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May 17th 2013 print

Philippa Martyr

Pilger alert! Pilger alert! Pilger alert!

Round up the usual suspect cliches, the dubious documentarian will need them all by the time he has turned his camera on pallid Australia's oppression of Aborigines. He'll be so busy, ib fact, he may have no more than a few moments to be feted on Q&A and other ABC programs


Oh, thank God. John Pilger is on his way.


We clearly struggle with the exposure of appalling conditions in Aboriginal remote communities – which exposure has been going on for, oh, around 200 years via:

  • A gigantic bibliography starting with Watkin Tench in 1793
  • the pages of the Australian
  • the History Wars and three massive volumes by historian Keith Windschuttle
  • Peter Sutton’s magisterial The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (2009)
  • Helen Hughes and Mark Hughes’ policy monographs published the Centre for Independent Studies
  • Quadrant Online’s Bennelong Papers website
  • etc etc etc

So it’s a positive ray of sunshine to know that world-renowned journalist and filmmaker John Pilger is preparing to expose once and for all the hidden horrors of WA’s appalling treatment of Aborigines, including the high rates of incarceration and suicide.

Good old John Pilger. Where would be we be without him? Oh hang on – we’ve been without him since 1962, when he decided to live in the UK. This might explain why he devoted most of this recent Guardian article to exposing the horrors of Aboriginal incarceration on Rottnest Island in the Aboriginal prison there.

If you’ve been to Rottnest in the last 100 years and wondered why you never saw any chain gangs, it’s because the prison operated from 1838 to 1904. There was a Royal Commission into the prison in 1883 which condemned it and recommended its closure. But this must be quite a recent Australian memory for John Pilger.

Just think how we could have languished, never knowing that things were so bad among Aboriginal people, if it wasn’t for Pilger’s courageous and resolute decision to fly all the way over here in business class with his film company to make a documentary for Britain’s incisive and balanced ITV. (This would be the same ITV that brought you classics like Britain’s Got Talent, The Only Way is Essex, and Downton Abbey, which is The Only Way Is Essex set in the 1910-1930 period.)

Pilger’s documentary will be called Utopia. Geddit? Geddit? Utopia is an imaginary place where everything is perfect. And of course, things here in WA aren’t perfect for Aboriginal people. It takes a special kind of world-renowned journalist and filmmaker to come up with something as snappy as that.

Pilger’s beef seems to be that mining companies don’t share their royalties with Aboriginal people, and that this is causing Aboriginal people to live in awful conditions and go to jail and commit suicide. Obviously he’s missed the point here, namely that mining companies don’t share their royalties with anyone in Australia, except their shareholders, and the people who work for them, and their families, and local communities, and reforestation projects, and arts projects, and sponsorships, and scholarships, and stuff like that. This is why they had to be taxed. It was only right to do so. And it was equally only right that this tax raise absolutely no revenue for the Federal Government. But I digress.

So I guess in Utopia we’ll be seeing Twiggy Forrest in conflict with local Aboriginal people over mining leases, but we won’t be hearing about Generation One. Maybe instead Pilger could show the James Price Point project being abandoned, along with all the potential Aboriginal benefits and employment there. I wonder if he’s going to bother even giving Marcia Langton a call – or would that not fit the primary-school narrative that’s being developed here for unquestioning British audiences?

Anyway, if he’s short of material, I’d be glad to help: Pilger can start with Tony Thomas’ recent pieces in the Bennelong Papers. Personally I would recommend he come to Fremantle. Fremantle is a great place to see disenfranchised, welfare-dependent, sick, drunk, miserable, recently-imprisoned Aboriginal people, particularly young people who seem to enjoy bashing, smoking, spitting and screaming at other people. I would love him to spend some time in Fremantle at night, preferably on a Friday, with his camera crew. (PS John – Kings Square is a good place to start. Just don’t leave anything lying around.)

Philippa Martyr blogs at Transverse City.