The Aurukun Blues, The Monthly May 2013
“Politics of Suffering” won the Manning Clark House Cultural Award in December 2009 and the John Button Prize 2010
from Q&A transcript:
PETER SUTTON: Well, it’s – as I said before, these are – this is everybody’s business and it’s important that people don’t just swallow what they’re told by – no matter who it’s from. No matter how saintly or no matter how much one admires the origin person. It is very important for citizens who are interested in these things to do their own research, to get out there, to read books, to discuss things with other people. We can’t all go and spend 35 years in the bush, learning firsthand about the subject. That’s what books are for. They help us share things with each other. But there’s no substitute for independent thought here. Aboriginal affairs discourse has been marred for 30 years by large amounts of spin, large amounts of whitewash, a fair bit of fibbing here and there. Much of it – most of it done, really, out of good will. A lot of it ultimately destructive.
Review in The Age, 11th July 2009: Debunker of myth, RUSSELL SKELTON
PETER Sutton has been immersed in grief. Recently he returned to his adopted Aurukun community on Cape York to attend a “housing opening” ceremony for a “sweet woman” allegedly slain by her boyfriend.
The ceremony brought to a close eight months of mourning for the 25-year-old whose life had been taken with six thrusts of a blade. Sutton was invited by the family to take part in the dancing ritual that followed and to visit the grave site with the dead woman’s father, Sutton’s closest tribal brother.
“I had known her since childhood; she was a beautiful woman who had looked out for me in the past,” he told The Age this week.
At the grave site, the father, who consumed two bottles of rum the day of the ceremony, wore a blood-splattered shirt, the result of having intervened in a fight the previous night. Violence has stalked Aurukun since 1985, when alcohol flowed freely into the community. It has been curbed since recent alcohol restrictions were enforced.
In his latest book, Sutton, a distinguished anthropologist and gifted linguist who has spent more time studying the Wik community than any other “whitefella”, wrote that the cemetery at Aurukun reminded him of the Australian war graves at Villers-Bretonneux in France, near where his great uncle was killed by machine-gun fire in 1918.
“Painted crosses, many of them fresh, stretch away seemingly for hundreds of metres, a white stream running parallel to the mangrove-covered banks of the Archer River,” was how he described the community burial ground, where graves are covered with bright-coloured plastic flowers.
Sutton first went to the country of the Wik people in the 1970s. Over the following 30 years, eight people died by their own hand. Another 13 were murdered — eight of them women, five of them men. Twelve others committed homicide. Almost all the victims in the community of just 1000 had been linked for generations.
Grief rather than anger has propelled Sutton to the centre of the debate over indigenous policy. The dark social decline taking place in Aboriginal communities, with violence and abuse in all its forms — domestic abuse, child abuse and substance abuse — has, he believes, been shadowed by a set of policies and unintended consequences that have accelerated the downward spiral.
In the often-tortuous terrain of indigenous politics, Peter Sutton is a myth-buster. Through personal observation, forensic rigour and an anthropologist’s eye, he questions the foundations on which 40 years of public policy, often imposed with bipartisan goodwill, has been constructed.
Sutton argues that self-management in the 1970s, the equal pay decisions and granting of land rights and access to “sit-down money”, the homelands movement, bilingual education, and a plethora of other policies concerning health and community development employment projects have not lead to any discernible improvement in living conditions, or in today’s political lexicon, a closing of the gap. What is more, he says the “Aboriginal industry” has until only recently stubbornly resisted acknowledging the brutal realities of daily life.
Sutton has an eye for the forgotten statistic. Who remembers that the death rate of Aboriginal prisoners in the late ’80s cited in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was half that of Aboriginal people on non-custodial orders? Who remembers the statistics from the same report revealing that indigenous prisoners did not have a particularly higher death rate in custody than non-indigenous prisoners?
Yet, Sutton notes, the urban myth persists that Aboriginal prisoners face increased danger of death by being given custodial sentences. The reality is that prison conditions are likely to be safer than those experienced in some communities.
From The Politics of Suffering: indigenous Australia and the end of the Liberal consensus, Sutton emerges at times as an acerbic, even annoying, modern-day Socrates, prodding, probing and casting a sceptical eye over the assumptions that have shaped indigenous policy. He worries about formal agreements, such as a reconciliation treaty, that may serve to entrench the separation of indigenous from non-indigenous Australians.
He believes need, not race, should determine who benefits from assistance programs and legal rights.
He also questions the wisdom of funding hundreds of tiny homeland communities in remote Australia that demographic studies show people are leaving, or “pouring money down the toilet” on new housing — a key part of the Rudd Government’s emergency intervention strategy.
It’s a tough view of indigenous Australia, but it’s a toughness forged from living on outstations during the wet season, years spent researching Aboriginal languages on the Cape York Peninsula, and simply “wanting to help”. He was there when the land rights movement took to the streets against Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party government in the ’80s and then joined the state land rights negotiations with the Goss government in 1991. He has assisted with more than 50 land claims and enjoys a close relationship with leading indigenous intellectuals of his generation, including Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson.
Sutton’s clear-eyed, non-ideological take on the world appears to have been partly shaped by his family’s working class origins and an early childhood in Port Melbourne. His paternal grandfather, a driver at the fish markets, was feared for his violent alcoholic outbursts against his wife, who worked as a cleaner in the Swallow and Ariel biscuits factory. His father, a factory worker then salesman, and particularly his mother, daughter of a pastry cook, broke out of the working-class mould, moving to the outer suburbs to set up a small business.
Sutton recalled the profound impact a summer Portsea holiday at the Lord Somers Camp had had on his father. The underpinning philosophy of the camp had been to dissolve the class barriers between waterfront children and the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers from Melbourne’s better-heeled suburbs. “It was all about teaching poor kids they could do something with their lives and knocking the snobbery out of the others.
“We were not dirt poor, but my mother pushed to get out of Port Melbourne, to get a small business, a block of land and build a house. A lot of blackfellas have done a similar thing.”
Sutton believes it is no accident that significant members of the Aboriginal leadership, with the exception of Melbourne University academic Langton, attended boarding school from an early age. They include the Dodson brothers, Pat and Mick; Galarrwuy Yunupingu; and Sutton’s close friend Noel Pearson, the maverick thinker who heads the Cape York Institute.
In his book, Sutton examines the breakdown of the consensus in Aboriginal affairs; the politicisation of health and housing issues; and the problems associated with customary law and reconciliation. “Too often, unhappily, these profoundly difficult questions are turned into a compassion contest or a toughness contest, a game of proving that ego is less racist or less bleeding heart than thou.”
He challenges those who see total solutions in a treaty with Aboriginal people, formal reconciliation agreements or reparations for the stolen generations. He believes they will not change conditions for people living in the bush and put food into the “bellies of toddlers, or prevent local acts violence and abuse”.
He sees a disconnect between policy and tradition. Aboriginal people whose ancestors moved freely about their countries have, in many cases, become prisoners of ghetto-ism. He sees little sense in the continued funding of outstations when a generation of Aboriginal children are voting with their feet and drifting into urban centres, where life is more interesting and opportunities less scarce.
In Port Augusta there is an Aboriginal enclave called “Blackster”, a name taken from the recently mothballed and notoriously harsh Baxter immigration detention centre. “But the joke is that Blackster’s high fence is not to keep people in, but to keep people out. In Port Augusta and Adelaide, there is a growing population of people from the centre.”
The current crisis in Aboriginal Australia is not about race, but about behaviour. “There will be more urban ghettos; that is inevitable. But when people can see another way of life close by, like my parents, they chase the opportunity of having it. Neville Pootchemunka (the Mayor of Aurukun) told me very proudly that all his children were in boarding school.
Sutton debunks the belief that dysfunctional behaviour in alcohol-soaked communities is the result of historic disempowerment, a loss of rights or alienation from traditional culture and language. Studies of skeletal remains show violence was present in Aboriginal societies long before the whitefellas arrived. The causes of excessive drinking are behavioural, rather than cultural.
Causes of dysfunction, he argues, are more complicated and not always linked to an absence of rights — land, mining and human rights — which the liberal left has had an historical attachment to. “The history of progressive politics has been about the right to vote, the right for the eight-hour day. The labor movement began in the 1890s in Queensland with protesters being shot at. It’s an approach embedded in the definition of what it is to be a progressive Australian. You are a fighter for rights rather than a healer.”
The liberal consensus that began in the late-1960s, then blossomed with Gough Whitlam, who drafted the land rights legislation and instituted self-management and a host of other changes, and Malcolm Fraser, who continued with the program, has hindered the emergence of a more pragmatic view that treats Aborigines as equal citizens. It is not that land rights are unimportant — they are in Sutton’s view — but they are not relevant when dealing with the deterioration of conditions since 2000.
Mal Brough, the former indigenous affairs minister who instigated the emergency intervention in the Northern Territory was a hard man who broke the mould and gave his critics “both barrels” rather than a “shit-eating grin”.
“A fair bit of debate is a good thing, and bipartisanship is a killer for new ideas. That has been the big problem of the past 30 years.”
Sutton supports a more considered, factually based policy approach. Argument and action about matters of equity require measurement. “And in the 2000s, the statistics are now providing one vital point above all others: approaches to dealing with community violence in the recent past have been a hopeless failure. If the indigenous leaderships and the various governments cannot more widely and assertively grasp the nettle to take radical action, what hope will there be for the next generations?”
And the need for action has never been greater, because the next generations are arriving fast. Sutton says that by “a rough rule of thumb” outback indigenous populations are likely to double in the next 50 years. Yarrabah in Queensland, which had a population of 3000 in 2001, will have 6000 by then and Arnhem Land will have more than 34,000.
The recent statistics produced by the Productivity Commission were disturbing enough, but Sutton suspects they do not reflect the real level of suffering in remote communities because they are averages — a combination of the best urban outcomes with the worst in the bush. Social indicators do not convey the level of real suffering indigenous people face in their day-to-day lives. “A murdered woman is not disadvantaged — she has lost her life.”
In recent years the conditions in which some people live have deteriorated. This has not been helped by the tendency of what he describes as the “Aboriginal industry” to gloss over or even ignore the social reality. He noted that a 2000 Council for Reconciliation national strategy document titled Understanding Disadvantage did not mention the “stupendous” lack of school attendance, heavy drinking, poor diets, smoking and lack of exercise.
“There was a blindness to the ancient need to pursue family loyalties over essentially foreign ideologies such as the doctrine of ‘the common good’; there was a blindness to the part now played by traditional medical beliefs and practices in blocking certain preventative and curative health measures. There was a blindness to the lingering background of an originally semi-nomadic economy with its appropriate but minimal hygiene practices; its emphasis on demand-sharing, and its general rejection of accumulation.”
Sutton does not see himself as a guru, noting that there have been many, from the late “Nugget” Coombs, who advised several governments, to the social researcher Helen Hughes, known as the “Blue Print Lady” — and that all have failed. He is not even convinced there should be a minister for indigenous affairs, although he concedes there should be a minister for poor people.
“The question of affirmative action based on race rather than need is the key issue. I am not against affirmative action for people who are in dire straits, but it must not be based on race or ethnicity.”
Asked what would he do if he woke up one day and found himself advising Kevin Rudd, he says: “I am not a policymaker; policy is not my special bag. I am somebody who has lived a lot with people and lost a good many friends.
“I have been driven into action by grief more than anything else. Stimulating discussion and getting people to think the unthinkable, that is the goal I have set myself.”
PETER SUTTON CV
BORN Melbourne, 1946.
EDUCATION Monash University.
CAREER Currently an Australian Research Council professorial fellow at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum doing research focusing on the Wik people; spent years helping with 50 Aboriginal land claims and other applied anthropological research.
INTERESTS Current research includes Wik sculpture and Aurukun community history, and the recent history of indigenous policy in Australia. Working on the endangered languages Umpila and Wik-Ngathan.
PUBLICATIONS Written/co-authored 15 books on language, art and land rights, beginning with Languages of Cape York in 1975.
OTHER Apart from academic interests he is a devoted ABBA fan.
The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the Liberal consensus, by Peter Sutton, Melbourne University Press. RRP: $34.99