On Monday this week Mark Textor asked in this piece in the Fin Rev whether John Pilger’s Utopian tour of outback poverty has allowed us to all-too-readily wallow in La-Z-Boy-recumbent horror at the — apparently — Hobbesian life of remote Aboriginal people.
Textor questions the opportunity cost of Pilger’s shouty fly-in fly-out fixation on the horror stories of contemporary indigenous life rather than a more constructive approach to the ‘history and current diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture’ and the ‘enormous contributions that these cultures have made to this country’s art, culture, politics, education, the custody of land, and the defence of the nation.’
Drawing on comments by Professor Patrick Dodson’s 2014 Lowitja O’Donohue Oration Textor notes that:
What is striking by comparison to Pilger, is that Dodson and others like him want to walk with us, lead, and share the future, despite all his community has suffered.
By contrast Pilger shouts at us and leave on a jet plane.
Textor’s analysis, and Dodson’s concentration on the future rather than the undoubted miseries of the past, reminded me of recent comments made by two of the so-called rebel Country Liberal Party MLAs who recently quit that party to join Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party (PUP).
I’ve been critical of this move — and those members — in the recent past but you cannot help but be impressed by the reason and passion shown by the member for Namatjira, Alison Anderson and her junior PUP, member for Arnhem Larisa Lee, in statements to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly during last month’s sittings.
Responding to a desperately-dull-and-far-too-long-statements-about-how-dire-things-are-in-the-bush-and-how-much-good-we-could-do-for-you-if-only-you’d-let-us from the CLP’s Minister for Central Australia Matt Conlan (only in the NT could you get a ministry dedicated to a region where there are more square kilometres than people) two weeks ago Alison Anderson told the Legislative Assembly that:
Our communities are not dysfunctional. We do not wake up in the morning as black people and say, ‘I am a dysfunctional Aboriginal and I live in a dysfunctional Aboriginal community’. We do not think like that. We wake up in the morning and whoever goes to work goes to work.
These people do not get up in the morning and wipe their eyes and say, ‘Oh God, I am dysfunctional because I am Aboriginal and I live in a dysfunctional community’. We do not look at our communities as dysfunctional. We have been living in these communities – born and bred in them.
As I said in this House and have said in the media for the last two weeks, under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act we are more than 50% of landowners. We can call on another 48% under native title. We are more than a third of the Northern Territory’s population and we are at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator – at the human rubbish dump.
Five days later the member for Arnhem, Larisa Lee, spoke in response to comments made by John Elferink, variously Attorney-General and Justice, Correctional Services, Children and Families, Public Employment, and Leader of Government Business in the Giles Ministry, in an article entitled “Passive welfare massive problem in NT” published in the Sunday Territorian on 11 May 2014.
Larisa Lee took exception to comments by Elferink and member for Stuart, Bess Price.
… Mr Elferink’s comments came after his ministerial colleague, minister Bess Price, Minister for Community Services, made a statement about the nature of Aboriginal communities.
Minister Price clearly stated that Aboriginal people in Aboriginal communities are dysfunctional. Well I have grown up in an Aboriginal community too and I do not wake up every day thinking I am dysfunctional.
Aboriginal people do not think they are dysfunctional.
In fact, Aboriginal people are extremely functional in many ways … they can speak eight different languages – our law, the madayin law, never changes. The laws in Parliament House do … Aboriginal people recognise the dysfunctionality lies outside their communities when dealing with them as a people.
Successive governments have for far too long perpetrated neglect, blame, misery on Aboriginal individuals, their families and their communities to such an extent that most Aboriginal people outside Aboriginal communities – the non-Aboriginal population – thinks that blame is really a cultural problem of being Aboriginal.
Earlier in the Adjournment Alison Anderson spoke of the pride and sense of place of her constituents :
I think the time has come to speak out in careful terms and say clearly that remote communities are, in great part, functional. Their culture is not destroyed and they have their place in our Australia.
Of course life is hard when you live in poverty. Of course there are few jobs in communities, and many of the jobs that exist are taken and held by outsiders. Of course welfare has been a knife at our throats sapping and draining away the initiative of community people.
We all know this, but communities are also places of love and family, of tradition and belief. They have their own value and are strongholds of Aboriginal culture.
How easy it is to sit in judgment of remote communities of the desert and Top End when you are sitting in a smart government office. How easy it is to look down on people who live in simple conditions. How easy it is to assume that because communities are poor they are full of people in despair.
This is not the way things really are. Men, women and children in communities are proud of themselves and happy in their world.
They do not wake up in the morning and think to themselves, ‘How dysfunctional I am, how bad is life?’
They wake up and think, ‘How lucky we are to be living on our country and be in full possession of our language and culture and to be a little removed from the madness, pace and poisons of the mainstream world’.
My point is this: there is no problem with the capacity of bush people; they are capable and gifted.
They would like to have better social and economic prospects. They would like to engage with mainstream Australia in a full deep fashion.
There is a vast kingdom of unrealised human potential sitting on our doorstep in the communities.
What a dreadful thing to let it all go to waste.
It is easy to see why poverty tourism — whether by the media or the chattering and political classes — is the easy option. You fly-in, shoot a grab or get a few quotes for the evening news, next week’s speech or tomorrow’s fish-wrapper, and fly out safe to watch your work from the comfort of the La-Z-Boy or airconditioned government office.
But, as Textor notes, poverty tourism of the kind presented by Pilger last Sunday night does no-one any good.
No solution or shared path forward was presented … making yourself a screen hero by marginalising people in the process does not help, it just adds more hurt.