The Big Bunga Way


"Big bunga" (or "big men") politics describes the endemic pattern of lateral violence that plagues Aboriginal family and community life, especially — although not exclusively — in remote Australia. It also encapsulates the dysfunctional response of mainstream Australian political institutions to the accelerating crisis in the Aboriginal world.

Many remember the big bunga politics that brought the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) into disrepute and finally led to its disestablishment in 2004. Periodically throughout the life of that body, Aboriginal men and women who were without doubt leaders in their communities became embroiled in political theatre led by "big men" who failed to show leadership on the most pressing issues in those communities: housing, health and education.

While the first chair, the gracious but formidable Lowitja O’Donoghue (who started her long and distinguished career as a nurse) was at its helm, the body proved successful at influencing governments, negotiating bilateral federal-state arrangements for Indigenous programs, and leveraging state funding allocations with Commonwealth "carrot" funding.

Under less charming and persuasive leaders, rather more successful at football and boxing than the caring professions, the organisation faltered and left itself open to charges of incompetence and failing to fulfil its obligations.

When I chaired the National Indigenous Working Group on Native Title in 1997 and 1998, following John Howard’s Ten-Point Plan for native title extinguishment, I would schedule the difficult agenda items for times in the afternoon when I knew that troublesome ATSIC commissioners would be at the TAB betting on horse races. If they were binge drinkers or carousers, the tactic was to start the meetings at the earliest possible hour of the day, or even worse, cut into their social time by reconvening meetings after dinner with an announcement that it would be a drafting session.

Assured that copies would be available in the morning, the "big men" and their flying wedges of advisers and minders would retire and leave the detail to mere lawyers and policy advisers. Thus we would be left to do the real work while they held court with the Canberra press gallery and the staff of ambitious backbenchers seeking to extract information to sell to columnists or political masters. These "exclusive" stories would detail the lurid, scatological conversations of the "big men" and what passed for their stratagems in attracting the attention of Cabinet members.

In winter, we could pretend that the heating — set too high — did not work, and in summer that the air conditioning — set too low — could not be changed. These were the tactics that women used to ensure positive and achievable outcomes and to avoid being bullied into enforced compromises and silence.

We didn’t call it lateral violence, but we were trying to find ways to work around the limits of this world. For those of us in leadership positions, lateral violence took the form of verbal abuse, character assassination and innuendo. Lateral violence is the expression of anomie and rage against those who are also victims of vertical violence and entrenched and unequal power relations. Those most at risk of lateral violence in its raw physical form are family members, and in the main, the most vulnerable members of the family: old people, women and children. Especially the children.

Lateral violence is not something unique to Aboriginal Australia. It blights other indigenous peoples as well — in North America, New Zealand and elsewhere. It is increasingly recognised for the harm it does. Lateral violence has many detrimental impacts, and leads to heightened levels of mental illness. Just as sudden — and indeed, constant — death results in a state of permanent grief in some communities, so too the constant bullying and "humbugging" result in a social malaise akin to grief. Mood swings and disorientation, fear and a poor level of response to ordinary events are typical of the low-level but persistent post-traumatic stress disorder that manifests in these milieux of constant bullying, aggression and humiliation.

Nurses working in remote communities have recognised this form of violence, and it has been recognised as a key issue in their workplace health discussions. Canadian psychologist Lloyd Robertson has identified the causes and symptoms, and argues that it is essential to acknowledge this harmful behaviour. He reported comments by Mohawk Rod Jeffries: "Lateral violence has impacted indigenous peoples throughout the world to the point where we harm each other in our communities and workplaces on a daily basis."

Robertson defines that violence as including "gossip, shaming of others, blaming, backstabbing, family feuds and attempts at socially isolating others". According to Jefferies, "This form of violence occurs when out of anger and frustration, an oppressed group turns on itself and begins to violate each other". Robertson argues that, as a result, the combination of a lack of trust, favouritism and highly defensive people has resulted in poor services, rigid and arbitrary enforcement of rules and a lack of healthy communication. Community spirit has suffered and people have largely stopped volunteering to help their communities become healthy: "We have learned to oppress each other".

Other literature on lateral violence from Canada raises issues that are remarkably familiar. There are lessons to be learnt and implemented in Australia — for example, with regard to suicide rates. Together, intentional and unintentional injuries are the third leading broad cause of Indigenous Australian disease burden (healthy years of life lost due to deaths and disability). Suicide, road traffic accidents, and homicide and violence contributed to more than two-thirds of the Indigenous Australian injury burden. Suicides contributed to one-third of the disease burden.

The conceptual framework for discussing these problems in Canada is sophisticated and therapeutic. For instance, MJ Chandler and Chris La Londe write:

"The central idea … is that people who undergo radical personal and cultural change are at a higher risk of suicide … There is a strong correlation between communities that have made an active and collective effort to engage in community practices, which preserve and develop cultural continuity, and low youth suicide rates. Specifically … particular cultural factors may help to strengthen or re-establish a healthy cultural continuity. Markers of cultural continuity are land claims, self-government, education services, police and fire services, health services and cultural facilities."

There is an important qualification in this quote about developing cultural continuity. Chandler and La Londe use the expression — and I emphasise it — "healthy cultural continuity", and tackle problems that we too must acknowledge and bring into the policy debate. They identify two key issues in the North American context that also apply here: isolation and privilege.

They write that the isolation of community members from the outside world is a serious problem. Too many young people conclude that the only place they can live is on the reserve. Most First Nations people appear to consider their lives normal because of their lack of exposure to life in other families and places, and their general lack of education. In addition, many communities are divided between those who are politically connected and those who are not. The major difference is reflected in access to resources and opportunities, a difference that extends to the lives of children at school. Families of the first group enjoy preferences for work and other pay-offs. There is no equity, democracy or valuing of education and training.

These are important insights, which are directly relevant in Australia — although much of the debate here has been captured by ideological positioning and a rusted-on certainty about old and failed ways of doing things. The damage that is done by lateral and vertical violence is profound and debilitating. But confronting this is difficult: there is very real power at stake.

It need not be the case that every aspect of Aboriginal tradition is defended as worth retaining, in a Manichean struggle with racist ideology. It is crucially important for the future of the children, and future generations, to cast a cold, objective eye over Aboriginal society.

With Howard and his class of haters now on the sidelines, it is finally possible to do so. We should be able to rationally and calmly consider the potential benefits that might flow from shortening the funeral "sorry camp" periods of confinement, or limiting the impact of traditions such as "house-cursing", and both respect traditions and provide a path to a safe and secure life.

This is an edited extract from
Griffith REVIEW 22: MoneySexPower (ABC Books).

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.