Peter Sutton

Alongside the occasional feel-good progress stories in the newspaper for which he writes, Paul Toohey’s nuggets on indigenous affairs have often shone with glittering menace and cold-steel anger. Scrutiny and revelation in touchy domains are Toohey’s passion. Toohey is always part of the story, no matter how hidden in the wings. Even his most factual account is suffused with his position, and his feelings. He has guts. This occasionally gets him into trouble.

Writing in a style halfway between Mickey Spillane and whoever really wrote Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back, over the years Toohey has punched through several established taboos of media prose and propriety while reporting on his brace of special topics, including East Timor. In Last Drinks he is in full flight. Yet he discloses there, next to the tough skin, a too familiar heartache: his affection for Aboriginal people, and his desire to see powerful external interventionist action on violence and community dysfunction, cohabit painfully under an unresolved, perhaps unendable, truce. It’s the kind of ambivalence many people first try to iron out, then decide to live with.

Toohey backs the central tenets of the intervention and ticks off a list of its benefits. It was a government’s business to protect the vulnerable in a state of crisis and under the gutsy Mal Brough’s leadership it did so. Brough was rough but made people sit up and listen; he was flawed and reckless but heroic. The abusers of children, of women and of the elderly had had a long, easy run, and needed some shock-and-awe in their guts, a message that could be heard in their own lingo, rather than just “consultations and negotiations.” They got it. The women and others needed reassurance that the State was on their side. They got it. The supremacy of Australian law had to be brought home with dramatic impact in petty fiefdoms where corruption and abuse could so easily escape scrutiny, detection and prosecution. The army was the State incarnate, and even though its Norforce was an old friend of remote Australians, the symbolic challenge to the hegemony of local men was clear, if initially largely symbolic. But the feared needed something to fear, otherwise behavioural change was just pie in the sky.

On balance I think Toohey has got this picture of the intervention in fair perspective. Many of us share his reservations about aspects of the intervention, but we also share his support for the central and most urgent provisions: the suddenly increased policing of, and thus a direly needed improvement in, basic security; greater alcohol, drug and x-rated pornography controls; large-scale voluntary health checks for children, leading to many referrals for preventable diseases; long-overdue enforcement of school attendance; and part-quarantining of welfare incomes – though, like many others, I only support this where misuse of money is a part of neglect, and on a case-by-case basis, not a racial one. Still, the improvement effects of the quarantining have been dramatic.

The intervention’s increased funding for housing, while a necessary short-term measure, raises the thorny issue of whether or not this will tend to reduce the incentive for mobility, and become a bottomless pit of rapid replacement in places where building costs and the attrition of houses both run at heavenly rates. I suspect it will, and so question it as a long-term measure, though I support Toohey’s assignment of it to the immediate plus list. The intervention provisions dealing with township tenures and the scrapping of the permit system and CDEP scheme have had less clear support from those inclined to back the other main measures. After an initial hesitancy about Toohey’s crusade against the permit system, and worries about (more) low-life getting into vulnerable places, I have been persuaded that he is right: public areas of townships, and main connecting roads, should not be treated like private property in a modern state, and certainly not on any basis rooted in race. The Rudd government’s rescinding of the abolition of permits to enter townships understandably arouses Toohey’s ire.

Toohey is also troubled by the “formalised racism” under which welfare income management is restricted to indigenous people rather than making it apply to everyone. His feeling for Aboriginal people as real, nameable individuals whom he knows about or knows personally, including those who are friends, cannot be nestled into the clumsy generalities and uniformities of bureaucracy and racial rules. These people attract his empathy, just as the child-rapists attract his rage. 

Paul Toohey is one of the hard men carrying what has recently emerged as a distinct indigenous-focused portfolio of expertise within Australian journalism. He is not prepared to pander to Aboriginal victimology as an alibi for not caring properly for children, or as an excuse for rates of violence, especially against women, that are off the international scale. He shows no mercy, offers no postcolonial cop-outs, to men who rape children or bribe sex out of them with petrol or spray cans or dope or money. The spleen is good. Obese parents of malnourished children beware. 

In Last Drinks Toohey puts his view that the driving necessity of the core parts of the intervention rested not simply on the child sexual abuse levels, which had been reported as astronomical across both urban and remote indigenous Australia, but on their genesis within a wider crisis of “parental neglect” (which runs wider than parents) and societal dysfunction. He wisely dismisses the stupidly imagined “land grab” version of the intervention’s real motives. Those who relied on this conspiracy theory seemed to be committing political hara-kiri.

In pursuing his brutalist project, Toohey knows he is up against an oddly intractable alliance: dug-in elements of the indigenous leadership; some middle-aged academics whose stubborn privileging of politics and rights issues over child welfare is becoming notorious, plus the soft southern bourgeois ignoranti, including the wetter church mobs, who hang on their words; so-called liberal journalists who are in the palms of the Land Councils and who support limitations on media access to Aboriginal townships; plus a ragbag of remnants of the SPFL (Seventies Placard Far Left). Toohey must have been chuffed by the fact that only about thirty people, one bearing a placard demanding the removal of police from Aboriginal communities (what brain?), managed to assemble to protest against the intervention in the national capital on its twelve-month anniversary in June 2008. The penny has been dropping.

Toohey is the grim rider against self-indulgent romanticism, the Territorian who does not hide his contempt for those in the cities who can only project themselves and their niceness when thinking about remote Aboriginal people, their problems and their futures. The romantics’ imagined traditional communities are places where many of them have rarely been or indeed have never set foot, give or take the odd Garma Festival in the Dry. They are odd bedfellows with the entrenched academic and political familiars of the ghettoes who have been described as antediluvians. The closed society still has its friends. These are the people Toohey calls the real conservatives. I agree with him. But he is in danger of shocking the good people of the cities to the point where they may find it easy to dismiss him. This would be a shame. He needs to be heard, if not always agreed with.

Toohey was swinging his agricultural brand of light-sabre way before the intervention. He is a long-time Territorian with a sense of belonging, not a moral tourist of the exotic. This is his community he’s talking about. Unlike most anthropologists and travel writers, he is inclined to tell many of the less pleasant truths about what life is really like in Australia’s outback ghettoes and among the long-grassers of the towns. He’s been there, as have others, but Toohey is comparatively uninhibited in talking about what he learns. This is part of his integrity. It also makes him wary of explanatory approaches to behaviours that infuriate him. To understand is not to accept.

Like his colleague Tony Koch, Toohey might be considered, by some, to be drawn to the horror stories to the point of fixation. I’m sympathetic, having had it once suggested in print by the late Ken Maddock that living in outback ghettoes had “unhinged” me, with the same effect. No, the (more) unhinged are those whose emotional disconnection from what they know enables their continuing bowdlerisation of the life that many indigenous citizens have to face. The same disconnection also perpetuates their own stubborn exaggeration of the virtues of policies of the past. 

Conservative progressives are now the biggest obstacle to indigenous policy reform. The real progressives, in Toohey’s world and mine too I have to say, include people who have backed at least the main, security-focused provisions of the intervention, such as Sue Gordon, Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Alison Anderson, as well as many others. Anderson, who is from Papunya, is quoted by Toohey as not only defending the intervention but recognising the simultaneous need to wake up the disconnected:

It’s a disgrace that people who know nothing about living among the poverty and abuse in remote communities have condemned the intervention. My people need real protection, not motherhood statements from urbanised saviours. I live my law and culture and I will represent my people regardless of what’s fashionable. My people need the help and want the help from this intervention.


Peter Sutton has worked as an anthropologist and linguist with Aboriginal people for several decades, and is an Australian Research Council professorial fellow at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 31, Now or Never.


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