Australia's Enduring Disgrace

SHUNPIKING, September, 2000 / Volume 5, Number 36

In January 1999 "Welcome to Australia: The Secret Shame Behind the Sydney Olympics by renowned independent film-maker and journalist John Pilger was screen on TV in Britain. Pilger returned home to Australia to find that elaborate preparations for the 2000 Summer Olympics overshadow a hidden world where Aborigines continue to live in "Third World" conditions. In a sports-mad nation, he discovers that some of the greatest sportsmen and women in the world were in fact Aboriginal. Many of them, like Blacks in South Africa under Apartheid, and First Nations in the Americas, were until recently denied a place in their country's Olympic teams. Pilger reflects on his home country.

PHYSICALLY, there is no place like Sydney: the deep-water harbour, the tiara of Pacific beaches, the estuaries and secret bays where white eucalyptus, the giant ghost gums, rise from the water's edge. At the centre is a stage set like a small New York, its props the great bridge, the other-worldly Opera House and an Olympic pool, built in the 1930s with art deco dolphins and an honour roll of 86 world swimming records, itself a world record. Beside them is Luna Park, a fun fair announced by a huge face with a slightly demented grin.

This is Australia's facade, or showcase, as the promoters of the Olympic Games prefer. The games, which opened on Sep. 15 heralded "a new golden age" with Australians "the chosen ones to take the dream to the new millennium: a dream we all share". The day the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came to inspect the city, traffic lights were timed to turn green as their limousines approached. Lobster dinners, champagne, cognac and Cuban cigars were topped by gifts of Australian Sports Institute grants, each worth Aus$52 000, to African IOC delegates. A "sucking up fund" ran to Aus$28-million.

On an outing, the wife of an IOC delegate spotted a black man playing a didgeridoo at Circular Quay, where he is a tourist fixture. "Who's that?" she enquired.

"An Aborigine," replied one of her hosts. "Really? Where are the rest of them?" "Er, in the outback."

That was untrue. Sydney has a large Aboriginal ghetto at Redfern, a five-minute limo drive away. It is easily spotted by the presence of police. The Aboriginal Legal Service, based in Redfern, tried to interest the IOC in an Australia they had not seen, the one behind the facade, but there was little time and the atmosphere was not conducive.

At Monaco, where the IOC met to decide the winner, the Chosen Ones ensured that delegates were treated to performances by Aboriginal dancers and didgeridoo players in full body paint, with cavorting giant kangaroos and wombats. The boomerang was to be the motif of the Sydney Games. Qantas aircraft were repainted in indigenous designs. There was an "indigenous advisory committee", led by the affable former rugby star Gary Ella.

Kununurra is in the remote north of Western Australia. It is ancient, volcanic ground that can seem on fire in the dawn light. The town reminded me of its equivalent in the South African veld: manicured gardens, air-conditioned supermarkets, Toyota four-wheel drives outside, overweight grey-skinned people, clubs and sporting facilities that are all-white. Half the population, however, is black. Where are they? The only employed Aborigine I saw was a man holding the Stop and Go sign at road works. The rest are in the shadows: face down in the park, silhouettes framed in doorways on the fringe of town.

The Olympic torch came through here on its way to Sydney. Almost everyone cheered it on, except those black people who could not see it, having been blinded by trachoma, for which Kununurra and hundreds of similar towns, ought to be notorious. Australia is the only developed country on a World Health Organisation "shame list" of countries where children are still blinded by trachoma. Impoverished Sri Lanka has beaten the disease, but not rich Australia.

An Aboriginal Medical Services team making a spot check of children found that third had trachoma. At Doon Doon school, half the 56 children were found to have the disease. "What if these were white children?" I asked Dr Alice Tippetts, who replied with a hand over her mouth; like Australian apartheid, it is the unspeakable. Trachoma is entirely preventable. An infection of the eyelids, it is spread in conditions of poverty: overcrowding, the lack of clean running water, the dust.

"By most measures of indigenous health," said Dr Richard Murray, of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council, "Australia is last in the world. The Aboriginal people suffer from diseases we saw the end of in the Edinburgh slums in the past century, like rheumatic fever. Here, it is the highest ever reported in the world. And diabetes, which affects up to a quarter of the adult Aboriginal population, causing kidney failure and diabetic blindness. And gastro-enteritis ..."

"What's the cause?"

"Poverty and dispossession. Look at the phenomenon of suicide that comes from a lack of opportunity and hope for the future. It is the young men who bear the brunt. In a typical community where there are, say, 50 men up to the age of 25, one or two will kill themselves, two or three will try and another dozen will give it some serious thought. They come from families who have to live with constant grief, with not wanting to go to bed at night for fear of waking up in the morning to find someone hanging. It is a heart-wrenching truth that the world knows little about."

At Woorabinda, in Queensland, I drove in the dust behind Paul Gribble, who had the coffin of a two-month-old Aboriginal baby girl in the boot of his car. She was to be buried that afternoon following a funeral at Paul's church, St Mathews. His father and grandfather were missionaries, and the line stops with him. Proud and disillusioned, and angry, he referred to "an Aboriginal population incarcerated all these years in a prison built by us".

Opening his register of deaths, he said: "The first funeral I conducted, I was irritated by the people wailing, and I screamed out for them to shut up. And they did, and all the funerals thereafter were dead quiet. Then one day I stood up and apologized to them. I told them I was wrong, just as it is wrong that people continue to die as they do. Look at my register: babies, young men. And it's wrong the authorities harass them as they do. I am chaplain at Rockhampton prison, where a third of the prisoners are Aboriginal - from two per cent of the population."

Woorabinda began as an Australian Gulag where people were dumped, bereft of community and family ties that matter to them sometimes more than life itself. The Protector controlled their every movement; he could exile and punish people and confiscate their belongings, and commit the most recalcitrant to mental asylums. The legacy, says Elizabeth Young, an Aboriginal health worker, is that "the community now are slowly suiciding". In the cemetery, beyond Sebastapol Creek, the ants have bored holes in the white wooden crosses. There are children in row upon row: then young men in the next, and the next.

I am always left incredulous - there is no other word - standing in this Australia. If I were a black Australian, I would be dead now. The life expectancy of Aborigines is 25 years less than whites. Apart from countries at war, Australia has the distinction of the highest death rate in the world - among its first people. The health of Aboriginal women has so deteriorated in recent years that their death rate is six times that of white women.

When I interviewed Phillip Ruddock, a Federal Government Minister responsible for "reconciliation" in time for the Olympic Games, he boasted that the Aboriginal child mortality rate had improved. He is right; it is now only three times that of white children. In Western Australia, it is higher than in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth.

The Australian government remains terrified the world will find out about this before the Olympics; the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has already distinguished Australia with its first adverse finding on racial discrimination against a Western nation. Like South Africa, sport is a mirror in Australia, whose record of discrimination might not remain hidden as it was during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

Phillip Ruddock is a member of Amnesty International and agreed that "the Aboriginal statistics are truly appalling". I asked him how he felt receiving Amnesty reports on human rights violations with "Australia" written across the top, such as: "Aborigines are still dying in prison and police custody at levels that may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

He replied: "Why do they use the word 'may'?"

I think he meant this to be clever. I pointed out that when the government of John Howard came to office in 1996, its first act was to cut Aus$400-million from the Aboriginal affairs budget. The following year it received a landmark report from the Human Rights Commission on the Stolen Generation, describing how thousands of Aboriginal children of mixed race were taken from their parents as part of a systematic policy in order to "breed out the colour". The president of the commission, Sir Roland Wilson, said: "We as a committee have decided that what was done meets the international definition of genocide ... which is the attempt to destroy a people, a culture."

The report, Bringing Them Home, called for an official apology on behalf of all Australians. Howard has steadfastly refused to give it, and has made clear there will be no compensation. During the week the report was tabled, federal Parliament spent an hour debating a proposal for a tax on the culling of emus. By contrast, a report describing genocide in Australia was given half an hour, during which the prime minister, the members of his Cabinet and most government MPs left the chamber before the "debate" was over.

Not many Australians have heard of Eddie Gilbert. In the 1930s, Gilbert, a fast bowler, was given special permission to play outside the reserve. He took five wickets for 65 runs against the West Indies. In 1931 he faced Donald Bradman, the world's greatest batsman, and bowled him for a duck. "That Gilbert," Bradman later wrote, "sent down the fastest bowling I can remember." On Nov. 11, 1936, the secretary of the Queensland Cricket Association wrote to the Protector of Aborigines: "The matter of Eddie Gilbert has been fully discussed by my executive committee and it was decided, with your concurrence, to arrange for Gilbert to return to the settlement ... With regard to the cricketing clothes bought for Gilbert, it is asked that arrangements be made for these to be laundered, and delivery of the laundered clothes to be made to this office." Thus, they solved the problem of an amazing sportsman who dared to be too good. Gilbert was committed to a mental asylum - a common way of dealing with uppity blacks - where he died, it was said, of a brain disorder.

Australia's hidden history is Aboriginal and sport. Few in this sports-obsessed country know that the first Australian cricket team to tour England was entirely black. That was 1868, when the Daily Telegraph mused: "Nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold nuggets and black cricketers."

Charlie Perkins grew up at the Bugalow mission, where Perkins's mother, Hetti, was a "dormitory girl". Perkins was born on a table-top in a disused telegraph station near Alice Springs in 1936 or 1937; he is not sure which. When we first met, he told me about his brother, no doubt as a way of telling me something about himself. Like many "half-castes", he had killed himself after a short life of trying to win the recognition and respect of whites. Perkins never saw a football until he was 14. There was no pitch of any description on the reserve.

"Our treat," he said, "was being taken to the pictures, sneaking in after the movie had started and leaving before it ended, so no one would object to us black kids being there. I grew up never knowing if the goodies or baddies won. Very frustrating." When Perkins was sent by the missionary to Adelaide, a talent scout for the Merseyside club Everton spotted him playing football and offered to pay half his fare to England. He went, arriving midway through the season in a freezing winter. Offered a first division place by Matt Busby at Manchester United, he holds the distinction of turning the great man down. "I was homesick," he said. "I wanted to play in Australia."

He became only the second Aborigine to graduate from an Australian university, and in the mid-1960s led white students on "freedom rides" into the outback of New South Wales. Their objective was the same as the freedom riders who began the desegregation of the Deep South in the United States. Spat at and attacked, they stood at the turnstiles of local pools, sports fields and cinemas demanding an end to the race bar. Shortly afterwards, when I went beyond the Australian frontier for the first time and saw that which I had never imagined, Perkins was my guide.

At Alice Springs we hired a Ford Falcon and picked up Hetti, his mother, who wore a big black hat; the former dormitory girl was, after all, a queen of the Arrente people. We headed for the government reserve at Jay Creek, where 300 people were corralled without running water and proper food and housing. The barbed-wire gate was locked; a Department of the Interior sign read: "Prohibited Entry".

"Do it," said Hetti. I reversed the car, revved it and smashed through the gate.

"G'day!" said Perkins, to the white manager, whose ablutions we had interrupted.

"Where's your bloody permit?"

"Lost it, mate."

Today, Jay Creek has no barbed wire and there is an ablution block and houses of a kind, and no one needs a permit. But the Third World poverty remains, with an authority exercised by the dearth of decent opportunity. This is the Northern Territory, where a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy was left hanging all night in his cell and a court the other day sent an Aboriginal teenager to prison for a year for stealing a towel (which he had returned). The territory's mandatory sentencing laws have been condemned by the United Nations as racist. At Jay Creek there is still nowhere to play a proper game of sport. The IOC ought to have seen places like this, or at least read Colin Tatz's remarkable book, Obstacle Race: Aborigines in Sport.

Tatz is professor at Sydney's Macquarie University, where he heads one of only three academic centres in the world devoted to genocide studies. A South African political refugee, he found in Australia echoes of his own country. "People say to me," he said, "surely, South Africa was an example of dreadful maniacal, premeditated racism where Australia was really a case of innocent ignorance. The truth is there is a tremendous similarity, both in ideology and notions of scientific racial theories: for example, the fuller the blood, the more primitive, the lighter the skin colour, the more salvageable. The reserves, the exploitative labour, the sexual exploitation of women, the separate health systems, the separate education, the ban on inter-racial marriage - all are the same."

In Obstacle Race, Tatz has documented the secret history of Aboriginal sport and its achievements that "are little short of miraculous". Of the 1,200 black sportsmen and women he studied, only six had access to the same sporting facilities and opportunities as whites. His book is a moving testament to the endeavours of the first Australians to live up to the sports-obsessed culture of the majority. He describes the dustbowls, and the fields of mud and salt and strewn rock, where black Australian athletes have trained and played, and won through often against the odds of their fragile health. There is a photograph of the Rovers Rugby League Club, in Ceduna, the 1958 Champions. All were dead within 20 years.

Tatz told me: "The IOC sent its special representative, a Nigerian, to examine conditions here: to see if we were a fit and proper country to have the Olympics. What he was interested in was discrimination in sport, but he saw nothing, because he wasn't taken anywhere. I believe he would have been shocked to the marrow bones had he gone to places like Yuendumu in the Northern Territory where there is an annual Aboriginal games of great significance, where there isn't a blade of grass, where there isn't a set of goal posts, where there isn't a basketball court, where words like coach and track and pools and physios and scholarships are just not part of the Aboriginal vocabulary. On the salt pan at Lombadina, Aborigines play with two saplings stuck in the ground. If he had inspected these conditions, he would have been looking at Third and Fourth World sporting facilities. He would have seen Aborigines kicking a piece of leather stuffed with paper because they don't possess a single football or have access to the kind of sports facilities that every white Australian takes for granted, even in poor working-class suburbs where there is a municipal pool, a municipal ground, a cricket pitch or a tennis court or a park of some sort - these things are totally absent in 95 per cent of Aboriginal communities."

I asked him if white Australians were aware of this.

"Australians don't want their fun spoiled by social reality, but it's fair to say most would weep if they were taken on a tour of black sporting Australia. There is a great push to have more and more Aboriginal athletes, more and more scholarships for an elite group of sports people, because it will be wonderful to say in the year 2000: 'Look, we have half a dozen Aborigines in our briefcases, which shows that Australia makes no racial distinctions and everybody lives happily in a land of equal opportunity.' But the Aborigines who will represent Australia in the Olympics have had to show three times as much talent in order to rate an equal place with whites. Cathy Freeman (the Aboriginal gold-medallist sprinter) is the greatest thing that ever happened to white Australia because this happy, delightful, fun-loving young lady looks as though she is the representative of all black womanhood, and she is not; she is an aberration."

Last year Tatz published a monograph, Genocide in Australia, in which he argues that, under international convention, Australia is guilty of at least two types of genocide: massacre in the 19th century ("nigger hunts" continued into the 1960s) and "state policy and practice of transferring children from one group to another with the express intention that they cease being Aboriginal". He says in acts of genocide "there are three parties: the perpetrators, the victims - and the bystanders". The violence continues. The Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell says that the imprisonment rate of Aborigines and the rate of deaths in custody is the highest in the world: higher than South Africa and the US. If the same rate was applied to whites in prison, 8,000 would have died in eight years. While 150 other countries have enacted land rights for their indigenous peoples, including neighbouring New Zealand, Australia's record has been that of neglect and political betrayal. Since the high court ended the historical fiction of an "empty land" when the British came and restored limited land rights to Aborigines in 1992, hysteria has swept across the vast grazing leases, often provoked by government propaganda suggesting a black tide encroaching on the family barbie. It is all deception. Aborigines themselves have sought only to share the land, to co-exist with whites; for many, their modest ambitions mean access, not control. Last year the Howard government enacted legislation that effectively took away the common-law rights the judges said belonged to Aborigines; nothing like it has been passed by a modern parliament.

Thanks to enlightened school syllabuses, few young Australians are in doubt that "their" country belonged to others, from whom it was taken violently. Tens of thousands of whites have signed "sorry books" and sought imaginative ways of effecting what is called "reconciliation": itself a problematic word in a world of invader and victim. Symbolic gestures, however well-intended, will do little to redress the past or make up for an absence of political will committed to ending Australia's enduring disgrace. Some years ago I asked the Aboriginal leader Rob Riley, who, like so many of them, took his own life, what he would say to white Australians. "It's simple," he said. "Unless you give us back our nationhood, you can never claim your own."

* John Pilger is author of Media Age and numerous periodical articles. His website is at:

His articles on Australia are at:

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