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The Great Silence

Failing Aboriginal Australians

by FIONA BROOM

Several recent events in Australia have served to again highlight how little the peoples and cultures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nations feature on the national radar. Lack of formal education about Aborigines and a failure on the media’s part to make up the shortfall are the prime culprits, along with a general apathy that pervades the national character.

Renowned journalist John Pilger’s latest film, Utopia, about the state of affairs for Aboriginal Australians, is billed as “an epic portrayal of the oldest continuous human culture and an investigation into a suppressed colonial past and rapacious present” that follows three other films since 1983. Prominent Aboriginal footballer and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes said the film was the “talk of Aboriginal Australia”, but the Australian premiere, attended by 4000 people, barely made it into the mainstream media.

The “Great Australian Silence” over the history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner talked of in 1968 still exists to this day.

Mainstream media ignores those outside the bell curve

Critics apparently offended by Pilger’s film include The Australian columnist and the Sydney Institute executive director Gerard Henderson, who balks at his perception of an inference of inherent racism and carps “there is no fresh material in Utopia”. Henderson makes no complaint that massive discrepancies between the life expectancy, health, wealth and education of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have long been known, but not rectified.

Writing for The Guardian Australia, Luke Buckmaster complained a film about an Australian issue was aired on public television in the United Kingdom before even making it to Australian cinemas. Had Buckmaster and others chagrined by this apparent slight asked Pilger why this was the case, they would have discovered funding was not only unavailable in Australia, Pilger told AAP no Australian distributor wanted to run it, with one saying it was “too dark”. The last time something similar appeared in Australia was the remarkable 2008 series First Australians.

In the mainstream media, the lives of Australia’s first peoples rarely factor as being of interest. As Prince William and his wife Kate toured their former colonies in Oceania, the gulf between the prominence of the Indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand was highlighted. Stories in Australia’s media about the royal visit were an anomaly if they contained more than a three-word reference to the royal couple’s meeting with Aboriginal elders among the thousands of words written about what they wore and ate.

For much of the Australian media, it’s easier to focus on car crashes, which caused nearly 2000 deaths in the 23 million population last year, than deal with the issues facing Aborigines – between 2001 and 2010 one in 24 Aboriginal deaths were the result of suicide, and between 2000 and 2007 601 Aborigines died in custody. This from a minority that comprises roughly 2.5% of Australia’s population.

But why are the attitudes of mainstream Australians towards their Indigenous people so different from, say, New Zealand, where Maoris are far more prominent and respected? A New Zealand journalist friend attributes this in-part to a trickle-down effect, from governments willing to fund public education, to everyday citizens, including journalists.

When I asked my friend, who worked for an online news source operating in Australia and New Zealand, where the differences lay, I received an exasperated reply about the flippant racism she witnessed from her Australian colleagues. She said she had never had the opportunity to talk to an Australian journalist about the issue, because none had ever asked her:

The [Australians] would casually talk on the conference call about why they weren’t covering a particular Indigenous issue. They had a, “No one cares, it’s not racism, it’s the truth – it’s not what people want to read”, attitude you just don’t find in New Zealand newsrooms. They didn’t understand it was racism and they have a responsibility to cover it. In New Zealand something like that would never be uttered with such a comfortable, “We’re all white people here”, air.

A chance to change the status quo 

Indigenous cultures – there were once up to 700 Aboriginal nations – are utilised at sporting events, such as the Olympics, and promoted to attract tourists, but the reality is they are largely unknown and ignored in Australia. Students learn little of the history of the oldest civilisation in the world, compared with New Zealand, where Maori is an official language that is taught in schools and its prevalence measured in the census.

In an appearance on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, John Pilger said Australians held a “wilful indifference” and a “what can you do?” attitude to Indigenous affairs. He points to the absence of any reference to battles between the invading British and Aborigines in the Australian War Memorial as evidence that racism “is not only a legacy but very much runs like a current through attitudes and government policy towards the original people of the country”.

When Pilger asked white Australians what place Indigenous people held in contemporary society on Australia Day – the anniversary of the 1788 British invasion – he says he was met with embarrassment from people who knew little about what they were being asked.

The white elite that sets the educational agenda in Australia is intent on keeping European culture front and centre. In January the conservative Abbott Government called a review into the new national curriculum established by the former Labor Government. The two white men – yes, just two – appointed to conduct the review were criticised by a group of 176 prominent Australian educators for lacking the “requisite openness to diverse views and perspectives required to produce a balanced and fair review”.

In 2011 the most controversial curriculum reviewer, Kevin Donnolly, made this criticism, among a tide of others, of the focus of Labor’s curriculum: “Every subject in the proposed national curriculum has to embrace Indigenous, environmental and Asian perspectives and aspects of the compulsory history curriculum read more like a cultural-left manifesto than a balanced and rational view of history as a discipline”.

The Murdoch tabloid news site news.com.au followed Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s lead in mocking the inclusion of Indigenous culture to help teach students algebra and fractions in the new curriculum, which is yet to be implemented Australia-wide.

Many Australians, including the country’s electoral commissioner, often proudly espouse that Australia was the first country in the world, in 1902, to give women the right to vote and stand for federal parliament, thus establishing universal franchise. But what is often overlooked or unknown is Indigenous people were not only expressly excluded from voting in federal elections until 1962, they did not have full citizenship rights and were not counted in censuses until 1967 – Aborigines were classed as “flora and fauna”.

Conversely, between 1949 and 1973 British citizens could enter Australia without a visa, access welfare and had the right to vote. British subjects on the electoral roll before a change in legislation in 1984 still have the right to vote without being a citizen.

For Indigenous Australians, the net result of being consistently ignored by the non-Indigenous population is a life expectancy 10 years lower, drastically lower literacy rates and massive unemployment. In February the annual Closing the Gap report was released, showing the life expectancy gap was not closing and unemployment was increasing – issues the head of Reconciliation Australia blamed on policy-makers failing to listen to the very people they were meant to be serving.

Australians are currently debating whether to recognise its first people in the Constitution, as New Zealand already does. Retaining Aboriginal history in the school curriculum and including Aborigines in the Constitution provide an opportunity to rectify past indignities and injustices and show Australians value and respect their Indigenous people.

Fiona Broom can be reached through her website.