How greenie left-wingers conspired to wreck Aboriginal prosperity
Abandoned: a car wreck in the outback. Photo: Tamara Voninski
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, used-car dealers, grog runners, hire purchase loan sharks, boosters for mining and exploration, and fundamentalist Christians drifted through the towns and Aboriginal communities of the remote areas. The used-car dealers sold Aboriginal people decrepit second-hand cars for prices ranging from $2000 to $10,000. They made enormous profits and added to the strata of racist mythology and hatred.
They were welcomed by Aboriginal people, who remained unaware of their predicament as a targeted, vulnerable market, throughout the central desert when royalty cheques were due. The happy owners of these wrecks drove them for a month at best, and a couple of days at worst, before they were parked, permanently, by the side of the road leading to the community. Many of the car bodies remain exactly where they stopped all those years ago, now rusted out, along the roads that cross the desert.
When word reached the spivs in the big cities of the thousands of dollars to be made, more came with cargoes of cars loaded up on big trucks, and set up car yards opposite the Aboriginal organisations that paid out the royalty cheques. They even flew Aboriginal flags. Every other Aboriginal property with an Aboriginal flag in the town was at risk of racially motivated vandalism and arson; but not the used car yards.
Prof. Marcia Langton. Photo: John Woudstra
That was a short, sharp lesson for me in the power of capitalism to cut through deeply embedded, intransigent race hate. Yes, they were exploiting Aboriginal people who lived in a world of poverty, but unlike anybody else in town, they turned up from down south and wanted to sell Aboriginal people something other than alcohol. I bought almost no clothes during the seven years I lived in Alice Springs. The "No Aborigines" rule extended to trying on clothes in shops. But an Aboriginal person could buy a second-hand car or a vehicle load of alcohol, no questions asked.
In the first Boyer lecture, I explained a new economic trend: the coincidence of the transformation of the mining industry from the bare-knuckled approach of the 1960s to the early 1990s, when access to Aboriginal land and reserves for mining projects involved imposition of projects without consultation, forced removals and no regard for impacts on Aboriginal communities.
With land rights and the recognition of native title in 1993, however, which required mining companies to negotiate with affected Aboriginal people, thousands of agreements that acknowledge impacts and provide benefits have changed the economic situation of indigenous Australia irrevocably. Thousands of jobs, scores of contracting businesses and income streams from native title payments are the result – and the basis for an economic future if only government policy would move from protectionism to economic empowerment.
But there was another factor that has had an enduring impact on Australian society, and explains much about Aboriginal poverty: the emergence of the environmental movement and the romanticisation of Aboriginal people as the new "noble savages" in the late 1960s through the 1970s. This has become one of the most difficult of all the obstacles hindering Aboriginal economic development.
Among the left, and among those opinion leaders who hang on to the idea of the new "noble savages", Aboriginal poverty is invisible, masked by a "wilderness" ideology. Whenever an Aboriginal group negotiates with a resource extraction company there is an unspoken expectation that no Aboriginal group should become engaged in any economic development. They only tolerate Aboriginal people living on their own land as caretakers of wilderness, living in poverty and remaining uneducated and isolated.
The poverty of these communities, deriving as it does from historical dispossession and economic exclusion and, for the past 40 years, high welfare dependency, gives a particular form to the kinds of consumption, distribution and marketing that take place in this distorted corner of the Australian economy. What the grog runners, spivs and drifters understand – more so than governments and banks, although in a cunning way – is the economic worth of these populations. So, too, do the large market players like the supermarket chains that hold a major position in the Aboriginal economy of the north, selling food at inflated prices and alcohol at low prices to Australia's poorest, most ill and vulnerable people.
How did it come to be that those of us who argue for jobs for Aboriginal people, for policies that encourage entrepreneurship among Aboriginal people, are despised and loathed by that section of the population that can only tolerate the "cultural" Aborigine?
IN THE 1967 national referendum, 96 per cent voted "yes" for Aboriginal rights. But just as it seemed that the social and economic issues affecting Aboriginal people might be understood by more compassionate voters, the mining boom of the 1970s and the worldwide leftist civil rights and indigenous movements precipitated a furious debate.
Should Aboriginal land be readily accessed by mining companies without regard to the consequences for already impoverished and disadvantaged communities, or should there be a special category of rights for remnant indigenous populations in reserves – Australia's own "gulag archipelago" – where their fate was marginalisation?
The Aboriginal movement for land rights established the battleground for political rights for the next three decades. Its impact was both beneficial, with the return of large areas of land to the rightful owners, and detrimental, in that the economic potential was locked up. Not until after the passage of the Commonwealth's Native Title Act in late 1993, a quarter of a century later, were some of the more incendiary issues in this dispute, which consumed three generations of Aboriginal leaders, partially resolved.
Into the conflict came environmentalists and "wilderness" campaigners, attaching themselves to dissident Aboriginal groups at Jabiluka in western Arnhem Land and elsewhere, and opposing developments, not because of impacts on Aboriginal people, but to preserve nature and "wilderness".
Whether Aboriginal groups had projects imposed on them or negotiated successful settlements, these professional protesters, supported by sophisticated non-government organisations funded by a gullible public, accused Aboriginal leaders of "selling out". Not once have they campaigned against Aboriginal poverty. They assume that this is normal for the natives. They, and the Australian Labor Party membership, have taken the Aboriginal electorate for granted since the days of Gough Whitlam's reforming government. Recently, this changed.
Ken Wyatt ran for the Liberal Party in the seat of Hasluck in Western Australia and became the first Aboriginal person elected to the House of Representatives. Others had been elected to state and territory parliaments and, in the Northern Territory, the ALP took advantage of the large Aboriginal population and governed from 2001 to 2012 with several elected Aboriginal people serving in the cabinet.
In 2012, fed up with the failure of the Territory government to serve their interests fairly, Aboriginal voters in the bush threw out the Territory government that had ignored their interests, delivering victory to the Country Liberal Party.
This extraordinary outcome – a first in Australian history – challenged mainstream perceptions of the marginal power of the Aboriginal vote. The voter turnout across the Territory was an unusually high 76.9 per cent; three in 10 Territorians are Aboriginal. They were fed up with left-wing causes imposed from down south, be it live cattle export restrictions, opposition to mining or rolling back the intervention.
Once the party of the frontiersmen and spruikers, and rabidly opposed to Aboriginal rights, the Country Liberal Party has changed its colour – four of its members in the new NT Assembly are outback Aboriginal leaders. It seems the Territory's rural conservatives have finally figured it out: they have more in common with Aboriginal people than with their kin in the cities. Both groups need land-based industries to support their economies and way of life. Both share a deep disdain for greens, animal liberationists and bureaucrats, whether from Darwin or Canberra.
But the most significant factor was the Aboriginal body politic itself. Strong local leaders have worked hard to bring economic development to indigenous communities where welfare has turned residents into perpetual mendicants. Time and again, native title groups have spent years getting an agreement with a resource company over the line, negotiating income streams that might shift indigenous people from the margins to the centre of regional economic development in return for land access – only for a ragtag team of "wilderness" campaigners to turn up with an entourage of disaffected Aboriginal protesters to stop development at the 11th hour.
The legacy of these developments is a clutch of phenomena that work to alienate Aboriginal people, to impoverish and exclude them. The fight back is another long story.
This is the second in a series of edited extracts of the 2012 ABC Boyer Lectures to be delivered by Professor Marcia Langton, chair of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne. It will be broadcast on ABC Radio National on Sunday, November 23, at 5pm and will be available online at abc.net.au/radionational/boyerlectures. A book of the Boyers will be published in early 2013.
Professor Langton's 2012 Boyer Lecture series drew on research funded by mining companies Woodside Energy, Rio Tinto and Santos, as well the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Marnda Mia Central Negotiating Committee.