Australia is a land of excuses, not the land of the 'fair go'

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

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For more information about the films and journalism of John Pilger, visit www.johnpilger.com