AUSTRALIA Day, in its current manifestation, seems to have developed a bifocal format. Increasingly large numbers of Australians, long established and newly arrived alike, celebrate their nation with patriotic gestures and fun. And a few members of the intelligentsia use the occasion to register their sense of alienation and disappointment.
Some of the alienated types are best described as belonging to the FIFOE set. That is, they are fly-in, fly-out-expatriates who make use of January 26 to give their nation of birth a dreadful pasting.
Perhaps the most prominent FIFOE is John Pilger, the Sydney-born, London-based filmmaker and journalist who writes for the leftist New Statesman magazine.
You have to admire Pilger’s chutzpah. For decades, he has been writing books and making documentaries about Australia, which he describes as a “secret country”. Never before has a so-called secret nation been examined in such detail from open-source material.
Pilger’s latest documentary, Utopia, is produced by Dartmouth Films in association with the taxpayer-subsidised SBS TV Australia. Many of Pilger’s previous films have been shown on ABC TV. So Pilger gets taxpayer-funded assistance to reveal details about Australia which he claims were hitherto “secret”.
In fact, there is no fresh material in Utopia.
The documentary had its opening night at The Block in Sydney’s Redfern on January 17. It has just had showings at the taxpayer-subsidised Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and is about to tour nationally. So stand by for a dose of alienation coming to an art-house theatre near you, followed by a release on SBS.
The left-wing The Guardian in Britain, where Utopia has been shown on ITV, gave Pilger’s latest documentary a positive review. As John Crace recognised, Utopia is a remake of Pilger’s 1985 film The Secret Country except that this version of his thesis contains “more anger”. Crace is of the view that this sentiment is warranted.
Utopia contains close to two hours of unremitting propaganda, during which Pilger states and restates his case. There is the familiar Pilger cult of personality in play here. He is visible throughout the film, inspecting sites, interviewing people and talking to camera. He likes proclaiming his superior morality.
Even Crace acknowledged that “there were moments when watching this film” that he felt as though he was “being smacked about with a sledgehammer”. However, ever the Guardian type, he believes Australians need a large dose of Pilger-style “bludgeoning”.
Early in the film, Australian journalist Jeff McMullen (who presented Difference of Opinion on ABC TV, the predecessor of Q&A) makes a statement which frames Pilger’s documentary.
According to McMullen, the interaction between the European settlers and the first peoples over two centuries can be explained as follows: “We rounded people up into concentration camps; in fact what we have done from the original invasion until now is constantly reduce Aboriginal people to subhuman status.”
So, according to the Pilger-McMullen view, indigenous Australians are still regarded as subhuman. Such hyperbole runs through the entire documentary. No other view gets an uninterrupted hearing. Pilger attacks Australian politicians – including former prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard – but always from the left. Warren Snowdon, a minister in the Rudd-Gillard governments, gets bagged, as does Howard government minister Mal Brough. Pilger’s thesis is that, under successive governments, Australia has become a racist, apartheid state that has used the army to aggressively invade Aboriginal land and where prisons resemble slave ships.
White and black Australians who support the Utopia line are allowed to state their case. Whites who proclaim a different view, such as Snowdon and Brough, are interrupted and disparaged.
Pilger told Fairfax Media’s Nick Galvin he chose not to interview Aboriginal leaders who are “part of the political elite”. So the voices of Aboriginal women who have played a significant role in recent years on behalf of their people – including Sue Gordon, Marcia Langton and Bess Price – are simply not heard.
The green-left will love Utopia. Writing in New Matilda, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon has declared she watched Pilger’s film with “feelings of anger and shame”. Interesting, since she expressed no shame for supporting the oppressive East European communist regimes for over two decades, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rhiannon has recently admitted she studied at the International Lenin School in Moscow at the time of Leonid Brezhnev’s totalitarian dictatorship – again without shame.
Since at least the late 1960s, various Australian governments, Coalition and Labor alike, have worked hard and spent large amounts of money to relieve Aboriginal disadvantage. There have been many failures, along with some successes.
Utopia glosses over the problems of drug and alcohol dependency among indigenous Australians along with the alarming rate of violence by Aborigines against other Aborigines, including women. Also Utopia fails to recognise that many indigenous Australians have a part-European or other background. Which means that, in Pilger’s testimony, their predecessors were both the invaders and the invaded. The latter comprise those judge Mordy Bromberg has described as “fair-skinned Aboriginal people”.
Utopia presents a ludicrous class-war interpretation. Pilger mockingly contrasts wealthy suburbs of Canberra, Perth and Sydney with the poorest Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory. And a spokesman for the taxpayer-subsidised Australian Conservation Foundation is given free rein to blame Aboriginal disadvantage on the mining industry. This despite the fact that indigenous employment in mining has increased significantly in recent years and the industry pays substantial company tax and royalties to the commonwealth and state governments respectively.
Pilger’s alienated preaching seems to have little impact outside of the green-left set. His aggressive vox pops of selected Australians that feature in Utopia suggest he doesn’t like his fellow citizens very much and appears to regard them as uninformed racists.
Australians tend to have good antennae with respect to alienated members of the intelligentsia who look down on them.
Especially around Australia Day. Especially FIFOE types.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His recent monograph on industrial relations was published by the Minerals Council of Australia.