Rundle: worse than horse love

Guy Rundle
April 18, 2011

There is only one thing worse than be taken as an enemy of News Limited, St Oscar might have written, and that is to be taken up as their friend. Take the case of Bess Price for example. Price is an Alice Springs-based indigenous activist, about whom opinion tends to divide quite markedly. Some see her as a truth teller; others as someone who speaks for communities — such as Yuendumu — that she doesn’t live in.

She was a strong supporter of the Howard government Northern Territory intervention, and is much-feted by the Bennelong Society, the pro-assimilationist lobby group. She speaks several languages, holds a science degree and has worked in a wide variety of fields. Oh, and she’s also worse than having s-x with a horse.

You probably didn’t know about the science degree or the other stuff. But you knew about the equinophilia comparison. Why? Because last week The Australian took a tweet by another leading Aboriginal campaigner comparing Price with horse-love, and made it the basis of a front-page story.

Larissa Behrendt’s tweet, made at the time of Q&A, went to her 800 followers, and instantly disappeared down the twitter hole. The Australian’s story retrieved it, and presented it to far more than 800 readers (unless it was a Monday edition).

Indeed The Australian was so outraged at this slur on a noble activist that it repeated the story the next day, using Behrendt’s reaction as the hook, to talk of how shocking it was that Bess Price had been compared to horse love.

Then it went on to feature in the op-ed section, with an extraordinary article by Marcia Langton that, among other things, recapitulated horse-love comparisons, followed by another article by Chris Kenny, which reminded anyone who didn’t know, that Bess Price was associated with horse-love.

Today, it went after Behrendt from a different and even more spurious angle related to tertiary teaching — but still found time to remind readers (800 or so; it’s a Monday) that Bess Price had been compared to the passion between man, woman, and pony.

Quite possibly, at some point in this process, Price may have realised that The Australian did not necessarily have her best interests at heart. Amazingly, they were not overly concerned with an attack on her dignity in the borderline private/public space of twitter; indeed, they were utterly indifferent to it.

Whatever one thinks of her opinions, Bess Price has had some courage in saying what she thinks, and associating with groups — the Centre for Independent Studies, the neo-assimilationists — which would win her few friends in indigenous Australian politics, and which form part of the conveyor belt by which News Limited creates controversies.

For this she has been rewarded with the role of patsy. News Limited will continue to run with the story until all that people remember of Bess Price is the horse-love comparison. It did that, no one else.

The attack on Behrendt is doubtless a matter of newsworthy public controversy, doubtless, doubtless. Doubtless, it has nothing to do with the racial vilification procedure that is being conducted by Behrendt and eight others against News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt; nor is it in any way connected with the defamation action that Behrendt and another leading indigenous figure took against Noel Pearson for two columns he wrote for The Australian a couple of years back; an action that was settled out of court by News Limited’s lawyers very quickly indeed. Doubtless, doubtless.

But even if one discounts these factors, it is clear that The Australian is prosecuting and playing host to an extraordinary war around indigenous politics. Hitherto, one thought that this war was formed along fairly predictable lines, with the right advancing a strongly neo-assimilationist line.

Rural Aborigines should abandon any idea that their communities could form the basis for an alternative path to modernity, mixing the new and the old in a new way; instead they should abandon much of what remained of their way of life as a “culture cult”, and simply melt into an undifferentiated modernity.

Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle — who in the 1970s had written of the coming Aboriginal peasant revolution — was one such advocate; a more recent, and rational one, is Gary Johns. The left version of this is Noel Pearson’s idea that Aborigines can get six hours of ultra-programmed rote learning in the morning and the teaching of culture tacked on in the afternoon, as a separate entity.

Ranged against these figures are a variety of leaders who believe that the wishes of Aboriginal people in such communities — which is overwhelmingly for the continuation of those communities on a collective basis, and with the continuation of a distinctive way of life — should be the cornerstone of any question of what happens next, and that such should be encoded in an expanded notion of rights, quite aside from the fulfilment of existing rights such as that of adequate health care and housing provision.

So, now, here is the paradox. The right is determined to spurn the “culture cult”, and the notion that there is some sort of indigenous authenticity. It wants Aboriginal people to be mobile, to move to the cities, to aspire to the best that the world has to offer.

Sadly for it those that have — those such as Behrendt, the film director Richard Frankland, the (Torres Strait islander) lawyer and writer Terri Janke — all support the notion of an “independent/rights” agenda, and support those people in remote communities who want to assert their legal and human rights through the courts.

So in order to attack them politically, it has found it necessary to insist on the “authenticity” of remote activists such as Bess Price (even though Price lives in Alice Springs). And Price, as you may have read in The Australian, and through it, at the top of Google, is worse than s-x with horses.

That central division has given a base for various people to push their own agendas. Chris Kenny’s reprise of the tweet — that Bess Price … well you got the idea — was simply a sycophantic, hysterical hatchet job, tipping into the self-parodic:

In the ABC television green room before Monday night’s Q&A program, Bess Price confessed to apprehension, but told me she was keen to talk about her direct experiences of indigenous disadvantage. And so she did, sharing her support for the Northern Territory intervention with a studio audience and more than 600,000 viewers, making it clear she favours ongoing tough measures to tackle violence and promote education in indigenous communities.

Winding down afterwards, Price was pleased she’d come to Sydney from her home in Alice Springs to make her point. Little did she know that a tasteless tweet aimed at her and her heartfelt views was already circulating…

Yes! A tweet! Winging its way, even as we speak… Quite aside from this melodramatic rendering, Kenny’s account drips with condescension for Price, who came all the way from Alice Springs to tell her heartfelt message. Look at ‘em tall buildings, pa. Jesus, spare us.

But if Kenny’s account was merely stupid, Marcia Langton’s was altogether more troubling. A long-time Melbourne resident, with a well-appointed Melbourne University position, and a series of articles to her credit in the style that The Australian would usually assess as postmodern gobbledygook, Langton made headlines a few years back when she declared that she would send her daughter to an elite private school, to avoid the racism endemic in the state system, i.e. in white Australia.

Langton has a perfect right to do all that, but it makes it a little hard to play the outsider card as she does. But what is even better is the way she plays it — with the culture cult card:

I have never in my life witnessed such extreme disrespect shown by a younger Aboriginal woman for an older Aboriginal woman, except where the perpetrator was severely intoxicated on drugs or alcohol. Nor have I witnessed, except once or twice, such snide dismissal by a younger Aboriginal woman of an older Aboriginal woman’s right to express her views. Those of us who were brought up in the Aboriginal way were taught from a young age to show respect for our elders and not to speak while they are speaking. This is a fundamental and universal law in Aboriginal societies.

Got that? Debate and argument between Aboriginal activists can’t be carried on in the manner of robust modernity, in which people routinely insult each other, fairly or otherwise, but according to special rules. Given that the debate was over conditions of social breakdown and widespread violence between Aboriginal people, one can go out on a limb and say that Marcia has witnessed more disrespect for elders than one off-colour joke. I’ve seen worse intra-indigenous disrespect for elders than that in the Spring St supper club, let alone the far north. Come on.

Langton’s desire to score some cheap points takes her into some pretty nasty territory — a reprise in fact of the charge not only that non-urban Aboriginal people are less authentic than rural indigenous people:

Behrendt, on the other hand, was raised in suburban Sydney. Her mother is white, and her late father was removed from his family…

Elsewhere, scorning all restraint she dives into the eugenics gene pool that Andrew Bolt has established:

Australians, whether they support reconciliation or not, must be astonished at the viciousness of the twittering sepia-toned Sydney activists.

Well many are perhaps astonished at the viciousness around — Langton’s mention that Behrendt has “no children”, or her false assertion that Behrendt has given up “human rights” activism and turned to writing novels (she is doing both), or a great deal else about the debate.

They might also be astonished at Miranda Devine’s contribution in The Daily Telegraph (which reminded those readers who didn’t know, that Bess Price is best known for being unfavourably compared to horse love) that such bestiality gags were typical of the “depraved”, inner-urban blah blah — before her tweet about someone “rogering gerbils” turned up.

And on, and on. Langton is as condescending to Price as Chris Kenny was, which now appears to be the News Limited house style, but above all she is taking the opportunity to lob a few missiles from one side of the political divide within indigenous politics, between those following a rights agenda, and those willing to make their peace with more ad hoc solutions (or non-solutions).

Much as Professor Langton and others would like to pretend that such a division has an urban-rural, mixed-race — “pureblood” (ugh) basis, it doesn’t — it’s a political division pure and simple, and representatives can be found on both sides. Langton’s remarks about “sepia-tinted” Aborigines will come back to haunt her and the debate — she should take a swatch to a photo of Charles Perkins next time she feels the urge to take that tack. Perhaps he was a “sophisticate” too.

Meanwhile, News Limited has gone on the same nihilistic tear as one can see at play, for example, in the UK phone-hacking scandal. The latest wheeze — an outright smear. Beneath the headline: “Uni report adds to scrutiny on Behrendt”.

The story itself, of a review of indigenous education at UTS, where Behrendt heads the Jumbunna Unit, which found the usual mixed bag of feedback about performance, notes:

respondents were happy with the student support… some submissions to the review criticised Jumbunna for focusing more on research than its role in providing student services


The review doesn’t make any specific reference to Professor Behrendt or any other academic.


The revelation of the report will put more pressure on Labor to choose a new head [other than Behrendt] for its indigenous higher education review…

Christ, that really is a Watergate they got going there. An Australian university doing research. Call the cops. Mind you, they did get a chance to remind people, just in case anyone had forgotten, that Bess Price is worse than horse love.

This would all be grimly funny, if it weren’t so vicious, empty, and nihilistic — a confluence of hidden agendas, none of which have the remotest connection to a barely registered bad-taste joke. For all their calls for Aborigines to get out of parochial contexts to strive for the best, etc, etc, the right has no hesitation in pushing a ridiculous division between real and sepia Aborigines, but is happy to take down one who has gone further than most people, white or black — from a childhood in marginal far outer-suburban Sydney, and Aboriginal identity from birth, to a doctorate from Harvard Law School, authorship or co-authorship of half a dozen legal texts, two prize-winning novels, and heading innumerable bodies and inquiries.

These are not things everyone can do — indeed the failure of some other designated “dutiful daughters” to step up to the challenges of next generation leadership may be the source of some of the anger flying around.

But from what I’d been reading in The Australian, this, rather than the “authenticity” model is what Aborigines should be aspiring to. They just shouldn’t have their own ideas when they get there. For if they do, there will be no limit to the destruction and calumny heaped upon them.

A wonderful lesson for any young Aboriginal activist who might be thinking of sticking their head above the parapet. And one wonders if there is anyone with even a modicum of decency on the right to raise even the smallest voice of protest about this sort of old-school smear — one in which Behrendt has been taken down only marginally more dismissively than has Bess Price… who, as you may have read in [The Australian], is worse than horse love.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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2 Responses to Rundle: worse than horse love

  1. Mike says:

    A lot of huffing and puffing Guy…all to what end I can’t figure out.I suppose you’ve travelled into some of these communities have you?If you haven’t,then it’s a subject on which you are simply out of your depth.I couldn’t care less about the “outrageous partisanship” of a newspaper,or the careers of any of the “professional Aborigines” and associated commentariate,including Bess Price and Noel Pearson.However those two, in particular have guts and speak with a booming authenticity and authority which is oxygen to the children.That’s the only focus,the rest is various layers of self obsession,self interest and putrid politics.

  2. anon says:

    Criticism of Behrendt hides political agenda

    Aboriginal lawyer and academic Larissa Behrendt has tweeted that Aboriginal leader Bess Price, who appeared on Q&A last Monday night, was more offensive (in her views on the Northern Territory intervention) than a show she’d seen where a man had sex with a horse.

    In response, the deeply sensitive souls at Murdoch press have united against Behrendt.

    Miranda Devine was undoubtedly deeply outraged that someone would write offensive things on Twitter.

    Perhaps the most vicious attack came from Marcia Langton, writing that Behrendt has “a repulsive hatred of everything that Bess stands for: the rights of Aboriginal women in remote communities to be protected from sexual abuse and violence”. Similarly, The Australian editorialised that Behrendt and others opposed to the Intervention “are prepared to risk the health, education, physical safety and futures of other Aborigines in the cause of an out-dated, leftist agenda which privileges “rights” above well-being. There is a “let them eat cake” touch about it all.”

    Get it? Behrendt supports raping women and poverty in Indigenous communities.

    Turning to reality, it may be worthwhile to find out just why Behrendt considered Price’s comments to be so offensive.

    Price is a recipient of the Bennelong Medal. Another medal-winner is Mal Brough – a former Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

    Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock – well known for their sensitive views on race and Indigenous issues – have presented these awards. Kevin Andrews also gave an award: yes, the Immigration Minister who slashed our intake of African refugees because they “don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life”.

    To be fair to the Bennelong Society, Pauline Hanson commended Andrews for this bold stand, so it would be dishonest to suggest that there are no people in Australia who would look to the Bennelong Society for guidance on issues of race in Australia. Andrews provided no statistics for his claims about African refugees – but then, who needs evidence when smearing darker communities?

    The President of the Bennelong Society is Gary Johns. To get an idea of John’s views, he kindly provided us with this stunning claim last week “the two most egregious instances of public racial vilification in Australia in the past two decades were the Aboriginal deaths in custody report (1991) and the report on the separation of Aboriginal children and their families (1997).”

    That is, the worst manifestations of racism Johns can think of in the last 20 years are two reports exposing white racism in the criminal justice system, and the stolen generations. Tragically, “white society was publicly vilified for years”.

    Johns also thinks that Aboriginal children should not be taught their own culture in schools. As Chris Graham noted, “what would you do if your child was told that white Australian culture should be taught at home and not in school? That Shakespeare was essentially a family matter? That the history of Western civilisation should be taught in the car somewhere between the shopping and the soccer? The idea can only be seriously considered by someone who believes Indigenous culture has little intrinsic merit.”

    That Price’s views are considered agreeable to a far-right, virulently anti-Aboriginal organisation is a matter for her and her conscience. But for anyone who knows anything about the nature of the Bennelong Society, the Murdoch press ferociously backing Price over Behrendt should come as no surprise.

    What does she have to say?

    In December last year she explained her support for the Intervention: “My people don’t use money the way white people do. They don’t save, they don’t budget, they can’t say no to relatives even when they are drunks and addicted to gambling and drugs. They need help in spending their money wisely.”

    They need help from the government: o White Man, please save us. Take away our rights, because we are so backwards.

    You see why the Bennelong Society loves her so much?

    Usually conservatives say that Aboriginal people and others on welfare need to learn to solve their own problems, rather than look to the government. Here it’s the opposite and the right-wing media still loves it. So long as the rationale is functional for right-wing policies, it doesn’t matter if it contradicts what they claim to stand for.

    It is handy for the Murdoch press and the Bennelong Society to have an Aboriginal person to say how backwards Aboriginal people are. They may be reluctant to openly make such appalling claims themselves.

    For those invested in the Intervention, it is important to defend Price’s credibility. Langton said that Price “resides in Yuendumu”. Barbara Shaw – one of the brave women who actually lives in the “prescribed areas” under the Intervention, and leads the campaign against it – responded by noting that Price “does not live under the Intervention. She lives a comfortable lifestyle in the eastern suburbs of Alice Springs, not in a prescribed area. She does not have a Basics Card and she does not work for the dole. She doesn’t have her home raided. She doesn’t have her alcohol taken away at the bottle shop.”

    Similarly, Marlene Hodder – an activist on Indigenous issues in Alice Springs, said that “Many Warlpiri women living in Alice Springs are very unhappy that Bess Price assumes she can speak for them. Last year they sent a strong recorded message to Minister Macklin as she refused to meet with them on more than one occasion. They are tired of not being listened to as they feel the Intervention is an insult to them”.

    Barbara Shaw, incidentally, was the Greens candidate for Lingiari. Her campaign on an anti-Intervention platform saw Labor’s vote drop by a third in remote areas. The ALP member admitted that the swing “does squarely point to the intervention”. But there has been little interest in the corporate media of listening to the views of Aboriginal people living under the racially discriminatory laws of the Intervention.

    One of the standard ways of deflecting attention from the obvious fact that Aboriginal people hate these laws is to claim (as Macklin does) that they are for the benefit of women and children, who love them. There is no evidence of this, but note the dog-whistle – if only Aboriginal men disapprove of the laws, who cares? They’re presumably all rapists and paedophiles anyway.

    So, take one of Bess’s claims in defence of the Intervention on Q&A: “I’ve seen progress. I’ve seen women who now have voices. They can speak for themselves and they are standing up for their rights. Children are being fed and young people more or less know how to manage their lives. That’s what’s happened since the intervention.”

    This is outrageous for a variety of reasons.

    Firstly, because when someone defends the Northern Territory Intervention, they are advocating in favour of racial discrimination. This is outrageous and offensive, regardless of the fact that Labor and the Coalition both support it.

    Secondly, what she said is outrageous because it is flatly untrue. For example, as noted by Behrendt and Irene Fisher, the Sunrise Health Service monitors 112,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory. They found that anaemia rates among Aboriginal children had jumped from 20 per cent before the intervention to 55 per cent within a year and a half. The only serious study we have of changes in consumption caused by compulsory income management, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that it’s “not making an impact on tobacco and health food sales in remote community shops in the NT.”

    There are also government reports on the achievements of the Intervention. Price says there was no need for consultations because “it was an emergency. It was just straight after the Little Children Are Sacred and it was very bad and something needed to happen drastically.” After all, “our children were suffering”.

    There was a 2009 report on the Intervention’s various achievements. What did they find about child abuse?

    The number of convictions for child sexual assaults committed in the NTER communities in the two years since the introduction of the NTER measures is 22. This compares to 15 convictions in the two years prior to the NTER. In 2005-06 and 2006-07 none of the convictions involved non Indigenous people. However, in the last two years (2007-08 and 2008-09) four non Indigenous people have been convicted for Child Sexual Assault committed in the NTER communities.

    So basically, before the Intervention, about seven or eight Aboriginal child sex offenders were caught each year: afterwards, nine were caught each year. Plainly, the Intervention has either been completely ineffective in addressing the alleged emergency, or the problems of child sex abuse in remote Aboriginal communities are not so different to those in non-Indigenous communities.

    In October last year, ABC reported that child protection case workers are grossly overworked, and unable to address at least 1000 children at risk (for a range of issues, not just child abuse). This reflects how concerned the government is about Aboriginal children – the government report above notes in half a year, they recruited five new child protection workers. Five workers to cover 73 prescribed communities. Dazzling, no?

    What about the “rivers of grog”? “Key elements of the” Alcohol and Other Drug [AOD] “response introduced in 2007-08 were continued in 2008-09 with $2.6 million allocated under the Closing the Gap – NT – Follow Up Care measure.” $2.6 million. According to ANTAR $2 billion has already been spent on the Intervention, with the expanded scheme for income management projected to cost perhaps $350 million.

    The Australian has stressed the importance of education. School attendance rates have declined slightly to 62.2 per cent.

    What about housing, that other issue so dear to the heart of The Australian?

    In 2009, PM Kevin Rudd condemned the “legacy” of “government failure”, as shown by “unacceptable delays” in SIHIP. According to Rudd, his officials took “unprecedented action to get the program on track”, and finally delivered results. He announced that “the keys to the first two houses [were] handed over to tenants this week.”

    Two houses in two years. Rudd declared that “we remain on target” to build 750 new houses. As I noted at the time, at that rate of “unprecedented action”, we could expect the remaining 748 houses to be finished in 2758.Adam Giles (from the Liberals) noted, the Little Children are Sacred report revealed “more than 400 houses will be needed each year for 20 years”.

    Government self-satisfaction obviously defies this record of achievement. It is worth noting that according to FaHCSIA, 73 per cent of children under 12 months old were at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) due to bed sharing. Plainly, this is a crisis, but the housing program to address it has been a complete debacle.

    As Giles noted three years after the Intervention was launched, “11 houses have been built and 160 repaired in two years for more than $200m. But at the government’s valuation of $450,000 for a new house (no land costs) and $75,000 for a refurbishment, the sum spent should be only $16.85m. The location of the missing $183m is not known.” We later found out that half of the money went to administration costs.

    The government also scaled back its plans: it has plans between now and 2013 for only 480 dwellings… They are not building houses any more but dwellings, including one-bedroom units and pensioners’ apartments; only half will be as big as three bedrooms. Although there are hundreds of indigenous communities, only six to 15 will get new dwellings. Many will get no housing services at all. Most communities in the Territory will not have any semblance of a housing solution for the protection of children.

    The amazing thing is – leaked documents show Macklin was warned this “shoddy” approach wouldn’t work. But she went ahead with it anyway.

    We should not forget the panel Macklin hand-picked to review the Intervention. For some reason, the “damning indictment” was sanitised just before it was released. It described the Intervention as “an experience of violence itself”. Its quote that “The intervention is telling the rest of Australia and the world that all blackfellas are pedophiles” was also removed.

    Comments blaming “dysfunctional government service delivery” and “the chronic failure by all levels of government to provide basic civic services” to Aborigines were removed, along with the suggestion these were the “key determinants” of all that was wrong with Aboriginal communities….Claiming that Aborigines felt the intervention was akin to a return to “ration days”, the draft report stated: “These words describe real things. These are expressions of the deep emotional and psychological impacts of the NTER. The long-term effects of such impacts can be as potentially damaging as the experience of violence itself.” These words, too, were deleted.

    The draft claims that “the negative impacts of the NTER actually further damaged the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities”…

    A final point should be made. Price claimed that the Intervention gave Indigenous people a voice. In fact, the government held completely fraudulent “consultations” with Indigenous communities in prescribed communities, so that it could pretend that these measures had Indigenous support. Behrendt, and her team of academics at Jumbunna did more than anyone to expose what Indigenous people from prescribed communities were really saying about the Intervention, in their report Will they be heard?

    Jumbunna also supported the research of Paddy Gibson into Aboriginal communities living under the Intervention. His powerful paper includes dozens of interviews with people living under the Intervention.

    The Intervention, imposed on Aboriginal communities without consultations, let alone consent, effectively silenced Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. Behrendt has probably done more than anyone to help us hear their voices.

    The mountain of evidence of the failures of the NT Intervention defies summary here. Suffice to say, there is literally no evidence, even in government reports, that it has helped improve the socio-economic conditions Intervention supporters claim to be concerned about. Its supporters are simply backing racist policies because they believe racism is the best way to deal with Indigenous communities.

    That is far more revealing about them than it is about Behrendt.

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