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Issue 

King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya
by Russell Skelton
260 pages
Allen & Unwin

$35

REVIEW BY MAT WARD

The Northern Territory community of Papunya is known worldwide for its Aboriginal art. But this book by Melbourne Age reporter Russell Skelton paints a very different picture of it.

Papunya, says Skelton, is "a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with Indigenous policy since the 1970s". He says former prime minister Gough Whitlam's policy of self-determination for Aboriginal communities in the 1970s was "unworkable and unsustainable".

Skelton notes that when Whitlam's minister for Aboriginal affairs, James Cavanagh, was asked to define it, he replied: "Yes, what is self-determination? I don't think any of us really knows."

Skelton says the interpretation of the policy was left to people like Papunya's council clerk, Alison Anderson, who filled the vacuum left after the Department of Aboriginal Affairs withdrew.

The result was that houses became run-down, public services like rubbish collection vanished, millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted and Papunya became the "petrol-sniffing capital of Australia".

Skelton draws particular attention to a practice he calls "motorcar dreaming", in which Anderson — citing a lack of public transport in the outback — used proceeds from the town's store to buy cars for the personal use of members of the community. In the decade from 1992, more than $1 million was spent on vehicles.

Skelton says Anderson has refused to talk to him, despite repeated requests to do so. The extraordinary title of his book, King Brown Country, comes from Anderson's nickname “King Brown”, a reference to the deadly Central Australian snake.

The book comes across as a prolonged character assassination and readers may be left wondering how different it would have been if Anderson had agreed to be interviewed.

A clue comes in Skelton's portrayal of Anderson's partner, Steve Hanley, who took over as clerk when Anderson left to work for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Hanley was said to have several firearms and a reputation for violent outbursts. He was unqualified for the job — he could not read or write — and Skelton had written scathing articles about him.

But when Hanley and Anderson split up, Hanley agreed to talk to Skelton. So, he writes: "The Hanley I met was calm and reasonable. He also had a formidable memory. He recalled times, dates and people with Swiss-watch accuracy.

“At one point he recited the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen song and recounted the milestones of the singer-songwriter's career. I suspected that Hanley's inability to read forced him to develop an exceptional memory."

Anderson is afforded no such tolerance.

"Anderson's views played instead to the well-worn stereotype of downtrodden, exploited blackfellas, dispossessed in their own land”, writes Skelton. He shows similar contempt for the "urban left" and notes that in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, Indigenous politics is "viewed through the prisms of dispossession and racism".

It comes as little surprise, then, that Skelton was in favour of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), the legislation enacted by John Howard's government in 2007 that required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The emergency response, otherwise known as the Northern Territory intervention, was ostensibly enacted to combat child abuse. It branded Aboriginal people paedophiles and alcoholics and quarantined half their welfare onto Basics Cards, forcing them to move off their remote lands and into urban centres. It is still in force today.

In his approval of then PM Howard’s “genuine and heartfelt” intervention, Skelton comes out with some absurd statements.

Howard's Indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, was "an inspired choice", he writes. "A passionate, pugnacious advocate who detested hypocrisy and double standards, Brough had no patience with those who argued about Aboriginal rights while ignoring the rights of abused women and children."

But isn't it also hypocritical to argue about the rights of abused women and children while ignoring Aboriginal rights?

He lavishes similarly twisted praise on Brough's ALP successor, Jenny Macklin.

"Like Brough, she put the children and women first and the human rights lobby a distant second”, writes Skelton — from which readers may logically conclude that children and women aren't human.

He notes that prominent Aboriginal people were for and against the intervention: Pat Dodson, Mick Dodson and Tom Calma were against it; Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine were for it.

But he then says Macklin "consulted widely" on the intervention — but only with Langton, Pearson and Mundine.

Skelton also notes opposition to the intervention from Lance Macdonald, a former council clerk at Papunya praised earlier in the book for his Lutheran convictions.

"He was convinced the government was trying to steal Aboriginal land through the compulsory leases so that mining companies could plunder the natural resources”, he writes. Skelton has received the Grant Hattam Quill award for investigative journalism — yet, curiously, he does not follow this statement up.

I have received no awards for investigative journalism, but it took me only five minutes on the internet to find evidence supporting Macdonald's claims.

Page 107 of the Northern Territory Government's Department of Regional Development, Primary Industry, Fisheries and Resources Annual report for 2008-09 shows that in the financial year 2006-07, when the intervention started, the number of mining exploration licences granted leapt from 182 to 269. The number leapt again in 2007-08, to 369.

The report's "priorities for 2009-10" include recommendations to "develop and implement strategies to improve the number of exploration licences granted over Aboriginal freehold land".

Instead, Skelton discredits Macdonald. Revisiting Papunya after the intervention, Skelton writes: "Contrary to what Macdonald had suggested, change was well and truly under way ... I found Macdonald at the medical clinic next door, nursing a heavily-bandaged hand. Somehow, he said, his fist had collided with a wall. His wife sat by his side, smiling."

Exactly what readers are supposed to conclude from this comment, which is left unexplained, is anybody’s guess.

Skelton then notes Macdonald's anger at "Brough and the way he had implicated all Aboriginal men in sexual abuse with his sweeping generalisations". He quotes Macdonald as saying: "Kids have been raised properly here. Most Aboriginal people, like most people everywhere, do the right thing by their kids. He needs to get his facts right."

Skelton admits: "In the first year of the NTER, not a single conviction for crimes against children had been recorded. The health checks confirmed that large numbers of children had impaired hearing requiring surgery."

Yet the week I was reading King Brown Country, Skelton wrote an article in the October 22 Sydney Morning Herald, in which he claimed "endemic mistreatment" of Aboriginal children: "Widespread sexual and physical abuse of indigenous children was identified three years ago by the Howard government. This week, in the wake of another government report, it was labelled a typhoon of official neglect.

“In the three years since the intervention, notifications of child abuse — physical, emotional and sexual — have doubled to more than 6000 cases a year."

Skelton offered no context: no mention was made of how 6000 notifications of child abuse a year in the Northern Territory compared with rates of notification in the general population.

Why would he do this? Because Skelton knows what his corporate media bosses want: news that sells. As Salim Muwakkil of Chicago's Black radio station WVON puts it: "Marketing experts know it is more profitable to pander to biases than to oppose or challenge them."

In promoting King Brown Country, Skelton told the ABC's Lateline: "I am the sort of journalist that believes there are two sides to every story."

Skelton is typical of mainstream media journalists who claim to be "balanced" by limiting the parameters of debate to two similar sides and then offering lively debate between those very limited parameters. Most people swallow it. Others gag.

King Brown Country paints a fascinatingly detailed portrait of Papunya, but Skelton is painting in only one colour, in a tiny corner of the canvas. He fails to step back and see the bigger picture.

Papunya is a community that was created by whites bringing rival Aboriginal tribes in from the desert and forcing them to live together after the wholesale slaughter of most of their relatives.

Little wonder then, that when left to their own devices under supposed (extremely limited) self-determination, they rejected many of the whitefellas' ways. In this context, the failure to keep council records and do things by the book, the rorting, the vandalising of government-supplied houses, could all be seen in another way: Aboriginal resistance.

Comments

In a book review titled "There’s something wrong with this picture" in your issue of Saturday, November 6, 2010, Mat Ward accuses Russell Skelton of not checking his facts. However, Ward has himself failed to take due care with his facts.

For example, early in his review, Ward states that the Northern Territory Emergency Response "quarantined half their welfare onto Basics Cards, forcing them to move off their remote lands and into urban centres." This is factually incorrect. Centrelink management has asserted that there have been no unusual or significant movement of welfare recipients into NT towns or off NT remote communities, and there is no data which indicates that they are lying.

Later Ward claims that he has found evidence to support Lance Macdonald's claims that "the government was trying to steal Aboriginal land through the compulsory leases so that mining companies could plunder the natural resources."

Ward supports his argument about the Intervention being a trojan horse for mining by saying that "Page 107 of the Northern Territory Government's Department of Regional Development, Primary Industry, Fisheries and Resources Annual report for 2008-09 shows that in the financial year 2006-07, when the intervention started, the number of mining exploration licences granted leapt from 182 to 269. The number leapt again in 2007-08, to 369."

Apart from the fact that the 2006-07 exploration licences were granted before the Intervention began (Brough and Howard announced the NTER on 21st June, and nothing actually started to happen until July 2007), what Ward fails to point out, or realise, is that many of these, and subsequent, exploration licences were not on Aboriginal land; and that, of the ones that were on Aboriginal land, none were on those very small areas of land that were acquired compulsorily under the NTER.

As Paddy Gibson said on Solidarity.net.au (Issue 21, November 2009) "Mining companies gained no greater rights through the Intervention. They still need permission from Aboriginal landowners to explore or mine on Aboriginal land and must undertake these negotiations through appropriate Land Councils." See http://www.solidarity.net.au/highlights/intervention-motives-more-seriou...

Ward, like Macdonald, appears merely to believe an urban myth about this: he suspects that the Intervention is about access to Aboriginal land by uranium mining interests, but has no evidence to support this notion.

The fact is, there was a widespread upsurge in uranium mining exploration across the whole of the prospective areas in Australia at the time, not just in the NT or on Aboriginal land.

This upsurge was because of rising demand and prices, not because of some capitalist/government conspiracy to target Aboriginal lands. Other parts of Australia experienced similar growth in exploration to the NT, and the NTER was irrevelant to the process, as it in no way facilitated access to Aboriginal land for miners.

Hi Bob - I'm a firm believer that journalists should be taken to task for what they write, so thanks for taking the time to comment.

Regarding your statement: "Centrelink management has asserted that there have been no unusual or significant movement of welfare recipients into NT towns or off NT remote communities, and there is no data which indicates that they are lying."

There is evidence that people have had to leave their remote communities and travel far to use their Basics Cards. ("It took two years until Centrelink allowed the store in Mapuru [about 500 kms east of Darwin] to accept the Basics Card. Before residents had to charter an aircraft for $500 to travel to the next store." - 'World Council of Churches listen in Mapuru', Community Update, 14/9/2010 quoted at http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/northern-terr...).

Addressing reports that Basics Cards sometimes have not worked after people have travelled far to use them, Greens senator Rachel Siewert told the Senate: "Not only is it the fact that they've travelled sometimes hundreds of kilometres to get food, they also feel a great deal of embarrassment when they can't buy their shopping and frustration and literally their kids go hungry." (Quoted at http://www.nit.com.au/News/story.aspx?id=17254)

A complaint to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March 2009 by members of prescribed communities said many Aboriginal residents had to travel long distances just to buy basic necessities, due to the system being restricted to specific stores. This was adding to financial stress due to travel costs.
http://www.nit.com.au/news/story.aspx?id=17478

On November 15, 2008, the ABC said: "The Attorney-General Chris Burns partially blames the rising statistics on an influx of people into regional centres because of the alcohol bans in communities from the intervention."
http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2008/s2420653.htm

It would appear there is little evidence to show people have moved off their remote communities permanently due to having to use Basics Cards, but I haven't seen the Centrelink statement to which you refer - can you please provide a link below?

Regarding the mining issue, what I say in the review is:

"[Russell] Skelton also notes opposition to the intervention from Lance Macdonald, a former council clerk at Papunya praised earlier in the book for his Lutheran convictions. 'He was convinced the government was trying to steal Aboriginal land through the compulsory leases so that mining companies could plunder the natural resources', he writes. Skelton has received the Grant Hattam Quill award for investigative journalism — yet, curiously, he does not follow this statement up."

It is curious that Russell Skelton does not follow this statement up. It is curious that he does not mention the argument put by the Stop The Intervention Collective that the number of mining exploration licences granted went up first in the financial year 06-07 after the 2006 Land Rights Amendment Act (not under the intervention, as you rightly point out) and in the financial year 07-08 (under the intervention).
http://stoptheintervention.org/uploads/files_to_download/Waratah-Mining-...

It is also curious that he does not mention the argument raised by Paddy Gibson that you quote: "Mining companies gained no greater rights through the Intervention. They still need permission from Aboriginal landowners to explore or mine on Aboriginal land and must undertake these negotiations through appropriate Land Councils."

And it is also curious that he does not mention your arguments that "there was a widespread upsurge in uranium mining exploration across the whole of the prospective areas in Australia at the time, not just in the NT or on Aboriginal land", and that "this upsurge was because of rising demand and prices".

After all, Skelton has won an award for investigative journalism and says he believes there are two sides to every story. The review is showing there is a third side to the story from an ecosocialist perspective, which argues that there is no defence for legislation that infringes human rights and the Racial Discrimination Act, and that unsustainable, environmentally damaging mining practices should be opposed. You are showing there is a fourth side and a fifth side to the story. That underlines the point made in the review that the book is offering only a limited perspective. There are no doubt many more sides to the story.

Inevitably, pro-intervention and anti-intervention sides will never gel, but thanks for your corrections and for addressing points not raised by Skelton or me.

I was let down to read the last statement in your review Matt - that dysfunction in Aboriginal communities could actually be read as 'aboriginal resistance'. Wouldn't that be great - if it was actually a concerted and organised movement aimed at making a political statement? It would surely make us lefties feel a lot better about the state of many remote communities if we could categorise the apalling set of social outcomes and the lack of effective self-governance that many remote indigenous people endure on a daily basis as some kind of heroic struggle against tyranny... I don't believe there's any documentation anywhere, from any community, that the destruction of housing has anything to do with resistance - romantic projection from a comfortable distance maybe?

Hi "q"
Thanks for taking the time to comment. It depends what you see as dysfunction. Skelton says dysfunction has plagued Aboriginal communities "like a genetic flaw". He uses that term "genetic flaw" twice in the book. From that perspective, Aboriginal societies are dysfunctional because they are not conforming to a capitalist, assimilationist agenda of how they should function, including conforming to measurable social outcomes. Others argue that Australian mainstream society is dysfunctional in that the quest for economic growth is threatening the very survival of the human species. From this perspective, Australian mainstream society could learn to be more functional from an indigenous perspective by respecting ecology. Rest assured, though, that you are not the first to point the lack of evidence that the destruction of housing etc is "Aboriginal resistance" - the Green Left editors said the same thing when they read the review. I maintained that it could simply be "seen that way", whether that is romantic projection or not. So that is what the review says, that it "could all be seen in another way: Aboriginal resistance."

There IS a side to the Skelton argument that it is worth a look, and has been all but ignored to date. While much of the indigenous community is understandably outraged at their loss of rights, several indigenous communities and - in particular - indigenous womens' groups in Northern W.A. lobbied for a similar 'intervention' to be extended to WA. As other WA folk here are well aware, our only statewide newspaper is quite possibly the most rightwing paper in the country. I do not make that statement lightly - sure, they're more of the 'Today Tonight' brand of infotainment than The Australian's conservative columnists, but until recently the paper was headed by an editor whose first editorial openly declared that his chief aim as editor of the West Australian was to support the election of a Liberal party government. So we can't exactly get much news from them.

But nonetheless, I would love to know more about these communities and womens' groups that lobbied for a 'WA intervention'. Are they still holding that same view? If so, I'd love to hear their reasoning. This is a complex issue - the intervention's deprivation of rights is unjustifiable, but there's been decades of failure to improve the conditions in indigenous communities, and if things have reached the state that some are arguing for an 'intervention' (maybe one that doesn't suspend the Racial Discrimination Act), I'd love to hear their arguments. In any event, if there is a pro-intervention argument to be made, I'd rather hear the views of the indigenous womens' groups reported as supporting it, than the book of some white guy.

“Little wonder then, that when left to their own devices under supposed (extremely limited) self-determination, they rejected many of the whitefellas' ways. In this context, the failure to keep council records and do things by the book, the rorting, the vandalising of government-supplied houses, could all be seen in another way: Aboriginal resistance.”

– That’s without doubt the best laugh I have had in a long time clearly you haven’t been to remote communities within the NT and if you have your observation skills need to be examined. I have lived on several remote communities within the NT and visited many others, whilst I am not a journalist awarded or otherwise I can tell you that the vandalising is neither confined to government-supplied houses and it is definitely not seen as aboriginal resistance (that has to be a southern based white collar term).

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