If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this: no one gives it to you; you got to take it. —Francis Costello, New York-Irish gangster in The Departed
Give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist &you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one. —Bob Dylan, liner notes to World Gone Wrong
TOM ROBINSON, AND FRIENDS
All of us wanted our parents to be gentle. Some of us got it, some didn’t. Mostly we needed our parents to protect us. A home may have had an open gate and an unlocked front door, but it needed to be a sanctuary, watched over by protective eyes, a place where children were permitted to grow without being subject to interference from groping hands. But what if the greatest threat to a home came not from outside its walls, but from within? Such was the charge levelled against Aborigines on 21 June 2007, the day the intervention was announced: of forming a parental Fifth Column that molested and raped children while ignoring their more mundane rights to be fed, washed and educated.
The initial effect of the emergency federal intervention in the Northern Territory on the grounds of child sex abuse was to accuse remote-area Aborigines en masse of failing to provide their children with these fundamental protections and human rights. These were no less than charges of crimes against humanity – their own humanity. It is hard to find another example, recent or past, of one race being so singled out for failing to nurture its children, or charged with turning so inwardly against its most intimate relations. Even in nature, animals have their reasons for abandoning or devouring their young. Being stuck on the piss, or stuck on the gambling blanket, is no reason.
We were asked to accept that Aborigines, after 60,000 years of survival in some of the most hellishly harsh country known to humans, had, in the last forty years, forgotten how to raise children: that the part of the Aboriginal DNA allotted to parenthood had been cast adrift from the genome or, perhaps, was never really there. While the emergency intervention sought a better future, its thinking took us into the past, straight back to a time when the Land Rover, not the Land Cruiser, was the preferred vehicle of the north, and when conventional wisdom among white Australians was that Aborigines had inbuilt character flaws and a generally weak genetic disposition that marked them for extinction.
When Sir Les Patterson called Aborigines a “great little bunch of blokes,” those of us who had white Australian grandparents or great-grandparents may have heard their words rising from the grave. They talked in similar terms, fondly, but always with a cancelling clause: “Your Aborigine is by and large a decent fellow who cannot handle his drink”; or, “The Aborigine cannot work because he feels too strongly the lure of his ancestors. He prefers to go walkabout than work.”
Late last year, passing through Katherine, I heard an older white woman describing a powerfully built young Aboriginal man as a “strapping Warlpiri buck.” I sensed a hint of Mandingo longing in her voice, and while the rutting-savage suggestiveness of the term transported me directly to the deep south, it was not to a sexually pent-up slave plantation but rather a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird: Tom Robinson is sitting in the dock, accused of rape and unequipped to answer to the white folks who’d already made up their minds.
The ease with which bush Aborigines were assumed to be either sexual predators who would, as a matter of course and convenience, rape children (fathers and uncles), or accomplices who’d turn a blind eye (mothers and aunts), was depressing and dehumanising. As the failed Aboriginal welfare system was revamped through the part-quarantining of hand-out money in order to awaken indigenous people from the long sleep, to get them to school and to work, the intervention, or emergency response, looked like yet another form of welfare state, fashioned to once again wipe the arses of Australia’s first people.
It would have been nice if, by 2008, we’d moved on. Instead, time had stood still for three decades in the bush. It started with the mid-’70s granting of land rights, powerful law by which white Australia sought to make amends and recognise that traditional Aborigines had ceremonial responsibilities and a connection to country that went well beyond any white notion of real estate. Land rights was the national Berocca, designed to fix us up after a long night on the blacks, and after that to … what, exactly? To give Aborigines what was rightly theirs while at the same time condemning them to the expectation – ours, not theirs – that they should revert to hunter-gatherer basics? We admired the resourcefulness and dexterity of Aboriginal hunters but sneered when we saw a Toyota and a gun being employed in the kill. Adapting was never going to be easy – for us, that is, not them. They, on the other hand, learned to run us ragged.
In post-land-rights times, Aborigines refined their ancient capacity for sitting, watching, opportunistically waiting for game to pass their way. They did this by wrapping outsiders around their fingers. They were shockingly effective at not managing their affairs and delegating responsibility elsewhere. They would sit back and watch the new white manager do his head in as he tried to come to grips with Aboriginal time – meaning, “maybe tomorrow, most probably the day after.” These managers would eventually succumb to Aboriginal demands which, on a strict interpretation, involved corruption. Common examples: a senior person wanted to use the council’s four-wheel-drive to go to town for a break, or to visit their outstation, using the community’s diesel; or asked the CDEP wages manager to overlook his non-attendance and pay him for un-worked hours. Aborigines saw this as good sport, as well as being vital to them maintaining mobility and income. But they rarely considered, until it was too late, that by demanding favours they, in turn, ceded power to these white managers, who quickly learned to use their detailed knowledge of everyone’s personal business to wrest complete control of communities. Fiefdoms were born.
In 2006, in the large western Arnhem Land town of Maningrida, the joint was, as always, ankle-deep in rubbish. It wasn’t such a bad place overall, yet at that time the new Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, and his senior departmental cronies were flying about the north looking for trouble. I put it to a white manager: “Why don’t you clean the place up? You know this mess is the first thing the politicians and bureaucrats will see. Why not show them the place is superficially functional as well as at a deeper level? Pay people to clean the place up – if not for the politicians, just because it’s the hygienic thing to do. It’ll take you two days.” I was told: “Aborigines do not understand rubbish. They come from a society where everything – skins, bones, fur – would break down. Rubbish is not cultural.” What magnificent bullshit.
If the people of Maningrida did not have the mind-power to realise that plastic tended not to break down, why then were they trying to address illegal fishing incursions by Indonesian sharking vessels into their waters? They were doing this for four good reasons: they took offence that outsiders would plunder their coastline without permission; they were well aware that quarantine breaches, such as the entry of rabid monkeys, could do great damage to their country; they wanted to be recognised as accredited sea rangers with the power to repel or even detain invaders; and discarded plastic long lines and gill nets were floating around the local seas, creating invisible walls of death that were strangling turtles and everything else caught up in them. Modern rubbish was affecting traditional hunting.
Aborigines were accomplished at seeing things selectively. But did rubbish have anything to do with the intervention that was soon to come? It did, but only because Brough was looking for any excuse to force his will on the bush. Why give him one? The people of Maningrida would soon be confronted with a hideous gang-rape sex case. One that, just like the rubbish, appeared to involve many people turning their backs on what they had seen.
It hadn’t helped anyone that the considerable commercial potential of land rights had not been realised. “Land rich and dirt poor” was the truism, but it remained a fitting enough description of what land rights had delivered. The philosophy of land rights was all about acknowledgment, reparation and preservation of culture: there was never any demand that Aboriginal enterprises spring to life on Aboriginal land … but there was an expectation that some would get going. You’d fly into Cairns airport in the east, or Broome to the west, and be hit with all sorts of baggage-carousel offers to give you a genuine Aboriginal experience. Some appeared kitsch, some boring. If the idea of stalking through the outback looking for bush tucker – bits of plant given reassuring Western names to assist in their digestion, such as “bush tomato” or “bush banana” – was your thing, you could go for it. At least there was the opportunity to meet Aborigines. Fly into Darwin, though, and you, German tourist, arriving in Australia’s Aboriginal heartland, were offered precisely nothing. If Territory Aborigines did not want to expose themselves to visitors or scrutiny, or see themselves as storefront Indians, well, fair enough – but don’t bother claiming to be misunderstood.
Very few Northern Territory Aborigines ran the kinds of business that might pull them off welfare and see them become, even modestly, independently wealthy. Every enterprise that did exist seemed connected to a government-backed scheme, or involved white businesses – usually cattle, mining, fishing or wilderness tourism – paying for use of Aboriginal land but not using Aboriginal workers. The outsiders were always saying they wanted to use Aboriginal workers, so where were they? “You are not to quote me on this, and I mean it,” said a Territory government staffer who was trying to understand the impasse. “The reason’s simple: they’re lazy.” There was no point beating around the bush – he was right. Or, to see it their way, there was a point beating around the bush in a clapped-out 80-Series Toyota wagon full of kids, gunning down magpie geese, braining fat file snakes in creek crossings and catching big lazy fish in scum-stilled waterholes with homemade lures.
And I’d admit to my envy. Thanks to land rights, Aborigines had been afforded a luxury known to very few non-indigenous mortgage holders: they could sleep without ever worrying that someone was going to reef what was theirs from beneath them. No bank could ever foreclose on Aboriginal land, because it could not be sold or traded. Many family groups had outstation houses – powered by beautiful government-gifted solar systems – along with houses in town. They didn’t have to buy these residences or pay for repairs when they were trashed. What kept them awake at night was the ghetto-blaster blaring from the home of the local grog runner, who’d managed to successfully infiltrate back into his community with a stockpile of 750ml Jim Beam bottles and warm VB. That, and the gangs of kids trying to steal the community ambulance.
Lazy? A generalisation, for sure – but not quite as bad as saying all your men were child molesters. Several years ago, when I was visiting a Western Australian community, a young mother turned up at the clinic with a very sick young child whose breathing was too shallow. The flying doctor was arriving from Alice around midnight. The whole town knew the plane was coming; everyone let it be known they were deeply concerned. At about 11 p.m., the town’s white manager, Mike Harper, and I went out to the dirt airstrip. Harper removed the padlock from a shipping container and brought out big boxes of battery-powered torches, those little lamps which sit up on their tails, and we began marching up either side of the strip, setting them up as the landing lights for the plane. I said to Harper: “Why aren’t any local people helping?” I’ll leave Harper’s reply where it ended up – scattered into a million bits in the Western Desert wind. A magnificent, brand-new, single-propeller medical plane (this was no Cessna; it was huge, Swiss-made, apparently) touched down. The white nurse delivered mother and baby to the plane’s steps. It took off and we walked back up the strip, collecting hundreds of lamps and returning them to the shipping container. The process took hours. Not one community resident had turned up to help, or to see off the precious cargo.
Late last year I came upon a ratty van stopped axle-deep in an Arnhem Land creek, near a populated outstation. There was an adult man and five grown teenage boys sitting around a tiny fire in the creek-side sand. The man asked for a push-start – that is, he wanted me to push his car by putting my bull-bar against his back bumper. I asked him: “How long have you been sitting here?” He shrugged: “Long time.” I said: “Did you try to push-start it yourselves?” Blank look. I asked: “Why didn’t you just get these boys to push-start it?” He shrugged again. I asked the boys the same question and got a combination of cold stares and sheepish looks. I would have driven on and left them to their remarkable apathy had the van not been blocking my path. Upon my bullbar meeting their bumper, I pushed the car a mere metre before it coughed to life.
Confronted with such wilful futility you might be inclined to wonder if there was a cultural reason for them not pushing the van. And when I say “you might,” I mean it – because I wasn’t. However, overtaking the van, and making sure they wore more of my dust than needed, I tried to clear my brain of exasperation and imagine a time long ago, in the days before WD-40, when this road was rarely travelled and anyone with a wet distributor cap had to unclip it, blow it dry and, if that didn’t work, push the fucking car. These thoughts failed me. They were too rational, too obvious. In my irritation I wondered: would the nearest foreign neighbours of these people, the Timorese, ever take such a slothful approach to an engine’s wet electricals? No. They’d heave-to.
A bit further along the track, as my infuriation subsided, I thought: these people are just not in any hurry. I guessed that’s what happened when you didn’t have a job, but nor did you see yourself as unemployed. You had a life. Sort of. Like I wish I did. Sort of.
These people had become accustomed to doing nothing for themselves.
Land rights brought isolation, deprivation and indolence, but it also permitted traditional culture to flourish. Some time back, while on a work trip to Ngukurr in the lower reaches of Arnhem Land, a friend and I took a wrong turn down a dirt track. We were looking for someone. We came upon a startling site – maybe 100 people, seated three-deep in a circle. There were people dancing in the middle and a man was prowling about, talking up the crowd in the manner of an evangelist. We noticed men with great ochre circles, outlined in white, on their chests. There were women and children present, meaning it wasn’t secret business. And there was no sign of any white film crew.
I backed the Toyota up fast, with apologetic waves which were accepted with goodwill. I felt that faint wrench of envy – not because I would ever wish to be indoctrinated by a tribe, nor because I desired to know their ceremonial business, but because of the sense of occasion and unity and, most of all, kinship, that I had so fleetingly witnessed. I came from a big family, so that part of it was covered: but I had never got the extended sense of it – never at a football game, never at a concert … though maybe once at a black church in Memphis on a Sunday morning. This ceremony was more intimate, and on a scale with which I was not familiar. Outsiders often called it “culture,” but there were better words for it: community, or family.
Family also meant forgiveness. For just about anything. In June 2004, a 54-year-old man, GJ, took his promised fourteen-year-old child bride, smashed her about with boomerangs and then dragged her off to his outstation where he had, according to the charge sheet, non-consensual anal intercourse. The anal aspect was curious though never explained in court or elsewhere. Maybe he didn’t want her getting pregnant; maybe he was a sexual extremist. The girl had returned to her community on school holidays and that was what she got. It was an outrage that GJ was never charged with rape.
The girl’s grandmother was on GJ’s side: she believed the girl was hanging out with a boyfriend, possibly having sex with him instead of saving herself for old GJ. The girl had been betrothed to GJ from birth; she was his promised bride and the girl’s family had taken payments in various ways from GJ through the years. The grandmother participated in the bashing of her granddaughter. GJ got a month from the Territory’s new chief justice, Brian Martin, though this was later overturned and a longer sentence imposed.
There was also the earlier case of Maningrida’s Jackie Pascoe, who as a 49-year-old in 2001 did a near-identical thing to his fifteen-year-old child bride. The girl’s family had consented to Pascoe taking the girl to his outstation. They’d for years been taking down-payments from Pascoe for her betrothal, in the form of spears, food and cash. It was a traditional arrangement.
At the magistrate’s hearing, prosecution and defence had by then agreed to put to the court a drastically toned-down version of what really happened. At Pascoe’s outstation, the court heard, Pascoe “told the victim to take off her clothes and the victim complied. The defendant then got on top of the victim. The defendant removed his shorts and had penile vaginal intercourse with the victim.” It was, according to the lawyers, consensual. On the following day, some friends of the girl came to collect her because she wanted to go back home to Maningrida. Pascoe got angry and repelled the friends by firing an unlicensed and unregistered shotgun in the air.
It was dressed up as an arranged customary “marriage” which had gone slightly awry.
Pascoe was initially charged with rape, though the terrified girl, who realised she would have to confront a member of a powerful Arnhem Land family in court, withdrew the charges. A carnal-knowledge charge was the best the cops could come up with. Pascoe pleaded guilty to having sexual intercourse with a female under the age of sixteen years and to illegal firearm discharge and possession. A magistrate gave him four months and fined him for the shotgun.
The prosecution and the defence could not be blamed for the fact that the girl had withdrawn charges. And at least Pascoe was charged with something. However, this short sentence was too much for Pascoe’s lawyers, who immediately won bail and announced they would appeal – even though they knew the nature of the girl’s original complaint. They wanted to turn it into a case of a hard-done-by customary-law husband.
I had obtained the girl’s original police statement, which revealed she was anything but a compliant child bride. “I was listening to that tape on that stereo – the music was Backstreet Boys,” she told police. “He told me to shut the door, I said leave it open. He forced me to shut that door, he made me frightened. He started slapping my face and then punching me. He used his right and left hand to slap me in my face, he was hitting me real hard. He had that closed fist and he hit me eight times. I was feeling dizzy and he said: ‘Let me look, so I can hit you again.’
“I said to him I want to go out and have a drink of water and wash my face. He said: ‘No, you’re not going anywhere, no phone call, no truck [out] for you.’ He told me to take off my clothes, so I did. He grabbed m...