AFRICANGLOBE – Australia has again declared war on its indigenous people, reminiscent of the brutality that brought universal condemnation on apartheid South Africa. Aboriginal people are to be driven from homelands where their communities have lived for thousands of years. In Western Australia, where mining companies make billion dollar profits exploiting Aboriginal land, the state government says it can no longer afford to “support” the homelands.
Vulnerable populations, already denied the basic services most Australians take for granted, are on notice of dispossession without consultation, and eviction at gunpoint. Yet again, Aboriginal leaders have warned of “a new generation of displaced people” and “cultural genocide”.
Genocide is a word Australians hate to hear. Genocide happens in other countries, not the “lucky” society that per capita is the second richest on earth. When “act of genocide” was used in the 1997 landmark report ‘Bringing Them Home’, which revealed that thousands of Indigenous children had been stolen from their communities by white institutions and systematically abused, a campaign of denial was launched by a far-right clique around the then prime minister John Howard. It included those who called themselves the Galatians Group, then Quadrant, then the Bennelong Society; the Murdoch press was their voice.
The Stolen Generation was exaggerated, they said, if it had happened at all. Colonial Australia was a benign place; there were no massacres. The First Australians were victims of their own cultural inferiority, or they were noble savages. Suitable euphemisms were deployed.
The government of the current prime minister, Tony Abbott, a conservative zealot, has revived this assault on a people who represent Australia’s singular uniqueness. Soon after coming to office, Abbott’s government cut $534 million in indigenous social programmes, including $160 million from the indigenous health budget and $13.4 million from indigenous legal aid.
In the 2014 report “Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators”, the devastation is clear. The number of Aboriginal people hospitalised for self-harm has leapt, as have suicides among those as young as eleven. The indicators show a people impoverished, traumatised and abandoned. Read the classic expose of apartheid “The Discarded People: An Account Of African Resettlement In South Africa” by Cosmas Desmond, who told me he could write a similar account of Australia.
The current political attack was launched in the richest state, Western Australia. Last October, the state premier, Colin Barnett, announced that his government could not afford the $90 million budget for basic municipal services to 282 homelands: water, power, sanitation, schools, road maintenance, rubbish collection. It was the equivalent of informing the white suburbs of Perth that their lawn sprinklers would no longer sprinkle and their toilets no longer flush; and they had to move; and if they refused, the police would evict them.
Where would the dispossessed go? Where would they live? In six years, Barnett’s government has built few houses for indigenous people in remote areas. In the Kimberley region, indigenous homelessness – aside from natural disaster and civil strife – is one of the highest anywhere, in a state renowned for its conspicuous wealth, golf courses and prisons overflowing with impoverished Black people. Western Australia jails Aboriginal males at more than eight times the rate of apartheid South Africa. It has one of the highest incarceration rates of juveniles in the world, almost all of them indigenous, including children kept in solitary confinement in adult prisons, with their mothers keeping vigil outside.
In 2013, the former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me that the state was “racking and stacking” Aboriginal prisoners. When I asked what she meant, she said: “It’s warehousing.”
In March, Barnett changed his story. There was “emerging evidence”, he said, “of appalling mistreatment of little kids” in the homelands. What evidence? Barnett claimed that gonorrhoea had been found in children younger than 14, then conceded he did not know if these were in the homelands.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a federal agency, recently released a report on what it calls the “Fatal Burden” of Third World disease and trauma borne by indigenous people “resulting in almost 100 000 years of life lost due to premature death”. This “fatal burden” is the product of extreme poverty imposed in Western Australia, as in the rest of Australia, by the denial of human rights.
In Barnett’s vast rich Western Australia, barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited communities for which his government has a duty of care. In the town of Roeburne, in the midst of the booming minerals-rich Pilbara, 80 percent of the indigenous children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media that causes deafness.
In bookshops, “Australian non-fiction” shelves are full of opportunistic tomes about wartime derring-do, heroes and jingoism. Suddenly, Aboriginal people who fought for the white man are fashionable, whereas those who fought against the white man in defence of their own country, Australia, are unfashionable. Indeed, they are officially non-people. The Australian War Memorial refuses to recognise their remarkable resistance to the British invasion. In a country littered with Anzac memorials, not one official memorial stands for the thousands of native Australians who fought and fell defending their homeland.
This is part of the “great Australian silence”, as W.E.H. Stanner in 1968 called his lecture in which he described a “cult of forgetfulness on a national scale”. He was referring to the Indigenous people. Today, the silence is ubiquitous. In Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales currently has an exhibition, ‘The Photograph and Australia’, in which the timeline of this ancient country begins, incredibly, with Captain Cook.
The same silence covers another enduring, epic resistance. Extraordinary demonstrations of Indigenous women protesting the removal of their children and grandchildren by the state, some of them at gunpoint, are ignored by journalists and patronised by politicians. More Indigenous children are being wrenched from their homes and communities today than during the worst years of the Stolen Generation. A record 15 000 are presently detained “in care”; many are given to white families and will never return to their communities.
Last year, the West Australian Police Minister, Liza Harvey, attended a screening in Perth of my film, ‘Utopia’, which documented the racism and thuggery of police towards Black Australians, and the multiple deaths of young Aboriginal men in custody. The minister cried.
On her watch, 50 City of Perth armed police raided an Indigenous homeless camp at Matagarup, and drove off mostly elderly women and young mothers with children. The people in the camp described themselves as “refugees . . . seeking safety in our own country”. They called for the help of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
Having insulted indigenous Australians by declaring (at a G20 breakfast for David Cameron) that there was “nothing but bush” before the white man, Abbott announced that his government would no longer honour the longstanding commitment to Aboriginal homelands. He sneered: “It’s not the job of the taxpayers to subsidise lifestyle choices.”
The weapon used by Abbott and his redneck state and territorial counterparts is dispossession by abuse and propaganda, coercion and blackmail, such as his demand for a 99-year leasehold of Indigenous land in the Northern Territory in return for basic services: a land grab in all but name. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, refutes this, claiming “this is about communities and what communities want”. In fact, there has been no real consultation, only the co-option of a few.
Both conservative and Labour governments have already withdrawn the national jobs programme, CDEP, from the homelands, ending opportunities for employment, and prohibited investment in infrastructure: housing, generators, sanitation. The saving is peanuts.