Academic journal article Oceania

Governing Indigenous Difference Differently: The Politics of Disgust, Compassion and Care

Academic journal article Oceania

Governing Indigenous Difference Differently: The Politics of Disgust, Compassion and Care

Article excerpt


September 2008. I am driving from the small rural town of Ceduna, South Australia to the nearby locality of Denial Bay, travelling along a road that Anangu (Aboriginal people) often walk by foot, sometimes flagging vehicles down for a lift. A young man emerges suddenly from the shade he 'd been sheltering in. He whistles sharply, assailing me. He requests that I take him, his aunt, and father to Town Camp, which provides temporary accommodation to visitors from the region's remote Indigenous communities, primarily Yalata and Oak Valley. 'My father can't walk'. Once seated in the car, all three introduce themselves, using first names and surnames. I ask after an elderly woman I know (since deceased), who shares their surname. Delighted and surprised that I know their close relation, we talk hurriedly about her failing health, as they guide me along a corrugated dirt track into the low salt scrub. I set them down at a spot they nominate, some distance from Town Camp. They advise me to avoid the fastest route back to Denial Bay, 'Too many Anangu', they tell me. Their warnings continue. 'They ask you for a lift. Too many drunks'. They are careful to close the windows as they alight, grabbing a case of beer, their bags and blankets and thanking me energetically. I spy a bottle of liquor on the floor, almost left behind. 'This one', I call out, tapping it. 'Oh, thank you.' The young man retrieves his bottle, grinning sheepishly.


This essay concerns two experimental governmental interventions into Indigenous lives undertaken in the outback town of Ceduna. The first scenario involves a local council initiative, designed as a temporary emergency measure, which involved privatizing policing efforts in an attempt to expunge public spaces of the presence of disturbing Indigenous bodies. To this end, two guard dogs were used to patrol Ceduna's streets between 2008 and 2016: I refer to them in this case study as 'the dogs', in keeping with the local vernacular. Local discourses are analysed in order to highlight the disgust these bodies elicited. The second case represents a policy experiment different in scale and rationale--a current federal government trial of stringent welfare reform measures. Ceduna was the first trial site for the Cashless Debit Card (CDC); the trial has also operated in the East Kimberley since April 2016 and in March 2018 was expanded to the Goldfields region in Western Australia, with a further expansion to the Queensland towns of Hervey Bay and Bundaberg legislated for in September 2018. The Ceduna trial took effect in March 2016. In Ceduna, the CDC's introduction was framed primarily in terms of suffering, which arouses compassion and demands intervention. A 2011 Coronial Inquest into six Anangu deaths, partially attributable to open-air sleeping in the surrounds of Ceduna, and all involving severe and sustained alcohol abuse, formed a crucial backdrop to this town's suitability as a social policy trial site and was consistently referred to in media coverage of the CDC.

My focus in this essay is on the way Aboriginal people are governed. More specifically my focus is on the way different Aboriginal people are governed differently. I am referring here to an historically contingent intra-Aboriginal distinction between 'Nungas' and 'Anangu' that is both a salient feature of everyday life in Ceduna and critical to understanding the terms of debate about both initiatives. In the first section I present a relatively well-established account of the colonial histories that explains the co-presence of Nungas and Anangu in this town. I establish the historical origins of this intra-Aboriginal distinction in order to analyse how Indigenous people are both governed through this distinction, and governed in ways that serve to reproduce it.

I observed the introduction of the dogs into Ceduna life, and the debate their presence on the streets engendered, firsthand, while conducting long-term fieldwork on the far west coast of South Australia. …

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