Utopia and Mal Brough's Tough Stuff


‘Within a generation the Aboriginal lands will begin to empty, the camps at the fringe of regional centres in northern Australia will begin to swell. The young will leave their homelands to find a job, women will leave to find protection from violence, elders will leave to find medical attention, children will leave to attend school.’

This apocalyptic vision by Bennelong Society elder Gary Johns, published in The Australian earlier this year, sounds well-suited to a Richard Attenborough voice-over. Sinister organ music might play in the background while sepia photographs of post-Armageddon landscapes dissolve, one into the next, on the big screen.


But does it have any basis in reality?

That this country was once owned in its entirety by Aboriginal people cannot sensibly be disputed. However, the issue of their current sovereignty and circumstances is rather more vexed, particularly in the case of the 130,000 Indigenous people who live in 1000 remote communities scattered across the country. Most of these specks on the map have populations of fewer than 100 people, but the Northern Territory communities of Wadeye and Maningrida both have over 2000 residents. These large Top End towns suffer desperately from housing shortages, lack of educational facilities and an absence of employment opportunities. But there is little evidence that anyone wants to leave.

Yet the oft-repeated view of Gary Johns and his colleagues at the Bennelong Society is that the days of remote communities are numbered. They propose an assimilationist model whereby Indigenous Australians would relocate to larger centres and pursue mainstream educational and employment opportunities. In a more recent piece in the ever-accommodating Australian, Johns stated that ‘Aborigines should not suffer from the prejudice of low expectations’ and has observed that Aboriginal children can be ‘teachers, mechanics, salesmen and accountants.’

He is doubtless correct, but appears to underestimate the nature and depth of the attachment that many Indigenous Australians living in remote communities have for their ancestral lands. This feeling for country is acknowledged only as a quaint bagatelle, rather than a salient fact that will loom large in any decisions these people take about their lives. It surely suits the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, to have the ideological warriors at the Bennelong Society participating in the public debate. Their excited contributions allow the Minister to come across as a moderate.

In fact, Brough has taken up the ‘economic viability’ cudgels fashioned by his predecessor in the portfolio, Amanda Vanstone, with the zeal of a convert. He continues to promote Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) in an effort to discipline these settlements with the stick of ‘mutual obligation,’ but results have been very patchy. It seems that the Federal Government’s chosen indicator of ‘success’ is the number of communities who have signed up to these agreements, rather than the demonstrated benefits which accrue from them. Legitimate questions continue to be asked about the appropriateness of linking the provision of petrol bowsers with the personal hygiene of children.

Last week in Canberra, the Minister delivered a headland policy speech entitled Blueprint for Action in Indigenous Affairs.  It was more of the usual hairy-chested ‘Brough tough stuff,’ with bursts of rhetoric accompanied by dark mutterings about law and order. But on the question of people leaving remote communities there was fudging. ‘The current growing drift to the cities and major towns is unfolding ‘ the Minister bluffed. ‘When drift occurs it should be to a new opportunity with appropriate support.’

Thanks to emo

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Senator Chris Evans, who outlined a much less heavy-handed policy position. ‘Remote communities are a reflection of Indigenous people’s culture, connection to land, and desire to live on their traditional land,’ he told me. ‘There is a place for remote communities and we have to try and support them as best we can. We need to support Indigenous choice and relationship to land. Indigenous people will make the decisions about what is viable and what is not.’

Historian Henry Reynolds has suggested that the ‘economic viability’ argument put forward by the Federal Government is a furphy. His view is that the amount of money needed to support remote Indigenous communities is so small in comparison to all other areas of government expenditure that the question is primarily one of ideology rather than economics. Reynolds observes that White Australians make an expensive choice to live in detached dwellings on quarter-acre blocks, noting that ‘it would be a great deal cheaper if we all lived in terrace houses in cities one-fifth of the size’. However, Australians still enjoy the fundamental right to choose where and how they wish to live.

For those who predict the demise of remote communities, an inconvenient truth has emerged recently from the Central Australian community of Utopia. A study conducted by the Menzies Research Centre and its partners has found that residents of this community to the northeast of Alice Springs are much healthier than the average Indigenous Territorian. Utopia is comprised of 16 outstations (outlying satellite communities) whose residents receive their medical care from a central health clinic.

Doctors report that the maintenance of traditional ceremony by community members reduces stress, and the greater reliance on bush tucker ensures a better diet. Rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity are all trending downwards. While remote communities will also need an element of thoughtful economic development to move forward, the health indicators from Utopia are encouraging. Any consultant worth their extravagant contracts will tell you these results suggest ‘best-practice to be cherry-picked.’

Minerals Council of Australia CEO, Mitch Hooke, told an audience at the Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land earlier this year that the mining industry faces a chronic labour shortage. The industry will need 70,000 new workers in the next 10 years, many of them in remote locations. He noted also that 60 per cent of mining operations in Australia are located close to Indigenous communities. It would be folly to consider relocating people away from emerging employment opportunities.

Those who propose a ‘migratory solution’ to the problems of remote Indigenous communities must flesh out their ideas and expose them to rigorous public scrutiny. Are Aboriginal people to be compelled to move? Once they have moved, what will they do? It’s unlikely that the skills required to survive in the bush are readily transportable to the office towers of Macquarie Street or St Kilda Road.

It would be more fruitful to dispense with the blinkers of ideology. The answer more likely lies
in the hard graft of long-term community development, conducted in partnership with Aboriginal people. Planners could look to the mining industry, which grows ever more skilful in designing jobs that complement the ancient and venerable cultures of remote Australia. They could look also to the studies emerging which suggest that remote communities, properly managed, have considerable benefits to offer their residents.

Surely, it makes more sense to replicate Utopia than to abandon it?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.