"There's asbestos in many Aboriginal homes, and when somebody gets a fibre of asbestos in their lungs and develops mesothelioma, [the government] doesn't care. When the kids have chronic infections and end up adding to these incredible statistics of indigenous people dying of renal disease, and vulnerable to world record rates of rheumatic heart disease, nothing is done. I ask myself: why not?"
In this latest report on the vast Indigenous region in Australia known as Utopia, John Pilger reveals a dirty secret.
"Societies like Australia - with dark secrets and dishonest politics - feed off image and tokenism. They admire their own image of gormless, unthinking patriotism, while secretly admiring their capacity to silence and divert dissent and to control and co-opt people and never to change."
In an interview with the Guardian ahead of his appearance at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, John Pilger renews the call for a treaty between Australia and its Indigenous peoples...
Tony Abbott’s government has declared a “civil war of rich against poor” with the Indigenous population at the coalface as the country’s “people most denied”, the film-maker and journalist John Pilger has warned.
This year’s Australian federal budget was “a copy of the kind of declaration Margaret Thatcher made when she came to power”, says Pilger on the line from Britain before his return to Australia to appear at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House.
“It’s going to involve attacks on people’s working rights, social rights, right throughout the country, in a country that has declared itself – or [its] mythology has – as the land of a fair go.
In his 2013 film Utopia, Pilger brought attention back to the Indigenous disadvantage in remote Australian communities, dismantling the Howard government’s basis for its Northern Territory intervention (the claim of widespread child abuse by Aboriginal men) and arguing that a new “stolen generation” of Indigenous children is emerging.
Pilger turns attention in his Dangerous Ideas talk to income management and the BasicsCard, first trialled in Indigenous communities. A wide-ranging review by the mining magnate Andrew Forrest recommended the scheme be radically expanded to all Australians of working age receiving welfare payments, alongside plans from 2015 to withhold employment benefits from people under 30 for the first six months.
“The advantage of having this group in power is you can see the whites of their eyes,” says Pilger. “In the 1960s, Australia had the most equitable spread of personal income in the world. The great myth was then more than half true: it was a land of some kind of fair go. Certainly not for Aboriginal people, and for others, but it was in terms of the equitable spread of income.” All this has changed, he says.
“During the Hawke years, as during the corresponding years of the Thatcher government, the transfer of wealth, from the bottom to the top, was epic. That was done by a Labor government, by the treasurer, Paul Keating, and by the prime minister, Bob Hawke. So the ground has been well and truly laid for the inevitable – that is, an extreme political system now implemented by the Abbott government.”
In his talk, Pilger will also tackle what he calls the “great Australian silence”: the double standard that says we must not question the mythology of Anzac Day even as it is being used to promote Australia’s “increasing integration into American war plans for the Asia-Pacific”.
The Utopia trailer. Source: Dartmouth FilmsAs Utopia highlighted, the Australian War Memorial fails to acknowledge Indigenous deaths in the frontier wars of the 19th century. It’s a theme taken up by the historian Henry Reynolds in his 2012 book, Forgotten War, in which Reynolds estimates 2,500 British settlers and “steeply upward” of 30,000 Indigenous people were likely killed.
Given the number of Indigenous film-makers who have emerged in recent years – Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton, Ivan Sen and Wayne Blair among them – is there still a place for Pilger’s work? Or is there a danger of paternalism in a white, non-Indigenous man speaking on Indigenous people’s behalf?
“Well, you could ask Henry Reynolds that, or any of the other chroniclers or allies of Aboriginal people,” says Pilger. “I don’t speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. All my views have been well and truly discovered from the moment I – quote – ‘discovered’ Aboriginal people when Charlie Perkins [the late Indigenous activist] took me to the Northern Territory.
“All of my views have been developed and honed by my association with Aboriginal people. I never speak on behalf of them, and I think if you ask any of those interviewed by me, they would say the same.”
Is ignorance or denial to blame for the “great Australian silence” he identifies? “All those things,” he answers. “There may not be rights, there may not be good healthcare for Aboriginal people, there may not be land rights, but there sure are plenty of excuses. Australia is a land of excuses. It’s usually blaming the victim, and follows a colonial pattern.”
What Australia is missing, he says, is the celebration of its most enduring culture. “You find – and this is really puzzling to foreigners – almost a contemptuous view of Indigenous people.” Moments of optimism such as the 1967 referendum that granted Indigenous people citizenship in their own country, or the 2000 march for reconciliation, were both about “ticking a box”.
While the majority who walked across the Harbour Bridge were sincere, as were those running the Sorry campaign, Pilger calls them “small-L liberal campaigns that assume goodwill on the part of the political leadership of Australia. There isn’t the goodwill.”
He calls for a treaty with Australia’s Indigenous people, not all of whom support what some see as an important first step: constitutional recognition. But if Australia can’t have the kind of conversations swirling round the war memorial, how will it find the words to write a treaty?
“A treaty could be the beginning,” says Pilger, who believes a majority would welcome what he likens to a bill of rights for Indigenous people – covering health, land rights, educational rights and the right to live securely. “All those questions that you raise could be dealt with in a treaty. It could be all-encompassing, not just a piece of paper.”
Pilger cites the Alyawarr, Arrernte and Anmatjerre elder and actor Rosalie Kunoth-Monks when he restates that Indigenous people never ceded ownership of Australia. “This would be an historic convention, long overdue. Some would say, a couple of hundred years overdue, between the original owners of the country, who have never ceded ownership, and the colonisers.”
All the advances of the latter 20th century – “Mabo, native title, Wik and so on” – have been distractions, he adds. A treaty is the main game.
“Until that happens then Australia will be, even compared with other colonial states, quite primitive. Compared with New Zealand, the United States and Canada, where there are many problems, in Australia there isn’t even the will or the goodwill to recognise these problems. There’s an indifference that easily becomes cynicism.”
This article first appeared in the Guardian
John Pilger talks at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House on 31 August
In an interview on National Indigenous Television (NITV), ahead of the Australian broadcast of Utopia on 31 May, John Pilger describes an unreported war in his homeland and calls for a treaty between 'the owners of this country and those who came later'...
Utopia will be broadcast in Australia on SBS ONE on Saturday 31 May at 8.35pm. You can watch the SBS trailer here.
John Pilger's epic new film, Utopia, had its premiere in the urban heart of Indigenous Australia, in the Middle of Sydney, on 17 January 2014. A record crowd of 4,000 included Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians who came from all over the country to hear the call for a renewed struggle for justice and freedom for Australia's first people. Since then, Utopia has had a remarkable 'journey' across Australia's vastness, screening at packed events in cities, towns and remote communities. On 31st May, SBS Australia will broadcast Utopia nationwide.
Click here for a report of Utopia's impact
Listen to a John Pilger interview on Truthout.com (US) about Australia's second 'stolen generation'.
How to interview a film-maker about his film without having seen it...
GENEVIEVE JACOBS: But that’s the question about what you bring that is new to this. The criticism, a criticism of your approach. Warren Snowdon...
JOHN PILGER: Well, have you seen the film?
GENEVIEVE JACOBS: I haven’t seen the film but we do...
JOHN PILGER: This is the problem, you see. And forgive me for raising it. How can you have a discussion with me about a film you haven’t seen?
Read more: http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3975438.htm
John Pilger interviewed on RTE Irish Radio...
In an investigation for the Guardian, John Pilger expands the evidence in his new film, 'Utopia', to reveal the scandal of a second Stolen Generation.
The tape is searing. There is the voice of an infant screaming as he is wrenched from his mother, who pleads, “There is nothing wrong with my baby. Why are you doing this to us? I would’ve been hung years ago, wouldn’t I? Because [as an Australian Aborigine] you’re guilty before you’re found innocent.” The child’s grandmother demands to know why “the stealing of our kids is happening all over again”. A welfare official says, “I’m gunna take him, mate.”
This happened to an Aboriginal family in outback New South Wales. It is happening across Australia in a scandalous and largely unrecognised abuse of human rights that evokes the infamous Stolen Generation of the last century. Up to the 1970s, thousands of mixed race children were stolen from their mothers by welfare officials. The children were given to institutions as cheap or slave labour; many were abused.
Described by a Chief Protector of Aborigines as “breeding out the colour”, the policy was known as assimilation. It was influenced by the same eugenics movement that inspired the Nazis. In 1997, a landmark report, 'Bringing Them Home', disclosed that as many 50,000 children and their mothers had endured “the humiliation, the degradation and sheer brutality of the act of forced separation ... the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state”. The report called this genocide.
Assimilation remains Australian government policy in all but name. Euphemisms such as “reconciliation” and “Stronger Futures” cover similar social engineering and an enduring, insidious racism in the political elite, the bureaucracy and wider Australian society. When in 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the Stolen Generation, he added: “I want to be blunt about this. There will be no compensation.” The Sydney Morning Herald congratulated Rudd on a “shrewd manoeuvre” that “cleared away a piece of political wreckage that responds to some of its supporters’ emotional needs, but changes nothing.”
Today, the theft of Aboriginal children – including babies taken from the birth table – is now more widespread than at any time during the last century. As of June last year, almost 14,000 Aboriginal children had been “removed”. This is five times the number when 'Bringing Them Home' was written. More than a third of all removed children are Aboriginal – from 3% of the population. At the present rate, this mass removal of Aboriginal children will result in a stolen generation of more than 3,300 children in the Northern Territory alone.
Pat (not her real name) is the mother whose anguish was secretly recorded on a phone as four Department of Child Services officials, and six police, descended on her home. On the tape an official claims they have come only for an “assessment”. But two of the police officers, who knew Pat, told her they saw no risk to her child and warned her to “get out of here quick”. Pat fled, cradling her infant, but the one-year-old was eventually seized without her knowing why. The next morning a police officer returned to apologise to her and said her baby should never have been taken away. Pat has no idea where her son is.
Once, she was “invited” by officials to bring her children to "neutral" offices to discuss a “care plan”. The doors were locked and officials seized the children, with one of the youngest dragging on a police officer’s gun belt. Many Indigenous mothers are unaware of their legal rights. A secretive Children’s Court has become notorious for rubber-stamping removals.
Most Aboriginal families live on the edge. Their life expectancy in towns a short flight from Sydney is as low as 37. Dickensian diseases are rife; Australia is the only developed country not to have eradicated trachoma, which blinds Aboriginal children.
Pat has both complied with and struggled bravely against a punitive bureaucracy that can remove children on hearsay. She has twice been acquitted of false charges, including “kidnapping” her own children. A psychologist has described her as a capable and good mother.
Josie Crawshaw, the former director of a respected families’ support organisation in Darwin, told me, “In remote areas, officials will go in with a plane in the early hours and fly the child thousands of kilometres from their community. There’ll be no explanation, no support, and the child may be gone forever.”
In 2012, the Co-ordinator-General of Remote Services for the Northern Territory, Olga Havnen, was sacked when she revealed that almost $80m was spent on the surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children compared with only $500,000 on supporting the same impoverished families. She told me, “The primary reasons for removing children are welfare issues directly related to poverty and inequality. The impact on families is just horrendous because if they are not reunited within six months, it’s likely they won’t see each other again. If South Africa was doing this, there’d be an international outcry.”
She and others with long experience I have interviewed have echoed the Bringing them Home report, which described an official "attitude” in Australia that regarded all Aboriginal people as “morally deficient”. A Department of Families and Community Services spokesman said that the majority of removed indigenous children in New South Wales were placed with indigenous carers. According to indigenous support networks, this is a smokescreen; it does not mean families and is control by divisiveness that is the bureaucracy’s real achievement.
I met a group of Aboriginal grandmothers, all survivors of the first stolen generation, all now with stolen grandchildren. “We live in a state of fear, again,” they said. David Shoebridge, a State Greens MP told me, “The truth is, there is a market among whites for these kids, especially babies.”
The New South Wales parliament is soon to debate legislation that introduces forced adoption and “guardianship”. Children under two will be liable – without the mother’s consent – if “removed” for more than six months. For many Aboriginal mothers like Pat, it can take six months merely to make contact with their children. “It’s setting up Aboriginal families to fail,” said Shoebridge.
I asked Josie Crawshaw why. “The wilful ignorance in Australia about its first people has now become the kind of intolerance that gets to the point where you can smash an entire group of humanity and there is no fuss.”