Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Rosemary Neill
Allen & Unwin 2002
reviewed by Felicia Fletcher
White Out is an opinionated book. In the book Neill lays out her view of racial politics like a drake defending his harem. Also included are the honkings and hootings of other journalists who’ve managed to sell papers by questioning or compromising the integrity of what Neill calls, ‘black Australia’.
Neill’s ad lib journalistic style is as appealing as a Mars bar left on the dashboard in 40 degree heat. Neill is obviously uncomfortable with an ‘article’ the length of this book, so much so that her fatuousness peaks at page 3: Neill asks, ‘How could the consensus over fundamental indigenous rights, demonstrated at the ballot box in 1967, have degenerated ...?’. It is fatuous to continue in the belief, or take seriously in the first place, the idea that the result of the 1967 referendum demonstrated unequivocal commitment by the electorate to ‘indigenous rights’. Moreover, the Australian political system, has done nothing but obstruct the rights of Indigenous people. Neill doesn’t tackle these ‘political issues’, moreover she tackles the views mainstream journalists have presented of Aboriginal people extending and extending the plastic ideological monologue of sensationalist journalism like a roll of glad wrap. In fact, Neill is extremely ‘unpoliticised’ and undisciplined in this regard. By making famous Aboriginal people, for example Lois O’Donohue the subject of her critique, Neill uses name-dropping rather than scholarly analysis to form her critique.
Neill’s analysis of the right / left political divide is an analysis elaborated elsewhere by commentators such as Noel Pearson. Neill therefore has no new insight to add to the debate, and wittingly or not, undermines the cultural authority of Aboriginal people by placing us in a conceptual framework that is extremely Eurocentric. As it is a sad fact that journalists have a very real stake in sensationalising ‘social issues’ perhaps a better title for Neill’s book may have been, How the politics of sensationalism is killing ‘black Australia’.
Neill is able to be aligned with the competition within journalism where journalists seem to compete with one another for the infamy that goes with having the capacity to churn out vitriol like pharmaceutical companies churn out Panadol: comfort for discomfort, a palliative for the pain, cheap enough for the masses. And this is a cheap book, full of cheap shots. Ultimately she doesn’t seem to care a damn about Aboriginal people because like other mainstream journalists, she is able to pick over the political carcasses of Aboriginal people like a raven does carrion, and there are some very juicy maggots to be found, many of them also voyeuristic in form and function.
Would Allen and Unwin publish a book about Queen Elizabeth II that discussed the sexual habits of her father? To many Aboriginal people, their leaders are royalty and they would be very shy of drawing private information about such figures into the public domain. Neill’s treatment of these conventions and protocols is extremely disrespectful and rude. After all, such individuals are not their parents, just as the Queen of England is not her father.
In her preface Neill coins herself as a constructive critic, but the primary sources used in her critique, are rarely Aboriginal. This is a regrettable but standard practice in circles where it is acceptable to make money or gain prestige ‘on the backs of blacks’.
Neill’s analysis of self-determination is also appallingly simplistic. Contrary to Neill’s primary sources, self-determination did not emanate from Gough Whitlam; it emanated from the Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which is the foundation of the United Nations law of self-determination. Most UN countries accept that the right of self-determination has attained formal legal status, however, Australia’s High Court has never conceded internal self-determination to Aboriginal peoples. Because Neill consistently raises points from the cornerstone of what she thinks is right, rather than what is in fact right, her book is the simplistic vainglory of an opinionated writer who has nothing to add to the debate other than a sensationalising of the issues.
Neill’s book is thoroughly unrecommended. It is a malformed, uninspired rave that lacks any semblance of basic understanding of the social, political and juridical history of Australia that has made a farce out of justice for Aboriginal peoples in this country.
Felicia Fletcher is an editor at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.