P.P. McGuinness, The Australian Financial Review, May 22, 1986, p. 14.

In many ways, Bruce Beresford’s film, The Fringe Dwellers, which was the official Australian entry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one of the most important films ever made in Australia. This is, however, not because it is a great film.

It is, as befits a director of Mr Beresford’s standing, a very good film, technically and aesthetically. But it is the content of the film and how it treats its subject which is what makes it important, and it should have a major political impact in Australia.

This has already been realised with alarm in some circles, and a campaign of slander has already been mounted. The film is being described as “racist”, and as an attack on Aborigines.

This is because it does not suit the propaganda line espoused by many political activists who claim to speak on behalf of Aborigines in Australia.

These are the people, some of them genuine Aborigines, some of them Aborigines of dubious credentials, many of them of wholly European stock, who have been converted to a belief that Australia is a society ridden by race-prejudice in which Aborigines have been robbed of their birth-right and in which they are even now systematically discriminated against, deprived and maltreated.

Now while it is perfectly true that Europeans occupied Australia without the consent of its Aboriginal occupants, and there are many documented cases of maltreatment of Aborigines as well as the systematic debauchment through alcohol and the disruption of their traditional life-style, it does not follow that every claim made for compensation for this past wrong is now justified.

Nor does it follow that the descendants of the original occupants, many of them totally detribalised, have any rights superior to those of the rest of the Australian population.

The invasion of Australia by Europeans, and subsequent immigration, is an irreversible fact of history. To claim that all people of European descent have an inferior claim to Australia is in itself a form of racism.

Indeed, it is akin to the racism of Britain’s neo-fascist National Front, which demands that all people of Caribbean, African or Indo-Pakistani descent, even if born and brought up in Britain, should be deported; and failing that, should be treated as inferior to white Britons.

This is of course racist nonsense, and is recognised as such by most white, black or coloured British people.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s post-war immigration, it is as irreversible a fact of history as the Norman conquest.

The fact that Australia is a country of predominantly European stock is equally an irreversible fact, regardless of the crimes of our ancestors — which in any case have been grossly exaggerated by the new school of propagandist historians.

History apart, however, the issue is the state, and status, of Aborigines at present. Are they racially discriminated against? The blunt answer is no. And the true state of affairs is clearly pointed to in Mr Beresford’s film.

Based on a novel by West Australian writer Ms Nene Gare, which was published in 1961, long before the modern fashion for militant black racism had penetrated Australia, the film tells the story of a young girl living in a riverside Aboriginal shantytown who wants to extricate herself from hopeless poverty.

The men in the settlement are mostly unemployed, they drink heavily and they feel, as they in fact are, excluded from the white community. The girl persuades her family to move into a new house, offered to them on a new estate by the housing authorities at a subsidised rent, among white neighbours.

The neighbours make clumsy overtures of friendship, offending the sensitivities of the family. The relatives move in, the rent falls behind, the father gambles away what money remains, and disappears. There goes the neighbourhood.

The film clearly depicts the development of prejudice. But it makes it clear that the problem facing many Aborigines in Australia is not racism at all — although in a relatively mild form racism does exist in country towns, it is virtually non-existent in the cities of Australia — but the culture of poverty.

It is true that Aboriginal tribal behaviour is a feature of this culture (though it is not at all exclusive to Australian Aborigines but is common to many non-European countries). Extended families, where relatives have the right to share the food and shelter of any successful members of the family, are a major barrier to individual upward mobility, and escape from the culture of poverty.

When it is encouraged by a system of handouts which encourages the avoidance of participation in the regular workforce, and the regular heavy drinking which this system also establishes as a pattern, it is not surprising the self-respect of the victims of the culture of poverty is eroded.

Nor is it surprising that they should seek to preserve their self-respect by withdrawing into their communities, and ascribing their problems to social and racial factors beyond their control.

It becomes a vicious circle. If Aboriginal communities appear to outsiders as full of drunks and layabouts, Aborigines tend to be categorised in these terms.

What is really a matter of social prejudice begins to appear as if it were racial prejudice, and Aborigines who do not wish to be part of the culture of poverty are pushed back into it by such prejudice, as well as pulled back into by their own people.

The Fringe Dwellers is an important social documentary as it approaches the Australian Aboriginal issue from a sympathetic point of view which is neither racist nor coloured by a propagandist view of the world.

The story is essentially a human particular story, in which the characters (played by actors of such talent that the fact they are Aborigines is an aspect of their performance, not the key to it) illustrate the dilemmas facing many Aborigines still.

The family is warm, and comforting. The poverty is lighter because it is common and shared. Hopelessness is, however, disguised by alcohol; the lack of a future is shrugged off as inevitable. There is no escape, so why worry?

But the escape of the girl shows that there is hope, as indeed does the very fact that there are an increasing number of Aboriginal professionals in Australia. It is not necessary for them to reject their culture or their people but it is necessary to struggle out of the culture of poverty.

Those inverted racists who talk about the preservation of the Aboriginal way of life conveniently overlook the fact that except for a tiny handful, this way of life has long since disappeared. And young Aborigines in particular do not want to turn their backs on white society, nor to live miles from cities. They want the fruits of modern economies.

The problem is how to ensure that they have the opportunity to participate fully in society if they choose to do so; there is no consistency between this and respect for the culture and history of the Aboriginal peoples. But no amount of land-rights claims are going to restore Australia to its pre-1788 status quo.

The advocacy of varieties of apartheid, which is now common among political extremists, should not be allowed to feed into policy-making intended to enable Aborigines to participate fully in Australian society. Land rights is a chimera, a form of racism, and irrelevant to justice for all Australians whatever the origin of their ancestors.

In fact, for the most part Aborigines are not treated badly in Australia. The provisions made for them to help them overcome their disadvantages (when those in fact exist) are now very generous — a fact remarked upon with some surprise by French film critics, who know the children of immigrants receive far worse treatment in France. (Indeed, the provisions for Australian Aborigines are too generous in that they extend to many people who are not in any real sense Aborigines at all.)

French President Mitterrand, in a shabby piece of political point-scoring some time ago, related some of the lies told about Australian Aborigines by the black activists to prevent Australia commenting on French treatment of the Kanuks in New Caledonia. This kind of falsehood is being assiduously put about both in Australia and in the rest of the world.

Mr Beresford’s film, one of the most truthful and direct accounts of the real state of the deprived section of the Aboriginal community in Australia, thus represents a major contribution to setting the record straight, to telling the truth about racism in Australia.

It is a minor ill among the great majority of Australians but a virulent disease among a tiny minority of political opportunists.

The danger is that the latter will produce a backlash which will do genuine harm to Aborigines. Mr Beresford’s film, as well as putting the record straight, will serve to prevent the spread of hatred which is the aim of the inverted racists.

That is why they will attack the film.

The Fringe Dwellers (1986) from Kris Kroz on Vimeo.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Kangaroo Population Bomb
  4. The Libertarian Alternative
  5. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  6. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  7. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  8. The Itch for Influence
  9. LA safe from religious poverty
  10. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  11. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  12. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  13. Time to sell the ABC
  14. Youth victims of the welfare con
  15. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  16. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  17. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  18. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  19. Let them swim nude
  20. Time to legalise heroin
  21. State-sponsored sports rorts
  22. The blight of the baby-boomers
  23. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  24. We should ban Olympics
  25. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  26. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  27. New Paddy McGuinness slogan for ageing feminists and their ideological children
  28. The ABC and the self-evident
  29. Will Australia compete?
  30. Canberra's social revolution
  31. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  32. Why not pay for the ABC?
  33. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  34. Punemployment: people are neither numbers nor puzzle pieces; the platitude attitude
  35. Sometimes the truth hurts
  36. Native title, land-tax and Henry George
  37. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  38. Only government-backed monopolies are monopolies, says Paddy McGuinness in 1983
  39. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  40. Genocide with kindness
  41. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  42. Government intervention institutionalises bullying
  43. The wrong kind of help for those most needing the right kind of help
  44. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  45. The Fringe Dwellers: an honest look at the Aboriginal culture of poverty
  46. Impotent priesthood of the global casino
  47. Can primitive black and white minds comprehend nuance?
  48. Class action may be smoking gun
  49. Extend compulsion of compulsory student unionism to voting, paying back student loans and more
  50. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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