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Through a prism darkly

  • 23 April 2006

On the weekend of 11 and 12 June 2005 The Weekend Australian reported that the family of Northern Territory indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu had been divided by conflict over the proceeds of mining royalties. The central injustice that the paper trumpeted was that fact that ‘many of his own clan ... live in squalid and impoverished conditions while Mr Yunupingu has the use of a helicopter, four houses and a fleet of cars, including a Range Rover’.

The Australian’s ‘exposé’ of inequality highlights the manner in which indigenous issues in Australia are filtered or understood through the prism of crisis. The notion that indigenous Australia is at a crucial point, that the clock stands at five to midnight, and that failure to act to remedy the most basic of social and health inequalities will lead to the irreversible destruction of cultures, has spurred the creation of much government policy in Australia since the abandonment of assimilation in the 1970s. The politics of crisis, however, has frequently succeeded in exacerbating existing power disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and has often failed to acknowledge the intellectual and ideological complexity associated with recognising the rights of the first Australians.

In the eyes of The Australian’s journalist, Jennifer Sexton, Mr Yunupingu’s wealth was inappropriate and immoral when placed in the context of the difficult living conditions suffered by those of his clan. While little mention is ever made of the obligations of wealthy non-indigenous mining magnates to their less wealthy families, let alone their extended clans or communities, the behaviour of indigenous leaders is scrutinised through the prism of present disadvantage or crisis. Dubious administrative decisions that in the normal course of public life would at most be put down to self-interest or institutional malpractice are, when made by indigenous leaders such as former ATSIC Commissioner Geoff Clark, condemned as a betrayal of an entire people. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone, for example, condemned ATSIC’s decision to fund a legal challenge opposed to Geoff Clark’s sacking as ‘hav[ing] no benefit whatsoever for disadvantaged indigenous Australians’ and ‘a waste of taxpayers’ money’.

A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of the treatment by the media and the Government of leaders such as Clark and Yunupingu. While non-indigenous criticism of their actions frequently emphasises their alleged failure to serve their people, the white legal and political system in Australia continues to inadequately recognise collective