported, but Pilger misses this. As we have seen in recent weeks, there are free market ideologues now in powerful positions who will take every opportunity to wind back government-funded programs wherever they see an opening.
We have to explain the worth of the effective projects, and not join in Pilger’s chorus of nihilistic anger, chanting simple-minded slogans along the lines of ‘nothing worthwhile has been done, nothing works’. The pity is that we do not have a film with a high profile personality promoting some insights into the positive things that we have lately started to see.
It took more than thirty years to achieve a lot of these recent gains (for example, getting governments to accept responsibility for providing more adequate levels of security and safety, education, health, housing, special services for children, youth, parents, the aged and disabled, women and men) for most remote Indigenous citizens.
Now that we have them (with maintained funding levels legislated for ten years by both houses of Parliament through the efforts of Jenny Macklin – supported by Senator Nigel Scullion – when she was Minister for Indigenous Affairs under Gillard), shouldn’t we defend them?
Admittedly, there may not yet be the proportionate effort that is required in some areas. Governments must greatly increase provision of community literacy programs, and intensive and effective services for children who need extra care and support in the first three years of life. This is vitally important.
These programs have begun, but they are still embryonic and tiny compared to the enormous need. Governments also must be made to take the radical market interventions needed to ensure greater prevention of most chronic diseases, despite the irrational nineteenth century ideological views held by denizens of the Institute for Public Affairs and their fellow travellers.
Taxes aimed at countering the impacts of tobacco have been immensely successful. The same efforts are needed in relation to reducing the impacts of excessive consumption by vulnerable people of too much alcohol, sugar, certain fats and salt.
Governments still have to be made to ensure availability of sufficient safe and affordable accommodation options for the remaining homeless, and for people who want to take up jobs in places where work and good services are available. They also have to face up to the need for ‘justice reinvestment’, and ensure provision of the intensive therapeutic and diversionary programs that would assist in the prevention of juvenile and adult offending and self-harm by too many ‘at risk’ individuals.
At the same time, it is essential that we acknowledge that governments have begun, at last, to deliver better performances according to their basic responsibilities to remote citizens in a whole range of areas: these include greatly increased investments in remote housing and essential services infrastructure; reduction of extreme poverty and malnutrition; provision of much better quality primary health care services; greater investment in pre-schools, schooling and youth programs, including the roll-out of Opal fuel (which would never have happened without the strong support of Tony Abbott when he was Health Minister under Howard); improved support for the status of women; improved safety in communities; improved stores and stabilisation of food supplies; and better community administration. Evidence of this slow but steady progress was contained in FaHCSIA’s NT Emergency Response Evaluation Reports.
Of course, the gains made by Australia’s Indigenous organisations in the last forty years were built off the back of a militant social movement which often, inevitably, made similarly simplistic accusations in its day. The point however, is that Pilger has reached an age where we could reasonably expect him to provide a more accurate and sophisticated analysis than what we have been given in the Utopia film.
The fact that these improved government performances are not quickly producing many of the better outcomes that are needed does not necessarily detract from their worth; it more likely reinforces what we already knew: that the historic disempowerment emanating from colonisation, racism, cultural assault and negative discrimination, along with mass unemployment and perpetual economic underdevelopment, and the health, behavioural and massive educational issues that have arisen since the British settler invasion, have caused very long term intergenerational problems that are extremely deep seated and complex, and will sometimes take generations to overcome.
It is important that we build on any positive improvements by governments, pressure them to continue to improve their performances, and calmly support those capable Aboriginal people who are able to re-gather their strength and develop their own critiques and plans, programs and campaigns for their peoples’ progress.
In these circumstances, when we see dangerously naïve or misguided non-Aboriginal crusaders running around hurling emotional Molotov cocktails willy nilly into the flammable undergrowth of community perceptions and politics, I believe it is sometimes necessary to try to turn the fire prevention hoses onto them.