Back from a few days in Kakadu. I see that my sincere flattery of Geoff and Wendy failed to flush either of them out of the blogging woodwork. Maybe it might do the trick if more of you mob were to say really really nice things about them in the comment box.
I had intended to blog about an aspect of our Kakadu trip, and Professor Bunyip’s post about Uluru/Ayers Rock gives me a perfect intro. After a typically Bunyipian slag of some pompous prat of a Fairfax journo who sneered patronisingly about colleagues who dared to ignore Traditional Owners’ requests not to climb the Rock during a recent journos’ junket, the Professor comments:
There is no sentiment in that paragraph you wouldn’t stand a good chance of encountering at any random dinner party in Newtown, Balmain or Carlton. It’s all there – the patronising indulgence of ignorance, the blindness to the unpleasant reality of the Traditional Owners’ plight in a modern society that those who should know better — and probably do, secretly, deep within their trendy hearts — persist in encouraging them to reject. There is the presumption, too, that the hapless life of a fringe dweller is a viable alternative to a productive place in a society that overflows with opportunities for those with the industry, the initiative, and the encouragement to grasp them.
Shmith would be the first to spot racism in others, yet he can’t see — or refuses to acknowledge — that his desire to see modern, educated men and women genuflect before animist absurdities is just about as racist as it gets. “Listen, Jacky, me and my mates aren’t brave enough to tell you that no good will ever come to you or your children by clinging to impractical superstitions in a ruinous post-tribal society, so we’ll just encourage you to continue because it’s easier and makes us feel really wise and special. Oh yeah, and one other thing: While your kids are dying and your adults are wasting their lives, we’ll blame John Howard for your wretchedness, because that always goes down well between the main course and the sorbet.”
Go ahead, die, and see how very much we care.
Although I wouldn’t put it anywhere near as acerbically as the Professor, he undoubtedly has a point. However, workable answers are less easy to find. We tried wholesale assimilation earlier in the twentieth century, and it didn’t work either. Moreover, forcing or encouraging Aboriginal people to abandon their traditional lands and beliefs (where they’re still practised) would just result in large and desperately poor fringe dweller societies growing up on the edges of urban centres in northern Australia. That isn’t likely to be welcomed by anyone. At the very least, living on and controlling their traditional lands gives Aboriginal people a breathing space, an opportunity to adapt gradually to modern western culture and acquire the education and skills needed to survive and thrive in it.
Control of land also carries the potential for Aboriginal people to develop their own economic base, with sustainable local jobs and enterprises. I’ve been getting fairly pessimistic about those prospects in recent years, because it looked like most people were continuing to choose the “sit-down money” passive welfare dependency option. Aspects of Aboriginal culture seemed to militate against an enterprise culture. It’s a conclusion also reached by people like Noel Pearson, who knows a hell of a lot more about it than I do. However, the things I observed out in Kakadu this week give cause for hope.
Back in 1989-91, I acted as lawyer for the Gagudju Association, which at that time received all the royalties from the Ranger Uranium Mine. They’d used that money (along with commercial borrowings) to build the 4-star Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru and the smaller 3-star Cooinda resort at Yellow Waters. One of my jobs as their lawyer was to draft agreements with the hotel operators, requiring them to give employment preference to local Aboriginal people, to notify Gagudju Association of expected upcoming vacancies, and to provide suitable pre-employment training for prospective Gagudju employees.
However, by the time I ceased acting for the Association (when I briefly went into politics), only one local Aboriginal person had chosen to take advantage of those job opportunities. It was one of numerous personal experiences that led me to agree with Noel Pearson, and to go even further and conclude tentatively that aspects of collectivist Aboriginal tribal culture might be fundamentally incompatible with the radically individualist western liberal capitalist society in which they have no practical choice but to live (and which provides numerous material benefits that most of them are more than happy to receive).
I still think many of my tentative conclusions are correct, and that Pearson’s critique and plan of attack has a lot more going for it than the standard left recipe of whitefella guilt, apologies, fostering of customary law and so on. Nevertheless, I discovered this week that Gagudju’s somewhat collectivist enterprise strategies are finally bearing fruit. Large numbers of young Aboriginal men and women are working in a wide range of capacities at both hotels and as rangers, guides and park attendants right through Kakadu. What’s more, they’re mostly much harder-working, enthusiastic and helpful to their tourist guests than their white co-workers. The Gagudju, Mirrar and Jawoyn employees mostly seem really happy to be at work, and eager to show tourists their country and customs. It’s one of the best and most heartening things I’ve seen in my twenty years in the Northern Territory. I guess I just seriously under-estimated the amount of time it would take a traditional Aboriginal society to adapt its culture and expectations to embrace western-style capitalist enterprise. But they’re certainly doing it now, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be proven wrong.
To what extent the Gagudju model could be replicated or adapted in other Aboriginal communities elsewhere in Australia is less clear. Most Aboriginal clans don’t own country containing rich uranium deposits or a world heritage national park to generate the revenue needed to build major tourist infrastructure. However, what it does show is that it is possible to maintain many aspects of traditional culture, including its “animist absurdities”, while also developing productive (in a capitalist sense) jobs and enterprises. After all, the arguably equally bizarre superstitions of Christianity didn’t stop us Europeans from doing likewise, and it took our cultures several hundred years to move from village feudalism to post-modern corporate capitalism. For the Gagudju to successfully complete a significant part of a much more radical transition, starting from nomadic hunter-gatherer stage, in a single century or so is pretty remarkable from any standpoint.
I reckon the Gagudju are right to seek to restrict numbers of tourists going into the more sensitive parts of Kakadu, just as the Anangu of Uluru are right to try to deter tourists from climbing the Rock. Leaving aside the “animist absurdities” at which the Professor sneers, the ecology of much of this country is very fragile, and would be ruined if it wasn’t carefully managed. Moreover, the presence of large numbers of tourists degrades the quality of the wilderness experience for everyone. At places like Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock (where I took Jen because she’d never been there before), it already feels rather like a steamy version of a Disney theme park. It makes sense, commercially as well as ecologically, to preserve at least a distant semblance of the sacred, majestic wilderness feeling these places evoked before they began getting overrun with tourist hordes. In the case of Uluru, it also makes sense both medically and in terms of potential insurance liability. The Uluru climb is steep, hot and dangerous. Tourists fall fairly frequently, and some have heart attacks. Any national park operator with half a brain would post prominent warnings against climbing it, just as Kakadu’s Aboriginal-controlled Board of Management sensibly posts warnings against swimming in any waterway, even though some of them are probably (but not assuredly) croc-free for most of the dry season.
Kakadu remains well worth visiting, despite the bad press it frequently receives. So is Uluru/Katajuta, despite Professor Bunyip’s jaundiced view of it. I feel both pleased and privileged that their traditional owners have chosen to share the wonders of these places with us whitefellas, and that many of them still have the patience and wisdom to show and explain their culture and traditions to us, even though some visitors exhibit in person a crass disrespect and insensitivity that’s a close cousin to aspects of Professor Bunyip’s attitude. It’s possible to engage with Aboriginal people in a constructively critical way, without sneering dismissively at their culture. Thoughtful Aboriginal people know very well that their communities need to adapt to western capitalism, and they’re doing so as best they can. They’re not helped much by either the sneering condescension of some on the right or the elitist, do-gooder welfarist double standards of many on the left.