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The Politics of Suffering

Sobering statistics show Indigenous gap widening

ABC TV – 7.30 Report with Kerry O’Brien 2 July 2009

Today state and federal leaders were confronted with a sobering set of statistics that suggest things just keep getting worse for indigenous Australians, including some staggering increases in areas like child abuse and aboriginal incarceration, with little or no gains in education and health. Peter Sutton argues that some harsh realities have to be addressed if there is to be any hope for long term solutions and that government policies over decades have been misguided and denied the inevitable.


KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: As state and federal government leaders met in Darwin today under the COAG banner to review policies seeking to close the disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, they were confronted with a sobering set of statistics that suggest things just keep getting worse, including some staggering increases in areas like child abuse and Aboriginal incarceration, with little or no gains in education and health. And so the search continues for answers to intractable problems that have defied government-imposed solutions over decades.

Anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton has worked and lived with Aboriginal communities since the ’60s and has assisted with more than 50 land rights cases. He has a book coming out later this month called ‘The Politics of Suffering’ which reflects his own internal struggles with complex problems, in which he argues that some harsh realities have to be addressed if there is to be any hope for long term solutions, and that government policies over decades have been misguided and denied the inevitable.

I spoke with Peter Sutton from Adelaide late today.

Peter Sutton, it’s clear from your book that the Aboriginal community that has had the most profound effect on you is Arakoon in Cape York, Queensland, home of the Wik people. You say that since the mid-’70s, Arakoon has gone from a liveable and vibrant community to a disaster zone. How vivid has that been for you?

PETER SUTTON, AUTHOR, ‘THE POLITICS OF SUFFERING’: Well it’s been very personal and it’s also involved losing a lot of people I was close to and people I was related to and who were friends, prematurely. Many of them to violence, including both homicide and suicide. And others in accidents, preventable accidents and others from preventable diseases. And that’s been tough.

KERRY O’BRIEN: So in that context, were you surprised at all by this latest revelation of statistics today?

PETER SUTTON: I’m not surprised that some of them are getting better and some of them are getting worse, and others are proving to be just intractable and standing still. No, I’m not surprised.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Are Governments any closer today, do you think, in getting things right than in the past 40 years of your work with Indigenous communities and cultures?

PETER SUTTON: I think the problems of the ’70s model of where to go in policy on these things, those problems have gradually become exposed, governments are very much aware of them. Increasingly, the people most affected are very aware of them, and there has been a real ground shift, I think, from – basically from ideological and liberation politics approaches to much more pragmatist and practical approaches.

KERRY O’BRIEN: When you say pragmatist and practical, does that include Aboriginal communities themselves, Aboriginal leadership accepting that they can’t really expect to kind of enshrine Aboriginal tradition, Aboriginal culture for future generations of Aborigines and lock Indigenous Australians into living in those communities and living that cultural life.

PETER SUTTON: Well I think people are voting with their feet, and there is much more mobility out of those more remote, more ghetto-like communities than there was. There are also many more outside people coming in, so they’re changing in that sense.

But to be honest, I mean, if you want a modern 20th Century health profile of the sort that you find in an advanced country, a first world country or a modern country, you’ve gotta have modern health practices, not just the instruments and the chemicals and the staff on the hospital. You’ve also got to have a settled urban or town-based kind of approach to things like getting rid of waste, dealing with personal hygiene, giving a certain modified and low role to violence in the way you settle disputes – that sort of thing.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Are you saying that many of these remote communities are simply unsustainable in the long term?

PETER SUTTON: I don’t think they’re sustainable in the long term, but what’s happening now is I think rather confusing to people because on the one hand they’re being encouraged to be more mobile, to orbit in and out of these places, to go out and get education, go out and get work, come back for funerals, come back to see family. But on the other hand, there isn’t really the insistence on school attendance that would make people technically mobile in that sense, that is, literate enough to get a job in a city.

KERRY O’BRIEN: What’s the difference between what you call modernisation for current and future generations of Aborigines and assimilation?

PETER SUTTON: Well, assimilation is a term that’s tainted with the idea that governments and churches would put pressure on people and even force them to become “Europeanised”, as it was called. But that’s – that’s not the sort of thing that is being really proposed now. A lot of cultural shift towards modern urban styles of living, speaking, travelling, dressing, making music, all of that is actually happening and has been happening for donkey’s years. But the – if you think about what people wish for New Guinea or Mozambique or Botswana land or some other place in the third world, you wouldn’t call it assimilation, you would actually be quite socially acceptable if you referred to it as modernisation and development. I don’t see any real difference there. What a lot of Aboriginal people want actually is modernisation and development. But how to do it?

KERRY O’BRIEN: But you’re saying that the thrust of policies of the past 30 years or more have made many Aborigines prisoners in their own communities.

PETER SUTTON: I think that’s putting it roughly, but it’s pretty true that people’s mobility has declined in the more remote ghettos and they’ve become less emotionally mobile because of the fact that they’re not actually used to dealing with non-relatives, for example. Whereas often the older people who worked in the cattle industry, who worked as domestic servants, who changed sheets for Bill Harney at Ayers Rock or whatever, are actually very confident in dealing with outsiders. It’s young people now who I find frequently are too shy, too stuck at home, in a sense, to get out and explore the world.

KERRY O’BRIEN: How have you changed your views in 40 years? How dramatically have you changed your views in 40 years?

PETER SUTTON: Quite dramatically because I was of that generation of people living in remote communities who aided and promoted and took part in things like decentralisation back to outstations in the bush, who promoted cultural traditionalism and supported it where they saw it, took on interest in it, recorded it, filmed it or whatever. And there was a sort of an army of baby boomers, really, who spread out across the outback from the late ’60s onwards who I think played a fairly significant role, among other people of course, and I was one of those, that cadre of people who were involved in that. For us, culture was absolutely central, cultural preservation and preservation of knowledge of the bush and of places was absolutely central.

Now, I really think we have to start with three-year-old children, what’s essential for them. If it works for them, that’s the way to go. If it doesn’t work for them, no matter how much it might be about keeping some cultural practice going, the practice needs to be questioned and people need to work out whether they’re going to drop it or not.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Peter Sutton, it’s a very complex issue and we could go on, but we’re stuck for time. Thanks very much for talking with us.

PETER SUTTON: Thank you.

Full Transcript here


About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News


One thought on “The Politics of Suffering

  1. Steve, this bloke is begging for forgiveness, he has no answers, he said he was part of the movement that took these people back out in the bush and created these squalid communities and now he wants us to fix his mess. I hate these people for what they have done to our Indiginous people.

    Posted by Will | July 3, 2009, 4:12 am

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