Interview & review – Utopia by John Pilger
John Pilger, the renowned investigative journalist and award winning film maker, has recently completed a new film, Utopia, which deals with the subjugation of the Aboriginal First Australians. Niall Mulholland interviews John about the film’s themes, followed with a review of Utopia.
Your new film, Utopia, is a powerful and harrowing look at the legacy of colonial genocide and successive government policies on Australia’s indigenous people. What made you return to this theme?
Like many expatriates, the more I saw of the world, the more I wanted to know about my homeland. For white Australians, time and distance are essential as ways of seeing; we live far away from almost everywhere and we often feel both disconnected from and drawn to Europe and the United States.
It is ironic that the uniqueness of Australia – its ancient land and extraordinary first people – are devalued or simply not known about by those of us who came later, as if we are bystanders in our own country. My first film about Australia was in 1976; I’ve made half a dozen since then.
The film shows that the Howard government’s ’intervention’ into the Northern Territories (NT) was based on lies and media hysteria about sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. Is there a link between this scandal and big mining corporations’ exploitation of uranium and other natural resources in NT?
There is a link, but it’s not necessarily the most important one. There is a frustration in the Australian elite that the remote Aboriginal population refuses to conform to suburban ways; it cannot be controlled and socially engineered.
This is historic. These days, free market ideology determines the bureaucratic meddling in indigenous societies.
The very notion of communal living is anathema to politicians and the media. How dare Aboriginal people practise a form of socialism! How dare they claim the same rights to services as non-indigenous Australians, which the so-called free market cannot deliver.
How dare they refuse to be ’reconciled’ and assimilated. That their difference demands respect, above all, is beyond the grasp of most politicians.
The levels of poverty, racism and rates of imprisonment suffered by the indigenous people are shocking. Why do you think it is not more widely known about in Australia and internationally?
Australia has never known the opprobrium directed at South Africa. Why? Demographically, Australia is the reverse of South Africa. Black South Africans are the majority; black Australians make up less than 3% of the population.
If you went to Johannesburg during the apartheid era, it was impossible not to be struck by the racist divisions. Fly into Australia, and you see a mostly white and multicultural society – first Australians excluded.
Travel behind the postcard façade of Sydney and you can discover a very different Australia, which many non-indigenous Australians are reluctant to recognise, or deny. The raw racism often shocks tourists because it seems so casual and unself-conscious.
You interview former Labor PM, Kevin Rudd, about his ’apology’ for the state’s policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families. Do you consider his apology adequate?
My film makes clear that Rudd’s apology was far from adequate. It was not an apology to indigenous Australians for the massacres, dispossession and present-day enforced deprivation.
It was an apology to those stolen from their families as children – part of a policy of “breeding out the black”, based on a policy influenced by eugenics.
The Sydney Morning Herald eloquently expressed the cynicism. “The Rudd government,” it said, “has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its own supporters’ emotional needs, yet it changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”
On the day of the apology, Rudd declared, “I want to be blunt; there will be no compensation.” Imagine him saying that to a similarly abused section of the white population.
Utopia describes the “hidden history of struggle” of indigenous Australians, like the eight-year heroic Gurindji cattle ranchers’ strike. Do you see these sorts of struggles as a way of winning justice and equal rights for First Australians?
The great strikes or “walk-offs” of stockmen and their families in the late 1940s and 1960s effectively ended slave labour in Australia.
In those days, Aboriginal workers were the backbone of the Australian cattle industry. Today, they have been pushed out by mechanisation – and subtle forms of racism.
Like working people everywhere, they have suffered from the diminishing of collective power. Their collective spirit, however, remains their strength – as long as they resist the co-option and divisiveness that has become a weapon used against them.
In the film, and generally, you have strongly criticised the agenda of powerful corporate media and sections of state run media. But does the huge public opposition to a US-led war on Syria make you optimistic?
Is there a “huge public opposition” to a US-led war on Syria? There is certainly a disquiet, even hostility, to Cameron’s and Obama’s unerring warmongering.
But there is not a tenacious, organised opposition on the scale of the Vietnam War demonstrations, or the opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Public resistance is fragmented, because people are threatened and disorientated and there is no persuasive left movement to articulate their anger and bring them together.
That’s true in Britain, and even more true in Australia where a principled, active left is courageous, but small.
Utopia castigates Labor leaders, from Bob Hawke to Julia Gillard, who reneged on promises to advance aboriginal rights, caving in to corporate interests. With the struggle for social, land, cultural and economic rights for First Australians yet to be won, what response to your film would you like to see from the Left in Australia and internationally?
Labor Party leaders like Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard are the antithesis of the left. Indigenous people have had few allies in the Australian Labor Party which has reneged on pledges of a ’moral restitution’. Hawke was one of the worst. Gillard had no interest in indigenous people.
My film goes to Australia in January with the aim of persuading audiences that it’s time to face the truth, which is the starting point for Australia to become the decent, liberal society it claims to be.
I think most Australians would like a resolution; but they need to be reminded that this starts with them – for only when they offer the original people a treaty – to be negotiated as equals – can they claim true nationhood.
John Pilger’s Utopia opens with disturbing CCTV footage of a bloodied young Aboriginal man being dragged along the floor of an Alice Springs police station by officers. He is then shown lying in a cell, neglected and dying. Another video clip shows an Aboriginal boy callously tasered by police officers. These distressing images are interspersed with views of Sydney’s rich beachside residences.
Pilger’s powerful, harrowing new documentary is an account of the horrors of colonialism, Aboriginal resistance and the terrible conditions facing ’First Australians’ today. The film takes its title, Utopia, from the (bitterly ironic) name of an isolated Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territories (NT). Pilger first filmed in Utopia 28 years ago and depressingly the town’s appalling levels of poverty have only worsened.
Multiple families live in overcrowded shacks, lacking proper sanitation or running water. Overflowing toilets cause rampant diseases such as diarrhoea and gastro-enteritis. Illnesses lead to a loss of hearing in young Aboriginal children which, in turn, delays their learning. In the first of several brilliant interviews (Pilger is one of the few journalists able to make government ministers really sweat), Warren Snowden, the Minister of Health for Indigenous, complacently claims “significant progress” is being made by his department.
Pilger responds with shocking facts: rheumatic heart disease among Aboriginal people is the highest in the world; one third of Aboriginal men die before they reach 45 years; and a UN “shame list” records that trachoma (a bacterial eye infection that can cause preventable blindness) is rife among the country’s First Australians.
The film looks at the official establishment version of Australian history and that of the oppressed Aboriginal people. On a tour of the national War Memorial, Pilger finds no reference to the resistance of the indigenous Australians to colonial invasion. A renewed ideological campaign by the right wing John Howard government in the 1990s denied there was ever a colonial policy of oppression and genocide. This was, Pilger believes, to try to justify “stealing land and banishing people” – the reality of colonial rule and the development of Australian capitalism.
’Australia Day’ – the official annual celebration marking the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British ships – is referred to as the “Day of Mourning” by First Australians. Along with two Aboriginal rights’ activists, Pilger visits Rottnest Island, off the Western Australian coast. Almost continuously from the 1830s to the 1930s, this was the site of at first a British concentration camp and then a prison for Aboriginal people.
The three visitors are appalled that the building is now a luxury spa and hotel, former prison cells are now A$240-a night rooms. The hotel brochure has no mention of its dark, cruel past.
Prison existence remains a possibility for many First Australians. In Western Australia, Aboriginal Australians are eight times as likely to be imprisoned as the black population under apartheid South Africa.
Brutal mistreatment of indigenous people in police custody is routine. In 2008, a prisoner purposely left in a prison van “cooked to death” in 50 degrees heat. No police officer was arrested or convicted for this crime. The government minister responsible proudly tells Pilger that this horrific death inspired her to put her senior staff on a “cultural sensitivity course”!
Pilger returns to a campaign he covered before, that of Arthur and Leila Murray’s fight for justice for their son, Eddie, who in 1981 was found dead in police custody. Arthur and fellow Aboriginal cotton chippers led an historic strike in the town of Wee Waa, New South Wales, winning higher wages. Arthur says he “paid the price” for this victory, with the racist harassment of his family and his 21 year-old son’s death at the hands of the police.
The inquest coroner called police evidence “highly suspicious”. Poignantly the film informs us that Arthur Murray died in 2012, predeceased by this wife, without either of them getting justice for their slain son.
The “hidden history” of Aboriginal resistance is further highlighted by the Gurindiji strike. This eight year struggle of cattle ranch workers was the longest strike in Australian history. Their heroic struggle eventually won equal pay and better working and living conditions.
In the interview with John Pilger accompanying this review, he points out that since the peak of Aboriginal labour struggles from the 1940s to the 60s, “Like working people everywhere, they have suffered from the diminishing of collective power. Their collective spirit, however, remains their strength…”
This spirit was severely tested in 2007 when the Howard government announced a state of emergency in the Northern Territories, deploying police-military rule. This was justified by baseless claims that Aboriginal children needed saving from sexual abuse carried out by gangs in “unthinkable numbers”. The main source for this was the ’Late Line’ ABC TV programme. The government seized on the claims of an anonymous “youth worker” who appeared (disguised) on camera making wild claims about paedophile rings in Aboriginal communities.
Yet there was no evidence to back up the Late Line allegations and the anonymous “youth worker” was exposed as a senior government official! Australia’s racial discrimination act was suspended by the Howard government, with Labour Party support, to allow the ’Intervention’ in the Northern Territories (NT). Local community elders were threatened with loss of basic services if they did not agree to hand over land leases.
Coincidence or not, shortly afterwards big corporations started mining uranium and other natural resources in NT. Profits of A$1billion a day are made by these companies, exploiting land they do not own.
Utopia also highlights the heart-breaking scandal of the ’stolen generation’ – the systematic removal by the state of over 100,000 children from their families from the 1920s to the 1950s as part of a policy to “breed out the black”. Many of the stolen were made to work as domestic servants or as labourers on cattle stations.
In 2008, then Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd made an official apology to parliament for this abomination. But, as Pilger points out, Rudd did not go further and apologise for genocide or land theft. In an interviews with the former prime minister, Pilger points out that hundreds of indigenous children are being removed from Aboriginal homes on the flimsiest pretexts.
The Labor leaders have a long record of betraying Aboriginal Australians. The Bob Hawke government abandoned a pledge on land rights after sustained big business and right-wing media attacks. The more recent Julia Gillard government also backed down over a tax on the mining industry – the £60 billion raised would have been enough to end Aboriginal poverty – after hysterical opposition from the same reactionary forces.
Pilger concludes Utopia by arguing that the notion of ’reconciliation’ is not possible without real justice and sharing land with the First Australians. How can it be when Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy, yet First Australians have the lowest life expectancy of any of the world’s indigenous peoples?
The Socialist Party in Australia (sister party of the Socialist Party in Ireland) supports the struggle for First Australians’ rights and regard this as part of the struggle of the working class and poor to end racism, poverty and inequality and to fundamentally change society.
Shocking and disturbing, Utopia is not easy viewing and nor should it be. But it is also inspiring and a celebration of resistance.