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