A First Look At First Contact, SBS's New Indigenous Miniseries

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Tonight, well-known Australian journalist Ray Martin will take six non-Indigenous Australians on a journey of discovery across Aboriginal Australia, in a mission to confront the racist and ignorant views they have about First Nations people.

The six include a woman who labels blackfellas “petrol sniffers”, one who feels it is unfair Aboriginal people get a “free ride”, one who believes Aboriginal people get more welfare money, and others who believe they are hard done by because Aboriginal people seem to have an advantage (despite being behind on every health indicator, locked-up at world-beating rates, and having some of the highest youth suicide rates in the western world).

These sort of views are sadly not news to Aboriginal Australia.

But while SBS’s First Contact series, which will air tonight, should be applauded for its good intentions, the biggest takeaway from the show will be just how complex Australian racism is, and how hard it is to articulate it to a white audience, especially those who already hold negative views on Indigenous Australia.

Some non-Indigenous people spend decades in Aboriginal communities, and come away with their ignorant views engrained. Coming face to face with black poverty does not mean you leave with an enlightened perspective.

Tony Abbott spent time up in Cape York and still makes ignorant claims about Australia having nothing but bush before 1788.

A month spent in a variety of diverse Aboriginal communities, all different with separate traumas and experiences, was never going to explain the deep-rooted institutionalised racism that makes Aboriginal affairs seem almost intractable sometimes.

You don’t have to go further to realise this than the host – Ray Martin – who in interviews promoting the program has regurgitated the same tired tropes that would seem more suited coming out of the mouths of one of the six cast members, rather than someone who has reported on Aboriginal Australia over the course of a celebrated media career.

One of the first myths the six are forced to come to terms with in the series is on Aboriginal identity – with one cast member questioning why people choose to identify even though they may have white ancestry. “My typical description of an Aboriginal person is the dark skin,” she says.

In one part of the segment, Aboriginal woman Diane Morgan tells the group “I’m not a percentage. I’m not three quarters… I might be what you people say is half… I don’t class myself as that… I’m Aboriginal.

“How the f**k can you be 1/8th… that pisses me off, you’re either black or you’re not.”

Earlier this month, Martin gave an interview to SBS’ Living Black program, hosted by Aboriginal journalist Karla Grant.

He tells Grant “I’m 15/16th Irish, and the other 16th is that Aboriginal connection”.

Whilst it’s up to Martin how he wants to identify, using fractions to sum up an identity, reminiscent of the days when Aboriginal “full castes” “half-castes” and “quadroons” were used in racist government policy controlling blackfellas and treating them as second-class citizens, is incredibly offensive to a large proportion of Aboriginal Australia.

Later in the interview, Martin tells Grant he believes the answer to Aboriginal Australia’s problems is “education”, but then marches out paternalistic solutions, currently advocated by government, that are actually challenged by the show.

“When I travel around Wilcannia and go to Brewarrina and places like this and see blokes in the street at 10 in the morning with their missus and a couple of kids… they say ‘gday Ray Martin how you doing’ (I say) ‘I’m good.. why isn’t this kid at school…

“Aww, she’s got a cold…’ (I’ll say) ‘Don’t give me that bullshit, get her to school.”

To which Grant says “This is about Aboriginal people doing things for themselves…?”

This belief, that Aboriginal parents are somehow more neglectful than white parents, that the complexities of truancy revolve entirely around personal responsibility, is thinking that leads to policies like the School Attendance and Employment Measure (SEAM), which involves cutting off welfare payments to families who can’t get their kids to school and is currently in the NT despite barely any evidence of it working.

It also leads to the Cape York Welfare Reform Trials, which have seen little change in school attendance in three of the four communities it is running in (with the exception of Aurukun), despite notching up millions of dollars in government funding.

It is exactly the thinking that entrenches institutionalised racism.

The cast of First Contact. Image: SBS.

Martin is not advocating new solutions, he is advocating government solutions far removed from evidence-based policy, that only furthers the racism permeating Australian society.

Martin also tells Grant that sometimes Aboriginal people have to “suck it up” and move away from their country if they want to get ahead in life.

“I realise in terms of country how important the backblocks of Alice Springs are to someone’s mind and soul, I understand that, but if you want your child to progress… or if you’re a teenager yourself, sometimes you have to suck it up and go to another different country…,” Martin says.

It seems Martin hasn’t watched his own program, where one of the six actually confronts an elder on Elcho Island about whether they should simply move off country.

The elder tells the woman she has cultural obligations to look after her family, which includes her grandchildren, who are buried on the land. It is an obligation that is misunderstood by the cast member, who, as a white woman from Melbourne who grew up in poverty and moved around as a child, can’t seem to understand how Aboriginal people can’t simply get up and leave their poverty behind.

She doesn’t seem to realise leaving a community does not erase the colour of your skin, or heal the hurt and trauma compounded by devastating neglect from successive governments.

While she had to deal with class issues, Aboriginal people have to deal with class and race.

The fact the host of the program doesn’t understand the cultural obligations, the spiritual ties to land, the history of displacement and dispossession and the importance of revitalising your culture, languages and ceremonies as a step towards healing your people, undermines the goodwill this program could have on wider Australia.

Especially when he doesn’t even think racism exists.

Martin also tells Grant “I don’t think we’re racist… I honestly don’t think we’re racist in white Australia”.

That’s despite the program broadcasting the racist views of a number of cast members. When the host of the program so spectacularly misrepresents the scale of the problem, it doesn’t give a lot of hope it will change perceptions.

That’s not to say the cast members don’t learn anything. Throughout the program, their views are challenged, and some of them come away with a more progressive stance on Aboriginal Australia.

But it also shows that for many whitefellas, the problems facing Aboriginal Australia doesn’t seem to have any impact unless it has affected them personally, which perhaps explains why Australians have so much trouble understanding the devastating impacts racism can have on communities.

One woman has a breakthrough when she talks about her family's own history of alcoholism whilst sitting with aunties in Alice Springs who are grappling with the same issues. But even then the cast member can’t understand how Aboriginal people can’t break through the cycle given they supposedly have personal choice.

She believes because she has gone through hard times and pulled through, Aboriginal people should be able to do so as well.

She doesn’t seem to realise that you can’t hold a mirror to Aboriginal Australia and expect to see the same solutions staring back. While non-Indigenous Australians who grow up in low socio-economic circumstances are disadvantaged, it is an entirely different disadvantage faced by Aboriginal Australians – who have to deal with problems that stem strictly from their Aboriginality – which includes the intergenerational disadvantage they inherit from their parents and grandparents.

For many Aboriginal communities, “choice” is smoke and mirrors. You simply do not have the same “choices” available to you as a non-Indigenous person living in a capital city.

“Choice” is a theme raised several times over the course of the episodes, but because each visit is presented as almost a siloed issue – for example, the cast visit Elcho Island and look at housing and unemployment, they visit Roebourne where they deal with Indigenous incarceration, and Fitzroy Crossing where they encounter solutions to alcohol abuse – the interconnecting issues that link each problem together (for example, housing on health problems, poverty and geography on incarceration) give an incomplete picture on why there is still so much disadvantage in Indigenous Australia.

There is also little explanation on how failed government policies have hindered solutions or how Aborignial self-determination has been continually undermined and how this lack of control has been severely disempowering.

To deny this is to compound the problem. While Martin would like to think that the solutions are so easily obtainable, that you can re-shift the blame and the responsibility back onto blackfellas, the reality is it is a lot more complex than anyone can realise.

The road towards lifting Aboriginal people out of poverty is a long one with sharp corners and many u-turns, and unless you acknowledge the racism that paves the tarmac, you will keep driving into dead ends.

New Matilda will be blogging each of the three episodes of First Contact after they go to air on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, at 8:30pm on SBS 1 and NITV.

Amy McQuire

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.

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