EFAC Australia

Review Article.
Joy Sandefur reviews a controversial and groundbreaking book on indigenous life and ministry.
The politics of suffering : indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus.  Peter Sutton, Melbourne University Publishing, 2011. ISBN 9780522858716

To understand the pressures that Aboriginal clergy and church leaders face every day in their communities and the stress they work under you need to read this book. When you have, you will have a clear idea of how you should pray for Indigenous Christian leaders. In The Politics of Suffering Peter Sutton directly confronts the question of why so many remote communities are such dangerous places to live in.

The book is controversial among some anthropologists and other scholars. However it resonates with my own experiences. I have been associated with Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land since 1973. I recently retired with a heavy heart because life in many of these communities is like living in a disaster zone. It is difficult to wrestle with the fact that life is now much worse than it was 40 years ago. How has this happened with so many programs carried out and billions spent by the government?

Peter Sutton writes passionately out of the deep hurt that he has experienced from the many early deaths and suffering of his Aboriginal friends. From his sadness and pain he addresses the question of why life for the residents of these remote communities is so much worse today than it was in the 1970’s when he and others of us first lived and worked in them.


What has happened that these communities have changed from peaceful vibrant places, where people were employed and adults were literate, to places of violence and fear. Many are now characterised by violence, high suicide and attempted suicide rates, homicide, with many young men incarcerated in jail. There are alarmingly high rates of renal failure, heart attacks, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases and rapidly increasing mental health problems. There are children who are hungry, malnourished, neglected and don’t attend school. Gangs of children under ten roam at night breaking into places in search of food and other items. There is widespread alcoholism, drug abuse, interpersonal violence, domestic violence and bullying. Many live in constant fear of the violence that can break out at any time. Yet 40 years ago you could leave the keys in your car and no one would attempt to steal it.

Sutton looks at the problems with devastating honesty. He painfully examines how his own views have changed from one in which land rights would solve all problems to asking what is the best way to confront the problems that make life in many remote communities like living in a disaster area. He freely admits that he started his work as an anthropologist in the 1970’s in far north Queensland with the left liberal view that if Aboriginal people were given the rights to their land and lived on it all the social problems of unemployment, violence, widespread alcoholism, poor health, early death and suicide would all disappear. If we solved the problems of social justice emotional wellbeing and good health would be enjoyed by all. A stream of horrific events and deaths which he describes in detail and their painful impact on him caused him to examine what had gone wrong. What had happened that life is now so horrible and disastrous for many people living in remote communities?

As a respected anthropologist, linguist and who was for many years involved with land cases, Peter Sutton reflects on the outcomes. As Professor Marcia Langton points out in the foreword to the book, “The quarantining of the newly won lands from modernisation was the outcome of policies that Professor Sutton discusses in the book. There are few who contributed as much as Professor Sutton did to the efforts for land justice.” Such land right victories, instead of bringing wellbeing to people, resulted in the loss of opportunities for economic development and to modernise Aboriginal institutions that were no longer effective. After so much hard work it was discouraging to see that instead the land rights gains had resulted in a decline into communities where violence, alcoholism, poor health, malnutrition and unemployment were common.

Sutton questions the idea that the right to consume alcohol is more important than the sanctity of the right of men, women and children to freedom from violence. This view mystified the victims of alcohol and related violence and abuse. Rightly he attributes much of the anger and misery to the granting of legal drinking rights to Indigenous people in the late 1960’s. He points to the amazing situation where the income of some local councils was what they could get from running a canteen. There was also an attitude that having a wet canteen would encourage people to work and enjoy a beer at the end of the day. There was also a view that it was not proved that alcohol would have a disastrous effect on Aboriginal communities. Sutton is not simplistic in what he says on this topic being well aware that there are also many other factors involved. I have lived in dry communities and communities where alcohol flowed freely. Many women and children feel much safer and happier in dry communities. In the Northern Territory many communities had fought hard to be declared dry communities before the Intervention, They recognised the harm caused to their communities by alcohol.

Professor Sutton hits hard at those who say that all problems in Indigenous communities are due to external factors such as colonialism. While the arrival of the British impacted on Aboriginal Society, to blame all today’s problems on that is way too simple and denies any responsibility by Aboriginal people for their choices and behaviour.

Some people will find his discussion of culture controversial. He also debunks the idea of a modern noble savage to be preserved in an isolated remote community. Sutton believes that certain behaviours derived from traditional culture need to be changed. He points to defending one’s relatives’ innocence regardless of the facts; always privileging your kin relatives over others; the continuing pre-contact pattern of violence towards women; and the belief that sorcery caused people to commit crimes of violence and so they are not responsible for their behaviour and actions. I have seen these attitudes many times. Sutton is not arguing that all of Aboriginal culture is bad, but  that some things need to change.

Peter Sutton explores other issues like the breakdown of consensus in Aboriginal affairs, the thorny issue of recognising customary law, the politicisation of health and housing. He correctly says there is a problem with the simplification of reconciliation being between Indigenous and Settler populations. There is not one Indigenous nation for settlers to be reconciled with. Indigenous people see themselves as First Nation Peoples and as many nations. No one person or group can speak for all.
In his introduction Sutton says that today instead of starting from the view that land rights would transform Aboriginal society into one of wellbeing and economic development we would start from a different position. Professor Sutton identifies two considerations that should provide the lens for dealing with the current depressing situation.

The first consideration is the need to ‘focus on those conditions that are conducive to the emotional and physical wellbeing of the unborn, infants, children, adolescents, the elderly, and adult women and men” p10. He finds it remarkable when people discuss The Intervention in the NT that respect for cultural differences and racially defined political autonomy is more important that a child’s basic human rights to have love and safety. I agree with him. Many times I have seen the suffering endured by children, women and victims of the violence and wondered why so many when discussing these things seem to think that political values and questions of cultural relevance are more important.

Sutton’s second consideration is that he believes that considerations of care should be put before considerations of strict justice as a matter of principle p11. He admits that there are times when one might have to yield to the other. Professor Sutton believes that priority should be given to care and ride out the storms of complaints about flawed justices.
I agree that if we started working from these two considerations and let them frame all other considerations that the remote communities would be very different.

These two considerations explain why Sutton supports the Northern Territory Intervention. I support most aspects of the Intervention as the situation for women and children had become so dire. Some of it could have been done in a different way, but if it had not happened 10 years later we would be saying why was nothing done?

Sutton has done us a service by addressing the difficult issue of why so many Indigenous communities are violent, unsafe places where people live in fear, suffer worsening health problems and live in poor badly overcrowded housing. Some will disagree with him. Many agree. The book is worth reading as it will give you insights into life in many isolated remote communities today. It should compel you to pray for the Aboriginal clergy and Christians who seek to live out and preach the gospel, while they bury the dead and minister to so many suffering and damaged people.

Joy Sandefur has spent 25 years working with Aboriginal people mainly in the Northern Territory. 17 years was with Wycliffe Bible Translators with most of her time spent in the early years of the Kriol Bible Translation project (Kriol is a major modern Australian language). Later Joy returned to the NT with the Bush Church Aid Society and was seconded to the Diocese and Nungalinya College. She served in various roles at Nungalinya and was support worker for Aboriginal churches in Arnhem Land. Her PhD is "The Aboriginalisation of the Church at Ngukurr.” Joy is currently the research/advisor on Indigenous Matters for BCA.