SBS 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.