Now it’s Aus­tralia’s turn to be ac­cused of apartheid in film

Eye

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - COMMENT - WIL­LIAM SAUN­DER­SON–MEYER Jaun­diced

FOR cen­turies, white South Africans bliss­fully mythol­o­gised their his­tory and the ef­fects that their ar­rival on the south­ern tip of Africa had on the in­dige­nous peo­ple.

White Aus­tralians en­gaged in sim­i­larly elab­o­rate myths about con­quest. How­ever, un­like here, whites are a ma­jor­ity in Aus­tralia – their ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the in­di­genes was more cal­cu­lat­edly vi­cious than here – so they have never faced the dras­ti­cally changed po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances that in South Africa com­pelled a mod­icum of in­tro­spec­tion and re-as­sess­ment.

But a doc­u­men­tary film by jour­nal­ist and ac­tivist John Pil­ger might ig­nite a small bush­fire of de­bate in his na­tive Aus­tralia, fol­low­ing its Bri­tish re­lease this week. It opens in Aus­tralia only in Jan­uary, on Aus­tralia Day, which Pil­ger has dubbed “Invasion Day”, and which com­mem­o­rates the 1788 ar­rival of the Bri­tish First Fleet.

Called Utopia, the film deals with the “trail of tears and be­trayal” of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, ar­gu­ing that their marginal­i­sa­tion is part of Aus­tralia’s own per­ni­cious and en­demic strain of apartheid.

Writ­ing in The Guardian, Pil­ger says he had long been struck by Aus­tralia’s sim­i­lar­i­ties with South Africa as re­gards “white supremacy and the com­pli­ance and de­fen­sive- ness of lib­er­als. Yet no in­ter­na­tional op­pro­brium, no boy­cotts, dis­turb the sur­face of ‘lucky’ Aus­tralia”.

More than any other colo­nial so­ci­ety, “Aus­tralia con­signs its dirt­i­est se­crets to wil­ful ig­no­rance or in­dif­fer­ence”. While Aus­tralia is now per capita the rich­est coun­try in the world, Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties live in ab­ject poverty, go­ing deaf and blind from pre­ventable in­fec­tions and “dy­ing of Dick­en­sian dis­eases”, as a re­sult of hav­ing been sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­cluded from the ben­e­fits that min­ing, oil and gas rev­enue have brought the whites.

He quotes a for­mer pris­ons min­is­ter, Mar­garet Quirk, as de­scrib­ing the jus­tice process in some states as be­ing one of “rack­ing and stack­ing” of black Aus­tralians. The Abo­rigi- nal rate of in­car­cer­a­tion is five times higher than it was for black South Africans dur­ing apartheid.

Pil­ger de­scribes the first Aus­tralians as the “old­est, most en­dur­ing” hu­man pres­ence on Earth, yet for white Aus­tralians it was al­ways as if they did not ex­ist. More first Aus­tralians were killed than Na­tive Amer­i­cans on the Amer­i­can fron­tier or Maoris in New Zealand.

“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,” said Pil­ger.

The im­pli­ca­tion is that the ex­ter­mi­na­tion con­tin­ues, al­beit more subtly. “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.”

Pil­ger cites deaths in po­lice cus­tody and high rates of sui­cide. “When I first re­ported on in­dige­nous Aus­tralia a gen­er­a­tion ago, black sui­cide was rare. To­day, the de­spair is so pro­found that the sec­ond [high­est] cause of Abo­rig­i­nal death is sui­cide.”

Pil­ger’s film has al­ready raised some Aus­tralian hack­les. He was re­fused per­mis­sion to film on Can­berra’s An­zac Pa­rade, where the Aus­tralian Na­tional War Me­mo­rial is sited, be­cause “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’.”

And when he ques­tioned War­ren Snow­don, the for­mer min­is­ter for In­dige­nous Health, on why af­ter al­most a quar­ter of a cen­tury rep­re­sent­ing the poor­est, sick­est Aus­tralians, he had not come up with a so­lu­tion, Snow­don snarled “What a stupid ques­tion.”

Such na­tional hypocrisy should surely come at a high price. Dur­ing the apartheid years the Aussies lob­bied en­thu­si­as­ti­cally for SA’s sport­ing iso­la­tion and the boy­cott of our wine and fruit, as a means of bring­ing about po­lit­i­cal change. Time to re­turn the favour, me­thinks.

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