Casing Kakadu

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Environment. Bookmark the permalink.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2022 years ago

“… that his desire to see modern, educated men and women genuflect before animist absurdities is just about as racist as it gets.”
“… that no good will ever come to you or your children by clinging to impractical superstitions …”

I think that the multicultural detractor who argue that any culture apart from the main one has to be subsumed entirely for the betterment of those in the minority culture, full of crap. Mostly because most of any culture is fluffy irrelevant crap which has no real effect economically, socially or politically. To me, attacks on such things tends to sound more like am ego stroke more than anything else.

2022 years ago

Thanks for a thought provoking post Ken. It would be nice if Imre could lift his game and produce posts of this quality. Unfortunately he seems unable to rise above stereotypes.

peggy sue
peggy sue
2022 years ago

The ‘multicultural’ industry argues that any culture apart from the main one is better than the majority culture. They also are full of crap.

And those who bend the knee in awe before Aboriginal spirituality will sneer at the credulity of Christians.

The NSW teachers’ union apparently wants all funding cut to private schools which promote religion. I am sure they have no objection to funding Aboriginal education which promotes traditional aboriginal religious belief.

Has Australia really moved away from “assimilation”? As far as I can see, there is a fervent desire that Australia’s autochthons become ever more similar to the rest of the community:
similar life expectancy, similar rates of incarceration, similar health, similar incomes, similar employoment rates, similar housing, similar educational retention rates, &c, &c.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

That last paragraph of yours is a very strong one, Peggy Sue. This is the aspect of assimilation that the luvvies never seem to recognise – their insistence that the benefits of “mainstream” culture should be the benchmarks for other cultures, regardless of the pressures within the latter that militate so strongly against these benefits being realised.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“And those who bend the knee in awe before Aboriginal spirituality will sneer at the credulity of Christians.”


But, also, vice versa.

“The NSW teachers’ union apparently wants all funding cut to private schools which promote religion. I am sure they have no objection to funding Aboriginal education which promotes traditional aboriginal religious belief.”

That’s an interesting question. Someone should ask them. In any case, the NSW teacher’s union hasn’t, as far as I know, said they object to the teaching of religion in government schools, in which case it would not be inconsistent of them not to object to the teaching about aboriginal beliefs in those schools.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Ken, that was terrific. There you are speaking from experience.

One thing that comes out of a ground level report is that these issues are real, and important to the lives of actual people.

I will leave aside the straw man stuff from Peggy Sue and Ron, since it bears no relation at all to the politically progressive stance on Aboriginal welfare and participation.

But I do hope they are not trying to say that Aboriginal poverty, the disgraceful life expectancy figures, and the incarceration numbers, are All Their Own Fault? Or even somehow acceptable and inevitable? Or that we shouldn’t do something about them?

Or are they saying that we should “assimilate” Indigenous Australia, and abolish this naughty culture in order to deal with these problems?

2022 years ago

Hi David,
There’s a fine line between speaking ill of someone, and speaking ill of the supporters of someone. My take on the Bunyip’s comments is that he talking about the hypocrisies of the ertswhile supporters of aborigines – the rest of his post points out that the journalist in question supports bring whitefella culture up to date, yet appears to deny the need to up date aboriginal ways; I have no problem with the Bunyip on that

On the other hand, Peggy Sue appears to be saying that “minorities” (i.e. Aborigines) want it both ways – benefits of white culture, plus their own culture. I’d have to deny this – My limited travels within the top end, for example, suggest that if you show an interest in the culture, the locals are usually quite willing to explain things to you – In other words, we (whites) can have it both ways too if we care enough to show an interest.

2022 years ago

I grew up in Melbourne and after 28 years found myself doing some good hard labour on the seasonal circuit with all kinds of people including indigenous people from all over NSW and eastern QLD. I loved an old guy (not fell in love with)and he used to tell me stories in a half incoherent rumble as we worked about snakes and Disneyland and anything. I called him ‘the breeze’ that’s what he was like. S this little girl from Melb is beginning to open her eyes to a lot of things. I need a trade. I’ll be a teacher. Where/ NT never been there either. Well,
I met an old Dutch guy an anthropologist who told me about our history a little bit too much Reynolds but heavily informed by his experience with Pitjanjatjarra from the 50’s and onward. I begin to believe that my culture and oz indigenous culture dovetail neatly to create a wonderful understanding of the world for me – at least. Finally I work in the communities. Ahhh I’m right! our cultures are almost a perfect complement regarding awareness and living values – beginning with my lot’s investment in things and their lots investment in people and relationships. It goes on and on and on… The Kakadu themepark is a great gift – it keeps us lot safe in the country and gives a perspective. (although there are richer ways to do it if you are lucky)It also gives their lot an ‘in’ to the commercial
world of my culture.