Jun 4, 2014

Textor and Anderson – on poverty tourism, dysfunction and the lucky country

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’.

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

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Textor and Anderson – on poverty tourism, dysfunction and the lucky country

  1. jungarrayi

    ‘Limited News’, I fully agree that the interview with Warren Snowdon was far too aggressive. It seems to be the fashion. I think John Pilger and others can learn from re-visiting Andrew Denton’s “Enough Rope”. The title says it all!
    That, in my view doesn’t leave Warren off the hook. Several elections ago in Yuendumu Warren lost 70% of his vote. Ironically had Warren been then deposed (he stayed in by the skin of his teeth), Tony Abbott would have become Australia’s Prime Minister much sooner than he did. The butterfly that flapped its wings.

  2. jungarrayi

    I live on one of the 73 communities ‘prescribed’ under the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) in 2007. I’ve witnessed the assimilationist propaganda behemoth in action and seen its results on the ground. Discussing the current situation with my friends ‘down South’ I despair at how effective has been the politically and ideologically motivated stereotyping, stigmatisation and dehumanising of remote Aboriginal Australia.
    I approve of the Pilger film not so much for the depiction of blocked dunnies and overcrowded tin sheds but for its exposure of the lies and ethnocentric premises on which the infantilisation , disempowerment and continuing injustices and land grab visited upon Indigenous Australia are based. Not least of these injustices being the ‘new’ stolen generations.
    The ‘dysfunctional’ label Larisa and Alison speak out against was the subject of this youtube clip:
    Lizzy G from Palm Island ‘said’ it so much better than I could.
    Pilger’s film means different things to different people. Adam Goodes’ article on the film is well worth visiting.
    Myself I consider ‘Utopia’ to be well crafted, interesting and effective and very necessary counter-propaganda.
    It goes some way at breaking the ‘Great Australian Silence’ Pilger himself has been speaking out against for years, and I think John Pilger and his team created something to be proud of.

  3. Limited News

    Taking Utopia at face value, it contained some profound revelations on various matters including the unacknowledged complicity of Lateline in confecting the intervention.

    However the interview with Warren Snowden seemed totally unreasonable. Haranguing the minister about rheumatic heart disease stemming from before the minister’s time in government, when there is no suggestion the Labor government wasn’t tackling rheumatic fever in the children of today.

  4. Susan Hartley

    I agree with Brian, I too have lived on remote Aboriginal communities and seen new, solid homes in the Kimberley built with all amenities ( satellite dish, phone box, solar array, sheds etc) trashed by desert Aborigines who came to live on the Aboriginal owned, and run, station 70 kms from Fitzroy Crossing. These people had no experience of living in such houses and it would have taken a determined person to teach them how to look after homes like these. They cost something like $500.000 each to build, and more for the accessories. I have seen them used as “holiday homes”, infrequently lived in by visiting family whose main homes were in Fitzroy Crossing. On these stations there is enormous potential for income production from tourism and cattle, let along art production, yet somehow the occupants could not get off welfare. What money was produced from mainly the cattle was grabbed by the well assimilated, part Aborigines who controlled the purse strings by all means of legal, and not so legal methods. Stand over bully boys in fact. I witnessed their bullying myself when I visited the remote community with the indigenous, full blood owners of that station. These tensions are rarely witnessed by outsiders who only “fly in, fly out”. I say try living in such a place for a few years and see first hand what goes on then comment from your arm chairs back in suburbia. Its a complex story with no easy solution. I agree that some of the poverty is appalling but so is the inequity and frightful apportion of resources, both political and financial, amongst Aborigines themselves. What is required is complete transparency in the practices of these Aboriginal run corporations and agencies. Also training and help so all get a chance to run these agencies, not the powerful few.

  5. Draco Houston

    I’m still not sure what the point of this article was. Why bring up Pilger at all?

  6. Brian Williams

    I too watched Utopia with a mixture of interest, bemusement, and disgust. I have enjoyed John Pilger’s work for many years, and it’s obvious that he genuinely cares for rural aboriginal communities and those who live in them.

    I was never a fan of the intervention in the first place, and am even less so now. However, I found the underlying tenet of the film to be that the circumstances in which the people depicted therein find themselves, particularly in respect of the condition of the buildings and amenities, is everybody elses fault but the inhabitants themselves.

    Maybe this is true, but as a non-indigenous southerner my mind is drawn back to something I personally witnessed just over 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, I lived on the second floor of an apartment building on Park Street in St Kilda. The lounge window overlooked a very nice single storey house adjacent to my apartment block, and this house had various tenants during the time I was there. One day I noticed an Aboriginal family had moved in, and I then watched in growing horror over the next few weeks as they quite literally dismantled the house in front of my eyes, even to the extent of burning the interior doors in the backyard. I’d never seen anything like it before or since.

    So maybe, just maybe there are two sides to the story as to why the conditions in some NT communities are not what you or I would want for ourselves, and maybe the clash of two cultures is not something that can be adequately and evenly tackled in a 120 minute documentary even by someone as genuinely well-meaning as Pilger.

  7. Jon Altman

    Bob I want to disclose my interest at the outset, I participated in the Pilger project that I wholeheartedly support and that you seem to be highly critical of willing to accept uncritically Mark Textor’s rather flippant comment that this is a form of poverty tourism. First to defend Pilger at least he gets out there and talks to people and films their everyday environments and lives. Second, in his film I suggested that external scrutiny and assistance might help Australia deal with what has fast become an overpoliticised and intractible area of policy. Utopia is an example of such scrutiny, whether you agree with its interpretations or not, that was largely produced for international audiences and Australians who are not directly exposed to some of the deep development challenges facing many Indigenous Australians and communities. I am not sure of the links between the notion of dysfunction and Utopia the commentary you alert us to by Alison Anderson and Larissa Lee because in my view Utopia highlights systemic politico-economic discrimination and structural violence that many Indigenous people especially in remote Australia face. One observation that I would make is that many non-Indigenous Australians seem very defensive about Utopia; I have yet to interact with an Indigenous Australian who does not see value in the broad messages in the film. This is Pilger’s view, it is not wrong or right but one view that audiences I have seen in southern cities find both shocking and highly informative. One of the arguments made for getting rid of the permit system prior to the NTER was to open up communities to media scrutiny. While I did not agree with this view, it is interesting how many sections of the media are so uncomfortable with Pilger’s scrutiny.

  8. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I can only comment as a southerner who has minimal contact with aboriginal australia in the north that there were some real shockers in Pilger’s program which shook my belief that we have been ‘just throwing money at the problem’. The fact that we can have 20 people living in a house with an overflowing toilet down the road from the Uluru resort is just plain racist. People in housing commission flats in melbourne don’t live like that so why should they? I don’t see these sorts of images even in the mainstream press. In the mainstream press I see A 5 minute segment on a program to teach kids in school how to wash their faces and check their eyes for trachoma. Given the conditions that the kids live in maybe by the time they get to school it is too late. Sanitation is basic stuff, not rocket science and I fail to see how providing people with the basic infrastructure that we (now) take for granted is somehow psychologically damaging.

  9. Rob Watts

    If we are going to have poverty tourism lets visit the jails, the alcohol foetal kids, the homicidal redneck police (also innocently known as “deaths in custody”), the sites of youth suicides, and sites of poisoning or pushing kids off cliffs…

    We’ve got Bogan Hunter, strap in for Aboriginal hunter. Or Widen-the-Gap Hunter

    If we had an intervention into white communities to intervene in Catholic pedophile rings or rampant alcohol violence in Kings Cross or Byron Bay, or stealing bogan kids Aussies would howl. Perhaps Aussies don’t know how dysfunctional they are especially if their civilisation only lasts hundreds of years with self destructive climate behaviors.

  10. Hector Lung

    This piece is really important. Firstly, it is the first time I’ve seen the remarks of Anderson and Lee published. Maybe be they were in the Fin Review article but if they were that is a bit if a backwater as far as this little bogan is concerned. Secondly, and more importantly, the comments themselves are powerful, refreshing and carry the weight of common sense. In some of my conversations with southerners (and unfortunately some senior Territorian lawyers) who ask me (a non-Aboriginal person) “why don’t the Aboriginal people get out of these communities and get into the hostels for school or get into the apprenticeships on offer (etc) and stop living like that” I have, instinctively, proffered the view that maybe the community people are not that appalled by their own lives and in fact might have seen enough of how we live, to choose to be a community person. Of course that response has been met most often with bemusement. I myself have not fully comprehended it (given my essential ignorance) but these telling remarks by these Aboriginal women help me understand. Thirdly, I suggest these insights are the consummate slap in the face to the Intervention and it’s ongoing aftermath. The Intervention was (in large part) built upon an emergency, that being the imperative that Aboriginal cultures be smashed as they were in fact shielding pedophile rings. My thought at the time was this was a hysterical assessment of the situation (of course this assessment came from a very senior Crown prosecutor and was widely publicised) and subsequent events have shown it to be vastly erroneous. To have two Aboriginal women,and not what many would see as self-serving men, speak of community life this way is marvellous. I am particularly refreshed by the challenge laid out to Bess Price, who in my view is serving up to white Australia a much welcomed massively negative take on Aboriginal culture and life. Price feeds the racist engine of Australia that so wants to finish the job of assimilation.

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