Bill Leak’s cartoon set the twittering class to displays of by-the-numbers outrage. Rather than hashtag sermons they might have addressed the actual causes and problems afflicting so many Aborigines. Yes, they might have done that but, sadly, they never will
Now that the dust has settled on the outrage at Bill Leak’s cartoon highlighting the ongoing problem of child neglect in some sectors of the Aboriginal population, I thought I would add my response. First, to those who yell “I’m offended”, as if it that means your decision to take offence (and yes, it is a choice) is an objective and reliable indicator that the cartoon is “racist”, it is not. What your reaction illustrates is how keen you are to see racism where it is not.
Second, if you genuinely believe Leak is suggesting all Aboriginal fathers are irresponsible, know that he is not. My father, Colin Dillon, Australia’s first Aboriginal cop (not a distinction he promotes, but he is happy to let others cite it) offered his full support to Leak. My father’s career afforded him ample opportunity to see the wasted lives when parents are incapable of parenting. He has seen this in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, but he is well aware that it is a greater problem for Aboriginal people. Like Bill and all sensible people who saw his cartoon, he knows that this dire situation does not apply to every Aboriginal family.
Well, having cleared that up, I thought it might also be worth addressing what is the appropriate way to discuss these problems — or is there even value in discussing them at all? I say this because there has been no end of reports emanating from government agencies, NGOs and universities, all describing in exhaustive detail the problems Leak’s cartoon depicted, yet we see little improvement in the lives of far too many Aboriginal people. As a researcher and commentator on Aboriginal affairs, I find this incredibly frustrating and, at times, heartbreaking. There has been much research, much blood, sweat, and tears, into the problems facing Aborigines, but it has not been transformed into action that actually saves Aboriginal people from the conditions that most Australians do not and would never tolerate. Towards the end of this article, I offer two reasons why there has been so little improvement.
Before continuing, however, I will re-state the obvious: first, Aborigines are people first and Aboriginal second. Second, Aboriginal affairs is everyone’s business. The first point requires no explanation. The second refers to the destructive separatist paradigm that frames Aboriginal affairs as the exclusive domain of Aboriginal Australians while sidelining, often rubbishing, the opinions of non-Aboriginal Australians — particularly those who don’t buy into victim mythology. This should be our starting point. Therefore, let’s look upon Aboriginal affairs as a topic open for all to discuss.
The political cartoonist
Political cartoonists make their livings from satires directed at hypocrisy and/or absurdity. Satire gets our attention. Its intention is to highlight the seriousness of a situation, which if addressed directly could be too unpleasant for some to acknowledge. Anything and everything is fair game for the satirist, or at least should be. So, should we have a rule that decrees particular groups should not be the focus of satire? And if those groups are identified by race, would it then not be racist to exclude them? By excluding them, by default it is saying that only other categories of society are fair game for the satirists’ attention, but not this one.
In general we allow satirists to do for society what other forms of communication are unable to touch. That is, they use humour, irony and caricature to deliver serious messages. The humour can serve as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. However, Australian social and political cartoonists have a tradition of being confrontational, Bill Leak being a prime example. And that’s a bloody good thing. Unfortunately in practice, the measure of how inappropriate these cartoons are tends to be how many people take offence and, more particularly, how loud they do so. However, ‘offence’ is entirely subjective. To use my favourite example, consider that two people can hear a joke. One laughs and says, “That’s hilarious!” while the other cries and says, “That’s deeply offensive.” Obviously, the joke does not choose to offend one listener and tickle the other. One chooses to laugh, the other suppresses that reaction and, in so doing, manifests not the honesty of the individual but the authorised and “shocked” response of the group.
Why we don’t see the improvement in the lives of Aboriginal people we hoped for?
The first reason I offer to explain why we are not seeing an improvement in the lives of those Aborigines who are suffering the most is because, to implement a solution, we would first need to acknowledge and highlight some problems – and causes of those problems — that many don’t wish to know about and don’t want anyone else to acknowledge either. For many, such acknowledgment is simply too hard to contemplate. Thinking about child abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities, for example, is so unpleasantpleasant many find it much easier to adopt the presumed moral high ground from the comfort of the lounge or behind keyboard or twitter hashtag. It is so easy to proclaim, “I oppose racism!” These folks might well ask themselves how their ‘righteous’ and ‘heroic’ stance is of any help to those Aboriginal people who live in dangerous and dysfunctional communities most of us would never stand to let a dog endure.
We have many good workers and community members on the frontlines and they are sincerely trying to make a difference, yet despite everyone’s best efforts, we have not seen the results we hoped for. This brings me to the second reason why those problems still persist. Governments have not always created the opportunities that allow the efforts of dedicated people to come to fruition. This is not surprising, because political leaders and key decision makers tend to be guided by a simple philosophy “What will win me votes?”. This focus is far more palatable for the man or woman on the stump than getting to the nub of the issue: “What is the best strategy for helping Aboriginal people, even if that strategy is unpopular a few.” A case in point; was it really a coincidence that Minister Nigel Scullion said Bill Leak’s cartoon represented “racial stereotypes”, and that he appended that label just days after it had been revealed he could have been more attentive to the problems in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre highlighted on Four Corners? As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion believed a culture of brutality and its cover-up in Northern Territory’s juvenile detention facilities had been fixed, revealing he did not intervene because he had not seen any CCTV vision and the issue had not “piqued” his interest.
The Territory-based Turnbull cabinet minister also admitted he had not watched Monday night’s explosive Four Corners program about the deliberate violence against mainly Indigenous children and youths in Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, because he was dining with the family of a staff member that night.
And bear in mind that nothing is anything just because someone says it is: we are blessed with judgement and free will. Scullion says Bill Leak’s cartoon is racist, but the words of a politician do not make it so. And isn’t it passing strange that Minister Scullion is quoted as an authority by people – here I think of those on the Left — who would not as a rule give him the time of day. Far too often, popularity contests are won by claiming, “Racism and colonisation are the causes of the problems facing Aboriginal Australians.” What about discussing some of the elephants in the room, the truths some find they simply cannot utter but which nevertheless devastate so many Aboriginal lives, especially those of women and children.
I wish to conclude with what I think might be a solution to the most distressing of the problems facing our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. How about if all those so ‘outraged’ by the images on Four Corners and Bill Leak’s cartoon take that outrage and focus it on ensuring that all Aboriginal people live in clean communities, are free from violence and have ready access to jobs, school, hospitals, libraries and all the other services that they and the rest of us take for granted? You members of the Outrage Battalion could participate, for example, in protest marches while carrying banners proclaiming, “I want all Aboriginal people to have what I have.” Do that, and do it while cognizant of the real problems plaguing dysfunctional communities, and that would be a huge step toward honesty and a solution. Sadly, as re-directing and re-focusing the outrage is too difficult, taking offence will remain the standard response. It is risk-free, costs nothing, and is so easy.
One last thought. It has been heartening to see, among all the ‘outrage’ on social media, the posts by so many Indigenous people who have related how their fathers and grandfathers were proper fathers and grandfathers. Celebrating the good in Aboriginal communities is so much more practical than whingeing about history, racism and, as the late great Charlie Perkins used to say, ‘Poor-bugger-me’!
In my last piece for Quadrant Online, I invited Gerry Georgatos to answer some questions on the topic I wrote about. Given Gerry’s willingness to contribute, and the respect he maintains, even when we disagree with one another, I thought he should have the opportunity to ask me some questions in the interests of balanced debate. Having read an advance copy of the above, he shared his reactions. Beneath each, reproduced in bold, is my reaction:
1. In your article you rightly point that all of us are people first and therefore inherently we are all entitled to ‘equality’. I argue that equality is denied to the majority of homeland communities I have visited throughout the continent, and I have been to hundreds. The majority of the communities have long been denied an equivalency of services and social infrastructure to that of non-Aboriginal communities. Why have our governments condemned peoples to lives in effectively third-world-akin shanty towns? Why are they denied equivalent assets and opportunity?
A reasonable but loaded question. It’s hard to achieve equality in ‘unequal’ locations. How economical and practical is it to pour millions into locations where there is very little opportunity for economic sustainability? Let’s suppose we could just magically pour in millions and set up infrastructure and services. How long would it last with people who are not job-ready, largely unskilled and uneducated? The people are condemned by geography if there is no exit strategy to go to places where they can succeed in the same way as many of their city-based cousins have.
2. Do you believe Bill Leak in his cartooned imagery captured the cesspool of socioeconomic disadvantage that a significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are corralled within?
No, he did not. Should he have? It was a cartoon; it was neither a thesis nor encyclopedia, and can therefore only hope to address salient issues, which in this case are issues that far too many have swept under the ‘culturally appropriate’ carpet. Are you suggesting that socioeconomic disadvantage is the cause of poor parenting? Among those Indigenous folk who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, there is no shortage of great role models who know right from wrong, and also understand that children need love, and also that many have succeeded despite their socioeconomic backgrounds.
3. In terms of the national identity, for all of us, I understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ rights struggle as the nation’s most profound rights struggle. How we deal with this rights struggle defines all of us. It is my view that a significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders remain oppressed and in the narrative of victimhood, but there are policy makers and legislators bent on preventing a moral panic by Australians and, therefore, trying to cajole a counter-narrative out of the known facts. The counter-narrative seeks to imply that the victims, the oppressed, are to blame and that they are the architects of their own doom. They have implicated Indigeneity itself as the architect of doom. I utterly agree that we need to focus on improving the lot of others so they can navigate their two-culture settings — that of their own and that of the mainstream — without impost. Do you agree that the narrative of blame is oppressive and injurious and divisive?
Personally, I do not blame those victims who genuinely are victims. I do, however, blame, oppose, and challenge those well-off Blacks who are hell bent on keeping their poorer country cousins “living on country” in conditions they themselves would never live in, choosing to worry instead about treaties, recognition, renaming Australia Day, etc. But yes, I agree that to blame those who are truly suffering (those most often living in remote ghettos) is not helpful. The people will be able to best “navigate their two-culture settings” when they live in safe environments that have resources like the ones you and I take for granted. That is unlikely to happen in remote parts of Australia.
 Incidentally, in my experience, those who identify as Aboriginal and do not buy into the victim myth cop it even more.