Pilger review: Greens strike back


Sir – In “Pilger’s polemic fails Australia and Aborigines” Kieran Finnane enters into a polemic herself to discredit Pilger, but what exactly is it about Utopia that the writer disputes? The facts?  Is she saying it is all too complex and nuanced for anyone to understand or analyse, let alone criticise?
Pilger unashamedly comes from a position – he does not pretend to be “neutral”.  He makes it clear that he is outraged and asks why nobody else is.  He asks why Aboriginal disadvantage has become normalised and why Australia – a first world nation – continues to accept it.
You can criticise him for taking a position you do not agree with, but this does not discount the facts he examines and exposes.
Finnane is wrong that Pilger overwhelmingly depicts Aboriginal people as “victims”.  He gives a voice to strong Aboriginal activists and leaders who have played huge roles in their communities and fought for their rights:  Rosalie Kunoth Monks, Bob Randall, Vince Forrester, the Murray family from Wee Waa, Trisha Morton Thomas.
Finnane mentions a number of Aboriginal people whom she thinks should have been included in the film yet attacks those that were.
This critique trivialises the traumatic impact of the Intervention and the invasion of the army into Aboriginal communities. The sudden announcement of the intervention and its speedy operations shocked and alarmed many people.
The demonising of a whole race of people, especially the men, is having a lasting and devastating effect and is in no small part leading to alcohol abuse, anger, violence, depression and so on.
If we look at Utopia the region, you mention there have been health benefits for people living on country but let’s not overstate it – they are still well below mainstream Australian standards.
And it must be remembered that the comparatively good health has come about through the independent Urapuntja Health Service and because of the Aboriginal communities’ determination to stay on land in spite of government policy.
People remaining on their land is actively discouraged under the Intervention’s model of “hub towns”. And this is why Pilger is so damning of government policy, because it undermines any ability for self-determination.
Not wanting to start a statistics war around conditions of Aboriginal people, there are plenty out there and they paint a damning picture.  But I take issue with Finnane’s use of statistics presented in isolation.  She tells us that Aboriginal households in Utopia have an average size of 5.6 per persons and a weekly median income of $739.
Now, let’s compare this to the rest of Australia which has an average of 2.6 persons per household and a weekly median income of $1234. The average Utopia resident receives $168/week and the average Australian $577.
Using ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service) definition of the poverty line and the ABS statistics, Utopia residents are clearly in poverty. Is Finnane denying this?  Does she deny the overcrowding crisis in Aboriginal communities?
Admittedly there are gaps in Pilger’s film:  the abolition (counter to Review findings) of ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission); the dissolution of CDEP which had enabled people to contribute to their communities in a meaningful way, and the unkept promises of ‘real’ jobs; the skyrocketing rate of incarceration and juvenile detention; the alarming rate of suicide amongst Aboriginal people and in particular the young.
For all these reasons Paddy Gibson, Chris Graham, the Intervention Rollback Action Group and Stop the Intervention Collective continue to speak out about the discrimination and injustice of what is happening in this country.
It is disingenuous to trivialise the views of people such as Altman and Gibson who spend considerable time in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.  Others, such as Barbara Shaw, live the Intervention.
‘Utopia’ is a difficult film for many people to ingest.  Hearing the messages might mean doing something about the serious situation.  And no-one seems to have answers.  Perhaps it is time to recognise our true history – hidden, secret to a large extent.
Time for a Treaty in recognition of the people whose land we inhabit. And time for true self-determination as per Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Sarah Thorne
Alice Springs Greens Working Group


  1. This confirms my decision to never vote Greens. Traumatic impact of the intervention and invasion of the army. How about the traumatic impact on the kids, as exposed in the Little Children are Sacred report? As for invasion of the army, come on, a resource of the Australian government used to help people, although this comment will bring howls of protest.
    It seems that self determination is the responsibility of everybody else according to Ms Thorne. Thank goodness for the review by Kieran, but naturally it goes against the poor bugger me attitude of the Greens, and the surprising thing is that Ms. Thorne missed the opportunity to use the well worn racist tag.

  2. @ Ray I’m not sure that the opportunity to use the racist tag was missed, rather I suspect Ms.Thorne studiously avoided the term because there is a creeping realization, dawning amongst Australians, that those wanting to isolate peoples into groups known as indigenous and have special protective privileges for them, supervised of course by warm gushing Greenies.
    They are what’s known as “patronising paternalists,” the very worst form that racism takes!
    Denying people their rightful equality in the world while at the same time draping a supposedly caring arm around their shoulders! That arm is in reality a thinly disguised mill stone and the root cause of indigenous misery and isolation.
    I thought Kieran’s critique was “spot on”!
    Written with the insight only many years of considered observation of the issues, first hand, on the ground can give, fearlessly penetrating the propaganda and racist garbage that surround so many Indigenous issues, all thanks to groups like the above.

  3. Hey Ray, did you actually read Meke Mekarle (the Little Children are Sacred report)? I did.
    Sure, it detailed the realities of abuse and neglect of aboriginal children in NT communities. But it also detailed the prolonged systematic neglect of decades of successive governments that have deliberately underfunded and starved those communities of resources. The media talked up stories of pedophile rings, but in fact the report looked more broadly at the range of challenges facing children growing up in NT communities. And there’s a nexus: the lack of basic service provision that most Aussies take for granted, and over crowded housing in particular, are major risk factors for abuse.
    The report didn’t just detail abuse and neglect perpetrated by community members, interlopers and governments, but also described principles for redressing the harm and risks uncovered. The report listed almost a hundred recommendations for action, not one of which were taken by the commonwealth, who instead instantiated the NTER.
    If governments were motivated in this policy area by concern for kids, they’d have addressed the detail of the report. Fact is, the NTER didn’t even mention the word children, and the intervention / stronger futures policies have alternative ideological objectives entirely.

  4. It seems to me that you can divide people on social issues into those who think that they are part of the problem and those who think it is caused by somebody else, the great ‘they’. Just like most people think they are above average, most people think whatever the problem is, somebody else should do something about it – obviously by definition you can only be above average if a corresponding number of people are below average, and if most people think the problem is caused by someone else then not enough people are taking responsibility for finding a solution for a political realistic outcome to be achieved. As a young Aboriginal man once said to me, you think I’ve got a problem!
    There was an interesting article on the Conversation recently that broke down the source of votes for the Greens versus the Labour party – http://theconversation.com/labor-and-the-greens-on-again-off-again-never-again-22348 In summary the more affluent one is and the more opportunity one has, then the more likely you are to vote for the Greens, in fact the Greens really only resonate with a small subsection of the elite.
    Until the Greens address this issue then they will only ever be a protest party. Whilst it is necessary to have a radical vanguard to define the middle ground, this is something best left to the young and inexperienced, because experience should lead to an appreciation that most things are complex and nuanced and without people who are prepared to deal with the complexities and nuances, then there will no long lasting viable outcome.
    Aboriginal affairs, for want of a better term, attracts more than its fair share of young idealists and whilst it is commendable that they remind us of the gravity of the situation, they are not necessarily the best ones to proffer the solutions. Just like in traditional Aboriginal culture there was respect for elders, some of these young idealists should perhaps listen a little more to those who’ve been around the block a time or two.
    Regrettably though there are too many old people, once young idealists, who have become beholden on sticking with the same narrative, as they have built careers and meaning to their lives around the ‘Aboriginal problem’ and if they truly became part of the solution, they’d be looking for a new job. Having Aboriginal ancestry doesn’t seem to preclude one from being in this predicament.
    Centralian blackfellas were some of the toughest people ever and they didn’t need then, just like they probably don’t need now, the misplaced sympathy of a batch of well off sycophants.
    I want to be able to celebrate that history and the ongoing resilience and humour of those with that ancestry. I hope the day is not too distant where Australia collectively embraces its Aboriginal story and history.
    Let’s be realistic, there are more Aboriginal people leading contemporary lives than there are living on their own country under whatever tribal law remains, and there are more Aboriginal people with mixed ancestry. Isn’t it time for all of us to get together and tell stories about our country, both the good and the bad and not choose which parts of the story we want to highlight as a testament to our allegiances to an ideal or team.
    Until Aboriginal Australians can share the Captain Cook story, and until the rest of us can embrace, tell and identify with the Aboriginal story, then most of us are really just camping in this country. As an aside, Andrew Bolt doesn’t seem to get this, despite his recent Australia day claims that he is Indigenous.
    So please let us refrain from our simplistic us and them analysis and the pretenses like the Intervention was really a land grab and start sharing our stories.
    I remember Gary Foley once saying at a public meeting ‘if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem’. I guess on that basis, the Greens are part of the problem.

  5. I lived in a town with 325 people. Everyone had a job we had a primary school that had three teachers. We got no special treatment and the residents raised funds to put split systems in the class rooms.
    The parents raised funds to put in a swimming pool. The government was not going to provide more than they had to. The airconditioners and swimming pool all belong to the government once put in.
    Many communities receive royalties and there appears no increase in lifestyle and living standards. According to the Greens that is white man’s fault too. We all have choices and in Karumba we did what is best for the kids. And the small community.
    This idea of people wanting to live in the middle of nowhere with no job opportunities and demanding governments ensure everything is available to them has to end.
    Opportunities are available to everyone. You just have to get off your backside and make changes to your life. Stop blaming everyone else and using the race card for your own inabilities to take responsibility for your lives.

  6. I’m having a problem getting the numbers quoted in the text of this story to add up.
    If a household in Utopia has a weekly median income of $739 and an average size of 5.6 people, I make that $131.96 a week per person, not the $168/weekly as quoted.
    And if the average mainstream household has a weekly median income of $1234 and an average size of 2.6 residents, I make that $474.61 a week per person, not the $577/weekly as quoted.
    Either I am missing something, or I am misapplying the figures quoted.
    Another question I have goes to the sources of the weekly average incomes, whatever the accurate figures are.
    Is the average income in Utopia houses monies received from one or another CentreLink payment? And is the average income in mainstream houses monies received from one or another earned wage?
    And in both cases is the full income per house being factored in? Royalties? Sales of art? Stock dividends? Bank interest? etc.
    And one last question, admittedly a bit of a kicker – so what? No one is saying it’s a level playing field out there. But what many are saying is that the way forward is by paying more attention to the positive ideas coming from Noel Pearson than to the grizzling of John Pilger.
    [ED – I changed the word above to “grizzling” from Hal’s original word. He sent the following note: “I used gristle, or gristling, on purpose. I don’t know if gristling is a word or not, but gristle is and I first heard it used shortly after I landed in Perth. A bloke I worked with on the Subiaco Council reckoned he was always getting gristle from the bosses. Always liked the imagery. Hal.]

  7. Sarah and Alice Springs Greens, what I dispute most about Utopia is John Pilger’s approach to his subject, which completely compromises the film’s claim to be a credible work of journalism or documentary. I think this is clearly stated in my review.
    Outrage might be fine for a preacher, but it’s not a good start, middle and end for journalistic enquiry.
    Pilger does not treat us to many facts; all too often he proceeds by way of leading questions, inferences, insinuations, sweeping generalisations and unsubstantiated assertions. Here are an additional couple of offending examples not mentioned in the review:
    1. In his broadbrush treatment of the early Intervention, Pilger describes the introduction of income quarantining thus: “Benefits and pensions were restricted. People could only buy essentials with a special Basics card. Only black citizens were treated this way. As people’s incomes were being quarantined, starvation was reported.”
    For people who don’t know better, the first two sentences may well leave the impression that social security benefits were reduced by the Intervention. They certainly fail to mention the principle reason for quarantining, which was to restrict the amounts being spent on alcohol and tobacco, and redirect money towards food and household expenses. Further, they fail to mention the 50% of benefits still available to the recipient to spend as she or he pleased. The third sentence is also misleading: “black citizens” is way too broad a term when income quarantining applied only to welfare recipients residing in the “prescribed communities”, where non-Aboriginal welfare recipients were also caught in its net. The shocking suggestion of the fourth sentence is left unsubstantiated – what was the nature of these reports and were they substantiated? This is all the more mischievous when ‘starvation’ or at least malnutrition was the very matter the government was attempting to address with the measure and there is some evidence of its success.
    2. Further along in his treatment of the Intervention, Pilger runs a grab from Trisha Morton Thomas in which she recalls, “watching huge heliopters fly over our homeland with these massive … antenna-like things. Then a few years later the government comes crashing into the Mutitjulu community … and amazingly they find these huge amounts of uranium and prescious soils in central Australia … People might think I’m being a bit paranoid …”
    Not Pilger. He segues into a dramatically toned but ridiculously inconsequential tidbit about mining in the Northern Territory: “In 2007 a campaign called Top End Secret 2 was launched by the Northern Territory Government to explore for new mineral deposits. According to an industry survey the Northern Territory is the new frontier of Australian mining.” This is left hanging, there’s a bit of didgeridu music and then he changes the subject.
    This would be laughable if it wasn’t so embarrassingly bad.
    Pilger never tests his material with appropriate scepticism, only uses material to support his agenda and, at the risk of repeating what I’ve said in the review, never seeks dissenting points of view while also turning a blind eye to confounding aspects of the social picture he is supposed to be examining.
    When I say the situation is complex, I don’t suggest that it is beyond understanding; I just don’t think Pilger’s simplistic approach contributes to that understanding.

  8. As someone somewhat closer to the machinations of the decision processes around the intervention (and ancillary Local Government reform) than most, I would say that Kieran has it pretty right and is presenting a good range of topics for objective enquiry.

  9. It’s completely inaccurate and misleading for Sarah Thorne to claim that John Pilger is outraged by Aboriginal disadvantage and that nobody else apparently is concerned.
    History shows that people from all walks of life from the commencement of colonisation have been vitally concerned about the plight of Aboriginal people and tried to do something about it. A major problem is that, in some of the various approaches tried, the attempts to assist Aboriginal people to adjust to changed circumstances have misfired. I can’t see that the Green movement is any better in its approach to this issue.
    I’d just like to point out an interesting situation that occurred in 1990. Early that year the CLP was facing the prospect of its first election defeat when eventually the government would have to call the next NT elections. Private party polling clearly indicated Labor was on track to win; and I personally witnessed Chief Minister Marshall Perron almost in tears due to the stress he was under at a CLP Central Council meeting held in Tennant Creek in late April (I was a chairman of the CLP’s Flynn Branch in Alice Springs – the name was changed to the Greatorex Branch that year).
    At that time the ALP had two Aboriginal members in the NT Legislative Assembly, both from the Top End – they were Stan Tipiloura and Wes Lanhupuy.
    There was no Aboriginal member in the CLP or representation from Central Australia. I was one of two CLP candidates for the seat of Stuart in the elections of October 1990, the other being Eric Panunka from Ti Tree. (A similar approach was tried with the seat of MacDonnell, too). I’d never intended to run as a candidate at that time – in fact, I’d served on the local branches collegiate panel to preselect the CLP candidates for Central Australia; and I was the person principally responsible for the establishment of that collegiate preselection panel. Anyone who served on the preselection panel was ineligible to run as a candidate.
    We chose a prominent Aboriginal candidate from Yuendumu initially but he was secretly dumped at the CLP’s Annual Conference on August 10, 1990. It was on or about 28 September I was contacted by the Office of Chief Minister in Alice Springs, asking me to run as a second CLP candidate in Stuart in support of Eric Panunka.
    This was extremely awkward for me – I’d made no provision for campaigning, I wasn’t going to get much support from the CLP itself, I’d just bought my first home that year with interest rates in excess of 12 per cent (and that was with first home owners government assistance), and it meant I would have to resign my job in the NT Public Service, with no guarantee of getting the same position back after the election campaign.
    But I chose to accept the challenge – it was an opportunity to support a traditional Aboriginal person to run for the CLP in Central Australia.
    The CLP failed to win the two bush seats in Central Australia with this approach in October 1990 – but it convincingly defeated both Labor and the NT Nationals in the general election campaign.
    The reason for the turnaround in the CLP’s fortunes was due to a remarkable run of events, that commenced on the winter solstice (June 21) of 1990 – that’s when the newspapers across the NT blazed with the front page story of an extraordinary attack on the leadership ability of Labor Opposition Leader, Terry Smith.
    And that attack came from an entirely unexpected direction – the convenor of the Territory Greens movement, Bob Ellis. Ellis had previously been a long-serving head of the NT Sacred Sites Authority, and been a major thorn in the side of the CLP NT Government – I know from years of participation in the CLP he was heartily despised.
    Bob Ellis launched a scathing attack against Terry Smith, claiming that even Mickey Mouse could run the Labor Party better – and didn’t the media lap up that one! From the punch-drunk CLP perspective, it was like manna from heaven! It was a critical blow to Labor, it was on the back foot from that time onwards.
    What lay behind this extraordinary turn of events? Well, it just so happens that the CLP simultaneously jettisoned its long-standing support for the establishment of a nuclear energy industry sector in the NT, a policy the party had vigorously promoted in the late 1980s.
    It was a pragmatic decision – the NT Government had no power over this matter and so there was no point supporting a policy that needlessly aggravated a part of the voting constituency. (Only the Federal Government did, and it was Labor under PM Bob Hawke, and it owed its survival to preferences from the Greens in the federal elections early in 1990, so clearly there was not going to be any support for a nuclear energy industry coming from that sector!)
    So clearly there was a sweet-heart deal between the CLP and the NT Greens movement that led to that first vital shot that destroyed Labor’s chances of winning the NT elections in 1990 – and for (as it eventuated) a whole decade longer.
    And that is one good reason why I think the Greens have no more credibility in politics that either of the major political parties!

  10. Widespread interest towards circumstances of Utopian residents, indeed all the communities, particularly where housing was constructed using public moneys.
    Is rent required to be paid where tenants denied a lease?
    Who receives the rent money ?
    How much of the rent money is allocated towards repairs, maintenance, to develop new housing, or other?
    What % of the rent money is distributed to the “Traditional Owners” as shareholders of the Land Trust?


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