Happy New Year to all Australians – because we will need it
by Stephen Hagan 1 January 2014
et’s hope 2013 was the ‘annus horribilis’ we had to have and that 2014 – back to the even numbers again – will serve the nation well, especially its most marginalized; our mob. Despondently, after viewing John Pilger’s latest documentary Utopia a couple of nights ago, I’m not so sure the government has the talent within its ministry or the benevolence of its members to effect meaningful change that will make life easier for our mob who are desperately in need of respite. If Tony Abbott, Nigel Scullion and the Warren Mundine led Indigenous Advisory Council believe they have the social policy template to improve the living standards of Indigenous Australians, I would recommend they don’t see Utopia when it’s released in selected cinemas around the nation from 17 January. If they all sat down to a private viewing together they’d conclude they’d have no alternative but to tear up the paper their grand plan is written on and start from scratch, such is its authoritative condescension of the history of the Coalition government’s social policy credibility. In classic Pilger audaciousness of his 110-minute hard hitting political documentary - a follow up to his 1985 Secret Country documentary featuring the First Australians’ squalid and luckless life in the lucky country – he says it details “the denigration of their humanity”. And 28 years on since his last documentary he adds, “in essence, very little has changed”. Pilger accentuated many irrefutable facts, of the abject poverty our mob endure daily
through flagrant political racism, that to an international audience would be beyond belief if not for the graphic visuals rendering the implausible believable. By focusing on the fact that the number of Aboriginal children placed in out-of-home care had risen five-fold from 2,785 in mid-1997 to 13,299 in mid-2012 gives cause for serious alarm. It’s almost as if the stolen generation is back in vogue for state and federal governments of all political persuasions in their dealings with a perceived problem of their creation. To add credibility to the notion of a stolen generation-like scenario being replayed in our lifetime, Pilger highlighted the fact that the Northern Territory government had spent $80 million in one year spying on, and removing Aboriginal children from their mothers, but just $500,000 supporting those destitute mothers in very challenging times. The graphic images of an Aboriginal youth being subjected to prolonged tasering in custody at the hands of police whilst calling out “I want my mummy” to which the
police said “shut up or I’ll light you up again” is the most monstrous act you’ll ever likely see from an officer of the law on the big or small screen. Interviews with the WA government minister in charge of the Mr Ward death-in-custody case – who thought of resigning over the case, but introduced cultural awareness training for her staff instead as a sign of her guilt – as well as the interview with Mal Brough for introducing the NT Intervention – knowingly promoting the need for such an act of parliament to pass on the back of a series of repulsive lies - when he was Indigenous affairs minister under John Howard, have got to be seen to be believed. I congratulate the 73-year-old documentary maker for daring to shame Australians all over again through telling the truth about the real life of the luckless First Australians in the lucky country. And in so doing dispelling the myths conveniently created in the minds of the vast majority of mainstream Australians who would
prefer that those out-of-sight-outof-mind secrets remain hidden from them and the rest of the world. Those thoughts are best reflected in an interview Pilger did with a white tour guide at the Australian War Memorial when he asked why the frontier wars aren’t commemorated in Canberra. “Maybe we’re not overly proud of that history,” came the uncomfortable response of the tour guide as he hurried back to his group who were admiring the plethora of physical commemorative structures honoring war heroes inside the imposing building. So what can be done to make life a little less arduous and life threatening for our mob in 2014? In reality there are only two bodies of peoples who can effect political change for our mob in a practical sense, besides mass protests of discontent through the changing tide of public opinion. The first and most influential group is the Prime Minister’s
Indigenous Advisory Council that includes Warren Mundine, Richard Ah Mat, Leah Armstrong, Dr Ngiare Brown, Josephine Cashman, Gail Kelly, Djambawa Marawili, Bruce Martin, David Peaver, Andrew Penfold, Peter Shergold and Daniel Tucker. I’m aware of the cumulative skill set of this advisory body and don’t doubt their capacity to come up with a plan they believe will result in practical and positive changes for the living standards of our mob. Their expressed focus on improving education and employment outcomes is not a sweeping shift in the thinking of most experts who’ve designed social policy in the past – but it’s a positive logical start. Only time will tell whether their strategy, along with their devotion and application to realizing their goals, reaches fruition. I’ve already mentioned in a previous editorial that I’m a fan of the great work Andrew Penfold does with Indigenous education through his Australian Indigenous
John Pilger with Elders in the film Utopia.
Education Foundation and I only hope that he will take his vision to the Indigenous Advisory Council table and be assertive in applying his best practice model. I doubt Andrew will be intimidated by Abbott or Scullion or their public servants and will remain steadfast in his resolve to see positive outcomes achieved. I would also implore other Indigenous and non-Indigenous representatives on the council to make public their feelings on the positive aspects of their collaborative work in policy formulation and be brave enough to speak out against any adverse shift in focus by public servants tasked with its implementation. They should also speak up and/or resign if the direction of their council’s focus changes to their detriment at the direction of the Prime Minister or Minister. To sit compliantly silent whilst their PM and Minister makes savage cuts to Indigenous programs – many of which have already
transpired - will ensure it leaves them with an unenviable stigma they’ll have to carry with them well after their term on the council has expired. The other body who could hold sway on improving the lot of our mob is the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples whose directors consist of co-Chairs Kirstie Parker and Les Malezer, Venessa Curnow, Rod Little, Gerry Moore, Tammy Solonec and Daphne Yarram. I’ve been one of the National Congress’ biggest critics, principally because of their silence over their culling process of respected Indigenous leaders by an anonymous integrity team. And also because I don’t believe they are truly democratic. Despite my aversion of most things National Congress, I honestly believe they can rebrand their image and become more relevant to our mob with a couple of changes. I make these observations not because I wish to ensure the longevity of their current Directors – whose financial support by the Abbott government expires in July – but because I believe Indigenous Australia needs a legitimate voice to keep Abbott and Mundine honest. The changes I think could work in the rebranding of the National Congress includes: 1/ Dropping the integrity audit nonsense and open up membership to all Indigenous Australians; and 2/ Endorsing and funding a national forum – similar to the one held to set up the National Congress in Adelaide all those years ago – and follow a similar plan. i.e. invite 100 representatives, with gender equity and a balance of youth and Elders, with 10 representatives each coming from the areas of education, health, law, housing, native title, sovereignty, arts, sports, business and employment. By going on the offensive with a national forum, the National
Above and below: Pilger’s Utopia images
Congress will go from being irrelevant and tired to a body with a plan worthy of populace consideration. With the start of the New Year this new approach of bringing the mob together – in a capital city of their choosing and representatives selected at their discretion and on merit - will take the attention away from Abbott and Mundine who have been dominating all media commentary on Indigenous affairs. A drastic approach of rebranding National Congress and of them setting the Indigenous affairs agenda for 2014 by funding a national forum in the first quarter could even result in a new approach of co-operative endeavors at
sourcing new monies – nationally and internationally on the back of their new mandate – to keep them going past July this year. Should the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council step up to the plate and show a bit of backbone on ensuring our interest is foremost in their minds in meetings with Abbott and Scullion and the National Congress hosts a national forum as a radical new approach at rebranding themselves, then we might start to believe change is possible. Only time will tell! Happy New Year to all our readers from the team at First Nations Telegraph.