When the outside world thinks about Australia, it generally turns to venerable clichés of innocence - cricket, leaping marsupials, endless sunshine, no worries. Australian governments actively encourage this. Witness the recent “G’Day USA” campaign, in which Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman sought to persuade Americans that, unlike the empire’s problematic outposts, a gormless greeting awaited them Down Under. After all, George W Bush had ordained the previous Australian prime minister, John Howard, “sheriff of Asia”.
That Australia runs its own empire is unmentionable; yet it stretches from the Aboriginal slums of Sydney to the ancient hinterlands of the continent and across the Arafura Sea and the South Pacific. When the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to the Aboriginal people on February 13, he was acknowledging this.
As for the apology itself, the Sydney Morning Herald accurately described it as a “piece of political wreckage” that “the Rudd government has moved quickly to clear away ... in a way that responds to some of its own supporters’ emotional needs, yet changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”
Like the conquest of the Native Americans, the decimation of Aboriginal Australia laid the foundation of Australia’s empire. The land was taken and many of its people were removed and impoverished or wiped out.
For their descendants, untouched by the tsunami of sentimentality that accompanied Rudd’s apology, little has changed. In the Northern Territory’s great expanse known as Utopia, people live without sanitation, running water, rubbish collection, decent housing and decent health. This is typical. In the community of Mulga Bore, the water fountains in the Aboriginal school have run dry and the only water left is contaminated.
Throughout Aboriginal Australia, epidemics of gastroenteritis and rheumatic fever are as common as they were in the slums of 19th-century England. Aboriginal health, says the World Health Organisation, lags almost a hundred years behind that of white Australia. This is the only developed nation on a United Nations “shame list” of countries that have not eradicated trachoma, an entirely preventable disease that blinds Aboriginal children. Sri Lanka has beaten the disease, but not rich Australia.
On February 25, a coroner’s inquiry into the deaths in outback towns of 22 Aboriginal people, some of whom had hanged themselves, found they were trying to escape their “appalling lives”.
Most white Australians rarely see this third world in their own country. What they call here “public intellectuals” prefer to argue over whether the past happened, and to blame its horrors on the present-day victims. Their mantra that Aboriginal infrastructure and welfare spending provide “a black hole for public money” is racist, false and craven. Hundreds of millions of dollars that Australian governments claim they spend are never spent, or end up in projects for white people. It is estimated that the legal action mounted by white interests, including federal and state governments, contesting Aboriginal native title claims alone covers several billion dollars.
Smear is commonly deployed as a distraction. In 2006, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s leading current affairs program, Lateline, broadcast lurid allegations of “sex slavery” among the Mutitjulu Aboriginal people. The source, described as an “anonymous youth worker”, was exposed as a federal government official, whose “evidence” was discredited by the Northern Territory chief minister and police. Lateline never retracted its allegations.
Within a year, Prime Minister John Howard had declared a “national emergency” and sent the army, police and “business managers” into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. A commissioned study on Aboriginal children was cited; and “protecting the children” became the media cry - just as it had more than half a century ago when children were kidnapped by white welfare authorities.
One of the authors of the study, Pat Anderson, complained: “There is no relationship between the emergency powers and what’s in our report.” Her research had concentrated on the effects of slum housing on children. Few now listened to her. Kevin Rudd, as opposition leader, supported the “intervention” and has maintained it as prime minister. Welfare payments are “quarantined” and people controlled and patronised in the colonial way. To justify this, the mostly Murdoch-owned capital-city press has published a relentlessly one-dimensional picture of Aboriginal degradation. No one denies that alcoholism and child abuse exist, as they do in white Australia, but no quarantine operates there.
The Northern Territory is where Aboriginal people have had comprehensive land rights longer than anywhere else, granted almost by accident 30 years ago. The Howard government set about clawing them back.