Pilger’s latest documentary about the ongoing plight of the first Australian nations is confronting, powerful and disturbing. Every Australian should watch it.
The fiercest critic of my writings and constant reader of this blog is comrade Sonia. She frequently berates me for not writing about the country of my birth, Australia. She contends that I spend too much energy and attention on international issues, and not nearly enough time on important issues at home. Well, after much careful thought, comrade Sonia is absolutely right. This one is for you.
Back in the 1970s when I was in school, we participated in school activities and ceremonies commemorating Anzac day. While we did not attend school on the actual public holiday, the following school day involved lessons about the Anzacs. Part of the commemorations required getting all of the senior students to salute the Australian flag. We lined up alongside the flagpole, watching the fluttering Union Jack being raised, and we dutifully saluted as it was hoisted in silence. The school assembly would listen to readings of stories about the Anzacs, the Australian soldiers who served in overseas wars, usually at the service of an imperialist power, as cannon-fodder, fighting and dying under the flag that we saluted.
Little did we know that there was another war, a war that was never explained to us, but a type of warfare directly relevant to our experience as Australians. It was a war conducted on our continent, the consequences of which are still with us today. This war is ongoing; the tactics may have changed, but the effects are just as deleterious.
Some forty years later, I watched a screening of Utopia, the latest documentary by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger. This is the fourth time that Pilger has explored the issue of the first Australian nations, documenting the genocide, dispossession and brutality of the English war of conquest and its continuing effects. Utopia is a powerful, searing indictment not only of the British invasion and subsequent dispossession of the indigenous nations, but the ongoing denial of that war and the continuation of that occupation by other means. The fact that indigenous Australians still suffer lower life expectancy than non-indigenous Australians, die from vaccine-preventable diseases in greater numbers, and live in squalid, decrepit conditions in outback Australia is not only documented by Pilger, but also stands as an indictment of the wilful ignorance of these conditions by the wider Australian community.
Pilger cleverly takes episodes from the lives of Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, to demonstrate his case that widespread ignorance and racism still pervade the wider white Australian community. A revealing segment in the documentary is when Pilger, on the misnamed ‘Australia Day’ in 2013, walks through the streets of Circular Quay in Sydney, asking random people why they are celebrating on a day which should rightly be remembered as the beginning of an invasion. The vox pops-style street questioning is a tactic at which Pilger is brilliant. He asks one man, his face dutifully painted with Union Jack flags and wearing appropriate ‘Aussie’ flag t-shirt, why he is celebrating this Australia Day. Stunned, the man belligerently asks why Pilger is bothering with such a question. As Pilger explains that actually 225 years ago on this day, the invasion and dispossession of the indigenous people began, the man sneers, turns away and dismisses Pilger with the phrase ‘see ya later mate’. He reserves one last parting shot for Pilger; out of the side of his mouth he arrogantly spat out the words ‘you’re full of shit…’, and with that the conversation ended. White Australia still has difficulty facing up to the reality of how Australian capitalism was built, and how it is continuing to suppress the first Australian nations.
Utopia is a community that Pilger visits. It is located some 200 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. Indigenous families live here in ramshackle buildings, with no running water inside, no transport, no regular health service and no electricity. Infectious diseases are rife due to the unsanitary conditions, and the health care workers allocated to this community are doing their best with the limited funding and equipment they have. The kitchens, toilets and bathrooms, if they can be called that, are malfunctioning and unhygienic. It is not uncommon for families to sleep outdoors with mattresses on the ground. Cockroaches and pest infestations are regular occurrences, with cases of cockroaches crawling into the ears of adults and children.
This is the economic and social chasm that divides non-indigenous Australians from the first nations. As a contrast to the impoverished, Dickensian conditions of the indigenous people, Pilger takes a trip to Palm Beach, located in the northern suburbs of Sydney. He interviews a hotelier at that beach, whose hotel has rooms overlooking the waterfront. She proudly explains to Pilger that during peak times, she has a brisk business, charging 30 000 dollars per week for the choicest rooms. Yes, 30 000 dollars per week.
Pilger takes aim at the false pretenses and devastating consequences of the Howard-era 2007 NT intervention, a campaign to reassert and extend the authority of the Australian capitalist state, and its business interests, over land that belongs to indigenous communities. After a media campaign composed of lurid, sensationalised – and completely false – allegations of pedophile rings forcing indigenous children into sexual slavery, former Prime Minister John Howard launched a military-police intervention, driving indigenous communities off their land, suspending the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act, eroded the social welfare measures, pitifully inadequate as they are, available to indigenous people, and opening up vasts tracts of land to commercial exploitation.
It just so happens that the Northern Territory is incredibly rich in natural resources, particularly uranium. The mining companies, the large transnational corporations that dominate the Australian economy, were beneficiaries of this intervention. While the Howard government began this intervention, the subsequent Labour governments of Rudd and Gilliard did nothing to stop it. Subsequent investigations into the allegations of child sexual abuse in the indigenous communities found no evidence of pedophile rings, sexual slavery or child trafficking. The central justification of the intervention was demolished, yet the policies implemented in its wake continue.
Pilger reveals a side of indigenous struggle rarely commented on by non-indigenous Australians – industrial action by organised working class indigenous workers. Pilger interviews Arthur Murray, a cotton picker who along with his comrades, went on strike in the 1970s for equal pay and to protest dangerous working conditions. Indigenous workers were always paid lower than their white counterparts, working in unsafe conditions, while turning a profit for the Australian companies that exploited the resources of indigenous land. Murray and his fellow workers were dismissed as Communist troublemakers and agitators. Pilger emphasises the struggle by the indigenous stockmen employed at Wave Hill cattle station, where in the mid-1960s, Gurindji stockmen walked off the job for equal pay. It was the longest strike action in Australian history, lasting from August 1966 until 1975. The Whitlam government at the time finally handed back at least a portion of the cattle station land to the indigenous Gurindji owners. The divisions of race, always important in Australian capitalism, are based upon and magnified by the divisions of class. Pilger does talk about the mining companies, those corporations that exploit the resources of this land, but continue to deny the presence and rights of the original owners.
There is so much more in Pilger’s documentary, that you have to see it for yourself. As part of the larger colonial-settler project of occupying Australia, skin colour became an obsessive preoccupation. Race and racial divisions were invented to further widen the antagonism between the first nations of Australia and those who have come from overseas. I referred to the heart of darkness in the title of this article; and this expression has usually been used to refer to the darkness of the conquered people, whether they be the indigenous people of Australia, or in the context of the colonisation of Africa, the dark-skinned inhabitants of that continent.
But Pilger’s documentary taught me that this obsession with race is completely distracting and unnecessary. The heart of darkness has nothing to do with skin colour; the darkness is the imperialist project itself, the building of a settler-colonial society on the backs and suffering of the original nations, whether in Australia, Africa, or Israel for that matter. The darkness is in our minds and hearts, not in the colour of anyone’s skin. Constructing an unequal economic and political system, reserving privileges for a tiny minority class of financial-energy-banking oligarchs, while the majority sinks into poverty, is the dark ideology enveloping our society. Denying justice to a dispossessed people, undermining their ability to work, live and educate themselves, reveals a dark fanatical ideology at the heart of Australian capitalism. Pilger calls this the secret history of Australian apartheid.
After watching Utopia, it is clear to me that the Australian flag, its Union Jack, is a butcher’s apron. I will not be saluting it anymore.