On Thursday 23rd January I was a guest of Robert and Selina Eggington of the Dumbartung Corporation at a preview screening of the film “Utopia” by John Pilger. My thanks go to them and others at the screening for an evening of great understanding and learning.
Utopia is defined as a “community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities”. If ever there was a place that was further than that definition, it is the place in Canberra where Pilger commences his review of Australia’s Aboriginal reconciliation policies. The most striking feature of the vignettes that he introduces us to is the contrast. The co-existence of wealth and abject poverty in a nation described as being one of the wealthiest in the world is the sledgehammer that strikes the viewer right between the eyes. As Pilger describes it
“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.”
The film is confronting to White Australia. It examines the lies that the entire “Intervention” was predicated on by the Howard government and in particular the unsavoury actions of Mal Brough, the Minister responsible for Aboriginal policy. It looks at the role of the ABC’s Lateline program which interviewed an alleged whistleblower. The alleged whistleblower made some outrageous statements in regard to paedophilia in certain Aboriginal communities. As Pilger advises us, all the studies and reports at the time and subsequently have indicated that this was not true of those communities. This video of Chris Graham, former editor of the National Indigenous Times, analyses the background of the whistleblower and the allegations that were made. The whistleblower was subsequently found to have been a senior public servant reporting to Mal Brough. The allegations that he made were found to be completely baseless and predicated on a series of lies concerning his own knowledge of the issues and his experiences therein.
Utopia examines issues of malnutrition in some of the communities. The images of the living conditions and the rampant diseases proliferating in the communities are starkly disturbing. It is the constant reminder that these are conditions of poverty and disadvantage that exist in a rich country that make them confronting. The words of Janelle Trees, a General Practitioner, with an almost exclusively indigenous client base continue to ring in my mind. (Her client base lives within a few kilometres of an exclusive resort charging $1000 a night and servicing Uluru. Her clients live in poverty.)
“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.”
Pilger then brings the film, through the examination of the Mining industry and its impact on Aboriginal communities, back to us here in WA. The film had started with the words of Lang Hancock when he said “I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out.” We then see the world through the eyes of Lang’s daughter Gina Rinehart and her opposition to the Mining tax. The role of mining in the broader context of Aboriginal culture is best explained by Robert Eggington and I paraphrasehim here. As he puts it -the mining of the land is predicated on a Non Australian Aboriginal view of the Earth and of life. When life is seen as finishing at the date of death, then there is no impediment to denuding the earth of its life sustaining properties. However, the Aboriginal view of the Earth is that of a mother. It must be nurtured and sustained for it to bear future children.
Philosophically this sets the cultural mores of the Australian Aboriginal people at conflict with the big mining operators. Our ability as a nation to achieve a peaceful coexistence of these competing demands will be a test of our leadership into the future.
The WA section in the film Utopia then takes us, through the eyes of Dr Noel Nannup and Marianne Mackay, to Rottnest Island. The brutal history of that Island is examined in some detail. The fact that the location of what was once the morgue on the island for the bodies of deceased men of Aboriginal descent, is now the kitchen of the resort facilities continues that incredible contrast that Pilger has effectively and in stark fashion reminded us of again. Much of what Nannup and Mackay take us through about Rottnest is not known to those of us who have not studied Aboriginal history. Pilger asks us to think through the issue of why Rottnest should not be considered a concentration camp of the nature seen in the history of other countries.
Pilger examines all of the issues that have received considerable media attention. The Editor of this publication, Gerry Georgatos, features in some of the discussion on air. However, much of the work he has done in exposing some of these issues that can be accessed in this publication is referenced in the movie.
The issue of child suicides as a disproportionate feature in Aboriginal communities is handled with sensitivity. Robert and Selina Eggington, themselves touched by the suicide of a son, concentrate on the delivery of healing journeys through their Dumbartung facility in Waterford. The death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in horrific circumstances is discussed with Margaret Quirk, the Minister for Justice at the time.
The film touches on the abuse of Aboriginal prisoners by police in various places in Australia. This is topical in WA, given the conviction of two WA Police officers on charges of tasering Kevin Spratt. The recurring thought that ran through my mind was to consider how these sorts of incidents would have been dealt with in the American context. Incidents such as that involving Rodney King et al come to mind to continue this juxtaposition of contrasts that Pilger strives to achieve.
The film Utopia is well made and continues the outstanding work of Pilger in this area. It is in many ways a retrospective in that we are taken back to issues that he has dealt with in other films. What is telling is that some of those films and incidents that he follows up are 20 and 30 years old. And yet nothing has been achieved in changing those issues.
It is a brilliant study of contrasts of good and bad, rich and poor, haves and have-nots and ultimately in the Australian context “White and Black”. It is confronting as it gets us to examine our own contribution in this land of contrasts. If there is a movie that I would recommend everyone sees once this year, it is Utopia. It will be screened on SBS sometime in April. Before then however, I understand that there will be a few screenings in WA. These will be organised by various community groups around the metropolitan area.
Leaving the film aside, an issue that I believe we need to work on, is understanding the audience that the film is targeted at. As indicated earlier, the film is confronting to white audiences. However, there is a large and growing CaLD (culturally and Linguistically Diverse) community that will not be confronted by the events disclosed in the film. The reason for the lack of confrontation is the view that they, nor their forebears perpetrated these acts of racism towards the Aboriginal community. However, the film serves a very useful purpose in teaching this community something of the history of persecution that has been experienced by the Aboriginal people in their own country. This awareness of the issues will create a level of empathy between the migrant and first nation communities. This will elevate the numbers of “interested” parties in the issue of reconciliation from just the Aboriginal community (~3% of the population) to the combined numbers of those born overseas (35%) and the first nation community.
Pilger is to be commended for reminding us of the pressing need, for us as a nation, to deal with these matters. Constant reminders of this nature allow us to keep reminding our leaders that we would like them to address the issues that are raised. This issue will be a litmus test of our leaders’ ability.