Bennelong Papers

Indigenous Culture and Vile Crimes

dot bonesSome years ago, while driving up to Broken Hill, I was listening to the ABC Radio National program, Life Matters.  The presenter was hosting a Northern Territory Health Department bureaucrat and they were discussing a recently released report on the alarming incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst Aboriginal children from the remote areas.   The villain of the piece, as I remember it, was John Howard, for failing to fund more sexually-transmitted disease clinics, and more sex education for the young Aboriginal girls in the remote communities affected.

Their interest was focused purely on the health aspects of the topic.  The two women did not appear to be the least interested in questioning how Aboriginal children were catching sexually transmitted diseases in the first place.  Of course, a girl having a sexually transmitted disease was a prima facie case for illegal activity.  The two women would have been aware that under-aged girls cannot give legal consent, and therefore sex of this type is legally considered to be statutory rape. While the question of how these children were contracting sexually transmitted diseases was there to be asked, the women seemed uninterested in asking it.

The answer to the unaskd question was there, the proverbial elephant in the room.  In those remote communities remnant, traditional culture relating to forced marriage of under-aged girls lent an air of legitimacy to these otherwise illegal activities.  In traditional societies, girls under the age of legal consent were considered “available” to be partners, with or without their own consent. The traditional preparation of these young girls prior to marriage has been too well documented by respected anthropologists to require reproduction in detail here.  I have been personally shown one of the implements used, as in Warin’s (2007) “hole not big enough, makem bigger’” ceremony.     These traditional practices, I argue, could provide the template on which modern dysfunction has been built.

Was the apparent failure of the authorities, like the health bureaucrat, to pursue this illegal activity an indication that they, too, accepted this underlying legitimacy?   They appear to have accepted that the incidence of sexually transmitted disease was not a simple matter of criminal activity that could be dealt with by the normal legal channels.  Their apparent inaction suggests they recognized that the pursuit of this illegal activity would ensnare the “wrong” people.  Forced marriage of the kind mainstream law would consider “under-aged” girls was culturally sanctioned in the past, and, in essence, remains so. It was not part of their agenda to challenge that status quo.

This is the first installment of a three-part series

In 2006, a short time after this radio program, the Crown Prosecutor for Central Australia, Nanette Rogers, finally spilled the beans on child abuse in remote communities.   This was followed by a series of bureaucratic reports, including the Little Children are Sacred report which triggered the Intervention.

A great error of the post-report era was that it gave no attention to the white bureaucracy’s failure to address child sexual abuse as an illegal activity. The legal implications of those publicly-available documents, detailing sexually transmitted diseases in children, appear to have been rarely followed up.  Police, the doctors, the clinic nurses, the teachers, the social workers, the bureaucrats, the politicians, the courts, the media, must all have known the truth of what was happening on the ground.  Is it pertinent to compare the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases in underage girls with the number of convictions for sexual abuse?

But the opportunity appears to have passed.  The bureaucracy was never challenged for what appears to be a deliberate policy of turning away from the plight of these girls.  It would have been interesting to know at what level within the white bureaucracy the active decision to take no action was taken.  I wondered if some element of  Stockholm Syndrome was involved in this enculturisation, or was it simply more venal — “an industry of parasitic bureaucrats, consultants, activists and lobbyists whose livelihoods depend on perpetuating Indigenous victimhood”, as Sebastian Tombs wondered in Quadrant?

Mal Brough, Minister of Indigenous Affairs of the time, referred to it as ‘a paedophile ring’:

‘Let me explain what I mean by a paedophile ring. It’s not people getting on the net, as you hear about down here. It doesn’t work like that. But if a number of people know that someone is committing a crime, allows that crime to continue, and there are others in the community committing the crime, what else do we want to call it?’

Perhaps he was referring to the silence from the Indigenous communities, but the principle also applies to the white bureaucrats.  “But if a number of people know that someone is committing a crime, allows that crime to continue, …, what else do we want to call it?”  As the effective protectors of child abuse in remote communities, the bureaucrats who knew, and failed to act, should have been forced to defend their actions, or inaction, in public.  We had a politically motivated Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, and an equally politically motivated absence of a Royal Commission into the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in remote communities? An interesting parallel can be drawn by comparing the current pursuit of the Catholic Church hierarchy over inaction over allegations of abuse by some members of its clergy, with the indifference in identifying the source of the systemic failure in the Indigenous communities. Why the double standards?

Even more regrettable was the failure to identify those few who tried to raise the alarm.  In particular, I regret that there was no recognition of, or apology to, those brave people who did speak up and were criticised, silenced, or whose careers suffered because of it.   This was totally unjust, but apparently necessary, in order to protect the white bureaucracy who didn’t speak up.

This is important because the failure of the Little Children are Sacred report era to go down the path of  truth and reconciliation means that, in all probability, many bureaucrats who proved themselves utterly inadequate in protecting the rights of Indigenous children in the past have been allowed to continue unchallenged in their posts, continue to retain prestige and status, continue to hold the ‘high moral ground’ in debating Aboriginal issues, and ultimately, continue to influence policy decision-making, and policy implementation to the present day.

The Role of Traditional Culture.

There is a new optimism centred around the Noel Pearson’s and Warren Mundine’s push for self reliance, individual responsibility, the creation of genuine work rather than welfare dependency, and a new focus on proper education outcomes?  Having admitted the failures of the old “self-determination” model, it is good to see a new direction being tried.   But is the new optimism warranted?    Noel Pearson reports an improvement, insisting it’s “changing peoples lives” in the trial areas, but with $100 million committed over five years for just four small Indigenous communities you certainly would want to see some change in somebody’s life!

Put bluntly, it looks as if  it has the potential to be just another bureaucracy-feeding, expensive, blind alley.   There are major stumbling block that appear to have been ignored.


For example, one of the key sticking points is about the education of the children, and the assertion that parents must be encouraged to make their children go to school.   My understanding of traditional culture with respect to child-rearing practices means that, in general, it is culturally inappropriate for parents to “make” their children do anything. (The exceptions might pertain to the breaking of sacred taboos.)  James Franklin, citing data collected by David McKnight from Mornington Island, remarks:

“A normal Western child grows up with a non-stop training in self-restraint, from toilet training through fixed meal and bed-times to regimented and compulsory schooling and sport. Traditional indigenous child-rearing practices, still largely intact, are very different. McKnight states baldly, ‘Children are indulged and rarely disciplined’ (and if one relative attempts discipline, others will step in to prevent it). Black parents were often shocked by how white parents disciplined their children. The indulgent period lasted until the early teenage years, when an extreme level of discipline was suddenly imposed through a violent initiation (for boys) or marriage to an elder (for girls).”

This is not an isolated observation, but one that has been widely reported across many Indigenous communities.   Therefore, it appears to be quite wrong to ascribe the lack of attendance at school to some form of neglect of parental duty, but rather to a continuation of traditional cultural norms.   It would appear then that there is a deep cultural barrier to achieving mainstream-levels of school attendance if it involves compulsion enforced by parents.   This would need to be addressed before change in education outcomes is possible.  Is such an intervention proposed?

Anyone who feels inclined to minimise the cultural hurdles is invited to consult Patrick MacCawley’ s,  2008, Quadrant article. “Wadeye; Failed State as Cultural Triumph”.   It provides a useful insight into how the education system functions on the ground.

There is no need to play up the extent of the massive social and educational ‘disadvantage’ or more specifically, the mayhem, anger or passive revolution here – it is obvious.”

The term “passive revolution” used here is interesting, and will come up again later.


Indigenous employment is also a key sticking point.     The provision of local work, a hoped-for solution, has failed in notable places where semiskilled and unskilled work has already been plentiful. Consider Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian:

“The able-bodied and healthy among the remote community population choose not to work because they have no need to. Consider Kings Canyon luxury resort near Yulara. It is American-managed and employs about 100 people, almost none of them locals; there are 60 able-bodied men and women living on the surrounding outstations, the majority of them unemployed, a familiar imbalance.”                      

He could easily have selected Yulara (Ayres Rock) Resort itself.  For the two years I worked near there, the unskilled and semiskilled workforce was dominated by German and Irish backpackers, while the local gated communities continued to have substantially high unemployment rates.  This is a situation that has been on-going for many years.  There has been a change of ownership of the resort in recent year with a take-over by the local Indigenous land council, but while employment of  Indigenous youth may have increased, there are now large question marks over the enterprise.

“With the cost of the writedown, it’s (costing) around $150,000 per Aboriginal position at the Ayers Rock Resort.”          

Local agriculture, mining and tourism ventures have been tried with very few positive outcomes.    In some key remote communities there has been no lack of opportunity for young men or women to train and to engage in unskilled or semiskilled work, or even progress to higher management levels.  But, as Rothwell observes, the local indigenous work force apparently ‘choose not to work because they have no need to.’

Is there an explanation?  In my experience traditional kinship obligation / demand-sharing represents a huge barrier to work.   I worked with an Indigenous technician in the mining industry who confessed to me sadly, “I have all relatives and no friends.”  He worked a four-weeks on/one-week off roster, receiving a relatively high daily rate by any standards, and at the end of his swing would return home to his community.  There, he told me, he would be met by all of his kin who would immediately invoke kinship rules to clean him out.  After a couple days he would be flat broke again, and have to borrow money to get back to work at the end of each break. There was no incentive for him to keep coming back to work – but he did, and I really admired him for his effort.

Long-time Indigenous campaigner Stephen Hagan expresses similar difficulties when confronting traditional cultural expectations, while making the transition from community to city life.

‘In 1999, I reprioritised my personal and family goals,” he said. “It was the year I discerned the critical proactive role I needed to play in support of my immediate family. I took those decisions knowing they were directly opposed to the desire to always attempt to satisfy the shallow expectations of my extended family and friends.   In its infancy, this process was quite painful as I stopped lending money to my family and friends – most of which anyway was never returned in full, or sometimes at all – and I declined requests from them to bunk down for the night at my residence when visiting from out of town.’

Franklin describes the difficulty of projecting the mainstream concept of the ‘economic incentives’ of work into a traditional society:

‘Indigenous society is fundamentally more communal than modern white society.     Private property is a meaningless concept if one is enmeshed in a network of obligations to give away everything if kin demand it. There is shame in refusing a request from someone appropriately kin, and refusals can engender grudges that are held for a long time. For the division of irregular hunting kills, there was a good reason for a system of rights to portions of it. The same practices are dysfunctional in a modern setting. No one except ‘bigmen’ has the unimpeded power to spend their own wages, pension or baby bonus, retain their own medicines, repair anything, or find a place to study in a house full of twenty relatives. It does not make sense to talk of ‘economic incentives’ in the usual sense or the provision of jobs or training in situations where people do not retain the fruit of their labours.’

Violence and Alcoholism

Again, much is said about the linked problems of alcoholism and violence in remote communities.  Small anecdotes from here and there underline the importance that traditional culture plays in remote communities, an importance that simply cannot be ignored.  One example may have been presented by Pia Akerman in The Australian, where she quotes:

‘You described him as cutting your arms, hand, throat, pulling your teeth out with pliers, that he was very jealous, very suspicious,” judge Betty King said while sentencing Hudson today.

The “pulling of teeth” seems a somewhat unusual punishment, until one remembers a comment from a traditional Aboriginal woman quoted by Stephanie Jarrett:

A woman might have her teeth knocked out if she were found guilty of adultery.

Does this represent a trace of a traditional cultural punishment lingering into the present day?

Also, the role of alcohol, in my opinion, is present, but overplayed.  For example, I think about a recent high profile incident involving violence in the Alice Springs town camps.  This appeared to be generally passed off as some sort of “normalised,” alcohol-related violence but, if one can believe Age reporter Martin Flanagan, underlying it all are deep traditional cultural influences and the continuing belief in sorcery:

“In traditional Aboriginal society, events which cannot be explained by other means can be attributed to sorcery. This impacted on the Yuendumu football team in the 2000s when an older player, a stalwart of the side, retired and his guernsey was passed on to a newcomer. Great significance is attached to players’ guernseys. When the newcomer to the Yuendumu team fell ill with cancer and died, the belief grew that the person responsible for the death was the player who had formerly worn his guernsey.

This dispute, fuelled by alcohol, was the backdrop for the knife fight in the Alice Springs town camp in late 2010 which resulted in the death of one young man and the wounding of two others. All involved, both the three assailants and the three assaulted, were Yuendumu footballers. They were also Liam Jurrah’s teammates when the Yuendumu Magpies were premiers and the pride of Yuendumu. They had been teammates all their lives.

I am reminded of a passage in Douglas Lockwood’s “I the Aboriginal” (1962), essentially the ghost-written autobiography of Waipuldanya of Arnhemland, where a long “hypothetical” (starting page 117) is presented involving sorcery in which a dog is speared and its owner then kills the spearer in a revenge-killing.   In the “hypothetical”, the man appears in court and the whole issue is glossed over as “woman trouble”, because it is just too hard to explain the real cause to a white court, and the court would probably be more sympathetic to a “woman trouble” story anyway.  I wonder if “alcohol-related violence” isn’t used in much the same way, as a convenient excuse to cover traditional cultural complications, and an excuse which will be readily understood and accepted by the courts.   Importantly, while the labels “alcohol-related violence” or “woman trouble” can be used as a cover for deep traditional responses to modern situations, it should be noted that these are generally deep traditional responses sanctioned under customary law – and following customary legal precedents.

These are three ways in which traditional culture is incompatible with the new, Pearson/Mundine agenda.    Unless the contradictions are addressed – I don’t see very much chance of real progress with this new agenda.

Parts II and III will appear over the next week

Frank Pledge is the pseudonym of a veteran geologist who has spent much time in the developing world and, more recently, in and around Amata, Oenplli, Yalata and other remote communities

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