Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett says State MPs should act in a "circumspect and thoughtful way" after Labor frontbencher Margaret Quirk tells John Pilger that WA is "racking and stacking" inmates in jails through double bunking.
The award-winning journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has turned the spotlight back on his homeland of Australia for his latest film 'Utopia'. His fourth film on the political and social history of Australia's Indigenous communities took two years to make. In it, he contrasts northern Australia, known as Utopia, with how the majority live in what's become known as the 'lucky country'. Listen to the ABC interview here...
Today, Guardian Australia launched Utopia on its homepage with the below Q&A with John Pilger, as well as preview footage not seen in the film, including Whitegate camp near Alice Springs - currently facing eviction by the NT government - and the complete interview with Patricia Morton-Thomas...
Journalist and film maker John Pilger has been making films on Indigenous Australia for nearly thirty years. His new film, Utopia, revisits many of the locations and people he has been visiting throughout that time and provides a “grim and powerful” assessment on the state of Indigenous affairs. As the film is set for a January release in Australia, Pilger talks about some of its themes.
Q: You've been making films about Indigenous Australia for decades and Utopia references much of your previous work on the subject. Why did you feel the need to return to the subject now?
A: Much of journalism is only credible when it pays respect to serious human rights issues by returning to them, and examining how lives have changed, or not, and why important voices are suppressed. This is especially true of indigenous Australia. Gaining the trust of Indigenous people often only happens when they see the work you do. The making of my films on Indigenous Australia has reflected the trust of those I have filmed. That’s why The Secret Country in 1985 has become such a valued resource for Indigenous communities, leading to the establishment of the first national Aboriginal memorial in the National Gallery in Canberra.
Utopia is long overdue. The so-called “intervention” in 2007 was one of the most devastating setbacks suffered by Aboriginal people. Do non-indigenous Australians understand the pain and trauma this cynical action by the Howard government caused? I doubt it. The national smearing and humiliation, the lies and consequent tragedies – the increase in suicides, for example – rank with the worst official behaviour towards the first people of Australia.
Utopia is one of the most urgent films I have made. That Australian governments believe they can manipulate and discriminate against Aboriginal communities in a manner that has been described in the UN as “permissively racist” is astonishing in the 21century. How ironic that as Nelson Mandela was buried and venerated, another form of the system he fought against was alive and well in Australia.
Q: You return to many areas you've visited previously and interview a number of people – like the activist Arthur Murray – who you've spoken to over the decades. What changes did you observe in these individuals and locations? What has remained the same?
A: Arthur died not long after I had filmed him. He was much more than an “activist”. He was the embodiment of a civil rights and justice movement different only in scale from that of Mandela’s in South Africa and Martin Luther King’s in the US. That those like Arthur Murray are not national names in Australia is indicative of our suppressed history. The historian Henry Reynolds’ new book, Forgotten War, should sit alongside the tourist guides to Australia and be on the curriculum of every school across the country.
The Aboriginal resistance was longer and bloodier than the frontier wars in the US and New Zealand, but the Australian public knows virtually nothing about them. Moreover, the “history wars” were all about suppressing this truth of the past and its legacy today – a people dispossessed in their own country and denied fundamental rights, having never ceded their land to the invader: indeed the only Indigenous people in a territory colonised by the British repeatedly denied a treaty.
Shortly before he died I put your question to Arthur Murray: “What has changed?” He replied: “A few things have happened. A lot of people have studied us and written up a lot reports about us. Some Aboriginal people have taken back their pride and dignity and some have been welcomed into white society as long as they never rocked the boat. I don’t suppose we can be shot in broad daylight now – but that still goes on. There are other ways to attack us now – destroying us from inside. Ask any Aboriginal person in any country town in Australia; they’ll tell you how it’s done, it’s always shocking.”
Q: As with much of your work the use of direct juxtaposition features heavily throughout the film. I found this most stark during the trip to Rottnest Island, where tourists often visit without being fully informed of its brutal history. I wonder if finding that sort of moment, where the essence of the story is so readily obvious to the viewer, is perhaps easiest when making a film on Indigenous Australia?
A: Professor Jon Altman describes the two Australias in Utopia: that of those who conform to a material and ideological doctrine and those who are “different” and are effectively declared outcasts. In that sense Australia reflects the social and economic apartheid that splits much of humanity. The difference is that Indigenous Australians are so few in number and, as Shalil Shetty, the head of Amnesty International, says in the film, the inequity and injustice could be fixed if the will to do so was there.
Q: The film includes interviews with a number of high-profile Australian politicians including Kevin Rudd, who is fairly candid about the nature and effect of the apology he offered Indigenous Australia in 2008. What sort of reaction has the film had in Canberra? Has Rudd or any of the other politicians interviewed watched the film?
A: I don’t know.
Q: There's a particularly forthright interview with Warren Snowdon, previously minister for Indigenous health, where you confront him with a case study of one man, Mr Davy, who died aged 47 of a heart attack during your filming of Utopia. You accuse him of not doing enough while in office and, during this exchange, you and Snowdon appear visibly angry with one another. Can you describe the filming process during the interview?
A: Warren Snowdon was telling me how “proud” he was of what the Australian government, of which he was the minister for Indigenous health, had done in Aboriginal communities. The only point in interviewing a politician who makes this claim is to challenge him with evidence. Clearly, the word “proud” has become a kind of on-message jargon in Canberra; almost every politician I interviewed said they were “proud” of what they had done for Aboriginal people. I sometimes feel, during interviews like the one with Snowdon, not anger but a sense of the surreal – as if the absurd is being offered up as rational explanation.
Q: There's been much discussion about the timing of the release of Utopia – it was screened in the UK first. Is the film intended for an Australian audience or an international one? I ask also because there are many cases and examples from history that you'd expect most Australians to be aware of already.
A: Utopia is intended for both an Australian audience and an international audience. Some Australians can pretend they “already know all this”, but they usually don’t know or have no interest, or they prefer to remain wilfully ignorant or indifferent. Certainly, that’s the view of Indigenous people whose communities I have been visiting for more than thirty years. A friend of mine, a Scottish film director with a great deal of experience in Australia, was shooting a film about Indigenous communities in Western Australia. Wherever he filmed, he asked non-Indigenous people what they knew about the Indigenous past and Indigenous culture. He told me, “I quickly realised I had learned more about the original people of Australia in my small school in the Scottish Highlands than these Australians had been taught, or wanted to find out. They knew next to nothing. Amazing.”
Q: There's a lot of discussion in Australia about who should be able to tell Indigenous stories. Do you have a position in this debate? What efforts did you make to include Indigenous Australians in the production of Utopia?
A: Indigenous people have a right to determine their culture and this should not be usurped, used and translated by non-Indigenous people unless invited. Reporting their situation is different and consultation is vital. Utopia is the sum of many Indigenous views, consultations, permissions, approvals and respect.
Of course, there is not a single “Indigenous view” and it’s patronising of white people to suggest there is – as if there is a single “white view”. When the distinguished Elder Rosalie Kunoth Months, who appears in Utopia, saw the film, she said, “It’s everything we knew was happening, but we didn’t know how to put it out there. We are more determined than ever to fight.”
Q: There's also much discussion in Australia about promoting Indigenous excellence. Given there have been relative strides in Indigenous excellence in recent years, the number of university applications from Indigenous Australians rising, for example, do you think the film does enough to promote excellence and highlight some of the successes within Indigenous Australia?
A: Is there really “much discussion in Australia” about promoting Aboriginal excellence? Certainly not in the communities I have seen. The “successful” people you are referring to are notable because they are exceptions. There is indeed good work done with Indigenous graduates at, for example, Shenton House at the University of Western Australia. In the same state, the Indigenous artist Peggy Patrick was rewarded for her “excellence” with an Order of Australia – and went straight back to her homelessness and ill health.
You ask if Utopia does enough to promote Indigenous excellence? Almost every Indigenous person who appears in the film is a shining example of true excellence – courageous truth-tellers like Noel Nannup, a teacher, and Bob Randall, a film-maker, and Patricia Morton Thomas, an actor and film producer, and Rosalie Kunoth Monks, leader and historian, and Arthur Murray, and Robert and Selina Eggington, whose healing centre is the epitome of excellence. These people of course don’t fit the western notion of individualised, often money-based “success” because each dissents from the system imposed on them. But excellent they are in every way.
Q: Tony Abbott has made much of being a prime minister for Indigenous Australians – he's been a huge backer of the Recognise campaign – but has also cut Indigenous legal aid at the same time. What do you make of Abbott and his commitment to Indigenous Australia?
A: Gestures like Recognise are familiar, empty rhetoric unless backed by true consultation with all Indigenous people and evidence-based public policy. Abbott has made much of his engagement with issues regarding Indigenous people and his boastful, personal interest is deceptive. His “volunteering” in Cape York, for example, was paid for with public funds, as was recently revealed. As the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) cuts demonstrate, he has no interest in funding public programmes that might truly change indigenous lives for the better.
Also, prior to the election, Abbott’s director of policy, Dr Mark Roberts, made a throat-cutting gesture to the director of an indigenous education foundation. When this was seen and reported, Abbott “demoted” Roberts. But Abbott’s cuts to the ALS show Roberts was right.
Personally, I thought Abbott’s true attitude to Indigenous people, and that of many of his colleagues, was summed up when the UN special rapporteur, professor James Anaya, visited Australia in 2009 and was shocked at what he saw. Abbott, then the shadow minister for Indigenous health, told Anaya to “get a life” and stop listening to the “victim brigade”.
Those Abbott called “the victim brigade” include Australian children who go blind and deaf eventually from entirely preventable diseases.
This interview was first published in the Guardian, Australia - http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/08/john-pilger-utopia-is-one-of-the-most-urgent-films-i-have-made
The public response to the broadcast of Utopia on the ITV Network has been widespread across the UK. Many people have asked what they can do to support Aboriginal people in their struggle for justice.
I recommend that people write to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, calling on him to start, without delay, negotiations for a fully constituted Treaty between the Commonwealth of Australia and all the First Nations of Australia. This would included long overdue restitution and universal land rights.
The Hon. Tony Abbott, MP
CANBERRA ACT 2600
I suggest you copy your message to the Australian press.
In the late 1960s, I was given an usual assignment by the London Daily Mirror's editor in chief, Hugh Cudlipp. I was to return to my homeland, Australia, and "discover what lies behind the sunny face". The Mirror had been an indefatigable campaigner against apartheid in South Africa, where I had reported from behind the "sunny face". As an Australian, I had been welcomed into this bastion of white supremacy. "We admire you Aussies," people would say. "You know how to deal with your blacks."
I was offended, of course, but I also knew that only the Indian Ocean separated the racial attitudes of the two colonial nations. What I was not aware of was how the similarity caused such suffering among the original people of my own country. Growing up, my school books had made clear, to quote one historian: "We are civilised, and they are not". I remember how a few talented Aboriginal Rugby League players were allowed their glory as long as they never mentioned their people. Eddie Gilbert, the great Aboriginal cricketer, the man who bowled Don Bradman for a duck, was to be prevented from playing again. That was not untypical.
In 1969, I flew to Alice Springs in the red heart of Australia and met Charlie Perkins. At a time when Aboriginal people were not even counted in the census - unlike the sheep - Charlie was only the second Aborigine to get a university degree. He had made good use of this distinction by leading "freedom rides" into racially segregated towns in the outback of New South Wales. He got the idea from the freedom riders who went into the Deep South of the United States.
We hired an old Ford, picked up Charlie's mother Hetti, an elder of the Aranda people, and headed for what Charlie described as "hell". This was Jay Creek, a "native reserve", where hundreds of Aboriginal people were corralled in conditions I had seen in Africa and India. One outside tap trickled brown; there was no sanitation; the food, or "rations", was starch and sugar. The children had stick-thin legs and the distended bellies of malnutrition.
What struck me was the number of grieving mothers and grandmothers - bereft at the theft of children by the police and "welfare" authorities who, for years, had taken away those infants with lighter skin. The policy was "assimilation". Today, this has changed only in name and rationale.
The boys would end up working on white-run farms, the girls as servants in middle-class homes. This was undeclared slave labour. They were known as the Stolen Generation. Hetti Perkins told me that when Charlie was an infant she had kept him tied to her back, and would hide whenever she heard the hoofs of the police horses. "They didn't get him," she said, with pride.
In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for this crime against humanity. Older Aboriginal people were grateful; they believed that Australia's first people - the most enduring human presence on earth - might finally receive the justice and recognition they had been denied for 220 years.
What few of them heard was the postscript to Rudd's apology. "I want to be blunt about this," he said. "There will be no compensation." That 100,000 people deeply wronged and scarred by vicious racism - the product of a form of the eugenics movement with its links to fascism - would be given no opportunity to materially restore their lives was shocking, though not surprising. Most governments in Canberra, conservative or Labor, have insinuated that the First Australians are to blame for their suffering and poverty.
When the Labor government in the 1980s promised "full restitution" and land rights, the powerful mining lobby went on the attack, spending millions campaigning on the theme that "the blacks" would "take over your beaches and barbies". The government capitulated, even though the lie was farcical; Aboriginal people comprise barely three per cent of the Australian population.
Today, Aboriginal children are again being stolen from their families. The bureaucratic words are "removed" for "child protection". By July 2012, there were 13,299 Aboriginal children in institutions or handed over to white families. Today, the theft of these children is now higher than at any time during the last century. I have interviewed numerous specialists in child care who regard this as a second stolen generation. "Many of the kids never see their mothers and communities again," Olga Havnen, the author of a report for the Northern Territory government, told me. "In the Northern Territory, $80 million was spent on surveillance and removing kids, and less than $500,000 on supporting these impoverished families. Families are often given no warning and have no idea where their children are being taken. The reason given is neglect - which means poverty. This is destroying Aboriginal culture and is racist. If apartheid South Africa had done this, there would have been an uproar."
In the town of Wilcannia, New South Wales, the life expectancy of Aborigines is 37 - lower than the Central African Republic, perhaps the poorest country on earth, currently racked by civil war. Wilcannia's other distinction is that the Cuban government runs a literacy programme there, teaching young Aboriginal children to read and write. This is what the Cubans are famous for - in the world's poorest countries. Australia is one of the world's richest countries.
I filmed similar conditions 28 years ago when I made my first film about indigenous Australia, The Secret Country. Vince Forrester, an Aboriginal elder I interviewed then, appears in my new film, Utopia. He guided me through a house in Mutitjulu where 32 people lived, mostly children, many of them suffering from otitis media, an infectious, entirely preventable disease that impairs hearing and speech. "Seventy per cent of the children in this house are partially deaf," he said. Turning straight to my camera, he said, "Australians, this is what we call an abuse of human rights."
The majority of Australians are rarely confronted with their nation's dirtiest secret. In 2009, the respected United Nations Special Rapporteur, Professor James Anaya, witnessed similar conditions and described government "intervention" policies as racist. The then Minister for Indigenous Health, Tony Abbott, told him to "get a life" and stop listening to "the victim brigade". Abbott is now the prime minister of Australia.
In Western Australia, minerals are being dug up from Aboriginal land and shipped to China for a profit of a billion dollars a week. In this, the richest, "booming" state, the prisons bulge with stricken Aboriginal people, including juveniles whose mothers stand at the prison gates, pleading for their release. The incarceration of black Australians here is eight times that of black South Africans during the last decade of apartheid.
When Nelson Mandela was buried this week, his struggle against apartheid was duly celebrated in Australia, though the irony was missing. Apartheid was defeated largely by a global campaign from which the South African regime never recovered. Similar opprobrium has seldom found its mark in Australia, principally because the Aboriginal population is so small and Australian governments have been successful in dividing and co-opting a disparate leadership with gestures and vacuous promises. That may well be changing. A resistance is growing, yet again, in the Aboriginal heartland, especially among the young. Unlike the US, Canada and New Zealand, which have made treaties with their first people, Australia has offered gestures often wrapped in the law. However, in the 21st century the outside world is starting to pay attention. The specter of Mandela's South Africa is a warning.
This article first appeared in the London Daily Mirror.
On 18 November, Picturehouse Cinemas will stage an extraordinary event. My film, UTOPIA, will be beamed by satellite from The Ritzy in Brixton, South London, to more than 20 cinemas across the country.
UTOPIA has been more than two years in the making. It is my fourth film about indigenous Australia, in my homeland.
More than any other colonial society, Australia consigns its secrets, past and present, to an almost wilful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts often dismissed the most enduring human entity on Earth: the indigenous first Australians. “It was quite useless to treat them fairly,” wrote the historian Stephen Roberts, “since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.” His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: “We are civilised today and they are not.”
That Australia has since changed is not disputed. To measure this change, a visit to Western Australia is essential. The vast, richest state is home to the world’s biggest ‘resources’ boom: iron ore, gold, nickel, oil, petroleum, gas. Profits are in the multiple billions. When Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to impose a modest tax, he was overthrown by his own party following a $22 million propaganda campaign by the mining companies, whose friends in the media uphold the world’s first Murdocracy. At airports, visitors are greeted by banners with smiling Aboriginal faces in hard hats, promoting the plunderers of their land. “This is our story,” says the slogan. It isn’t.
Barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited Aboriginal communities, whose poverty is an enduring shock. In Roeburne, in the mineral-rich Pilbara, 80% of the children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media that causes partial deafness. Or they go blind from preventable trachoma. Or they contract Dickensian infections. That is their story.
The Nyoongar people have lived around what is now Perth for many thousands of years. Incredibly, they survive. Noel Nannup, a Nyoongar elder, and Marianne McKay, a Nyoongar activist, accompanied me to Rottnest Island, which is described in brochures as “a favourite tourist destination”. Locals call it Rotto.
Noel Nannup’s protective presence was important to Marianne. Unlike the jolly tourists heading for Rotto, they spent days “preparing for the pain”. “All our families remember what was done,” said Noel.
What was done was the torture, humiliation and murder of the First Australians. Wrenched from their communities in an insidious genocide that divided and emasculated the indigenous nations, shackled men and boys as young as eight endured the perilous nine-hour journey in an open longboat. Cold, sick and terrified prisoners were jammed into a windowless ‘holding cell’ like an oversized kennel.
In the prison known as the Quod, as many as 167 Aboriginal prisoners were locked in 28 tiny cells. This lasted well into the 20th century. I booked a room there. The prison is now called Rottnest Lodge. It has a spa, and there are double bunks for children: family fun. The window looked out on where a gallows had stood, where tourists now sunbathed. None had a clue.
Rotto is not the past. On 28 March, Richard Harding, formerly Inspector of Custodial Services, declared Western Australia a ‘State of Imprisonment’. During the boom, Aboriginal incarceration has more than doubled. Interned in often rat-infested cells, almost 60% of the state’s young prisoners are Aboriginal – out of 2.5% of the population. While their mothers hold vigils outside, Aboriginal children are held in solitary confinement in an adult jail. A former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me the state was now “racking and stacking” black Australians. Their rate of incarceration is five times that of apartheid South Africa.
And yet the most remarkable feature of the ‘secret’ story of Aboriginal people is their resistance. UTOPIAdescribes a forgotten history of a people who have stood against the might of invaders and the cultural and social invasions that followed. The ballad I chose for the film is the haunting No More Whispering by the indigenous singer Glen Skuthorpe. That is the aim and spirit of this film.
The corridors of the Australian parliament are so white you squint. The sound is hushed; the smell is floor polish. The wooden floors shine so virtuously they reflect the cartoon portraits of prime ministers and rows of Aboriginal paintings, suspended on white walls, their blood and tears invisible.
The parliament stands in Barton, a suburb of Canberra named after the first prime minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, who drew up the White Australia Policy in 1901. "The doctrine of the equality of man," said Barton, "was never intended to apply" to those not British and white-skinned.
Barton's concern was the Chinese, known as the Yellow Peril; he made no mention of the oldest, most enduring human presence on earth: the first Australians. They did not exist. Their sophisticated care of a harsh land was of no interest. Their epic resistance did not happen. Of those who fought the British invaders of Australia, the Sydney Monitor reported in 1838: "It was resolved to exterminate the whole race of blacks in that quarter." Today, the survivors are a shaming national secret.
The town of Wilcannia, in New South Wales, is twice distinguished. It is a winner of a national Tidy Town award and its indigenous people have one of the lowest recorded life expectancies. They are usually dead by the age of 35. The Cuban government runs a literacy programme for them, as they do among the poorest of Africa. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, Australia is the richest place on earth.
Politicians in Canberra are among the wealthiest citizens. Their self-endowment is legendary. Last year, the then minister for indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, refurbished her office at a cost to the taxpayer of $331,144.
Macklin recently claimed that, in government, she had made a "huge difference". This is true. During her tenure, the number of Aboriginal people living in slums increased by almost a third, and more than half the money spent on indigenous housing was pocketed by white contractors and a bureaucracy for which she was largely responsible. A typical, dilapidated house in an outback indigenous community must accommodate as many as 25 people. Families, the elderly and the disabled wait years for sanitation that works.
In 2009, Professor James Anaya, the respected UN Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, described as racist a "state of emergency" that stripped indigenous communities of their tenuous rights and services on the pretext that pedophile gangs were present in "unthinkable" numbers - a claim dismissed as false by police and the Australian Crime Commission.
The then opposition spokesman on indigenous affairs, Tony Abbott, told Anaya to "get a life" and not "just listen to the old victim brigade." Abbott is now the prime minister of Australia.
I drove into the red heart of central Australia and asked Dr. Janelle Trees about the "old victim brigade". A GP whose indigenous patients live within a few miles of $1,000-a-night resorts serving Uluru (Ayers Rock), she said, "There is asbestos in 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? Malnutrition is common. I wanted to give a patient an anti-inflammatory for an infection that would have been preventable if living conditions were better, but I couldn't treat her because she didn't have enough food to eat and couldn't ingest the tablets. I feel sometimes as if I'm dealing with similar conditions as the English working class at the beginning of the industrial revolution."
In Canberra, in ministerial offices displaying yet more first-nation art, I was told repeatedly how "proud" politicians were of what "we have done for indigenous Australians". When I asked Warren Snowdon - the minister for indigenous health in the Labor government recently replaced by Abbott's conservative coalition - why after almost a quarter of a century representing the poorest, sickest Australians, he had not come up with a solution, he said, "What a stupid question. What a puerile question."
At the end of Anzac Parade in Canberra rises the Australian National War Memorial, which historian Henry Reynolds calls "the sacred centre of white nationalism". I was refused permission to film in this great public place. I had made the mistake of expressing an interest in the frontier wars in which black Australians fought the British invasion without guns but with ingenuity and courage - the epitome of the "Anzac tradition". Yet, in a country littered with cenotaphs not one officially commemorates those who fell resisting "one of the greatest appropriations of land in world history", wrote Reynolds in his landmark book Forgotten War. More first Australians were killed than Native Americans on the American frontier and Maoris in New Zealand. The state of Queensland was a slaughterhouse. An entire people became prisoners of war in their own country, with settlers calling for their extinction. The cattle industry prospered using indigenous men virtually as slave labour. The mining industry today makes profits of a billion dollars a week on indigenous land.
Suppressing these truths, while venerating Australia's servile role in the colonial wars of Britain and the US, has almost cult status in Canberra today. Reynolds and the few who question it have been smeared with abuse. Australia's unique first people are its Intermenschen. As you enter the National War Memorial, indigenous faces are depicted as stone gargoyles alongside kangaroos, reptiles, birds and other "native wildlife".
When I began filming this secret Australia 30 years ago, a global campaign was under way to end apartheid in South Africa. Having reported from South Africa, I was struck by the similarity of white supremacy and the compliance and defensiveness of liberals. Yet no international opprobrium, no boycotts, disturbed the surface of "lucky" Australia. Watch security guards expel Aboriginal people from shopping malls in Alice Springs; drive the short distance from the suburban barbies of Cromwell Terrace to Whitegate camp, where the tin shacks have no reliable power and water. This is apartheid, or what Reynolds calls, "the whispering in our hearts".
John Pilger's film, Utopia, about Australia, is released in cinemas on 15 November and broadcast on ITV in December. It is released in Australia in January.
Follow John Pilger on twitter @johnpilger
Originally published in The Guardian, 29 July 2013
From Aborigines to refugees, bashing the vulnerable wins votes in what is still a crudely racist country
Sonya Koppe, Australia's acting high commissioner to Sri Lanka, looks on at a press conference in Colombo on 26 July about new measures to deter refugees, Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images
The election campaign in Australia is being fought with the lives of men, women and children. Some drown, others are banished without hope to malarial camps. Children are incarcerated behind razor wire in conditions described as "a huge generator of mental illness". This barbarism is considered a vote-winner by both the Australian government and opposition. Reminiscent of the closing of borders to Jews in the 1930s, it is smashing the facade of a society advertised as benign and lucky.
If a thousand Australians drowned in sinking boats in Sydney harbour, it would be a national tragedy. The prime minister would lead the nation in mourning; the world would offer condolences. By one measure, 1,376refugees have drowned trying to reach Australia since 1998, many within range of rescue.
The policy in Canberra, known as "stop the boats", evokes the hysteria and cynicism of more than a century ago when the "yellow peril" was said to be about to fall down on Australia as if by the force of gravity. Last week the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, reached back to this era when he declared that no refugees in boats would be permitted to land in Australia. Instead, they are to be sent to concentration camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea, whose government has been suitably bribed.
Among them are people fleeing wars and their aftermath, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, for which Australia and its US mentor bear responsibility. Those who survive are made prisoners in a harsh gulag on the most isolated islands on earth. Women and children sent to equatorial Manus Island have had to be evacuated because of mosquito-infested conditions. Now Manus is to receive 3,000 more refugees who, denied legal rights, may spend years there. A former security guard on the island said: "[It's] worse than a prison actually … Words can't really describe … I have never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless and so hopeless … In Australia, the facility couldn't serve as a dog kennel. Its owners would be jailed."
Australia is a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention. Rudd's cowboy actions are not only lawless but weaken international refugee law and the human rights movements that buttress it. In 1992 the Labor government of Paul Keating was the first to impose illegal mandatory detention of refugees, including children. Since then, governments have waged a propaganda war on refugees, in alliance with a media dominated by Rupert Murdoch. Vast, sparsely populated Australia demands "protection" from refugees and asylum seekers of whom fewer than 15,000 were settled last year – 0.99% of the world's total.
The punitive, racist nature of the policy allows the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to "assess" people in secret and detain them indefinitely – such as Tamils fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. They often have no idea why they are imprisoned, and have included children.
Clearly, Rudd hopes to be re-elected on this "fear card". British politicians play a similar game; but in Australia race is all but genetically inscribed, as in apartheid South Africa. The federation of the Australian states in 1901 was founded on racial exclusion and a dread of non-existent "hordes" from as far away as Russia. A 1940s policy of "populate or perish" produced a vibrant multiculturalism – yet a crude, often unconscious racism remains an extraordinary current in Australian society and is exploited by a political elite with an enduring colonial mentality and obsequiousness to western "interests".
Rudd's banishment of refugees who come by sea is designed to wrong-foot his opponent: the Coalition leader, Tony Abbott, a Catholic fundamentalist. Labor restored Rudd to the leadership last month because Julia Gillard's unpopularity threatened to destroy the party at the polls and, with it, Australia's Westminster-style club of two major parties with mostly indistinguishable policies.
Rudd's move was nothing new – bashing the vulnerable is said to win votes in Australia, whether they are refugees or Aborigines. His predecessor John Howard bashed both. Shortly before the 2001 election Howard claimed that people on a stricken boat had thrown their children into the sea, and could not possibly be "genuine refugees". Later it was revealed the "children overboard" story was a fabrication.
Two weeks before the next election, in 2007, Howard declared a state of emergency in the Northern Territory and sent the army into impoverished indigenous communities where, his minister Mal Brough claimed, paedophile gangs were abusing children in "unthinkable numbers". The Australian Crime Commission, the Northern Territory police and medical specialists who examined 11,000 children found hisallegations to be false.
Although Howard failed to win this election, his vicious campaign of smear and dispossession – he demanded Aboriginal people hand over the leasehold of their land – succeeded in devastating whole communities that have yet to recover. A government review of what became known as the "intervention" found a "collective despair" among black Australians. The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association reported widespread hunger and starvation. Self-harm and attempted suicide quadrupled.
As opposition leader at the time, Rudd gave Howard full support. Later, as prime minister, he made an emotional public apology to the tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians wrenched from the families during the 20th century, known as the stolen generation. Quietly, Rudd refused the victims compensation of any kind. Had they been white, he would not have dared. When I asked him why, he replied: "These questions should be dealt with over time." With a life expectancy among the lowest in the world, the victims have no time.
Labor has since allowed the assimiliationist cruelties for which Rudd apologised. In a one-year period to June last year, 13,299 impoverished Aboriginal children were taken from their families, more than in the infamous years of the stolen generation. They include babies seized from birth tables. "We believe another stolen generation is well and truly under way," Josey Crawshaw, director of a respected Darwin-based child support organisation, told me. "They are plucked from their communities often without explanation or any plan to return them, and are given to whites. This is social engineering in its most radical sense. It's horrific." For Aborigines and refugees, the irony is self-evident. Only Aboriginal people are true Australians. The rest of us – beginning with Captain Cook – are boat people.
Utopia, John Pilger's film on Australia, will be released in the autumn