John Singleton, The Bulletin, November 13, 1979, pp. 76-81.
I’ve got to tell you the truth for starters, and the truth for starters is that when I arrange to do this tour I think I am on to the greatest story of all time.
Like here is the caper:
Buddy Williams is the fair dinkum real outback version of Slim Dusty.
For 40 years he’s been going to a different town a night for 11 months of the year. Non-stop. And after 40 years he is being honoured in Cairns.
The idea is we film this show and then follow Buddy on the road around the Aboriginal missions of Queensland.
Well, for a start, I’m a Buddy Williams fan and I know that part of the story will be a TV ripper.
But I also know what the Queensland Government don’t know, i.e., while I’m there I will have free and unfettered access to all the most gruesome Queensland Aboriginal horror stories, just like I’ve been reading about in The National Times and National Review for about forever.
I knew that after seeing the Aboriginal disaster areas in Western Australia and the Northern Territory I just couldn’t wait for this.
Our story starts in this Cairns Civic Centre which is as modern as tomorrow and the town turns out in force to pay homage to Buddy Williams.
But there aren’t any Aborigines because tomorrow is their day at Yarrabah about 30 kilometres south.
This joint is run by the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement known, lovingly, well at least known, as the DAIA.
Yarrabah was a Church of England mission from 1892 to 1962 when the Queensland Government took it over.
The afternoon we get there is the school fete and most of the residents (about 1200) turn up.
They are known as Murrays and as far as I could see or find out there are no full bloods.
There is a new pub which is open for a few hours this day, there is no trouble. How bloody boring. No story here.
The kids are all healthy and happy, just like your kids.
And the Aborigines are all pretty happy too.
They live right on the sea, the average income, the manager (Shane O’Connor) reckons, is around $300 to $400 per house.
The average rent is around $3.
I tried to find a dissatisfied Aborigine but couldn’t. Everyone was too busy laughing and singing either at the fete or that night at the Buddy Williams concert in the community hall.
But I realised (or tried to convince myself) this was probably all window dressing and I couldn’t wait until we got out into the real wilds to see what was really happening.
(PS. For Queensland police haters I have to report that there were 12 police at Yarrabah. Two whites and 10 native police elected by themselves. We should have it so lucky.)
Bloomfield River Mission
This is run by the Lutherans and is seven road hours from Cairns and 2.5 hours from Cooktown.
It is set along the Bloomfield River just a few kilometres in from the ocean.
Quite as beautiful a place as you will ever see in your life.
There are 300 Aborigines here with their own kindergarten.
The 60 natives who work really only muck around and about the mission. (Although there is talk about the old timber mill getting going again. Every mission has a timber mill. None of them work. They’re all about to. I think it’s just a legend.)
There is no pub; the nearest is the Lion’s Den, sort of near Cooktown.
There are no white police and only four native police.
The houses are clean. And the latest ones are as good as you’d expect to find anywhere.
No one is doing very much, but everyone is happy and I am starting to get a bit worried about the whole bit. Like where is all the trouble? It must be coming?
This is a Lutheran mission, too.
The Lutherans preach a fair bit about “Salvation by grace through faith.”
But putting up with a bit of the old Bible bashing isn’t bad exchange when you think the Aborigines get repaid by another knockout little town of some 1500 people.
We were originally going to camp on the floor of the unused children’s nutritional centre (which is unused primarily I suppose because the kids are full of nutrition).
But then we get to have the use of the hospital which didn’t have any patients anyway.
The Cooktown pub is only an hour or so away, but I didn’t see anyone drinking, let alone drunk.
Sixty-eight of the Aborigines work on maintaining the town, 14 in the sand mining nearby and another 12 work on a co-operative cattle station.
The rest just sit down in the sun and wait for their next cheques to arrive. Sort of like being part of the Kennedy clan without the tax problems.
Here we go again.
A tiny little community. Everyone laughing and happy. The canteen (Aboriginal for pub) is closed.
I know that I’m getting impatient, so I decide there’s no point staying overnight, so I fly straight to Bamaga which is as close as you can get to the top of Cape York before you start swimming to Thursday Island.
Well, if the other places were beautiful, this is paradise.
Most of the people you see in the streets are Islanders. Big, strong, laughing Melanesians.
The first day I am there is the day of the Bamaga Show. I swear that if you arrived blindfolded you’d think you were in Tahiti.
The Islanders do up their little areas with palms and table cloths and in an empty park there are suddenly 20 Island outdoor restaurants.
Live turtles are cooked and served. (If you’re interested, turtle meat looks just like beef but tastes and smells a bit too much like old boot for my liking.)
And the Islanders and Aborigines can catch as many as they like for food.
The music is playing. The rodeo is bucking away.
The Bamaga Cup is the funniest race I have ever seen. The winning jockey weighs in at just under 15 stone. One Aboriginal jockey is so drunk he can hardly sit on his horse let alone ride and another Aboriginal jockey has a bit of trouble when his saddle falls off and his horse falls over. It could only happen at the Bamaga Cup.
But where have all the Aborigines gone? Say there were 1000 people at the show. I reckon there were 900 Islanders and 100 whites.
The Aborigines were probably having too much fun sitting down somewhere else. They couldn’t have been at the canteen because it is closed indefinitely. There seems to be a bit of controversy about some missing kegs.
There isn’t any work going on, but if you or I were offered the chance to live at a place like this we’d jump at it.
I mean most of our parents work all their lives with the dream of retiring somewhere even half as glorious as this. The Aborigines and Islanders get it all for nothing.
No wonder they’re happy.
Well, Weipa is a bit different because it’s a mining town. Comalco owns the whole joint, so it’s a bit like any other over-planned town with a big flash pub and the whole works.
A sort of heartless place; like a holiday version of Canberra.
But the next day I go down to Weipa South which has 600 residents all living like Jacky on yet another piece of God’s own country.
There’s no pub there, you have to go to Weipa. But by now I’ve given up on any scandals.
This is a bit different.
Last year for some remote reason the Federal Government decided that it would take over Aurukun.
But old Joh figured they couldn’t do that if he declared it a proper shire. So he does.
And now it is run by a shire clerk, Eric Grubb, who really knows what he’s talking about which is probably why no one from the media ever talks to him.
The Aurukun Council is elected by the natives each year and anyone who wants to do anything has to get the permission of the council.
Every year someone has a great new idea for a pub or a bottle shop. Every year it gets turfed out by the council.
The 600 Aborigines who live there all turned up at the concert and you wouldn’t meet a happier bunch. I was the only one unhappy because everyone else was so happy.
By now I am about to give up.
The 300 Aborigines who live here have a canteen (pub), but it’s closed anyway.
They also farm crocodiles and amazingly it even looks like being successful.
And, if you can believe what I’m told, in two years the first lot of skins will have repaid all the costs, which would be a miracle.
But the crocodile farm is hardly the answer to Malcolm’s unemployment prayers, because the people who really do the work at this stage are white and only eight Aborigines help out.
Well, by now I know my scoop is not on.
And as I wander back to Cairns I really wonder where all those Queensland Abo-bashing stories come from.
Me, I’m against anyone getting anything for nothing, and that goes for the Aborigines as well.
But if we must spend money on giving people free houses, free medical care, free schooling and a free income as well, surely then the only ground for debate is whether or not the Aborigine is getting a fair go or not?
Well, anyone who reckons they’re not, in Queensland at least, ought to go and take any struggling young white couple and their kids; or any retired pensioner couple up to Cape York and ask them if they’d like to swap.
I don’t reckon you’d get a knockback.
There’s only one catch. They wouldn’t be allowed to live there anyway.
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