Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Protest, Land Rights and Riots: Postcolonial Struggles in Australia in the 1980s by Barry Morris, 204 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2013, ISBN 9781922059345 (pbk), $39.95.
The events discussed by Morris in this book centre on the funeral and subsequent riot in Brewarrina, 15 August 1987. An angry confrontation between relatives and friends of the recently, and controversially, deceased Lloyd Boney, was filmed by an ABC team. The ‘riot’ ended in the arrest of 17 Indigenous people and two trials. Morris conducts a close examination of the trials in which Sonny Bates and Arthur Murray were found guilty and sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment. Six years later as a result of six successful appeals for a retrial Murray and Bates were granted a permanent stay of proceedings. Of these events, the author notices three different kinds of analyses, of which the first was the media’s search for social causes and effects. The second was the criminal trials focusing on individual actions, and thirdly, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody seeking to understand relationships between police and Aborigines. These are useful distinctions. Students of Judicial Enquiries, Truth and Justice Commissions and forensic investigations of state violence have lamented how often these seem to miss the point in focusing on individual state agents rather than the historical circumstances that seem to have led those agents in predictable directions.
Being the careful and respected academic that he is, Morris is drawn to analyse the larger societal influences affecting Brewarrina, especially the shift in the 1980s from state welfare to state neoliberalism. It is a refreshing change to see Aboriginal history under this lens. It helps the reader to move away from Marxist, colonialist, and post-colonialist narratives so familiar to us. A key factor in his analysis is a rural economic decline, resulting from the collapse of the pastoral industry generally. Here it is good to be reminded that the white citizens of Brewarrina carried an equivalent inferior status in relation to mainstream society as the town Aborigines — that is, ignorant, backward and irrational. Morris points to the pervasive intertwining of neoliberal economics and conservative thought in Anglo-American countries which, becoming the new economic orthodoxy, significantly changed the contours of state power. In this way some recently established measures of Indigenous governance, such as the Aboriginal legal and health services, came very rapidly to be seen as problematic. Neoliberalism champions a form of egalitarianism, Morris reminds us, that confers on all citizens the same moral status and moral worth. Hence specific socio-cultural identifications like Aboriginality are rendered secondary and even irrational. In the grip of neoliberalism, Premier Greiner abolished the NSW Public Service Board, gave the Premier’s Department an expanded and centralised role to coordinate the public service, and tried to abolish the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW).
This analysis is enlightening even if one does not necessarily agree. After all, the Land Rights Act was passed barely five years before amidst much rejoicing that the Aboriginal dispossession had at last been recognised. Had support for state welfare evaporated so quickly? To be fair, Morris sees neoliberalism more as a factor to reckon with rather than a key to the mystery, and he is careful not to overstress the consequences of this shift. He is wise to do this, not least because very similar phenomena can be seen at all times in our history when neoliberal economics were unknown. The Brewarrina police were apt to interpret the Aboriginal presence as evidence of incipient revolt; but so did the NSW missionary Ernest Gribble in the 1880s, and so did Cecil Cook in the Northern Territory in the 1930s. The Coniston massacre was precipitated by an equally exaggerated alarm spread amongst those who should have known better. In chapter 3 Morris develops an account of the relationship between social exclusion and crime as an analogous punitive shift that occurred when welfare policy was applied to criminal justice. He sees the primary role of market forces in regulating the economy acting equally to regulate and guarantee the security of its citizens. That happened in London, too, from the 1830s when the newly defined crime against private property handily answered a need to populate the empire with Anglo Saxon youth. More an imperial economy than a neoliberal one.
I recommend this thoughtful book. I do not see much evidence of Morris’s deployment of the ‘incisive tools of anthropology’, as noted by Gill Cowlishaw on the back cover. I would call it just good history.
The Australian National University