The setting is a bush pub in outback Australia. It doesn’t matter where. I’m sitting in the front bar, and across the table from me is a young woman playing idly with her drink. We exchange pleasantries. I’m a geologist just passing through on my way to a drilling project. She is a remote-area nurse working in an indigenous community, also just passing through. She adds, unnecessarily, what appears to be a well-rehearsed formula:
“I love my job. Indigenous people are so wonderful. It’s such a privilege to be able to help them.” It’s a formula I have heard many times.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
Subscribers had no need to wait for the paywall to come down
I express a little scepticism. She tightens up, on the defensive. I relate a few innocuous anecdotes from remote communities that I have stayed at or visited. She begins to relax; she is not alone, but in the company of someone who also knows about remote communities. She adds a few light anecdotes of her own. Is it the isolation of the remote communities? The lack of non-indigenous companionship? She gets more chatty and starts to talk. The trickle becomes a river; the river becomes a flood. As I sit opposite her nodding my head quietly, the anecdotes become more personal, more brutal. Is it my lack of surprise? The lack of shock at the nature of the stories she tells? The stabbings? The beatings? The botched circumcisions? All passing through her clinic. Suddenly the floodgates burst. She is unburdening herself of all her deepest worries.
Maybe she mistakes my silence for sympathy, but she would be wrong. I have heard all these types of anecdotes too many times in too many pubs across the remote areas of Australia to be surprised or shocked. Too many remote-area nurses, teachers, maintenance workers, policemen and even anthropologists.
No, what fascinates me is not the stories, but the staggering volte-face that I have just witnessed as, in a matter of just a few minutes she, just like the others, has moved from “It’s such a privilege …” to describing the nightly terror of drunken figures lurking in the dark just outside her bedroom window. I wonder how she can reconcile the reality of daily life in her remote community as she describes it, with the lie—no, perhaps lie is not the right word here; we will come back to that later, but for now we will say the fiction of her outward public show that all was wonderful. Is there an element of Stockholm Syndrome at play here?
Half a continent away, some years back, I was involved in a drilling project on Aboriginal lands on part of a remote gated community. There was an outstation nearby from which we drew drilling water. The outstation comprised two houses, a water bore with large tanks, a solar panel field and back-up diesel generator, and a huge microwave tower for communications with other parts of the lands. The only “occupant” of the outstation while we were there was the crusty, dehydrated remnant of a dingo which had crawled into one of the kitchens and died at some point in the not so distant past. I was told, informally, by one of the administrators for the lands that a number of these outstations (fifty odd) had been built at a cost of around $2 million each so that the Aborigines from those tribal areas could “reconnect with their lands”, but already more than thirty of them were abandoned. The nature of the installed technology and the generally good repair of the houses before abandonment suggested that these were recent constructions, but that occupancy had been for a very short time.
One day, while filling the water truck for drilling, we “sprang” a suspicious-looking group of non-indigenous men in one of the houses. At first we thought they were there to steal the solar panels and any of the other abandoned infrastructure they could move. But no, they were actually contractors who had been brought up from a city more than a thousand kilometres to the south to do some general maintenance and cleaning work on a number of these outstations to get them ready for habitation again. There was going to be an inspection of the lands by some top bureaucrats and pollies from Canberra, they informed us, and they all had to be ready for them. And no doubt re-occupied for the purposes of the visit. Two days later the men were gone and the house was abandoned again. The tour of inspection of lands had been cancelled.
Were the “tippin’ elbow” (an outback term for those who frequently check their watches) politicians and the bureaucrats, or the media gaggle that follow them, in on the theatre that was to be presented to them, I wondered? How could they not be?
It seems that with respect to Aborigines in remote communities, Australians at large are divided into two groups; an “in group” of those who, from close association, are aware of the realities of life of remote communities, and an “out group”, those who are not. Perhaps the continued employment of those in the “in group”, like my remote-area nurse, depends on the suppression of this reality and the ability to present an appropriate public face to the “out group”. The “in group”, in essence, takes it upon itself to protect the “out group” from the reality.
Of course, every now and then some story does leak out from a remote community and into the public sphere, in some garbled version of fact, but it would appear that it is like water off a duck’s back. The “out group” people quickly unlearn that which they have just learned, and life continues as before. What the “out group” appear to want is “plausible deniability”, and they rely on the “in group” to keep as many of the facts suppressed within the walls of the gated communities for as long as possible.
This terrible burden placed on the “in group” by the knowledge of the hopelessness of their situation in attempting to reconcile the contradictory government objectives of “Closing the Gap” while ostensibly preserving traditional indigenous culture, and at the same time bearing the responsibility of providing plausible deniability to the government about the obvious failings of their policies, has been described in a recently published book, Trapped in the Gap, by Professor Emma Kowal. I haven’t read the book myself, for reasons that will become obvious, but the book was reviewed by Kim Mahood in the Monthly in August 2015. Says Mahood:
Kowal’s protagonists are confronted with the irreconcilable contradiction that, in order for the “gap” to be closed, Aboriginal people must surrender or dilute their aboriginality, thus relinquishing their power and identity. This is the crippling moral dilemma: in their attempt to do good, they may in fact be doing harm. In a situation desperate for resources and support, the most highly skilled and scrupulous people are hollowed out by the effects of this contradiction.
Interestingly, Mahood also points out that Kowal’s book is in essence a book for the “in group”. Mahood implies that it is as if the book was written in “rigorous” academese more or less in order to prevent the “out group” from ever understanding its content. As she says:
The rigorous academic language Kowal applies to her research may be necessary to counter the attacks that her ideas will elicit, but it does make the work less useful to the public conversation. After a hard day in the contact zone it was something of a challenge to spend the evenings unpicking the meaning from sentences like the following: “To escape essentialised indigeneity, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people ‘must de-couple Indigeneity from disadvantage and marginality from cultural and physical alterity and from callow moral dichotomies’.”
One has to assume that Kowal does want people to read her book—but the academic style certainly dissuaded me! Mahood helpfully presents a translation of the sentence she extracted:
Translated, Kowal’s argument suggests that the way forward requires the victimised to let go of the advantages of victimhood, and the stigmatised to relinquish the excoriating pleasures of the hairshirt. It’s hard to imagine such ideas gaining traction in the current climate of racial politics, but, as she points out, the existing model is gridlocked in its own contradictions.
Now that is the sort of information that must be kept within the “in group”, away from open public discussion!
While Kowal has been in effect hiding her meaning from the “public conversation”, at Christmas I was recommended another book which, more helpfully written in plain language by someone in the “in group”, provides a thorough explanation of the reality of the operation of the remote communities. The book is The Dystopia in the Desert: The Silent Culture of Australia’s Remotest Aboriginal Communities by Tadhgh Purtill, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2017.
If you are looking for a description of the sordid day-to-day dysfunction of many remote communities—the violence and the substance abuse—this is not the book for you. But if you are interested in the pathology of the interaction between the “whitefella” staff and the Aboriginal community leaders in remote gated communities, it is a tour de force.
Of immediate relevance is Purtill’s recognition of the phenomenon whereby the opposite of “fact” is not in this context a “lie”, but a “counter-fact”. There is a requirement in certain remote communities that “certain ugly realities at a community level not exist”. For every “fact” there is a “counter-fact”—a different version of the essence of the meaning of that fact.
One example Purtill provides is the attitude to documentation such as work time-sheets. Purtill alleges that these are commonly produced post-fact by the administration staff themselves, are readily falsified and often bear little relationship to actual work done. In the local area of the gated community the time-sheets are to be regarded as much as a means of encouragement and reward for good behaviour, or a means to head off bad behaviour, than as a strict record of what days have been worked, start times and finishing times, or total hours worked. In his example, a man who was not working at all was having time-sheets filled in by an administrator as if he was at work, simply as a reward for not drinking alcohol on those days. This is the local “fact” represented by time-sheets. However, once the time-sheet crosses the boundary of the gated community and into the mainstream it becomes “factual” in the terms defined by the mainstream, and thus can be used by statisticians to write rock-solid reports on the efficacy of employment programs in Aboriginal communities.
A member of the community administration staff must be able to believe both versions of reality simultaneously, while at some level being able to know the official admissibility of only one version. As Purtill says:
Staff and others are expected to confine themselves to the regional vocabulary of acceptable sayables. Between these sayables and the reality there is both a factual gap and an authorised psychology of denial. The overall effect of this gap between “real reality” and “pseudo reality” (the counter-factual reality), and the promotion of the latter over the former, is to deprioritise truth within the regime of service provision and community management.
It is the simple de-prioritising of truth that ultimately poisons relations within the whole community.
By the simple re-definition of terms like “work”, the administrative staff have to be able, in their own minds, to reconcile the local definitions of the terms they use, with the use of these same terms with totally different definitions outside the gated communities—and say nothing. But the local re-definition of “work” in the community devalues the whole idea of “work” amongst those who are supposed to be being encouraged to get jobs.
Purtill’s scepticism on the accuracy of community population figures and census data for his study area, hinting at the prevalence of double-counting in order to improve funding, echoes my own observations. The population statistics on paper of one community I visited suggested a thriving community, but the actual population in residence at the time of my visit seemed to be, at most, one family—a re-definition of the concept of “occupied” to fulfil funding requirements. It would appear to take specialist training to be able to reconcile Purtill’s “mythical communities”—the virtual manifestations of the communities as they appear on their web pages—with the on-ground manifestations of the same.
The “out group” appears to be comfortable living with the delusion, as it serves their purposes well to believe what they are being told by the “in groupers”: that things are improving in the Aboriginal lands and that money is being well spent. On the other hand, many Aborigines themselves seem to be comfortable with the delusion of the “out group” as long as they are left alone and funding is maintained. Meanwhile, the “in group” hollows itself out in a moral vacuum in between the two, trying to maintain the delusion.
While in the short term everyone is comfortable enough with the status quo, Purtill asks, and then answers with devastating clarity, what the future is in prolonging the current situation. That his book is not widely known or discussed indicates the self-healing nature of the status quo, like a transplant patient who rejects the organ that is intended to save his life. It is a matter not so much of the inability to learn from past failures as the inability to admit any failures in the first place; to re-cast failure as success by the re-definition of words; the seemingly infinite ability to unlearn anything that threatens to teach.
I cannot do justice to the arguments in Purtill’s book without pointing out that the main focus of his thesis includes the contention that the cultural space he is describing in remote gated communities is neither Western nor “classical” traditional Aboriginal but, in reality, a space between traditional Aboriginal culture and mainstream Western culture which involves a toxic hybrid of both. The main players in this space, both indigenous and non-indigenous, skilfully exploit the widespread desire to preserve aspects of what they would regard as authentic traditional culture to leverage agendas of their own.
Of significance are the “Mununga Men” or “Adventurous Men” that Rolf Gerritsen talks about in his 1981 book Thoughts on Camelot, men with sufficient Western education and local language skills, who are able to place themselves as go-betweens between the administrators and the community. With their knowledge of both “whitefella” ways and Aboriginal ways, such men are able to manipulate the distribution of largesse from the white administrators. With this comes power within the community, and these men act as a separate “dominant” caste, sidelining the old men, the elders who traditionally held power by virtue of their traditional knowledge and control of particular ceremonies. For myself, I’m not convinced that traditional culture represents a realistic solution for Aborigines in the twenty-first century. But that would be a topic for another essay.
Purtill’s thesis then is in complete contradiction to the ideas presented by Kim Mahood in her review of Emma Kowal’s book. In essence, according to Mahood, Kowal’s white administrators are faced with “the irreconcilable contradiction that, in order for the ‘gap’ to be closed, Aboriginal people must surrender or dilute their aboriginality, thus relinquishing their power and identity”. In other words, according to Mahood, the problem is the difficult choice as to which of the two competing and contradictory agendas should take precedence.
According to Purtill, however, with expediencies like the re-definition of “work” to maintain peace within the community there is actually little hope of ever “closing the gap”. Indeed, the “gap” constantly widens as the main lesson the community members are being taught is the importance of being able to falsify documents. Therefore the aim of “closing the gap” is not even on the table. On the other hand, with local power moving from the elders to the “Mununga Men”, there is a constant undermining of their traditional Aboriginality anyway. In fact, it is not the community administrators with their “closing the gap” policies that community members surrender their Aboriginality to, but the “Mununga Men”, who are the immediate source of largesse. Therefore the aim of preserving traditional Aboriginal culture is also not realistically on the table either.
It is the realisation that the moral justification for their very presence in the Aboriginal lands, the two fronts which they hold most dear—“closing the gap” and preserving traditional culture—are no longer even on the table, that is perhaps more relevant in “hollowing out” the field workers in the Aboriginal industry. But the rest of the industry are safely ensconced behind the curtain of “plausible deniability”.
The Dystopia in the Desert: The Silent Culture of Australia’s Remotest Aboriginal Communities
by Tadhgh Purtill
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017, 267 pages, $44
Alistair Crooks is a retired geologist interested in the history of the interaction between Aborigines and government in the past. He is the co-author with Joe Lane of the book Voices from the Past: Extracts from the Annual Reports of the South Australian Chief Protectors of Aborigines, 1837 Onwards(Hoplon Press, 2016).