Why We Weren't Told

By Brunton, Ron | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Why We Weren't Told


Brunton, Ron, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Public discussion of Aboriginal issues has undergone a major shift over the past couple of years. Commentators who would never identify themselves as being from the 'right' now talk about the catastrophic social conditions that exist in many Aboriginal settlements without placing all the blame on mainstream Australian society. Some even raise the possibility that aspects of Aboriginal culture may be dysfunctional in the modern world. Certainly, a few prominent `protectors of the Aborigines' have not yet caught on to what has happened and still demand that white Australians continue with the selfflagellation regime. But when someone such as Hal Wootten, the most 'caring' of the five Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commissioners, and one of the early promoters of the `child removals were genocide' line, is reported as saying that Australians need to ask whether Aboriginal child-rearing practices encourage later violence, the world has clearly changed.

Although even in the worst years of political correctness there were occasional articles in the popular press providing honest portrayals of the conditions that many Aborigines faced, there was a considerable degree of selfcensorship amongst journalists who knew what was going on. In some ways this was not surprising, for the consequences of offending the Aboriginal industry could be serious. Recently, Rodney Henderson, an old mate from Sydney, told me about how his friend Graham Gifford was banned from the pages of all Fairfax publications nearly a quarter of a century ago, after writing articles describing conditions in Arnhem Land. Graham died just a few weeks ago, and it is fitting to remember a decent man whose distress at what he saw when he was living at Maningrida caused him to become one of the early victims of the destructive sentimentality that has afflicted Aborigines for so long.

In 1977, Gifford wrote two articles for The National Times, one under a pseudonym. The first, called `True tales of modern tribalism', dealt with child sexual abuse and violence against women at outstations, and fairly pointed to the incompatibility between traditional culture and human rights for women and children. This caused an outcry from the caring classes. The anthropologist Ian Keen saw the piece as part of a backlash against Aboriginal land rights, and expressed his sorrow that The National Times had chosen to publish `ill-researched, biased and inflammatory nonsense'. A Christian minister said that the article contained `monstrous lies'. Another writer was distressed that it was not illegal to publish such a story. The National Times received only one letter of support-from Elizabeth Durack, who praised the article for lifting `just the corner of the wrap' from a situation that others were ignoring.

The second piece, `Grog and petrol sniffing' was published under his own name. As well as describing the extent to which Maningrida was being devastated by these two scourges, Gifford condemned the noble savage fantasies that were inspiring many white proponents of Aboriginal causes. …

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