The Australian has been criticised by award-winning Journalist Brian Johnstone in a column for Tracker magazine, for what he called the “media frenzy” surrounding their reporting of alleged starvation of children on South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. As Johnstone states, a significant amount of facts and voices have yet to be reported on in the mainstream media’s version of events.

On the 2nd of September of this year, The Australian published an article entitled Aborigines ‘starving’, which reported on the Red Cross delivering food aid to “impoverished people living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia’s far north”. This was an “exclusive” report quoting “two of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal leaders,” Noel Pearson and Mick Gooda, demanding a “dramatic federal government intervention to quarantine welfare payments and allow families to buy food in troubled remote communities in South Australia.”

On the 10th of September The Australian ran a larger story named Children Should Not Go Hungry which claimed the “revelations of social dislocation and children going hungry,” in the APY Lands are “disturbing and require urgent attention”. It noted that some commentators were “calling for Intervention-style measures to ensure families’ incomes are managed so that enough money is kept aside to feed the children. A stand-off between federal and state governments is not good enough. Action is needed now”.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

Since then, 67 related articles have been published in The Australian (in print and online), that have many similar themes with those stories published prior to, and during, the Northern Territory Intervention. That is, a preoccupation with the welfare of children, a disproportionately large amount of sources in favour of Government intervention, a lack of engagement with Indigenous people living in the communities in question, and a willingness to support the notion of an ‘emergency situation’ in which the Government must intervene, prior to consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Because of its status as the nation’s legitimised national newspaper, The Australian’s continual reporting on the APY Lands story serves as a valuable case study in a wider investigation of news frames that, when viewed as a whole, seem to value the characteristics of a ‘moral panic’ involving children, and thus support the notion of a ‘obligation’ to intervene, practically and symbolically, into the lives of (almost entirely un-quoted) Aboriginal Australians.

By gathering all news stories on the APY Lands produced in the last few months by The Australian, one can immediately see a number of reoccurring themes. The concept of a ‘moral emergency’; a concern for the welfare of children; a willingness to ‘intervene’, whether it be in terms of what local Indigenous people should eat, where they should shop and how their welfare money should be quarantined (rather than if it should be quarantined); the failure of the S.A Labour Government to stop this hunger, and by extension the call for Government staff to resign; the recited opinion of a few Indigenous public figures who are usually supporters of Government intervention and income management; and lastly, the opinion of state and federal opposition members like Tony Abbott, who are calling for the immediate compulsory quarantining of all welfare payments, as well as supporting the Government’s proposal of docking the welfare payments for all parents whose children don’t turn up to school.

The lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples actually from this area, or ‘on the ground’, is significantly minimal.

South Australia Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi

As Johnstone’s analysis reveals, while this “disaster” was being heavily reported on, the Nganampa Health Council, a health organisation owned and operated by the local Anangu people of the APY region, issued a press release headed Facts wrong on APY food problems. It said “The statements from various NGOs, some Aboriginal spokespersons and national media organisations claiming widespread severe malnutrition amongst children on the APY Lands are simply wrong,” said Mr John Singer, Director of Nganampa Health Council. “Certainly poverty is a major problem on the APY Lands but it is complex and uneven in its effects. This does mean that some parents have problems in consistently providing healthy food for their families, but our health service data shows that despite this poverty there has been marked improvement in the growth and nutrition of children on the Lands.”

“An emergency response to poverty is not what is needed. What is needed are sustainable ways to reduce poverty” he added. Two days later, the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia issued their own media statement, supporting the facts and views expressed by the Nganampa Health Council.

Both statements have to date, been completely ignored by The Australian, when reporting on the APY Lands story. In fact, the Nganampa Health Council were so desperate to get their side of the story out, that they ended up taking out a paid advertisement, at their own expense, in The Australian and the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser, to run their press release in full.

As the Nganampa Health Council media release states, Indigenous disadvantage on the APY Lands has been an issue for decades, as it has been all over Australia. As Johnstone’s piece highlights however, there is something disconcerting about our national newspaper publishing 67 articles in the last 61 days, on an issue that they’ve largely ignored up until now, and all while barely consulting anyone living on the region in question.

As Brian Johnstone stated “The media furor over starvation in the APY Lands neglected the Aboriginal people who have been dealing with the problem for decades’.

For Eva Cox’s recent “The Media Release Jenny Macklin Should’ve Written on the N.T Intervention“, which coincides with the release of the Government’s “Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory” report, click: here.


Freedom Riders Curators Matt Poll and Katie Yuill

Today marks the end of Freedom Riders: Art & Activism 1960’s to Now, a two-month-long art exhibition at the University of Sydney Art Gallery, curated by Matt Poll and Katie Yuill.

The exhibition, which celebrates both the history of Aboriginal activism in New South Wales and the work of some of the states leading Indigenous artists, takes as its inspiration a powerful portrait of Dr Charles Perkins by the artist Robert Campbell Jnr. Both the artist, who has a number of works in the exhibition, and his subject are today regarded as groundbreaking in their exposition of Indigenous inequalities. As Robert Campbell Jnr states, “I am painting to show people – Aboriginal people, and even the whites – what truths took place in my lifetime: for example, being fenced off at the pictures; the dog-tag system. I am telling the stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people, tribal and others, through my life”.

Portrait of Charles Perkins, by Robert Campbell Jnr

The well-received exhibition opened to a full house on the 3rd of July with many of the artists in attendance. Its aim was to pay tribute to what Professor Ann Curthoys, an original ‘freedom rider’  calls the “enduring legacy” of the 1965 Freedom Ride, organised by a group of University of Sydney students, including Charles Perkins, who went on to be the first Indigenous graduate of the University and a prominent leader of the Aboriginal rights movement. As Ann Curthoys states, students like Charles Perkins and Gary Williams, a Gumbaynggir man “helped unite two emerging forces that were beginning to change Australian society; the Aboriginal rights movement and student radicalism”.

Barred From the Baths, By Robert Campbell Jnr 1968

domestic lean-to, by Johnathon Jones 2008

Also bearing witness to the Freedom Ride of 1965 and the climate of segregation and exclusion that the student demonstrations were against, is the installation of the documentary film Blood Brothers- Freedom Ride, made by Rachel Perkins and Ned Landers. The inclusion of the film in the exhibition brings together the artworks not only conceptually, but also as politically informed artistic statements on the practical conditions and struggles of Indigenous people, then and now.

Adam Hill’s K9 vs. bloodline on the breadline, for example, speaks of the artist’s concerns for the contemporary struggle of both rural and urban Indigenous peoples in regards to the discriminatory behaviour of police and the Northern Territory Intervention specifically, saying the painting ”was produced in opposition to the racist John Howard’s [Northern Territory] Intervention implementation”. Adam Hill describes his painting, one of the most emotionally charged in the Freedom Riders exhibition, as one of “urban payback”, saying the image is “from the heart – mine and from the heart of Redfern, an ode to TJ [Hickey] and all local mob who in the course of Redfern history have gone unrecognised officially while the officials become more official. Redfern is the police punching bag of NSW”.

K9 vs. bloodline on the breadline, by Adam Hill 2008


Read a related story on the very recent resignation of Curator Hetti Perkins from the AGNSW due to the “sidelining” of Indigenous Art: here.

Yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. The declaration was adopted on the 13th of September 2007, over 20 years after it was initially drafted in consultation with Indigenous groups and spokespeople across the world.

The non-binding document describes the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, as well as their rights to express their cultures, identities and languages, while it also sets a universal standard for employment, education and health outcomes within Indigenous communities.

Australia, under the Howard Government, along with Canada, New Zealand and the United States originally voted against the Declaration, which was endorsed by 143 other nations. At the time, some conservative Australian political figures and the media voiced their concerns that the Declaration’s definition of self-determination would mean “we are prepared to have a separate Indigenous state”, as Alexander Downer stated in The Age.

A mural celebrating the ideal of equality, in Redfern, South Sydney.

After Kevin Rudd’s 2008 election promise to support the UN Declaration, the Australian Government officially endorsed it on the 3rd of April 2009, in a statement to Parliament by Minister for Families, Housing, Community Service and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. Quoting the numerous articles in the Declaration that condemn forced assimilation and the destruction of Indigenous culture, as well as the removal of peoples from their lands, Jenny Macklin stated “Today Australia takes another important step to make sure that the flawed policies of the past will never be re-visited”.

In a joint statement to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Relating to the Declaration, held earlier this year, Deputy Secretary of the Department of FaHCSIA Cath Halbert, and Chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority John Toshie Kris, were keen to stress the Australian Government’s continued support of the Declaration, saying “Australia’s Indigenous policies are consistent with the spirit of the Declaration…the Australian Government has worked hard to ensure that our commitment to open and collaborative engagement with Indigenous Australians is upheld.”

But UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues Professor James Anaya, has reported that Australia’s legal and policy landscape still needs reform, recommending that “Commonwealth and State Governments should review all legislation, policies, and programs that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, in light of the Declaration”. Upon visiting Australia in April of this year, his second trip to Australia in two years, Professor Anaya noted the continued importance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating the Federal Government “should seek to fold into its initiatives the goal of advancing indigenous self-determination, in particular by encouraging indigenous self-governance at the local level, ensuring indigenous participation in the design, delivery, and monitoring of programs, and promoting culturally-appropriate programs that incorporate or build on indigenous peoples’ own initiatives. Additionally, further efforts are needed to secure indigenous peoples’ rights over lands, resources and heritage sites”.

While the Declaration is non-legally binding, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda sees the article as illustrative of a moral framework through which Governments should act, saying “It is only when we can see these articles being translated from abstract concepts to practical improvements in our lives that the spirit and intent of the Declaration will be realised”.

An ABC report announcing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Australia’s then dissent.

For more information on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, click: here, and here.

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