John Hartley. Opening Address. Credit: Gary Middle

John Curtin Distinguished Professor John Hartley, AM

A Centre for Culture & Technology Book Launch
Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy: A Report on Perth Media
By Thor Kerr & Shaphan Cox (2013, Ctrl-Z Press)

Launched by John Curtin Distinguished Professor John Hartley, AM

August 30 2013

Greetings, and thanks to Simon Forrest and our hosts at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies; to the elders who have welcomed us, Ben, Alf, Lynette, Helen and Maureen; to Sara Gillies and Sue Summers, the staff at CCAT who organized this event; and thanks to Niall Lucy and Rob Briggs, the publishers at Ctrl-Z Press, for seeing this lengthy project through and producing such a handsome book.

1. Facing the Future

First, let me say that I’m encouraged by the publication of this book. It represents what we are here for and what the university is here for: critical research, conducted in partnership with local communities, to bring to account forces that – let’s face it – are bigger than we are. It is also encouraging to see new researchers coming forward, so congratulations to Thor Kerr and Shaphan Cox, who as ‘early career researchers’ are carrying into the future a research tradition that stretches back to a period before Curtin was a university.

But that very line of continuity is also discouraging. We haven’t moved the research agenda forward in twenty years. So I’m here to launch a book that has made me angry. Here’s why.

2. Back to the Future

It was in 1992 that Steve Mickler’s Gambling on the First Race was published – edited by Niall Lucy, just as this volume is, and published by a research centre of which I was the director at the time. So there’s nothing new there!

During the 1990s, together with Steve, Niall and others, I was involved in several National Media Forums, called Telling Both Stories. Steve arranged for me to give evidence on media related issues to the Royal Commission on Black Deaths in Custody, before Commissioner Pat Dodson. Then, in 2000, with Alan McKee, I published the results of an Australian Research Council grant, called The Indigenous Public Sphere.

Why does this make me angry? Because here we are still, needing to address the same issues that were raised in 1992, using the same conceptual tools to analyse the mediation of Aboriginal issues in the same media, by the same people – including Howard Sattler and Paul Murray – featuring the same state agencies, police and politicians, the same political activists, with the same outcomes.

Meanwhile, some things have changed. The world beyond Perth media has witnessed the emergence of a new knowledge-based economy, new digital and mobile technologies, global social networks, and myriad political, cultural and economic changes that would not have been predicted in 1992, from the World Wide Web to gay marriage.

But here we are, holding the same conversation. It’s 1992 all over again.

3. Imagining Aboriginal sovereignty: the Economy (the ‘AFR’)

Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy rightly raises the issue of Aboriginal sovereignty. Sovereignty over their country was never ceded by Noongar people, but today it is observed only in the breach, at least in Perth media, as this research demonstrates at length.

But what if there were such a thing as Aboriginal sovereignty? How would it be reported in the media? In The Indigenous Public Sphere (294-5) I asked a pertinent question, for both Indigenous people and for journalists: if the national status of the Aboriginal polity was resolved, what should we expect to follow from that in journalism?

What would the Aboriginal Financial Review cover, for instance? What, in fact, would the Aboriginal economy look like, and how would journalism report on it?

Here is a challenge for journalists worthy of their best talents and traditions: what are the components and sectors of the Aboriginal economy? How do they perform? What are the opportunities and inefficiencies? Who is doing well, and badly? Who is compiling the stats and how accurate are they? What is government doing to develop the domestic market, to encourage innovation, entrepreneurs, exports, and protect consumers? What do we need to know to keep the whole economy going well, and to hold cheats and liars to account? Over on the sports pages, who’s up and who’s down? On the fashion pages, which new designers, photographers, models and trends are setting the world alight? In the opinion section, who are the knowledgeable critics and reviewers; to what ideas, arts and entertainments should we be paying attention? What’s the hottest gossip about our celebrities; and how are ordinary people faring in this state of affairs?

But no – there’s nothing like this in Australia, never mind Perth. Here, Aboriginal ‘sovereignty’ is confined to culture. Aboriginality is still a problem, not a polity, for the mainstream community, as advised by their media. For journalism, the story of Aboriginality is the same as it was in 1992, and many decades before that.

As this Report demonstrates, the ‘problem’ of Aboriginality provokes the same response now as ever: a politics of ‘correction and protection’, which is of course only encountered among Aboriginal people themselves in the negative form: ‘correction’ means orders to ‘move on’ on pain of arrest and punishment. ‘Protection’ means reducing Aboriginal freedom to ‘behaviour,’ which is always unruly, threatening or in need of welfare solutions. Culture is reduced to demands for hand-outs.

4. Aboriginal sovereignty: Politics (We and They)

What would Aboriginal politics look like if there were Aboriginal sovereignty? What would be the policies of various ministers – finance, tourism, trade, industry, education, health, justice, and communications? What about the immigration policy – where ‘stop the boats’ takes on a new meaning?

What would Aboriginal party politics look like? How would Perth media report on differences between Tent Embassy activists and SWALSC, for instance? How would they stage debates between ‘rights’ versus ‘enterprise’ politics, between critics of the system and those who want to improve it?

But no; politics in the Indigenous public sphere is about what ‘our’ government is going to do to, for, or about them, seen as a problem that somehow confronts the traditional freedom of suburban families to be able drive to work without seeing banners on the roadside.

What does this Report find in the media treatment of one such banner-waving disruption to the progress of the tradie’s ute? It finds only the consistent effort, across journalistic narrative and rhetoric as well as state-based law-enforcement and politics, to criminalize Aboriginal political expression. It finds almost miraculous levels of agenda sharing among government, police, city council and media-outlet agencies. It finds that events are staged to produce the ‘meanings’ desired for them by such agencies: foe-creation, criminalization, correction, protection, and confinement to culture.  

Even the progressive side of politics – in the form of the Labor opposition – wanted nothing to do with ‘the people on the island’, scolding them over questions of leadership, schooling and employment, as if these are all straightforward choices for Indigenous families.

For the media commentators, including individuals whose voices and opinions were familiar 20 years ago, the ‘problem’ of Aboriginality wasn’t sovereignty but law-breaking, violence, and the need for ‘our’ rules to prevail over ‘them.’ Aboriginal people were editorialized out of ‘the public’ altogether.

 5. Research, Education and Training: We Can Do Better

So why hasn’t all this changed over the past twenty years? Why is the research expertise the same as it was in 1992? Why doesn’t this Report even mention the work done here in Perth following Steve Mickler’s initial analysis in Gambling on the First Race, never mind more widely in critical journalism research?

More seriously, what has happened to journalism training in the interim – a field in which Curtin is a major player? The journalists whose work is criticized here includes those who were trained here. How is it possible after all this time that they are still writing the same scripts that were criticized by our researchers a generation ago?

While we obviously want the media to put their house in order, we can do better too. We trained those journalists. We trained these researchers.

So what are we changing in our training, in our research and teaching? What are we all doing, in research, teaching, media, and among Aboriginal communities and activists themselves, to create a new script, moving away from correction, protection, rights and culture, to something more in tune with present circumstances? If there is a ‘problem’ with Aboriginal sovereignty, what are we doing to imagine an alternative into existence; one that makes use of our best traditions of journalism, not our worst?

What will that script be? We don’t know – but that is why we are here, because we are interested in how new knowledge is produced. We are interested in supporting its production and diffusion among all these different agencies and actors.

We applaud what Thor Kerr and Shaphan Cox have achieved in analysing another banal version of those ‘sunny explosions of horror’ that Robert Hughes found punctuating Australian settler history (Fatal, 280). But we can do better, and that’s what Ctrl-Z Press is for.

With that, I launch the book, and call on the authors to come up and speak.


Hartley, John & Alan McKee. The Indigenous Public Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. London: Vintage, 2003 [1996].


Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy launch