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Utopia Review

by Cathy Eatock

The latest documentary by Emmy and BAFTA award winning film maker and journalist, John Pilger, contrasts two ‘Utopian’ or ‘ideal’ worlds, one of white aspiration on Sydney’s northern beaches and the Aboriginal community that is actually named Utopia, located in central Australia, which has been assessed as the most disadvantaged and poorest community in Australia.  The distinction could not be more stark. 

In his latest film Utopia, Pilger confronts Australia with the unavoidable shame, of the entrenched neglect and continuing failure to provide even the most basic of conditions for Aboriginal communities with sanitation, bathrooms or kitchens.  It highlights a concerted campaign waged against Aboriginal people, against Aboriginal self determination and against Aboriginal peoples established, although limited, land rights in the Northern Territory.

Filmed when the Labor Government was last in power in 2013, it examines the complicity of both sides of Government in the deprivation and early deaths of many Aboriginal people and shameless moves against Aboriginal lands under the guise of an ‘Intervention’ that was based on lies and deception.

The ongoing role of the Police being used against Aboriginal people as an occupation force is depicted with the tazering of an Aboriginal youth and a number of cases of deaths in custody that breach even the most fundamental human rights.  It is reflected in Australia’s disgraceful incarceration rate, with Aboriginal people the most incarcerated people on earth.

We hear how Mr Ward died after being tortured, sustaining burns to his skin, before literally cooking to death in the 57 degree heat in the van he was transported in, in Western Australia. We hear of Mr Briscoe who died of asphyxiation and intoxication at the age of 27, whilst being taken into police ‘protective custody’ after committing no crime. 

Little has changed since the failure to charge police after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found police had lied, committing perjury, and covered up evidence in the 1981 case of Eddie Murray, who had endured a smashed sternum, though police had claimed it was suicide.   Eddie’s father, Arthur Murray, who was active in striking for better wages and conditions for cotton chippers in Wee Waa, NSW, considered his son’s violent death the end result of a campaign of harassment in retaliation for his activism.

Utopia details Australia’s hidden humiliation, of Aboriginal communities forced to endure living conditions not acceptable in a developing country, far less a wealthy country built on resources taken from Aboriginal lands.  Aboriginal communities are forced to live 15-30 people to a house, with no electricity, no kitchen, no shower or bathroom and only an external shared tap and fire to cook on and little to no transport. Remote Aboriginal communities are denied the basic conditions taken for granted by the rest of the Australian community.  While Government Business Managers, in these same communities have 18 air-conditioners running in their gated house.

These deplorable conditions are common across remote Aboriginal communities. A lack of sanitation and cleaning facilities directly impacts on the health of children and adults, with cross contamination leading to diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and otitus media and resulting in hearing loss and delays in learning.

The film visits the small community of Mutujulu where failed sanitation leaves raw sewage in the back yard and 70% of the homes are filled with crumbling asbestos, with nowhere else to go community members are forced to continue living in homes that seriously damage their health.  That these conditions would not be tolerated for white people, reflects the deep discrimination that Australia is built on and maintains.

Pilger draws on archival film footage of his 1984 film ‘Secret Country’ to highlight the complete failure to progress the same issues raised three decades ago in that film.  Trachoma remains a scourge in Aboriginal communities where it continues to painfully blind Aboriginal people, though it is completely preventable.  It has placed Australia on a United Nations international shame list for its failure to address this devastating condition, with simple adequate hygiene and access to bathrooms a key preventative measure.

The film shocks, as doctors complain of treating patients with insects in their ears because of the difficulties for communities to wash.  The Indigenous Doctors Association reports high levels of malnutrition amongst communities where the cost of fruit and vegetables is too expensive to maintain a healthy diet.  The alarming fact that one third of Aboriginal people die before the age of 45 years should outrage Australia.

The poverty and degradation is distressing but despite Australia’s wealth and resources, Aboriginal people are blamed for their own poverty and the government’s failure to invest in Aboriginal communities.

Utopia reminds us of some of our recent history and the impact of previous policies of assimilation which saw children removed from their families and placed as slave labour in the homes of middle class whites, as domestic servants.

The Expectations that things have changed with Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2007 are betrayed according to Olga Havnen, with $80 million dollars spent annually on the removal of children, and only $500,000 spent on supporting impoverished families. 

This criminal level of neglect of Aboriginal communities is founded on Australia’s inability to face the truth of its history and reflects a deep ignorance of the broader community, promoted by the media and mining industry’s advertising campaigns.

Australia, Pilger notes, has a hidden history of Aboriginal resistance, drawing on historical footage of the eight year Gurindji strike and that communities’ resolute determination to gain equal wages.  The strike broke the exploitation of Aboriginal people working for rations and led to the Gurindji people holding out for their land rights. 

But Aboriginal communities are now once again being forced to fight for previously hard-won struggles for land rights. Trish Morton-Thomas draws a connection between aerial searches for minerals and the finding of uranium stores in Central Australia and the focus of the Northern Territory Intervention on taking control of Aboriginal lands. While Pilger’s research unearths a 2007 government report that notes the Northern Territory as the frontier of Australia’s future mining interests.

Utopia explains how the Howard Government’s ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response’ or ‘NT Intervention’ in 2007, that sent the army into Aboriginal communities and took over control of those communities, was based on a cynical lie of paedophile rings. 

Pilger highlights that it was Chris Graham, of the National Indigenous Times exposed Greg Andrews, as a Government official who had briefed the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, had posed as an anonymous youth worker, complaining of non-existent paedophilia rings, which had supported previous allegations by Mal Brough, and prompted the Governments NT Intervention. But despite the sensationalizing of the issue, neither the Australian Crime Commission nor the NT Police could find any evidence of paedophilia rings in Aboriginal communities.

The Intervention ignored the poverty, lack of education, lack of housing, unemployment and desperate social conditions raised in the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report. Instead it implemented income quarantining, that introduced a Basics card that replaced cash entitlements to social security and implemented a host of punitive measures that only targeted Aboriginal people and required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Rather, policies completely unrelated to child protection were instigated, as the Government was determined to take control of Aboriginal lands, blackmailing Aboriginal communities with the denial of basic services, housing and sanitation if they didn’t sign agreements to lease their land to the Government. The Intervention also witnessed the almost total abolition of the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). 

This concerted attack on Aboriginal communities and their capacity to make decisions, both personally and collectively, has led to a collective level of despair in Aboriginal communities and has resulted in the incidences of suicide and self harm quadrupling.

Significantly, Pilger doesn’t just assess the decades of neglect, desperate poverty and the neo-liberal motivations behind the current attack on Aboriginal communities that has seen a clear ideological shift away from Aboriginal self determination. Rosalie Kunnoth Munks argues Aboriginal people have never ceded their sovereignty or agreed in any way to the taking of our country in exchange for social security.

While other comparable countries have treaties that begin to recognise their Original peoples’ self determination, Australia’s tokenistic reconciliation process hasn’t stopped the current land grab or considered any form of justice for Aboriginal people.

Jon Altman considers that Australia requires international aid to deal with the appalling situation in Aboriginal communities, arguing that the issue is too politicised for governments to deal with it rationally.

Utopia reminds us that Australia’s mining industry has profits of $1 billion a month, or close to $52 billion a year on land they don’t own.  While these massive profits allowed funds to run a media fear campaigns against the Hawke Labor Governments promised national Aboriginal land rights, a tax on mining super profits would have earned $60 billion, enough to fund land rights and end Aboriginal poverty, which was knocked back by the Australian Parliament. 

The film Utopia’s most critical message is that real reconciliation is not possible without justice and without a Treaty.


 As Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.