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Australia's prime minister is sending in the army to tackle child abuse and alcoholism in the Aboriginal homelands. But his aggressive campaign will only make the situation worse, says Germaine Greer Tuesday July 3, 2007The Guardian Aboriginal children in Kakadu National Park. Photograph: John Van Hasselt/Sygma/Corbis
Ever since white men set foot in Australia more than 200 years ago, they have persecuted, harassed, tormented and tyrannised the people they found there. The more cold-blooded decided that the most humane way of dealing with a galaxy of peoples who would never be able to adapt to the "whitefella" regime was to eliminate them as quickly as possible, so they shot and poisoned them. Others believed that they owed it to their God to rescue the benighted savage, strip him of his pagan culture, clothe his nakedness, and teach him the value of work. Leaving the original inhabitants alone was never an option; learning from them was beyond any notion of what was right and proper. As far as the pink people were concerned, black Australians were primitive peoples, survivors from the stone age in a land that time forgot.
Any hopes that this attitude might have changed were dashed two weeks ago, when Prime Minister John Howard announced a new crusade. Following a report calling for action on child abuse in Aboriginal communities, he announced a six-month ban on alcohol and pornography within the homelands, compulsory medical checks for indigenous children and restrictions on welfare payments. As commander-in-chief of an army of police, the Australian Defence Force and hordes of doctors and nurses, he will storm the 70 or so autonomous Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory. He can do this because the Northern Territory, having failed in a recent, rather half-hearted bid for statehood, is directly administered by the Australian government. For Aboriginal people, Howard's edict is just another sudden and draconian shift in the law as it relates to them; just another pillar in a lifetime of being shoved from pillar to post.
It is hard not to view this as yet another attack on native title by the white establishment. No sooner had Aboriginal peoples achieved, after a tremendous expenditure of time, effort, expertise and money, freehold title to bits and pieces of country under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, than there was an attempt to redefine freehold as it applied to Aboriginal areas, so that they could be reclaimed if there should be a need - for minerals, fossil fuels, foreign bases, tracking stations, whatever. New laws in 1993 and 1998 sealed this flagrant violation. Now, having had such resounding success in rescuing Iraq from tyranny, fanaticism and madness, Howard claims to be riding to the rescue of Aboriginal children in distress.
The prime minister of Australia should know, however, that most of the areas under Aboriginal control in the Northern Territory are already dry. The elders would have greater success in keeping them that way if Howard and his Myrmidons would do the job they have been elected to do. Rather than wresting nominal control of Aboriginal homelands to himself and so undermining the authority of the elders still further, Howard could bring the full force of the law to bear on the white bootleggers who bring grog into dry Aboriginal communities by night and sell it at exorbitant prices. Even in apparently successful communities such as Utopia, homeland of the great painter Emily Kngwarreye, the bootleggers turn up almost every night. I was staying there in 2000 when drunken hoodlums smashed up the health centre in the small hours. The next day the senior law women sent the offenders into the bush to live off the land for six months, as punishment. My car had been searched when I arrived to make sure that I had brought no alcohol with me; but next morning all the men I saw were either staggering drunk or lying unconscious in the scrub.
Though the bootleggers drive unmistakable four-wheel-drive trucks with giant balloon tyres that carry them over the roadless expanse, leaving a mile-long dust plume easily visible from the sky, the federal authorities remain curiously unable to intercept the traffic, even though the government is missing out on significant revenue. Anyone who really cared about what alcohol was doing to Aboriginal communities would surely have done something to curb the illicit trade. Perhaps they would also have done something about the fact that, in Alice Springs, as in most other frontier towns, there are dozens of liquor outlets and hardly any shops selling fresh foodstuffs, which, if you can find them, are crushingly expensive. If your feet are bare, you are not allowed in the Alice Springs food mall at all.
The name of the game, as usual, is bad faith. Everything Howard does is calculated to win him votes. The suffering of Aboriginal women and children at the hands of their deranged menfolk has been going on all Howard's life. For most of that time whitefellas made a joke of it. At this late hour, on the eve of a general election, he is suddenly taking it seriously. It is of no consequence that what he is doing is illegal. His treatment of asylum seekers and boat people is just as illegal, and it is widely admired by Australians and people who should know better.
Not for nothing did Howard single out the best-known Aboriginal community in Australia, Mutitjulu, home of the traditional owners of Uluru, visited by 500,000 tourists a year, to begin his campaign against child abuse in Aboriginal communities. The papers call it paedophilia; to someone standing closer it looks less like a sexual perversion than a hideous extension of demented self-destructiveness. It is part of a continuum that includes the tragically high rates of suicide in Aboriginal communities. In 2005, suicide accounted for 4.3% of Aboriginal deaths, compared with 1.6% of other Australians. As whitefellas tear their country apart, blackfellas are tearing themselves apart.
For years, the extinction of the Australian Aborigine has been eagerly looked forward to and repeatedly described as imminent. In fact, there are probably more Aboriginal people alive in Australia today than there were when Captain Cook planted the British flag at Botany Bay in 1770. But while their numbers are growing, so is their unending suffering. Aboriginal people are tough, and it is the fate of the toughest to suffer longest and hardest.
A year ago, the government stripped Mutitjulu of its annual funding of A$3m (£1m) and installed a white man from Perth as adminstrator to the council. Two weeks ago the federal court ruled the appointment invalid. The elders rejoiced. Then Howard announced his coup d'etat. Until then tourists couldn't get to see Mutitjulu, because no one could get in without a permit. Simply walking in could get you a fine of A$1,000. Now Howard has swept away the right of Aboriginal freeholders to keep interlopers off their land; the permit system is to be abolished and tourists will be able to add Aboriginal dysfunction to the sights they go to see. Boundaries are important to Aboriginal peoples, who have always respected each other's space and have suffered acutely whenever disparate groups have been forced to occupy the same space. Land confers identity; failing to protect the integrity of one's land is tantamount to annihilation.
The police, who are even now marching towards Aboriginal settlements under Howard's banner, have had so little success in dealing with urban Aboriginal people that there were anti-police riots in Sydney's inner suburb of Redfern in January 2004. The unfortunates who are sent to enforce Howard's bans will have no special training in dealing with rural tribal peoples and will probably find themselves in real danger.
The situation is complex. Lately, British newspapers have been hearing about Wadeye (pronounced Wa-de-ye), otherwise known as Port Keats. Like many Aboriginal communities, Wadeye had its beginnings as a mission, in this case a Catholic mission founded in 1935 at the request of the federal government. The Bishop of Darwin appointed a missionary of the Sacred Heart, West Australian Richard Docherty, to set up the suggested mission at a place called Werntek Nganayi, where he was to establish a garden and teach the Aborigines to grow their food rather than gathering it. The mission also ran a cattle station in the Daly River reserve. In 1975, however, the federal government recognised Aboriginal claims to the reserve and it therefore became inalienable freehold land vested in the Daly River/Port Keats Aboriginal Trust. Aborigines were happier working with a stock whip than a hoe, but even so, when they managed to redeem the land from the pastoralists who had employed them, they usually ate the cattle and allowed the land to recover. There being no game to hunt any more, they now usually live on rotisserie chicken and frozen mutton chops from the local store.
Though they see no point in working nine-to-five, Aboriginal people find as little satisfaction in doing nothing as anyone else. Their lives used to be full of activity - not only finding food, preparing and eating it, but interpreting the places they were travelling through and the time they were in, and how all things came to be as they are. If I take a four-wheel-drive to visit friends at the Anmatyerre women's camp at Atangkere, on what used to be Utopia Station, further south in the Northern Territory, the women will grab their crowbars and axes and pile in, making me drive 50 miles into the bush so we can go hunting for goanna (monitor lizards). People who seem too idle and dispirited to do anything will walk for whole days in search of bush tucker. Nothing is brought back from such a foray; the hunter-gatherer way is to make a fire, cook the food, and eat it on the spot.
Father Docherty's first choice of site was mistaken. The sea encroached in the rainy season and turned the surface water to salt, so the mission moved south to Port Keats. The indigenous people who were driven off their land to end up at Wadeye came from 23 clans who would normally have hunted and gathered on their own traditional lands; between them they spoke seven languages. The land at Wadeye belonged to the Kardu Diminin, who spoke Murrinh-Patha; no one asked them how they felt about having to accommodate outsiders and no one asked the outsiders how they felt about having Murrinh-Patha taught to their children along with Catholic doctrine. Officialdom has never made any attempt to cope with the multiplicity and complexity of Aboriginal culture. For groups who have jealously guarded their distinctness and carefully managed their intercommunal negotiations for 40,000 years, enforced togetherness brings intense psychological stress. For six months of the year the disparate clans of Wadeye cannot get out of each other's way, as they are hemmed in by the wet, with neither roads nor runways usable.
Like most of its ilk, the Wadeye mission combined indoctrination with forced labour. The natives lived in dormitories and had no choice but to attend school every day or put in the hours working. There are now 800 children of school age in Wadeye but only 57 of them can be relied on to turn up at school every day. That is partly because in 2004, after a tremendous drive to force parents to get their children to school under threat of withdrawal of welfare, the school facilities were found to be hopelessly inadequate, with neither teachers nor space for the number of children. In 2005, the Thamarrur regional council, which now governs Wadeye, took legal advice on their chances of suing the federal government for violation of their civil rights by not providing basic education; the complaint was finally lodged a month ago. As there are no employment opportunities, education has no obvious point. All but about 50 of Wadeye's indigenous population of 2,700 live on "sit-down" money, as welfare payments are known.
For years, some of the elders at Wadeye have dreamed of returning to their homelands, or "outstations", but depression and stress have sapped their energy. Catholic education replaced the discipline of "learning country" and preparing for initiation, so young men are now incapable of living off the land. Men who know how to bag magpie geese, track and bring down introduced feral pigs and native kangaroos, find barramundi, catfish, dugong and turtles, may still command respect, but too many of the senior men with the necessary skills are no longer living in Wadeye. Why? Because Wadeye is dry. The missing men have moved to Darwin, where they can drink.
Howard's latest spasm of concern for the people of the Northern Territory could result in a double irony. Already, areas where the liquor ban has been effective are suffering because adult men are moving to urban areas where they can drink; a more effective imposition of the ban by non-Aboriginal authorities is likely to intensify this trend. Behaviour that is now shame-faced could soon be seen as defiant and assertive. Petrol-sniffing used to be a problem, but now petrol has been rendered unsniffable. The drug of choice for young men in Wadeye is marijuana, known to them as gunja. Meanwhile, Wadeye has grown to be the sixth biggest town in the Northern Territory, yet it has only 154 houses, 33 of which are derelict and should be demolished. In the others, occupancy stands at between five and six people per bedroom, a common state of affairs in the homelands. Dislocation, dispersion, rounding up and regimentation were followed, as usual, by neglect.
In 2001, a vast gas field, christened Blacktip, was discovered 70 miles offshore from Wadeye. Development of this priceless resource is now well under way. The gas from the Blacktip field will be piped to Yeltherr beach, just south of Wadeye, where an onshore gas plant will be constructed and the gas piped east to Ban Ban Springs on the Adelaide River to supply Darwin. Work on the pipeline began a few weeks ago and is expected to be complete by next August; 130 Northern Territory companies will be involved in the works, including the construction of the pipelines, the oil wells, the offshore platform and the onshore gas plant, but not one word has been said about the involvement of the inhabitants of Wadeye. As most of them have not completed primary education, and can neither read nor write nor speak English, it is hard to see how they could be involved. An earlier deal that would have provided Aboriginal groups with equity of $250m in recognition of the pipeline crossing their land was abandoned, when the client, the aluminium giant Alcan, found a cheaper supplier in Papua New Guinea.
Perhaps it was the increasing attention paid to Wadeye by the international community during the negotiations for the development of the gasfield that prompted the arrival of a GP for Wadeye, where for years there had been no doctor. When Pat Rebgetz arrived at the beginning of 2006, he was horrified by what he found and by the inadequacy of the resources. He had been in place only six months when gang warfare exploded, which occasioned an earlier threat from Howard to deploy the army against his own citizens. In the immediate aftermath of the mayhem, Mal Brough, minister for families, communities and indigenous affairs, came to town. Instead of being appalled at the evidence of criminal neglect on the part of the authorities whom he represented, he laid into the inhabitants, ordering them to clean the graffiti off their walls, collect the rubbish littering the streets, and get their kids to the school that wasn't big enough to hold them, on pain of having their funding frozen. The people responded badly, saying they were not "going to bloody fall down in a heap just because some clown like Brough comes along and wants to bounce us". As one citizen told a reporter, "I won't do it, because of him asking me."
Brough just didn't get it. He thought the Wadeye people recognised his authority, but they didn't. The people of Wadeye will take government money as part payment for what the whitefellas took away from them, namely, everything, including their natural gas, but they simply don't see that that gives the whitefellas the right to tell them what to do. Their recalcitrance is not stupidity or wickedness but resistance - eternal, implacable, self-destructive resistance. When Howard takes over the policing of the Aboriginal communities he can expect more of the same. He will never defeat the Aboriginal peoples, but he will surely increase the bitterness of their suffering.
White settlers have never truly understood the Aborigines. By the time the newcomers registered the fact that the Aboriginal peoples belonged to something like 700 language groups, many of those groups consisted of only a handful of people. What had not been thought of even as a nation was a ramified commonwealth with an elaborate diplomacy, in which envoys were dispatched to negotiate terms for crossing disparate territories, sharing particular resources, righting wrongs.
The Aboriginal peoples reacted to contact in different ways. Some were used to foreigners visiting their land. Most assumed that the newcomers would adapt to their way of life, and offered to help them find food and show them how to survive by studying and venerating country. Even when diseases brought by the Europeans reduced thriving communities to a handful of traumatised survivors, there was no concerted attempt to drive the interlopers away. By the time the Aboriginal peoples realised that the newcomers had laid claim to the whole country and everything in it, it was too late.
It did not occur to Aboriginal Australians that the newcomers did not consider them fully human; they were outraged when they saw men whipped for insubordination. A man who offended against tribal law was to be speared; whether he was speared in a vital organ or not was a measure of the gravity of the offence, but he was not to be beaten like a dog. The crushing blow that destroyed Aboriginal self-esteem was the gradual realisation that the strangers they had accepted as human like themselves did not reciprocate their respect.
Because Aboriginal people had few visible possessions, their culture seemed simple. In terms of invisible possessions such as language, spirituality and relationships, it was actually astonishingly complex, and this complexity still hampers interaction with the de facto rulers of Australia. Rebgetz told Barbara McMahon of the Observer: "There's a lot of cultural stuff about kinship that means you are obliged to feed a family member if he comes in and says he's hungry or give him somewhere to stay ..." This "cultural stuff", a problem for white administrators ever since welfare began, will not go away. Whether whitey likes it or not, this is what matters to many Aboriginal people; it is why two days after they have collected their "kid money" they are broke. Likewise, when white administrators have offered Aboriginal people "decent housing" they have seen it wrecked and even burned down, yet it does not occur to them that the three-bedroom brick veneer is not what Aboriginal people can use. Many live in segregated camps, or would if they could. Indeed, the problem of child abuse would be mitigated if they went back to the tradition of men's camps and camps for women and children.
My Yolngu friends at Yirrkala tend to live on the verandahs of their houses, where they lie in heaps on bare mattresses for most of the day. They are more likely to light a fire in the front garden than grow flowers in it. If people have been hunting on the foreshore, there will be oysters roasted on the fire, and the shells thrown in a heap. Some of the shell middens in Australia are thousands of years old. Aboriginal people could decide to clean up their oyster shells, but as things stand it is far more important that they don't. The insignia of consumer society can be found in heaps around every Aboriginal settlement: discarded clothes, rotting bedding, broken ghetto-blasters, burned-out cars.
You will find versions of this behaviour wherever you find self-regulating Aboriginal people. Hunter-gatherer morality does not permit the accumulation of possessions and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle does not recognise the (utterly notional) value of money. Emily Kngwarreye once asked one of her patrons for a car for her nephew in payment for one of her paintings. The car was supplied, Kngwarreye gave it to her nephew and a few weeks later her patron was annoyed to learn that the nephew had sold the new car for A$300. "Why did he sell the car, a new car, for just A$300?" he asked. "Because he only needed A$300," said Kngwarreye. Capitalism simply doesn't know how to deal with people like this, except perhaps to make money out of them. Nowadays you'd need more than the price of a car if you wanted to buy an Emily painting, but she chose to live out her last months of life on her iron bedstead under a tarpaulin, far from the comforts of consumer society, in her own country.
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