Saturday, March 17, 2012

putting the boot in

Although this post starts on the topic of football, it’s really about Australia’s ongoing failure of imagination with respect to indigenous peoples.

Some readers may not have seen this video clip I’ve posted before.

Most Australians take it for granted that Australian Aboriginals love Australian Rules Football and have a natural aptitude – if not a passion – for playing it well.
One school of thought is the rules were developed by white Australians after seeing the local people using an inflated possum bladder as a ball – another story is that it is a bastardised form of Irish Football. [It’s not impossible Irish and Aboriginal football were developed independently of each other and both stories are true.]

[BTW, if you’ve never kicked an Aussie rules football with bare feet, I wouldn’t recommend you try.]

The Australian Football League [AFL] has had an ongoing program of developing the game in Aboriginal communities, and quite a few Aboriginals have been recruited to the major teams. One presumed benefit of this is that it is provides one more plank for the bridge yet to be built between Australia’s indigenous and whitefella worlds.

In the past few days a great deal has been said about Liam Jurrah’s involvement in an ongoing feud at his home community of Yuendumu, which is 300 km north west of Alice Springs. Liam and another man have been charged over a machete attack which took place at a Town Camp.
Andrew Rule, writing in the Herald Sun, wrote a blistering attack on leftie goodie-goodies who might say it’s okay for anyone to carry a machete let alone attack someone with it.
[I might be misrepresenting Andrew, but it’s hard to confirm – our hard copy of the paper is in the recycle bin and the online version is now hidden from luddites like myself who have no idea how to “download” the article.]

Anyways, the word Andrew Rule used even more than he used the word machete was “payback” – a word which he equated with the Anglo Australian idea of revenge. Boy, has he got it wrong.

While I don’t for a minute agree that carrying a machete or using it on a person is a good idea, Andrew’s simplistic interpretation of events highlights one of the reasons that we are struggling to close the gap in standards of living between remote indigenous communities, and the white community at large, and that reason is igrigance – that special blend of arrogance and ignorance displayed by people who have no idea why they should be embarrassed by what they say.

The latest story is that Adelaide’s white recruiting manager has resigned after it was leaked he said he’d never recruit an Aboriginal unless who didn't have one white parent.

If you are still with me, here are the issues about this issue:

1. Our Constitution

This saga provides another example of how the proposed amendments to the constitution, to recognise indigenous people and protect their culture, are dangerously stupid.

2. Australian Law does not do justice to Aboriginals

The Northern Territory [NT] government has decided judges should no longer take traditional punishments into account when handing down sentences.
Forget that they would not be able to do this under the proposed constitutional changes – it seems the NT government attitude is something like “you can retain all aspects of your own culture except those that clash with our laws”.
In principle I agree with placing some sort of limit on multiculturalism, but being this rigid with Aboriginals is insane.

Aboriginals are not immigrants seeking to become Australian and who might, therefore, be required to accept our values. They are a dispossessed people who are currently incarcerated in disproportionate numbers because:
  • We have not done them the courtesy of negotiating new laws with them;
  • We have not consistently required evidence of mens rea [criminal intent] before convicting them of crimes;
  • We continually abandon programs proven successful in reducing crime-rates and reducing recidivism. [Victoria has just decided to shut down the successful Koori Court at Shepparton].
I could go on here, but let me conclude by saying “they have never had a fair go in our courts”. Not ever.

3. Payback is not the same thing as revenge

Until we make the effort to understand the way indigenous Australians view the world, we will continue to let them down – magnanimous proposals to change the constitution notwithstanding. [Ironically enough, in several Aboriginal languages the word for talk is “wanggka”.]

Perhaps the idea of payback deserves a post of its own.

4. Those pointing the finger at Matt Rendell miss the point that he simply missed the point.

Matt Rendell was a fool for being honest about his policy of not recruiting players unless they have one white parent. What I believe he meant is not that he cares about race, but that he cares about the culture a player might bring to the team.

Of course, the way Rendell expressed his reservations about cultural differences shows it hasn’t occurred to him that an Aboriginal player might have a white parent and still be caught between two worlds… but at least he is aware that there is a huge cultural gulf between an uncorrupted Aboriginal worldview and a white one.

For example, Bruce McKinnon has written about his efforts to help Liam adjust to white culture, and tells of an occasion when other team members were getting annoyed because Liam never said Thank You when someone did him a favour. The concept of doing a favour is totally incompatible with a world where people do things for each other simply because doing things for others is what you do.

It’s also unfortunate that the white culture too many players bring to their team is a culture of boozing and brawling, but Rendell sees this as something that can be dealt with.


  1. The quote from the recruiter sounds bad and I think he put his thoughts clumsily, to say the least. What I read into what he was saying is that clubs can't take aborigines from the outback, from their family and friends, and put them in a big city without giving them considerable support. Thinking further, taking anyone from an outback environment where they have grown up and putting them in a big city on their own could be problematic. Whatever the right and wrongs, it is good that this is being discussed. McKinnon said that when Liam was brought to Melbourne for a try out, he had minimal English and he was put up in a North Melbourne hotel and left on his own for the night. I don't know much about aboriginal culture, but I would guess that most aborigines do not have nor want very much alone time when they are growing up. It might have even been the first time he had been on his own. I thought that was pretty shocking, but who knows what the details really were.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      I suspect what is more important than knowing a lot about Aboriginal culture is having some human decency, which I know from your blog is something you have by the bucketload.
      The "thank you" story shows that despite their best intentions - and I believe they were the best intentions - AFL people are struggling with the idea that white players could make an effort to at least question their own assumptions and learn from these.

      Perhaps you've seen today's story [which looks like it's meant to provide a positive spin for balance] about Amos Frank, another fully initiated man who has been recruited for Hawthorn.
      It's telling that in an almost casual way the article quotes the club's development and welfare officer as saying
      it puts him in a realm where he's obligated to be a strong element in his community. We considered funerals...when he comes back, and so on.

      Something has been left out of the quote, but I think the welfare officer gets it, but the journalist doesn't, that far too many Aboriginals spend their lives criss-crossing the continent to attend funerals.

      We can only keep our fingers crossed for everyone involved.

  2. It must be very difficult for these talented young football players to come from their background and try to understand the city footy culture. I hope the clubs can develop understanding on both sides of the camp, so that the aboriginals can be proud members of their community and of their football team.

    1. Couldn't agree with you more, Diane.

  3. There are so many things wrong with a culture that accepts excessive drinking as a norm when it is done by sports people, backpackers and even grey nomads; and accepts that 'boys being boys' is the norm for sports star bad behaviour. It saddens me that our culture is so inconsistent.

  4. The shift in Australian tastes from beer to wine has helped break down the 'getting pissed is normal' attitude a little... but I think someone hit the nail on the head when they said getting pissed and/or doing drugs or both has become a rite of passage in itself. And for some, the line between greenhorn and grown-up just keeps shifting outwards to "braver" and more stupid behaviour.
    Bring back the good old days when boys graduating from shorts to long trousers was a rite of passage. Or girls wearing their first pair of heels.
    But you're right, it is inconsistent. On the one hand our "values" don't condone aggressive intoxication, but in the name of freedom and free enterprise we not only allow it and in many ways encourage it.