has again declared war on its Indigenous people, reminiscent of the brutality
that brought universal condemnation on apartheid South Africa. Aboriginal people are to be driven from
homelands where their communities have lived for thousands of years. In Western
Australia, where mining companies make billion dollar profits exploiting
Aboriginal land, the state government says it can no longer afford to "support"
Vulnerable populations, already denied the basic services
most Australians take for granted, are on notice of dispossession without
consultation, and eviction at gunpoint. Yet again, Aboriginal leaders have
warned of "a new generation of displaced people" and "cultural genocide."
is a word Australians hate to hear. Genocide happens in other countries, not the
"lucky" society that per capita is the second richest on earth. When "act of
genocide" was used in the 1997 landmark report Bringing Them Home, which revealed that
thousands of Indigenous children had been stolen from their communities by white
institutions and systematically abused, a campaign of denial was launched by a
far-right clique around the then prime minister John Howard. It included those
who called themselves the Galatians Group, then Quadrant, then the Bennelong
Society; the Murdoch press was their voice.
Stolen Generation was exaggerated, they said, if it had happened at all.
Colonial Australia was a benign place; there were no massacres. The First
Australians were victims of their own cultural inferiority, or they were noble
savages. Suitable euphemisms were deployed.
government of the current prime minister, Tony Abbott, a conservative zealot,
has revived this assault on a people who represent Australia's singular
uniqueness. Soon after coming to office, Abbott's government cut $534 million in
indigenous social programs, including $160 million from the indigenous health
budget and $13.4 million from indigenous legal aid.
2014 report Overcoming Indigenous
Disadvantage Key Indicators, the devastation is clear. The number of
Aboriginal people hospitalized for self-harm has leapt, as have suicides among
those as young as 11. The indicators show a people impoverished, traumatized
and abandoned. Read the classic expose of apartheid South Africa, The Discarded People by Cosmas Desmond,
who told me he could write a similar account of Australia.
insulted indigenous Australians by declaring (at a G20 breakfast for David
Cameron) that there was "nothing but bush" before the white man, Abbott
announced that his government would no longer honor the longstanding commitment
to Aboriginal homelands. He sneered, "It's not the job of the taxpayers to
subsidize lifestyle choices."
weapon used by Abbott and his redneck state and territorial counterparts is
dispossession by abuse and propaganda, coercion and blackmail, such as his
demand for a 99-year leasehold of Indigenous land in the Northern Territory in
return for basic services: a land grab in all but name. The Minister for
Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, refutes this, claiming "this is about
communities and what communities want." In fact, there has been no real
consultation, only the co-option of a few.
conservative and Labor governments have already withdrawn the national jobs
program, CDEP, from the homelands, ending opportunities for employment, and
prohibited investment in infrastructure: housing, generators, sanitation. The
saving is peanuts.
reason is an extreme doctrine that evokes the punitive campaigns of the early
20th century "chief protector of Aborigines," such as the fanatic A.O. Neville
who decreed that the first Australians "assimilate" to extinction. Influenced by
the same eugenics movement that inspired the Nazis, Queensland's "protection
acts" were a model for South African apartheid. Today, the same dogma and racism
are threaded through anthropology, politics, the bureaucracy and the media. "We are civilized, they are not," wrote the
acclaimed Australian historian Russel Ward two generations ago. The spirit is unchanged.
reported on Aboriginal communities since the 1960s, I have watched a seasonal
routine whereby the Australian elite interrupts its "normal" mistreatment and
neglect of the people of the First Nations, and attacks them outright. This
happens when an election approaches, or a prime minister's ratings are low.
Kicking the blackfella is deemed popular, although grabbing minerals-rich land
by stealth serves a more prosaic purpose. Driving people into the fringe slums
of "economic hub towns" satisfies the social engineering urges of
frontal attack was in 2007 when Prime Minister Howard sent the army into
Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to "rescue children" who, said
his minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, were being abused by paedophile
gangs in "unthinkable numbers."
"the intervention," the media played a vital role. In 2006, the national TV
current affairs program, the ABC's Lateline, broadcast a sensational
interview with a man whose face was concealed. Described as a "youth worker" who
had lived in the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu, he made a series of lurid
allegations. Subsequently exposed as a senior government official who reported
directly to the minister, his claims were discredited by the Australian Crime
Commission, the Northern Territory Police and a damning report by child medical
specialists. The community received no apology.
"intervention" allowed the federal government to destroy many of the vestiges of
self-determination in the Northern Territory, the only part of Australia where
Aboriginal people had won federally-legislated land rights. Here, they had
administered their homelands in ways with the dignity of self-determination and
connection to land and culture and, as Amnesty reported, a 40 percent lower
this "traditional life" that is anathema to a parasitic white industry of civil
servants, contractors, lawyers and consultants that controls and often profits
from Aboriginal Australia, if indirectly through the corporate structures
imposed on Indigenous organizations. The homelands are seen as a threat, for
they express a communalism at odds with the neo-conservatism that rules
Australia. It is as if the enduring existence of a people who have survived and
resisted more than two colonial centuries of massacre and theft remains a
spectre on white Australia: a reminder of whose land this really
current political attack was launched in the richest state, Western Australia.
Last October, the state premier, Colin Barnett, announced that his government
could not afford the $90 million budget for basic municipal services to 282
homelands: water, power, sanitation, schools, road maintenance, rubbish
collection. It was the equivalent of informing the white suburbs of Perth that
their lawn sprinklers would no longer sprinkle and their toilets no longer
flush; and they had to move; and if they refused, the police would evict
Where would the dispossessed go? Where would they live?
In six years, Barnett's government has built few houses for Indigenous people in
remote areas. In the Kimberley region, Indigenous homelessness -- aside from
natural disaster and civil strife -- is one of the highest anywhere, in a state
renowned for its conspicuous wealth, golf courses and prisons overflowing with
impoverished black people. Western Australia jails Aboriginal males at more than
eight times the rate of apartheid South Africa. It has one of the highest
incarceration rates of juveniles in the world, almost all of them indigenous,
including children kept in solitary confinement in adult prisons, with their
mothers keeping vigil outside.
the former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me that the state was "racking
and stacking" Aboriginal prisoners. When I asked what she meant, she said, "It's
March, Barnett changed his story. There
was "emerging evidence," he said, "of appalling mistreatment of little kids" in
the homelands. What evidence? Barnett
claimed that gonorrhoea had been found
in children younger than 14, then conceded he did not know if these were in the
homelands. His police commissioner, Karl
O'Callaghan, chimed in that child sexual abuse was "rife." He quoted a
15-year-old study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. What he failed
to say was that the report highlighted poverty as the overwhelming cause of
"neglect" and that sexual abuse accounted for less than 10 percent.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a federal agency, recently released
a report on what it calls the "Fatal Burden" of Third World disease and trauma
borne by Indigenous people "resulting in almost 100,000 years of life lost due
to premature death." This "fatal burden" is the product of extreme poverty
imposed in Western Australia, as in the rest of Australia, by the denial of
Barnett's vast rich Western Australia, barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas
revenue has benefited communities for which his government has a duty of care.
In the town of Roeburne, in the midst of the booming minerals-rich Pilbara, 80
percent of the indigenous children suffer from an ear infection called otitis
media that causes deafness.
the Barnett government displayed a brutality in the community of Oombulgurri the
other homelands can expect. "First, the government closed the services," wrote
Tammy Solonec of Amnesty International, "It closed the shop, so people could not
buy food and essentials. It closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had
to move, and the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having
their children taken away from them. The police station was the last service to
close, then eventually the electricity and water were turned off. Finally, the
ten residents who resolutely stayed to the end were forcibly evicted [leaving
behind] personal possessions. [Then] the bulldozers rolled into Oombulgurri. The
WA government has literally dug a hole and in it buried the rubble of people's
homes and personal belongings."
Australia, the state and federal governments launched a similar attack on the 60
remote Indigenous communities. South Australia has a long-established Aboriginal
Lands Trust, so people were able to defend their rights -- up to a point. On 12
April, the federal government offered $15 million over five years. That such a
miserly sum is considered enough to fund proper services in the great expanse of
the state's homelands is a measure of the value placed on Indigenous lives by
white politicians who unhesitatingly spend $28 billion annually on armaments and
the military. Haydn Bromley, chair of the Aboriginal Lands Trust told me, "The
$15 million doesn't include most of the homelands, and it will only cover bare
essentials -- power, water. Community development? Infrastructure? Forget
current distraction from these national dirty secrets is the approaching
"celebrations" of the centenary of an Edwardian military disaster at Gallipoli
in 1915 when 8,709 Australian and 2,779 New Zealand troops -- the Anzacs -- were
sent to their death in a futile assault on a beach in Turkey. In recent years,
governments in Canberra have promoted this imperial waste of life as an
historical deity to mask the militarism that underpins Australia's role as
America's "deputy sheriff" in the Pacific.
bookshops, "Australian non-fiction" shelves are full of opportunistic tomes
about wartime derring-do, heroes and jingoism. Suddenly, Aboriginal people who
fought for the white man are fashionable, whereas those who fought against the
white man in defence of their own country, Australia, are unfashionable. Indeed,
they are officially non-people. The Australian War Memorial refuses to recognize
their remarkable resistance to the British invasion. In a country littered with
Anzac memorials, not one official memorial stands for the thousands of native
Australians who fought and fell defending their homeland.
part of the "great Australian silence," as W.E.H. Stanner in 1968 called his
lecture in which he described a "cult of forgetfulness on a national scale." He
was referring to the Indigenous people. Today, the silence is ubiquitous. In
Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales currently has an exhibition, The Photograph and Australia, in which
the timeline of this ancient country begins, incredibly, with Captain Cook.
silence covers another enduring, epic resistance. Extraordinary demonstrations
of Indigenous women protesting the removal of their children and grandchildren
by the state, some of them at gunpoint, are ignored by journalists and patronized
by politicians. More Indigenous children
are being wrenched from their homes and communities today than during the worst
years of the Stolen Generation. A record 15,000 are presently detained "in
care"; many are given to white families and will never return to their
year, the West Australian Police Minister, Liza Harvey, attended a screening in
Perth of my film, Utopia, which
documented the racism and thuggery of police towards black Australians, and the
multiple deaths of young Aboriginal men in custody. The minister cried.
watch, 50 City of Perth armed police raided an Indigenous homeless camp at
Matagarup, and drove off mostly elderly women and young mothers with children.
The people in the camp described
themselves as "refugees ... seeking safety in our own country." They called for
the help of the United Nations High Commissioner on
Australian politicians are nervous of the United Nations.
Abbott's response has been abuse. When Professor James Anaya, the UN Special
Rapporteur on Indigenous People, described the racism of the "intervention," Abbott told him to, "get a life" and "not listen to the old victim
The planned closure
of Indigenous homelands breaches Article 5 of the International Convention for
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Australia is committed to "provide
effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for ... any action which has
the aim of dispossessing [Indigenous people] of their lands, territories or
resources." The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is blunt.
"Forced evictions" are against the law.
An international momentum is building. In 2013, Pope Francis
urged the world to act against racism and on behalf of "indigenous people who
are increasingly isolated and abandoned." It was South Africa's defiance of such
a basic principle of human rights that ignited the international opprobrium and
campaign that brought down apartheid. Australia beware.