On Utopia, John Pilger’s no-place-land

I finally caught up with Utopia, John Pilger’s simplistic but important documentary on Australia’s relationship with Indigenous people. Nuance is not Pilger’s strong point and pitching his film at his British audience (“this is Canberra, capital of Australia”), he misses out on vast swathes of context. Pilger is good at capturing the injustices of colonisation but less strong in dealing with decolonisation.

Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia described an ideal but unreachable society. From Greek roots, Utopia meant either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land’. While it now means a perfect state, Utopia itself  is ‘nowhere’. Such sophistry meant nothing to the people of Uturupa in northern Australia ignorant of all matters European for hundreds of centuries. The first settlers came in the 1880s and unable to pronounce Uturupa, they called it Utopia, perhaps as Pilger suggested out of irony, for this no-place-land was hard on black and white.

Pilger begins his film in modern Utopian settings. The Palm Beach penthouse and leafy suburbs of Canberra’s Barton are the drop-off point for a Pilger polemic starkly contrasted against Utopia’s poverty (though the warm sun basked poor and wealthy alike). Barton was named for Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton who ushered in the White Australia Policy keeping coloured people out, while the blacks already here were not counted.

Pilger’s first interview is with former Labor minister of Indigenous health and NT MP Warren Snowden. Snowden defended Labor’s record and denied they should have done more. Successive administrations have been unable to solve Indigenous health problems, caused by 200 years of discrimination and neglect. After Indigenous people were finally counted in the 1971 census, Closing the Gap reports identified the problems compared to the rest of Australia. It will take another 50 years or more to close the gaps. Not that Pilger with his “puerile questions” and demands for instant change, appreciates that.

Pilger is a kid in a toy shop rushing from one shiny bauble to another. Here he is in the Australian War Memorial bemoaning the lack of recognition of the Australian frontier war, there he is recollecting his own Sydney childhood watching poor Aboriginal people in La Perouse, then he attacking Howard’s history wars before heading out on the street for an Australia Day vox pop of white people on what Indigenous people think of the day. A minute later he is touring Rottnest Island’s grisly black penal history. All are important but glossed over in Pilger’s rush to create an atmosphere of condemnation.

He brings black brutality up to date with the 2008 arrest of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in Laverton, WA. Arrested for drink driving and denied bail by a JP, Mr Ward was remanded to appear in court in Kalgoorlie 400kms away. In 1975 WA’s Aboriginal Legal Service complained prisoner transport vans were “ovens on wheels” and nothing had changed by 2008 except the service was privatised. Mr Ward was given a 600ml bottle of water for the four hour journey while temperatures rose to 56 degrees inside the van. When the driver checked his welfare in Kalgoorlie, he was dead on the floor with a large abdomen burn from the hot surface. The coroner said he was cooked to death and the department and contractor 4GS were later fined for their neglect.

The responsible minister Margaret Quirk told Pilger the case would haunt her for rest of her life. His cynicism at her suggestion of departmental cultural sensitivity training was unwarranted, as many public servants have no idea about injustices in remote Aboriginal settlements. Pilger was right to point out high indigenous incarceration rates but on less firm ground with his description of WA and NT as “apartheid states”. Quirk said structural issues in society led to Mr Ward’s death that one well-intentioned Minister cannot solve alone. State politicians’ “law and order” posturing on mandatory sentencing overwhelmingly affects Indigenous populations usually arrested on public order offences.

Pilger addressed the 1960s Gurindji land rights strike. The strike was called when the government delayed equal pay by two years following a court case. White owners sacked their cheap black workforce rather than pay them equally. The Gurindji got Watties Creek but lost their jobs. By the 1970s, a generation of stockworkers were unemployed and homeless, drifting to towns and the welfare system.

Welfare was a well-intentioned but flawed aspect of the Whitlamite reforms of the 1970s. Large amounts of money was spent on community programs that offered no real achievement. It was “sit down money” and led to the perverse situation described by Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton of dysfunctional societies twisted by easy access to alcohol and drugs where domestic abuse was rampant. The Lateline case exposed by Chris Graham and noted in depth by Pilger may have been exaggerated but the problems identified by Little Children Are Sacred were not. The Howard Government had electoral aims for the Intervention but the Labor Government that followed did not dismantle it. As Pearson says, the left are strong on rights and the right are strong on responsibilities, but good Indigenous policy needs to be a mix of both. Pilger shows no sign of understanding this crucial point.

Utopia is an important conversation starter. The best white writer on Indigenous matters, anthropologist Bill Stanner, identified in 1968 the culture of forgetting that characterised Australian views of its Indigenous population. They were written out of the history and they remained a voiceless 2% modern minority. Indigenous people slowly found their voice through the freedom ride, the referendum campaign, the tent embassy, the Makarrata treaty campaigns, and the land rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Casual racism, like casual sexism, remains an open sore. Indigenous Australia needs constitutional recognition but it must come with responsibility. The Stannerite silence is returning and Pilger’s work is deafening in the dark. Let’s hope he inspires a more informed conversation on Australia’s deepest wound.

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