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“Are we going to find justice, are we going to find the people that recognize that we exist here in this country? There is one rule for the whites and one rule for the blacks as far as I’m concerned.” - Arthur Murray, an Aboriginal elder whose son Eddie died in police custody.
This new feature-length documentary by award-winning film-maker and journalist John Pilger explores the story of the first Australians - the Aboriginal people - against a background of the country’s economic boom built significantly on a wealth of natural minerals.
The title of the film is partly ironic - referring to Australia’s suburban ‘utopia’ – and to the vast region in Northern Australia by the same name. This is home to the oldest human presence on earth. Pilger’s epic film is a journey into what he describes as a ‘secret Australia’ where he investigates the roles played by politicians and the media in creating what is described as a South African-style ‘Apartheid’.
The programme draws on people and places Pilger first filmed 28 years ago during his long association with the indigenous people of his homeland, and this personal journey allows him to measure the changes since his previous visits.
What he discovers shocks him all over again. Since the first of his ITV films on indigenous Australia,The Secret Country in 1985, he finds that for people living in remote areas little has changed. He contrasts the living conditions of much of the indigenous population with holiday homes built on former aboriginal land on Palm Beach, which rent for AUS$30,000 a week.
With first-hand accounts from those who endure squalid conditions, and interviews with high-ranking politicians and public officials, the programme seeks to highlight injustices meted out to those who are the poorest and most disadvantaged in Australia.
John meets Eric Elkedra who works at the health centre in the remote Aboriginal community of Ampilatwatja, in the Northern Territory. He and his family have no electricity and just one outside tap to drink from. The Government’s business manager in the village, by contrast, has 18 air conditioners. Their conditions, says John, are very similar to when he first visited 28 years ago. Eric tells him: “I moved, moved to here last year. All the family was living in one house, maybe 20 in one house, 15 in another, some living outside.”
Journalist Chris Graham, founder of the National Indigenous Times newspaper, tells Pilger that the population is suffering from under-investment in communities, which means they live in poor conditions while elsewhere, Australia gives the impression it is a first-world country: “Aboriginal people are frequently blamed for their poverty, while Australians pretend that Governments have tried to invest in those intransigent communities and never got any result. The truth is something else entirely. Governments do not invest in remote Aboriginal communities, because if Governments do, they know they won’t be in Government very much longer.”
Australian governments deny this. Warren Snowdon, until recently the minister of indigenous health, says: “I won’t have it from you that we are not committed to doing, making those changes, and I won’t have it from you that we’re not investing those resources.”
Pilger visits Rottnest Island off Perth, nicknamed ‘Rotto’ for tourists, which was a 19th century prison called ‘The Quod', with two members of the indigenous Noongar nation. Thousands of Aborigines were locked up on the island, and many tortured and killed, yet today it’s a hotel with a ‘luxury spa’. One of those accompanying him, Noel Nannup, expresses surprise when he’s told the former cell where he’s standing would cost AUS$240 a night: “Unbelievable, and they don’t have any idea what happened in here. No-one tells them, no-one lets them know, and I tell you what, if it was me, I would want to know what happened in the room that I sleep in.” The hotel confirms there are long term plans to convert the prison to a memorial.
Talking to a former prisons minister in the state of Western Australia, Pilger discovers the imprisonment of Aborigines accused and convicted of crimes in packed cells is not a thing of the past. Margaret Quirk tells him: “At the moment they’re I think ‘racking and stacking’ them is the vernacular. Racking - well they’re double bunking. So it literally is warehousing people, I think.”
With research revealing that in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia rates of incarceration of Aborigines are many times higher than in Apartheid-era South Africa, Pilger asks indigenous film producer and actor Patricia Morton-Thomas whether she thinks their nation should be regarded as an Apartheid state. She says: “I don’t think it’s a lot different, apart from the fact that there aren’t signs everywhere saying, you know, ‘Black people drink from this tap and white people drink from that tap.’”
Pilger also visits the people of Mutitjulu, close to Uluru [formerly known as Ayers Rock], the sacred heart of Australia. Tourists can enjoy the good life there for almost AUS$2,000 dollars a night, but those who live in Mutitjulu survive in overcrowded houses that are riddled with cancer-causing asbestos. Yet since 2008, the Government has built fewer than 1,000 new houses for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. In one house, he learns, 32 people live together.
Local GP Dr Janelle Trees says: “So there’s 20 people living in a house with one toilet, and every time more people come to stay, the sewer floods, you know, there’s raw sewage in the back yard. So you’re talking about Strongyloides [parasitic roundworms], sometimes I wonder if I should be testing people for cholera. I’m looking out for it.”
In 2007, Prime Minister John Howard and his then-minister Mal Brough declared a state of emergency in the Northern Territory aimed, he said, at saving Aboriginal children from paedophiles, which applied only to black Australians. Bob Randall, an Aboriginal elder in Mutitjulu, says: “They scared the living daylights out of everybody, it really did. The mothers too, their children was gonna be taken away, and they bolted, everybody left this community.”
Known as ‘The Intervention’, it was spearheaded by the army as the Government sought to take control of communities, and those who refused to hand over the leases of their land were often refused basic services and their benefits and pensions were ‘quarantined’.
Pilger presents evidence that the state of emergency was declared under false pretences. In 2006, an Australian news programme on the ABC channel accused the Mutitjuli community of harbouring paedophiles. On of the programme’s key witnesses was disguised and described as a 'youth worker', but in fact was a senior Government official, Gregory Andrews, who worked for the minister Mal Brough.
Chris Graham says: “He made all sorts of bizarre claims. He made a claim that he knew of, or he had heard of children being held in communities against their will and traded amongst the communities by Aboriginal men as sex slaves. He claimed that he’d seen women coming to meetings with broken arms and screwdrivers and other implements hanging out of their legs. There was zero evidence of this.”
ABC and Andrews declined to be interviewed for the programme. Mal Brough denies having been briefed by Andrews before the ABC programme, and when asked by Pilger what evidence he had of paedophile rings operating in communities like Mutitjulu, says: “The reality is, is that when they went into these communities, they couldn’t find the people that would substantiate the evidence. They will tell you that there is any amount of inescapable evidence, such as STD of children at a very young age, and I have personally spoken to parents and relatives who can identify the individuals, but they won’t.”
Suspicion still hangs over the Mutitjulu community, says lawyer George Newhouse: “One of the facts that saddened the members of the Mutitjulu community, was the failure of the media to recognise that the extremely lurid allegations that had been made against them were false, and were found to be false by the Australian Crime Commission. No-one ever took the time to clear the name and the reputation of the Mutitjulu community.”
Pilger speaks to Aboriginal people who describe The Intervention as a land-grab by those wanting to modernise - that is, wipe out - a way of life and others seeking the mineral wealth beneath indigenous land. Some have drawn a line between the Intervention and earlier Government policies to remove children from indigenous families to ‘breed out the black’.
Former PM Kevin Rudd apologized in 2008 to those Aboriginal people known as ‘the stolen generation’. He tells Pilger: “I think with the apology, two things were necessary. One was a deeply if you like spiritual or emotional transaction between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians, and that was simply but profoundly to say, sorry. It may sound trite to some, I’ve heard it described as a gesture of politics, but if you had deeply wronged a people, or deeply wronged a person in your own life, you cannot begin to conduct a normal relationship until you’ve set wrongs to rights at that level.”
Yet, as Pilger points out, Rudd had pointedly refused to compensate the thousands of black Australians who had suffered this injustice.
Pilger also meets Robert Eggington, a warrior of the Noongar people of Western Australia, who embodies the spirit of indigenous resistance to a long history of colonialism. He says: “White Australia doesn’t have a sense of belonging to this land, it only has a sense of belonging to the establishment and its institutions and its cities it has built here. It doesn’t understand this country.”