It’s the voice of ‘rural nullius’ on ABC’s Jim Crow Country Hour

The proposal to make a constitutional change affecting the nation’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—the Voice—was widely reported on mainstream Australian media. However, it went almost completely unreported on during hundreds of editions of the ABC’s midday Country Hour program and morning Regional Reports. During the three-week period before the Voice referendum and the week afterwards, the state editions of Country Hour and the local Regional Reports aired over 1,300 stories across regional Australia, from Broome to Ballarat and from Cairns to Esperance. However, only two episodes of Country Hour—both in Western Australia—included stories on the Voice. This level of reporting was consistent with previous findings on the nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on ABC Rural programs.

Sixty years ago the Australian anthropologist and Boyer lecturer Bill Stanner coined the ageless expression ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe how Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is excluded from public discourse. The segregating-out of stories about the Voice to somewhere else in the ABC is a clear victory for the rural land-owning class, pointing to a healthy feedback loop between ABC program producers and politically powerful settler farmers. ABC Rural’s great silence is all the more egregious given that there are numerous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander economic systems of production in the rural space that it could be reporting on. There are practices new and old being employed today by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both locally and in wider economic systems—on homeland estates and settler properties, in rural towns and in the seas where people exercise continuing rights to contribute to their own sustenance. Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander economies are inextricably bound up with cultural systems, so when these economic systems are rejected as being inferior there is an implied slur on culture as well. And now they are also rejected as not being ‘agricultural’ enough, and therefore not ‘rural’ enough—not assimilated enough—for inclusion in ABC Rural programs. Their absence perpetuates the terra nullius fallacy that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land use is neither rural nor regional, but exists as some other form of activity situated further down—or not even on—an order in an imagined Darwinian hierarchy of rural land use.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s claims to land and their continuing uses of land conflict with settler farming practices. These claims can include the exercise of rights to enter farming country to conduct various activities. Farmers commonly resist the exercise of rights as an ‘intrusion’ on ‘their property’ as do they resent the duty of care placed on them to protect cultural places. Protection of cultural places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can include maintaining ecosystems and riverine systems for traditional use, yet in the four-week period studied, the great bulk of stories on the rural programs addressed only settler land uses. Only one story reported on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and water interests—specifically, an increase in Traditional Owner water allocations in Gippsland.

Examination of all stories aired in the four-week period of this study gives a further indication of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rural ‘production’ is currently being reported on by ABC Rural programs, and how far it has to go to become influential amidst the din of settler voices. Out of over a thousand stories across Australia, only one reported on an Aboriginal ‘industry’: a large contract which was awarded to an Aboriginal-owned mining ancillary business in the Pilbara, in which a spokesperson commented, with some irony, that he would prefer it if there was no mining on his traditional country.

Western Australia’s Country Hour was the only ABC Rural program that broadcast stories on the Voice in the four-week period of this study. No Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander speakers were reported on as putting forward the case for Yes anywhere in Australia during this period. One story dutifully reported on a procession of four prominent speakers for the No case at the Pastoralists and Graziers Association’s annual convention where Aboriginal activist Warren Mundine, a guest speaker for the No case at the convention, pointed to the social standing and discursive power farmers acquire through agricultural production. A former governor of WA, Malcolm McCusker, also spoke at the convention. His reactionary, assimilationist views appeared to challenge the basis of native title as well as the Voice proposal. The Country Hour reporter introduced and summed up McCusker’s speech as follows: ‘it’s a myth that Aboriginal people don’t currently have a voice in parliament or in government around Australia and he thinks the majority of Aboriginal people aren’t in need of the sort of assistance that the Voice is claiming to offer’. Other speakers reported on were Peter Dutton and Tony Seabrook, the president of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, and Seabrook was given more time to promote his conspiracy-theorist views about the Voice proposal on another edition of Country Hour on 28 September 2023. The voices of lobby groups and industry associations and their governance matters were reported on, but not the governance potential of the Voice.

Even apart from the Voice issue, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are routinely ignored on ABC Rural programs. Many stories pass the cut as ‘rural news’ even though their connection to Australian agricultural production is tenuous. So even as the Voice was ruled out as ‘rural news’, other stories abounded, supported by an array of arcane cultural messages and symbols: the pioneering fifth-generation farming family; the horse rider; the woman horse rider; bush races; woman in the bush; the struggling farmer, truck driver, fisher, Israeli farmer, Irish farmer and even ‘country singer’. Rodeo news is rural news on Country Hour. A rodeo story emanating from the Northern Territory’s prison regime, desperate for good news stories about Aboriginal people, described Aboriginal prisoners being allowed to participate in the Alice Springs rodeo. It was broadcast six times across several states. Only seven other stories reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters were broadcast in the four-week period examined, making up a total of thirteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories out of over 1,300 broadcast. The Alice Springs rodeo story made up about half of the Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander content. In comparison, a story about Israeli farmers which focused on how the Israel-Gaza war was ‘taking a terrible toll on agriculture in the south of Israel’ was re-broadcast five times across different programs and locations. Farmers in the south of Israel were granted nearly as much air-time in the four weeks as all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations across all of Australia.

Listeners will hear of sales of pastoral stations, with comments from vendors, buyers, property agents and conservation groups boosting the property’s social licence, but not from Traditional Owners who have their own native title overlying the properties with complex layers of song lines that are of huge importance to group wellbeing. Their interest goes unrecorded. Instead, stories that explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, governance and society are expected to be covered somewhere else on the ABC, if they’re lucky. It is clearly not in the interests of the powerful—whether roving international capital or settler farmers—for the ABC to interfere with this carefully constructed hegemony by broadcasting knowledge about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law and connection to country.

The battle for control of regional discourse and the institutionalised suppression and segregation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence in the rural space bears comparison with Jim Crow’ culture in America. The conservative farmer think-tank the Page Research Centre (‘we work closely with The Nationals’) has sponsored research that recommends controlling how the story of the rural is imagined and told even more tightly by ‘giving Regional Australia a separate but complimentary [sic] ABC Regional organisation, with its own Charter and infrastructure, dedication [sic] to serving Australia’s regions’. Before any change can occur at the ABC, its political and organisational leadership, under pressure to steer an ever more conservative course, would do well to listen more closely to its rural programs with their reek of Jim Crow radio and consider whether they conform to the ABC charter. Among the established leadership there will be those with vested interests who are very comfortable with the existing, segregated view of the rural that is being produced. The settler rural story has been thoroughly naturalised and has been privileging the big end of the city and country towns for a very long time and any hint of change will be staunchly resisted. Regardless of how the Voice referendum was reported on, however, it is long past time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were represented by ABC Rural programs as a complex living culture with interests that extend beyond one-dimensional and politically unthreatening stories about ‘bush tucker’ or ‘training to be a rodeo rider’.

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About the author

Brian Burkett

Brian Burkett is an independent researcher and writer based in Townsville. His research and interests are currently directed towards examining the workings of power, discourse, race and exclusion in rural and regional Australia.

More articles by Brian Burkett

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