I TRAVELLED FROM Sydney to Far North Queensland in 1970 to carry out ‘salvage work' on a dying and little-recorded language, Gugu-Badhun. I was a postgraduate student in linguistics and my main teacher was to be Dick Hoolihan, who came from the Valley of Lagoons, Gugu-Badhun heartland country. He was a recently retired blacksmith's striker with the railways. He had been put in touch with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, my employer in Canberra, through Frank Bardsley of Townsville. Frank was an active trade unionist with an interest in Aboriginal welfare and rights, who had begun to write down words in endangered languages of North Queensland. He also ran what would now be called a blue-light disco for the kids, I believe through the Aborigines' Advancement League, in a run-down part of Townsville. I went to a dance there with a now unplaceable Ann Smith on August 8, 1970, according to my journal.
At that time, as had been the case since the Gurindji walk-off and the Northern Territory equal wages case a few years earlier, the old working-class unionist left had not yet relinquished its historic, if short-lived, front-row forward role in Aboriginal politics. Indigenous activists and their supporting middle-class cast of lawyers, academics, liberal missionaries and others were soon to sideline them. The North Australian Workers' Union and the Waterside Workers' Federation soon faded from centre stage in Indigenous political activism. The older involvement of humane societies, the various Friendship Leagues and their like – many of which were largely non-Indigenous in makeup – and some not so old organisations with more direct Indigenous involvement, like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) (1958-73) and the One People of Australia League (1961-present), were also soon to be moved into the wings by the new land councils, legal services and other organisations, including the National Aboriginal Congress.
These historic shifts of progressivism on Indigenous questions need to be laid out in a little more detail. In the colonial era and soon after, progressives had pushed for the protection of Indigenous Australians from violence and exploitation, for the recognition of their fellow humanity, and for the formation of inviolate reserves in remote regions. This phase merged into and was also outflanked by a later post-colonial movement for racial equality and the acceptance of Indigenous Australians as fully capable of integration into the wider community. This period spanned roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. Assimilation, for some decades prior to about 1960, was thus argued for by people of the left as an opportunity not to be unjustly denied to Indigenous Australians. There was not the sentiment for traditional culture then that there is now. Anti-assimilationists in the interwar years were either compassionate protectionists or dyed-in-the-wool racists who thought Indigenous people genetically incapable of modernisation. The protective and educative impulses spanned the colonial, interwar and postwar eras, and were most manifest in the missions, which not only provided havens and training for the people, but also dispensed medical treatment. While some mission regimes were undeniably harsh and a good number were heavily oriented to destroying the older cultures, there were also many where aspects of traditional culture were encouraged to persist, bilingual education was instituted, and the approach was basically one of compassion rather than conquest.
The missions generally either voluntarily relinquished, or were made by governments to relinquish, their administrative control of Indigenous residential communities – mainly in the 1970s. The new progressive consensus was that these communities should be free of missionaries, self-managed through elected councils and relatively autonomous. Land rights would ensure their inhabitants security of tenure and, where possible, a source of income. Traditional culture would be encouraged, not discouraged. Pressures to assimilate to a Euro-Australian way of life were racist and should be curtailed. Liberation, not retraining, was what would lift people's self-respect and pride, and enable them to embark on a new era in which the quality of their lives would improve. There was an expectation that collective decision-making would be premised on regard for the good of the community.
This essay is about how that emergent consensus of the early 1970s has come undone. It is also about how a progressivist moral politics dulled our instincts about the sanctity of Indigenous people's right to be free from violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption. Links between the morality of humaneness, the moral politics of being left of centre and a progressive rights-oriented view of Indigenous policy seemed simpler and more intimate then. The destructive naïveté of that consensus has itself come to be destroyed more than anything else by the issue that was so often central in the pre-1960s Australia, and which took a back seat for so long afterwards: ‘putting the children first'.
I also want to put on record something of the role of anthropologists in the post-1970 history of
Indigenous politics in Queensland. This is not to seek to displace the roles of others – which were generally more significant – but to ensure we are not written out of the story, and to reflect a little on the legacy
of our work.
THE EARLY 1970s were those 'olden days' when Aboriginal Queenslanders could still be legally ‘under the Act', controlled (deprived of certain civil rights and income) in a dubious exchange for the care of the state or the church. They could opt out, but few did. Non-indigenous superintendents ran the bigger Aboriginal communities; police officers looked after the smaller town reserves. Some bosses were benign authoritarians, some less so, some notorious. Some were tragically flawed, like the long-remembered superintendent of Palm Island, Robert Curry who killed his children by dynamiting his house and was shot dead on staff orders by an Aboriginal police aide in 1930. The Chillagoe Protector (also the local police sergeant) told me in 1970 that he ruled the local reserve with an iron fist: his predecessor had been carted out on a stretcher. Every now and then, there was an administration with progressive views. The Presbyterians at Aurukun were discussing handing decision-making over to the populace by the late 1960s, and by the mid-1970s had transferred authority to an elected council and company and were encouraging land rights, the outstation movement and bilingual education.
At the other extreme were the state-run places like Palm Island or Lockhart River, where an uneasy and often hostile atmosphere hung over the administration building. There was in such places a casual, tropical racism that was very new to me as a southerner. In the early 1970s, Barry Gomersall – later a respected Rugby referee (now deceased), but then the Palm Island butcher – served the whites first regardless of how far back they were standing. In 1970, on my first visit to ‘Palms' – as public servants called it – I was shown the carbines placed along the windows in the government offices, just in case. The mutinous community riot of the late 1950s was still fresh in the minds of many. In the backblocks, there was still an odour of a territory recently occupied by foreigners. Cairns was still a run-down, rather seedy place fit for Somerset Maugham. Near the grim haunts of the Cairns railway yards was the slightly grimy People's Palace, the Salvos hostel where I often stayed with Johnny Flinders and other Aboriginal friends. For a while, its manager was Captain Cock, a big man without discrimination in his heart. Johnny rather affectionately called him Captain Wunda.
Before driving from Brisbane to the Far North in 1970, I thought – in my relative innocence – that I would drop in at the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement in Brisbane. As I was making a survey of language survival in the Gulf Country and east to the coast, perhaps I could give them information that could be of assistance. The department's director, Patrick Killoran – ‘ah, don't, ah, think so' – could see no point. Not long afterwards, I came to regard Killoran as Mephisto, as did all right-thinking Queensland moderns. In the big room outside his office, men in long shirt sleeves, their cuffs held back by silver elastic bands, moved slowly amid a sea of yellowing dockets full of carbon copies. The vertical wooden slat walls seemed yellow as well, with a tidal stain of long use at waist level. Overhead, yellow electric fans turned slowly, covered in fly spots. There was a morgueish atmosphere, a bureaucratic presiding-over of some great sadness.
Now I have a more complex view of Killoran's regime, based partly on archival documents. It was oppressive and could be vindictive. It was chronically short of money. But Killoran was right about the decline of health that would follow liberalisation of local regimes. Unmonitored living conditions deteriorated, and at Aurukun an outbreak of hepatitis predictably followed. But the passing of Killoran's era in 1987 was not mourned
THE PROGRESSIVE CONSENSUS on indigenous policy, and on a host of related, value-laden matters of public interest, rested on more than rationally convergent views. It was a matter of shared political emotion. It was important to the sense of solidarity its adherents enjoyed. They were a moral community, not just a polity. We were defined in relation to them. This is one of the reasons the '70s consensus outlived its usefulness: it was a bond that gradually became disengaged from reality. It is still evident in Central Australia, and its outstation Melbourne, where dissent from Whitlamite values can still be policed by ruthless criticism and attempted public humiliation, or by careful omission. But the skin is cracking, even there.
The consensus was initially oppositional, sustained in part by a certain comradeship. Learning that we were under Special Branch police surveillance in Queensland, my Brisbane-based anthropological colleagues and I bonded not just as people with certain beliefs, but as friends. We were actively pro-land rights in Queensland's dark age of Joh Bjelke-Peterson. We roughed it in the bush together on extended field trips in Cape York Peninsula. We babysat each other's children in the suburbs of Brisbane. We wrote papers together. In the late 1970s, the Queensland Association of Professional Anthropologists and Archaeologists was formed, partly out of self-protection, partly to provide a platform for public comment. David Trigger, Jay Hall and others were active but Athol Chase did most of the television interviews, appearing with the moderator of the Uniting Church and the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane on more than one occasion. The issues were land rights, and justice for Queensland Aboriginal people.
David Martin, who began as a community worker with Aurukun's Kendall River outstation in 1976, became an anthropologist in 1983. He had been a Quaker who had spent time in Brisbane's Boggo Road jail as a conscientious objector to national service during the Vietnam War, the subject of the famous ‘Free Dave Martin Campaign'. Although consistently independent of received wisdom, Martin – like others – supported the land rights movement. Through the '70s and '80s in Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf Country, anthropologists and traditional owners did long and grinding work – traversing and mapping bush countries and recording occupational histories and genealogies in preparation for the land rights era. Other people campaigned more openly, mostly from their offices in the cities and suburbs, occasionally on the streets.
During his reign as principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra from 1972-80, the unique Peter Ucko directed a roller-coaster expansion of research, including traditional land ownership studies directly for claimants in land and sea cases. Ucko's parents were Holocaust survivors, and he was a great hater of racists – his agenda was more than just intellectual and entrepreneurial-scholarly, it was overtly political. Thousands of sites and hundreds of ‘countries' were recorded in Queensland in research supported by AIATSIS. Many of those who carried out this research have worked on hundreds of court and tribunal cases and negotiated settlements, providing detailed evidence – as anthropologists continue to do.
At Aurukun in 1976, John and Jeanie Adams were appointed as Presbyterian Mission staff. They were self-described Christian Marxists, and drew the public ire of the state premier. In the same period, John (later Janine) Roberts and several other far left activists publicly attacked the imposition of bauxite mining in the Weipa region near Aurukun, writing The Mapoon Books under the roseate banner of International Development Action. These people worried the state government.
Inland from Aurukun, the lantern-jawed, rangy, narrow-gutted Coen police sergeant Jim Scanlon let us know he had been told to report our whereabouts in the Cape to the authorities in Brisbane. He had a list of our number plates. Born and bred in the Far North, he didn't think much of ‘those cunts' in Brisbane. He and Athol Chase had done nasho together in the RAAF at Amberley in 1955. So Scanlon let the story out. In 1977 he also let Chase know that the Special Branch had a file on him and was tapping his phone. On hearing strange clicks during calls, we would sometimes let fly a few unsolicited home truths for the gumshoes to type out. Chase's vice-chancellor at Griffith University, John Willett, told him that he had defended him against Killoran-inspired complaints about his activities in Cape York, and that he would not allow the government to influence staff at his university. Willett later invited Chase to his home to meet the South African anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzmann, who had strong words to say about the Queensland situation. We later learned that a Toyota being used by our colleague David Trigger was also being tracked by police.
IN THE MID-1970s, three of us were named in a state government memorandum, addressed to Paddy Killoran, as radicals whose influence on Aboriginal people needed to be curtailed. According to the author of the memo, a state archaeologist, this was a matter of national security: in the event of a border dispute between Indonesia and Australia in Papua New Guinea, the Aboriginal people might side with the Indonesians, because of their long history of relationships with the more conventional Makassarese trepangers, and thus form a ‘fifth column'. This was absurd drivel: there is no evidence the Makassarese ever made it to Cape York Peninsula. The memo was quite inventive, though. It argued that Aboriginal site recorders should not be brought to Brisbane for training, because they might come under the pernicious sway of Athol Chase, John von Sturmer and Peter Sutton, but would also be directionally confused. At home, the sea was on the west, but would be on the east in Brisbane. These were people in whose languages it was, and remains, necessary to maintain constant orientation to the four cardinal directions in order to carry out any kind of spatial talk. A copy of this remarkable document is at AIATSIS in Canberra.
Our anthropological group's views on land rights bound us politically and personally with many Aboriginal friends, and with some who were never friends. The first entry in my first Queensland field notebook, dated June 1970, was a list of people to contact in Brisbane before heading north to the Gulf country. Among them were John von Sturmer and John C. Taylor at the University of Queensland – anthropologist colleagues with whom I am still in touch – and Dennis Walker at the Tribal Council. I don't think I managed to locate Dennis at the time. We first met at Palm Island in 1974; he was walking towards me on the beach with Bill Congoo. Bill and I got on well. Dennis looked up and saw me and said in a clearly audible voice: ‘And there's another one of the cunts.' It was my first experience of racial vilification. Bill said: ‘Where? Where?' Then the penny dropped and he said: ‘Oh no, no, that's Peter.' Thanks Bill. I had a small revenge years later when I visited Dennis up near Mount Tamborine with Michael Mace, a Murri with better-honed political intelligence. Mace lifted a fair few of Dennis's avocados on the way out the drive, and I had a share. He was quick about it though. You didn't muck around with Walker, co-founder of the Australian Black Panther Party, though when he fronted a court in Sydney with a rifle on one occasion, there was no ammunition in it.
A few pages after referring to Walker in my 1970 notes, there was Pastor Don Brady's name. He was also radical activist, sometimes called the Punching Pastor, and at times an anthropologist-hater, though he later worked with my colleagues Chris Anderson and Bruce Rigsby to map his own country on the Palmer River in Cape York. Quite a few Aboriginal men of the period, like Brady, managed the transition of power in Aboriginal affairs from the church to secular politics, including Pastor Doug Nicholls of New South Wales, the Lutheran Pastors of Hermannsburg, Old Bob Holroyd of Pormpuraaw and Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra of Arnhem Land. As well as moral cause, ambition and public objectives, they also had organisational experience, literacy, widespread contacts and knew how to make a speech. Those who did not make the transition were politically becalmed.
At Palm Island during the 1970s, I hooked up with Freddie and Iris Clay, among the more articulate and energised reformists on the island, and I occasionally visited Bob Weatherall at the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) in Brisbane, and Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan at the North Queensland Land Council in Cairns – an early predecessor of the Cape York Land Council and a focus of political activism in the far north. Miller and Grogan accompanied Fred Hollows and his trachoma team to Aboriginal communities and encouraged locals to register and vote Labor. They dropped in one day in 1976 at Watha-nhiin outstation, in the wetlands of western Cape York Peninsula, where I was living with Wik people, carrying out anthropological research on the role of languages in local political geography, running a basic food store (the protein was all hunted) and administering the Flying Doctor medical kit. Once the true nature of this election-oriented health campaign became known to Brisbane, Joh had them all kicked out of the communities.
Tensions between old-style and new-style whitefellas in Cape York Peninsula reached a peak around land rights in the mid-1970s. The presence of anthropologist John von Sturmer at Aurukun from 1969 coincided with a revived emphasis in the community of distinct identities of origin, and a movement to establish outstations began. In 1971 Victor Wolmby led a group to establish such a settlement at Aayk on the Kirke River. In the early 1970s, the increasingly liberal Presbyterian administration at Aurukun, influenced by von Sturmer, moved to recognise five regional country-based groupings in a new formal structure. Some councillors, including Geraldine Kawangka and Richard Kelinda, were strongly opposed to what they saw as a dangerous and divisive return to tribalism. They also saw an imminent erosion of their settlement-focused power base. Jacob Wolmby and Gladys Tybingoompa played it differently: they were prominent in land rights activism, but without going far out of town, unless it was to a meeting in a distant city. Their power base was Aurukun too. With myself based at Watha-nhiin, David Martin at Kendall River north, and the Adamses spending time at Ti-Tree, outstation development proliferated until up to three hundred Aurukun people were spending at least dry season time out in their countries. That era had come gradually to a close by the 1990s when only small numbers of diehards left behind the allurements of town to spend time in the bush beyond daily commuting distance from Aurukun. In the mid-'70s, the old pastoral ascendancy stared down the barrel of its own marginalisation, and the proper racial order of things looked like a boat about to be rocked. I slept with a loaded rifle in Cape York twice, once outside Coen after some trouble in town, and once at Aurukun after two staff offered to kick my head in for backing the outstation movement. They were warned off by the redoubtable Alan Cane, then acting super, who threatened to radio Weipa and fly in the police in 1976.
For years, people have noticed that Queensland Aboriginal activists and administrators have punched above their weight on the national scene. I'll hazard a guess as to why this was so. First, Queensland government approaches to Indigenous affairs were probably the most Draconian, and would thus have aroused the most ire. In addition, large concentrations of people as inmates of places like Palm Island, Yarrabah, Woorabinda and Cherbourg created local schools of a fairly intensive political education that could at times be translated into the big picture arena; on the other hand, a strongly assimilationist approach to education in Queensland gave people pathways into the wider world of ideas and a good command of English language and literacy. A large proportion of Queensland Aboriginal people had long lived in cities and towns and had never been institutionalised, and thus were more likely to be confident in dealing with non-Indigenous people; and perhaps the example of the large numbers of African American servicemen stationed in Queensland during World War II had some effect on how people saw their condition and envisioned future possibilities.
In the 1970s, non-Indigenous people were commonly front-line advocates, though this era was coming to a close. I went to confront Queensland Aboriginal Affairs Minister Charles Porter at a live telecast at the ABC's Toowong Studios in 1977, at a time of much upheaval in Cape York. As the audience was ushered through the door, a young Maxine McKew beamed behind her clipboard. I was the last one in; Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan were left outside. They were gracious about it. I chewed Porter but he responded rather well against the whippersnapper just back from the bush – or at least that is the trace of my memory, although there's an archived video of the debate in Canberra somewhere.
IN RETROSPECT, I now see the political demise of older-style Queensland Aboriginal radicals as occuring quite suddenly. I witnessed the moment when it began to change at a conference in the Cairns Ramada Hotel in early May 1991. The crunch point was a vitriolic attack and attempted censure of Marcia Langton by Bob Weatherall, Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan. Unlike these men, Langton had grown with the times. She had been a tireless front-liner and earned her stripes. Arrested by police in the heady days of the Springbok Rugby protests in 1971, she had later taken an interest in the American Black Panthers. By 1991 she had transformed herself into a state government bureaucrat and was on her way to a successful academic career, while remaining politically active. Mick Dodson, not a Queenslander, and Terry O'Shane, magistrate Pat O'Shane's brother, were at the conference, as was John Newfong. The late John Newfong was an influential journalist and political player in Queensland and Canberra, where he edited the Indigenous affairs magazine Identity. He was definitely the most flamboyant member of the Murri political scene. Terry O'Shane had been Mick Miller's brother-in-law and had a trade union connection through the Maritime Workers' Union. Like many prominent activists of his age, he spanned FCAATSI which ended in 1978 and ATSIC which was abolished in 2005.
There were many colourful moments as this collection of larger-than-life personalities spent days in the hotel. On being introduced to David Byrne, an adviser to a community on the tip of Cape York Peninsula who was also openly gay, Newfong said: ‘Ah, the Daisy Bates of Injinoo! How are you?'
At the conference, Weatherall, Miller and Grogan castigated Langton for working on developing land rights legislation for the Goss Labor government. A very young and fearsomely articulate Noel Pearson quickly came to her defence and mounted what in the end was a lethal attack on the old guard of activists who sat in the front row of the conference hall at the rather posh hotel. He held the audience in his hand as he opened with words that went something like: ‘Bob, Mick, Clarrie. I am astonished at the stunt you have tried to pull here today.' The head-on Howitzer attack worked.
Terry O'Shane immediately backed Langton, and then the others did as well. The meeting overwhelmingly defeated the motion to censure her. It was the end of the old activist mental framework, not just a change of leading voices. It marked the rise of a national Indigenous intelligentsia of university-educated and articulate people who could write persuasively and engage politically. Newfong spanned this shift, though at the end of the Ramada Hotel conference he more or less dictated (to me) the resulting press release, not quite writing it himself. Later a group of us went to a Cairns disco fittingly called The End of the World.
A few weeks later in Brisbane, in the Family Services Building on May 23, 1991, Noel Pearson and his Cape York Land Council representatives Bob Holroyd, Frankie Deemal, Goombra Jacko, Peter Costello and Godfrey Gordon, with David Byrne and myself as advisers, sat trying to negotiate the contents of impending land rights legislation with Queensland Premier Wayne Goss. Goss was accompanied by his Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, Anne Warner, Kevin Rudd, Ross Rolfe, Marcia Langton, department head Ruth Matchett and adviser Father Frank Brennan. Public servants Rolfe and Langton had conducted a vigorous pro-Aboriginal campaign from within government, and Pearson had also been providing input to government, though by this stage he had withdrawn.
As the principals talked, I pondered the changing of the watch in Aboriginal politics that was audible at that moment. From outside and below, through the windows, we could hear the old guard activists' traditional street-march demo as it reached the entrance to Parliament House, and the hard men of the 1970s proceeded literally to tear the gates off their hinges. One thing they were correct about: they knew that Labor's promise of land rights was so watered down in the parliamentary drafting instructions that it was not much more than scraps from the table. Bob Holroyd had prophetically predicted this earlier in the year. At a meeting at Dhiidhaarr near Hopevale, he said: ‘The government got the reins, we got the bit.'
I realised much later that this gatecrashing moment was a prevision of the end of a period. The street marchers were still trading slogans. Pearson and his land council, by contrast, had workshopped alternative legislation at meetings on the beaches of Cape York for months. They had developed a hundred-page submission of positive proposals for the government to consider. I put the document together, printing it at the eleventh hour under the Cairns house of Reverend John Adams, the former Aurukun Mission staffer. Adams was a trusted and active participant. He had played a central role in resisting the state takeover of Aurukun in 1978, had twice worked with me mapping country south of Aurukun and was the appointed minder of the $300 collected at James Cook University on July 13, 1990 – and the $645 collected the day after – to help found the Cape York Land Council.
Goss seemed unhappy that he had not received the document until the last minute. It had been submitted a fortnight before. The meeting began shrouded in tension. Bob Holroyd opened by asking for an apology for a public statement about Aboriginal drunken violence that Goss had made not long before: ‘You damage me, you kick my teeth ...' Holroyd said. Goss said he had not intended to insult anyone, and apologised all the same. Goss had been hurt in turn by Noel Pearson's ‘breach of trust and honour', although he respected his right to resign from his job in the government. Goss and I debated some technicalities about national parks and the problem that the Bill could not invalidate inadequately grounded consents over land use. Things seemed to calm down.
Towards the end of the meeting, Goss agreed to negotiations on the legislation – something his team had been resolutely refusing. My record of an earlier meeting with Rudd had ended with the note: ‘Grim atmosphere as we left.' Just as we were rising to leave the meeting with Goss and his advisers, Old Man Bob suddenly gave the premier a blast of Cape York-style political invective: ‘You give me nothing, you broke your promises. You're a liar.' This was a classic Wik way of saying: ‘This is not over yet, this thing's not settled yet, I still want satisfaction.' We did not know at the time that this clash wrecked the newly hatched agreement, or perhaps provided an excuse to recommend a change of mind. Soon afterwards, as we sat enjoying the doomed victory in the Coronation Motel restaurant, we were joined by Frank Brennan. He had stayed behind in the room when the meeting ended and brought the news that Bob's accusation meant further discussions were now cancelled, and that Rudd had been influential in this.
The next day, David Byrne's massive mobile phone rang (this was 1991). Negotiations were off. The legislation would go through unchanged. Pearson wrote a letter of apology from Holroyd to Goss and requested a further meeting. This was futile. Tactically, Holroyd should probably have been at the gates outside instead of inside at the meeting.
Personal networks and cultural styles and their failure to overlap were part of this story of a parting of the ways. There was often a chasm of sophistication or intelligence as well. But the basic cleavage was between the symbolic and rights agenda that had made activists' careers in the past, and a grasp of the complex pragmatics of governance that was to make leadership careers in the future.
In the meantime, the old rights-based progressivism in Indigenous political thinking had a few more years to go before a relentless decline in the standard of living and safety of people in Aboriginal communities forced so many of us to ask an appalling question: Why did this descent into a seriously dysfunctional state seem to coincide with liberal progressive policies based on the rights agenda, and the creation of new degrees of community autonomy? The taboo on raising this was finally broken by an avalanche of evidence no one
THE EVIDENCE HAS has been building for some years. At the Remote Communities Futures Conference in Townsville in 1990, where the CYLC had been born, Judy Atkinson, Rick Streatfield, Gracelyn Smallwood, Joe Reser and others relayed to us the dire state of the communities, in some cases giving statistical evidence of a rapid decline since the '70s. But this meeting was essentially in-house.
Then Noel Pearson broke the log-jam of public discourse about community dysfunction in several hard-hitting papers published in 1999 and 2000. Those critical months can now be seen as a watershed, and the key events happened in Queensland. Pearson's publications had been stimulated by some searing journalism written by a fearless Tony Koch in Brisbane's Courier-Mail in 1999. Koch exposed the then dire state of several Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal communities. Pearson took the issues to a national audience, and his Aboriginality guaranteed that many more people listened to him and were prepared to agree with him than would otherwise have been the case.
The fact that Pearson was from Cape York also mattered. He began his reform agenda that year, confronting one by one the more questionable planks of past practice and systematically proposing new directions, careful to speak only for his own region. The once unmentionable became debatable. Many more joined the increasingly raw debates over where to go next. As it had been in the past, Queensland was again the crucible of new directions in Indigenous political life.
Debates over Indigenous policy in the previous two decades had been muted, largely between friends. Now they became muscular and public and could once again, create enemies, as they did in the previous changeover phase from1968-74. The new ideas of that time had vanquished the old ideas and become the new orthodoxy, but by 2005 they lay in pieces. Indigenous policy had again become serious politics, without significant electoral implications.
If we take the bourgeois vantage point that diversity in and of itself is a good thing, then living in an age of policy incoherence, without intellectual consensus and direction, should not be too disturbing. But diversity is no longer the idol that it once was. Concern for social and cultural cohesiveness, which had become a little démodé in more secure times, is back in business. But Australian opinion and policy talk about Indigenous affairs, after three decades of relative consensus, had to have some disarray. Prominent Aboriginal spokespersons, pundits and journalists took up different or even diametrically opposed positions from week to week in the new century. Reactions to the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007-08 were symptomatic of the spill and divided prominent commentators. The painful chemistry was better than an unquestioned status quo.
At first it was journalists, politicians and community spokespersons, rather than academics, who played a central role in the public development of these issues, and in disseminating a newly widened variety of opinions. Think-tanks also engaged with the issues and one at least – the Bennelong Society – was set up purely to deal with Indigenous policy.
This spill was no gradual development. Around 2001-02, the old consensus was gutted almost overnight. More and more people felt free from the past, and there was a massive chain reaction. Email played a part in the rapid networking of new positions, written critiques and confessional epistles. I received a swag of them from all over the country. There was a fair amount of catharsis, a crying game. There was also an overwhelming question for many activist Baby Boomers: had they spent or misspent their adult lives, to some extent at least, chasing moonbeams?
But it took longer for policy-makers, bureaucrats and academics to begin to respond positively to the situation that was now out in the public arena. The media discovered ‘Aboriginal community dysfunction' in 2001, and then apparently rediscovered it in 2005-06. Media memory can be short. In the interim, however, a lot had happened.
Several issues became intertwined in the debates and furores that came in wave upon wave, driven strongly by media revelations and commentary, supported by bureaucratic and political pronouncements, plus some academic noises off. The issues now included welfare dependency, community autonomy, organisational corruption, the future of ATSIC, frontier history wars, racially differential morbidity and life expectancy, poor school attendance, declining literacy and numeracy, substance abuse, violence against women, child sexual abuse, customary law as a criminal defence, staying in versus leaving versus orbiting in and out of the ‘ghettos', service mainstreaming, gang warfare and public rioting, the entry permit system and restrictions on media access, the future of funding for remote settlements, and the imminent expectation of rocketing urban migration by Aboriginal people leaving failing outback communities.
There were other relevant differences between print, radio and television. In the period after 1999, there was an ongoing but narrowing gap between the major media outlets in their approach to this general story of Aboriginal community dysfunction. This may be a rough generalisation, but in my view the print media led the way in terms both of honest reporting of the story and bringing the Aboriginal leadership to account. It's also pretty clear that the northern media led the way. In 2000, Peter Botsman made a scathing attack on the southern media for taking eighteen months to catch up to Tony Koch and Noel Pearson. His article was charmingly titled ‘Pearson, Weipa, and the damned southern media'.
Other changes were afoot. By the mid-2000s, we were regularly being treated to news coverage of the Indigenous leadership in a way that had formerly been inconceivable. More taboos came down. The private lives of leaders had tended to be under some kind of unofficial D-notice. Issues of personal behaviour, and the sometimes linked exercise of sexual power and preferment power, now became intertwined with the politics of bureaucracy and policy-making. The two key behaviours getting exposure were violence against women and financial corruption. It is not really clear whether ATSIC leaders Geoff Clarke, accused of rape, and Sugar Ray Robinson, convicted of rape and investigated for corruption, were taken down by ATSIC's fall or whether the two descents were incapable of separation. About this same time, the chairman of the Central Land Council was convicted of assaulting a woman with a tomahawk and lost his position. A bit later, national figure Galarrwuy Yunupingu's court appearances over alleged violent assaults on one of his wives made front-page pictorial news, not a fourth-page paragraph, and reporters were prepared to ask questions.
The key historical point here, I suggest, is that the Indigenous leadership was suddenly no longer being quarantined by a code of silence that didn't apply to others. The powerful were no longer racially segregated when it came to public scrutiny. Political morality, personal morality and cultural practices were now irrevocably intertwined as one complex issue in the Indigenous arena.
Television journalism by and large trailed behind both the northern and southern print media. It crossed its Rubicon when television brought remote Aboriginal communities into the living room, both as evening news and as investigative and documentary journalism later at night, in an unprecedented series of programs in the mid-2000s, especially on SBS and the ABC. Abuse of minors and women in Central Australia became national news when the ABC's Lateline aired a story based around an interview with Alice Springs prosecutor Nanette Rogers in 2006, with research by Suzanne Smith, a Lateline journalist with strong Aboriginal affairs connections and a history of commitment to Indigenous causes. A follow-up story took the unusual step of identifying local Aboriginal men and their criminal records at a named community, Mutitjulu. The temperature soared not only because of this, but also because the Lateline series became embroiled in federal politics and in warfare between journalists. This was something of a turning point in the relationship between the liberal media and the Indigenous affairs political left. For a long time, this relationship had enjoyed something of a sweetheart deal. But now the loss of consensus was extended to the ethics and politics of revelation.
PART OF THE new debate was over what some ciritcs referred to as the reimposition of colonial controls, as against the view espoused by Noel Pearson and others that the political cost of repression was worth the community advantage when crisis conditions obtained.
In Cape York Peninsula, this new approach started to bite well before the Northern Territory Intervention. For example, severe alcohol restrictions were imposed on Aurukun in 2003. Aurukun hospital figures in late 2006 indicated that the average number of sutures required per week, as a result of trauma induced by physical conflict, had gone down by 90 per cent. In the four years 1999-2002, there were six suicides and six homicides in this community of less than a thousand people. That was an annual murder rate of 150 per 100,000, nearly forty times the national average. In the almost four years after the introduction of alcohol controls, there were only two suicides and one death caused by ‘trauma', and no confirmed homicides.
In Cape York as a whole, in the four years from January 2000 there were nine murders, and alcohol was a factor in each. By contrast, in the eighteen months until January 3, 2007, during the alcohol prohibition era, there were no murders. The one murder later in 2007 was in a community which had not adopted the alcohol controls. The system of externally imposed alcohol restriction nonetheless had its critics. There was no evidence of a mass exodus to places where alcohol was freely available, and the direct relationship between alcohol consumption and stupendous levels of violence and death had again been demonstrated.
The 1970s had seen the rapid entry of a new kind of frontier person into the Australian outback. The ones I refer to here were predominantly people who had grown up in Bob Menzies' stable suburbia in the southern towns and cities, including Brisbane, or in similar conditions overseas, and had had the benefit of postwar liberalisation and affluence after times of austerity. They were influenced by anti-authoritarian, liberationist philosophies. They were interested in new knowledge of the exotic and its role in protecting the natural and ancient from the creeping mower of industrialisation and its uniformities. Biologists, ecologists, national park rangers, archaeologists and others benefited from the four-wheel-drive revolution that remote Australia had enjoyed since the postwar period. Anthropologists were just one variation on this theme. In a sense, these people ‘opened up' the new outback as much as tour buses, Cessnas and beef roads did. It was a lot easier than their predecessors' expeditions by packhorse teams and, in the desert, camels.
These modernists overlapped, in many regions, with the last of the generations of Aboriginal people socialised in the bush or on remote cattle stations, who had a rich and complex grasp of their traditional landscapes, languages, religious life, mythology and song. Much of the research we did then could not be carried out now, as so many of those people have passed away and their kind of knowledge has not in general been reproduced to a similar extent in the young. On that score we can be happy to have recorded so much that otherwise would have been lost. That this massive quantum of knowledge has been able to play a constructive part in providing evidence for land claims and cultural heritage management, and in promoting Aboriginal arts – now over many years – is also a source of satisfaction.
But Australian anthropologists have also left the wider public now potentially puzzled as to the lack of fit between their accounts of the distinctively Aboriginal communities and the overwhelming evidence of levels of dysfunctionality and abuse suffered in them in recent decades. We have tended to be protective of the people with whom we have worked, to the point where the recent descent of so many places into dire conditions seems almost scientifically inexplicable. This is not literally true, but we are struggling. Some of us have attempted such explanations, but it must be said that anthropologists, with few exceptions, have neglected two important areas of Indigenous Australian life that now seem of vital importance to understanding why things have become as they are: the social and cultural factors influencing mental health; and the nature of changes in sexual behaviour.
In early 1970s Aurukun, when I first went there, there were occasional large-scale battles, but mostly there was peace. Alcohol found its illicit way in, but only every now and then, and was drunk in secret. Homicide, a common feature of the region from earliest records to the 1950s, had been eradicated. Suicide was unknown. People who survived the rigours of infancy and early childhood had a good chance of living to their seventies. Child abuse, if it occurred, found the records only on the rarest of occasions. Local men mustered cattle and ran the local butcher shop, cut and sawed the timber for house building, built the housing and other constructions, welded and fixed vehicles in the workshop, and worked the vegetable gardens, under a minimal set of mission supervisors. Women not engaged in child-rearing worked in the general store, clothing store and post office. It wasn't heaven, but it certainly wasn't hell. That was to come later.
Truthfulness is not necessarily a good uniter of people. Fictions, or mere simplicitudes, so often better bind us – at least for a time. The end of political consensus on Australian Indigenous policy has been a casualty less of the standard left-right tensions of ‘race politics' than of a battle to get vested interests to acknowledge and deal squarely with the various profound failures of policy and practice, rather than to re-emphasise alleged solutions that will magically materialise after further changes in stratospheric rights. Even people who support a treaty, formal reconciliation and reparations, for example, can no longer be counted on to believe the myth that these things will put food in the bellies of toddlers in the bush. Some, who might be identified as the southern urban soft left, have now become targets of criticism and rejection, even by those for whom they have long formed a key supportive audience. There is a sense that the old political alignments have been thrown up in the air. No one yet knows where the pieces will fall. Are we in an interregnum between illusions? I hope not. My certain feeling is, though, that the current wave of unusual honesty and self-examination in Indigenous affairs needs to proceed a while longer before the future becomes any clearer.
I wish to thank the following colleagues and friends for their most helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper: Athol Chase (also for some detailed memories), Inga Clendinnen, David Martin, Bruce Rigsby, Julianne Schultz and David Stephens. Jennifer Dalakis of the South Australian Museum kindly prepared the photo from an old print and Campbell MacKnight helped out with Macassan history. Where possible I have checked contemporary notes or the memories of friends so as to get the past right, but I have also included here some things purely from recall. Research for this essay was supported by the Australian Research Council.
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