Bennelong Papers

First Contact’s First Sin

first contactSBS and NITV have just broadcast the second season of First Contact: six Australians treated to a month’s adventure of meeting Aboriginal people and visiting their communities. The show, hosted by Ray Martin, has been the source of much discussion. It features the good, the bad and the ugly, with little consensus on which is what. I was privileged to be asked to participate in the panel discussion after the final episode. Having watched the three episodes and reflected on the experience, I offer some opinions about the show and ideas I think will be helpful for Aboriginal Australia.

The six participants are assumed to be representative of Australians who have not had the ‘Aboriginal experience.’ How representative are they? Well, for starters, they are well-known personalities, who have more experience in front of the TV camera than most. And, obviously, they have  public images to maintain. Nonetheless, they can be considered sufficiently representative for the show’s purpose.

The Aboriginal Australia shown in the second First Contact was very confronting. I give credit to SBS for airing some shocking television: appalling living conditions, forced removal of children, incarceration, drunkenness, and — perhaps the saddest — suicide.These are the issues that must be addressed if we are to see the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people improve.

As good as First Contact was, two important issues still need discussing. First, the show was created on the premise that non-Aboriginal Australia needs to learn more about Aboriginal Australians. Consider the words of Jenna Martin (daughter of Ray). What we we need, she said, is “more shows like First Contact because they force White Australia to notice Aboriginal people and they force us to wake up and confront our own attitudes.”  I would argue that many white Australians do notice Aboriginal Australians and do care about them, despite Jenna’s view that First Contact is “trying to be realistic about how little (most) white people care.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say that anyone wanting to invalidate the myth that white Australia doesn’t care need only read Jenna’s writings. She is, in fact, the refutation of her own argument.

In contrast to the show’s premise that non-Aboriginal Australians need to learn more about the serious issues facing Aboriginal Australia I believe many, perhaps the majority, of city-based Aboriginal-identifying Australians need to know about these issues too — because many Aboriginal activists and much-quoted commentators seem to have had little real-life experience. Or is it that those serious issues are just not important in their eyes? I pose this question on the basis that many typically seem more likely to focus on confected issues and irrelevancies, such as changing the date of Australia Day, taking huge offence at a Bill Leak cartoon or voicing outrage that golliwogs can still be purchased. My advice to those activists: visit some of the communities featured in First Contact, see how the people live, compare it with the sort of lifestyle and opportunities they enjoy, then offer practical, honest solutions.

The second issue is that while many of the Aboriginal people featured in the series suffer much disadvantage and dysfunction, it is vitally important to realise that many others do not. Indeed, they are thriving – and, what’s more, thriving through relevant participation in the ‘dominant culture’ (the culture of all Australians). The naïve SBS viewer might easily conclude that all Aboriginal people suffer equally. Such thinking is as misguied as it is unhelpful, to put it mildly.

Equally unhelpful is white guilt, which was certainly evident in discussions among some of the show’s recruite celebrities. Articulating white guilt allows those afflicted to feel they have confessed their sins. Perplexed about how they can help Aboriginal people, they can say, “This is terrible. It’s disgusting. Ah, I feel so much better now that I have expressed my disapproval.” An example of this was provided by Sydney radio personality Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones tearfully stating in a segment for A Current Affair: “You know, I’m sorry. I just … I feel so guilty, and I’m a white Australian and I’m as sorry as hell. I’m sorry.” Joining Jonesy was radio co-host Amanda Keller, who said “… this is the world’s oldest civilisation. Why don’t we take pride in that?”

If only feeling guilty and taking pride in the “world’s oldest civilisation” achieved anything practical and worthwhile. Let’s also keep in mind that the great majority of non-Aboriginal people in Australia were born in this great country. They can hardly be said to  have had any choice in the matter. So why should they say ‘sorry’ or feel the slightest degree of guilt, basically for not being born Aboriginal? I cannot help but wonder if celebrities really are the best people to represent and dissect these issues.

By way of contrast, there was the view held by One Nation co-founder David Oldfield, which focused on practicalities. Though he sometimes came across as abrupt (at least in the edited version of the show), he did address what I believe are the key issues for closing the gap: self-responsibility, school, and jobs. A notable example was his suggestion that people clean up their homes — a suggestion that, incredibly, promptedd controversy.

In the edited version of the show it appears that Oldfield enters an Aboriginal woman’s home and quickly starts criticising her for the carpet of rubbish littering her yard. During the feast put on by SBS after the filming of the reunion episode, I met and spoke briefly with Oldfield. He comes across as a direct and confident person, which is not necessarily a bad trait, but he is definitely not what might be described as abrupt. He told me he was in the house for several minutes having a conversation with the woman before asking about the rubbish. In the final show, neither this conversation nor scenes of the rubbish were shown. The exchange between Oldfield and the woman as played was:

Oldfield: “…. Whose rubbish is that then?”

Lady: “That’s mine.”

Oldfield: “Why aren’t you aren’t picking that up.”

Lady: “I’ll pick it up when I’m rough and ready.”

Fellow celebrity Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson responds: “It’s going to be a long day if you carry on like this.” I fear that remarks and attitudes like Dicko’s could put a lot of people off wanting to be involved in helping Aboriginal people. Tough issues need to be discussed if we are going to see the lives of Aboriginal people improve, but if non-Aboriginal Australians are going to be met with “don’t carry on like that” — in other words, ‘how dare you mention the obvious’ — then they are less likely to get involved. It is so much easier to utter guilt-ridden pieties or, easier still, to bite your tongue and say nothing.

Contrast these exchanges with the views of Aboriginal politician Alison Anderson, as reported in The Australian. She is a woman unafraid to articulate tough truths:

She criticised those who expected the government to “do everything for them”, saying the world was looking on and “wondering if we are children”. Ms Anderson said that in her travels to remote communities she would be arguing “with adults who refuse to grow up”.

“In the rest of Australia, people pick up the rubbish in their yards. They fix their own blocked toilets,” Ms Anderson said.

Rubbish in Aboriginal communities is a serious problem. I’ve seen it myself. And if any members of the social justice/victim brigade offer to show me photos of white families with trash-littered yards, don’t waste your time. I know such yards exist, and I would be just as critical of their yards as of an Aboriginal’s rubbish-filled yard. However, it is the Aboriginal people who are suffering most and crying out for help, and rubbish-filled yards can deter white Australians’ sympathy or help. When I see a beggar asking for money while holding a can of beer, I’m less likely to offer help. Well, it’s the same reaction when asked to help those who make it obvious they will not help themselves..

Interestingly, in the same community where Oldfield made his comments about the rubbish, we saw a filthy toilet, prompting Dicko to state “… this is probably the worst toilet in Australia.” He was not criticised, possibly because he did not frame his observation as a question that could have been interpreted as an accusation, as did Oldfield. Dicko comes across as the none judgmental good guy — the toilet is dirty, not those who let it get that way — and he quite rightly points out that a housing authority somewhere has responsibility for maintenance of the house. But shouldn’t the home’s occupants also be responsible for keeping it clean?

Putting personalities aside, and I did speak briefly with both Oldfield and Dicko and found each to be a likeable character, I think Oldfield’s blunter message the most helpful. I like to think that in Australia — whether you are black, white, or brindle —  if you show some initiative, there will always be someone (many, in fact) to lend a helping hand. No home in Australia should have a toilet like the one shown in First Contact, nor should yards be drowning in rubbish.

Channel Nine’s A Current Affair (ACA) did a story about Oldfield. They interviewed Linda Burney, who said: “The views that he [Oldfield] has expressed are provocative, they’re hurtful, and they’re distressing.” With all due respect, I disagree. Oldfield’s views may be inconvenient for some, but they are neither hurtful nor distressing, though certainly provocative. Psychologists will tell you that words elicit “offence” only when the hearer is afraid that there may be an element of unwanted, uncomfortable truth in them. Burney was not asked to explain why she found his quite reasonable question so hurtful, at least not in any of the shot footage that actually made it to the screen.  ACA however did feature her dismissive reference to Oldfield’s association with the One Nation party 20 years ago — as if this is somehow proved that his views are both wrong and can be easily dismissed.

For me, the three episodes showed that to end the disadvantage and suffering that many Aboriginal people endure requires opportunity, desire, and support – and we did see elements of each in this second series. Again, I congratulate SBS for this. Looking at these three briefly: opportunity means there must be real access to education and jobs; desire means individual and family self-determination and responsibility; and finally, we are social creatures and all need the help of others. With these three in place, problems like suicide and high rates of incarceration can be effectively dealt with.

There will likely be a third season of First Contact. But I would like to see a follow-up special where the same communities that were visited this time are re-visited. Could we expect to see a change for the better in two to three years’ time? If the answer is no, then, sadly, the Aboriginal people featured this time round will have only been grist for the mill of viewers’ titillation.

Perhaps we need to adopt the Oldfield mindset and not see people solely as Aboriginal but as Australian, with Aboriginality but one aspect of their being. All Australians,  Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, can contribute to a solution. Were that to happen, with the emphasis on solutions rather than excuses, progress would a lot closer than what we have been led to believe.

18 thoughts on “First Contact’s First Sin

  • says:

    Anthony Dillon deserves great respect for his views expressed in this article and elsewhere concerning the deplorable conditions afflicting Aborigines in remote communities. However, even he fails to address the issue that is the root cause of this dreadful problem: Aboriginal culture. As David Oldfield said during the “First Contact” program, it is a Stone Age culture that should be allowed to die out. Shock horror! – it was not edited out, presumably to illustrate Oldfield’s despicable racism.

    Let those objecting to Oldfield’s sentiment answer this simple question: Emotional sentimentality notwithstanding, what practical use is Aboriginal culture in contemporary Australia or any other civilised society?

    All it achieved over 45-50000 years is the mere survival of the species, as did all other living organisms. It is not necessary to list the primitive, often childish details of Aboriginal culture, nor the range of its detestable aspects to conclude that the endeavour to live by it in the 21st century is a diabolical folly. Consider further that the overwhelming majority of Australians identifying as Aborigines live their lives according to the norms of contemporary Australian culture, with only a modicum of acquaintance of indigenous culture. Why, then, condemn the tiny minority living in remote communities to their appalling misery? This last question is addressed to the Dodsons, Burneys, Mansells, at al, who live according to contemporary Australian standards while enjoying the rich benefits accruing to “champions” of a culture which they have abandoned a long time ago.

    • Homer Sapien says:

      Bill, you hit the nail on the head!

    • Warty says:

      My wife is a tad more practical than I, Bill. Having told her the amount of land the Aboriginals already have exclusive rights to, and having mentioned Keith Windshuttle and his thinking on the treaty bit, she said ‘let them go for it. Let them have their own state up there in the north, but we’ll cut out all the benefits and they can return to their traditional life style, and those who continue to bleat about being badly treated by the descendants of colonials can go and join them’.
      It’s not a bad idea, though personally, I’m totally opposed to constitutional recognition or treaties or exclusive land rights. But as I say, I’m more ideological than she.

  • rosross says:

    Another great article, Anthony Dillon.

    Ray Martin produces theatre. He specialises in well-mashed, digestible invalid food. Invalid as in lacking validity and invalid as in sick. More to the point, the people Martin targets are not representative of indigenous Australians, many, perhaps most of whom are doing okay – at least as good as most of the rest of us.

    No-one would countenance a programme on the most dysfunctional non-indigenous Australians as being representative of the country or the culture as a whole and it is ridiculous to present this minority group of indigenous, as reflecting all of the around 600,000 Australians who identify as indigenous. But, never let facts get in the way of propaganda is the way of the world these days and a Ray Martin tendency anyway.

    Just because something is ancient does not make it of value. Many of the worst aspects of human nature and culture are ancient and we struggle still to let them go.

    Aborigines did not have a civilization, or, if they did, they destroyed it aeons ago and any remnants are long buried. Aborigines in 1788 had a culture, which, compared to the most advanced civilizations and cultures of the time, was primitive, brutal, backward and often cruel. To put it in perspective, the most advanced civilizations of the 18th century would be considered primitive, brutal, backward and often cruel compared to the best of today.

    And Aboriginal culture is not the oldest – all cultures which exist are equally old since all can trace their origins back to Homo Sapiens, who emerged, we think, from Africa, around 200,000 years ago. In that time some advanced more than others and Aborigines were not in the most advanced group by any stretch of the imagination, then or now.

    No indigenous today want to live as Aborigines did in 1788, and in fact many Aborigines did not want to do so by 1789. Hence the long history of intermarriage and the desire for the ‘best’ and ‘most advanced’ that Anglo/European, Western, which just means modern, culture had to offer.

    • PT says:

      Why is “Aboriginal culture” (they weren’t a civilisation) older than that of the Bushmen of the Kalahari? Is it because they didn’t invent the bow and arrow? Why can’t Aboriginal people be seen for what they are?

  • says:

    One major aspect of cheap stunts like this one is the rock-solid assumption of white power, the power that has total control and total responsibility and therefore forever needs to airily apologise for what people should be doing for themselves. And then it is assumed that an apology is pretty much all that is required, that the powerful whites involved can write off these fellow-Australians and move on back to their (our) comfortable lives, smug in our renewed sense of superiority and total power.

    Aboriginal people have always had a bit more power over their own lives than the stereotype suggests, and therefore more responsibility for their own life-conditions. But they too have taken advantage of this illusion of total white power and now, in remote settlements, expect that outsiders will not only endlessly provide all necessary services but also that it’s outsiders’ responsibility to, for example, clean up any rubbish. After all, in addition, who made that packaging ? Aboriginal people didn’t, so why should they have to clean up white fellas’ rubbish ?

    The great Australian tragedy now is that Blacks and whites don’t have much understanding of each other, perhaps less than fifty or a hundred years ago, BUT do have a certain level of contempt for each other, which prevents any rapid change in that lack of understanding.

    • Warty says:

      There is that great Trinity: the Father of Grievance Politics, the Son of Indentity Politics and the holy smoke Cultural Appropriation. That they don’t form a genuine unity lies in the fact that it is a mystery. As you know mysteries cannot be explained and require faith before one become at one with this mystery, which must remain a mystery in order to retain any integrity. It this explanation fails to make any sense, don’t despair: the mystery owes its profundity to the new orthodox science of the Neo Left Psychobabble.

  • Gordon says:

    I haven’t seen the TV series and probably won’t.
    I have white friends and black friends, mainly due to where I grew up. In 2016, the situation is what it is, with blame easily & correctly cast upon both the white man & black man. Todays white man and black man are not perfect. In 1788, Aboriginal culture was anything but primitive in many ways.
    The real tragedy is what has been lost. One small example is fire within our bush.

  • PT says:

    You’ll never get any sense out of Martin these days. He was made a “celebrity” by 60 Minutes, which was worsened by the Midday Show, and finally became a vapid, superficial, charactature of himself on A Current Affair, which is why later series of Frontline switched from Stan Grant to Ray Martin as the target. Anything he’s involved with now is deeply suspect.

  • en passant says:

    A well thought out and (as usual) an intelligently argued article – and some of the follow-on comments add considerable quality to the debate.

    Back in the 1960’s I spent a few days on one of these remote settlements. Alcohol was not allowed, so many of the problems resulting from the ‘Whitlam Revolution’ did not exist.

    There were about 300 people in the settlement but this seemed to vary by the day as they simply came and went. There were five white Australians (two with young families) living slightly separately. One maintained the generator and all equipment. One was a policeman (assisted by a couple of ‘boys’ who helped with cultural matters and tribal law and who tracked people when necessary). The third was a nurse, the fourth was a Missionary(?) cum teacher and the fifth ran the store (with the help of two aboriginal women).

    The village was reasonably clean and the young people curious and ‘harmless’. We were not encouraged to interact with them.
    There was nothing for anyone to do, and what work there was, was done for them. Rations were passed out to families every week.

    I will claim that it did occur to me that neither a Da Vinci nor an Einstein would arise in this environment. As this was my first experience of meeting a real aborigine and, as I had other work on my mind (surveying a road), the reality of their situation did not occur to me.

    This was it. The end of evolution, science, progress and culture for every generation, forever.

    Whitlam destroyed their equilibrium (along with everything else he touched) and may a few generations later have done them a favour.

    Let me quote from an article I wrote about the lecherous drunkard ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and the destruction of the clans after their defeat at Culloden:

    “By 1746 the Scottish Clans were an anachronism. Even without their catastrophic demise at Culloden and its aftermath, time would have caught up with them eventually. Through the destruction of the feudal clan system, ‘Butcher’ Cumberland broke their chains and created a Scottish diaspora that colonised many lands to the benefit of both. The industrialised Lowlands flourished once the constant threat of raids by the northern tribesmen was removed. This produced an explosion of some of the world’s finest doctors, engineers, scientists, philosophers, soldiers, explorers, and created wealth beyond anything they could have imagined.”

    The sooner we either let those who wish to return to the Stone Age, isolated from all forms of modernity, do so the better, or they must join us in the 21st Century.

    Right now the ‘activists’ want it both ways: endless money for permanently inherited victimhood, and a faux version of their original culture with all the modcons – and I mean cons.

    • Warty says:

      One slight difference, en passant: I don’t think we will see the world’s finest doctors, engineers, scientists etc emerging from the lot that don’t go bush; just a bucket-full of whinges and aggressive demands.

  • Homer Sapien says:

    There is such a thing as a panacea, it is called Judeo-Christian foundation.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Great article AD … always excellent clear thinking behind the writing – might be that good Catholic education. I have often thought that much of the Aboriginal political agenda was ‘invaded’ by the AWU and the communists about the time of the Wave Hill strike … and that from it – developed a contemporary new National group of Aboriginal intellectuals and autodidacts who were more communist than Aboriginal … or an interesting combination of both. Gary Foley for example. The communist manifesto fitted well with the tribal nature of Aboriginal decision making and provided a quasi spiritual plan of action through astute political activism ( the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. for example, was the Community Development act of the century – Saul Alinsky would have been proud). Aboriginal entry into the modern world had previously made great ground through the missionaries mostly excellent attempts with education. Christianity also melded well with the spiritual nature of Aboriginal dreaming – in many ways Traditional tribal Aboriginal culture needed to find a way into the modern world through a spiritual belief system.

    Left wing whitefella dreaming – romanticised ‘Aboriginality’ – citing Rousseau. It sanctified ‘Aboriginality’ as an expression of the utter innocence of humankind and presented aboriginally as naked human kind walking in the Garden of Eden, They were Adam and Eve … and how dare modern western civilisation disturb their perfection. They were given power over the pristine environment which they managed with divine knowledge and fire. They were said to be able to fly their minds into the stars and look back at country – see X-ray through people. The Tula Pintibi painters re-started global abstract art. Carlos Castaneda could not have dreamed what Aboriginal art dreamed with all the mescaline in Mexico.

    Yet the Aboriginality that has been dreamed up by the left wing romantics – never existed within the short brutish lives of traditional people … and those trying to mimic it in isolated communities hunt in Toyotas with shot-guns and live in houses. There is a great need for straight talking in aboriginal matters, by both blackfellers and whitefellas … Nowhere is there a greater need for free speech than around this issue. Without the contest of ideas … we can get lost in the mythology … thinking we are enabling the Garden of Eden … when in reality we have created welfare ‘cages’ out in the deserts an isolated places where horror takes place on a daily basis and the hopelessness and anger are only visible through the garbage and litter which is everywhere.

    • Jody says:

      Don’t forget Noel Pearson’s recent savaging of the ABC and other groupies that he referred to as “the bigotry of the soft left”. He seemed very very angry about this left wing romantics who are entrenching the aboriginal people in ghettos of the left’s own making and imagination (if such there can ever be!). I’m bored rigid with luvvies who have all care but no responsibility and for whom aboriginal people are artifacts who’s story can be bandied around at fashionable dinner parties.

      The Left eagerly promulgated notions of cultural relativism; it insists all cultures are equal. I locked horns with people in Musicology who said that aboriginal didgeridoo music was just as worthy and valid as that by Bach. They argued that western classical music was dominated by elitism and that it is essentially a museum relic that continues to do the rounds in elitist concert halls. Well, my question is this: if all cultures are equal and all groups and tribes are equal how come they’re not making any effort to get aboriginal people out of dysfunction and violence and into a space where they can hold their own with white people – yet they are frantically advocating the overdue status of aboriginal music.

      Can’t have it both ways. They’re tin pot dictators, these Lefties.

    • says:

      Hi Patrick, I was born on the Left but have tried not to treat it as a religion. The easy Manichaean thinking: either-or, one side all bad therefore the other side all good – has condemned and crippled the Left: that if integration or ‘assimilation’ have problems, then its opposite must be all-good, problem-free. But its opposite is Apartheid and I was struggling with that dilemma back in the sixties, wavering from one to the other, before reality set in and I asked myself: what did people actually want to do ?

      You mention the Wave Hill walk-off: I transcribed the national Aboriginal Welfare conferences held every couple of years through the sixties (they’re on, on the ‘Royal Commissions and Conferences’ page). Around 1966-1967, there was discussion at the conferences about the walk-off, about equal wages (most Aboriginal pastoral workers were already getting equal wages: big surprise) and Aboriginal demands were also focussing on accommodation: the argument went, that if single non-Aboriginal employees were being accommodated, then why not Aboriginal workers and their families ? Given that those (extended) families were, and always had been, getting rations, on top of payments in money and kind to the workers themselves, this seemed to be an impossible demand, and discussion at the conferences moved on quickly. As did any discussion about what economic activity might boost Missions and settlement economies, as if nobody could come up with any proposal whatever. And so it’s been ever since.

      80 % of Indigenous people live in towns and cities, perhaps 50 % in large cities. Most have been determined to make the decision, over some generations, to seize any opportunities and integrate into Australian society. Clearly, this option is out of the question for remote populations. For them, de facto Apartheid – with lifelong welfare but with no prospects of economic activity – is the only course. It seems that the Left supports Apartheid. Certainly, most of the ‘leaders’ and elites do, out of that Manichaean ‘anything but assimilation’ approach (while of course living it themselves). Hence, a demand for ‘recognition’, which necessarily has come to be posed as the antithesis of ‘reconciliation’. We’ve all got a long way to go.

  • says:

    Remember Ray Martin of all people was of the group that this year was asked to evaluate the ABC for bias. Surprise, surprise, he found none to speak of. Is it not the same Ray Martin who every Australia Day wants a new national flag? I suppose he would be content with the black, red and yellow one!

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