We need to acknowledge there are aspects of Aboriginal culture that need to be kept firmly in the past. No culture is static and unchanging, and the belief that Aboriginal culture needs to be frozen and preserved in time is preventing many Aboriginal people from moving forward and embracing modernity… It is time to abandon romanticised notions of Indigenous culture…
- Sara Hudson, in “Time to remove the rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Aboriginal culture”, Centre for Independent Studies, 8 July 2016.
The town of Aurukun in Far North Queensland hits the news headlines every few years, for all the wrong reasons – booze smuggling, communal violence, horrendous sexual assaults, alarming child health statistics. It’s such a rough place and the problems are so intractable that indigenous MP Billy Gordon, writing for The Australian (12 May 2016), called the Aurukun area “the Afghanistan of Australia”.
Third-world scenes from a first-world country
This year has been another bad one so far. YouTube contains some delightful coverage of street battles between youths (mainly of young women slugging it out – so photogenic I’m sure!). The police (seen standing watching from the sidelines) were reluctant to intervene – one was reported as saying that they preferred to “let them sort things out their own way”, or words to that effect.
Not that it takes much to spark off a brawl in a town where intertribal tensions run high, but a contributing factor to the troubles earlier this year was happenings at the local school. Control over schooling had been handed over to indigenous leaders (effectively to Noel Pearson, a widely known Cape activist) who had used the state and federal moneys made available to buy into a commercial American system called ‘Direct Instruction’. To put it mildly, some people were rather unhappy with the new curriculum – The Guardian of 6 July 2016, in its reflective analysis, reported that “Children [were learning] more about US than Australia and indigenous culture”. Teachers, including the principal, were attacked by youths some of whom were wielding weapons including machetes, and one took a swing at the principal with an axe. Teachers were airlifted out in May (the place is inaccessible by road most of the year, and then only by 4WD), the school was closed, and the kids were farmed out to community centres where they were to learn ‘traditional knowledge’.
The government education authorities conducted a review of the school and decided to take the reins back in hand. The school was reopened on the 11th of last month. But there’s plenty more fun and games coming – one of the reportedly ‘controversial’ decisions made by the Queensland government being to bring back an Australian curriculum and scale back the foreign import.
Aurukun is renowned for its sexual laxity with the highest birth rate for very young girls (14 and under) in the country. Girls – down to pre-teens – trade sex for grog and ciggies. One high-profile case in 2007 involved nine males (three young men and six lads) who had gang-banged a 10-year-old girl. ABC News of 13 Dec 2007 reported that the Queensland Crown Prosecutor had described the incident as involving “consensual sex in a non-legal manner and he called those involved ‘very naughty’” . The court was told that “many Aurukun children had a precocious attitude towards sex” and a defence lawyer said that "Their level of understanding as to appropriate sexual conduct isn't good and maybe it's because of their experience in relation to other people within the community, and their conduct isn't good" (The Age, 13 Dec 2007). Hence the judge told the defendants, "I accept that the girl involved, with respect to all of these matters, was not forced, and that she probably agreed to have sex with all of you” (The Australian, 10 Dec 2007). To cut a long story short, the defendants were released after a slap on the wrist, there was an outcry, and the case was reopened (Google it if you want the full run-down).
Now it should not have to take the likes of me to tell a Crown Prosecutor and a judge that a 10-year-old simply cannot give consent to sexual intercourse in law. So what’s going on here, other than the obvious – which is that different standards are being applied on the basis of race/‘culture’/’custom’ from those applied to other Australians? Andrew Bolt, writing in the Herald Sun after the first phase of the legal saga that saw the defendants released, posed the pertinent question “If the boys were White, would the judge have let them walk?” I’d like to add to that the question “If the girl had been White, would there have been any credence given to her having ‘consented’?”
Little would appear to have changed according to a perturbing report about endemic child sexual abuse in the Far North region of Queensland (“Indigenous child sexual abuse detailed in Queensland government report”, The Guardian, 12 March 2016). As Frank Pledge argues in his Quadrant article “Indigenous culture and vile crimes” (8 November 2013),
In those remote communities remnant, traditional culture relating to forced marriage of under-aged girls lent an air of legitimacy to these otherwise illegal activities. In traditional societies, girls under the age of legal consent were considered “available” to be partners, with or without their own consent… These traditional practices, I argue, could provide the template on which modern dysfunction has been built.
Cultural relativists argue that all cultures are equal and therefore no culture is superior to another, and so we cannot say that ‘White fella’s law’ is better than ‘Black fella’s law’ and have no right to impose our ‘cultural’ norms on other peoples. And yet it must rankle with even the most dogmatic cultural relativist when very young girls are subjected to customs that amount to pack rape (whether ostensibly ‘consensual’ or not).
Culture is supposedly an adaptive mechanism and changes with altering circumstances. But ‘culture’ can also become a rut, and ‘cultural’ customs and attitudes can be so entrenched that they become impediments to change and progress. Sometimes, external intervention may be required to get things moving in the right direction.
Whatever our own ‘barbaric’ past, the Enlightenment was undeniably a product of Western European thinking. It ushered in incendiary ideas such as universal human rights that began making an impact outside Europe from the late 18th century on. A shining example is slavery which was, for many millennia, deeply embedded in just about every culture on the planet. The gradual erosion of the slave trade (a seminal case was Somerset 1772) ending in the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century is just one of many instances where an externally imposed change produced positive effects despite an initially ambivalent or even hostile reception on the basis of the change going against custom/culture.
During the colonial era, the authorities generally allowed native peoples to abide by their cultural norms and practise their customs except where those practices were deemed ‘abominable’, in which case the authorities cracked down on them. This included such truly abominable practices as suttee (the burning alive of a widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre in India) and trading in shrunken heads with a good moko in NZ (the heads often being those of slaves or captives who had been tattooed immediately prior to being butchered for the purpose). I have yet to hear a cultural relativist telling us that we had no moral right to end such quaint ‘cultural’ customs.
Late 19th-century enlightened liberals such as Rudyard Kipling posited a moral imperative on the part of the more advanced peoples (in the world of the time, Europeans) to give the less advanced ones a helping hand up – the ‘White Man’s burden’. The idea caught on and gave rise to social modernisation and mass education programmes – often resisted by indigenous elites, who saw in such endeavours an emerging threat to their power.
Late 19th-century cartoons. Top: The White Man’s Burden. Note the beckoning arms of ‘Civilization’ top left, and the obstacles John Bull and Uncle Sam are negotiating on behalf of their charges, including ‘oppression’, ‘brutality’ and ‘slavery’. Bottom: Education as the key to advancement (note school house at top)
Australian Aboriginals have as much right to the fruits of the Enlightenment as anyone else, and it is the duty of national authorities to ensure that they have access to them. It is as well, given today’s intellectual climate, that we don’t actually have to honour Kipling’s imperative on a race-to-race basis. We have set up modern democratic systems and we find not just ‘White men (and women)’ in parliament and in the ministries but a mix of people of numerous descents (including indigenous).
Kipling’s moral imperative is now the duty of care of the modern State towards underdeveloped populations within its jurisdiction. The mantra of self-determination lets those in authority off the hook and provides a glib excuse for not only a breach of this duty of care but also for State dereliction of duty with respect to the rights of all citizens.
All Australians have a right to security and protection from wanton violence. All Australians have a right to protection from sexual exploitation. All Australians have a right to a quality school education. The story of Aurukun is an indictment of Australian national authorities who have on various occasions abdicated their duty with regard to ensuring those rights.
Readers will no doubt draw their own parallels with NZ. I can just imagine some of you thinking, “They have Cape York, we have East Cape”. The good news is that Ruatoria is streets ahead of Aurukun.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues.